Dining and food culture in Chicago

The Harvest Story: Thomas Lents’ Fall Bounty at Sixteen

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Thomas LentsBy Amber Gibson

You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but Next is not the only restaurant in town overhauling its entire menu and theme every three months. Every self-respecting foodie in town knows that Next recently changed its menu from a vegan theme to one inspired by the Bocuse d’Or culinary championship. However, the launch of Sixteen’s fall menu doesn’t require a mad rush to buy tickets. The dining room at the Trump might not adopt the exotic themes of Grant Achatz’s restaurant, but its ambitions are equally high. “We’re trying to redefine ourselves on a quarterly basis,” says executive chef Thomas Lents. “It’s a lot of work. It’s work I love but it’s not easy.” The seasonality of his menus is obvious, but the underlying story shifts dramatically.

Lents’ fall menu, debuting September 23, celebrates the bountiful autumn harvest. “With this menu we’re going to bring out more items that are meant to be shared,” Lents says. “I’m trying to get rid of the hegemony of the plate. The idea that it’s one plate for one diner.” Read the rest of this entry »

Bucktown Showdown: The Clash of the Pie Tins is Apple in All Eyes

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By Nolan Feeney

If a global bacon shortage strikes in 2013 and your favorite pig product goes scarce, now you know where to find your emergency fix: the annual Bucktown Apple Pie Contest.

The competition, which celebrated its eighth year on a recent Sunday, is the largest apple-pie contest in the country. Put on as a fundraiser by the Friends of Holstein Park neighborhood organization, it’s also home to pies with plenty of creative license. Bacon showed up in multiple entries, and past ingredients have included bourbon, basil, pine nuts, maple syrup, cheddar cheese and even a crust with a henna ink drawing topping off the flakes. The contest rules weren’t always so open-minded—bacon was originally outlawed—but now the only limitations are a top and bottom crust, no uncooked eggs, and no other fruit. Read the rest of this entry »

The Overnighters: Hyde Parkers are really excited to finally get an all-night diner

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Clarke's in Lakeview

By Benjamin Rossi

Thanks to a well-orchestrated press release, the whole city knows about plans to bring a Whole Foods to the University of Chicago’s neighborhood, Hyde Park. But what really has some students excited is a recent university announcement that Clarke’s diner, a twenty-four-hour restaurant with locations in Lincoln Park, Wicker Park and Lakeview will open a branch in 53rd Street’s Harper Court, just blocks from campus.

Twenty-four-hour eateries are a staple of college towns and urban campuses: the University of Michigan has Fleetwood Diner, Yale claims Gourmet Heaven, NYU has the Ukrainian restaurant Veselka and Columbia University has Tom’s Restaurant, whose exterior stood in for the fictional Monk’s Cafe on “Seinfeld.” As any college student knows, these restaurants serve as crucial way stations for partygoers, meeting places for couples and coffee breaks for crammers.

But when it comes to getting greasy food quickly and cheaply any time of the day or night, the University of Chicago has fallen behind its peer institutions. The Medici, a veteran hangout on 57th Street, is only open until midnight—and that’s on Fridays and Saturdays. The campus dining halls close at 8pm, and even the campus convenience stores, Bart Mart and Midway Market, shut down at 3am. Some students opt for Taco Bell on 79th Street, the Maxwell Street Depot on 31st, White Palace on Roosevelt, or even Clarke’s on Belmont. But for those without a car or temporarily bereft of the ability to drive, commuting to these far-flung locations is quite a hassle. Read the rest of this entry »

Not the Usual: Thanksgiving at Bennigan’s

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Note: The photos are not from the Bennigan's in this story, which is no longer in business./Photo: Kristine Sherred

By Jonas Simon

There’s an odd sort of camaraderie that develops in certain work environments, not unlike between soldiers during times of war. Born out of shared suffering and hardship; you don’t find it in every job, but I’ve definitely found it in waiting tables. Part of it comes from banding together against a common enemy (the customer). Another part is being separated from “normal” society by the nature and hours of the job. For most waiters, our living is made at night and on weekends, i.e., the times when the rest of the world is off. Our weekends are Mondays and Tuesdays; our after-work drinks don’t start until 1am. But the real separation is felt during the holidays, when everyone else is enjoying the heart and hearth of home and you’re sharing your season with your co-workers, not your loved ones.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some wonderful holidays with my various crews—Near Year’s Eve parties that, technically, didn’t start until a couple of hours into New Year’s Day, Christmas Day dinner in Chinatown followed by karaoke—but one that stands out was the Thanksgiving I spent at Bennigan’s in 2003.

Our staff was a diverse and somewhat motley assortment of individuals: musicians and college students, druggies and alcoholics, working moms and career servers. Chet was the lead singer of a not-half-bad power pop/emo group (I think they were called “The Effect”); Jennifer was a recent journalism grad from U of I writing part-time for a leftist internet zine; Viktor was a part-time drug dealer who may or may not have had ties to the Hungarian mafia (He would later be arrested—and deported—for scamming customers’ credit cards. He showed up to work one day and the FBI was waiting for him.); Tom had been behind the bar for more than half a decade with no plans beyond tomorrow night’s pub crawl; and Maria, our manager, was a single mom who made a three-hour round trip commute everyday from Rockford.

The good people at corporate, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that not only would we be open for Thanksgiving dinner that year, but that we would also be serving our very own “Bennigan’s Thanksgiving Platter.” For $12.95 you got a processed turkey breast (white meat only) with something resembling gravy, powdered mashed potatoes, stuffing (which had both the consistency and taste of a chopped-up cardboard mailer), frozen vegetables, and cranberry sauce straight from the can, which was pretty much the only thing about the meal that felt right. Read the rest of this entry »

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: Top Five Takeout Joints

American, Irving Park, Italian, Loop, Mediterranean, Near North, Pan-Asian, Seafood, South Deering, West Town No Comments »

A basic criterion for Resto 100 has been that a restaurant has to have real tables and silverware or a significant place to sit down. Considering a place like Hot Doug’s makes the list, service is generally optional. And, yes, we cheated and totally made an exception for Al’s Beef on Taylor. Still, in the last year, there have been a couple of new places (and lots of old ones) that were generally takeout-only that we really thought worthy of the Resto 100, and so here they are, our top five takeout joints. Read the rest of this entry »