Dining and food culture in Chicago

Like Jeannie in a Bottle? I Dream of Falafel seduces the Loop

Loop, Middle Eastern No Comments »

Falafel

By Michael Nagrant

Barbara Eden was my first MILF. Well, maybe, more like my first MILK (mother I’d like to kiss), since I’d first spied her pink-tasseled loveliness in the mid-eighties on WGN when I was nine years old. I hardly knew of carnal pleasures, much less dropped the f-bomb in those days. Not only did I not know about sex, I didn’t understand syndication. I still remember being confused about how Larry Hagman was a dashing young astronaut one day and this gray-haired oil tycoon the next (my mom, like most moms of the day, had a serious addiction to aerobics, spandex tights and “Dallas”).

What I knew is that when Eden pursed her lips, pressed her palms together and did a pseudo-exotic sashay across my parents’ hulking Zenith and called J.R. Ewing ‘master’, I was smitten. While some of my peers hovered saucer-eyed in ramshackle clubhouses over torn abandoned Playboys, I relished a daily ration of “I Dream of Jeannie” from the black velvet love seat with the mirrored arms in my folks’ living room.

And so how could I not check out a Loop lunch spot named I Dream of Falafel. Well, actually pretty easily, as it took me a year, and the opening of a second location of the Mediterranean spot to finally get over there. 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 »

Shawarma Police: This is what you get when you mess with tahini

Bridgeport, Middle Eastern, Ukrainian Village 3 Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

This is what you get (when you eat in the front seat of your car): a combined dry-cleaning and auto-interior-detailing bill that costs four times the price of the sandwich you just ate.

After the best-taco-al-pastor search of 2007, whereby I had to remove achiote paste stains from the front passenger-side carpet of my Ford Escape, the subsequent best-French-fry search, whereby my truck’s cabin wafted greasy McDonaldsesque potato fumes for a week, and then finally the best-pho quest, which ended up with me using a wet/dry vacuum to suck out star-anise-perfumed beef broth from the crevices of my center console, you think I woulda learned my lesson.

Of course, though my 3-year-old son just explored what almost all of the colors in the Crayola Fun Pack look like when you scribble them on the back of our white entry door, my wife claims she wants to give birth again.

Pain is somehow often synonymous with forgetfulness.

And so, the great shawarma search of 2010 commenced with me dripping spicy, rusty-orange harissa-infused tahini sauce all over my button-down, my jeans and the cracks in the leather on my gray bucket seats. For those wondering, tahini is not a good natural sesame-paste alternative to Armor All. Read the rest of this entry »

Just Pickled: Lakeview’s Falafill has good balls

Lakeview, Middle Eastern 1 Comment »

ffBy Michael Nagrant

I used to think the greatest thing the Coptics (Christian Egyptians) bestowed upon the world was the sixth secretary general of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali—well, at least his name, which may be the most amusing political moniker of all time. Turns out, though, I’m wrong. Their superior gift to humanity is falafel.

Forbidden to eat meat during certain Christian holy days, foremost the Lenten holiday, and seeking alternative sustenance, the Coptics ground fava beans, mixed them with spices, formed them into patties or balls and deep fried them. As the dish migrated toward the northeast, Chickpeas were substituted for favas.

As the Jewish diaspora resettled in the Middle East, they adopted the dish as their own. Falafel has become such a touchstone in Israel that it’s likely any scientific analysis of the particulate content of air in Jerusalem these days shows at least a few parts per million of chickpea and cumin.

My own history with the falafel, though short, is obsessive. I grew up in parts where a vegetarian, and the entrees he or she might consume, was pretty much greeted with the goodwill reserved for a Packers fan at Soldier Field. At best, a vegetarian would be a source of amusement at Thanksgiving dinner, regarded like a carnival oddity, and placated with a jiggly disc of canned cranberry dressing. Read the rest of this entry »

Rock the Zebda: Algerian takeout ups the Middle Eastern ante

Algerian, Irving Park 1 Comment »
Lamb Brochette

Lamb Brochette

By Michael Nagrant

Zebda, a new tiny Algerian take-out spot in Irving Park, is the kinda place you’d likely drive by without a second thought. Unless you’re a cabbie who hangs out at owner Mohammad Djeddour’s coffee shop Tassili next door, it’s practically invisible. Even though I had the address, I passed it twice before spotting the word “Zebda” (which is the French-Algerian word for butter) painted on a plate-glass storefront window.

Step inside and the perfume of cinnamon from flaky pastilla, or crepe-like pockets filled with curry chicken, flares your nostrils. The entire countertop is larded with glinting confections like orange flower water, honey and sesame-coated, flaky Ramadan cookies called Shebakia. There’s also a tray of diced curried fish and pepper pastillas and a generous pile of smoky, blistered, griddled, pita-like flatbread. 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 »

Chewin’ on Chickpea: A fearless new Middle-Eastern spot

Palestinian, Ukrainian Village No Comments »

hummusBy Michael Nagrant

Judging by the cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” by Israeli-French singer Yael Naim playing over Palestinean café Chickpea’s sound system, the Arab-Israeli conflict doesn’t have much purchase here. That’s no surprise, though,as pretty much everything here is a touch askew.

The Genie coin-op pinball machine in the corner rigged for free play is possessed with a sticky right flipper and almost all of the songs that play while I eat are covers, including what seems like an impossibility: a more plaintive, cheesy version of John Waite’s “Missing You” than the original. Though, apparently Steve Perry is cheesy enough, because “Don’t Stop Believin’” is featured in all of its original arena-rock glory.

The walls are plastered with familiar iconic pop-cultural imagery: the American-flag-shrouded Rocky Balboa, the vengeful, badass, gun-toting Charles Bronson from “Death Wish,” the wily Clintonesque grin of Eddie Murphy from “A Distinguished Gentleman” and the Red-Sea-parting white Coca-Cola wave. These aren’t Hollywood lightbox reproductions, but Arabic language posters.

But just as American pop culture is interpreted through the Middle Eastern graphical prism, the food at Chickpea is sometimes inversely reinterpreted against the backdrop of the Elvis-and-“Speed Racer”-tinged, Western-influenced childhood of owner Jerry Suqi (Sugar, La Pomme Rouge). Read the rest of this entry »

Back Up to Big Buns: Newly named Sahara Kabob boasts passion and talent

Middle Eastern, Rogers Park No Comments »

pizzaBy Michael Nagrant

I like Big Buns and I cannot lie. Though, as with foie gras, Alderman Joe Moore apparently does not. According to a recent local story by Martha Bayne about Sahara Kabob, the artist formerly known as Big Buns and Pita restaurant, Moore asked the owners to take down their pseudo-Vegas like marquee in favor of a more “genteel” awning.

Though his suggestion was purportedly about the garishness of the sign, I have no doubt he also despised the fact that such a suggestive Sir-Mix-A-Lot-friendly name besmirches his Rogers Park empire. Then again, Moore has shown he’s more interested in vilifying luxury food items than dealing with the drug dealers that still run rampant in his fiefdom, so maybe not. If he cares, then I’m sure his cheeks are still a bit chapped over the fact that the owners retained the subtitle “big buns and pita” on their new awning.

I dig the subversive nature of the Sahara folks not only in their new choice of architecture, but also for their Assyrian-tinged brand of Middle-Eastern grub. Though they have plenty of falafel and taboule, not to mention a decent Polish hotdog (who says you can’t be all things to all people), there is also a handful of unique offerings.

First among them is the Lahmim Beajin, the fallout from a high-speed collision between a kabob, puff pastry and a pizza. Finely ground beef, blanketed in a rusty rich tomato sauce studded with tomato, onion, parsley and aromatic sweet and hot spices like cumin and allspice, is nestled inside a buttery patisserie-worthy crust. Sprinkle a little lemon, make like you’re at Giordano’s and pop a slice in your mouth.

For those who are looking for a portable space heater in the upcoming deep freeze of December, try the lentil soup featuring toothsome (i.e. not disintegrated mushy bits) beans and a rich creamy base, or the Douckua a tart heartwarming barley, yogurt and lamb soup. If you’d rather take your comfort in solid food, the Quuzi, dripping off-the-bone lamb shank enrobed in tomato sauce, will do nicely.

If you’re an unrepentant carnivore, but in love with a vegetarian, then the hummus and shawirma plate might just be the perfect culinary peace offering for both of you (assuming your veg-friendly buddy doesn’t mind spicy spit-roasted beef and lamb juices and chunks in the middle of his or her pureed chickpeas).

Unfortunately for vegetarians, the falafel plate is kind of bland. While the heft and crispy exterior is nice, I’m a sucker for the amount of cumin, parsley and coriander seasoning that turns a falafel nuclear green. Sahara’s deep-fried balls sport a beige under-seasoned fava bean and chickpea mix. Though, the accompanying torshi or pickled veggies kicked up with sport peppers and a zingy cutting touch of vinegar make up for the lack of flavor.

Meat eaters, on the other hand, have a Ted-Nugent-hunting-trip’s worth of animal flesh to check out, the best of which is a smoky charcoal-grilled kefta kebob laced with cilantro, caramelized onion and cumin.

As compelling as the food is the fact that owner Khoshaba Khamis has a day job at the Chicago Hilton, while his wife Hala and his daughter Larsa hold down the fort at the restaurant. Like many low-key ethnic storefronts, this is a skin-of-the-teeth-margins enterprise. Witnessing an empty dining room on a weeknight, you question whether passion and talent are enough to sustain this operation. Hopefully it is.

Sahara Kabob is located at 6649 North Clark, (773)262-2000