A prolific Chicago restaurant group and one of its high-profile chef partners will soon add to the changing face of South Congress Avenue.
Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and executive chef CJ Jacobson will open Mediterranean restaurant Aba on Oct. 1 at 1011 S. Congress Ave. in the Music Lane complex. It’s the second location of the restaurant that originally opened in 2018 in Chicago’s Fulton Market District and subsequently was named one of Chicago’s best new restaurants by the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine. The Austin location will represent the 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. His travels in the region influenced his interest in creating the pan-Middle Eastern flavors that have helped Aba stand out in the Chicago market.
Aba, which is Hebrew for "father," initially will serve brunch and dinner, as well as offer 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 also will 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.
Despite the popularity of longtime Austin favorites like Peace Bakery, Phoenicia Bakery and the Mediterranean Chef, Mediterranean cuisine has been a historically underserved niche in Austin, but one that has gained more momentum in recent years with fast-casual Mezze Me, Israeli street food stall TLV at Fareground and the upmarket Peacock at the Proper, which McGuire Moorman Hospitality opened last year.
California native Jacobson taps into that state’s hallmark seasonal and local ethos to bring a light tough to his Mediterranean fare and says he’s 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. The chef said he has 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 loves Austin and plans to travel between the two Abas and continue building relationships with chefs here.
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, they’re 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 by the company’s Sue Kim moving with her family to Austin to oversee the project.
Aba, which overlooks South Congress Avenue, will feature a massive patio that accounts for 70 percent of its seating, with lounge seating in pods suited 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-Friday and for brunch and dinner on Saturday and Sunday. Visit abarestaurants.com/austin for more information.