When chefs and leaders in the beer and wine industry aren’t slaving away in their own kitchens, breweries or cellars, they too venture into the vast dining scene of Kane County, acquiring their own lists of gastronomical haunts and culinary hot spots.
Niche executive chef Chris Ayukawa of St. Charles said the best way to discover where to eat and drink in the area is by word of mouth.
“It’s probably easy for people who work in the restaurant industry because being around food and being around service ... everyone has a heightened sense of those qualities,” said Ayukawa, who created Niche’s new menu after taking the helm of the Geneva-based fine-dining establishment in April. “If you have friends who work in the [restaurant] industry, listen to them.”
The Berkshire Pork Cheek and Grilled Lamb Chops rank among his favorite dishes on the menu he created, but Ayukawa – a self-proclaimed addict of Geneva-based Josef’s Elegante Meats & Deli sub sandwiches – said when he gets a rare reprieve from working in his own kitchen, he likes to take his wife to Bien Trucha in Geneva.
“Everything on [Bien Trucha’s] menu is amazing,” Ayukawa said. “They like to play with flavors, and the drinks are always clever.”
If Ayukawa isn’t grabbing a shot of whiskey and a cold PBR after his shift at Niche, he said – on occasion – he’ll end up with his line cooks at The House Pub in St. Charles.
“All the cooks that work here are definitely beer geeks for sure ... [The House Pub] has an excellent selection of beer, great live music and a nice atmosphere; in general that suites people of our ilk,” Ayukawa said.
Another brew-savvy patron is Batavia resident Tom Korder, the brewmaster of Penrose Brewing Company. Korder has a decade-worth of experience in the beer industry, and when he isn’t sipping his favored Proto Gradus – a Belgian-inspired single ale – at his Geneva taproom, he’s usually at one of his favorite Geneva restaurants: A Toda Madre, Nobel House or Preservation Bread and Wine.
Nobel House – which uses Penrose’s Proto Gradus in its Beer Mussels with Fries – has a solid craft beer selection, knowledgeable staff and “they do a great job with their outlook on food with beer,” Korder said.
He cited Off Color Brewing’s Troublesome gose, a top-fermented beer that originated in Goslar, Germany, as another favorite craft beer, which is available at Binny’s and Nobel House.
Roberto Avila, owner and executive chef of Altiro Latin Fusion in Geneva, started his career in the restaurant industry as a dish washer, having since held nearly every imaginable restaurant job in roughly 11-area eateries.
When he’s not indulging in his restaurant’s Altiro tacos – pan-seared tilapia with mango salsa, pico-cucumber, arugula, chipotle aioli and Altiro vinegreta – Prince Edward Island Mussels (Al Mejillon) or Al Atun – a pink peppercorn, yellowfin ahi tuna dish – Avila enjoys Italian fare from St. Charles-based ZaZa’s Trattoria or Francesca’s by the River for their food and service.
“For me, it’s very important that [a restaurant] is taking care of you,” Avila said in regard to what makes him a restaurant repeat customer. “I don’t like when people rush me. ... The food is very important, too.”
Also a fan of Altiro’s Latin-infused offerings and margaritas is Geneva-based Chez Moi Café and Catering executive chef and owner Beth Cull, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, who specializes in French fare, such as freshly-made quiches and – one of her favorite dishes – the traditionally-French Croque Madame, a ham-and-cheese sandwich topped with a fried egg.
A St. Charles resident and married mother of two, Cull said she generally likes to cook for her children at home but enjoys keeping a low profile by dining in local pubs while out for dinner in the area.
“My husband and I are really low-key people; we’re not fancy so we tend to go to the pubs,” Cull said, adding that she enjoys the Gaelic Grilled Tilapia with white-wine caper sauce, roasted potatoes and sautéed spinach at McNally’s Traditional Irish Pub in St. Charles. “I just love that fish, and I haven’t been disappointed yet.”
Of vino connoisseurs and those just getting their tastebuds wet in the world of wine, Aurora-resident Mark Czubak, the sommelier and beverage manager of Atwater’s at Herrington Inn and Spa in Geneva, said, “The best way to know if a wine list is good or not is to ask questions about it, and see if anyone there actually knows anything about it.”
Atwater’s and Niche are the places for wine, Czubak said, adding that The Turf Room in North Aurora and Wildwood in Geneva also have strong wine lists.
Currently, Czubak’s favorite Atwater’s wine is the Schäfer-Fröhlich 2012 pinot noir blanc de noir rosé from Nahe, Germany. But, his go-to, everday, affordable wine is the Emile Beyer pinot blanc. The Emile Beyer comes from Czubak’s favorite region for wine – Alsace, France – which he said is a key element in maneuvering a wine list.
“Pay attention to where the wine is from,” Czubak said. “A lot of people pay attention to the grape too much. What will really allow you to explore more is to pay attention to also where [the grape] is from.”
Though the places frequented by local chefs, a brewer and somm may differ, one thing remained a constant between the five of them: Service, quality and consistency tops the list in creating an ideal dining experience in Kane County.