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Coming out on 'Top': Out chef Dale Levitski on his new Boystown spot
DISH Weekly Dining Guide in Windy City Times
by Tony Peregrin
2012-02-01

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A French bistro named frog n snail belongs in Boystown; after all, boys are made of frogs and snails (and puppy dog tails)—at least according to the beloved nursery rhyme. The new venture by chef Dale Levitski —located across the street from the Top Chef alum's apartment in the space formerly occupied by Sura—will offer casual bistro food, sweet and savory crepes, and a La Colombe coffee bar.

"The Broadway strip is lacking in good, hot food during café or coffee shop hours," explains Levitski, when asked about the coffee bar. According to Levistki, the bistro will serve lunch from 11-2:30, and then from 2:30-5 the establishment will feature a café with lighter fare, followed by a dinner menu that will offer Levitski's take on French classics such as steak au poivre, bouillabaisse, and of course, frogs and snails.

"I've opened 5 to 6 restaurants, but this is the first one where I am more in the driver's seat," admits Levitski. "I think, more than anything, the freedom to make my own choices and develop my own vision is the best part of opening frog n snail. It's also the most nerve-racking! If this doesn't work, it's my fault," he admits with a good-natured laugh.

Windy City Times chatted with Levitski about frog n snail (intentionally lower-cased for now, although the logo is still being finalized), his deep-rooted connection to Boystown, and which he finds more anxiety-inducing: launching a bistro in this economy or appearing on another competitive reality show.

Windy City Times: Why did you select Boystown for frog n snail, Dale?

Dale Levitski: Honestly, I see a lack of ingenuity and creativity in the restaurants in the area. Frog n Snail will be a French-American bistro, but we'll also be dabbling in all kinds of European comfort food. I'm looking forward to tailoring [the menu] to the Lakeview neighborhood.

WCT: You have a special connection to the area, specifically Belmont Harbor, where your family owned a boat in the '70s. Do you have a food memory from childhood that you return to for inspiration?

DL: I've lived in the area for 12 years, so it's definitely my home neighborhood. I distinctly remember back when I was a kid—now keep in mind Lakeview wasn't the neighborhood it is today—getting up at three in the morning and going smelt fishing. I also remember bringing a rowboat to North Avenue beach, back when you were actually able to find live crawfish. Oh, how times have changed! [Laughs] Now, instead of crawfish, you'd find hypodermic needles. The neighborhood continues to inspire me. In fact, I'll be shopping at the French market at the Nettelhorst School—I'll be going there with my cart and working with the farmer's there.

WCT: I love the idea of you pulling along your cart to the Nettelhorst farmer's market in search of fresh finds for frog n snail!

DL: Outside of Joncarl [Lachman] of HB, no one in Lakeview and Boystown is using the farmers' market. No one in the area is really being competitive with other neighborhoods and their restaurants. Lakeview is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city, and according to the Chamber of Commerce, the number of households per square mile with an annual income over $100,000 is higher than several other Chicago neighborhoods combined—and yet, people are often forced to leave the neighborhood for lunch and dinner.

WCT: Do you feel any trepidation about opening a new bistro in this economy, especially with all the empty storefronts haunting the Lakeview area?

DL: On that stretch of Broadway we're got The Bagel, Stella's, Wilde and Chicken Hut, and they are always busy and none of those restaurants have ever closed. Pingpong has been there, for what, 10 years? And Wakamono? There is longevity on that strip, even more so than on Halsted, where Firefly bit the dust not too long ago.

WCT: How hands-on do you plan to be in terms of your time in the kitchen?

DL: In the beginning I'll have my hands in every dish, and in developing the menu, cooking and training. I'm very obsessive-compulsive, and I'm a micromanager. [Laughs] By the way, I will still have a presence at [Lincoln Park restaurant] Sprout—I'll just be bouncing between the two.

WCT: When was the last time you cooked from a cookbook or read one for inspiration?

DL: Um, a Couple hours ago! I read cookbooks every single day. I like going into old, classic cookbooks and finding things that people haven't done in a long time or things that have fallen out of fashion. We'll definitely have a few of those things on the menu at frog.

WCT: Wait—you just referred to the bistro as "frog," which I think has a nice ring to it.

DL: We call it "frog" for shorthand. I think it's cute. The name frog 'n snail is inspired by the two most disgusting things about French food, according to Americans.

WCT: Let's talk about the interior design. At one point you had a Facebook status update that said the bistro will have "tons of wood in unexpected shades and in unexpected places."

DL: At this point, I don't want to give way too much! Let me just say that if you were in Sura before you'll see a monumental change. The floor is the same, as it is too expense to change it, but there are five different types of wood, and three different kinds of stone throughout the space. I was actually picking out fabric today for chairs and banquettes, so I got my gay on there.

WCT: With Chuy Valencia's restaurant just down the street from frog n snail, that little stretch of Broadway is becoming something of a mini Top Chef restaurant row!

DL: Yeah, I've known Chuy for a few years. He has the best restaurant in the neighborhood, for sure. He's on the board of directors of the chamber of commerce, so he's really invested in the neighborhood. Who knows? Maybe it will become the new top chef restaurant row! [Laughs]

WCT: You're about seven weeks away from opening frog n snail, right?

DL: You know, a part of me wouldn't mind just opening the door one day and seeing what happens. But, actually, we will not just open the door and have 100 people walk in. The first night we'll do 50-75 and grow from there, so that we can be sure to serve everyone properly and get everything fine-tuned. I don't want to live through a disastrous opening day, believe me, I've done that before. [Laughs]

WCT: What's scarier, Dale—opening a new restaurant or the thought of competing on another reality-TV show?

DL: Um, I think opening a restaurant is scarier than reality TV for sure, because it's real, and reality TV is not. Just look at the Kardashians! [Laughs]

frog n snail will be at 3124. N. Broadway. Visit frognsnail.com for more information.


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