The owner of downtown favorites Abreo and Social this summer reveals his newest creation, a modern take on the classic American diner. Find out what awaits.
Paul Sletten, owner of Abreo restaurant in Rockford, was taking a break to talk about his latest plans, when head chef Erin Watson walked out of the kitchen to present him with a new creation.
Fresh black raspberries had arrived earlier in the day, so she had gone right to work making a dessert using angel food cake, raspberries, strawberry ice cream, fennel caramel and graham crumble.
Sletten liked how it looked and tasted. The dessert was on the menu that night.
“That’s how everything happens here,” he says. Sletten isn’t your typical restaurant owner. He revels in the unusual and goes where his creativity leads him. He opened Abreo nearly 10 years ago, at 515 E. State St., in downtown Rockford, introducing the small-plate, tapas-style concept to local diners. Four years ago, he opened Social, a bar and restaurant at 505 E. State St. that offers a farm-to-table menu in a more traditional format, along with an extensive modern cocktail list.
His newest adventure, PK Diner, opens mid-August in the space most recently occupied by Soderburg’s, in the Heartland Community Church building, 1222 S. Alpine Road. Unlike his first two restaurants, this one will serve breakfast and lunch. Like its predecessors, PK Diner will serve high-quality ingredients sourced locally, when possible.
The “PK” stands for Paul and Karen, the latter being his wife.Keith Kaster will be executive chef and manager.
Sletten enjoys crafting his personal spin on the modern diner. “It will be an open kitchen where people can sit and watch the chefs make their food, and talk to them,” he says. He’s also enjoying the menu development. “I want to create the perfect biscuit to use for biscuits and gravy and breakfast sandwiches.”
Wherever he goes, Sletten takes with him a “no boundaries” philosophy.
“I believe the best food is made with the best products,” says Sletten. “I love working with what’s in season as much as our Midwest climate will allow. The catalyst for all we do is fresh and local.”
The Abreo menu changes often, sometimes every week or two, and is always seasonal.
“I’ve never been about a list of certain dishes,” Sletten says. “I’m constantly creating things.”
Most recently, at Abreo, he’s come up with watermelon salad, made with sugar snap peas, fennel, radish, mint, feta cheese, pickled chilies and onions. His Berkshire pork belly incorporates chimmichurri, roasted onions, garlic scapes (flower stalks), braised radish and Chinese cabbage. Confit chicken involves nori puree, zucchini, sushi rice tots, wasabi, honey, ginger and bok choy. Desserts include Chambord crepes; warm chocolate cake; bread pudding made with white chocolate, dried blueberries, and bourbon sauce; creme brulee with berries; and angel food cake.
Sletten discovered his love for cooking while working as a bus boy, as a teenager. He couldn’t stay out of the kitchen and pelted the cooks with questions. Soon he was in culinary school.
While working and attending school full-time, he and his father visited all the best restaurants in town. When they came across a great French restaurant, Sletten applied for a position. There were no openings, but he persisted and got an apprenticeship, working free for two months before being hired on full-time. He spent five years there, the last three as head chef.
After leaving the restaurant, a customer asked Sletten to cater a private dinner party for her son’s birthday. It was a huge success and Dinner Parties by Paul was born. As word spread and the demand for his cooking grew, Sletten realized he preferred to work with customers in intimate settings rather than larger, fast-paced restaurants.
He decided to bring that level of personal service back to the restaurant setting, and Abreo was the result.
While it was a love for cooking that attracted Sletten to the restaurant business, creating concepts and building great teams excites him, too.
“I really like concepts and would like to open more restaurants in the future, featuring every style of food I like, such as steak and burgers, sushi, ice cream, noodles, Italian food, sandwiches and more,” he says. “I am becoming more and more that person who oversees and executes vision, so opening 10 restaurants in the next 20 years doesn’t seem like a big deal.
“I like small locations,” he adds. “They’re easier to manage and I don’t want the stress of 500 people a night.”