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 »

End of the Zeroes: Chicago Restaurants, 2000-2009

Brazilian, Burgers, Chinese, Contemporary Comfort, French, Guides & Lists, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Ice Cream, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, New American, Organics, Pastry, Punk Haute, Seafood, Steakhouse, Trends & Essays, Vegetarian 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant

Avenues

Avenues

Since 2000, Chicago has gone from being a Rat Pack-worthy steak-and-potato-slinging stereotype to a destination for international culinary travelers. Chicago’s affordability, its diners’ willingness to suspend disbelief and its proximity to the sublime bounty of the Midwest all play a role in that transformation. Most important to the renaissance are the places that put everything together to inspire our collective culinary imagination, the best restaurants that opened in Chicago this decade.

Alinea
The history of cuisine was written in the kitchens of millions of chefs, but we only remember a few by name, guys like Escoffier, Careme and Robuchon. There are probably only three Chicago chefs, as of now, who have a shot at making that list: Jean Banchet, Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz. Though Achatz started making a name for himself at Trio, Alinea was the game changer, the restaurant where every aspect of dining from menus and silverware to the wine service and emotional content of the food was reimagined.

Avec
Love it or hate it, this was ground zero for what is now today’s communal table free-for-all. More importantly, Avec was the place that launched a thousand salumi, the fringe of Chicago’s now-burgeoning charcuterie movement. Koren Grieveson’s restrained soulful style is still the late-night hang of choice for chefs.

Avenues
You probably don’t remember Gerhard Doll or David Hayden, the chef-stewards who drove the good ship Avenues through a successful seafood-driven era, but there’s no doubt you won’t forget the Pop Rock and foie-lollipop fantasia, the convenience-store chic of Graham Elliot Bowles. Without Bowles’ whimsical, accessible style, the emotional roller coaster of Grant Achatz’s cooking and the theater at Homaro Cantu’s Moto likely wouldn’t have quite captured the nation’s imagination, nor garnered Chicago cuisine the countless magazine features it received mid-decade. Today, Curtis Duffy, the culinary love child of Achatz, Thomas Keller and Alice Waters, is executing some of the most exciting cuisine Chicago has to offer. Read the rest of this entry »

Brunching in Brazil: Let’s get together at Jorgina’s

Brazilian No Comments »

caiprinhaBy Michael Nagrant

It’s often said that loose women are trying to replace the memory of their absent fathers by sleeping with a trove of men. This might explain some things.

While I was growing up, my father was a blue-collar machinist in the rough and tumble tool-and-die world. He was a young father, low on the seniority pole in the union hierarchy and, as a result, he was often a second or third shifter, which meant he either slept through or was gone for dinner. Henceforth, there was never any real family gathering during the week. (Weekends, when he’d share a nip of his favorite Cabernet Sauvignon with me, were another story.) My mother, an excellent cook, tried to keep my brother and I together with her excursions into Ladies Home Journal recipes like chicken cacciatore, but there was often the intrusion of sports or after-school activities.

If we were lucky, a couple times a week, the three of us would honor a 4:30pm reservation at our brown faux-wood-laminate dinner table before darting off. My brother still has this table in the “man den” that is his garage, and when I head back to the suburbs of Detroit to visit, one glimpse reminds me of the impossible number of meals composed solely of Fruit Roll-Ups that we crammed away before soccer practice.

As a union guy my father made a decent living, which meant I grew up on the edges of the right side of the tracks. This meant that most of my friend’s parents were white-collar professionals always home for dinner. Given the chance to join these outside gatherings, I’d often forsake my own sad threesome. Real family dinner, I soon learned, was of course also an opportunity to grill your children about school, and ever the laconic adolescent, I was thrilled to have avoided such moments in my own house. Dinner was also, at my friend John’s house, a scary amalgamation of freaky diet fads, where the whole family once ate whole grapefruit dusted with Nutrasweet. Maybe I wasn’t really missing anything.

Yet reviewing the wisdom of loose women, I’ve come to believe that my adult obsession with entertaining and cooking may have something to do with my own absent father and latent jealousy of childhood friends. I’ve always yearned for an Algonquin Round Table of sorts, a fellowship of witty repartee, flowing drinks and, in my dreams, a personal audience with Dorothy Parker. This never-ending quest recently led me to a gathering at the home of Brazilian caterer Jorgina Pereira.

Every Sunday afternoon, Pereira, a noted local caterer, opens up her three-flat for a Brazilian-style brunch. Pereira, who originally hails from Rio de Janeiro, is a former IT guru who specialized in Unix and mainframe work. She worked for Montgomery Ward and Borg Warner. When Borg moved to Detroit, she became exasperated with having to switch jobs again, and decided to give up corporate America to cook.

She grew up with the smells and tastes of her godmother’s culinary alchemy. Still, she never really cooked. Living in America, she yearned for the tastes of her native country and began experimenting, relying on her sense memory to guide her way. This sounds like magical realism fare from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, but there’s a precedent for such things. When I once spoke with Madhur Jaffrey, the famous doyenne of Indian cooking, she said she relied on the memory of her mother’s food to learn to cook while studying acting in London.

The proof of course is in the Feijoada, the national dish of Brazil, an amalgamation of rice, black beans and various pork products, and also the centerpiece of Pereira’s brunch.

Upon arrival there was a respite in Pereira’s salon, a Liberace-like palace of alabaster paint and green and white hand-carved wooden furniture which was once part of a set from, according to Pereira, “some Mafioso movie.” On this occasion, I was joined by a couple of Brazilian ex-pats and a structural engineer and sculptor. All business is word-of-mouth, and on any given week, there could be a handful of neighborhood folks or a rambunctious bunch of French aerospace engineers.

The brunch is BYOB, and after washing some tasty deep-fried artichoke empanadas and stuffed olives down with rhubarb caipirinhas, we retired to the first level for the main buffet.

Pereira’s Feijoada is magnificent, coupled with three types of meat, including rich, smoky pork hocks. Accompaniments included tangy Cassava flour-cheese puffs, cognac-marinated mushrooms, braised fennel and baked codfish loin, which was eminently flaky. The Brazilian fare is available each week, with other dishes like the mushrooms changing according to Perreira’s inventions. Perreria says that as an IT consultant, she always had to stay one step ahead of the customer, anticipating their project needs, and that now as a chef she does the same thing, creating dishes her customers love, but that they didn’t know they needed. Indeed, for a little while, my own thirst for a rich family meal was finally slaked.

If you want to check out this weekly gathering for yourself, and you should, check out sinhaelegantcuisine.com for more details.