Even though we know Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises owned Chicago's Nacional 27, it always seemed to be Randy Zweiban's place. He had been executive chef/partner there since the day it opened back in 1998, and was the creator of its innovative Nuevo Latino menu — street food from 27 countries, all of it elevated to fine dining status. The place was a trend-setter then and now, and Zweiban seemed to be one of those lucky individuals who had found their ideal place in life.
Which is why Chicagoans were surprised when Zweiban set off on his own this fall. He was such a perfect fit at Nacional 27 it seemed logical he'd stay there, well, forever. The place had never lost its edge, culinarily or scene-wise. Why leave?
Turns out this talented chef has a mean entrepreneurial streak and was ready to strike out on his own. The result: Province, the 110-seat restaurant Zweiban opened in mid-October. It's located in a gold-level LEED-certified building in Chicago's West Loop. “Nacional 27 was the most fun restaurant I ever worked in,” he says, “but Province is a reflection of who I am today, both as a Chicagoan and a chef.”
It's a place worth paying attention to for a couple of reasons. One is Zweiban's cooking wizardry, of course. He's a master of Latino ingredients and flavors, which he first worked with during a lengthy stint he spent as Norman Van Aken's chef de cuisine at Norman's in Coral Gables, FL. The other is the restaurant business acumen he acquired at LEYE, where partners like Zweiban develop a sixth sense about what customers want, what it takes to keep them happy, and what is required to make a restaurant's bottom line add up.
So how did this guy's version of a contemporary restaurant turn out? Zweiban says that while Nacional 27 was a Latin restaurant, Province is “first and foremost, an American restaurant. In the same way that some chefs have American restaurants influenced by the flavors of Italy or France, the flavors of the Southern hemisphere and Spain will influence my food. But that doesn't mean I'm locked into the box of cooking only dishes and foodstuffs that come from there.”
Customers have plenty of choices, too. The Province menu is a grazer's delight, no matter what that grazer is hungry for or wants to spend. A guest might opt for one of three “bites” (a Cuban pork bocadillo, $3); a “raw” item or two (tuna sashimi with wasabi chimichurri, $6 for two pieces); or something from the “soup and salad” list (blood orange salad with herbed goat cheese and micro greens, $8).
Or they could head for the “small” section for some melted Spanish blue cheese fondue ($7); opt for the slow-cooked beef cheeks ($13) or Gunthorp Farms rabbit confit ($12) from the “big” category; or shoot the works on a “bigger” option like ten-hour braised lamb ($22).
It's a tight and focused menu that nevertheless covers enough culinary ground that little seems left out. And the less adventurous diner who wants, say, a burger and frites ($12) or a comfort food fix like Caesar salad ($7) and a rotisserie organic chicken ($17) can find that here, too.
Province's price points are in tune with the times. Of the 37 items on the menu, only five cost more than $20, and none are over $30. Check averages fall in the $30-$35 range during the early going. Signature cocktails in the 25-seat bar go for $9-$11; a glass of house wine goes for $6. The wine list has plenty of choices for bargain hunters. Deep-pocketed aficionados of Spanish reds will find plenty to like, too.
Province's combination of a flexible, creative menu, green operations and modest pricing is just the ticket for late 2008. It's a good thing Zweiban went this route. As he tells the Chicago Sun-Times, “I seem to have picked maybe the worst moment in the last 150 years to possibly open a new restaurant.” We doubt it. Others in the industry are scrambling to reposition their restaurants to fit this very template; Zweiban's Province is already there.