Ryan Poli Makes Us Lunch and Talks His Plans For European Conquest

We’re invited to sample one of the dishes from Chef Ryan Poli and Mercadito Group’s upcoming Little Market Brasserie in the Gold Coast’s Talbot Hotel. But the actual room is still under construction— it was full of freshly-delivered banquettes that morning— and so we are invited instead to the Mercadito Test Kitchen. Which looks more like a swingin’ bachelor loft than the usual spare closet, until it’s explained to us that it actually is somebody’s apartment— it’s Mercadito managing partner Alfredo Sandoval’s Chicago home, several floors above Mercadito the restaurant (and a couple of floors above an office full of staffers at desktop computers, running the multi-city Mercadito empire from Chicago). There is also high security in the form of two tiny, yipping dogs, who have to be pacified with treats and an audience for their few tricks before we can talk.

It’s in this unexpected setting that Poli whips up one of the easygoing dishes from the menu of Little Market Brasserie, which is set to open within the next week or two. As we nosh on semolina gnocchi over spinach and mushrooms, we ask Poli about the momentous change in his life, which is, he’s about to go from being the onsite chef of one restaurant, to the back and forth executive chef of two, in the process, stretching beyond his Spanish comfort zone at Tavernita to a wider range of European cuisine.

You’re opening a brasserie. But not exactly a French brasserie, we were told after the first time we wrote about it.

We didn’t want to limit ourselves to doing French cuisine, which is something really specific. So we call it an American brasserie, because if we wanted to do an Asian-inspired dish, or a South American inspired dish, or something regional American, we’re not tied to it being a brasserie per se.

So what is French about it, what makes it a brasserie?

You know, I think the feel of what a brasserie is, the casualness of it. We took everything we loved about a brasserie, the design elements, the casualness, some ideas in the food and that’s how we turned it into a brasserie. So we have a lot of subway tile, we have a lot of wood, a marble bar, the banquette seating. It’s also going to be a bustling restaurant, not loud per se with music that’s cranked up, but a place with a lot of energy, people talking and glasses clinking and servers moving in and out. A bustling city restaurant.

What makes that different from Tavernita, which is a Spanish restaurant but also ranges from Spanish food, too?

I think with Tavernita, it’s more of a scene type restaurant, kind of a sexy vibe type late night restaurant. We really want this just to be a great neighborhood restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, a place where you can wake up on Sunday morning and say, what are we going to do today, let’s go to Little Market Brasserie and figure it out.

(You know, it’s funny, I think Chicago is compared to New York in so many ways, but I think there are certain things that New York is just going to have that Chicago is lacking, just because of density of population and what people do. In New York there are restaurants like Blue Ribbon where you can walk in at one o’clock in the morning and get an oyster tower [laughs], and there’s like an hour wait. I don’t know if Chicago’s ever going to get there, but we want Tavernita to be that kind of a late night place.)

Let’s talk about the menu at Little Market Brasserie. So what’s on the menu?

Neighborhood staples, basically. Very approachable. We have our own version of like a wedge salad, we have a burger, we’re making our own burger meat. We have a lobster roll, we have monkfish with bordelaise sauce, we have a pork chop with red cabbage— nothing too intricate, nothing with too many ingredients, nothing pretentious.

There are a lot of fresh pastas, because we love to make pasta— and because it used to be Bice, we have all this pastamaking equipment like a chitarra press and a cavatelli maker, ravioli maker… there’s nothing better than fresh pasta.

So we’ll have an all you can eat pasta night, a taco night, roast chicken… I don’t want to say comfort food, but it’s all going to be recognizable. The menu’s going to be in English. We’re just really trying to drive a neighborhood concept in a bistro setting.

Now, being in a hotel you’re going to have to do breakfast. Which, chefs don’t always get excited about breakfast—

There’s nothing exciting about breakfast [laughs]. What we decided, and what we saw from the pop-up was, for breakfast people want bacon, eggs over easy, dry toast. They don’t really want to be wowed. They don’t want to be creative. But for some reason, call it brunch on the weekends and they want pancakes with ice cream, you know, crazy brunch. So we left it as simple as we could, using the best— we smoke our own salmon, we sourced out great bagels, we’re using Greek yogurt, we make our own granola. So maybe someone who travels all over the country and stays in our hotel will be like, wow, the granola was really great.

And because this is something I really like, we added a little juice bar section to the breakfast, fresh squeezed juices like carrot, beet and orange, kale and cucumber and ginger one, stuff like that.

Okay, so let’s get back to you, personally. So how’s life been running this big loud crazy thing called Tavernita?

It’s great. I think the success is that we built a team, we built a little family. I mean, I think the turnover of servers has been like 10% since we opened, which is unheard of. The core crew of like 15 people who we started with are all still there. The kitchen staff has been pretty much the same thing. So when we get somebody new, there’s so many people who know how everything works, telling them what the concept is and what the aspirations, and I think that trickles down to the guests.

We have Greg Bastien as the chef de cuisine over there. Since I’ve been overseeing both, he’s really been like the backbone. Having him there since the beginning— he and I were here in Alfredo’s apartment, the test kitchen— it wasn’t like we pulled somebody from outside for that. It’s easy to lean on your team when you have such a great support staff around you. It allows me to be away for a day, or two days, and just check in— I usually stop in Tavernita about 5 p.m. and expedite the raw bar.

How does life change when you have two restaurants?

It’s a balance, for sure, and I’m still trying to figure it out. Probably what I’ll do is anchor myself at Little Market for the first couple of weeks. And then from there, I’ll just write myself a schedule. I’ll probably be at Tavernita all day Tuesday and Wednesday, seeing how things are going and working on new recipes with the team, and then I’ll go do service at Little Market.

Otherwise, I’ll just be filling in, a sous chef quits, I’ll be that guy.

Like a substitute teacher.

Yeah! I hope I’m the cool substitute teacher. Yay, Ryan’s here! And not, uh-oh, this guy’s here to screw everything up, he doesn’t even know the menu.

Well, it seems from shooting there, you have good esprit de corps in your kitchen. It’s not like, oh shit, it’s the chef.

I hope so, man. I mean, the way that I was trained, and I talk to my friends and the way they were trained, was that hard French mentality of, you make a mistake and you’re worried about it. People make mistakes. And you train them to get past them. Screaming at people— first, they’re going to hate their job, and they’re going to be nervous, and they’re not going to be producing in a passionate way and getting into the groove of service.

So I’ve made myself— Greg is the guy who when he walks in they’re like, oh. I walk in, it’s high five, hey how you doing, I get on the line and start working with the guys. Greg’s the enforcer, that’s his job— I’m the guy who comes in and, hey, this is a fun place to work. Don’t hate your job. You get somebody who’s a ball of nerves, the food’s going to taste like that. You get somebody who’s loose and passionate and ready to go and in their zone, you’re going to get a better product.

Ryan Poli Makes Us Lunch and Talks His Plans For European Conquest