By Michael Nagrant
Mohammad Islam would make a first-rate drug pusher. The executive chef and co-owner of the new River North hot spot Aigre Doux (which means sweet and sour in French) is standing next to his wife, pastry chef and co-owner Malika Ameen, and Oriana Kruszewski, aka “The Walnut Lady” in the basement pastry kitchen. Islam repeatedly dips his hand in Kruszewski’s zip-locked stash, and gives me handfuls of her black walnuts (they taste like extraordinary dried apples). Kruszewski’s also brought along some homemade preserves, frozen cornelian cherries and raspberries. Islam is handing spoons of the stuff to me as if he were a countercultural shaman bestowing a particularly robust strain of Humboldt County pot. As Islam chews on a cherry, there’s a child-waking-up-on-Christmas-day-like glint in his eyes as he tells Kruszewski he’d like to see her at the back door of Aigre Doux every two weeks. Kruszewski looks at him and tells him he’s crazy, and that if he buys her high-quality-but-pricey products that frequently, he’ll go out of business.
Islam doesn’t care. He prides himself on finding stellar foodstuffs, a habit from his days working the bountiful California farmer’s markets as the executive chef of West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont. While at Marmont he was a chef to rock stars and screen legends, cooking with Jerry Stiller and hanging out in the kitchen with Cameron Diaz. For a year and half, Lindsay Lohan and her entourage would drop by every Wednesday for his seared curry chicken slow-braised in curry broth of lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves.
Islam’s no stargazer though. He’d rather have his head in the kitchen training young cooks to run their own show. After ten years learning from Gabino Sotelino of Lettuce Entertain You, George Bumbaris and Sarah Stegner of the Ritz Carlton and Chris Beischer and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Islam’s now the coach. He considers mentorship “fifty percent” of what he does, with the other half spent identifying and coddling the best attributes of pristine product like Kruszewski’s.
At Aigre Doux, he’s hired seven cooks still in culinary school to work the line, an incredibly risky move for a burgeoning Chicago restaurant. Islam warns, “They call my kitchen a boot camp. I’m not really a screamer, but if you give me a chance to breathe down your neck, I will. You can mistakes up to a certain point, but I want you to correct them.”
Islam’s discipline is borne of necessity. A former engineer, he didn’t start cooking seriously until he was thirty, and needed to catch up quickly. He says, “The path I was going on, I realized I was very mediocre. Every morning I kept thinking, I have to wake up and sit in a cubicle and break down code. I hated Mondays.” He quit his job, moved to Montana and fly-fished on the Blackfoot river to clear his head for two-and-a-half years.
A Bangladeshi immigrant, Islam moved to Chicago in 1986 when he was 17 to attend college. After paying his first tuition bill, he had 400 bucks in his pocket and, while walking from the Armitage train station to his apartment, he was brainstorming how to make more money when he spotted Café BaBaReeba. He walked in and Gabino Sotelino was standing in the doorway. He told Sotelino he needed a job. Sotelino gave him a shot as a bus boy and told him all he needed to do was “take the dirty plates, fill the water [for the customers] and smile.” That serendipitous moment led to a lifelong relationship with Sotelino who helped Islam get an interview at Jean Georges in New York after he left Montana and cooking school in Lyon, France.
Much will be made of the Aigre Doux partnership between Islam and his wife Malika Ameen. Lots of cheap puns on marriage will be bandied about in the reviews to come, but ultimately it’s their pairings on the plate that will matter most.
A salad of butter lettuce, chervil and anise-spiced tarragon drizzled with a coconut cream and champagne vinaigrette lends an herbal crunch to creamy avocado slices and huge succulent Gulf shrimp. The shrimp is slow-poached in 80°F oil for hours, so that the tail meat stays pliant and doesn’t tense up as it would from a quick sear.
Ameen’s rich sticky toffee pudding is balanced by a citrus counterpoint of Satsuma orange-skin-dusted Devonshire cream sorbet, candied cumquats and cara cara oranges. Her Pot de Crème, despite its luxuriant and artery-clogging ingredients, manages to be silky and light.
I tasted a few of Islam and Ameen’s dishes while interviewing him, and so this isn’t an anonymous review of the food, but what I experienced suggests that the balance and precision of their plates should shine through in the frigid winter that lies ahead.
Aigre Doux, 230 West Kinzie, (312)329-9400.