Dining and food culture in Chicago

Comfort Me: Chef Edward Kim, Mott Street

Comfort Me, Contemporary Comfort, Wicker Park No Comments »

© 2014 Galdones Photography

By David Hammond

“When I was sick,” recalls Chef Edward Kim of Mott Street, “or when I came in from the cold after shoveling snow with my father, I might have a hot porridge of rice with a little soy sauce; chicken soup…or a Japanese curry pork over rice. To me, Japanese curry is synonymous with the colder days of fall and winter; it was a dish my parents would often make for me. Japanese curry evokes memories of the smell of stewed meat with curry in a kitchen comfortably humid in an otherwise brisk house. It reminds me of my childhood.

“From a strictly culinary perspective, Japanese curry is comforting because it’s thick, it sticks to your bones, yet it’s mild in seasoning and has a distinct sweetness to it. While the curry is indeed black pepper-forward, the spiciness is not aggressive. It pairs well with braised meats. To me, braised meats capture comfort because they’re simple to make, yet they take time—and time is important.” Read the rest of this entry »

Things to Do with Your Tongue: Speaking and Eating Chinese with Professor James McCawley

Chinatown, Chinese, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Photo: David Hammond

Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

When I studied literature and linguistics at the University of Chicago in the mid-1970s, I knew of James McCawley but never had him as a prof. He worked in generative semantics, and his work, focusing upon how meaning and logic affect syntax, created a well-known rift with followers of Chomskyan generative grammar.

I’d read a paper or two of McCawley’s in Joe Williams’ linguistics classes, but later in life the work of his I found most useful was “The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters,” a still-in-print handbook (University of Chicago Press) for deciphering Chinese restaurant menus. About this guide, Calvin Trillin wrote in the New Yorker:

“Unlike some of the rest of us, McCawley can enter a Chinese restaurant secure in the knowledge that his digestion will not be impaired by the frustration of watching Chinese customers enjoy some succulent marvel whose name the management has not bothered to translate… .McCawley does not spend half the meal staring at his neighbor’s bean curd with that particularly ugly combination of greed and envy so familiar to—well, to some of the rest of us… . McCawley endeavors to free the non-Chinese-speaking eater forever from the wretched constriction of the English menu.” Read the rest of this entry »

Instant Coffee: Crawling Through the Cafe Experience

Coffee & Tea No Comments »

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 »

Comfort Me: Mary Nguyen Aregoni of Saigon Sisters

Comfort Me, Loop, Vietnamese No Comments »

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 »

Comfort Me: Erick Williams of County Barbeque

Barbecue, Comfort Me, Little Italy, Lower West Side No Comments »
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 »

French Flour: An American (Pastry Chef) in Paris

French, Gold Coast, Pastry 1 Comment »
Leigh Omilinsky with Pierre Hermé

Leigh Omilinsky with Pierre Hermé

By Amber Gibson

Often the best opportunities in life come from a combination of hard work and luck. Executive pastry chef Leigh Omilinsky of the Sofitel Chicago and Café des Architectes visited Paris for the first time at the end of October to stage (working an unpaid internship) with Pierre Hermé and take a class with Valrhona. She certainly earned the trip, working her way up through top Chicago kitchens including Tru and L2O before landing at the Sofitel, where she is responsible for the hotel’s entire pastry program. Last year, she won a Jean Banchet Award for Rising Pastry Chef, and this year she is a finalist for Pastry Chef of the Year. That alone might not have been enough to get her in the door with “the Picasso of pastry” though.

Luckily for her, a few of the higher ups at Sofitel North America are buddies with Hermé’s business partner and CEO of his company, Charles Znaty, so they put in a good word for Omilinsky. Four months after sending in her resume, she discovered she would be flying to France to stage with one of her idols. Read the rest of this entry »

Stollen Memories: Dinkel’s Bakery Feeds the Christmas Spirit

Breakfast/Brunch, Coffee & Tea, German, Lakeview, Pastry, Sandwiches No Comments »

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset By Amber Gibson

My love affair with German bread began in 2007, when I spent a year studying abroad in Germany. Every little town seemed to have a baker on each corner, up before the sun kneading dough and baking bread. Countless frigid winter mornings, my only incentive to get out of bed in the morning was the smell of breakfast brötchen (bread rolls) wafting through my window from the bakery across the street.

The culture of fresh-baked bread and the multitude of hearty loaves studded with nuts and seeds, or a sharp pumpernickel or rye spoiled me terribly. Sliced bread from the grocery store? Oh, the horror! It was in Bickenbach, a small village outside Darmstadt, where I was first introduced to good German stollen—less cloying, more buttery and much tastier than fruitcake. Here in Chicago, many bakeries offer their take on the sweet bread, but none quite captures my taste buds and brings back my memories of the pleasantly plump surrogate oma baker in Bickenbach feeding me extra sweets to fatten me up like the stollen at Dinkel’s. Read the rest of this entry »

Dinner by Design: Erika Stone-Miller’s Journey from Architecture to Underground Dining Sensation at The Octagon Mode

Food Trucks, Ravenswood, Underground Dining No Comments »
Guests mingling at The Octagon Mode

Guests mingling at The Octagon Mode/Photo: Amber Gibson

By Amber Gibson

From the moment you step into the nondescript West Lawrence storefront, you know you’re in for a treat. The soulful live music, elegant plate ware and romantic lighting make it clear this isn’t any haphazard dinner hosted in somebody’s apartment. And owner Erika Stone-Miller is the quintessential hostess. Bubbly and vivacious, with a genuine love of people, she makes even the shyest guests feel at home at The Octagon Mode (Newcity’s pick for Best Underground Dinner in 2013). After greeting everyone like old friends, she’ll change from a chic black cocktail dress to an apron and bright orange Crocs. It’s time to get in the kitchen and start whipping up beef wellington and champagne jelly. Stone-Miller looks a decade younger than her forty-seven years, hasn’t owned a TV in twenty years, and her story is one of following your heart and the pursuit of happiness.

Stone-Miller attended Wellesley College, a women’s college in Massachusetts, graduating in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. The name “The Octagon Mode” is a nod to her academic career, inspired by an obscure mid-nineteenth-century architectural movement. She’d always worked as a hostess or waitress, starting in Boston while she was in college. After school, she took an architectural job, but continued to work in restaurants and soon found that a career in architecture was not for her.  “I really liked it, but I sucked,” she readily admits. “I was never going to be a great architect.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Perfect Cure: West Loop Salumi Brings a Taste of Italy to Chicago

Italian, West Loop No Comments »
Drying room at West Loop Salumi

Drying room at West Loop Salumi

By Amber Gibson

Krug salami, anyone? It may be a little early to start planning holiday parties but soon you’ll be able to get some bubbly and Krug-flavored salami from West Loop Salumi to ring in the New Year. This will be a new flavor and recipe for Greg Laketek, who opened Illinois’ only USDA-certified salumeria in July and has been doing brisk business since. West Loop Salumi is already available at restaurants and retail locations including Benny’s Chop House, G.E.B., Travelle, Lush Wine & Spirits, TWO and House of Glunz.

Laketek’s Krug-flavored salami, which will be released in December, is a project with Moët Hennessy and Plum Market, with whom he’ll also be making Numanthia Termanthia and Numanthia Termes Chorizo for a November release. Most of the salumi at Plum Market is refrigerated, but Laketek’s salumi comes straight from his West Loop drying chambers and no refrigeration is necessary. The meat is good for up to a year, “but it’s at its best straight from the chamber,” Laketek says.

As a kid, Laketek spent summer in Italy with his extended family in Centobuchi, Italy, a hundred miles east of Rome. “All their friends owned farms,” he says. “They would make their own wine, bread, pasta and salumi.” Laketek went back to study in Italy as an undergraduate, and after spending two years running his own construction consulting firm, he says he was burnt out doing something he didn’t love. In a sharp twist, Laketek attended Kendall College and decided to open a salumeria, spotting an opportunity to add something new to Chicago’s already vibrant culinary scene. Read the rest of this entry »