We met chef Tom Van Lente of Two at a dinner a month or so back. Actually, we talked to him, his fellow chef Kevin Cuddihee and co-owner Yamandu Perez for quite a while before any of us got around to saying what we did. When he found out we did Grub Street, he immediately asked us to come check out his Near West Side restaurant saying he was proud of what they do but feel like they're overlooked (at least since a quick blast of media and reviews when they first opened) and would love for more people to give them a chance. It reminded us of our encounter with the chef of another neighborhood spot and as with Fork, once we visited it we knew we'd found another under-the-radar gem that its neighborhood should cherish, and that downtown diners would be pleased to discover as a relaxed alternative to the Randolph Street crowds, barely any further away than that street's hotspots (1132 W. Grand to be precise). Find out more, including our slideshow, below.
Two is a problematic name for a restaurant, because it's all but un-Googleable. Spend a few minutes with owners Yamandu Perez and Matt Van Valkenburgh, though, and you'll see why they felt important to cast their restaurant in these terms. First, it's the second restaurant from their two-man partnership the first being the now-closed Zak's Place in Hinsdale. But second, nearly everything in the restaurant is on its second use from a chandelier made of repurposed mixer whisks to chairs from an old library. (A lot of the kitchen equipment is getting a second chance, too, after the spectacular rise and fall of The Black Sheep in the same space last year.) All the reuse gives Two an instant lived-in feel, which is exactly right for the upscale comfort food spot the moment you see it, you feel like you've been going there all along.
Talking with the owners and their chef, you quickly sense that that notion of comfort is rooted in a particular philosophy about how to run the restaurant, honed in the five years they spent in Hinsdale. Van Lente is about as laidback as you could ask a chef to be "None of my chefs were screamers," he shrugs by way of explanation, and later adds, "We just want to have fun in the kitchen." There's nothing careless about the food that results, though, and part of that comes from the fact that unlike the self-contradictory Black Sheep, which aimed for both molecular ambition and rock and roll casualness at the same time they were very clear-eyed about what they could do in the kitchen as it was arranged, with limited table space.
"We couldn't do coursed meals and not fall apart," Van Lente flatly says. "Our whole idea of shareable plates comes out of what we can achieve in the space." As dinner would show, "shareable" and "small" plates are not the same thing, and Two finds a pretty happy medium in dishes genuinely large enough to share, yet reasonably enough priced to let you try many things from Van Lente's menu. Which he sums up as: "As local as possible and as close to the butcher as possible." For modest-priced rustic food, there's a high level of skill and finish at play, noticeable in dishes like the housemade pastas like the duck egg tagliatelle with duck confit and duck cracklins.
Perez a former chef at Gabriel's now turned owner and manager is the more intense one; the weight of keeping Two flowing smoothly clearly falls on him and Vanvalkenburgh, to keep it away from the kitchen. He says their original ambition, before Hinsdale, was to open in Chicago, but that it was a blessing in disguise that a "beautiful" space opened up for them there: "Chicago eats you up if you're not ready. We learned a lot out there." Perez and Van Valkenburgh are as eager to talk about their philosophy of good service as they are their repurposed decor. They pool tips and expect servers to be ready to handle any table at any time, saying one of the main things they look for in servers is "visual awareness they should know what's going on in the whole room." Although our experience (with the owners and chef popping in and out of our table to chat) was obviously atypical, we got the sense of a room being taken care of with a level of solicitousness and genuine warmth a few steps above its price point.
Check out our slideshow of the interior and some dishes at Two.