Dining and food culture in Chicago

Tony Mantuano Talks Olive Oil: Finding and Caring for the Real Thing

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Tony Mantuano/Photo: Jeff Kauck

Tony Mantuano/Photo: Jeff Kauck

We’re guessing that everyone reading this has a bottle of olive oil on their kitchen shelves… or so they think. Olive oil is one of the most commonly counterfeited commodities on the market, right up there with honey. So we asked Chicago’s chef Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia, Terzo Piano, Bar Toma) to set us straight about how to select an olive oil that’s good and, we hope, actually olive oil.

Mantuano has a few names he trusts, but believes “it’s not so much about the store but about finding reputable producers and distributors, like Gustiamo or Viola.

“You have to get away from whatever is on the grocery shelves,” recommends Mantuano. “I would never trust an olive oil that didn’t say on the bottle that these are Italian olives and it should say the harvest it’s from. Reputable producers will put that information on there. I wouldn’t go near an olive oil that didn’t do that.” Read the rest of this entry »

Secrets of Superior Steak: Revealed by David Flom, Chicago Cut

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There are a lot of steakhouses in Chicago, which we’ve always interpreted to be a holdover from the days of the Union Stock Yard, once the largest in the world. Though Chicago is no longer hog or beef butcher to the world, people still visit our city with steak on the brain. Consequently, there are a lot of excellent steakhouses in the city to choose from, many serving superior beef.

David Flom, managing partner at Chicago Cut, gives us the lowdown on what he believes makes an excellent steak. Turns out, it has a lot to do with the elevation where the cattle is farmed, how it’s aged, where it’s butchered, and what kind of knife you use when eating it. Read the rest of this entry »

Mudbugs, Tastier than They Sound: Crawfish in Chicago

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Photo: Monica Kass Rogers, MKRogers.com

Photo: Monica Kass Rogers, MKRogers.com

By Monica Kass Rogers

Crayfish—crawfish, crawdads, mudbugs… whatever you call ‘em, if you’re a Chicagoan, it’s not likely you grew up with these creatures on your dinner plates. This is the season to set that right.

Alfredo Nogueira can’t remember the first time he ate crawfish. “But I’m sure I was really little,” says the chef, who grew up just outside Orleans Parish in Louisiana. Relocated to Chicago, where at Analogue he serves Cajun and creole food (and probably the city’s best cup of chicory coffee), Nogueira is spinning crawfish tales, telling us how he got his start cooking the creatures. As a young teen busing tables at a huge-volume seafood restaurant, being cool was of interest; being brawny, even more so. “And there was no one cooler or brawnier than the guy who was in charge of the crawfish boils,” Nogueira laughs. “I said to myself, that’s what I want to do.” Nogueira got his wish senior year of high school, and, through the steamy hot, hard-labor of toting huge kettles and boiling the seafood, he achieved brawn. “I’m not sure about the ‘cool!’” he adds. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Michael Kornick Likes Meat

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Michael Kornick

Michael Kornick

By David Hammond

“Hearty chicken soup with big chunks of parsnip celery and carrot.” That’s what Michael Kornick, chef and restaurateur (mk and Ada Street, among others), thinks of when I ask him about his favorite comfort foods. “It was like a meal. You go to delis all over the country,” he remembers, “and they have Mish Mosh soup, which is everything thrown in, and then you have, like Chicken in the Pot or something like that, and that’s the soup I’m talking about.

“Just thinking about chicken soup makes you feel comfortable,” says Kornick, “but what you think of as comfort food changes over time. And if it’s really comfort food,” says Kornick, “it has to be eaten in a place that’s comfortable for you. Read the rest of this entry »

The Chef Recommends: Carolina Diaz of Filini

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Carolina Diaz/Photo: Lauren Knight

Carolina Diaz/Photo: Lauren Knight

When you go out to a restaurant, you’re hoping to get a taste of the best the kitchen has to offer. A menu can be a mystery, so why not go straight to the source? Chef Carolina Diaz of Filini Bar & Restaurant tells us a little about herself… and what she recommends you try from her menu.

Diaz started cooking at a young age, mostly out of necessity. In a family of six, someone had to make dinner, and that usually fell to Diaz and her sister. It wasn’t until later in life that cooking began to have an allure of its own. The Food Network was on the rise with its chef-focused shows; the stars made cooking look “so glamorous,” Diaz says. She was hooked. She dropped out of her psychology studies and enrolled in culinary school. Read the rest of this entry »

Love and Jamón: Spanish Square

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Manuel Moreno and his seductive jamón/Photo: Rosemary Lane

Manuel Moreno and his seductive jamón/Photo: Rosemary Lane

Enter the Spanish Square (1358 West Belmont), and you’ll walk into a love story that began in—where else?—Spain. Mara Baer and Manuel Moreno, owners of this new restaurant/tapas bar/market in Lakeview, met seven years ago in southern Spain. Mara was teaching English at a local high school. One night, her friends brought her to a housewarming party at Manuel’s, a native who lived above the city’s main plaza.  Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Fine Vine: Say No to Tomatoes That Suck

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Mighty Vine tomatoes/Photo: Danny Murphy

MightyVine tomatoes/Photo: Danny Murphy

Gary Lazarski loves tomatoes. So he opened MightyVine, a seven and a half-acre greenhouse in Rochelle, Illinois, that’s providing local tomatoes year-round.

“My grandmother was Polish, old world,” remembers Lazarski. “She grew her own tomatoes in the summer. Wonderful. Everybody probably has that iconic summertime tomato memory. Though most of my adult life, working in the city, tomato was on every salad, every sandwich you order, and they’re inevitably these pale imitations of what you want tomatoes to be. And it’s not just me; it’s everybody. They say, ‘Yeah, these tomatoes suck,’ and they just peel them off their sandwich or salad and throw it out. Very wasteful. And it seemed crazy to me that you could be in a food city like Chicago and not have a delicious tomato.” Read the rest of this entry »

Mardi Gras in Your Mouth: Muffuletta at J.P. Graziano Grocery

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Muffuletta at Central Grocery/Photo: David Hammond

Muffuletta at Central Grocery/Photo: David Hammond

The muffuletta was created at Central Grocery in New Orleans. This classic sandwich is basically antipasti—salami, mortadella and/or ham, mozzarella and provolone with a splash of olive salad—on a round sesame seed bun.

Last weekend, I sampled two muffuletta variations in the city where it all began. Read the rest of this entry »

You’re the Best of the Best: A Throwdown for Chicago’s Finest Jibarito

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Chicken Jibarito from Papa's Cache Sabroso/Photo: John Carruthers

Chicken Jibarito from Papa’s Cache Sabroso/Photo: John Carruthers

By John Carruthers and Dennis Lee

While tourists pore over reheated listicles of the “best” deep dish and hot dogs, we Chicagoans jealously guard the kung-fu secret of the Jibarito. This classic, which roughly translates to “little hillbilly,” was invented right here in Humboldt Park at El Borinquen in 1996. It’s a sandwich with meat, lettuce, tomato, garlic and mayo, all set between a pair of crispy fried planks of plantain, the banana-like fruit of the Caribbean. Just a warning: these are messy sandwiches, and your fingers inevitably get covered in a layer of garlicky oil, so don’t be shy about using a lot of napkins (the world’s going to end anyway, so might as well use all our natural resources while we’re still here).

To determine which sandwich was really the best of the best, we launched our JibaritOff by first putting on our eating pants (sounds nicer and more professional than “old sweatpants”). We then pitted two of the city’s top contenders against each other in a final battle for supremacy. We decided to judge both the steak and the chicken versions of the sandwich at each place. Read the rest of this entry »