South Bend’s LaSalle Kitchen and Tavern has atmosphere down pat.

After winding their way through a brick alleyway and up several flights of stairs — the gastropub is nestled above LaSalle Grill, one of the pillars of the city’s culinary scene — customers are greeted by a warmly lit dining room and bar area.

The room’s lacquered wooden tables, auburn-colored interior columns, exposed brick walls and small elevated stage area in the corner evoke images of the fabled speakeasies of Prohibition-era Chicago. The establishment even plays into this fact, with graphics celebrating the end of America’s liquor ban found lining the entrance area of the tavern.

Windows dot the wall on the far edge of the room, which not only allows some natural light to pierce through but offers customers a breathtaking view of the Colfax Avenue cityscape.

Relaxing at one of the dining room tables on a Monday, when the gastropub is usually closed, LaSalle Kitchen and Tavern manager Casey Dvorak can’t help but grin while bragging about the establishment’s killer visual appeal.

“This is the coolest looking place in South Bend, for sure,” he says. “You get that big-city feel while still being in your small, quaint downtown, which is pretty neat. It’s an escape for people.”

With dozens of craft beers on tap, a selection of more than 120 whiskeys and an extensive menu of cocktails, all offered behind its massive bar, the business isn’t exactly struggling in the drink department, either.

Now, with one of the rising stars of South Bend’s food scene taking the helm in the kitchen, Casey and owner Mark McDonnell want to establish LaSalle Kitchen and Tavern as one of Michiana’s preeminent dining destinations, as well.

“Recently, we’ve really put our feet on the ground and said, ‘we’ve got to bring what culinary traditions LaSalle [Grill] has and bring it upstairs,” Casey says.

Enter Dont’e Shaw, a chef who has been working in kitchens across the Midwest and East Coast since he was 14.

Dont’e is the former chef-proprietor of Bantam Diner, “a comfort-food restaurant with a little more flair to it,” as Dont’e describes it.

The pop-up restaurant operated out of L Street Kitchen on Lafayette Boulevard from November 2018 to July of this year. There, Dont’e cranked out Southern-inspired  homestyle dishes, like fried chicken, biscuits, and shrimp and grits, using high-quality, locally sourced ingredients.

His talent quickly captured the attention — and taste buds — of many South Bend foodies, including Casey’s. During the winter, the manager and his staff made frequent stops to Bantam, where they not only enjoyed Dont’e’s cooking but also the hospitality and warmth of his team, Casey says.

“That is something that is intangible, but a necessity in the restaurant industry,” he says. “You can’t train that. You either have that or you don’t. We needed somebody like that.”

With Bantam’s run coming to an end this past summer, the LKT leadership didn’t need to wait long for Dont’e’s talents to become available.

Since taking over the tavern kitchen in August, Dont’e has worked with Casey and the rest of the staff to envision the establishment’s selection of burgers, sandwiches, nachos and other standard pub-fare. The chef is not only drawing inspiration from his travels across America’s culinary map, but also LKT’s unique atmosphere — and even the rich history and tradition of pubs in the Old World, he says.

“When I think of taverns, I think of robust food, hearty food,” Dont’e says. “You come in here, you’re drinking, you put some food in your stomach and walk out of here feeling like you’ve had a good meal.”

Dont’e started by first elevating and modernizing the existing menu.

For example, he has taken the gastropub’s traditional burger and transformed it into a smashburger, topped with housemade bacon jam. The chef is looking to take things even further by subbing the ground beef with elk, part on an effort to get more game meats on the menu, Dont’e said.

Dont’e has also added some dishes to the menu, such as a roasted broccoli appetizer. Served with a prosciutto-laced cheese sauce and topped with pickled onions and a fried egg, the dish has quickly caught fire with customers, he says.

The chef has other new additions cooking up in his head, such as short ribs, salmon steaks and a duck confit served with grits and topped with a fried egg. He is looking to make some enhancements to the dessert menu, including introducing a five-layer chocolate cake, coated with peanut butter mousse and chocolate fudge, as well as a vanilla panna cotta served with bourbon-poached peaches.

“We’re looking at more composed, contemporary dishes that people will look at and say ‘wow, that’s the place to go,’” Dont’e says.

With Dont’e behind the wheel in the back of the house, LKT is now hosting regular special events, such as brunches and beer dinners, in which customers can enjoy a special menu paired with a selection of craft brews. During these events, the chef will look to flex his culinary muscle, offering diners dishes well outside the traditional fare they would expect from a gastropub, such as oxtail or Lengua (beef tongue), Dont’e says.

“We’re going to be throwing those kinds of things in there with these pairings, which will be something totally different to the people around here,” he says. “They’re going to experience something new, which it wouldn’t be an experience if you didn’t try something new.”

No matter what is on the menu, one thing Dont’e is committed to is using fresh, locally sourced ingredients for his dishes, he said. The chef plans to use the same area vendors he partnered with for Bantam, such as Elder Bread bakery, Violet Sky chocolate or Terra Spice seasonings.

With customers already responding strongly to the changes, both Casey and Dont’e feel like they’re on the cutting edge of something special at LKT.

“We’re breaking this barrier we have of being ‘nice bar food,’” Casey says. “We want to bust out of that mold and do some really awesome, composed plates, with locally sourced ingredients and fresh product. Every item on the menu is intentional and is intended to hit a flavor profile for the customer.

“Don’t tell anybody, but I’m pretty sure the food we’re going to be doing is going to be better than what they’re doing downstairs.” χ