Dining and food culture in Chicago

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 »

A Cookie Monster: Will the macaron dethrone the cupcake as dessert du jour?

French, Pastry, Trends & Essays 3 Comments »

By Rilee Chastain

It’s hard to go somewhere within the city of Chicago and not run into a shop that sells cupcakes. In the last couple of years these tasty treats have been popping up in specialized bakeries, coffee shops and markets all over the city with a local domination to rival the Asian carp invasion. But a new pastry in town just may have what it takes to steal the cupcake crown.

At the end of 2009, when foodies were pegging the next big trends in the culinary world, macarons were mentioned everywhere from New York magazine to the James Beard Foundation blog. These delicate little French confections are cookie-like pastries made up of almonds, egg whites and sugar with a center filling. While these treats are just now finding their way onto the bakery shelves in the States, they have been a staple in France since the 1500s.

Katharine Greis, the co-owner of Panna Dolce, an online pastry shop specializing in macarons, first discovered the delicate dessert while traveling abroad in Paris. 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 »

French Kiss: Savoring the Parisian pleasures of the West Loop’s new market

French, News etc., Produce, West Loop No Comments »

saigonmenuBy Michael Nagrant

I’m trying to imagine Mayor Daley making out with a supermodel. Thankfully I’m not really spending much time thinking about his sputtering sweating visage as much as imagining what kind of daddy issues a supermodel would really need to make that happen.

Though I’m sure he dreams of dripping Italian-beef gravy on Carla Bruni’s naked body, Daley is no Nicolas Sarkozy. However, he did finally realize a bit of the French dream when he allocated eight million of his secret-slush-fund, err, I mean tax-increment-financing dollars, to open Chicago’s burgeoning French Market in the west part of the Ogilvie Transportation Center on December 3.

Finally, clout we can believe in. Well, sort of. Though the market’s six weeks old, for most of the last month, many of the stands weren’t at full operation, and some had yet to open. You’d think Daley would be hoisting a glass of Old Style in celebration, but as of last week Frietkoten’s beer taps were still empty since they haven’t received their liquor license. (They must have donated too much to aldermanic thorns in Daley’s side like Bob Fioretti, Brendan Reilly and Scott Waguespack.)

On my first few visits the whole thing felt a little half-baked, like I imagine the whole idea of this thing went down in the first place: I see Mayor Daley on some European tour getting shuttled around in a private double-decker bus by the East End equivalent of the Chevy Chase character in “European Vacation” saying “Oy, ‘ere’s Big Ben, Parliament.” Eventually the whole trip ends up in Paris at the Marché d’Aligre with pan au chocolat dripping from Daley’s craw and him saying, “We gotta get us one of dem markets back in Chicawgo.” 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 »

The Pastry Trail: Eclair, the moment I met you…

French, Lakeview, Pastry 1 Comment »
macaron

Macaron at Fritz Pastry

By Michael Nagrant

For many folks, a first trip to Paris turns out to be a bolt of culinary enlightenment. For me it was pretty much about trudging up thousands of really old stone stairs with the occasional side of mediocre pan au chocolat. Of course, as in substandard sex or pizza, one can always find something to love in a bad croissant stuffed with the gooey chocolate. But the point remains that during that trip I was not sophisticated enough to know where I should have gone for good pastry.

As such, my formative pastry education did not come from some burly handlebar-mustachioed European tall-hat-wearing chef. Instead, on weekend mornings, where Bostonian kiddies had mountains of Dunkin Donuts’ crullers and Jewish New Yorkers their H & H Bagels, I had Josef’s European Pastry Shop. 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 »

A New Home: The Hearty Boys have left the building and longtime executive chef Joncarl Lachman is in charge

Bistro, Boystown No Comments »

By Jenny B. Davis

Chef Joncarl Lachman spent the evening of February 13th sitting in an empty restaurant drinking Champagne.

He hadn’t expected much of a crowd so close to Valentine’s Day, but record snowfall put the kibosh on any hope of business that night, so he decided against opening. Instead, he split his bottle of bubbly with the people who happened to be there at the moment—his partner, a waiter and a plumber.

The unlikely trio was only too happy to lift their glasses to Lachman. It was, after all, his first night as the chef and owner of the new restaurant, HB Home Bistro.

HB isn’t exactly a new restaurant. The Boystown eatery originally opened in 2005 as HB A Hearty Boys Spot, the name a nod to the celebrity moniker of its owners, Food Network TV stars Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh.

Lachman was involved from the beginning. An award-winning chef and a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Lachman had worked in high-profile kitchens in New York City and Washington D.C., including a stint as the executive chef of Urban Epicure in Andersonville.

As HB’s executive chef, Lachman quickly built a dedicated dining base of regulars. The reasonably priced, seasonal American menu contributed to its popularity, as did its BYOB status and waived corkage fee. While Lachman kept everyone in the narrow dining room well fed, the Hearty Boys focused on the meet-and-greet—that is, when they weren’t away taping an episode or catering a function.

By late 2006, the Hearty Boys were juggling the restaurant, the show, the catering business and a forthcoming cookbook (“Talk with Your Mouth Full” drops this fall)—plus they had added a baby to the mix. Which meant something had to give. And that something was HB.

“We had so many coals in the fire and were going in so many different directions that we were afraid of not doing anything well,” McDonagh says. “[HB] is such a lovely, intimate space, and it works best when the owner is there.”

It was only natural for Lachman to become the next owner, says McDonagh. “His goal has always been to open a restaurant, and because he was a main force behind the opening of HB, it was his baby, too.” And perhaps most importantly, McDonagh adds, “He is a very dear friend. We trust him completely and his food is outstanding.”

So the deal went forward. And in a matter of months, HB officially belonged to Lachman and his partner of seven years, Bob Moysan.

“It feels different, but in an easy, warm way,” Lachman says from his seat at a corner table near the restaurant’s front window. “I can’t explain it—I am just proud and humbled at the same time. I can’t believe it, and then I feel like I’ve earned it. And there’s always the fear that you’ll open and no one will come.”

So far, that hasn’t happened. In fact, business is better than it’s ever been, Lachman says. Even the ad hoc art gallery they launched on the restaurant’s rugged brick walls—the current exhibition is a collection of black-and-white photography by Moysan—is doing well.

Lachman hasn’t made any significant changes to HB, and he doesn’t plan to. (Yes, that means the BYOB policy will stay.) But he and Moysan have done some things to add their personal stamp to the place and to quietly enhance the dining experience. “I didn’t want to make changes just to make changes,” Lachman says. “But there were some things that I had in my mind.”
Perhaps the most noticeable change is the new name—HB remains, but it now stands for Home Bistro. Then there’s the addition of the art. The furniture is also new, with sturdy albeit nondescript chairs replacing the mismatched flea-market finds. The campy “hunky waiter” coffee mugs are also gone, although Lachman insists with a laugh that the actual hunky waiters have stuck around.

The menu still feels familiar, with its emphasis on beautifully prepared, honest food made with fresh, seasonal and often locally sourced ingredients. That’s apparent in entrees like the herb-marinated hanger steak with salsa verde and roasted tomato butter and truffle fries ($20), the double-cut pork chop with butternut squash mash and whisky-glazed apples ($19) and the appetizer of brown-sugar-baked almond stuffed dates wrapped in bacon ($11). Brunch menu standards are also still there, like the “almost famous” pancakes ($9) and the bananas foster deep fried French toast ($8).

Take a closer look, though, and you’ll see that Lachman has added some interesting flavors and preparations that he’s derived directly from his Dutch heritage. There are mussels prepared “Amsterdam-style,” in beer butter with garlic, basil and anise ($9) along with added dashes of nutmeg, clove and cinnamon—spices that hark back to the days of Holland’s South East Asia involvement.

Ideally, Lachman wants HB to convey the feeling of what’s called an eetcafe in Holland. “These cafes are unpretentious, cozy and comfortable,” he explains. “And it’s like that here—we have that welcoming feeling where customers come in and they feel like it’s their restaurant, they feel like they have an ownership in it.”

HB Home Bistro is located at 3404 North Halsted, (773)661-0299.

Sweet Sojourn: The star-crossed story behind Aigre Doux

French, River North No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Mohammad Islam would make a first-rate drug pusher. The executive chef and co-owner of the new River North hot spot Aigre Doux (which means sweet and sour in French) is standing next to his wife, pastry chef and co-owner Malika Ameen, and Oriana Kruszewski, aka “The Walnut Lady” in the basement pastry kitchen. Islam repeatedly dips his hand in Kruszewski’s zip-locked stash, and gives me handfuls of her black walnuts (they taste like extraordinary dried apples). Kruszewski’s also brought along some homemade preserves, frozen cornelian cherries and raspberries. Islam is handing spoons of the stuff to me as if he were a countercultural shaman bestowing a particularly robust strain of Humboldt County pot. As Islam chews on a cherry, there’s a child-waking-up-on-Christmas-day-like glint in his eyes as he tells Kruszewski he’d like to see her at the back door of Aigre Doux every two weeks. Kruszewski looks at him and tells him he’s crazy, and that if he buys her high-quality-but-pricey products that frequently, he’ll go out of business. Read the rest of this entry »