Dining and food culture in Chicago

Toro Titan: Arami signals a new sushi master in town

Japanese, Sushi, Ukrainian Village No Comments »

Cod

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 »

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 »

Return of the Macku: The brothers behind Kaze are back with a sushi champion

Lincoln Park, Sushi No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

There are a lot of toddlers who were more sophisticated than me in 2002. After all this was the decade where fat little Gap-clad cherubs named Holden or Zoe swaddled in architecturally significant strollers pushed by their progressive parents went from mother’s milk to maki in seconds flat. I, raised on La Choy chow mein and almond boneless chicken, made it to my mid-twenties without ever eating raw fish.

Back then “toro” was a lawnmower manufacturer or a bullfighter’s cry, not the silky fatty foie-like tuna I’ve come to covet like scantily clad pictures of Scarlett Johansson (for their art value of course). That all changed in the fall of 2002 thanks to a wicked hangover.

Some things are immutable. You die. You pay taxes. If you’re a Michigan football fan, you tailgate in six inches of mud in the driving rain or bundle up for a God-given pimp slap of a blizzard if you are somehow privileged to score tickets to the year-end Ohio State game, even if it takes place in the urban-planning disaster that is Columbus.

And, as in the fall of 2002, if both teams have a shot at the Big Ten championship, and Michigan has a chance to spoil the Buckeyes’ undefeated season and potential national championship, you certainly do not sell those tickets. In fact, if you have extras you hoard them so you can procure a seat for your warm thermos of hot chocolate.

But, when hours before the game you’re in so much pain from drinking with your old college buddy the night before that you can’t get out of bed, and you’re $20,000 in hock for school loans and a year out of college making almost nothing and some dude is offering you $400 a ticket, bitterness, greed and confusion conspire against you.

I can’t say I’d ever had four Ben Franklins in my pocket before, or really ever again. But they do burn the proverbial hole once they’re there, and the surest cure for a hangover is massive amounts of food. Flush, that means fancy food, and somehow this time the Awesome Blossom at Outback Steakhouse wasn’t going to cut it.

I do not remember how we ended up at a Columbus sushi bar 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 »