Dining and food culture in Chicago

Comfort Me: Lee Ann Whippen of Chicago q

Comfort Me, Gold Coast No Comments »

Lee Ann Whippen on the line

By David Hammond

I write about food, so I’m frequently asked, “What’s your favorite restaurant?”

An impossible question to answer.

Owing to a number of factors that change daily or even hourly, it’s sometimes difficult to pin down a favorite restaurant. For instance, my favorite place for breakfast will almost certainly be different than my favorite place for lunch or dinner; one of my favorite places for lunch is Johnnie’s Italian Beef in Elmwood Park, but on a hot summer afternoon, no way I’m going to hunker into a mound of steaming beef.

A person’s comfort foods are also subject to change, and it’s not uncommon for people to have more than one comfort food.

“I have a lot of comfort foods,” said Lee Ann Whippen of Chicago q (1160 North Dearborn). “Each of these foods has their own quality that comforts me for whatever reason. Comfort food is not only for when you’re feeling bad. Sometimes you just want to feel good all over. You just want to feel… comfortable.” Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

411: Behind the Lights

Events, Gold Coast No Comments »

The holiday season officially kicks into high gear for Chicagoans this Saturday with the nineteenth annual Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. Every year, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, hundreds of thousands of spectators flock to Michigan Avenue to watch Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus lead a parade of furries and quasi-celebrities (past years have featured the likes of Kirk Cameron and Jamie Farr; this year look for the stars of Radio Disney) atop corporate-sponsored floats to light up the estimated one-million-plus Christmas tree lights along The Mag Mile. Next to Black Friday, it’s one of the busiest days of the year for the area; retailers will be unveiling their holiday window displays and extending their shopping hours in an attempt to get a jump on the early holiday shopping surge. It’s a huge day for the business community of the area—for the employees of those businesses though, it can be more of a mixed blessing.

“You have to be mentally prepared,” says Dave Zampillo, senior manager of The Grand Lux Cafe, a popular restaurant on Michigan Avenue (where I work when not writing). “You can’t come in cranky or hung-over or you’ll punch somebody in the face.” Read the rest of this entry »

On A Roll: Is M Burger the best fast-food hamburger in the city?

Burgers, Gold Coast 2 Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels going round and round. I really love to watch them roll. —John Lennon

It’s finally “watching the wheels” time here in Chicago. We’ve been granted a full string of sunny warm days, almost a full three months earlier than last year. Of course, this is the Midwest. It may snow yet, so grab it while you can.

I’d recommend some al fresco eats to enjoy the weather, but that would just be a critical disservice, for everyone knows, al fresco in the Windy city means choking on the curbside dust kicked up by street sweepers running as a function of still relatively inefficient aldermanic prerogative.

Better instead to head over and grab and go from M Burger, the new shake shack from Lettuce Entertain You, and spread out in some off-street plaza in the Loop.

I know. I’m sick of the burger thing too. 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 »

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 »

The Captain of C-House: The cuisine of Prince Marcus Samuelsson

Gold Coast, Seafood No Comments »

chouse-004By Michael Nagrant

If, as restaurant lore suggests, many chefs come from the ranks of artists, bandits and miscellaneous misfits, then Marcus Samuelsson, executive chef of C-House and Marc Burger at Macy’s is, by comparison, a prince. The youngest chef to receive three stars from the New York Times, he’s also an entrepreneur, a TV personality, a cookbook author and a tireless ambassador for Swedish and African culinary and cultural heritage. He’s as much an intellectual as he is a master culinary craftsman. More importantly, those of you who read my burger round-up a few weeks ago know he also makes a mean grilled patty. Samuelsson was in town last week to work on some new dishes at C-House and I caught up with him to see what’s on his mind.

You opened up Merkato 55 (in NYC) which honors your African heritage, and of course you’re famous for Scandinavian cooking at Aquavit which honors your Swedish upbringing. Is cooking in one particular discipline more satisfying? You were born in Ethiopia, but maybe you have more nostalgia and memories of growing up Swedish since that’s where you were raised?
Africa will always be a part of me and Sweden will always be a part of me. They are also both minority cuisines. Read the rest of this entry »

Down with the Drawing Room: A new sheriff’s in town at the Rush Street spot

Gold Coast, New American No Comments »

chow4By Michael Nagrant

At 8:30pm on a Friday night, The Drawing Room at Le Passage is kind of a lonely hearts club. There’s a six-top of cargo-shorts-wearing sunburned dudes slurping down Coronas. There’s a bony bald-headed Nosferatu-like guy in a smart-looking suit making his way through some food. In the opposite corner, an employee, head-to-toe in black sporting a taut ponytail, a “Marked for Death”-era Steven Seagal look-alike, warily scans the room. Finally, there’s a lanky, lonely old dude, who with his slicked-back gray hair, Harry Caray face-engulfing black-rimmed glasses, turquoise nylon windbreaker and Daisy-Duke-length boating shorts looks like a Viagra Triangle Aristotle Onassis.

Clearly he’s somebody, a regular or a Gold Coast moneybag, because even though he strolls in twenty minutes after us, he gets his drink first, while our table only an apology from the bartender that we’re next. But that’s the way it’s always been in this canyon under Rush Street: if you’re somebody, you get served, and if you’re nobody, it’s back behind the velvet rope with the herd. At least that’s how it was in the Billy Dec days, when his homey David Schwimmer ran free in the VIP Room. Sitting here now, beside white stone columns and under the glinting crystal chandelier, you can almost hear the ghost whispering, “Yo, I’m Ross from ‘Friends,’ baby. Let’s hook up.”

And so while the pecking order may not have changed under the new management of Three Headed Productions, I’d heard the food and drink had. Read the rest of this entry »

Snapper in the City: The Drake Hotel’s Bookbinder soup

Gold Coast, Recipes No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

While I abhor Cosmopolitans, the one thing I do love about those ladies from “Sex and the City” is their camaraderie. I suspect their daily meetings, however, are nothing but TV mythology. There’s no way anyone with a real job and life has time to meet with their friends so often. Still, their gatherings duly represent my aspirations of whiling away endless afternoons over drinks, food and banter to celebrate life. And so I do. Since I moved to Chicago, my best friend Aamir and I have made it a pretty regular habit to decompress at various downtown establishments after work. Read the rest of this entry »

TRU—The Next Generation: The chemistry of cuisine

Gold Coast, New American No Comments »

TruBy Michael Nagrant

A biochemistry major and an actor walk into a restaurant…

It may sound like a joke, but it actually describes the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Tim Graham, 31, chef de cuisine, and Chad Ellegood, wine director and sommelier, of TRU restaurant (676 North St. Clair). With Executive Chef Rick Tramonto splitting time on new restaurant projects and sommelier Scott Tyree departing for fine-wine retailer Hart Davis Hart, Graham and Ellegood were given the keys to the culinary kingdom last year. Read the rest of this entry »