Feature photo by Sarah H.
Owners Brigette Lytle and Chef-Owner Jody Andre were away when I stopped in, their names making up this strange, lovely word, Briejo. Next in command, Dining Room Manager Nicholas Martinez, was kind enough to explain what I was about to experience.
With seating for 60, Briejo serves a playful fusion of French, Italian, and Spanish cuisine although the kitchen is always poised for the opportunity for invention. Inspiration from a recent trip, the weather, and even Oak Parkers themselves are often reflected on the menu and in specials. Nick’s careful descriptions and zesty delivery made me very excited to order.
On the night I stopped by, my server – Alex – recommended I go with an improvised take on one of their appetizers, Grilled Portabella. Worthy of mention was the size of these mushrooms – about seven inches in diameter. Because this is much bigger than their usual order of mushrooms, Alex went on, they decided to take advantage and make a special out it. She suggested if I wasn’t ravenous, this $10 item would be enough to satiate, a thoughtful recommendation I was thankful for.
It was intimidating, this seared and baked delight, especially considering its stuffing. Two lamb chops, grilled, meat pulled from the bone, and finely chopped. Goat cheese, pine nuts, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, shallots, and a balsamic reduction made up the rest of the ingredients. Along with perfectly toasted triangles of pita, I had a Tempranillo for an accompaniment.
Five years old and only $8, Burgo Viejo Crianza was the wine special recommended to me by Nick. A juicy bouquet of black fruits reminiscent of a Shiraz, but instead of being laced with pepper, this Tempranillo had much more feminine qualities of lavender, soft leather, and subtle earth notes of dust and hay or dried herbs. After smelling this for about twenty minutes, I almost blacked out at the thought of what it would taste like with the portabella.
Typical of old world wines, there was enough acidity for it to hold up to the food. It was also restrained so as to mingle with the emerging flavors instead of being overwhelmed or overwhelming. It took me over 30 minutes to eat just half of what was on my plate! With each nibble of food, the wine flexed its tannins exposing a texture previously absent. It even developed a bit of creaminess! Time slowed way down as I carefully sipped and chewed while trying to not moan out loud.
You could tell this wine was well-stored, a terminal concern for a wine drinker. Nick talked to me at length about not only their use of vacu-vins, but of wine preservation spray and their climate controlled wine storage unit. Because Briejo is considered a wine bar – they have no beers on tap, just by the bottle and many just $4 – they keep their wine list constantly evolving. Their selection of spirits also reflects a sensitivity to Oak Park’s palette.
Behind the bar was a curious looking infused vodka. Nick let me know Chef-Owner Jody infuses it with vanilla bean (to take the edge off) and pineapple wedges. I was sad to realize I wouldn’t have room for a Cosmo made with this curious elixir. Already, I’m plotting for my next visit.
This foray of the Chef to even behind the bar is something you don’t see often in restaurants. Just as exceptional is the comfortable execution of ingredients and ease of menu descriptions as evinced by my server, Alex. Nick confirmed for me the servers sample new menu items and benefit from an eloquent chef.
There is a synergy here at Briejo that’s absent from most restaurants lending to my romantic notions of how a restaurant should be run. They understand the importance that great food cannot happen without great service, and there is respect for each other’s roles in the production of a good night out. This isn’t to say Briejo is beyond bad food and service; no restaurant is immune. The interior culture of this place, however, is healthy and promising for better things to come.
Music appropriate for the moment filled the air. Nick informed me Jody carefully curates this menu selection as well. Often this means live music on almost every Thursday night and on most Friday’s, too.
Along with the aural, the visual aspects of Briejo furthers the experience. Pendant lights suspend from the lofted ceilings, exposed brick and duct work and swaths of cinnamon and gold fabric hang in all the right places, art noveau and minimalist art work – all tide the eye over as you break from course to course. And I can’t talk about the décor without mentioning the ginormous mirror in the bathroom. It’s a feng shui I’ve never experienced before.
Over the past few months, Briejo has been experimenting with theme nights. France, Italy, and Spain have been featured so far. With great success, they’re continuing their forays into themes. Wednesday, September 1st, will be their next theme event featuring Latino foods. Expect a prix fixe menu with possible appearances of tuna ceviche and upscale tacos stuffed with tender New York Strip Steak. Call for reservations as these nights are sure to fill up. And don’t feel intimidated by all the show. Briejo is all about gourmet food but at reasonable prices amidst loud music, blue jeans, black ties, and late evenings.
211 Harrison Street
Oak Park, IL 60304
Tuesday to Wednesday 5-10
Thursday to Saturday 5-11