Dining and food culture in Chicago

Ramen Wars: Chicago Chefs Go Bowl-to-Bowl

Japanese, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Photo: Monica Kass Rogers, MKRogers.com

Photo: Monica Kass Rogers, MKRogers.com

By Monica Kass Rogers

With thousands of variations worldwide, ramen has always been a hot mess of flavor and texture that invites playful experimentation. And that’s what Chicago ramen battles are all about. Invited by host restaurants, chefs have jumped into the ramen-battle ring with characteristic Chicago swagger. Most of their ramen bowls have been great, some not so, but there’s no denying the exhibitionist fun of the throw-downs.

Chef leaders of the Chicago ramen-battle pack are Bill Kim (BellyQ, UrbanBelly, Belly Shack) and Matthias Merges (Yusho, A10, Billy Sunday), and both have been hosting two different styles of ramen-offs. Read the rest of this entry »

Toro Titan: Arami signals a new sushi master in town

Japanese, Sushi, Ukrainian Village No Comments »


By Michael Nagrant

The contemplation of the cut, the hand to the knife, the flaying of flesh—this is his profession. Stealthy like a ninja, discreet like a geisha, and eviscerating like a samurai—he will be, is, what the fillet requires. Watching toro ribbon beneath his blade, the word “rote” comes to mind. But, that’s wrong. Though repetition and study have yielded to mastery, he acts as though he has mastered nothing. Each slice is treated like his first.

He would be an apt recruit for a king’s court, the man who tests for poison. Though he mixed the soy sauce a minute ago before dabbing it on a triangle of fluke, he tastes it again before flavoring a second piece. You never know. Something could fall from the ceiling. The sauce might evaporate and get too salty. Each piece tastes like the one before it.

He walks from his station, leaving his forged steel knife behind. A man sitting at the bar says he collects knives and asks the chef’s assistant if he could see it. The assistant rejects the patron’s request. The man at the bar pleads. The assistant looks around and lifts the knife so the patron can get a closer look. He sets it down again.

The chef returns and appraises his station. A mask of violation creeps across his face. He whispers, “Who touched my knife?” The assistant bows in shame, but there is no reprisal. The chef waves him off, smiles at his customers and continues cutting.

This sushi chef is Mr. Miyagi, trapping flies with chopsticks. I can’t abide the silence. I ask him how he knew? “I always put my knife down in the same direction.” It’s not complicated, but it is not simple. Discipline rarely is. Read the rest of this entry »

Mad for Masu Izakaya: Welcome to the Japanese pub

Japanese, Lincoln Park 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant

“I’m the cheapest plumber in Chicago!”

Those are not the words you want to hear shouted from a restaurant kitchen while you’re having a nice meal with your family. Nor does it help when the grim-faced owner of the restaurant comes running through the back followed by the huffy grizzled plumber, quoted above, toting a fat bag of tools.

But, that’s just what happened a couple of weekends ago as I ate at the two-month old Masu Izakaya when the kitchen encountered a main plumbing line back up about an hour before a Saturday rush. I bring this up not as some metaphor for the failure of the restaurant. Rather, I’m impressed how owner Steven Song (who with his cleanly shaved head, trim physique and intense eyes would make a great lead in a Kurosawa film) handled the situation.

The plumber knew he had Song in a hard place and changed his quoted price. When Song balked, the plumber insisted that he was the “cheapest in Chicago.” Sensing a scam, Song kicked the dude to the curb and called another plumber. 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 »

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



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.

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.

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.

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 »

Best Head Waiter: Katsu

Japanese, Lincoln Square 6 Comments »

ultraman2Dear Katsu,

By blood I am half Japanese and this is the first thing I must communicate to you to set up our understanding. I think you understand, being one of few real Japanese restaurants in Chicago. With greatest respect I recognize that the tradition of excellence at Katsu is great honor to Japan and emblem for graced Nisei people. Katsu! I know this is a cry to enlightenment. Consider the death poem of Kogetsu Sogan: “Katsu! / Katsu! / Katsu! / Katsu!” Whatever harsh apprisals served by your waiter—the man (the Katsu!, if you will) that invoked this letter in me—are desirable for their aim to end suffering ignorance. I saw the gold flecks and finest dining at your establishment, I detected the air expertly nestled in the rice, I imbibed the sake—bottle chilled with such dignity in a smart cup—, and I gleaned no forced Japanese aesthetics for gaijin benefit. His abrupt insolence (the waiter’s) is kiai to move a mind beyond rationality and logic to achive initial enlightenment experience. I had never imagined us—me and the waiter—engaged in martial combat until I heard that kiai, when I italicized kiai. He is taller than me, certainly more Japanese, of potentially finer heritage, and, like myself, bred larger with American supplements. We have similarly demure visages, yet I am more handsome and well fit. If I stood against him, forcing him to table a tray of empty, he will first be painfully aware of his softness. I will remove my glasses, or will have already removed my glasses, which will prompt him to fear and consider the same, yet he will be unable to remove his glasses because my vision is surely better than his. Every favor is to me. He is my server but I will deliver the death rap to his nose. Read the rest of this entry »

Fresh Traditions: Akira Yokoyama’s classic sushi methods keep Ginza masterful

Japanese, River North 1 Comment »
Photo: Eric Young Smith

Photo: Eric Young Smith

By Chris Chandler

At ten o’clock each night, Akira Yokoyama phones three fish importers and orders seafood from around the world. Most of it will be flown in fresh by noon the next day. Nothing is more important to a sushi restaurant than fresh seafood.

Akira grew up in Tsuruoka, on the northwest coast of Japan’s main island facing the Sea of Japan, where for hundreds of years fresh fish has been the staple food. He can tell you the habits of each fish and shellfish, and describe the evolution of sushi over the past 1,400 years.

He bought the Ginza restaurant in downtown Chicago twenty years ago and has been painstakingly preparing the food six days a week ever since. The restaurant is plain-looking, like a typical one in Japan, tucked into the first floor of the Tokyo Hotel at 19 East Ohio. Akira expresses his art in the creation and presentation of each dish. There is an ancient Japanese tradition that food should be visually pleasing, sweet smelling and delicious. Akira follows that formula assiduously. Read the rest of this entry »