Summer isn’t just blockbuster movie season, it’s also prime time for hit after hit of big restaurant and bar openings, each one clamoring for the spotlight with sprawling patios, rooftop views, shareable plates and rosé menus. Between all the heavy-hitters of late that have been dominating headlines, the quintessential restaurant of the season quietly opened atop Soho House. Partly because it’s on the roof of the in-demand West Loop members’ club and hotel, and partly due to the property’s no-photo policy, preventing it from lighting up Instagram all summer long, Nava was the rare under-the-radar opening that’s been quietly delighting the poolside masses with wholesome Middle Eastern food and quenching cocktails. Here are six reasons why Nava is Chicago’s restaurant of the summer.
1. Middle Eastern food deserves to be in the spotlight. Italian food, haute taquerias, burger restaurants, sushi, brewpubs and even updated riffs on street food are all plenty accounted for in Chicago, typically dominating the dining landscape in recent years. But Middle Eastern food on this scale is rare. Aside from the occasional exception, most interpretations of this type of food are confined to takeout counters, the fast-casual market and institutions in Albany Park. These are all well and good, but it’s nice to see an elevated take on Middle Eastern cuisine get such a prominent showcase like this, especially in one of the hottest restaurant neighborhoods in the country. At Nava, there’s an entire menu section dedicated to wood-oven cooking, with plates like cauliflower with cured lemon and tomato seed oil, Amish chicken with Cara Cara orange, olive and harissa and a veritable surf & surf of king salmon, octopus, scallop, okra and chili.
2. Wood-oven cooking is so hot right now. Everywhere from Publican Anker to Leña Brava, wood-fired ovens are all the rage right now, lending an air of primitive, rustic flair to the dining experience. Not only does it add a bit of pomp and circumstance to open kitchens, but wood ovens turn out dishes that are wholesome and pure, with a bit of char and fragrance imparted from the wood. At Nava, the kitchen cranks up the heat on its wood oven to pay homage to flavors and dishes indigenous to Jerusalem and Beirut. Considering the wholesome cuisine and the chic poolside ambience, it’s the perfect setting in which to enjoy dishes from a wood oven, rich in flavor while remaining light and summery.
3. Mezze platters are the new charcuterie platters. What charcuterie platters are to meatier restaurants, shellfish towers are to seafood parlors and crudite plates are to veggie-heavy concepts, mezze is to Nava. And it gives all of these guys a run for their money. Basically a “best of” collection of snacky items from the restaurant’s main menu, mezze boards come pimped-out with smoky baba ghanoush, an impossibly silky tahini dip, crispy falafel, seeded lavash bread and a luscious fattouche salad loaded with crunchy cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, peppers, sumac and pita crisps. At once hearty and refreshing, it’s the perfect shareable platter for summer.
4. Vegetarian cooking is having a moment. Middle Eastern food is a cuisine that lends itself naturally to meat-free dining, and Nava fits in nicely with Chicago’s current spate of veggie-driven restaurants. From hot newcomers like Bad Hunter, to a variety of vegan restaurants, menus and dishes popping up all over town, Nava couldn’t have opened at a more apropos time. Much of its menus are meatless, with only a few dishes hinged on fish, seafood, poultry and meat. Aside from the masterful mezze platter, vegetarians can fill up on Brussels sprouts with tea-soaked currants, tabbouleh with curly kale and quinoa, asparagus flatbreads with goat cheese and green onions, shakshuka (baked eggs in garlicky chili-tomato sauce) and semolina pancakes with lime, yogurt and blueberries.
5. The pastries are no joke. Too often, all-day restaurants of this caliber phone it in a bit in the pastry department, outsourcing ingredients or filling up menus with predictable items that can easily be found anywhere. Not here. From baklava croissants and rose-scented raspberry muffins, to za’atar spiced bagels and cinnamon-sugar dusted halva toast, there’s plenty of pastries to pour over and save room for. And then there’s the dessert menu, itself a thing of beauty. In line with the savory menu’s focus on light, clean flavors, confections include sesame-specked halva ice cream, pistachio-olive oil cake and malabi, a milk pudding with rose water, pistachios and raspberry.
6. Frozen cocktails are the sensation of the summer. Along with a deep wine list and a smattering of other unique, bracing cocktails, Nava really excels in the frozen drink department. After all, it’s not too often spices like sumac and turmeric find themselves blended with gin and aperol. Perfect for sipping all afternoon and evening by the Soho House pool or under the shade of an umbrella, the peach and sumac bramble is a juicy mix of Bombay Dry gin, lemon, sugar, housemade poached peach puree and peche de vigne, a variety of coveted heirloom peach.