Dining and food culture in Chicago

Comfort Me: Mary Nguyen Aregoni of Saigon Sisters

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PhoBy David Hammond

One of my earliest memories is being home from school, sick, slurping soup prepared by my Italian grandmother. As a kid, I thought this soup, pastina, was my grandmother’s invention, made especially for me. The recipe for pastina is simple: chicken broth with lots of garlic and, crucially, little pasta stars (tiny letters of the alphabet will not do!).

As I got older, I came to understand that pastina was a classic cold-flu remedy enjoyed by generations of the young and old…even non-Italians. That realization had no effect upon my belief that this soup was, beyond a doubt, magic.

As my cousin Karen used to say, “Pastina is to be eaten with Kleenex.” This soup is warm and salty, so it opens up the sinuses, relieving pressure and other cold symptoms.

My Aunt Rosemarie confirmed the power of pastina and told me she once “felt her fever break” while eating pastina. “It was very dramatic,” she added, convincingly.

Chicken broth and garlic are, of course, well-known folk cures for the common cold, but even if the pastina had no measurable curative effects, it did, at least comfort me in my illness. Read the rest of this entry »

Culinary Adventure: Four Things to Know About Dishcrawl

Loop, News etc., Trends & Essays, Wicker Park No Comments »

Prasino

For foodies who can’t decide where to dine, Dishcrawl makes eating out easy by skipping the selection process altogether. Like a pub crawl for food, Dishcrawl organizes a walking tour of four different restaurants for a $39 edible adventure you don’t have to plan. The Wicker Park crawl kicks off at sustainable eatery Prasino on November 7, and another crawl goes downtown to explore the Loop on November 13.

1. It’s a hit elsewhere. Already established in dozens of cities across the country and Canada, Dishcrawl is ready to give Chicago some love after a test run this past April. “In the Bay Area, where [Dishcrawls] are happening all the time, they’re getting mostly food lovers, but also twenty- and thirty-somethings who want to try something new,” says Tessa McLean, one of Dishcrawl’s two Chicago ambassadors. “Food has become so important in Chicago, it really is a food town.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Big Heat #43: Billy Lawless

Gastropub, Loop, New American, The Big Heat No Comments »

43
Billy Lawless
Owner, Henri and The Gage
Aside from Next, Henri is probably the only high-end restaurant to have launched in the last two years. While everyone else was out pimping jeans-preferred beer and pork emporiums, Lawless’ fearless investment in Louis Sullivan-inspired decorative plaster, glinting chandeliers, and sea-foam velvet chairs and impeccable service has paid off.

See details on the The Big Heat

Not the Usual: Thanksgiving at Bennigan’s

American, Loop, Trends & Essays No Comments »

Note: The photos are not from the Bennigan's in this story, which is no longer in business./Photo: Kristine Sherred

By Jonas Simon

There’s an odd sort of camaraderie that develops in certain work environments, not unlike between soldiers during times of war. Born out of shared suffering and hardship; you don’t find it in every job, but I’ve definitely found it in waiting tables. Part of it comes from banding together against a common enemy (the customer). Another part is being separated from “normal” society by the nature and hours of the job. For most waiters, our living is made at night and on weekends, i.e., the times when the rest of the world is off. Our weekends are Mondays and Tuesdays; our after-work drinks don’t start until 1am. But the real separation is felt during the holidays, when everyone else is enjoying the heart and hearth of home and you’re sharing your season with your co-workers, not your loved ones.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some wonderful holidays with my various crews—Near Year’s Eve parties that, technically, didn’t start until a couple of hours into New Year’s Day, Christmas Day dinner in Chinatown followed by karaoke—but one that stands out was the Thanksgiving I spent at Bennigan’s in 2003.

Our staff was a diverse and somewhat motley assortment of individuals: musicians and college students, druggies and alcoholics, working moms and career servers. Chet was the lead singer of a not-half-bad power pop/emo group (I think they were called “The Effect”); Jennifer was a recent journalism grad from U of I writing part-time for a leftist internet zine; Viktor was a part-time drug dealer who may or may not have had ties to the Hungarian mafia (He would later be arrested—and deported—for scamming customers’ credit cards. He showed up to work one day and the FBI was waiting for him.); Tom had been behind the bar for more than half a decade with no plans beyond tomorrow night’s pub crawl; and Maria, our manager, was a single mom who made a three-hour round trip commute everyday from Rockford.

The good people at corporate, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that not only would we be open for Thanksgiving dinner that year, but that we would also be serving our very own “Bennigan’s Thanksgiving Platter.” For $12.95 you got a processed turkey breast (white meat only) with something resembling gravy, powdered mashed potatoes, stuffing (which had both the consistency and taste of a chopped-up cardboard mailer), frozen vegetables, and cranberry sauce straight from the can, which was pretty much the only thing about the meal that felt right. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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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 »

Resto 100: Top Five Takeout Joints

American, Irving Park, Italian, Loop, Mediterranean, Near North, Pan-Asian, Seafood, South Deering, West Town No Comments »

A basic criterion for Resto 100 has been that a restaurant has to have real tables and silverware or a significant place to sit down. Considering a place like Hot Doug’s makes the list, service is generally optional. And, yes, we cheated and totally made an exception for Al’s Beef on Taylor. Still, in the last year, there have been a couple of new places (and lots of old ones) that were generally takeout-only that we really thought worthy of the Resto 100, and so here they are, our top five takeout joints. Read the rest of this entry »

Market Madness: Chefs compete at Daley Plaza

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Jennifer Gavin in her "Hell's Kitchen" days

Jennifer Gavin in her "Hell's Kitchen" days

Jennifer Gavin is now the “Master of the Market.” She has cooked her way to victory at the Chef Challenge, beating out the other contestants with sweet corn slaw, grilled vegetable sandwich on tomato focaccia and lemon pound cake with raspberry preserves.

This year’s contestants in the third annual event, held at the Daley Plaza Farmers Market—all female for the first time—include Radhika Desai, a season five contestant on “Top Chef,” and Heather Terhune, executive chef at Atwood Café. Jennifer Gavin finished fourth on “Hell’s Kitchen” in 2008 and is now executive chef and owner of Catered Excellence. Her father was a chef, so she began cooking at 15 and attended culinary school in Chicago.

“I’m very competitive by nature,” she says. She wants to make “something creative, something innovative, that people haven’t seen before, and just really try to wow people.” Read the rest of this entry »

Twin Tale: A sandwich slugfest

Loop, Sandwiches, Wicker Park 2 Comments »
Beet soup at Birchwood Kitchen

Beet soup at Birchwood Kitchen

By Michael Nagrant

If Chicago’s newest gourmet sandwich shops Birchwood Kitchen in Wicker Park and Lunch Rolls in the Loop were twins, they’d be Julius and Vincent Benedict from the 1988 film, “Twins.” In case you’ve forgotten the plot, and really who could blame you, Julius and Vincent were the product of a secret experiment to create the perfect child from six different fathers. While the exercise spawned the superior intellectual/physical specimen of Julius (Arnold Schwarzenegger) it also created a fraternal twin, Vincent (Danny Devito) made from the leftover genetic garbage.  Neither Birchwood nor Lunch Rolls is particularly deficient like Vincent (in fact they’re both pretty decent options for their respective hoods), but as sandwich-slinging brethren they’re definitely opposites. Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago’s Best New Chef: The votes are in

Barbecue, Bucktown, Lincoln Park, Logan Square, Loop, Mexican, New American, News etc., River North, River West, Southwestern, Spanish, Trends & Essays, West Loop 3 Comments »
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Curtis Duffy/Photo: Evan Sears

Last week, Food & Wine magazine revealed their annual “Best New Chefs” in America list, and despite Chicago’s rising culinary status, none of our local chefs got a nod. In fact, no chefs from the Midwest made the list. That being said, there’s no shortage of kitchen talent in our fair city, so we decided to stage our own “Best New Chicago Chef” competition.

We invited seventy-five of the cities top toques (many former Food & Wine Best New Chef winners), sommeliers, artisans and food experts to participate in a write-in poll naming their choice for Chicago’s best new chef. Read the rest of this entry »