Dining and food culture in Chicago

The Big Heat #27: Curtis Duffy

The Big Heat No Comments »

Curtis Duffy
Ex-Executive Chef, Avenues
Two of the biggest restaurants in the world right now are Alinea and Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. Curtis Duffy’s cuisine, which indulges in molecular gastronomy technique and hyper-naturalistic plating is sort of a version of the best of both those restaurants, which is to say Duffy is one of the best chefs in town and maybe the world. He recently garnered two Michelin stars for the Peninsula’s celebrated Avenues restaurant, and just left the restaurant this summer to undertake a long-in-the-works place of his own. Stay tuned.

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Confessions of a Foochebag: Del Seoul’s Korean tacos charm a cranky stomach

Fast Food/Street Food, Korean, Lakeview 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant

Five years ago, I was just a hungry kid with a dream. As I became a professional food writer, I’ve tried mightily to stay close to those roots. Somehow, though, I’ve found that lately I’ve become a bit of a grumpy critic. In the zeitgeist culinary parlance, I’ve been a bit of a foochebag, aka foodie douchebag.

I knew I’d hit rock bottom when I found myself watching a new episode of “Check, Please!” and yelling at the TV screen because a young woman recommended a Mexican restaurant that had a huge wall mural of a cheesy dude in a sombrero.

I mean I was crankier than the crotchety Sun-Times critic Pat Bruno after being forced to review a non-Italian restaurant with hearing-aid-threatening noise levels. There had been all kinds of signs of my decline. One of the most poignant came earlier this year when Roy Choi got named a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef.

For those who don’t know, Choi is responsible for one of the biggest Twitter food sensations, aka the California-based Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck. With a wink and a jar of kimchi, Choi tapped into an unquenched, but previously unknown desire for Asian-spiced and marinated meat-filled tacos.

But, disgusted that once again Curtis Duffy, the naturalistic molecular gastronomer over at Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel had again been overlooked by Food & Wine, I twittered something like “Dude I’m sure your (Choi’s) food is good, but you make tacos.”

For years I’d been calling for big-time chefs to bring their talents to the masses in an affordable way. And yet, when someone did, I discounted his efforts because he wasn’t serving thirty-seven-course tasting menus. I now realize I owe Mr. Choi an apology.

I came to this realization over tacos one afternoon at Del Seoul, the new Korean “street” bbq taco stand in Lakeview. As much as I love to laud Chicago chefs’ originality, Del Seoul probably doesn’t exist without Choi. Read the rest of this entry »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2009: Food & Drink

Cookbooks, Guides & Lists 3 Comments »

Top 5 New Fine Dining RestaurantsIMG_9074
Cibo Matto
Brown Trout
Kith and Kin
—Michael Nagrant

Top 5 New Informal Restaurants
Café Senegal
Han 202
—Michael Nagrant Read the rest of this entry »

End of the Zeroes: Chicago Restaurants, 2000-2009

Brazilian, Burgers, Chinese, Contemporary Comfort, French, Guides & Lists, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Ice Cream, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, New American, Organics, Pastry, Punk Haute, Seafood, Steakhouse, Trends & Essays, Vegetarian 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant



Since 2000, Chicago has gone from being a Rat Pack-worthy steak-and-potato-slinging stereotype to a destination for international culinary travelers. Chicago’s affordability, its diners’ willingness to suspend disbelief and its proximity to the sublime bounty of the Midwest all play a role in that transformation. Most important to the renaissance are the places that put everything together to inspire our collective culinary imagination, the best restaurants that opened in Chicago this decade.

The history of cuisine was written in the kitchens of millions of chefs, but we only remember a few by name, guys like Escoffier, Careme and Robuchon. There are probably only three Chicago chefs, as of now, who have a shot at making that list: Jean Banchet, Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz. Though Achatz started making a name for himself at Trio, Alinea was the game changer, the restaurant where every aspect of dining from menus and silverware to the wine service and emotional content of the food was reimagined.

Love it or hate it, this was ground zero for what is now today’s communal table free-for-all. More importantly, Avec was the place that launched a thousand salumi, the fringe of Chicago’s now-burgeoning charcuterie movement. Koren Grieveson’s restrained soulful style is still the late-night hang of choice for chefs.

You probably don’t remember Gerhard Doll or David Hayden, the chef-stewards who drove the good ship Avenues through a successful seafood-driven era, but there’s no doubt you won’t forget the Pop Rock and foie-lollipop fantasia, the convenience-store chic of Graham Elliot Bowles. Without Bowles’ whimsical, accessible style, the emotional roller coaster of Grant Achatz’s cooking and the theater at Homaro Cantu’s Moto likely wouldn’t have quite captured the nation’s imagination, nor garnered Chicago cuisine the countless magazine features it received mid-decade. Today, Curtis Duffy, the culinary love child of Achatz, Thomas Keller and Alice Waters, is executing some of the most exciting cuisine Chicago has to offer. Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago’s Best New Chef: The votes are in

Barbecue, Bucktown, Lincoln Park, Logan Square, Loop, Mexican, New American, News etc., River North, River West, Southwestern, Spanish, Trends & Essays, West Loop 3 Comments »

Curtis Duffy/Photo: Evan Sears

Last week, Food & Wine magazine revealed their annual “Best New Chefs” in America list, and despite Chicago’s rising culinary status, none of our local chefs got a nod. In fact, no chefs from the Midwest made the list. That being said, there’s no shortage of kitchen talent in our fair city, so we decided to stage our own “Best New Chicago Chef” competition.

We invited seventy-five of the cities top toques (many former Food & Wine Best New Chef winners), sommeliers, artisans and food experts to participate in a write-in poll naming their choice for Chicago’s best new chef. Read the rest of this entry »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2008: Food

Guides & Lists, Trends & Essays No Comments »

Top 5 New Higher-End Restaurants
Mercat a la Planxa
—Michael Nagrant

Top 5 New Casual Concepts or Storefronts
Cafecito Read the rest of this entry »

Bowles Breaks Out: The ex-Avenues chef has a place to call his own

Punk Haute, River North No Comments »

gebday2065326x97By Michael Nagrant

With his fierce tattoos, imposing frame and black lacquer glasses, chef Graham Elliot Bowles looks like the lovechild of Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and a bouncer from a death-metal bar. However, the aggressive-looking “innocence” tattoo on his left forearm is more a reflection of the artist who also did ink for Pantera than of Bowles’ true personality. As Bowles says, “I look like I’m ready to hurt someone, when I really just want to cry on their shoulder.”

Opening his eponymous restaurant Graham Elliot (opened June 2), the tattoo that might mean the most is the one on his right forearm: a German monogram depicting four “f”s, a graphic from the punk band Jawbreaker that stands for “Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, frei.” (Hardy, God-fearing, Cheerful, Free). Read the rest of this entry »

To Be Franc: What does it mean if French super-chefs come to Chicago?

Trends & Essays No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Like a geographic Rodney Dangerfield, the Midwest gets no respect. Whether it was the California stylings rooted in locally grown politically vetted food of Chez Panisse or the haute wizardy of Daniel Boulud in New York, for many years, America’s culinary consciousness, much like our artistic one, veered to the coasts.

Yet the Midwest, with its blue-collar denizens, immigrant culture and industrial engineering has a gritty ingenuity that required attention. In recent years, the Midwest has cinched up its rust belt and started deconstructing the roots of its rustic cuisine. At places like Avenues restaurant, pot roast and sauerkraut pierogies have given way to seared Kobe beef medallions and sauerkraut bubbles. The sweat of laborers that once powered the assembly lines now fuels our kitchens, and Chicago is the hub of America’s food renaissance.

The most recent validation of this idea is the fact that the greatest of the French chefs are about to invade. According to a recent Chicago Sun-Times article, Joel Robuchon, once dubbed the “chef of the century,” is planning to open a restaurant in Chicago at the end of next year, while Alain Ducasse, whose global restaurant empire has earned enough critics stars to form its own culinary constellation, dropped in to dine at Avenues amidst rumors of a potential new restaurant. Read the rest of this entry »