By Mike Leifheit
We have a lot going on in our little block these days. Block 5 (with the nearby places on Block 4, Kuma’s and Sugar and Spice and Armando’s Los Portales one block east) has quietly become the hottest restaurant/bar area in the city. The two newest places, Sugar and Spice and Bamboo, are icing on the cake. Both are the brainchildren of folks who are new to the business, but nevertheless well thought-out and slated for success.
Add this to Damien at Cru serving supper on the weekends, the complete overhaul of The Office into the best disco in the city, Red Lion as Rockford’s only real English-style pub, Frank Calvanese’s reworking of Deli Italia and Paul’s constant, unerring, workmanlike approach at Brio (did I forget to mention the Irish Rose?), and you have more classy, upscale, fun, casual dining and drinking than anywhere else in the city. There simply isn’t anywhere else like us.
When I lived in Sacramento, Calif., I had some favorite restaurants. They were different from any I had seen in Illinois. The emphasis was on fresh food, simply prepared, letting the quality and freshness of the ingredients do the talking. One day, I saw an article in the Sacramento Bee listing all my favorite restaurants as businesses that were started by people who had never been in the restaurant business before. When I wanted to open the Old Rock River Café, this was one of the things that gave me the confidence to give it a try.
When you are new to the restaurant business, you approach it from a learner’s perspective. You don’t know, or even think you know, what can or can’t be done. It is your first endeavor, so you are eager to succeed. You spend a lot of time listening to your customers and formulating your own ideas. At the same time, this approach allows you to try things that are different from what is going on around you. You are looking for ways to be different.
Damien has accomplished that at Cru. His moderate pricing of cheese and fine wines by the glass have marked out a new path in Rockford. In addition, he has a hell of a palate. I rarely specify more than “give me a red,” leaving the choice up to him or one of his servers. I am never disappointed. His simple, uncomplicated dinners on the weekend are being well received. Usually, he sells out.
Over at Bamboo, Vinay and Amanda and Vinay’s mother Lao, have come up with a totally new and interesting concept. The combination of a noodle house, tapas restaurant and bar: I think it is simply brilliant. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of Pho. I learned to eat it from my friend Doungsay Veravong, who first opened the Lanxang restaurant on Seventh Street and who taught me the Chicago market. It was one of my favorite restaurants in the city. I also used to love Noi Jackson’s Phainam on Broadway. Both are victims of the Southeast Asian community becoming wealthy and moving to the east side. Both are sorely missed. Many was the time that I tried to convince Doungsay or Noi to move downtown. Now, Bamboo has filled that slot.
(On a Saturday night after working on my Rockton location, I am hungry. All the restaurants in Block 5 are open until midnight on the weekend, and the whole block is abuzz. I decide to have a bowl of beef meatball Pho. I walk over to Vinay and Amanda’s beautiful new restaurant. The place is teeming with eager, young servers. The Pho is totally authentic. I can sit at the bar and eat it! My total bill is only a little more than 6 bucks! I see a vision of Sunday hangover cures with an Irish whiskey and a big bowl of steaming Pho, with all the add-in ingredients. What more could an Irishman want?)
Maybe he could want a pork chop breakfast? The folks, Brenda and Greg, at the Sugar and Spice (just west of Kuma’s) have come up with one hell of a breakfast deal. Two boneless pork chops, two eggs, and lyonnaise potatoes for 3 bucks! That’s right, I said 3 bucks! This is available Monday through Friday, and promises to be one of the best reasons to come down to our little part of town, the hippest area in the city, period.
Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.
From the October 21-27, 2009 issue