Prior to last year’s opening, Tim Flores and Genie Kwon debated whether the restaurant that would become Kasama would include a fine dining aspect. The two partners worried about accessibility, particularly to those not accustomed to fancy plating and coursed-out tasting menus. That includes their Filipino and Korean families, two cultures that fine dining chefs often take inspiration from but rarely place at the center of entire tasting menus.
Flores, a Chicago native, never dreamed that he’d have an opportunity to cook the food that he grew up with in that setting — he envisioned a modern Filipino tasting menu in a city where such a restaurant did not exist. That changes Thursday as Kasama officially unveils a tasting menu with kare-kare, pancit, and lumpia and ingredients like foie gras and A5 wagyu. This makes Kasama the only Filipino tasting-menu restaurant in Chicago, and among a select few in America (Bad Saint in D.C. and Archipelago in Seattle are two others which come to mind).
Dinner at Kasama is already a hot ticket with reservations nearly gone through December after Wednesday’s announcement.
The wife-and-husband team opened Kasama in July 2020 as a casual French morning bakery with croissants, unique eclair-shaped danishes, and baked goods with ube and other unique fillings. A lunch and early evening menu would feature Filipino barbecue plates to be enjoyed on a patio — the couple didn’t offer indoor dining until this fall due to COVID-19 concerns. As people craved comfort foods during the pandemic, the restaurant took off in popularity. Last week, it was named to Eater’s Best New Restaurants list, and previously the New York Times placed it on its America’s Favorite Restaurants list. There’s even a 37-minute documentary, No Place Like Kasama, that streamed for the DOC NYC festival. Neighbors in Ukrainian Village have flocked to support the restaurant, while others in the Fil-Am community from all over the city and suburbs have made special plans to make a pilgrimage to one of the country’s most talked about restaurants.
But as the pandemic lingered, so did worries about keeping staff healthy and retaining them. Over the last year, the service industry workforce has grown more empowered, demanding higher wages and more benefits from a sector reluctant to change. Restaurants like Kasama had to evolve offering better salaries. With that in mind, Flores and Kwon revived the idea of a tasting menu as a way to limit customer flow (and possible COVID-19 exposure). They could then charge higher prices and pay workers — like sous chef John Lupton — more. Flores would also have the stage to cook the foods his mother, Lolita, would make for his family.
“The idea is trying to get people to look at Filipino food in a different way,” Flores says.
The chef says he feels a responsibility to inspire other Pinoy chefs and he also feels pressure to maintain the momentum from the acclaimed daytime operation. Flores jokes that if dinner service flops, he imagines self-important Internet trolls disguised as critics telling him and Kwon they should have just stuck to pastries and longanisa.
The initial menu consists of a lucky 13 courses (Flores’s birthday falls on November 13 and his father’s home address in the Philippines was No. 13 Barretto Street), and wine pairings created by Oriole sommelier Aaron McManus. The selections are meant to satisfy both fine-dining fans, the ones who have visited Michelin-starred operations like Oriole — where Kwon and Flores worked.
Folks who frequent restaurants on the Michelin circuit will see familiar ingredients used in different ways: caviar laces the kinilaw — a Filipino cold seafood dish akin to ceviche. A5 wagyu powers the nilago, a dish with cabbage and short-grain sushi rice. Wagyu reappears as bistek, a classic Filipino dish. Flores says most countries have a version of beef and onions. Calamansi juice livens his dish up.
For diners familiar with Filipino cooking, Flores wants to satisfy them, but he also wants to challenge their perceptions. He mentions the pancit dish, inspired by his mother: It’s made with calamari, squid ink, and scallop conserva. Flores says some folks may be put off by the use of Spanish conservas, but points out that the Spaniards colonized the Philippines. That gives him license to cook how he pleases: “I’m going to take what I want if you’re going take what you want,” Flores says.
Kwon is a pastry maestro and has been pulling early morning shifts — with the assistance of baker Martha Lemus — to make sure Kasama’s goods are ready for the breakfast crowds. Her days will get longer thanks to dinner service, and she’s planning three desserts, including croissants with black truffle. She doesn’t need to be reminded that croissants aren’t Filipino. For those who protest, halo-halo finishes the meal. The iconic Filipino dessert was easier to dress up for fine dining than some may think.
“Luckily it’s just a pile on a plate,” Kwon says, adding with a laugh: “That’s authentic.”
The gateway to Filipino food for many is lumpia, and Kasama’s tasting menu will offer two versions: a Shanghai version that’s fried and a fresh version served with an oyster (talaba) that uses Vietnamese spring roll wrappers. Flores is prepared for critics who’ll say lumpia is a humble street food and has no business on a tasting menu.
“We’re always going to fight that battle,” he says. “People are so upset that it is expensive, but nobody questions a meat ravioli. What’s the difference? They’re both wrapped-up things.”
Bar director Josh Daws moved from Charleston, South Carolina, with his partner, general manager Kara Czaplicki, to work at Kasama. Czaplicki will oversee a dining room that’s been tweaked to make it look less like a cafe at night. They’ll seat 18 to 24 with a maximum party size of six inside a space that’s gone through changes since it first opened. Flores recalls when the benches were nothing but covered plywood; they’ve since been topped with cushions. A friend gifted a painting from Kimski chef Won Kim. They’ve added plants to give the space a warmer atmosphere. Flores knows fine dining fans have high expectations, and when he’s charging $185 per person, he wants to deliver. Afternoon service will now cut off at 2 p.m. with baked goods available until 4 p.m.
“We definitely wanted two distinctively separate concepts,” Kwon says. “And so far I think we’ve achieved it, or we’ve started to.”
Kasama, 1001 N. Winchester Avenue, open for dinner Thursday through Sunday; dinner $185 per person, wine pairings $95, reservations via Resy. COVID-19 vaccines or negative test required for adults within 48 hours of meal.