Social Wine Bar has garnered a well-earned reputation as both a fun happy hour oasis and a raging late-night cocktail bar. Unfortunately, the several hours in between, otherwise known as dinner time, have been rather less esteemed. New executive chef Doug Svec, a veteran of the Chicago dining scene, puts it bluntly.
"It was basically a bar that happened to serve dinner," he says.
Svec was hired by owner Brad Ball, a sommelier who also directs the wine program, a few months ago to rectify the problem.
Svec has introduced new items and also tweaked some of the holdovers from before his arrival.
"Almost everything on the menu is my recipe now," says Svec.
The vision that Svec has brought to Social was built through a decade of experience in some of Chi-Town's top restaurants.
Svec, who did not attend culinary school, dropped out of college in Florida and spent a year applying to restaurants before he finally caught a break at Spiaggia, which Svec says is arguably the top Italian restaurant in the Windy City. It proved to be a pretty good start.
"Working at Spiaggia was akin to going to culinary school — creating vinaigrettes, making your own pasta and pizza dough, roasting meats," says Svec. "If it wasn't perfect, it didn't go out of the kitchen."
Over the next several years Svec built an impressive resume. He next worked on the staff at Pluton, a high-end French restaurant that opened with 3 ½ stars.
"A lot of how I work and organize myself comes from that place," he says.
The overall theme from Svec's early experiences, which also included time at Blackbird, Le Lan, and Naha — fresh American, French-Vietnamese, and Mediterranean respectively — is respect. That's respect for the kitchen, the patron, the fundamentals of cooking, and, most importantly, respect for the food.
"Something gave up its life to be here in the kitchen," says Svec, who studied conservation in college. "I've always just had an inherent respect for the natural world."
So, of course, Svec has taken the overhaul at Social quite seriously. He feels the kitchen has fallen far short of its potential, and he wants to bring a new level of elegance and refinement.
As someone with a background outside of Lowcountry cuisine, Svec envisions Social as an alternative to the current downtown options.
"I don't want to get rid of the happy hour or late night scene," says Svec. "But there's a gap that I can do so much with."
A new dish the chef personally recommends is the sashimi tuna with ponzu, white truffle, hot and sour cucumbers, black radish, and candied lemons ($11).
"It appears to be very clean and light, but all the flavors just blow up when you take a bite," he says.
As for the pizza, Svec suggests the pan-seared hangar steak with smoked blue cheese, arugula, and oven-roasted tomatoes ($10).
Right now, he says he's just trying to earn customers' trust with consistent quality.
"The kitchen is headed in an exciting, active direction, and I think it will match the bar experience than people have had," says Svec. "I'm just getting started."