Chef Chat

Kevin Naderi Talks Lillo & Ella and Lunch & Brunch

Last week was a big one for Kevin Naderi.

The chef of Roost not only opened his second restaurant, Lillo & Ella, but also braved the television game show circuit, appearing on Sunday's episode of the Food Network's Guy's Grocery Games.

He came in second on the show--"I was the winner in my parents' eyes," he says laughing. "That's all that counts."--but where the restaurant is concerned, things are going great. After officially opening to the public on Tuesday, May 20, Lillo & Ella has been drawing large dinner crowds and a slow but steady lunch clientele.

"If you look around here, everybody's busy at lunch, but it does take some time to build up your name," Naderi says. "My biggest challenge is getting people to spend an extra $2 at lunch instead of wanting to go to the more affordable joints around here."

Based on my recent lunch at Lillo & Ella, though, I'd say it's worth it.

Roost, Naderi's first restaurant on Fairview in Montrose, has never had a lunch service. It's purely a dinner spot, and it does great serving that one meal a day. But it's a smaller restaurant than Lillo & Ella, which can seat 160 when it's completely full, inside, at the bar and on the patio. Because of its bigger size and vastly different menu, Lillo & Ella has been an adjustment for Naderi.

"It's hard," he admits. "I mean, Roost kind of runs itself. My staff there really cares about what they do, and they've been there a long time. They know that it's a consistent, steady and good paycheck, so they put a lot of effort in. Here, it's just a bigger beast. It's like going from owning a Chihuahua to a Great Dane. It's just more to deal with."

Naderi is proud that the restaurant opened with a full menu, though, rather than holding a soft opening and gradually rolling out items. There are 22 items on the dinner menu, and a little more than half that on the lunch menu. Soon, Naderi plans to get back in the kitchen and start creating specials to feature daily and weekly, because the menu won't change as frequently as that at Roost, which is more seasonal.

The food at Lillo & Ella is also a bit of a departure for Naderi. Roost has always featured a bit of an amalgamation of different cultural influences--from French to Middle Eastern--but Lillo & Ella is firmly Asian-inspired. Naderi calls it "pan-Asian," referring to the fact that the cuisine spans the Asian continent.

"It's just based around things that I like to eat and things that I think are lacking in the area," Naderi says. "Granted, I'd said some stuff about how there was no Asian food in this area, but there is. There's Hughie's. I really like that place. And I didn't really do anything that steps on their toes. It's just fun stuff."

There are Vietnamese wings, Chinese grilled quail, Thai Muu noodles, Korean fried chicken and some more continental offerings like calamari and melon with chili salt and lime.

The calamari is one of the best squid dishes I've had in a while. I told Naderi I didn't really want it, but he brought it anyway, and I found myself very glad he insisted. Crunchy, bite-sized pieces of squid are fried and topped with crisp fried glass noodles, chunks of pineapple, cherry tomatoes, red peppers and toasted cashews, then it's all drizzled in a bright, acidic miso dressing that made me want to lick the plate (I refrained, for the record).

Thai muu noodles are like typical stir fried flat noodles, only instead of chunks of meat, this dish features ground pork and chiles. I used the condiments on the table--Sriracha and soy sauce, not salt and pepper--to spice up the dish just a little more.

For groups, Naderi recommends sharing a plate of bao, chinese buns filled with your choice of fried chicken, grilled fish, braised bacon or grilled squash. Order the bacon, and never look back.

In a few weeks, Naderi hopes to start brunch service at Lillo & Ella as well, though he's not yet sure what exactly a pan-Asian brunch might entail.

"For sure I want to do a really fun version of congee," he says. "We could do a breakfast banh mi or plays on stuff like that."

I suggest a congee bar, like the traditional bloody mary bar at so many brunch spots. Only instead of vodka and tomato juice, you have rice porridge and any number of different toppings. If that ends up on the menu, you can thank me.

For now, though, you can thank Naderi for spicing up Garden Oaks and the Heights a little bit. Sure, there's already some Asian food in the area. But does anyone else have Nutella pie on the menu?

Yeah. I didn't think so.

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Kaitlin Steinberg