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Is Highland Park Ready for Moderno?

Inovasi owner talks about his new Italian restaurant, opening in May in Highland Park.

John des Rosiers is a man with a mission. 

The chef and proprietor of Lake Bluff's Inovasi has to open Moderno, a "modern Italian" restaurant, in the former space in downtown Highland Park.

His goal? "We are going to change restaurants in the suburbs forever, even if I have to build every single place myself."

I recently sat down with Chef des Rosiers exclusively to talk about the plan for Moderno. As a regular diner and fan of his work at Inovasi, I wanted to know more about his plan for Highland Park, and what exactly he means by "modern Italian." I was not surprised that des Rosiers has a grand vision for Moderno, though it (thankfully) doesn't include Caesar salad.

Des Rosiers grew up in Waukegan, and has cooked on the North Shore for the last several years. He opened Inovasi in 2009 because he had a vision for innovative, high quality, seasonal fine dining in a contemporary, casual restaurant. He told me that one of his strong motivations was that there were no restaurants on the North Shore that he actively wanted to dine at. Sure, there are good restaurants, but when someone asked him to recommend one, he inevitably found himself only thinking of Chicago zip codes. 

Inovasi, his Wisma carry-out storefronts, and now Moderno are designed to be trend-setters, bringing great dining experiences to the suburbs. From every indication, he has been successful with that goal. Des Rosiers believes he is now catalyzing other restaurants to follow suit, with imitators just now discovering the wonders of farm-to-table, organic and sustainable cooking that he has been serving up for over two years.

In describing his vision for Moderno, des Rosiers told me that it will be "authentically Italian cuisine with a modern touch." He is designing a menu that is set on a foundation of great Italian cooking, but with a vision for what real Italian dining will be in the future. He boastfully asserts that it will be the best Italian food outside of Italy, the kind of food that will finally draw the Michelin restaurant reviewers out to the Chicago suburbs. He talks about details -- a 900-degree oven to bake pizzas that will "still be crispy when you get to the last bite," or the fresh pastas that will be made onsite. In fact, the draft menu he printed for me states, "everything by hand, everything from scratch." 

It sounds like my kind of place.

Chef des Rosiers is a risk-taker. He admitted to me that despite the grand vision for Moderno's Italian cuisine, he himself has never visited Italy. This month, however, he is spending two weeks in Tuscany, Umbria, and Abruzzo, on a research mission to develop the restaurant. I am going to hold onto the draft menu, because from what I know of the chef, the trip abroad will completely reshape his thinking -- more than once -- before opening night. He also acknowledges the challenge of operating a restaurant in Highland Park where he won't offer certain staples of typical Americanized Italian restaurants -- no fried calamari, no Minestrone soup. Moderno's success or failure will be measured by whether or not demanding Highland Park diners can go with the flow a bit -- trust the chef to put great food on their plate and just enjoy it, as he accomplishes at Inovasi today.

World cuisines are constantly evolving. Even as a frequent traveler, I often forget that no country's cuisine is completely tied to tradition. The Paris that I visited last month had a whole different palette of ingredients than the Paris I traveled to 15 years ago. Des Rosiers' challenge at Moderno will be to convince diners to throw away preconceived notions of what must go on a pizza or in a red sauce; they'll have to trust him that chicken does taste good crisped with caramelized sour apple, pecorino cheese and amarena cherry (as the proposed menu features, for only $7).

Moderno is slated to open in May, 2012. Des Rosiers promised some surprises along the way. For example, they will have something like a "chef's table" where, in European style, you can book it for the entire night and just keep eating and drinking. He knows that he needs to excel at carry-out business in addition to dining in, private rooms and the outdoor patio.

In short, Moderno is his biggest challenge yet. I'll be chronicling its development in the coming months. 

I can't wait for opening night.

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Bob Levi January 11, 2012 at 02:12 PM
I chuckeled when I read this quote in Ed Brill's weekly column: "Des Rosiers believes he is now catalyzing other restaurants to follow suit, with imitators just now discovering the wonders of farm-to-table, organic and sustainable cooking that he has been serving up for over two years." It seems to me that Alice Waters of Chez Parisse fame began this trend when she opened her restaurant some 40 years ago in 1971. Time magazine also did an article on the trend nearly five years ago. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1595245,00.html So I guess "fly over terrirories" in the Midwest are somewhat behind the left- and right-coast trends. Glad to see that someone is looking out for our health besides Michelle Obama..
Bob Levi January 11, 2012 at 02:13 PM
Should have been Chez Panisse not Parisse.
Ed Brill January 11, 2012 at 02:46 PM
Bob, I think what Des Rosiers meant by that was *in the suburbs*, there wasn't anyplace like that. Today you can point to others. So he didn't claim he invented modernist cuisine, or farm-to-table, but he was clearly the first to find a way to successfully do so out here on the North Shore.
Bob Levi January 11, 2012 at 03:00 PM
Ed, It's interesting to see how restaurants and their owner/chefs have changed over the years. I wonder how Chicago's first celebrity chef, Louis Szathmary of The Bakery Restaurant (opened in 1962, closed in 1989), would feel about foodie groups and blogs on the Interet. In those pre-computer days, one only learned about restaurants via word-of-mouth and from food critics. Loiis wasn't a big fan of restaurant critics and he once told me that "most of them can't tell the difference between shitake and Shinola." (Ask your father or grandfather or look it up on the Intenet.)

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