Sooner or later the day comes that you're tired of playing the field and feel like settling down. The latest underground dining club to make that lifestyle switch is one of the oldest and most admired: X-Marx. Partners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo have taken a space at 2957 W. Diversey and hope to open Flour and Bones in July. Influenced by their travels in Asia, they plan omakase meals at a 10-person bar and a menu of simple, Asian-influenced food at two communal tables. They plan to grow many of the vegetables they use and do pickling in house— and, in contrast to so many new hot restaurants, to actually serve vegetables in a balanced plate. As Conlon puts it, "we're looking to create a place with a casual environment where people can eat something satisfying, something creative, something that's kind of a square meal." (Though not necessarily vegetarian, as the name makes clear.) We spoke with Conlon about life as an underground chef, their Asian influences including travel in China last year, the value of communal dining for both diners and chefs— and, of course, where the name came from.
So the first obvious question is, is this the end of your underground dinners?
We may do some special pop-up dinners here or there, but for the most part, yeah. It's the logical next step for us after 4-1/2 to 5 years of doing underground dinners. We're kind of tired of traveling around and moving our stuff.
Was it always your goal to have a permanent restaurant?
I wouldn't say that opening a restaurant was necessarily the goal at the beginning. But we learned over time that an underground restaurant is not the most sustainable thing. Sending out emails, waiting for guest lists, finding a place— there's a lot of uncertainty.
So tell us about the space.
It's nice, it has a lot of character. It has two sides of open windows, and tin ceilings. It's the perfect size for us— a manageable 30 seats, 10 at the bar and two communal ten-tops.
We definitely like that communal aspect. One of the great things about hosting these dinners was the way strangers would come together and connect over or through food, and end up building relationships. For us, when we started, one of the main goals was to create a dining experience that involved more than sitting with a person you know and having the conversation you've had a hundred times. With strangers, new things come about. And then you have us, the chefs, coming out to introduce the courses, and people get to give feedback, you're not just in the kitchen hoping they like it. We thought the communal thing was for the guests, but it really became important for us, too.
You're doing communal tables, but you're not doing set menus there, right?
Right. At the tables it will be a la carte ordering, with some specials. There will be some big plates for sharing, some individual plates.
We decided to do the omakase at the bar, for guests who have gotten used to that style of interaction with the chefs, that impromptu cooking style right in front of you.
As that suggests, it sounds like you expect to show a certain Asian influence in your menus.
There is a very strong Asian influence. I grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, which has a huge southeast Asian population, a lot of Cambodians. And Adrienne's Chinese, of course. We traveled in Sichuan last year, studying at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. And I'm of Portuguese descent, so I'm very interested in Macau [a former Portuguese colony in China], and that natural fusion through colonialism of Asian and western cuisine.
Is there such a thing as... Macau-an food?
It's Macanese, and totally. It's traditional food, but it's dying out as so many other Chinese move into Macau and Hong Kong. When we were over there last year we spent some time trying to explore the roots. We found this one cafeteria place serving homestyle dishes— duck stewed in its own blood, things like that. We talked to them but they said, the place you really have to go is the retirement home. That's what the old folks want to eat, so that's where they do the most authentic version.
When we came back, we wanted to show what we'd learned. So we took over Dodo for a couple of weeks last May, and made it into a simple noodle and dumpling shop. And we said, what are the fundamentals of those dishes? Flour and bones.
It was our most successful pop-up, and it taught us that that was the direction we wanted to go, as opposed to 7 to 14-course intricate, plated meals.
So that's really what you're opening?
Sort of. I mean, for the most part we're looking to create a place with a casual environment where people can eat something satisfying, something creative, something that's kind of a square meal, you know? I feel like our culinary scene has gotten to where we have so many places where dinner is like, a pork chop with foie gras and bacon vinaigrette.
We grow our own vegetables. I believe in the beauty of vegetables, and the contrast of proteins and vegetables. We're looking to have a nice blend of things on the plate, that's thoughtfully prepared, reasonably inexpensive, and reasonably good for you.