‘Top Chef’ alumnus opening Aba Mediterranean restaurant on South Congress next week
A prolific Chicago restaurant group and one of its high-profile chef partners will soon add to the changing face of South Congress Avenue.
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and executive chef CJ Jacobson will open Mediterranean restaurant Aba at 1011 S. Congress Ave. in the Music Lane complex on October 1. It’s the second location of the restaurant that originally opened in Chicago’s Fulton Market District in 2018 and was subsequently named one of “Chicago’s Best New Restaurants” by the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine, and will represent the Chicago-based hospitality group’s first foray into the Texas market.
The tall and identifiable Jacobson, whom some media-consuming diners might remember from the third season of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” lived briefly in Israel while playing professional volleyball, and his exposure to the Middle East, along with his travels, influenced his interest in creating the pan-Middle Eastern flavors that have helped Aba standout in the Chicago market.
Aba, which is Hebrew for “father,” will initially serve brunch and dinner, as well takeout service, with plans to add lunch and curbside service in the near future. The menu includes dishes like meat and seafood kebabs, hummus and various mezze (spreads and salads), tamarind-braised short rib and shawarma-spiced skirt steak.
The bar program will also draw from Mediterranean spirits and flavors, with cocktails like a Green Harissa Bloody Mary and a wine list that includes labels from Morocco, Israel, Greece and The Canary Islands, as well as Spain, Italy and California.
Mediterranean dining has been a historically undeserved niche of the Austin dining scene, though Israeli street food operation TLV opened in Fareground last year, and McGuire Moorman Hospitality opened Peacock at the Proper last year.
The California nativeJacobsons taps into that state’s hallmark seasonal and local ethos to bring a light tough to his Mediterrean fare and says he is excited to work with Texas-specific produce and ingredients.
“I can cook more of the food I like to cook, which is time-and-place cookery,” the Chicago-based Jacobson said of working with Texas produce and growing seasons. The chef says he’s already reached out to many of the area’s purveyors of protein and produce and monitors them from afar.
“I’m excited for Austin because I get to source from a market that is more year-round, unlike the two-and-a-half or three months I get in Chicago,” said Jacobson, adding that he really likes Austin and plans to travel between the two Abas and continue building relationships with Austin chefs.
Aba joins national brands like salad restaurant Sweetgreen and shoe company Allbirds on the evolving stretch of South Congress that has welcomed more and more outside brands in recent years.
Lettuce Entertain You executive partner and divisional president Marc Jacobs, who created the Aba concept with Jacobson, acknowledges that local independent restaurants are the driving factor behind Austin’s unique dining scene, and while the company is cognizant of the skepticism outsiders might face when moving into town, it’s not nervous.
“I think, in general, we think neighborhood. So we very much immerse ourselves in communities and want to be a part of the neighborhood,” Jacobs said. “And I love that about Austin — that it is the locals, that there aren’t a ton of chains. Everyone sends me to the Domain and I don’t enjoy the Domain, because it’s not local.”
Jacobs says the restaurant group’s commitment to understanding and fitting into the local scene is evidenced in the company’s Sue Kim moving with her family to Austin to oversee the project.
Aba, which overlooks Congress Avenue, will feature a massive patio that accounts for 70 percent of its seating, with lounge seating in pods suited perfectly for socially distant dining and drinking.
“It’s almost as if we created it for the pandemic, though we didn’t,” Jacobs said.
Aba will be open for dinner Monday through Friday, and brunch and dinner on Saturday and Sunday.