October 2022 View more

By Phil Vettel

Craft Urban Aurora 41 S. Stolp Ave.
Chicken paillard.

Bernie Laskowski had a pretty good thing going in Geneva, where his restaurant, Craft Urban, had garnered nonstop praise since it opened in 2017. He wasn’t even looking to add a second restaurant, until a stroll through downtown Aurora changed his mind. “It was completely accidental,” Laskowski says. “I was walking downtown with friends; I saw the building and fell in love. I thought it would be a great location for a restaurant.”

Fancy Pork Belly

That was five years ago. Another year or two passed before Laskowski, impressed with how the city was redeveloping the area, inquired about the building. With a lot of help from the city, Laskowski bought the building and acquired the adjacent lot.

“We closed on the property on December 30, 2019,” he says. “And then COVID hit. I kept everything on hold. The economic picture became clearer in January 2022, and that’s when I pushed the ball off the cliff and said let’s go.”

Craft Urban Aurora opened at the end of July, after a lot of renovation. It’s an impressive space. The main floor, which includes the open kitchen, seats 40 and features a beautiful two-story mural by urban contemporary artist Czr Prz (Caesar Perez), whose work also graces the dining room of the Geneva location. The second floor has room for another 40 guests, plus a 20-seat private dining room.

The best place to sit is the outdoor patio, which can accommodate 70 patrons. String lights hang from the pergola, which will be equipped with overhead heaters this fall to squeeze out every remaining minute of alfresco dining. Music plays overhead at a very discreet volume.

From a food standpoint, the Aurora location is virtually identical to the Geneva original. This is good news; Craft Urban is known for first-rate cooking, and on my visit, the dishes were being executed as well in Aurora as they have been in Geneva.

Laskowski’s food has a strong focus on vegetables and healthy eating. More than a dozen dishes are gluten free, including all the salads (if the roasted asparagus salad is still available, grab it). Portions are robust but never gluttonous.

The menu skips traditional appetizers; instead, there’s a quartet of “breads & spreads,” which range from housemade butter served with focaccia and tapenade to a rich smoked-salmon spread with capers and toasted pumpernickel. Then there are midsize shareable plates, including crispy tempura cheese curds (a fan favorite from Craft Urban’s earliest days), and the World’s Best Nachos, in which the cheese sauce is laced with chipotle pepper and the protein is smoked pulled pork.

The menu item Every Day Is Taco Tuesday refers to a trio of tacos whose components change as the market and seasons dictate. The current version features Korean-style barbecue chicken with carrot slaw, cilantro, and Sriracha aïoli; Laskowski promises more tacos as the restaurant grows.

Risotto, a main course at most restaurants that offer it, is a sharable appetizer here. “When risotto’s a main, that’s a really large portion,” Laskowski says. “As an appetizer, the table can share, and if it’s something you want yourself, add a protein. Chicken, scallops—people do that all the time.”

Smoked salmon spread

Main-course highlights include the Rayes’ Family Secret Gumbo (named for a friend who served with Laskowski in the Marines), which features crayfish, shrimp, crab, and andouille sausage in a just-spicy-enough sauce. A fine herb roasted chicken breast comes with housemade chicken chorizo (which could use more assertive seasoning), roasted potatoes, and Brussels sprouts; slow-cooked Fancy Pork Belly is piled high over lots of pickled vegetables, creamed corn, and basil pesto.

When he was the chef at Park Grill (better known to Chicagoans as “the restaurant under the Bean”), Laskowski made one of the best burgers in town. A close cousin to that is his Craft Burger, a six-ounce Slagel Family Farms patty topped with tomato jam, caramelized onions, and cheddar on a brioche bun. There’s also a brisket burger with pesto and cheese fondue, and a Nashville-inspired Crispy Chicken Sammich with hot sauce, slaw, and Sriracha aïoli.

For now, there is but one dessert on the Aurora menu, but it’s a keeper: Death by Chocolate Mousse takes dark-chocolate mousse and adds sea salt, graham cracker, and marshmallow brulée. Think s’mores in a bowl.

While Laskowski is busy running the show in Aurora, his son, Sebastian, handles the head-chef duties in Geneva. Accomplished in his own right, Sebastian has worked at four-star kitchens Oriole and Blackbird, as well as the wildly popular Pizza Friendly Pizza. Eventually, the son will become director of culinary operations for both Craft Urban locations, leaving Dad to … do what? 

“Just mentoring, cooking, and butchering,” says Laskowski, chuckling. 

Photos courtesy of Craft Urban Aurora