Chef Carol Wallack
Carol Wallack loves the sun and the surf. Opening her inviting new North Center/West Lakeview restaurant, sola (3868 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773- 327-3868) in the midst of a chilly Chicago winter, she hopes to impart the sense of warmth, friendliness and fun that she gleans from her favorite beaches.
A self-described "surfer girl from California," Wallack, a Los Angeles native, found her calling at the beach. "I met a girl who was a chef for the original Spago," she recalls. "I wound up getting a job working for her." Learning on the job, she went on to be sous chef at L.A.'s Chameleon and then served as a private chef and caterer to such Hollywood stars as James Garner and Jack Nicholson.
Wallack came to Chicago ten years ago to open Deleece, a casual neighborhood eatery, with her sister. The North Center restaurant garnered rave reviews for its blend of "sophistication and homeyness," as Chicago magazi ne put it. Locals flocked to the place for dishes such as Wallack's signature rack of lamb stuffed with cambazola cheese and crusted with Dijon mustard and breadcrumbs.
While Deleece is still going strong and she still has an interest there, Wallack wanted to strike out on her own. The name ofsola not only evokes the sun, but also she says, is a feminine version of "solo." "I just really wanted to do my own thing," the chef and restaurateur says. "I didn't want somebody else's input."
Since leaving the kitchen at Deleece, Wallack has been devoting herself to detailing every element of the restaurant.
sola's menu will feature the contemporary American cuisine, for which she's so well known, with some signature dishes, such as the lamb rack, some transformed items, and many new, unique dishes in a similar vein. "I'm not reinventing the wheel," she says.
Wallack's California-born culinary style incorporates strong elements of Asian- Pacific flair, developed through frequent surfing trips to Hawaii. "My heart is in Hawaii," she says. "I tend to cook what I like to eat."
Dishes such as opakapaka (Hawaiian snapper) en papillote with roasted pineapple and shiitake mushrooms, miso black cod and a club sandwich made with hoisin-glazed chicken breast and applewood- smoked bacon reveal some of Wallack's influences.
Comfort foods like braised short ribs, vegetable pot pie and roast chicken will share the bill of fare with her more exotic items.
Wallack is confident about her food, she says, but she's very aware that good cooking is just part of what makes a great restaurant. Friendly and thoughtful service will be a hallmark of sola.
"Service is huge to me," says Wallack. "People want to be cared for, to be nurtured," and she aims to supply that.
Her preparations for her new restaurant have involved extensive research of everything all the way down to the packaging for take-out orders. "Takeout packaging shouldn't be an afterthought," she says. sola wil l have a special door for curbside pickup, so that the young professional couples with children driving up for carryout never have to leave their cars. "The worst thing is to have to take your kid out of the car seat," Wallack says.
For in-house diners, she's put a lot of effort into creating a comfortable environment, taking advice from acclaimed architects/designers Olsen and Vranas. She insisted on an acoustic sound system to ensure that diners can converse easily even at peak dining-room hours. Interiors incorporate environmentally friendly materials with warm colors and natural woods and leather.
Wallack has hired veteran Chicago restaurant manager John Arents as general manager. Both put an emphasis on working smarter, not harder, recognizing that employees able to lead a balanced life will have more enthusiasm for serving diners.
While she may not be able to bring the beach to Lincoln Avenue, with sola, Wallack strives to give her customers a sunny sensation.
Lobster shiitake potstickers yields 30-35 pieces
1 # lobster meat
¼ cup shiitake mushrooms, sliced and sautéed
¼ cup scallions
½ teas garlic, minced
½ teas ginger, minced
Soy sauce, to taste
½ teas lime juice
½ teas fish sauce ( or to taste)
1 pkg gyoza wrappers
Mix all ingredients (except wrappers) and chill
Place 1 teas mixture in the middle of gyoza wrapper. Wet the outer edges of wrapper, fold and seal.
Put folds in the wrapper to aid in sealing.
Coconut Lemongrass Broth
1 medium white onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 stalks lemongrass, chopped
1 thai bird chili
6 ounces fresh ginger, rough chopped
1 bunch cilantro
1 quart chicken stock
1 can coconut milk
1 pint heavy cream
Fish sauce, to taste
Lime juice, to taste
Heat oil in a pot. Sweat onions, ginger, garlic and lemongrass. Add stock and bring to a boil. Add cilantro. Add cream. Cook on low simmer to infuse flavors. Turn off heat and add coconut milk. Strain.
Season with fish sauce and lime juice.