Dining and food culture in Chicago

Make it Your World: Table Talk with Rising Star Tanya Baker

River North, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Tanya Baker/Photo: David Hammond

Tanya Baker/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Tanya Baker is the twenty-seven-year-old executive chef at The Boarding House (720 North Wells). This year, she was a finalist for James Beard Rising Star Chef recognition.

Do you remember maybe the first dish you ever made?
Chicken parmesan. Always really simple. Later, in school, they asked me to write an essay. They said “You could get a scholarship!” So I did. But there was also a competition, a kind of mini Iron Chef, and I would never have written the essay if I knew there was a competition, because I’ve always been very shy, very timid. My mom took me, and I remember being in the car, thinking “What am I going to make?” I had no idea. So I made a chicken parmesan. I got the scholarship.

What are the characteristics of a successful chef?
There are those who have really big egos, over-the-top loud personalities, and there are those who are more mellow, quiet, head-down and focused. I’m very quiet when I work. People think I’m mad, but I’m not. I’m just not super-social. In this world, you’re in the kitchen all the time with the same people, and we’re all a little socially awkward. I’m still learning how to do interviews and talk to people. It’s hard. Read the rest of this entry »

Manila Moment? Why Filipino Food Still Flies Under Chicago’s Radar

Filipino, Lakeview, River North, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Pancit canton at Sunda

Pancit canton at Sunda/Photo: Amber Gibson

By Amber Gibson

National food personalities like Andrew Zimmern have touted Filipino cuisine as an emerging  trend, but here in Chicago the scene still seems lacking. While there are several neighborhood Filipino eateries in Chicago, none have a particularly high profile. If Tanta has made Peruvian food mainstream, there’s no trendy River North equivalent for the Pacific island nation. Sunda arguably comes closest, albeit with a Pan-Asian label. However, there are more than a few chefs with Filipino heritage helming restaurants around town. Some of the creative dishes you’re chowing down on at restaurants like The Refinery, E+O, Sunda and Pecking Order have Filipino roots.

Rodelio Aglibot, one of the most prominent Filipino chefs in town, is known for his “new Asian” cuisine. He brought Filipino food into the spotlight when he opened Sunda in 2009. Now, he’s helming the kitchen at E+O in Mount Prospect, where the eclectic menu includes steak, sushi and pizza along with a few Filipino signatures.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Harvest Story: Thomas Lents’ Fall Bounty at Sixteen

American, River North No Comments »

Thomas LentsBy Amber Gibson

You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but Next is not the only restaurant in town overhauling its entire menu and theme every three months. Every self-respecting foodie in town knows that Next recently changed its menu from a vegan theme to one inspired by the Bocuse d’Or culinary championship. However, the launch of Sixteen’s fall menu doesn’t require a mad rush to buy tickets. The dining room at the Trump might not adopt the exotic themes of Grant Achatz’s restaurant, but its ambitions are equally high. “We’re trying to redefine ourselves on a quarterly basis,” says executive chef Thomas Lents. “It’s a lot of work. It’s work I love but it’s not easy.” The seasonality of his menus is obvious, but the underlying story shifts dramatically.

Lents’ fall menu, debuting September 23, celebrates the bountiful autumn harvest. “With this menu we’re going to bring out more items that are meant to be shared,” Lents says. “I’m trying to get rid of the hegemony of the plate. The idea that it’s one plate for one diner.” Read the rest of this entry »

The People’s Foodie: What Alpana Singh is Learning About Restaurants After “Check, Please!”

News etc., River North No Comments »
Photo: Anthony Tahlier Photography

Photo: Anthony Tahlier Photography

By Eric Lutz

I should admit, before we proceed, that I was one of the many Chicagoans who dropped their forks in sadness when I learned Alpana Singh was leaving “Check, Please!”—the show she’s hosted for the last ten years—to open her own restaurant.

I’m a professional journalist in my mid-twenties, so you can guess what my annual income is. Suffice it to say, after rent and groceries and gas and a couple nights at the local watering hole, there’s not much left to be a serious foodie. But you didn’t have to be to love watching “Check, Please!”—alongside the four-star restaurants most of us could only dream of affording, there were BYOs and greasy spoons and food trucks much more in the financial wheelhouse of those of us making hourly.

As Singh will tell you, a big part of the show’s populist appeal were the people themselves. Each week, three random Chicagoans got together to talk about their favorite restaurants—that’s going to bring about populism the same way sitting three random movie goers down to review the latest releases at the multiplex would.

But as the knowing yet hugely accessible host, Singh granted the reviewers legitimacy. She gave meaning and weight to the criticisms and compliments the three guests each week served the restaurants. It’s one thing for three regular Chicagoans to sit around and opine about food, but it’s another thing entirely for the youngest woman to ever be a Master Sommelier and the former director of wine and spirits for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and all-around restaurant expert to present those opinions as valid and important and even prescient. Read the rest of this entry »

The Big Heat #45: Giuseppe Tentori

River North, Seafood, The Big Heat 1 Comment »

Giuseppe Tentori
Chef, Boka and GT Fish & Oyster
Value pricing and casual small-plate concepts are all the rage these days, but with this movement often comes tradeoffs in execution level on the plate.  Not so at GT Fish where Tentori is executing time-consuming terrines and fine brunoise dicing on garnishes, stuff you rarely see outside of four-star temples.

See details on the The Big Heat

The Big Heat #48: Carrie Nahabedian

New American, River North, The Big Heat No Comments »

Photo: Paul Strabbing

Carrie Nahabedian
Owner, Naha
Though her restaurant is ten years old, her blend of Armenian, Mediterranean and California cuisine is as fresh as it was the day it opened. She’s also built an incredibly smart and influential team—her cousin Michael is one of the great wine dudes of the city—and recently garnered a Michelin star. She’s also the only woman inducted into the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame.

See details on the The Big Heat

411: Green Eggs and Mugs

Breakfast/Brunch, News etc., River North No Comments »

The love affair with the space between breakfast and lunch will no longer be Sunday-only for Chicagoans starting this summer thanks to director of operations Ryan Marks’ new restaurant, Brunch, an environmentally friendly establishment. Brunch aims to balance a welcoming atmosphere with modern amenities geared toward earth-loving urban patrons. Marks expects Brunch to be green-certified with its energy-efficient appliances and locally sourced commodities. Under the guidance of chef Daniel Tibbetts, the menu will offer organically produced Midwestern eggs, cheeses and meats. The restaurant’s amenities will include flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi, a fully stocked newsstand, shoeshine station, express counter for to-go orders, and private dining areas for anything from a corporate meeting to a baby shower.

Further merging tree-hugger mentality with fast-paced urban lifestyle is Brunch’s “Reusable Coffee Mug Program.” Marks describes the program as a “win, win…win,” meaning that donating an unwanted or unused coffee mug aids the sustainable credo of the establishment, the variety of mugs creates a quirky and unique quality for the Brunch experience, and mugs with business logos are free advertisements constantly rotated and viewed by Chicagoans enjoying a hot beverage. Mugs can be dropped off at Brunch’s location at 343 West Erie, between Sedgwick and Orleans, and they’ll start cracking eggs for the public this June. (Tiana Olewnick)

Gilded Boy: Overnight sensation Brendan Sodikoff’s recipe for success

News etc., River North, West Loop No Comments »

Photo: Kari Skaflen

By Michael Nagrant

Brendan Sodikoff could be Liberace’s son. He’s got the same round cheekbones, the unmistakable wincing smile, and a pair of deeper-set eyes that draw you into a maelstrom of mischief, brooding and delight. Which is funny, because Sodikoff, owner of Gilt Bar, Maude’s Liquor Bar and the forthcoming Doughnut Vault and Ox Diner, is quite possibly the anti-Liberace. In this era of frenzied battles for food-blog scoops, Sodikoff launched his first project in February 2010, Gilt Bar, by saying almost nothing.

This wasn’t some wily move by a cunning impresario to generate buzz. It was a defense mechanism. The first-time restaurateur wanted to make sure things were ironed out before the throngs descended. Sodikoff says, “One of the worst days of my life was when I signed the deal. It was only me and this restaurant [Gilt Bar] filled with stuff. I couldn’t imagine where to start.” Add in the fact that he’d just acquired one of Chicago’s most snake-bitten spaces, home to excellent but short-lived gems like Havana, Aigre Doux and Pili Pili, during a crippling recession, and keeping quiet seemed like career suicide.

Months before he’d almost resigned his dreams. He says, “I’d been looking at spaces for six or seven years. I’d kind of given up on the possibility of finding something that would work because it was cost-prohibitive.” He lived across the street from River North’s Aigre Doux and noticed their clientele dwindling. He adds, “So, in my frustration I asked them if they’d consider selling their business. They couldn’t move fast enough.”

And the crowds, they came. Sodikoff is the fastest-rising local restaurateur I’ve ever seen. Thirteen months ago, no one had heard of him, and now he has four projects on the table. His second restaurant, Maude’s Liquor Bar, has three-hour-plus waits on weekends. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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 »