Jason Hammel is excited. The chef behind Lula Cafe in Logan Square, which recently celebrated its 18th anniversary, will open Marisol inside the Museum of Contemporary Art in Streeterville on Thursday.
Named after the French-Venezuelan sculptor Maria Sol Escobar, who donated the first work to the museum, the restaurant's scale and design are unlike anything Hammel has worked on before.
"People will be surprised," he says of the space, designed by Los Angeles-based firm Johnston Marklee. "Architecturally, it's really engaging, and I think that there'll be a certain excitement being there."
The restaurant is a major component of a recent $16 million renovation of the MCA. Previously, the museum housed Puck's At The MCA, a fairly anonymous project by an out-of-town chef (Wolfgang Puck). Hammel promises Marisol will be different.
"We want (Marisol) to be a space where people come together," says Hammel. "If people walk around upstairs or go to a performance at the theater, they want a place to hang out afterwards and talk. Solange (Knowles) is giving a talk here next week - how cool will it be to provide a space to meet that's full of vegetables, life and color? I want people to leave here lifted up and excited."
Though a stylish downtown restaurant might seem a world away from Lula's neighborhood charm, Hammel sees more similarities than differences. "Lulu has always been an artists' place," says Hammel. "My wife is a musician. Tons of writers, artists, painters, have participated in building Lula's community. So it's a natural outreach."
Marisol's chef de cuisine is Sarah Rinkavage, whom Hammel has worked with for years at Lula. "Sarah is one of the brilliant young chefs," says Hammel. "We're super collaborative, almost twin-headed. We're always thinking each other's thoughts. That's exciting."
Considering the Lula connection, the foundation of the kitchen will be quite similar. "We'll work the same way as we do at Lula," says Hammel. "The menu will change frequently and at a moment's notice. When things are available, we'll jump on them and go with them."
In typical Lula fashion, it's hard to categorize the menu. There are some seemingly straightforward starters, such as Marcona olives ($5), next to more ambitious-sounding offerings, such as chilled octopus with saffron chips ($13). You'll be able to order roasted half chicken ($26) and a dry-aged strip steak ($36), along with fried quail ($18) and stuffed prawns ($22).
The Marisol salad ($13) and Marisol sandwich (on the upcoming lunch menu) were inspired by Maria Sol Escobar's recipes.
"We certainly are broad in what we are serving," says Hammel. "The roasted chicken will be a favorite. But for 18 years, Lula has always been a great place for vegetarians to eat. We're always looking for a way to express ourselves through vegetables."
Marisol also features a dessert menu created by Alison Cates, who recently left West Loop restaurant Honey's.
When it opens Thursday, Marisol will serve only dinner, but lunch and brunch will follow in the coming weeks. Also to come is a counter-service area called The Street, which will serve pastries and coffee.
"It's a different kind of restaurant for this area," says Hammel, "but it's going to be a great neighborhood restaurant for everyone."
Marisol, 205 E. Pearson St., www.marisolchicago.com