Dining and food culture in Chicago

Two for Takeout: The neverending quest to be the next Chipotle

Chinese, Fast Food/Street Food, Indian, Rogers Park, West Loop 1 Comment »

Shabuka's Chana beef masala

By Michael Nagrant

It seems everyone wants to be the next Chipotle. For every upscale chef who opens a new hotdog stand or sandwich shop these days, there are two entrepreneurs trying to ape the success of the McDonald’s of Mexican, and become the next big ethnic franchise.

As with chefs going casual, these attempts have often paid off handsomely for local eaters. Take Me Out, Let’s Eat Hotties launched a thousand spicy garlic-soy-glazed hot wings, while Crisp in Lakeview has blessed us with killer Korean fried chicken. Though for every one of those spots, there’s also a Chutney Joe’s, serving up mostly mediocre fare.

One of the newer Chicago restaurants on a “Look Outside the Bun” lark hoping to ameliorate the failures of a place like Chutney Joe’s is Shabuka Indian Grill, tucked into a Loyola-area strip mall next to, surprise, a Chipotle. Read the rest of this entry »

Whoa, Delhi: Falling hard for a coffee-tea-homewares-Indian-fusion fashion boutique

Indian, Lincoln Square No Comments »

The Samosa-wich

By Michael Nagrant

If you need evidence of the oppressive rise of random pop culture (or Wikipedia’s mastery of search-engine optimization), look no further than a Google search for the word “snow.” How else to explain that white Toronto-born rapper, Snow, the man behind the highest-charting reggae single of all time, “Informer” (wherever he is, Bob Marley must be rolling a big fat spliff over that one), is the second matching result. It’s probably only a matter of time before the wordsmith of the eternal lyric “licky boom boom down” takes over the more familiar fluffy cold precipitate on the internet.

I am reminiscing about the heir to Vanilla Ice’s throne, because I heard his desi twin, an Indian MC rocking a familiar “Informer”-like melody while sipping cardamom chai at Lincoln Square’s new, and likely Chicago’s only, coffee/tea-homewares-Indian fusion-panini-slinging fashion boutique, Delhi 6. 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 »

Spicy Smackdown: Turning up the heat in the South Loop

Indian, Nepalese, South Loop No Comments »
Chutney Joe's

Chutney Joe's

By Michael Nagrant

With all the truth-seeking, moneyed, mid-life-crisis-experiencing entrepreneurs “climbing” Mt. Everest, it’s surprising there hasn’t been a nationwide boom in Nepalese cuisine. After all, in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the counter-culture got tired of smoking peyote and mainlining Mexican mezcal, they returned to the States bearing larded beans, chimichangas and burritos as big as your head. But, while young reformed hippies needed to build a life and make some money, flush hedge-fund managers don’t quite need sidelines beyond month-long sojourns to the Turks and Caicos or weekend benders at Maybach dealerships. And so our nation suffers a culinary debt.

And as the nation goes, so does Chicago, or at least the South Loop. Despite the confluence of affluence gathering in newly sprung high-rise condos off of South Michigan Avenue, or the density of cultured denizens living in former printing warehouses off Dearborn, the South Loop has been one of Chicago’s stalwart ethnic-food deserts. But, in the last month, with the addition of the Indian and Nepalese-skewing Chicago Curry House and the McDonald’s-meets-the-Maharaja, fast-food-slinging Indian diner, Chutney Joes, it’s now ground zero for all things sambar and spice. Read the rest of this entry »

Unswayed: Randolph Street’s Veerasway tastes almost as beautiful as it looks

Indian, West Loop 1 Comment »

paneerBy Michael Nagrant

Angela Hepler-Lee is like the new Jerry Kleiner. Years after the Marche and Red Light impresario staked his claim to Randolph Street, Hepler-Lee, who opened Sushi Wabi, De Cero and now a new mod small-plates Indian spot, Veerasway, is taking it back piece-by-upscale-ethnic-piece.

Like Kleiner, who acid-tripped out the classic French bistro at Marche and brought NY Strip to class up the Kung Pao beef at Opera, Hepler-Lee specializes in taking cheap ethnic classics, be it sushi or taqueria fare, and glamming them up with luxury ingredients, a haute chef’s touch and serving the food in a mod, clean dining room.

This makes her a primary target for the serious food community, the folks who generally believe good food only comes from mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall joints, grungy taquerias or the backstreets of Chinatown. When De Cero opened, these folks moaned over the $4 tacos and $9 nachos, and wondered why you’d ever go there when you could get a great taco for a $1.50 down the street in Pilsen. Read the rest of this entry »

Flavor Creator: Qutradullah Syed’s road to Bhabi’s Kitchen

Devon Street Desi, Indian No Comments »

By Ryan Wenzel

For a Saturday, business at Bhabi’s Kitchen is uncharacteristically slow. Few among the crowds traversing nearby Devon Avenue for weekend shopping have stepped into the Indian-Pakistani restaurant at 6352 North Oakley; two white couples are the restaurant’s only patrons. Small chandeliers soak the thirteen-table restaurant with yellow light. The walls—painted garishly in gold, orange and turquoise—are covered with decorations usually found at rummage sales: a wooden whale, a melodramatic oil print of the Brooklyn Bridge, a cheap plastic clock that can’t keep time.

Nonetheless, Qutradullah Syed, the 51-year-old proprietor, gives his disjointed establishment an urgent, professional feel. Dressed in a gray sweater, blue jeans and a black bucket hat, he circles the restaurant’s interior like a hawk. His eyes, rendered a piercing shade of blue by contact lenses, scan the restaurant. Everything must be perfect. He jogs over to the stereo in the corner and flips through Bollywood tracks. He runs to the opposite side of the dining area to tweak the light switches, ultimately deciding to dim the chandeliers. When he has created the ideal ambience, he approaches each table—often abruptly—to inquire about the food. Read the rest of this entry »