WEST LOOP — Chef Erling Wu-Bower is making his return to the Chicago food scene with a new restaurant focusing on “personal cuisine” dedicated to his roots.
Wu-Bower, a James Beard Award finalist, is known for his work at Chicago’s Publican, Avec, Nico Osteria and Pacific Standard Time, which was recognized as one of the best new restaurants in America by Eater in 2018.
Wu-Bower served as chef-owner at Pacific Standard Time for three years before he and his business partner, Josh Tilden, parted ways with the restaurant’s hospitality group in 2020. At the time, Wu-Bower told the Tribune he was going “to lay low, be a father, do stuff around the house.” He alluded to future plans, but he didn’t reveal much more.
Named after the chef’s oldest son, the restaurant is nestled amid industrial warehouses at 1516 W. Carroll Ave. in the West Loop. It’s a different feel than Fulton Market’s restaurant row, where Wu-Bower garnered much of his experience — and that’s the point.
“It’s easy to kind of weave into the story. My career has been made in that neighborhood for the most part … just kind of stepping over Ogden [Avenue] seemed like the right thing to do,” Wu-Bower said.
Maxwells Trading will have 100 seats between the bar and the dining room, with a private dining space on the second floor and a farm on the roof, complete with three greenhouses.
A first-floor retail space run by The Roof Crop will be a mix of apothecary and flower shop. The Roof Crop will also manage the rooftop farm, which will grow flowers and produce for the restaurant.
The menu for Maxwells Trading can’t be defined by one cuisine. Wu-Bower, who is Chinese and Cajun, grew up eating many different cuisines — trekking through Vietnamese markets with his mother, Olivia Wu, a food writer for the Daily Herald, and traveling with his father, a professor, through Europe.
That, combined with his training in charcuterie, seafood, Mediterranean cooking and more, led Wu-Bower to develop a menu for Maxwells Trading that’s seasonal, sourced from the rooftop garden and other local farms, and difficult to categorize.
“I wish that I had an off-the-shelf Italian or Chinese or Thai to throw, but I don’t. It’s the kind of food I want to eat and the kind of food I want to cook. It’s very personal cuisine … personal to me and the heritage that I was born with and I’ve developed over time,” Wu-Bower said.
But when pushed to choose a description of his menu, Wu-Bower said, “largely Italian with very specific Asian explorations, dish by dish.”
One example: a “marriage” of scallion pancakes and naan cooked on a flat top and accompanied by a variety of dips, including ricotta with Roof Crop honey, Wu-Bower said.
Another dish, wide-cut pappardelle pasta, will be served with Chinese-style braised lamb — think warm spices such as cinnamon, star anise and soy, he said — and garnished with chili crisp made in house and Parmesan cheese.
“It’s a narrative. … It’s about growing up half Chinese and half Cajun in Chicago. That’s what this restaurant is,” Wu-Bower said. “I’m asking my customers for a lot. I’m asking them to come to a slightly new neighborhood. I’m asking them to come to a concept that’s not defined by a word. But I think the cool part is that these customers are going to help me define what it is.”
Maxwells Trading also hopes to create a sustainable career path by having fewer employees and paying them more, Wu-Bower said. This will be accomplished in part by adding a service charge to all checks, with the charge distributed among employees, he said.
A smaller staff also means streamlining service in subtle ways: for example, with approachable menus that need little explanation, Wu-Bower said.
“We’re going to be asking our customers for a lot of understanding as we feel this out … but I think that what we will give in return is our years, and we want to listen to what they have to say,” he said.
The building boasts large south- and west-facing windows, with a large wraparound bar on the main floor that will welcome diners into the restaurant.
The space embraces an open-kitchen concept, which Wu-Bower and Tilden are fans of.
Both floors of the restaurant will have vinyl record players, an important detail for Wu-Bower and Tilden, who love jazz. In the private dining room on the second floor, guests will be able to bring their own records to play during private parties.
The second floor will have a private event space with a dedicated terrace.
The rooftop farm will span the roof of the restaurant. Wu-Bower hopes to host school programs at Maxwells Trading so students can learn about the growing process through The Roof Crop Foundation.
While the restaurant is still under construction, the vibe customers can look forward to is a little bit of “melancholy,” “chillness and coolness” — think Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 painting, Nighthawks, Wu-Bower said.
“I always want people to sit down and just exhale … I want you to exhale and know that the food will match the service, will match the space,” Wu-Bower said. “I definitely want people to feel like they’ve found something.”
In other words, a breath of fresh air.
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