Dining and food culture in Chicago

Hip To Be Square: Apart is the Huey Lewis of pizza, and that’s a good thing

Lincoln Square, Pizza No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

If you were semi-conscious in the eighties, you probably read the title of this column and thought of Huey Lewis. Or, if born later, maybe you recalled the film “American Psycho” adapted from Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, wherein Christian Bale as investment banker/serial killer Patrick Bateman hacks a dude up with an axe while jigging to the cute organ fills on Lewis’ song.

I don’t really like “Hip To Be Square.” I prefer Lewis’ “Power of Love” from the “Back to the Future” soundtrack as it recalls my old bromantic worship of young Michael J. Fox and also because it’s a simple confection. “Hip To Be Square” is a confection too, but Lewis pretends it’s more by using the song to explore what it means to give up on a dream and sell out to the man. He also interweaves the idea that pretending like you sold out to the man while being a rock-star, i.e. not selling out, is now cool. Lewis is pretty much Billy Joel without soul—and the alcohol problems and hot wives. His music, a formulaic brand of funk and blues mixed with secondhand soccer-mom-friendly Talking Heads is sell-out packaged pop of the greatest vintage and is not particularly complicated.* As such, Lewis comes off as trying too hard.

I recognize if you made it through the last two paragraphs and the footnote below, the same can be said about me. There are worse things than to be the Huey Lewis of food writing. Though I assure you, were I really like Lewis, I would never sue Ray Parker Jr. if he had cribbed a bass line from me for his 1984 hit single “Ghostbusters”—one, because I was already a gazillionaire, and two because I’d hate for people to look too deeply and think maybe I stole that lick from someone else (ahem, “Pop Muzik” by M) for “I Want A New Drug.” But, I wanted to write about how my favorite culinary ‘hood in Chicago is Lincoln Square and though my distaste for Lewis is strong, the title fit. 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 »

Coney Island Dreams: Dogged by memories, a quest ensues

Bridgeport, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Lakeview, Lincoln Square 5 Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

I cried watching Kid Rock on VH1 Storytellers the other day. It wasn’t a watershed, rather more of a single rolling tear. That a greasy-haired-beer-guzzling-tattooed-fedora-wearing-skuzzy-facially-haired-dude who used to cavort with a profane dwarf named Joe C and who by his own admission is “straight out the trailer” moved me, was a surprise. But, that’s hometown pride.

For decades, outsiders have been slagging on my dingy beacon on the river, Detroit. For almost as long, they never got it right. For every wolf cry about Detroit as flaking rust belt, there were still millions of blue-collar assembly liners rolling off their shifts in chrome-trimmed Cadillacs. For every crumbling rough-patinaed high rise, there was a shiny silver recently hoisted Red Wings Stanley Cup.

For every hellfire and ash-pile of a former building shown from a helicopter camera angle on Devil’s Night, or every reported carjacking or murder, there was a kid reveling, though shivering in his moonboots, on Woodward Avenue across from the old Vernor’s factory watching a Thanksgiving parade more glorious and real than that fairy-dusted televised production dream from Macy’s in New York.

Now, though, Detroit is truly busted. The Big 3 have cut to the bone and laid off too many. You hear of foreclosures in Chicago, but in Detroit you see them in crumbling realtor signs, creeping prairie grasses and cracked porches choked with weeds. 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 »

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 »

Hang Loose: Loose Leaf Tea Loft loves its books

Coffee & Tea, Lincoln Square No Comments »

img_3809Nailed firmly to almost turquoise walls are box-shelves made of unfinished wood that hold pots, moleskin journals and books ranging from Sartre to “House of Leaves.” A tranquil mood is set by slow music playing overhead, where far from bright lights shine from up above. The place: the Loose Leaf Tea Loft.

The Loft is set up by Michelle Wu and Conor Pewarski, Harvard and Yale graduates who, on a brave whim, decided to set up the tea joint in Irving Park after a post-graduation return to Chicago. “We decided to open a tea shop in July 2008, drove all our things in a U-Haul from Boston to Chicago, found a few spaces on Craigslist, and fell in love with this corner immediately,” Wu says. “Then, with help from family and friends, we repainted the entire space and collected wine crates for the wall display. We tasted hundreds of teas to pick our thirty-six for the menu. We filed for restaurant licenses and business permits from the city.”

After about three and a half months from conception to their actual opening, Wu and Pewarski have established a space with a relaxing atmosphere with character to boot. “Our general mission is to promote health and happiness through balance and community,” Pewarski says. “Tea is the perfect way to do that, because a key ingredient is time—time for the leaves to steep, time for conversation. We also wanted to create an intimate space that the community feels free to use for their own artistic, social and intellectual gatherings—poetry readings, musical performances, open mic nights, writing workshops, game nights. We love it when someone comes to us with an idea for an event that they’d like to host at the shop.”

With hopes of attracting delightful crowds, Wu and Pewarski have added to the Loft all the necessary tools for a nurturing atmosphere. “Hoping to create an atmosphere of reading, writing and conversation, we decided to sell notebooks along with tea and put all our favorite books up on the wall for decoration and use. That gave us the name of the shop: Loose Leaf Tea Loft, for loose leaf tea and loose leaf paper. Then with our favorite books in the wine crates, it just made sense to connect the teas with our sources of inspiration,” Wu says. And the teas’ names are no joke, either. “Each tea is named after a different literary character that has some trait or connection with the tea, and almost all the characters come from a book in the shop. For instance, Jack Kerouac’s character in ‘On the Road’ gave us our Sal’s Paradise tea, sharp ginger with tangy orange freshness. Miss Scarlett’s Sweetest is a white tea with playful peaches and spunky tangerine, reminiscent of Georgia and southern society in ‘Gone with the Wind.’ And of course, our Barack’s AudaciTea promises to ‘change the way you think of oolong with the flavor of hopeful hazelnut.’”  (Micah McCrary)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Loose Leaft Tea Lost is closed as of July 2009, and will soon reopen as Latte on Lincoln.

Loose Leaf Tea Loft, 4229 N. Lincoln, looseleaftealoft.com

Bowling for Eats: A few tips for catering your Super Bowl party

Cuisine, etc., Hermosa, Lincoln Square, Lower West Side, Pilsen, Roseland No Comments »
cemita-009

Cemita

By Michael Nagrant

Unless you want to be branded a Detroit-Lions-like Super-Bowl-party-throwing loser, you better stay away from the powdered French-onion soup-mix dip this year. Sure, all your friends suggest that the real reason they come over is for your drunken bonhomie and so they don’t have to talk to their cat when they make fun of bad commercials that cost so much that you could bail out a small auto-maker or a mortgage bank with their budgets. But, watch your guests closely and you’ll likely spot a grimace when they spy an appetizer table flowing with cream-cheese-and-veggie-slathered Pillsbury-dough veggie pizza or a crusty tomato-topped jar of Pace picante. But don’t despair, beleaguered ball-lovin’ brethren, in these tough economic times, there are still plenty of affordable tasty party-eat alternatives.

Little Hotties, Take Me Out, 1502 West 18th, (312)929-2509
Though Buffalo wings are a perennial favorite, we believe that chowing down on the tired Buffalo wing gives tacit approval to the Buffalo Bills’ Super-Bowl-losing ways. And trust us, giving up the treasured neon-orange-hued treat invented at Buffalo’s Anchor Bar won’t disappoint the city anymore than Scott Norwood’s Super Bowl XXV wide-right missed field goal with eight seconds left. Better to back a true champion and Super Bowl XL MVP like the Korean-American receiver Hines Ward, who despite a nagging knee sprain is expected to play in Sunday’s big game. The only proper way to salute his courage is raise one of these spicy, garlic-soy hot wings originally invented on a mostly Korean stretch of Lawrence Avenue by Chinese immigrant Nai Tiao at Great Seas restaurant. Best of all, owner Karen Lim and her cooks remove one of the wing joints and push all the meat up to the top—lolli-pop style—so you can keep one hand free for that sloshing suds-filled Solo cup while you dine.

Lumpia and Tocino, Isla Pilipina, 2501 West Lawrence, (773)271-2988
Speaking of Lawrence Avenue, this storefront puts out a Thrilla’ in Manilla-quality egg roll, aka lumpia, or succulent deep-fried fingers filled with oozy garlic-slathered pork, along with a citrusy dipping sauce. A party tray of 100 ($25) might sound like a lot, but no one’s counting calories on game day and rest assured these crispy golden batons will disappear like McDonald’s French fries. Of course, nothing follows a serving of pork better than more pork, and you’d be remiss if you didn’t also walk out of here with a heaping portion of Tocino, deep-fried pork nuggets glazed in a sweet smoky sauce touched with a hint of what tastes like (though they assure me the goose liver gets nowhere near the glaze) foie gras fat.

Sheet pizza from Italian Superior Bakery, 933 South Western, (312)733-5092
Sure Domino’s will be there in thirty minutes, but after one bite of their cardboard crust and substandard sauce, you’ll be regretting your decision for thirty days. Avoid the Noid and hit Superior Italian Bakery instead. Founded in Ozone Park in New York City back in the 1930s and relocated to Chicago’s Little Italy in the 1940s, SIB is more traditional than the Arizona Cardinals’ losing history and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ winning ways. These days, only the second family to ever own the place, the Saccamenos, are making touchdown-worthy bakery-style sheet-tray pizzas. While we got no beef if you top yours with onion and sah-sidge, we implore you to check out the basil, tomato and fresh ricotta (made by a local neighbor lady).

Cemita Atomica from Cemita’s Puebla, 3619 West North, (773)772-8435
Everyone needs a sammie at their Super Bowl party, but not just any sinking submarine will do. Try the cemita atomica, a porcine dream of breaded, thinly pounded, deep-fried pork cutlet, a slice of lean ham, spicy chipotle-drizzled enchilada and fresh mozzarella-style string cheese from Oaxaca piled on a freshly baked sesame-studded roll. Despite the fact that pork fat runs in equal flow with the blood in my circulatory system, know that I laud the sandwich not for its piggy way, but because it is truly one of Chicago’s best.

Dessert Donuts from Old Fashioned Donuts, 11248 South Michigan, (773)995-7420 and Glazed Donuts Catering, glazedchicago@gmail.com
For those of us who grew up on crullers culled from commercial bakeries like Dunkin Donuts, the deep-fried apple fritters at Roseland’s Old Fashioned donuts dripping in tooth-enamel-threatening glaze will make your heart sing or give out, whichever comes first. The fritters are so big, just cut them like apple-pie wedges and enjoy. If your crew is looking for more of a one-stop drinking and eating option, Kirsten Anderson of the underground handmade donut factory, Glazed Donut Catering, recently cooked up some Irish Car Bomb and Champagne Chambord (raspberry liqueur) donuts for New Years. While her flavors change each week (Maple Bacon and Chinese Five Spice chocolate last week), maybe if you ask really nice, she’ll whip up a Miller-Lite-malted version for you.

Natural Dogs: Drew’s Eatery offers the best in organic hotdogs

Hot Dogs/Sausages, Ice Cream, Lincoln Square, Organics, West Loop No Comments »

drews-eateryBy Sarah Klose

Hotdogs and liverwurst: two things I wouldn’t eat as a child. My aversion to eating hotdogs stemmed partly from wondering what the heck was in them. Since my mother told me “all beef” meant any part of the animal, this aversion lasted into my adulthood.

Recently, I passed Drew’s Eatery and noticed his green leaf logo and “organic hotdogs” sign. Was this an oxymoron along the lines of “military intelligence,” or could these hotdogs really be healthy? I decided to bite into one—a fire-roasted red-pepper, jalapeno-pepper, organic-chicken and turkey-sausage one, to be exact. Surprisingly, the hotdog was delicious as well as oh-so-healthy. I decided to talk to the owner and learn more. Read the rest of this entry »

Cinful: Cincinnati chili in Chi-town

Contemporary Comfort, Lincoln Square No Comments »

cinnersawningBy Michael Nagrant

“You know Jerry Springer? I’ve inhaled with him more than a few times,” says Ed, a displaced Cincinnati architect nursing a glass of red wine at the end of the bar. On my left, a barrel-chested buzz-cut man, another former Queen City native, a national guardsman about to be deployed to Afghanistan, reminisces about lazy afternoons watching Pete Rose and the Big Red Machine at Riverfront stadium. The transplanted faithful are out in force on the first Saturday night of Lincoln Square’s new Cincinnati-style chili parlor and lounge, Cinner’s.

In the center, behind the bar, back-dropped by black-and-white photos of Cincinnati Reds greats like the “old lefthander” pitcher Joe Nuxhall and front-lit by a trio of red Ikea pendant lamps, is owner Tony Plum, an itinerant restaurant-and-bar-industry vet, and of course, a Cincy boy. With a black shag of wet ringlets, a sharp aquiline nose and a wiry form, he looks a little like Tommy Lee.

Like Lee, he’s also fairly tattooed, though there’s no baroque barbed wire, fierce animals or imitation tribal markings. Plum prefers works of art. There’s Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” and Michelangelo’s “Hands of God” detail from the Sistine Chapel on his left arm, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” on his left leg and Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross” on his right torso, a nod to the fact that he spent the last decade as a visual artist. Plum was also a singer-songwriter fronting California bands P.S. Chambers and Karmic Book Heroes. Asked how he went from singing to slinging chili, he jokes, “I got too old for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.” Read the rest of this entry »