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 »

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 »

Loafin’ Around: Meatloaf Bakery challenges moms everywhere

Contemporary Comfort, Lakeview No Comments »

chow-pic1By Michael Nagrant

As anyone who’s ever seen the films “Serial Mom” or “Mommy Dearest” knows, you don’t mess with mother. But, Cynthia Kallile, chef/owner of The Meatloaf Bakery, isn’t quaking in her kitchen clogs. She’s ready to go baking mitt to baking mitt with the assurance that she’s got the best meatloaf you’ve ever tasted.

But that’s no easy task with such an iconic plate. In 2007, Good Housekeeping dubbed the “loaf” the seventh favorite dish in the United States. Though the modern American version became popular in part during the early twentieth century as a result of recipes created by the Quaker Oats company to sell more oatmeal, minced meat loaves also make an appearance in the fifth-century Roman cookery collection “Apicius” (the ancient tome suggests that fried, ground peacock meat was best for this type of preparation). First lady Pat Nixon seasoned her meatloaf with marjoram and had her recipe printed on White House stationery to be mailed on request. And most importantly, almost every mother in America worth her Jell-O mold makes a version.

As a ubiquitous part of the parent/offspring culinary covenant, meatloaf is therefore subject to the rule of nostalgia. No matter how bad it was, the fact that it was a staple of your childhood counts for far too much—how else to explain the inferior blue-box reign of Kraft Mac and Cheese. If your mom had a way with deep-fried grasshoppers when you were a rugrat, then the adult you probably has a deep yen for the crunchy buggers.

My own mother combined pork and beef with egg, breadcrumbs soaked in milk, onion, salt, pepper and topped it all off with a Heinz ketchup lacquer. Frankly, as open-minded as I’ve been about food, and despite sampling meatloaf made with Waygu beef and artisan bacon and glazed in balsamic thyme tomato reduction, my mother’s is the only version for which I hanker for seconds. That is until I stopped in at Kallile’s Lakeview spot.

When I first heard about the Meatloaf Bakery, I’d suggested the whole idea sounded like the pipe dream of an overworked insurance salesman or a stockbroker character in a Ben Stiller or Judd Apatow movie. What? There’s a place that serves $9 meatloaf cupcakes with faux frosting made from mashed potatoes? I mean, what next, a cereal restaurant? Oh wait… Cereality, we hardly knew ye.

My job, though, is not to mock leads, but to follow them. Then again, the story I found on the Meatloaf Bakery was almost as illogical as the concept. Kallile is a twenty-five-year veteran corporate communications and PR executive. She has no formal culinary training, just a passion for cooking. She says, “After college I lived with a couple of sorority girls, and they’d eat Cheez-Its while I whipped up full-course dinners for myself.” In the tradition of great home cooks cum experts like Madhur Jaffrey, or even great chefs like Thomas Keller, who never went to culinary school, she trusted her palate.

Her palate was honed growing up in a Lebanese family where the flavors of lemon, spearmint and curly parsley dominated. In fact, her flagship loaf, aka the Mother Loaf, is her 86-year-old mother’s beef-, pork- and veal-based recipe, save for the use of red pepper in place of green (she doesn’t like green).

But still, the road to restaurant bankruptcy is paved with the good intentions of great home cooks. Kallile, though, doesn’t suffer from the usual faux pas of under-seasoning. Her Loaf-a-Roma meatloaf, featuring oozy mozzerella, sun-dried tomatoes, basil and red-wine-infused beef and Italian sausage, stands up as a supreme nona- (aka Italian Grandmother) beater. You could toss it in the linguine at Spiaggia and Barack Obama would be none the wiser.

I’d always thought turkey and salmon alternatives at restaurants were throw-away courses reserved for health nuts and those whose undergarments were cinched just a little too tight. But 0Kallile’s turkey meatloaf studded with garlic and red pepper, dusted with parmesan and crowned with cranberry sauce might be her best, if not the Omega-3, an Alaskan salmon croquette perfumed with lemon, dill and parsley.

Truly not afraid of busting through the nostalgia barrier, even her MACnificent pasta, aka mac and cheese featuring a funky cheese blend and a crispy panko crust, might be better than my previous favorite side mac found at Smoque BBQ.

While there are a couple of tables, the Meatloaf Bakery is generally a take-out spot, and the loaves come in three sizes, a “loafie,” a cupcake and a full loaf or tart portion. The loafie, despite sounding a little too scatological, is actually an appetizer portion served in a pastry crust. My only quibble is that the pastry masks the meat flavor a bit, and I prefer the cupcake as the best ratio of meat to mashed-potato topping.

While the prices aren’t necessarily friendly during these trying economic times, approximately $9 for a large cupcake portion, or $30-plus for a full loaf, they’re not unfair considering the quality and luxury of the ingredients. And, while our governor sells senate seats, our newspapers file for bankruptcy and your wallet tightens, you can bet at the Meatloaf Bakery you’re getting a certain priceless dose of tasty comfort, maybe almost as good as your mom’s.

Meatloaf Bakery is located at 2464 North Clark, (773)698-6667

Cinful: Cincinnati chili in Chi-town

Contemporary Comfort, Lincoln Square No Comments »

cinnersawningBy Michael Nagrant

“You know Jerry Springer? I’ve inhaled with him more than a few times,” says Ed, a displaced Cincinnati architect nursing a glass of red wine at the end of the bar. On my left, a barrel-chested buzz-cut man, another former Queen City native, a national guardsman about to be deployed to Afghanistan, reminisces about lazy afternoons watching Pete Rose and the Big Red Machine at Riverfront stadium. The transplanted faithful are out in force on the first Saturday night of Lincoln Square’s new Cincinnati-style chili parlor and lounge, Cinner’s.

In the center, behind the bar, back-dropped by black-and-white photos of Cincinnati Reds greats like the “old lefthander” pitcher Joe Nuxhall and front-lit by a trio of red Ikea pendant lamps, is owner Tony Plum, an itinerant restaurant-and-bar-industry vet, and of course, a Cincy boy. With a black shag of wet ringlets, a sharp aquiline nose and a wiry form, he looks a little like Tommy Lee.

Like Lee, he’s also fairly tattooed, though there’s no baroque barbed wire, fierce animals or imitation tribal markings. Plum prefers works of art. There’s Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” and Michelangelo’s “Hands of God” detail from the Sistine Chapel on his left arm, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” on his left leg and Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross” on his right torso, a nod to the fact that he spent the last decade as a visual artist. Plum was also a singer-songwriter fronting California bands P.S. Chambers and Karmic Book Heroes. Asked how he went from singing to slinging chili, he jokes, “I got too old for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.” Read the rest of this entry »

Super Bowls: Forget About the Bears

Archer Heights, Bridgeport, Burbank, Contemporary Comfort, Greektown, Lincoln Park, Uptown No Comments »
Chuck's chili

Chuck's chili

By Michael Nagrant

For most of us, this year’s Super Bowl will be a doleful reminder of last year’s Bears collapse in the big game. Sitting down to watch the Giants battle the Patriots will do nothing but stir up 2007’s carnival of failure featuring Lance Briggs’ pre-season hold-out and Lamborghini hijinks, Tank Johnson’s legal woes, Brian Urlacher’s baby-mama drama and press tantrums and Rex Grossman’s ability to make ‘ole neckbeard Kyle Orton look like a promising NFL quarterback. So, why don’t you just turn off those plasma and DLP screens, skip the big game and hit the road in search of something to soothe your soul? In an effort to provide succor and to keep you warm through this January chill, I’ve compiled a list of some of Chicago’s own super bowls of soup, chili and stew to aid your journey. Read the rest of this entry »

Parsing the Painted Lady: Ukrainian Village’s new punk-rock cuisine

Contemporary Comfort, Organics, Ukrainian Village No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Like Le Tigre, Kathleen Hanna’s late-nineties riot grrl group, Painted Lady Organic Eatery is fierce, provocative, political and touched with a bit of girly girl pink.  Though if you’re not the kind of person who enjoys blood-spattered shots of Chicago roller-derby chicks (photos of which adorn almost every flat surface here), then you might not dig this spot.

You should.
Read the rest of this entry »