It may take conventions some time to return to McCormick Place, but when they do, S.K.Y. chef Steven Gillanders and his team will be ready. The challenges of the pandemic have delayed the opening, but Gillanders’ second restaurant, Apolonia, finally has an opening date in the South Loop. The restaurant, which focuses on European-Mediterranean coastal fare, will open on Friday, April 16 at 2201 S. Michigan Avenue. Reservations are live.
It’s been a long road for Gillanders and his team, but 2021 has provided optimism: “The last relief bill, certainly if it didn’t pass, we wouldn’t have been able to open open,” he says. “That’s just the reality.”
The 5,300-square-foot 100-seater is on the ground floor of a tri-branded Hilton Hotel that also houses Fatpour Tap Works, Starbucks, and VU Rooftop Bar. Nestled near Wintrust Arena in a South Loop neighborhood that’s been begging for more dining options, convention business will be the “icing on the cake,” Gillanders says, locals will be Apolonia’s “bread and butter.” The restaurant will open with a 50-person capacity and 90-minute reservations. Apolonia has space for a patio, but furniture won’t arrive time for the opening.
With fewer restaurants opening, Gillanders says patio furniture companies are keeping fewer chairs and tables in stock, and that’s caused a backup: “This is going to be a thin year in general,” Gillanders says. “We’re [now] seeing the product of people who signed leases at the end of 2019 and pre pandemic.”
Apolonia is a departure from S.K.Y., with dishes like grilled swordfish (piperade, rapini), seared mussel toast (tomato, espelette), and pastas like robiola ravioli with parmesan brodo. Whereas S.K.Y. showcases more Asian flavors and techniques, Apolonia crosses continents for more European flair. Gillanders is excited about a chicken Kiev for two, one of three large-format proteins. There’s also a lamb shoulder and roasted salmon off the bone.
“We would love for a guest to come to Apolonia one night, and then go to S.K.Y. two days later have no idea that they’re affiliated at all,” he says.
The new restaurant gives Gillanders and his staff a chance to show off their culinary range beyond S.K.Y’s hits like its lobster dumplings. Apolonia’s menu will feature many dishes cooked on a grill or wood-burning oven. Gillanders served under acclaimed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Pump Room), and Apolonia will demonstrate what he learned from his mentor. But Vongerichten isn’t Gillanders’ only influence. The chef, who is biracial, says Apolonia’s name comes from his Filipino grandmother who taught him how to cook. Most assume it’s a reference to his Scottish ancestry.
Tatum Sinclair is once again collaborating with Gillanders. The S.K.Y. pastry chef has items like pistachio gelato and savory black truffle puff bread ready to go. Meshing with the restaurant’s Spanish influence, vermouth will be given the spotlight. Look for a custom-blended Apolonia vermouth available on tap, along with cocktails and numerous wines by the glass.
Seon Kyung Yuk, Gillanders’ wife and the namesake of S.K.Y., designed the new construction to create a sleek and monochromatic main dining room with 18-foot ceilings. The space also includes private dining rooms.
The past 13 months have presented both enormous obstacles and exciting opportunities for Gillanders, who in January 2020 first announced plans for Apolonia. Less than two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Chicago. S.K.Y. quickly shifted to takeout and six months later, as Boka Restaurant Group exited, Gillanders took over the kitchen at Gold Coast restaurant Somerset inside the Viceroy Hotel. Gillanders will continue as Somerset chef. Gillanders felt he needed to create space at S.K.Y. to provide his staff with more opportunities for career development. Thus, he took the Gold Coast job.
The pandemic has provided Gillanders with the oddest set of circumstances he’s encountered in being part of 19 restaurant opening teams: “We always open full clip, we went all the way.” He views Apolonia’s debut as an extended soft opening and hopes his customers, cooped up for much of the pandemic, can empathize.
“I’m really looking at this as an advantage, an opportunity to really dial out issues and iron any wrinkles,” he says.
Apolonia is one of the most anticipated openings of 2021.
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