Dining and food culture in Chicago

Resto 100: Chicago’s essential restaurants of 2010

African, Albany Park, American, Andersonville, Argentinian, Auburn Gresham, Avondale, Barbecue, Belmont-Cragin, Beverly, Bistro, Brazilian, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bronzeville, Bucktown, Burbank, Burgers, Cajun/Creole, Caribbean, Chatham, Chinatown, Chinese, Cicero, Contemporary Comfort, Costa Rican, Cuban, Czech, Deli, East Garfield Park, Edgewater, Elmwood Park, Ethiopian, Evanston, Fast Food/Street Food, Filipino, French, Gastropub, German, Gold Coast, Greek, Greektown, Guides & Lists, Hermosa, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Indian, Irving Park, Italian, Italian Beef, Japanese, Kenwood, Korean, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Lithuanian, Little Italy, Logan Square, Loop, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Near North, Near South Side, Nepalese, New American, Oak Park, Pakistani, Pan-Asian, Pilsen, Pizza, Puerto Rican, Punk Haute, Ravenswood, River North, River West, Rogers Park, Roscoe Village, Sandwiches, Seafood, Soul Food, South Loop, Spanish, Steakhouse, Sushi, Thai, Trends & Essays, Ukrainian Village, Uptown, Vegetarian, Vietnamese, West Loop, West Town, Wicker Park No Comments »

Resto 100 is, as always, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.

As last year, when we first dropped Charlie Trotter’s, we’ve continued to cull the old guard of the high-end, both as a reflection of the economic times and as a call to action for such spots to up their game. This year, TRU, MK and Boka didn’t escape the chopping block. While we don’t deny their importance in creating the food scene we have today, there are many other places we’d rather send folks—for example, Sepia, Bonsoiree or Cibo Matto (where, ironically, chef Todd Stein is a vet of MK).

Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand are two of the most successful cooks this city has, but neither spends a significant amount of time at TRU. This is not so much an observation as it’s a cry for the fact that we really miss Rick’s cooking. We appreciate his cookbooks and that he tried to open a nationwide restaurant chain, but with that not working out, why not return to his roots? It should also be noted that Chef de Cuisine Tim Graham was doing some incredibly innovative work, but was recently transferred to Brasserie Jo.

Boka, which we loved for its Charlie Trotteresque complexity, has frankly been a little inconsistent in its execution on recent visits, and frankly maybe too Trotteresque. We love the direction Perennial has gone, look forward to Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, and think maybe they outshine the original jewel in Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz’s mini-empire.

That’s not to say you have to be cutting-edge innovative or perfect to make the list. For if you do something old-school or classic and you continue to do it well and you didn’t make your bones by being a game-changer, we honor that as well. This year, we added some overlooked classics including Marie’s Pizza, Ginza and, much to our own surprise, Hyde Park’s Calypso Café. Maybe the biggest surprise was Café des Architectes, which used to be as old-school as it gets. Martial Noguier and his pastry chef Suzanne Imaz are probably two of this city’s most underrated cooks, putting out slighty twisted old-school French gourmet plates flawlessly.

Likewise, the trend of informal, casual rustic dining doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, and we dig that. To celebrate that movement we’ve added The Bristol, Paramount Room, Brown Trout, Kith and Kin and others.

The beauty of any list, though, is that you may not agree. So drop us a line and let us know.

—Michael Nagrant, Resto 100 editor Read the rest of this entry »

Resto 100: Chicago’s Essential Restaurants 2009

African, Albany Park, Andersonville, Auburn Gresham, Barbecue, Belmont-Cragin, Bistro, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bucktown, Burgers, Cajun/Creole, Chinatown, Chinese, Contemporary Comfort, Costa Rican, Cuban, Deli, East Garfield Park, Events, Fast Food/Street Food, Filipino, French, Gastropub, Gold Coast, Greek, Greektown, Guides & Lists, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Irving Park, Italian, Italian Beef, Korean, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Little Italy, Logan Square, Loop, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Near South Side, New American, Organics, Pakistani, Palestinian, Pan-Asian, Pilsen, Pizza, Punk Haute, Ravenswood, River North, River West, Rogers Park, Seafood, Senegalese, Soul Food, South Loop, South Shore, Spanish, Steakhouse, Sushi, Thai, Trends & Essays, Ukrainian Village, Uptown, Vegetarian, Vietnamese, West Loop, Wicker Park 4 Comments »
In the kitchen at Alinea/Photo: Lara Kastner

In the kitchen at Alinea/Photo: Lara Kastner

Resto 100 is, as it has been in years past, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.

In these particular hard economic times, we find ourselves dining out a lot more at the BYOBs, mom-and pop-spots and small ethnic joints than we do at the high end.  That being said, while we didn’t set out to consciously create a list to address our lighter wallets, it sure turned out that way.  More than ever, this list is a cross section of the wealth of culturally diverse and reasonably priced restaurants Chicago is lucky to have. Read the rest of this entry »

Sweet on Senegal: Café Senegal brings West African cuisine to Chicago

African, Cuisine, etc., Rogers Park No Comments »
Debbe

Debbe

By Michael Nagrant

I don’t know if Diaw Sow, owner/chef of Café Senegal in Rogers Park, has seen “Field of Dreams,” but she clearly doesn’t agree with the movie’s tagline that if you build it, they will come. Or, rather: if you cook it, they will come. Because the restaurant is so new and because of her concern for freshness, she’s waiting for customer traffic to increase before she expands her selection. As a result, though her French-inflected West African-style printed menu features forty or so items, you’ll likely only be able to order a handful on any given night.

This reflects a smart business move from a serial entrepreneur. Though Sow emigrated from Senegal in 1996, she’s already run three local businesses, including a grocery store and a hair-braiding operation. But this new project is her true passion. While the restaurant opened recently, Sow took a sanitation certification course seven years ago, because she knew she’d always wanted to cook professionally. Because her food is so good, my only lament is that she waited so long.

My initial impression of the restaurant belied any kind of quality cooking. Though Café Senegal is a clean spot lit up by a gigantic wall mural of a neon-hued sunset, the dining room is also smaller than a high-rise studio apartment. Art sat on the floor waiting to be hung, and there was an empty hot box on the back counter, the kind you might see filled with desiccated “hot” pretzels or pathetic pizza puffs. And, when my wife, son and I first entered the restaurant, for one short awkward moment, Sow, her two daughters and another older woman looked us up and down like a couple of elderly tourists who’d just set foot in a Hells Angel’s hangout.

The awkwardness turned out to be a touch of panic because they’d just served the last of their signature dish, ceebu jen. Ceebu jen, aka rice and fish stew, is to Senegal what deep-dish pizza or Italian beef is to Chicago. As a national dish, there are also as many recipes for ceebu jen as there are active Senegalese political parties (eighty-plus). Sow’s version is made with eggplant, carrot, cassava and white cabbage and tomato. Unfortunately we’d have to come back to sample it.

But that didn’t matter, after what I know now, if Sow only had one dish and she said it was made from old shoe leather, I’d trust her instincts. Fortunately, our options were quite a bit wider than braised animal hide, and we started with a generically named “beef patty.” Featuring a flaky-puff-pastry-half-moon filled with ground beef and peppers, it’s Senegal’s version of an empanada. But by any standard the light crust and full fruity and fiery-peppered beef make this the best empanada, Latin American-based or otherwise, that I’ve had in Chicago.

We followed that with a set of Nem. Though the dish sounds like a government agency or obscure stage of the sleep cycle, Nem is actually what would happen if you pan-fried a Vietnamese-style spring roll. Sow’s version is a flavor torpedo of crispy, charred rice-paper conucopia oozing with scallions, glass noodles, egg and chicken.

While waiting for our main courses, the older woman in the restaurant entertained my unruly 21-month-old son by dancing with him to the house music and convinced him to call her grandma. She stopped only when a young man came in to purchase some African Black Soap (apparently Café Senegal doubles as a retail beauty operation). While “grandma” stepped out to get change for the man, he told my wife and I, “This is the good stuff, it’s way better than Proactiv. It’ll get rid of blemishes and everything.”

As I dug in to a heaping plate of Debbe—peppery, grilled lamb topped with a sweet vinegar-tanged salad of olives, onion and tomato—I thought, man, that’s good news. Maybe I won’t have to endure those horrible infomercials of Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson and Puff, err, Sean Diddy Combs rehashing their horrible acne drama anymore. The Debbe was followed by Yasa Ginar, a succulent sweet-spiced stewed-chicken perfumed with lemon and smothered in caramelized onion.

Though Sow learned to make these great dishes from her mother, she is no weekend warrior. She’s a full-blown culinarian with a mastery of flavor and balance. The lack of a full menu here is actually a blessing that allows her to guide you, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. The only thing mother-like at Café Senegal is that Sow cooks meals to order and entrees take forty minutes or so, but that just leaves you time to do a jig with “grandma.” Whether Sow believes it or not, I’m pretty sure “they” will come. Just to be sure, you better head on over now.

Café Senegal, 2131 West Howard, (773)465-5643