Dining and food culture in Chicago

Tasty Trash: Amanda Barnes of Celeste Talks About the Culinary Virtues of Wrecked Food

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Celeste...kind of a fancy place to eat wrecked & trashed food


By David Hammond

On February 14, Moto—the late Homaro Cantu’s temple/lab of molecular gastronomy—will serve its last meal. The restaurant was purchased by the Alinea Group, headed up by Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz. Kokonas remains respectfully mum about plans for the place which, along with The Aviary, Next and iNG (also a Cantu initiative), makes four properties that they own on Randolph (by Monopoly rules, they can now buy a hotel).

Whatever the Alinea Group does with the restaurant, the legacy of “Omar” Cantu continues to be seen in the efforts of chefs all over the city who’ve passed through his kitchen. Many have shrugged off the mantle of molecular gastronomy, though the lessons learned from Cantu continue to inform their worldview. Read the rest of this entry »

Remembrances of Restaurants Past: A Server Laments His Lost Province

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Randy Zwieban/Photo: Laurie Proffitt

Randy Zwieban/Photo: Laurie Proffitt

By Nicholas Ward

Chef Randy Zweiban spent seventeen years of his cooking career focused on the flavors of Central/South America and the Caribbean islands, first at Norman’s in Florida and then Nacional 27. Province—his first solo venture—sought to focus more on local, seasonal ingredients, though with Latin highlights. The restaurant was located in the West Loop and the menu was intended to be easygoing and casual, a place where guests could grab a burger and a beer, something a little fancier, or a few things to pass around. While the shocking pink walls showcased a boldly designed West Loop restaurant, the food wouldn’t be flashy. It would just be really good.

I remember the first time Chef addressed the entire serving staff. It was October 2008, a perilous time to open a restaurant, as the country was sinking into recession. The price of everything had just gone up and nobody was certain if, in the short term, people were going to dine out. Chef thanked us for taking this risk with him. He told us that the people who helped construct the restaurant—laid floors, built tables,crafted the menu—were family to him. Read the rest of this entry »

Kitchen Table Confidential: The Last Word on Charlie Trotter (For Now)

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charlieskitchenCharlie Trotter’s the restaurant is no more. The man though is very much alive. Recently, he made news by halting an auction of his restaurant-related goods after bids fell short of his expectations. He also kicked out a local reporter and photographer.

On the last weekend of Charlie Trotter’s restaurant’s existence in August my wife and I, along with some neighbors and friends, dined at his famed kitchen table. Trotter, so the legend goes, learned the art of cooking on an extended tour of Europe where no chef ever allowed him access to the kitchen. Those chefs obviously did not grasp the art of self-promotion like Trotter does. Read the rest of this entry »

Parsing the Painted Lady: Ukrainian Village’s new punk-rock cuisine

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macandmeatloafBy Michael Nagrant

Like Le Tigre, Kathleen Hanna’s late-nineties riot grrl group, Painted Lady Organic Eatery is fierce, provocative, political and touched with a bit of girly girl pink.  Though if you’re not the kind of person who enjoys blood-spattered shots of Chicago roller-derby chicks (photos of which adorn almost every flat surface here), then you might not dig this spot.

You should.

Then again, this organic cafe/restaurant from the Bleeding Heart Bakery folks, Michelle and Velentin Garcia, doesn’t need you. Ukie Village’s confederacy of hoodied hipsters, hand-holding girlfriends and sleeve-tattooed citizens will keep this place in business for at least two Johnny Cash lifetimes.

You need it, though. Read the rest of this entry »

411: In the Garage

Gone but not forgotten, News etc., Wicker Park No Comments »

The Pontiac Café, a once auto-mechanic turned Wicker Park landmark café and saloon, will soon be sliding its garage doors shut—for good. After fifteen years in business, the establishment’s owners have decided to move on to other endeavors. According to bartender Turan Yon, the bar’s expected to close between October 17-24.

Power Play: Clinton Street’s Powerhouse shakes, rattles, rolls

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pheasantBy Michael Nagrant

The tragedy of good interface design is that if a designer’s done his or her job, no one seems to notice. Sure there’s the occasional Apple product about which folks bomb Internet forums regarding “scroll wheels” and “flicks” like squalling schoolgirls pining for The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. But when’s the last time you got psyched over a computer mouse or a telephone?

I feel the same holds true for good restaurant décor. Occasionally there’s the Jerry Kleiner “Moulin Rouge on Acid” design scheme (Opera) where you’re so blown away you could care less about what comes out of the kitchen. But for the most part, décor, as long as it matches my expectations for the food, doesn’t matter to me.
Read the rest of this entry »

Au Revoir Ambria: An old stalwart waves goodbye

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By Michael Nagrant

Indeed while our aldermen are still insufferable gas bags, Chicago is, for the most part, no longer windy, second or the hog butcher to the world. We’ve left those monikers behind, because of the one label that still applies. Chicago is now, and as it was in 1951 when Nelson Algren wrote his essay, a “city on the make.”

Algren said of Chicago, it’s “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.” Our modern city is no longer so noble. We now look the other way while construction cranes smash in what’s left of her gin-blossomed nose. We are now subject to a particularly unapologetic L-train-like momentum clanging across the rickety rusty tracks that gird our city, running over anything that would hold us back.

Still, I believe we’ve been fair toward our city’s culinary history. Yes, recently we’ve lost the Berghoff and the Ritz-Carlton Dining Room, but honest hearts should admit they’d become shadows serving lukewarm wienerschnitzel and ruddy steaks. Now, on June 30, the destroyers moved in upon the 27-year-old Ambria. This time I have some regret that history’s hand has not been so judicious. Read the rest of this entry »

Requiem for a Restaurant: Why Del Toro died

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By Michael Nagrant

When Del Toro opened in December 2005, it was a modest affair, devoid of the auspicious pomp surrounding most restaurant launches.

There was some buzz because local impresario Terry Alexander was reinventing his popular Wicker Park spot MOD. But when I first met chef Andrew Zimmerman, he spoke of the inspiration of a simple grilled monkfish that he had on a recent trip to Spain. He hoped to bring a similar quiet grace to Del Toro. Read the rest of this entry »

Culinary Mythology: A Lenten meal that isn’t much of a sacrifice

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By Michael Nagrant

As a first-generation American (my mom was born in Poland), I’ve seen the ease and speed in which cultural traditions are lost, and so I’m determined to preserve the meaningful ones. It’s probably why as a secular Catholic, too lazy to attend regular Sunday mass, I still try to adhere to most of the other religious traditions, and not just the ones that include bowing to massive binges of guilt. And so with Lenten season upon us, I and 2.4 million local Catholics are in need of a seafood fix for our Friday meat fasts.

I decided to put away the McDonald’s Fillet of Fish this year in favor of haute fare, and so I chose Bucktown’s seafood-focused Scylla, where the menu was recently retooled with no entrée priced over $18. Even though the restaurant is named after the six-headed sea monster that ate part of Odysseus’s crew, at these prices, there wouldn’t be too big of a bite out my wallet.

Chef-owner Stephanie Izard did some time under Shawn McClain at seafood-focused Spring before opening her spot, located in a Bucktown red-brick worker’s cottage on Damen, two years ago. Unlike other restaurants converted from former residences, ala Charlie Trotter’s or Alinea, Scylla, with its arched roof, hardwood floors and window coves still retains the character of a true home. There’s a warmth and lived-in aura that reinforces boisterous gatherings of friends and family breaking bread.
Instead of relying on luxury ingredients like truffles, Kobe beef or caviar, Izard employs a bit of alchemy transforming seemingly ordinary pantry items like shallots into a savory oniony crème brulee custard, along with matchsticks of zingy and crunchy apple and bitter endive that cuts the rich sweetness of the custard. Read the rest of this entry »

Sandwich Safari: Sifting through the debris in Glenview

Fast Food/Street Food, Gone but not forgotten, Hot Dogs/Sausages No Comments »

reindeerBy Michael Nagrant

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the word “debris” had one meaning in New Orleans. It was an iconic roast beef po-boy served at 401 Poydras Street at the corner of Tchoupitoulas at a spot called Mother’s. The lore is that a customer asked original owner Simon Landry to add the bits of roast beef that had fallen into the gravy while Landry was carving slices for the customer’s sandwich to his bun. Landry allegedly replied “You mean some of the debris?”

These days the sandwich is so popular, lines at Mother’s make the weekend queue at Hot Doug’s look like a women’s bathroom line at Augusta National Golf Club. And God help you if you stop by in the middle of Jazzfest, as I did, only to wait an hour and a half for a table. Ravenous, and never one to turn down pork, I opted for Mother’s other iconic sandwich, the Ferdi, which is basically a debris with ham on top. Beef strands blanketed in salty pork fat is a magnificent combo. As with so many things from that trip, I’d longed for a Chicago version of the sandwich to keep me inspired in between trips to the Big Easy.

Our Italian beef is certainly a close cousin of the debris, but it’s much leaner and the shaved sheets of beef don’t quite resemble the tender shards found at Mother’s. Enter Fred Markoff, owner of suburban Glenview’s fRedhots and Fries. Markoff, unlike most of the corner dog stands in Chicago, makes his own Italian beef and gravy. He found after he roasted off a side of beef, he was left with a sediment of beef bits and veg seasoned by the gravy. For a while, he ate what he could as a kitchen snack and chucked the rest. Then he decided to throw it up as a sandwich on his regular menu. Read the rest of this entry »