Dining and food culture in Chicago

Comfort Me: Jon Keeley of Gemini Bistro

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Jon Keeley/Photo: Neil Burger

Jon Keeley/Photo: Neil Burger

By David Hammond

For Chef Jon Keeley of Gemini Bistro (2075 North Lincoln), comfort food “warms the heart. When you take that first bite, you’re instantly transported back to a time of good memories. When you’re done eating, you have that feeling of ‘Wow, that’s good for the soul (and now it’s time for a nap).’ Comfort food for me takes you home. It transports you to a different time and place. You close your eyes and just fall back.”

Comfort food is often high in carbohydrates, so it’s not surprising that Keeley’s favorite comfort food is “Pasta, pasta, pasta—any way you can put it in front of me.”

Keeley’s Gemini Bistro, which for the past three years has received Michelin Bib Gourmand recognition, serves from a big menu that includes several pasta-based dishes. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Tom Van Lente of Two Restaurant and Bar

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Photo: Shannon Marie Braniff

Photo: Shannon Marie Braniff

By David Hammond

One of the most adventurous and memorable meals I’ve ever had was at Alinea, Chicago’s only Michelin three-star restaurant. Chef Grant Achatz is a culinary artist of major significance, challenging diners and pushing into new frontiers of food experimentation.

The food of Achatz is almost as much about the mind as it is about the stomach. One thing you would not say about his food, however, is that it “sticks to your ribs.” It doesn’t, and it wasn’t meant to.

For Tom Van Lente of Two Restaurant and Bar (1132 West Grand), however, that’s what comfort food is all about.

“To me,” Van Lente says, “comfort food is rib-sticking good, with lots of fat and butter (that’s not a bad thing!). Comfort food has to be something that’s going to weigh you down—and keep you satiated—for hours afterwards.” Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Lee Ann Whippen of Chicago q

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Lee Ann Whippen on the line

By David Hammond

I write about food, so I’m frequently asked, “What’s your favorite restaurant?”

An impossible question to answer.

Owing to a number of factors that change daily or even hourly, it’s sometimes difficult to pin down a favorite restaurant. For instance, my favorite place for breakfast will almost certainly be different than my favorite place for lunch or dinner; one of my favorite places for lunch is Johnnie’s Italian Beef in Elmwood Park, but on a hot summer afternoon, no way I’m going to hunker into a mound of steaming beef.

A person’s comfort foods are also subject to change, and it’s not uncommon for people to have more than one comfort food.

“I have a lot of comfort foods,” said Lee Ann Whippen of Chicago q (1160 North Dearborn). “Each of these foods has their own quality that comforts me for whatever reason. Comfort food is not only for when you’re feeling bad. Sometimes you just want to feel good all over. You just want to feel… comfortable.” Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Nicole Pederson of Found 

Comfort Me, Evanston, Recipes 1 Comment »
Nicole Pederson

Nicole Pederson/Galdones photography

By David Hammond

We started the “Comfort Me” series in hopes of locating what might be the universal constants of comfort food, the characteristics shared by all consumables that we feel give us comfort. As we’ve talked to Chicago chefs, however, it became clear that, predictably, personal life experiences have a lot to do with our individual definitions of comfort foods, and comfort foods clearly vary by ethnicity.

Nonetheless, there are some recurring themes in comfort food. It seems, for many Westerners, comfort food is frequently characterized by high-fat/high-carb creations that are not aggressively spiced and are easy to eat: they’re soft, yield to an effortless bite, and don’t seem to require a lot of chewing. That’s certainly true for the primary comfort food of Nicole Pederson of Found (1631 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, foundkitchen.com).

“My comfort foods,” Pederson confesses, “are kind of strange. It’s not like I had a meal that was all comfort food. It was little things, like lefse, which is a thin, potato pancake thing. Norwegian. You eat it like a tortilla, except you put butter on it. We’re Norwegian, so we put butter on everything. We even eat raw butter. Lefse is like a big round circular pancake that you cook on a kind of crepe griddle. It’s made from potato and flour, almost like a gnocchi batter. You roll it out really thin with a textured rolling pin, and then you griddle it on both sides. It lasts a long time in the refrigerator, and then you eat it with butter, alongside dinner. As a snack, you can eat lefse with sugar…but my grandpa said only Swedes eat lefse with sugar.”

Our comfort foods seem, many times, to be linked to specific experiences we’ve had growing up. For Erick Williams of County Barbeque (1352 West Taylor), his comfort food memories revolve around sitting alone in the kitchen after high-school football practice eating his mom’s stew. For Mary Nguyen Aregoni of Saigon Sisters (multiple locations), she remembers eating pho, traditional Vietnamese soup, with her dad and other family members in Laos after they left their homeland following the Vietnam War. For Pederson, many of her comfort foods are linked to cooking and eating experiences with her grandparents. Read the rest of this entry »

Instant Coffee: Crawling Through the Cafe Experience

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Coffee CrawlBy Stefan Castellanos

I drank my first-ever cup of coffee eighteen months ago during a brief, impactful stint in the warehouse of an artisanal Los Angeles roaster and since then, my relationship with the coffee shop—as a concept and a sacred institution—has fully blossomed. Several times per week, we spend social yet deeply personal time together. And all the while, I have eyes for no one else.

We have a great thing going, but the bar-lover in me was curious: could I combine these passions? Could I treat coffee shop time like a night of determined drinking and still feel fulfilled? Achieving true spatial connection at several locales one after another seemed unlikely, a borderline offensive pursuit. Even so, I had faith that the right environments could produce moments of magic regardless of the circumstances. The coffee crawl was on. Read the rest of this entry »

The Big Heat: Chicago’s Food & Drink Fifty 2014

The Big Heat 7 Comments »
Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

This year’s selection of Chicago’s dining and drinking leadership focuses on the artists behind the beautiful and delicious compositions on our plates and in our glasses. A few on our list may be celebrities, at least in the food community, but that’s not why they got into this business, with its long hours, burnt fingers and demanding customers. Whether it’s food or drink, fine dining or pizza, salumi or chocolate, these chefs, mixologists and artisans toil behind the scenes so that we can enjoy some of the finest and most innovative food and drink in the country. It’s thanks to this impressive group—and the hundreds right behind them on our ever-growing short list—that Chicago is considered a national culinary treasure. It’s unquestionable that we lost one of our giants this past year with the passing of Charlie Trotter, but his legacy is carried forward in the artistry of the many who served under him. And they, in turn, are inspiring the next generation to learn classic cooking techniques, respect the work of legends past and dare to innovate. Oui, Chef. (Amber Gibson)

Big Heat was written by Brendan Buck, Stefan Castellanos, Amber Gibson, Veronica Hinke, Ben Kramer,  Marla Seidell and Sara Tenenbaum

All photos taken on location at the Arts Club of Chicago by Joe Mazza of BraveLux.

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Comfort Me: Mary Nguyen Aregoni of Saigon Sisters

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PhoBy David Hammond

One of my earliest memories is being home from school, sick, slurping soup prepared by my Italian grandmother. As a kid, I thought this soup, pastina, was my grandmother’s invention, made especially for me. The recipe for pastina is simple: chicken broth with lots of garlic and, crucially, little pasta stars (tiny letters of the alphabet will not do!).

As I got older, I came to understand that pastina was a classic cold-flu remedy enjoyed by generations of the young and old…even non-Italians. That realization had no effect upon my belief that this soup was, beyond a doubt, magic.

As my cousin Karen used to say, “Pastina is to be eaten with Kleenex.” This soup is warm and salty, so it opens up the sinuses, relieving pressure and other cold symptoms.

My Aunt Rosemarie confirmed the power of pastina and told me she once “felt her fever break” while eating pastina. “It was very dramatic,” she added, convincingly.

Chicken broth and garlic are, of course, well-known folk cures for the common cold, but even if the pastina had no measurable curative effects, it did, at least comfort me in my illness. Read the rest of this entry »

Liquid Limits: Joining the Juicing Club with Cleanse Culture

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cleanse-culture-signature-cleanseBy Amber Gibson

Like the raw food craze, juicing may have started as a West Coast trend, but it’s gained plenty of traction in Chicago, with companies like Peeled, JuiceRx and BluePrint promising to clean out your internal organs with their colorful concoctions. This spring, Chef Jared Van Camp and Element Collective (the team behind Nellcote, Old Town Social, Leghorn and Kinmont) join the fray, opening cold-pressed juice bar Owen + Alchemy in Logan Square (2355 North Milwaukee).

The newest player on the local cleansing scene is Cleanse Culture, founded by Nicole Kasal, formerly of JuiceRx. Cleanses can be as short as one or two days to as long as a week or more for the deepest cleanse. Standard cleanses are three days and that’s what I tried.

Eating is such a pleasurable part of my life, so I was skeptical and a little nervous to try cleansing. Skipping delectable wine dinners and dessert tastings was painful. But I was very curious as to how I would feel and how my body would respond. Would cleansing feel like deprivation or would I feel energized with radiant skin like models in advertisements would lead me to believe? Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Erick Williams of County Barbeque

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Erick Williams, County Barbecue,  courtesy David Hammond

Erick Williams by David Hammond

By David Hammond

People speak of it fondly, and chefs say they serve it, but what, exactly, is “comfort food”?

The concept of comfort food is uncertain. It varies by geographic location, ethnic heritage and generation. The cherished comfort food of an Eisenhower-era Midwesterner is not going to be the same as the comfort food of an Eastern-European millennial. Some believe comfort food must be something one ate when young, foods that warm the heart with thoughts of family and home. Not surprisingly, many of our comfort foods seem to have been prepared, at least the first time, by our mothers or grandmothers.

Some commonly cited comfort foods—like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and noodle casserole—are all relatively high in fat and carbs, with soft texture and mild seasoning. Are these attributes common to all comfort food? Read the rest of this entry »

Manila Moment? Why Filipino Food Still Flies Under Chicago’s Radar

Filipino, Lakeview, River North, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Pancit canton at Sunda

Pancit canton at Sunda/Photo: Amber Gibson

By Amber Gibson

National food personalities like Andrew Zimmern have touted Filipino cuisine as an emerging  trend, but here in Chicago the scene still seems lacking. While there are several neighborhood Filipino eateries in Chicago, none have a particularly high profile. If Tanta has made Peruvian food mainstream, there’s no trendy River North equivalent for the Pacific island nation. Sunda arguably comes closest, albeit with a Pan-Asian label. However, there are more than a few chefs with Filipino heritage helming restaurants around town. Some of the creative dishes you’re chowing down on at restaurants like The Refinery, E+O, Sunda and Pecking Order have Filipino roots.

Rodelio Aglibot, one of the most prominent Filipino chefs in town, is known for his “new Asian” cuisine. He brought Filipino food into the spotlight when he opened Sunda in 2009. Now, he’s helming the kitchen at E+O in Mount Prospect, where the eclectic menu includes steak, sushi and pizza along with a few Filipino signatures.

Read the rest of this entry »