Dining and food culture in Chicago

Waste Not: How Markethouse and other Chicago places are bringing the local food movement full circle

Near North, River North, Trends & Essays 3 Comments »

Scott Walton

By Veronica Hinke

There’s no way the unsuspecting vandal on the fifth-floor roof of the DoubleTree Hotel in Streeterville could have known what he was about to expose when he kicked a hole in the wooden box as he walked by.

“I’ll bet he had to throw those shoes away,” Scott Walton, the executive chef of DoubleTree’s Markethouse Restaurant and Bar, says cheekily.

He’s recalling the scene last summer, when he found a stinking, slimy slop pile baking under an eighty-five-degree sun on the roof of the building where he works. It was a hot mess of coffee grounds, sections of rotting fish skeletons and decaying egg shells. The pile wasn’t a failed entree for his restaurant; it was a successful experiment in which the food that never made it to the plate would go here. Scattered in heaps on the ground, the pile was the remains of the upturned project he had christened three weeks before the vandal unwittingly stumbled upon it: a compost pile.

“It was really nasty,” Walton gloats, smirking at the prospect of his only revenge for the unnecessary kick-and-run destruction: the vandal’s unpleasantly smelly, soggy surprise.

Unfazed by the setback, Walton found himself increasingly more committed to the project. Today, fertilizing his garden with leftovers from the kitchen and dining tables is as important to Walton as growing, from seed, much of the food he cooks at Markethouse.

“There’s a little more pride involved when you grow something from seed and serve it on your restaurant table,” he says. Read the rest of this entry »

Ancient Gifts: For an offbeat classic, the Spice House makes scents

Near North No Comments »

Photo: David Wicik

A commonly overlooked gift item today, spices nevertheless have a long and rich history as a luxury. Roman soldiers were paid in part in salt, the infant Christ is said to have been gifted frankincense and myrrh, and Medieval kings relied on spices like black pepper, saffron and clove to make their lavish feasts and solidify their superior social caste.

Ask any of the Spice House employees and they’ll tell you the difference between an average meal and a truly stellar gastronomic experience is often as simple as the spices that go into it.

First opened in Milwaukee in 1957 by Ruth and Bill Penzey, the Spice House is now run by daughter Patty and husband Tom Erd. The couple opened a store in Evanston in 1997 and their first Chicago store in 2001. Their Old Town location has quickly become an important part of the community, winning the Tribune’s Good Eating award as well as gaining recognition in the mayor’s “made in Chicago” listing for their line of spice blends crafted to reflect the culinary traditions of Chicago’s ethnically distinct neighborhoods. 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: 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 »