Dining and food culture in Chicago

The Mayne Dish: Mingling with the Smart Set at Fear No Art’s “The Dinner Party”

Events, Rogers Park No Comments »

Fear No Art’s “The Dinner Party” at the Mayne Stage Theatre is a meshing of theater, art and a tasting event—all rolled into a delicious dinner party. Three artists stand on stage with the event organizer who moderates as the artists and audience partake–in the food and conversation, at least via Twitter. The event is streamed live, so anyone can participate on Twitter.

Event organizer Elysabeth Alfano’s impetus for creating the event was a dinner party she hosted a year ago for ten artists. The conversations were so evocative and stimulating that she wanted to replicate it for more than just a small group of people. Alfano curates her guests, choosing three artists who don’t know each other but have something in common. Read the rest of this entry »

A Forgotten Russian Corner: Misanthropic Porridge, Decadent Caviar and Soviet Propaganda

Rogers Park, Russian, Trends & Essays 2 Comments »

Illustration: Elena Rodina

By Elena Rodina

The stretch of Devon Avenue in the Rogers Park area is mostly known for its Indian stores, and my friends head there if they want to buy ingredients for tandoori chicken, a bright sari or some golden bangle bracelets. However, in the late eighties and throughout the nineties, the area was densely populated by immigrants from the Soviet Union. By now, most of them have left the neighborhood, having moved to the greener suburbs. But there are still a couple of places that are full of hidden Slavophile treasures.

One such place is a Russian supermarket named Three Sisters, after the famous Chekhov play. When I walked in there for the first time, I immediately felt at home. Not just because the place was stuffed with nesting dolls, dark bread, sour cabbage and other things that are dear to my heart, but also because the sales clerks there project a traditional Russian attitude toward clients: grimness and neglect. It’s the perfect place for misanthropes tired of the broad smiles and unavoidable enthusiasm of American customer service. At Three Sisters, you will be greeted by silence and suspicious looks, at least at first. It’s a matter of style, though; the clerks are nice and helpful once you start talking to them.  Read the rest of this entry »

411: From and for the Heartland

News etc., Rogers Park No Comments »

The Heartland Cafe has been serving the Rogers Park community for almost thirty-five years; last week Rogers Park returned the favor. Known as much for being a center for independent art and progressive politics as for its macrobiotic cuisine and buffalo burgers, the Heartland found itself needing to raise almost $50,000 in two weeks to cover state taxes and license renewals to keep its doors open. A victim of the downturned economy and crippling bank fees (Heartland owner Katy Hogan estimates losing $118,000 in charges the past eighteen months), they were left with no choice but “to go hat in hand,” Hogan says, and ask their neighbors for help. The response, Hogan says, was “overwhelming.” For two nights the artists, musicians and performers that make up so much of the restaurant’s clientele (and staff) held a fund-raiser to keep the neighborhood institution’s doors open. Local patrons donated artwork, massages, guitar lessons and yoga classes as prizes to sell raffle tickets. They raised enough to renew their license, with one day to spare. “The way the community has rallied to support us is something else,” says Hogan. “People from all over the city, the suburbs, people who love the Heartland but maybe moved out of the area, they came back, they said, ‘No, no. This place can’t leave.’ It’s been an incredibly heartwarming and humbling experience.” (Jonas Simon)

Two for Takeout: The neverending quest to be the next Chipotle

Chinese, Fast Food/Street Food, Indian, Rogers Park, West Loop 1 Comment »

Shabuka's Chana beef masala

By Michael Nagrant

It seems everyone wants to be the next Chipotle. For every upscale chef who opens a new hotdog stand or sandwich shop these days, there are two entrepreneurs trying to ape the success of the McDonald’s of Mexican, and become the next big ethnic franchise.

As with chefs going casual, these attempts have often paid off handsomely for local eaters. Take Me Out, Let’s Eat Hotties launched a thousand spicy garlic-soy-glazed hot wings, while Crisp in Lakeview has blessed us with killer Korean fried chicken. Though for every one of those spots, there’s also a Chutney Joe’s, serving up mostly mediocre fare.

One of the newer Chicago restaurants on a “Look Outside the Bun” lark hoping to ameliorate the failures of a place like Chutney Joe’s is Shabuka Indian Grill, tucked into a Loyola-area strip mall next to, surprise, a Chipotle. 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 »

411: Back, with more Heart

Rogers Park No Comments »

The Heartland Café is back in business after being temporarily shut down by the Public Health Department on March 12. The inspection resulted from a 311 call made by a customer who felt ill after eating a tofu and vegetable dish at the restaurant. Café owners Katie Hogan and Michael James consider the circumstance to be a hard lesson learned and completely overhauled their restaurant’s kitchen as a result. The staff spent five days renovating floors, scrubbing equipment and patching up “endless nooks and crannies.” When inspectors returned on March 18, the café passed the follow-up inspection with flying colors. “Inspectors were literally oohing and ahhing,” Hogan says. As a result of the situation, Hogan says that they have taken additional safety measures, such as changing certain purveyors and promoting an employee to the position of sanitation manager. “We’ve taken lemons and turned them into lemonade,” Hogan says. “We will never be caught in that situation again.”

Sweet on Senegal: Café Senegal brings West African cuisine to Chicago

African, Cuisine, etc., Rogers Park No Comments »


By Michael Nagrant

I don’t know if Diaw Sow, owner/chef of Café Senegal in Rogers Park, has seen “Field of Dreams,” but she clearly doesn’t agree with the movie’s tagline that if you build it, they will come. Or, rather: if you cook it, they will come. Because the restaurant is so new and because of her concern for freshness, she’s waiting for customer traffic to increase before she expands her selection. As a result, though her French-inflected West African-style printed menu features forty or so items, you’ll likely only be able to order a handful on any given night.

This reflects a smart business move from a serial entrepreneur. Though Sow emigrated from Senegal in 1996, she’s already run three local businesses, including a grocery store and a hair-braiding operation. But this new project is her true passion. While the restaurant opened recently, Sow took a sanitation certification course seven years ago, because she knew she’d always wanted to cook professionally. Because her food is so good, my only lament is that she waited so long.

My initial impression of the restaurant belied any kind of quality cooking. Though Café Senegal is a clean spot lit up by a gigantic wall mural of a neon-hued sunset, the dining room is also smaller than a high-rise studio apartment. Art sat on the floor waiting to be hung, and there was an empty hot box on the back counter, the kind you might see filled with desiccated “hot” pretzels or pathetic pizza puffs. And, when my wife, son and I first entered the restaurant, for one short awkward moment, Sow, her two daughters and another older woman looked us up and down like a couple of elderly tourists who’d just set foot in a Hells Angel’s hangout.

The awkwardness turned out to be a touch of panic because they’d just served the last of their signature dish, ceebu jen. Ceebu jen, aka rice and fish stew, is to Senegal what deep-dish pizza or Italian beef is to Chicago. As a national dish, there are also as many recipes for ceebu jen as there are active Senegalese political parties (eighty-plus). Sow’s version is made with eggplant, carrot, cassava and white cabbage and tomato. Unfortunately we’d have to come back to sample it.

But that didn’t matter, after what I know now, if Sow only had one dish and she said it was made from old shoe leather, I’d trust her instincts. Fortunately, our options were quite a bit wider than braised animal hide, and we started with a generically named “beef patty.” Featuring a flaky-puff-pastry-half-moon filled with ground beef and peppers, it’s Senegal’s version of an empanada. But by any standard the light crust and full fruity and fiery-peppered beef make this the best empanada, Latin American-based or otherwise, that I’ve had in Chicago.

We followed that with a set of Nem. Though the dish sounds like a government agency or obscure stage of the sleep cycle, Nem is actually what would happen if you pan-fried a Vietnamese-style spring roll. Sow’s version is a flavor torpedo of crispy, charred rice-paper conucopia oozing with scallions, glass noodles, egg and chicken.

While waiting for our main courses, the older woman in the restaurant entertained my unruly 21-month-old son by dancing with him to the house music and convinced him to call her grandma. She stopped only when a young man came in to purchase some African Black Soap (apparently Café Senegal doubles as a retail beauty operation). While “grandma” stepped out to get change for the man, he told my wife and I, “This is the good stuff, it’s way better than Proactiv. It’ll get rid of blemishes and everything.”

As I dug in to a heaping plate of Debbe—peppery, grilled lamb topped with a sweet vinegar-tanged salad of olives, onion and tomato—I thought, man, that’s good news. Maybe I won’t have to endure those horrible infomercials of Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson and Puff, err, Sean Diddy Combs rehashing their horrible acne drama anymore. The Debbe was followed by Yasa Ginar, a succulent sweet-spiced stewed-chicken perfumed with lemon and smothered in caramelized onion.

Though Sow learned to make these great dishes from her mother, she is no weekend warrior. She’s a full-blown culinarian with a mastery of flavor and balance. The lack of a full menu here is actually a blessing that allows her to guide you, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. The only thing mother-like at Café Senegal is that Sow cooks meals to order and entrees take forty minutes or so, but that just leaves you time to do a jig with “grandma.” Whether Sow believes it or not, I’m pretty sure “they” will come. Just to be sure, you better head on over now.

Café Senegal, 2131 West Howard, (773)465-5643

Back Up to Big Buns: Newly named Sahara Kabob boasts passion and talent

Middle Eastern, Rogers Park No Comments »

pizzaBy Michael Nagrant

I like Big Buns and I cannot lie. Though, as with foie gras, Alderman Joe Moore apparently does not. According to a recent local story by Martha Bayne about Sahara Kabob, the artist formerly known as Big Buns and Pita restaurant, Moore asked the owners to take down their pseudo-Vegas like marquee in favor of a more “genteel” awning.

Though his suggestion was purportedly about the garishness of the sign, I have no doubt he also despised the fact that such a suggestive Sir-Mix-A-Lot-friendly name besmirches his Rogers Park empire. Then again, Moore has shown he’s more interested in vilifying luxury food items than dealing with the drug dealers that still run rampant in his fiefdom, so maybe not. If he cares, then I’m sure his cheeks are still a bit chapped over the fact that the owners retained the subtitle “big buns and pita” on their new awning.

I dig the subversive nature of the Sahara folks not only in their new choice of architecture, but also for their Assyrian-tinged brand of Middle-Eastern grub. Though they have plenty of falafel and taboule, not to mention a decent Polish hotdog (who says you can’t be all things to all people), there is also a handful of unique offerings.

First among them is the Lahmim Beajin, the fallout from a high-speed collision between a kabob, puff pastry and a pizza. Finely ground beef, blanketed in a rusty rich tomato sauce studded with tomato, onion, parsley and aromatic sweet and hot spices like cumin and allspice, is nestled inside a buttery patisserie-worthy crust. Sprinkle a little lemon, make like you’re at Giordano’s and pop a slice in your mouth.

For those who are looking for a portable space heater in the upcoming deep freeze of December, try the lentil soup featuring toothsome (i.e. not disintegrated mushy bits) beans and a rich creamy base, or the Douckua a tart heartwarming barley, yogurt and lamb soup. If you’d rather take your comfort in solid food, the Quuzi, dripping off-the-bone lamb shank enrobed in tomato sauce, will do nicely.

If you’re an unrepentant carnivore, but in love with a vegetarian, then the hummus and shawirma plate might just be the perfect culinary peace offering for both of you (assuming your veg-friendly buddy doesn’t mind spicy spit-roasted beef and lamb juices and chunks in the middle of his or her pureed chickpeas).

Unfortunately for vegetarians, the falafel plate is kind of bland. While the heft and crispy exterior is nice, I’m a sucker for the amount of cumin, parsley and coriander seasoning that turns a falafel nuclear green. Sahara’s deep-fried balls sport a beige under-seasoned fava bean and chickpea mix. Though, the accompanying torshi or pickled veggies kicked up with sport peppers and a zingy cutting touch of vinegar make up for the lack of flavor.

Meat eaters, on the other hand, have a Ted-Nugent-hunting-trip’s worth of animal flesh to check out, the best of which is a smoky charcoal-grilled kefta kebob laced with cilantro, caramelized onion and cumin.

As compelling as the food is the fact that owner Khoshaba Khamis has a day job at the Chicago Hilton, while his wife Hala and his daughter Larsa hold down the fort at the restaurant. Like many low-key ethnic storefronts, this is a skin-of-the-teeth-margins enterprise. Witnessing an empty dining room on a weeknight, you question whether passion and talent are enough to sustain this operation. Hopefully it is.

Sahara Kabob is located at 6649 North Clark, (773)262-2000

Indie Coffeehouse Guide

Andersonville, Breakfast/Brunch, Bronzeville, Bucktown, Coffee & Tea, Evanston, Guides & Lists, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Logan Square, Loop, Near South Side, Pilsen, Ravenswood, River West, Rogers Park, South Loop, Ukrainian Village, West Loop, Wicker Park No Comments »

Sit down, relax and have a cup of coffee.

The coffeehouse has become a center in the contemporary city, serving as a meeting place, a “home office” and a study hall for the community. And the best serve as counterpoint to the prevailing corporate culture: shaggy, friendly and, rather than studies in the science of turning tables as quickly as possible, welcoming enclaves where lingering is virtually encouraged. Chicago has a wealth of great coffeehouses, and with due respect to the chains, it’s the independent, locally owned and operated institutions that give the city its caffeinated flavor. Treasure them and support them, though, for many are fragile endeavors. And as we learned this year when Filter gave way at one of the liveliest spots in Wicker Park, it’s not necessarily Starbucks that threatens their existence. Apparently, it’s the inexplicable need for a bank branch on every corner.

We’ve put together this selective indie coffeehouse guide as a service to those of us who value their existence, and as a service to the spirit they inculcate. Read the rest of this entry »