Chef Leonard Hollander has cooked in some pretty fancy-pants kitchens, where he honed his technique and worked with lavish ingredients. (He spent time, for example, under the tutelage of celebrity chef Norman Van Aken and gastro-artiste Graham Elliot.)
But it wasn’t until he took over the kitchen at Oak Park’s Marion Street Cheese Market that he was “exposed to the ‘green concept.’ ”
Now, two years later, green cuisine is this chef’s specialty.
“I have worked in situations where there was no face to the food, where there was no relationship to the food,” Hollander says. Here, “we put responsibility behind every single ingredient we use, even often down to the salt and spices.”
The Marion Street Cheese Market zealously uses the green checklist – seasonal, organic, locally-produced, sustainable – when sourcing the food sold at its acclaimed gourmet shop and featured in the brunch, lunch and dinner items Hollander and his crew produce for its 60-seat café. Small purveyors such as Green Acres (produce), Milo’s (eggs) and Kilgus Farms Dairy get shout-outs on its menu and website.
Hollander uses the market’s “wide array of products” to create wholesome food that is innovative, yet not outlandishly so, he says.
“I like the spirit of whimsy, but delicious and interesting in that order is where I come from.”
Hollander’s roasted [organic, of course] chicken ($17) provides a perfect example of his current signature style, which combines “an element of the familiar with an element of the unknown,” he says. Here, he pairs a classic dish with nouveau sides – savory smoked Gouda bread pudding, braised greens and sweet and sour apples.
“I’m going to push a little bit, but I’m still going to make you happy,” Hollander says.
The chef’s culinary inspiration comes from a variety of sources, including books and other reading materials, as well as his surrounding environment. “The way the doors on the CTA [train] come together in the middle can inspire the way I present something on the plate,” he says.
Hollander’s green dinner menu is both comprehensive and concise. There’s a nice selection of starters that includes homemade soups, impossibly fresh salads and small plates both simple (house-pickled vegetables, $6) and complex (marcona almond-crusted chevre cheesecake with caramelized shallots and radish salad, $9).
He presently offers eight entrees – or “large plates” – that either showcase a particular protein (chicken, fish, seafood, pork, or lamb) or provide a vegetarian option.
Sustainable barramundi ($19) is the current fish option. Topped with crunchy crushed
marcona almonds and a fennel orange slaw, this thick and flaky filet rests atop roasted fingerling potatoes and a creamy and intensely flavored celery root puree.
Hollander touts his seedling cider braised kurobota pork ($26). Redolent of Christmas spices, this “massive” heirloom pig shank is slow-cooked 10 to 12 hours, then served au jus in a cast iron pot accompanied by roasted root vegetables.
Vegetarian dishes include crispy polenta cakes ($17) with braised wild mushrooms, wilted spinach, porcini mushroom fondant and crispy parmesan, as well as a butternut squash risotto ($15) with crispy sage, pear brown butter and toasted pepitas.
Hollander’s culinary ambitiousness is particularly impressive when one realizes the constraints he works under in Marion Street Cheese Market’s tiny kitchen. Having eaten here numerous times, I only recently learned that he relies on just two electric burners, two small ovens, a deep fryer and a butane torch. (Additionally, the kitchen is essentially ventless. So you probably shouldn’t wear your new leather jacket or favorite “dry clean only” sweater here.)
“Our fire power is small,” Hollander says. “I have to put a lot of extra effort into how things are executed. It forces a different kind of creativity.”
Marion Street Cheese Market
100 South Marion Street
Oak Park, IL 60302