Friday, March 6, 2015

Restaurant Review: Uptown Inspiration Kitchen

So it's been a long time since I did a restaurant review, but then it's been a long time since I posted much of anything.  I've been eating my way around Uptown Chicago and decided that a couple of the places that I have completely fallen in love with need some more advertisement.  That seemed like as good a reason as any to dust off the old restaurant review format.

The first place I want to talk about is Inspiration Kitchen.  This is hands down the most amazing little hidden culinary gem I've come across in Chicago.  The reasons for it's excellence lie in it's mission.  It's not a for profit restaurant.  It is instead a small bistro/high end cuisine front end to a major social mission non profit.  The non profit that runs Inspiration Kitchen is named Inspiration Corporation and they do job training for people who are out of work.  I don't know exactly how the financing works, but I know that Chicago has work training financing available to people who are on unemployment, so I imagine Inspiration takes advantage of that program.  They also help their students navigate the food assistance infrastructure while they're in the program, and provide placement services to their students when they are done with training.

Here's what makes this so amazing.  They aren't training people to go work at a greasy spoon.  This is a 13 week intensive culinary program where they learn by making food at Inspiration Kitchen.  They get plating instruction, a broad array of preparation training, and real life experience with several different service models.  Brunch and Lunch are traditional restaurant menu models, while dinner is entirely Prix Fix.  The other nice thing is that because the restaurant is a non profit, and most of the people working the kitchen aren't employees the prices are amazingly low.  The average price on their menu runs between 9 and 10 dollars for a very high quality brunch or lunch service and a higher quality of ingredient than most restaurants can provide at that price point. The dinner Prix Fix is $22 for 3 courses or $36 for 5 courses.  That quality of service and food with that quantity at any other restaurant would be at least 40-60$ a person.

The other thing that makes Inspiration Kitchen a fantastic and unique experience is the wait staff.  At most restaurants at best waiting tables is a fun social job.  With very few exceptions your waiter isn't making a career out of what they're doing, and they certainly aren't "passionate" about it.  This is not true of Inspiration Kitchen at all.  The wait staff are either all or for the most part graduates of the program who have decided to stay on and continue to help with the restaurant (so explained my waitress on the first visit).  They are gregarious, fun, incredibly well informed about the food and the social programs the food facilitates and as a result the entire customer waiter/waitress experience is completely different from any other restaurant I've been to.  My servers have always been up beat, excited to see me, and quite honestly borderline flirty in some cases (in a very fun appropriate sort of way).  We have a standard brunch/lunch waitress, and she remembers everything we order, she knows James is vegetarian, and knows exactly which specials we will love and which ones we won't.  It brings all the friendliness I love about neighborhood greasy spoons together with high class cuisine.  To be honest I can't imagine any other establishment accomplishing that very difficult feat.

So now I've fawned all over Inspiration you're probably thinking "It's too good to be true this place sounds impossible".  Well . . . ok it is kind of impossibly awesome, but there are a couple downsides and I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about them a little bit.  The two big downsides to Inspiration are both tied to the fact that it's a training program.  The first and simplest one is just that the menu is fairly small.  the menu fits on a single sheet of white printer paper.  It's very attractive, and they update it every now and then as things come in and out of season but your options for any given service will be somewhat limited.  That said, given that it is a culinary training program at work this is hardly unreasonable, and I still guarantee you will find something you love on the menu.

The other downside is that the food preparation consistency isn't what it is at other restaurants.  Now when I say this I'm not necessarily talking about quality.  I've never gone in and gotten what I thought was an unacceptable meal for the price, ever.  That said the potatoes in the roasted potato hash at brunch are always cooked a little differently, the pancake thickness and texture will vary, as will the slaw on your fried chicken sandwich.  I've occasionally found chunks of sweet potato in the soup. etc. etc.  Aside from the very rare outright mistake like the hunks of sweet potato in the pureed soup a lot of these consistency things aren't really a problem.  It's more if you have a dish one day and it's absolutely how you like it and you always want it to be exactly like that. . . you may be a bit disappointed next time.  The trade off between consistency and quality is something that gets talked about quite a bit when you read articles about the business issues related to running a restaurant.  Customers will have something they like and they will never want it to change at all, ever.  When you're running a job training program that type of consistency is just not possible.

So the final note I want to make is about which services are the best at Inspiration.  I have a hard time choosing when service I prefer, but I honestly think my favorite is brunch.  Their lunch and dinner services are kind of a toss up for me.  I certainly go to lunch more often, but that has more to do with affordability than preference.  Much as their dinners are an absolute steal most nights I just don't need that much food.  Ultimately I'd say go in for brunch first, and then try their lunch services.  You'll end up doing dinner sooner or later just our of curiosity.  Once you've experienced the joy of their stuffed french toast you'll come back to a lunch or dinner service so you can taste the little bit of heaven that is deep fried brussel sprouts in herb aioli.  I've hated those little green beasties since I was a child.  Now I can't stop eating them.  Trust me, it's worth it.

Ambiance: 5 of 5
Service: 5 of 5
Food Quality: 4.5 of 5
Flavor Quality: 4.5 of 5
Cost/Value 5 of 5

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