Dining and food culture in Chicago

Comfort Me: Erick Williams of County Barbeque

Barbecue, Comfort Me, Little Italy, Lower West Side No Comments »
Erick Williams, County Barbecue,  courtesy David Hammond

Erick Williams by David Hammond

By David Hammond

People speak of it fondly, and chefs say they serve it, but what, exactly, is “comfort food”?

The concept of comfort food is uncertain. It varies by geographic location, ethnic heritage and generation. The cherished comfort food of an Eisenhower-era Midwesterner is not going to be the same as the comfort food of an Eastern-European millennial. Some believe comfort food must be something one ate when young, foods that warm the heart with thoughts of family and home. Not surprisingly, many of our comfort foods seem to have been prepared, at least the first time, by our mothers or grandmothers.

Some commonly cited comfort foods—like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and noodle casserole—are all relatively high in fat and carbs, with soft texture and mild seasoning. Are these attributes common to all comfort food? Read the rest of this entry »

Divine Davanti: Little Italy can always use more Italian joints like this

Italian, Little Italy 2 Comments »

Roasted chicken

By Michael Nagrant

Anyone who’s seen “The Godfather” or watched an episode or two of “The Sopranos” knows that people like to send messages at Italian restaurants. So what’s a food writer to think when a food runner at the new Davanti Enoteca in Little Italy “accidentally” tips a full glass of Chianti into his lap and all over his brand new white Puma tennis shoes?

I mean I wasn’t worried I was gonna get whacked. This is Taylor Street, Chicago. The worst thing that happens around here is that Oscar DeAngelo, the unofficial mayor of Little Italy, will yell at you at a community policing meeting.

I was concerned however, that maybe I’d been made, that the affable owner, Scott Harris (Mia Francesca, Purple Pig), holding court at the bar made from 180-year-old refurbished barn wood and lit by the glint from a medieval-looking metal-cart-wheel-like lantern, was on to me and wanted to let me know that maybe he didn’t like my pan of his Neapolitan pizza joint, Nella, a few months ago.

The truth is, though I had to eat the rest of my meal with a soggy crotch emanating a bouquet of blackberry and tobacco, I was kinda happy, for this meant my anonymity was probably intact. Even as insignificant as my critical voice is in the age of Yelp, I know even the most vengeful owners probably wouldn’t go so far as to attack me during the first few weeks after opening a new restaurant. Read the rest of this entry »

Staxed : A new Little Italy breakfast spot puts out the hits

Breakfast/Brunch, Little Italy 2 Comments »

Peach French toast

By Michael Nagrant

On December 8, 1967 at the Memphis recording studios of Stax Records, Otis Redding didn’t have a lyric written for the last verse of his newest song, so he improvised and whistled a few bars, planning to return to the studio again to finish. Two days later he died in a plane crash outside of Madison, Wisconsin, his body recovered from Lake Monona. Redding’s partner and lyricist, Steve Cropper, went to the studio right after the crash, finished up the recording, preserved the whistling as an outro and launched Redding’s biggest hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” on Stax record’s Volt label.

In 1965, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where three years later Dr. Martin Luther King would be shot, Wilson Pickett and Cropper wrote a little ditty called “In the Midnight Hour.” They also recorded it at the Memphis studios of Stax, releasing the album on Atlantic Records.

Just as suburban kids found Chess Records’ Chuck Berry through the Beatles in the sixties or Muddy Waters in the seventies via the idolatry of the Rolling Stones and thievery of Led Zeppelin, I’d discovered Stax greatest soul men growing up in the eighties through white culture. Read the rest of this entry »

My Favorite Things: Vegas Edition

Burgers, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Little Italy, Near North, New American, Pastry, River North, Steakhouse, West Loop No Comments »

Girl and the Goat

By Michael Nagrant

If he weren’t dead, I’d sure like to have a few words with Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable about the weather in Chicago this past July. I mean I’m sure in 1779, Lake Michigan’s unbesmirched shores were breathtaking and all that. But, as the area’s first non-indigenous settler (usually this means Native American-exploiting white dude—but, refreshingly du Sable was a black Haitian who married a Potawatomi woman and became a high-ranking member of the tribe) Du Sable must have known (he set up a fur-trading post on the north bank of the Chicago River) that, when the pelt business dropped off in July because it was hot and swampy and no one wanted to drape their sweaty bodies in beaver, well, the sticky heat might also be a minor annoyance for future generations. Of course, Du Sable was no Al Gore, and thus couldn’t be expected to anticipate global warming, let alone invent the internet, and so I guess the jungle climes we’ve endured most of this past month aren’t entirely his fault.

Still, what to do when my curly blond fro is frizzin’ like one of those “just add water” sponges that turns in to a four-foot-wide dinosaur from the humidity? Head to Las Vegas in August. Crazy, right? Well, as the joke goes, it’s a dry heat.

Actually, while I’ll relish swimming next to Elvis-jumpsuited dudes in huge football-field-sized pools while sipping on suntan-lotion-scented pina coladas in the shade of fake plastic architecture, my real intent, as it always is, is to discover the real side of Vegas food. While I’ll check out French masters Joel Robuchon’s and Guy Savoy’s places and local boy Shawn McClain’s new Vegas spot Sage, I’ll also be out searching for what some consider the best Northern Thai food in America at Lotus of Siam and the Japanese charcoal-grilled fare at Raku. However, while I’m baking in that arid desert, I couldn’t leave you without a few of my new favorite things. Every single one of these tasty treats is as sure a bet as a pair of panties gracing a Tom Jones concert stage. See you in a few weeks. Viva Chicago, baby! 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 Breakfast Issue Guide

Andersonville, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bucktown, Hyde Park, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Little Italy, Loop, Lower West Side, Pilsen, River West, Roscoe Village, South Loop, West Loop, West Town, Wicker Park No Comments »

Bongo Room (South Loop)
1152 South Wabash, (312)291-0100
Breakfast is the redheaded stepchild of cuisine. No short-order Homaro Cantu or Grant Achatz has popped up to redefine breakfast. Bongo Room is one of the only restaurants re-inventing morning nosh. The cilantro-jalapeno tortilla filled with guacamole and fluffy eggs and topped with ancho chili cream is as fat as Popeye’s forearm. Haute Eggs Benedicts are replete with duck eggs, lump crab cakes and steak. The real stars though are the Butterfinger-like pancakes dripping with toffee butter, or the chocolate-tower French toast laced with mascarpone and covered with banana-flavored crème anglaise.

Bongo Room (Wicker Park)

1470 North Milwaukee, (773)489-0690
See Sidebar.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tapped Out? Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap may be just tired

Italian, Little Italy No Comments »

tufanosspagclamBy Michael Nagrant

Saying that the 77-year-old red-sauce joint Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap has seen a lot is like saying Magellan took a short boat trip. When the tap opened in 1931, Halsted was paved with brick and Taylor Street was the port of entry for Italian immigrants. Italian beef may have been drenched in gravy and sandwiched between two pieces of Gonnella bread, but only in those immigrants’ kitchens, as Al’s Italian Beef didn’t open until 1938.

Farther down Taylor, Ferrara Pan was going strong, though founder Salvatore Ferrara wasn’t making his living off Atomic Fireballs (invented in 1954) but from candy-coated almonds.

In 1931, a 29-year-old Richard J. Daley hadn’t even earned his law degree from DePaul. Plans for a modern urban campus, aka, the UIC circle, and the Eisenhower freeway, which cut out the Eastern flank of the community in the 1960s, weren’t even a gleam in Richard M.’s old-man’s eye. Read the rest of this entry »

My Favorite Things—The Remix: A breakdown of some recent finds

Evanston, Fast Food/Street Food, Little Italy, Trends & Essays No Comments »
philly

Philly Steak

By Michael Nagrant

Oprah’s weak. She only shares her favorite things once a year. I, on the other hand, am back with another edition of my favorite, food, wine and restaurant dishes. These goodies were sampled in the last few months, but I haven’t written about them because they didn’t work in the context of a full-blown column. Enjoy.

Philly Steak – Grandaddy’s Subs, 2343 West Taylor, (312)243-4200
They say you can’t replicate a regional delicacy like the Philly cheese steak outside of Philly because of the local bread. That might be true, but when you start with your own good local bread, like Gonnella, you’re already halfway there. Grandaddy’s, an old stalwart in the middle of the Tri-Taylor neighborhood, starts with their French-style roll featuring a cracklin’ crust and an airy crumb, toasts it, and fills it with griddle-charred chopped steak, roasted paper-thin green peppers, caramelized onions and a couple of slices of oozy provolone (yeah, we know, Cheez Whiz is the Philly custom). Call it what you want, but it’s one of the better steak sandwiches in town. Read the rest of this entry »