Medill News Service
CHICAGO -- If you want something and you can't find it, you have two options:
Either stop the search or create what you need.
Last June, that's just what 38-year-old Laura Frankel of Deerfield did.
Keeping in line with a thousand-year-old tradition, Frankel created a niche
for herself and for Chicago eaters like her: An upscale kosher restaurant
"The one thing that the Chicago kosher market doesn't have is an upscale
restaurant," said Frankel, owner and head chef of the Lincoln Park newcomer,
who is married and the mother of boys ages 5, 9 and 12.
Shallots opened in a small, airy space on the 2300 block of Clark Street.
Its plum-colored walls swirl with ceiling fans on both levels of the bi-level
restaurant. Fresh flowers rest on the wood-burning fireplace, and modern light
fixtures create a comfortable yet elegant environment.
On starched white tablecloths lie bright candlestick holders and bread baskets.
A large plaster mosaic fills a wall near the small bar, its orange and plum
colors rendering an image of the restaurant's namesake -- shallots -- an
ingredient Frankel says she often uses when cooking." Because I'm kosher,
because I observe the Sabbath, there aren't a lot of places for me," Frankel
said about why she wanted to create a kosher restaurant. "It was either build
my own or do nothing."
She built a concise menu, based on a no-dairy kitchen, a provision that under
the laws of kosher must not include any dairy products whatsoever. A dairy-only
kitchen is also possible, but only if the two kitchens are entirely separate
Kosher is a way of eating, a diet some consider to be the world's oldest.
Its dietary laws originate from the Old Testament and govern the selection and
cooking process of food.
Cooking rules require that a kosher-observant Jew, called a mashgiach, is on
the restaurant's premises at all times, that the stove's flame is lit by that
person, that all meat is butchered according to kosher law, and that only
extremely clean greens are served.
"We have the cleanest greens in the city," Frankel said. "All our greens have
to be checked over a light box to make sure there are no bugs on anything. I
personally will probably never eat a salad anywhere else."
About 261,000 people in the metropolitan Chicago area are Jewish, according to
the 1990 Jewish population study available through the Jewish Federation. About
14 percent of the Jewish people in the Chicago metropolitan area keep kosher,
according to the study.
A kosher restaurant kitchen must carry certification from a rabbinical
The Chicago Rabbinical Council is one of the local organizations that verifies
that restaurants are adhering to kosher law, said Rabbi Yaakov Eisenbach, a
kosher coordinator at the CRC who oversees kosher establishments in the
The kosher-observant Jew at Shallots during evening hours is Geoffrey Winner,
a 19-year-old college student with a part-time job he loves: checking to make
sure the food being served at Shallots meets the standards the Old Testament
"I live down here and there were no other jobs for observant Jews in this
neighborhood," Winner said.
A student at Northeastern University in Chicago, Winner found out about the
job through his parents, who know Laura Frankel from synagogue. Winner then met
with Rabbi Eisenbach to learn the ins-and-outs of ensuring that the food served
at Shallots is kosher.
And Winner gets to eat at Shallots too. The all-kosher menu features dishes
such as an appetizer of Tuna Tartar, and entries such as Venison Medallions or
Chilean Sea Bass with Moroccan Spices. Appetizer prices range from $5.50 to
$10.50 and entries prices from $17.50 to $35. The restaurant carries fine
kosher wine, including Herzog, a line highly rated by Wine Spectator, according
The menu is constantly evolving, said Frankel, who has some catering
experience but no previous restaurant experience.
But she knows the value of a good location. When she set out two years ago
with 28-year-old co-chef Dennis Wasko of Oak Forest, she visited 13 different
Chicago locations until a prime space near the well-traveled Clark and
Fullerton intersection became available.
"There was already a core group of people here," Frankel said about the
location, close to nearby synagogues like Anshe Emet in Lakeview, Elm Street
Synagogue in the Gold Coast and the Lincoln Park Chabad.
"I wanted to be close enough to Skokie and that community that they could come
here," Frankel said about her customer base, "and yet close enough to downtown
that business travelers and folks from O'Hare could get here as well."
Although many Shallots visitors are kosher-only eaters, Frankel hopes to
attract more non-kosher eaters to the restaurant, particularly those who can
"I need to attract a non-Jewish audience more than anything," Frankel said.
She is considering advertising in the non-Jewish press to increase the
Frankel is quick to make the distinction between kosher food and Jewish-style
food, a difference those seeking corned beef on rye should know before dining
"It's a kosher restaurant, not a Jewish restaurant. Jews eat here and the food
is kosher, but it's not a Jewish-theme restaurant," Frankel said.
Michael Golenzer, the owner of the non-Kosher restaurant called The Bagel, has
specifically catered the food at his Lakeview and Skokie establishments toward
those seeking Jewish-style food, a totally different approach than Frankel's.
"An upscale (kosher) restaurant is needed in Chicago," Golenzer said. "It's a
good idea. A nice restaurant is a nice restaurant. It doesn't matter if it's
kosher or not kosher."
But maintaining a kosher restaurant can be demanding because of the many
"You really have to know what you're doing," Frankel said. "You can't just
decide 'I'm going to cook today' and go run a restaurant. You have to know what
your ingredients are doing in each recipe."
The skill and determination involved in running Shallots may be one reason why
Frankel is behind the sole upscale kosher restaurant in Chicago.
"I don't think it's going to be a trend," she said. But, "there are still some
areas of the market that are lacking for kosher food. If somebody took it
seriously, took the food part of it seriously, they'd probably do well."
Frankel's hard work has paid off.
"I don't believe there's a kosher Jew in Chicago that hasn't heard of us," she