After making their mark in the Twin Cities restaurant industry, chef Jay Sparks and La Crosse native Joan Ferris opened Lovechild restaurant and lounge Dec. 9 in the former Hooters restaurant at 300 S. Third St. in downtown La Crosse.

Sparks and Ferris, who have been together for 25 years, say their casual fine dining restaurant offers uncomplicated food with intriguing ingredients and big flavors, using locally sourced and seasonally-driven ingredients.

They’ve gone to great lengths to create a warm, inviting atmosphere in the building, which has exposed brick walls, high ceilings and large windows.

For example, Lovechild has ruby velvet curtains, gold velvet booths, blue velvet bar stools, and lamp lighting.

“We wanted to be really cozy, with comfortable seats,” Ferris said. “Lighting was important. We wanted it to be visually beautiful, but with things you touch being soft and nice.”

People don’t have to dress up to go to Lovechild; casual dress is welcome.

“It’s a place where people can come in and relax and have a premium pasta (or other entrees) and a glass of wine and hang out,” Sparks said.

Lovechild’s dining room can seat 100 people and its lounge can seat another 31. Hours are 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday (and closed Sunday), although the lounge is open later than that.

Sparks and Ferris moved from Minneapolis to La Crosse in June. They live in an apartment a few blocks from Lovechild.

Both had spent two decades with the D’Amico & Partners family of restaurants in the Twin Cities and in Naples, Fla.

Sparks, who grew up in Tampa, Fla., served for nearly 20 years (until 2014) as executive chef for D’Amico’s full-service restaurants and has been influential in the Twin Cities restaurant scene. He was profiled in a 2013 Minneapolis Star Tribune story that was part of the newspaper’s “Great chefs of Minnesota” series.

Ferris joined D’Amico in 1991 as general manager of the acclaimed French Mediterranean restaurant Azur in Minneapolis, then went on to hold various corporate management positions with D’Amico.

Ferris said she and Sparks love the La Crosse area and had visited it frequently over the years. Her mother, Jean Ferris, lives in Onalaska.

Joan’s late father, Roger Ferris, had a shoe repair shop on Main Street for many years. Joan was one of 11 children in the family and said each of them worked in the shoe repair shop at some point.

Ferris and Sparks both left D’Amico in 2014, planning to open their own restaurant.

“We were going to (open a restaurant) in Minneapolis,” Ferris said. “But they were opening so many restaurants there and staffing was an issue. This spot (in La Crosse) came open and it’s such a beautiful building. Once we saw the space, we had to have it.”

“This is an amazing place” for locally produced food, Sparks said. Much of the food at the Minneapolis food co-op he belongs to comes from this area, he said. “The epicenter is Viroqua,” Sparks added.

“There’s a huge difference in quality between buying something out of California right now versus buying something from the area,” Sparks said.

Both Ferris and Sparks describe Lovechild’s menu as “eclectic.”

“With the center of gravity being the Mediterranean,” Sparks continued. “Right now it definitely has a little bit of an Italian feel because of the pasta selection. There are a couple things that have influences from Morocco. And we have one dish that is from Mexico – pozole verde.” The latter is a traditional hominy-based Mexican stew.

Some of Lovechild’s pasta selections include ravioli with braised beef, soffrito and butter; tortelli with sweet potato, cranberries, sage and ricotta cheese; linguine with clams, garlic and red chiles; and ricotta gnocchi with winter tomato sauce and pecorino.

Some of Lovechild’s entrees include grilled tuna steak with chermoula and buttered couscous; roasted chicken thighs with fresh thyme, garlic, lemon and toasted croutons; Uphoff Farm kurobuta pork rib chop with porcini sauce; and Niman Ranch prime beef ribeye steak with fried potato and pecorino.

Desserts include such things as apple and fresh cranberry tart, Vietnamese coffee verrine, creamy rice pudding with salted caramel and hazelnuts, chocolate cake with crème fraiche, bittersweet chocolate panini and ice cream from the Pearl Ice Cream Parlor.

There’s also a children’s menu.

Food and drinks are served by some of Lovechild’s more than 30 employees.

Ferris and Sparks said they’ve been impressed by how friendly area residents are and by the help they’ve received from their landlord, Fortney Cos.

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