Dining and food culture in Chicago

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 »

My Favorite Things: The Three-peat, another quick list of food-faves

Edgewater, Greektown, Italian, Lower West Side, Sandwiches, Thai, Trends & Essays No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

I was concerned that Pat Riley, the former NBA Coach and the only man who used more Brill Cream than my grandfather, was going to come after me with a dream team of lawyers over the title of this column. It turns out though he only owns a commercial trademark on the term “three-peat,” and this column is most decidedly a journalistic one, written for the public good. Yes, it’s true, I’m back with my Oprah-inspired “favorite things” list of food finds I haven’t been able to work into a regular column, but are most definitely worthy of your gullet. Enjoy.

Superior Italian Bakery, 933 South Western, (312)733-5092
I’d known about this bakery for a few years thanks to the great sleuthing of LTHforum.com poster/historian Antonius. Unfortunately, by the time I got around to trying it, the place, which had been open for more than seventy-plus years, had closed up shop. Then earlier this year, Angelo Saccameno, a former customer who used to visit regularly with his dad growing up, bought the place, apprenticed with the original owners, the Masi family, and re-opened the spot. The selection is focused on crusty loaves of bread, generous slices off sheet-pan pizza (try anything with the fresh ricotta) and a great vanilla lemon cookie called Taralle.

Bleu Mont Cheddar
Cheesemaker Willi Lehner is such a bad-ass, he sells power to the power company. He runs an artisanal cheese operation up in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin on solar power and juice from a wind-powered turbine. His cheeses, especially his bandaged cave-aged cheddars, are just as powerful. His Earth Schmier cheeses, featuring a rind-spritzed with a filtered slurry of water and fresh earth from his farmstead is the ultimate expression of terroir, or the flavor of the local earth. Those are tough to find, unless you make a weekend pilgrimage to the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison. Thankfully, you only need to go to Oak Park to get his bandaged cheddar at the Marion Street Cheese Market, 100 South Marion.

Blue Marble Dairy Milk
I’d always thought Oberweis was the bee’s knees, or the cow’s udder, or whatever, until I took a few cold swigs of the moo juice from this Wisconsin micro-dairy. The milk from Blue Marble is quick-heat pasteurized, but not homogenized, ensuring a nice thick cream line on the top of the milk. In fact, if you shake their chocolate milk hard enough, the cream line eventually churns into chocolate butter. Add a dash of salt and a touch of sugar, and you can spread it on toast. Available at some local Whole Foods and every Wednesday and Saturday at the Green City Market.

E-San Sausage at Ben’s Noodles and Rice, 1139 West Bryn Mawr, (773)907-8936
You might be able to find more authentic Thai spots in most neighborhood’s in Chicago, but Ben’s Issan-style (called E-San here) sausage, aka the Thai answer to Polish Kielbasa, is as real as it gets. The version here is a porky, seared, rustic link-style embedded with lots of lemongrass, garlic and a touch less fish sauce than versions at other spots.

Philly’s Best Cheesesteak, 769 West Jackson, (312)715-9800
I don’t usually go looking for good eats at places I wouldn’t be caught dead in unless I’d had at least four cocktails at the Violet Hour (read: Flash Taco). Philly’s Best, which has a bunch of locations around town and serves wings, baked mostaccoli, greek-pastry-like loukamades, pizza and cheesesteak sandwiches all on the same menu without a smirk, seemed to fit that bill. However, they just opened in my ‘hood and during a rare blood-sugar depression I ambled in and ordered up one of their cheesesteaks. I can’t speak about all those other things, but the freshly griddled thin beef cheesesteak on garlic bread topped with Cheese Whiz, grilled onion and mushrooms is the closest I’ve gotten to a real Philly yet. The meat was caramelized and the whole thing was properly seasoned with salt and pepper, a welcome rarity for quick-service drunk eats.

Q-Tonic
If someone tells you they got something for you filled with some hand-picked goodies from the Peruvian Andes, it’s usually time to break out the water bong. In this particular case, you’re going to want a cocktail shaker. At $2.50 a bottle, this stuff ain’t cheap and I was pretty skeptical, but I staged a blind gin-and-tonic tasting with some friends recently and this came out way on top. It’s made with hand-picked quinine from Peru and sweetened with organic agave nectar. Using Q is the easiest way to be a better mixologist without actually doing anything. Q is available locally only at the Cork at Riverside, 2720 South Harlem, or online at kegworks.com.

Super Bowls: Forget About the Bears

Archer Heights, Bridgeport, Burbank, Contemporary Comfort, Greektown, Lincoln Park, Uptown No Comments »
Chuck's chili

Chuck's chili

By Michael Nagrant

For most of us, this year’s Super Bowl will be a doleful reminder of last year’s Bears collapse in the big game. Sitting down to watch the Giants battle the Patriots will do nothing but stir up 2007’s carnival of failure featuring Lance Briggs’ pre-season hold-out and Lamborghini hijinks, Tank Johnson’s legal woes, Brian Urlacher’s baby-mama drama and press tantrums and Rex Grossman’s ability to make ‘ole neckbeard Kyle Orton look like a promising NFL quarterback. So, why don’t you just turn off those plasma and DLP screens, skip the big game and hit the road in search of something to soothe your soul? In an effort to provide succor and to keep you warm through this January chill, I’ve compiled a list of some of Chicago’s own super bowls of soup, chili and stew to aid your journey. Read the rest of this entry »

It Takes a Village: One night, during a West Loop walk…

Greektown, Pakistani, West Loop No Comments »

chowchappliBy Michael Nagrant

Despite the fact that condos are popping up in the West Loop like sightings of Britney Spears’ nether-region, the number of great restaurants hasn’t followed suit. Since Jerry Kleiner’s prescient Daniel Boone-like maneuvering in the late nineties there’s been a slow dribble of similar establishments such as Blackbird, Moto, Follia and, now, Sepia. Of course, great doesn’t have to mean haute, but most of the ethnic spots in the area feel like Grecian theme parks.

As a denizen of the West Loop, I’m jealous of a foodie mecca like Lincoln Square, which has three top Thai spots (Opart Thai, Spoon Thai, Thai Oscar), and seems to be the landing pad for every new chef-driven restaurant. Lincoln Square’s also a five-minute drive from Uptown’s little Vietnam, Albany Park’s Middle Eastern bazaar and Devon’s Pakistani and Indian fare. It’s enough to make a food writer move.

Despite the West Loop’s culinary shortcomings, though, I dig my ‘hood and its affordable proximity to the Loop. Read the rest of this entry »

Big Greek Breakfast: Meli Café hopes to bring a new tradition to an old neighborhood

Breakfast/Brunch, Greek, Greektown No Comments »
Caramel Banana Pancakes

Caramel Banana Pancakes

By Michael Nagrant

Those who might bemoan the ebb of old-fashioned Chicago patronage need only look at Greektown to change their mind. The Near West Side neighborhood is one where waiters still beget restaurateurs who beget waiters who beget more restaurateurs, a place where family and immigration isn’t a random mingling of bloodlines, but a concrete strategy in the business plan. Meli Café (301 South Halsted), a fantastic breakfast and lunch spot, and the newest addition to the Halsted strip, serves as the perfect business case.

Owner Nikos Karabelas, a barrel-chested dark-haired man, came from Athens in 1973 to work as a dishwasher, detoured back to Greece and landed back as a waiter at the Parthenon working for owner Chris Liakouras, the inventor of flaming saganaki cheese, who himself was once a waiter at the now-defunct Diana’s Opaa. After saving money and teaming up with partner John Theoharis, Karabelas launched Nine Muses across the street from the Parthenon in 1990, where they celebrated their seventeenth anniversary last weekend. Read the rest of this entry »