Dressed in crisp chef whites, with his well-kept salt-and-pepper beard, chef Erwin Drechsler often mans the maitre d’ station at his eponymous restaurant, peering out over his reading glasses to scan for your reservation or bidding you a hearty “adieu.” His approach harkens back to the tradition of chefs like Fernand Point of La Pyramide, who make it their mission to sate the soul as well as the palate.
Drechsler, a former Chicago schoolteacher, is equally adept at nurturing young talent. He emphasizes the importance of encouraging all of his chefs to contribute, a particularly good thing considering the help he’s had in the past: Both Hot Chocolate owner Mindy Segal and Paul Kahan of Blackbird started out in the kitchen of his earlier venture Metropolis 1800, a cutting-edge American bistro.
In the mid-’90s, when Erwin first opened, Bon Appetit lauded the cafe as one of the top 10 U.S. restaurants. While time has passed, and critics have moved on to hip newbies, Erwin’s survival attests to the enduring quality of the food. The seasonally focused, market-based cuisine as well as the earthy mushroom soups and creamy calf’s liver provide comfort for Chicago’s blustery winters.
Q. What do you wish you could pickle, preserve or change about the Chicago restaurant scene?
A. We’re blessed with great cultural ethnic diversity and global dining, from Asian spots to Charlie Trotter’s to Vietnamese and sushi. We need to continue that. One thing I’d change is I’d make it easier for restaurants to get liquor licenses. It’s become really hard to get one, and having a world-class wine list adds so much to a restaurant.
Q. What would your last meal be?
A. Extra-lean pastrami on rye with potato pancakes and a chocolate phosphate. Growing up in Albany Park, there used to be so many delis in the city, but they’ve really disappeared in recent years.
Q. Where do you eat before or after a shift?
A. Every single week I stop in at [a taqueria on Diversey just east of Racine] for a chicken burrito with a side of Mexican-spiced rice. It’s a nice little spot where they cook from scratch.
Q. What’s the can’t-miss dish at your restaurant?
A. Calf’s liver with Nueske bacon, creamy turnips and a sherry wine vinegar pan sauce.
Q. What should we know about your restaurant we probably don’t?
A. Well, we have the best burger in town. Although that’s really no longer a secret … so I’d add that we probably sell more calf’s liver than any other restaurant in town. Some nights we go through 25-30 orders.
Erwin: An American Cafe and Bar; 2925 North Halsted Avenue, Chicago (773) 528-7200