Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood gained a gem last month – Rick Bayless’s newest Baja restaurant, Leña Brava. The doors opened to Randolph street’s Restaurant Row on May 5th, and I had the pleasure of joining Catalina Offshore and Baja Seas for a tasting of the seafood the companies provide for the restaurant via sustainable fishing and farming.
As lead coordinator for Travel+SocialGood Chicago, a travel and sustainability non-profit, I work with innovators to help the travel industry reach its potential for positive global impact. Traveling to any city, tasting the food is a must – so when influential restaurateurs like Rick Bayless take an environmentally-conscious approach to business, I feel its my job is to taste it.
Oh yes, all in a hard day’s work.
Here’s a glimpse into a night out with the team that brought our food from sea to kitchen, and whose passion and innovation are making waves in the restaurant industry.
Leña Brava’s name loosely translates to “ferocious wood,” a tribute to the hearth that roasts traditional Latin dishes over open flame. The wood-burning ovens stretch across the north end of the restaurant, flames licking at pans of fish behind the bar. Led by chefs Lisa and Fred Despres, the kitchen balances hot flavors native to Baja with revitalizing, oceanic contrasts.
Sitting down with Elaine Masters of Trip Wellness, a friend and fabulous travel blogger, our first venture was to taste two featured cocktails – Leña Fire and Leña Ice. Leña Fire, an auburn mix of Leña Wahaka mescal, Ocho Cientos stool, Ancho Reyes, yellow Chartreuse, Torres Orange, and fresh lime, is in line with any whiskey lover’s taste profile – smoky, savory, and autumnal. Served up, it reminded me a bit of a mezcal manhattan. Leña Ice, on the other hand, tempered the mezcal with yellow Chartreuse, lime, cucumber, and serrano. Served in a Collins glass, the serrano offers a kick on first sip, but the cucumber left us cool and refreshed.
As the first appetizers emerged, I was first introduced to Luis Astiazarán, General Director for Baja Seas. His aquaculture hatchery provides hiramasa yellowtail to the restaurant, which is prominently featured in several dishes on the menu, from fresh ceviche to belly-warming stew.
Our first hiramasa dish was the Hiramasa laminado, a harmonious combination of hiramasa sashimi and edible flowers, honey manilla mango, micro shiso, and bits of orange. The dish was a perfect introduction to hiramasa, delicate ingredients to match the buttery, mild fish.
The hiramasa is produced at a hatchery in Baja, where Luis’ company became the first to use aquaculture to farm hiramasa to North America. When I asked Luis why he chose the environmentally-friendly route, he explained that aquaculture is not just great for the environment, it is a sensible and sustainable business model. The fish are farmed and sold locally, produced to match the market, and are raised in monitored ocean pens that protect marine life diversity.
We next tasted two incredible selections from the aguachiles – the Clásico and the Pineapple. The Clásico featured Hudson Canyon diver scallops served sashimi-style with fresh serrano chile, avocado, and red onion. The dish, served in a shallow bowl, was then doused with a shaker of a spicy muddled broth of cucumber, cilantro, and lime. The texture of the scallops was creamy, the broth full of citrus and heat. The pineapple with goat cheese is worth noting, as a vegetarian dish that nailed that indulgent savory-meets-sweet flavor.
As the Ceviche Maki Roll disappeared piece by delicious piece, I chatted with Dave Rudie, the CEO of Catalina Offshore. His company distributes the hiramasa, urchin, and other fresh seafood for the restaurant. Over oysters and uni (urchin), Dave told me a bit more about how he went from diving for scallops to becoming one of the premier fish purveyors in the world.
Nearly 40 years ago, Dave worked with his family as a diver, collecting sea urchins and seaweed from the shores Catalina Island to deliver throughout San Diego. When Kelp Companies began liming urchins in the 1970’s, they carelessly damaged marine life without making use of the urchins, and recognizing the opportunity to preserve a viable resource, Dave found a market for uni in Japan. Now that we’ve all become sushi lovers, Catalina Offshore uni is a staple at upscale restaurants across the United States.
We dove in to the uni over a Baja salsa of grilled nopal, sea beans, tomato, olive and Baja olive oil. Uni has an extremely characteristic flavor of the ocean – like a seafood pâté. The texture is delicate and creamy, almost spongy in its softness. The fresh salsa added texture, and lightened the heavy marine flavor of the fish. If you’ve never tried uni, I recommend you try it here.
The Tablas, or dishes to share, are a must at Leña Brava. Roasted in the wood oven and served family-style, the Tablas have a sense of authenticity and harkening to tradition that is hard to find at many high-end restaurants. The Silver Streak striped bass arrived gently charred, with the scent of garlic and chile radiating hot from the platter.
We concluded dinner sharing notes of our favorite restaurants – all time best dishes, drinks, and places to hang out. Luis and Dave have been in business with Rick for many years, and shared the excitement in watching his restaurants come to be, from the concept, to the menu, and finally, nights like this.
After our evening at Leña Brava, I have a new appreciation for the intimacy and accountability that exists between restaurant owners and the vendors from which they source their food. Before dining with Luis, Dave, and our table of writers, restaurant professionals, and foodies, I did not understand the passion, commitment, and innovation that it takes to bring sustainable food to the table.
If Rick Bayless, an icon and leader in the restaurant world, can prioritize authenticity and environmental responsibility and have immense success, so the standard will be set. I hope that when travelers visit Chicago, they seek restaurants that hold themselves accountable for the dishes they share. I applaud the success of the young Leña Brava, and I look forward to the future of sustainability in gastronomy.
Moreover, I cannot wait to taste it.
Taste Leña Brava for yourself.
900 W Randolph Street
Reservations: (312) 733-1975