Dining and food culture in Chicago

The Big Heat: Chicago’s Food and Drink Fifty 2015

The Big Heat 4 Comments »


Newcity’s Big Heat 2015 represents a thick slice of Chicago’s culinary culture: butchers and cheese mongers, restaurateurs, critics, even some sommeliers and chefs. This year, however, we’re focusing less on people at the stove and more on the people behind the stove. These are the men and women who set the standard, change the game, initiate food movements, re-imagine what it means to have dinner in Chicago—and perhaps most importantly, help fill our lives with exponentially more deliciousness. Some of their names will be very familiar, others will be entirely unfamiliar, and they’re all just some of the personalities who are critically shaping the way we eat in Chicago. Just some. Just a slice of a large and growing community of leaders in Chicago food culture. Apologies if we missed a few of your favorites, which we undoubtedly have. There are many more who could easily have been on this list, which only overviews the immense range of enthusiasm, creativity and talent that decisively influences the food served to us in restaurants, in retail stores and on the streets of Chicago, which stands among the major food capitals of the world, thanks in good measure to the following fifty. (David Hammond)

Big Heat 2015 was written by David Hammond, J’nai Gaither, Rebecca Holland, Lauren Knight, Rosemary Lane and Anthony Todd

Cover and interior photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux on location at Seven Lions Read the rest of this entry »

The Big Heat: Chicago’s Food & Drink Fifty 2013

Guides & Lists, The Big Heat 4 Comments »
Illustration by Pam Wishbow

Illustration by Pam Wishbow

Many things come to mind when contemplating Chicago’s culinary and cocktail culture: farm-to-table, molecular gastronomy, why Charlie Trotter hung it up, and so on. But what struck us when working on this year’s Big Heat list, which, as is our tradition, is more focused this year on the behind-the-scenes business of food and drink than its artistry on the plate and in the glass, is the power of collaboration. Perhaps inspired by Rich Melman’s pioneering partnership model of organizing the restaurant business, this town’s now full of groups launching one great new place after another. Keeping track of who’s opening what-where-when has become a sport in and of itself. And beyond those formal business partnerships is the spirit of community that pervades the entire thing, with chefs and sommeliers and mixologists and butchers all teaming up on a regular basis, not always to make money, but always to make great flavors. And our palates swoon appreciatively. (Brian Hieggelke)

Big Heat was written by Amber Gibson, Brian Hieggelke, Matt Kirouac, Sara Tenenbaum and Walter Burns
Read the rest of this entry »

The Big Heat #1: Rick Bayless

The Big Heat No Comments »

Rick Bayless
King of the Frontera Empire (Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, Xoco, Frontera Foods etc.)
He brought “real” regional Mexican food to the American table. He made gardening look cool again. He’s done as much as anyone to promote local farms and farmers through his foundation and restaurant work. Through Xoco, he’s found a way to serve locally farmed, consciously raised foods to thousands of people a day without making any major compromises. He’s even made it almost fun to fly again with his Tortas Frontera kiosks at O’Hare. But, none of this probably means as much as the fact that the dude won the inaugural Top Chef Masters TV competition, which means millions more know these good deeds and better ways of eating.

See details on the The Big Heat


Waste Not: How Markethouse and other Chicago places are bringing the local food movement full circle

Near North, River North, Trends & Essays 3 Comments »

Scott Walton

By Veronica Hinke

There’s no way the unsuspecting vandal on the fifth-floor roof of the DoubleTree Hotel in Streeterville could have known what he was about to expose when he kicked a hole in the wooden box as he walked by.

“I’ll bet he had to throw those shoes away,” Scott Walton, the executive chef of DoubleTree’s Markethouse Restaurant and Bar, says cheekily.

He’s recalling the scene last summer, when he found a stinking, slimy slop pile baking under an eighty-five-degree sun on the roof of the building where he works. It was a hot mess of coffee grounds, sections of rotting fish skeletons and decaying egg shells. The pile wasn’t a failed entree for his restaurant; it was a successful experiment in which the food that never made it to the plate would go here. Scattered in heaps on the ground, the pile was the remains of the upturned project he had christened three weeks before the vandal unwittingly stumbled upon it: a compost pile.

“It was really nasty,” Walton gloats, smirking at the prospect of his only revenge for the unnecessary kick-and-run destruction: the vandal’s unpleasantly smelly, soggy surprise.

Unfazed by the setback, Walton found himself increasingly more committed to the project. Today, fertilizing his garden with leftovers from the kitchen and dining tables is as important to Walton as growing, from seed, much of the food he cooks at Markethouse.

“There’s a little more pride involved when you grow something from seed and serve it on your restaurant table,” he says. Read the rest of this entry »

A Taco Tale: La Lagartija Taqueria brings a Bayless alum to the West Loop

Mexican, West Loop No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Few people ignore Rick Bayless. Those who do usually get their ass handed to them—see Chef Ludovic Lefebvre on the first season of Top Chef Masters. For Laura Cid-Perea, the Mexico City-born Le Cordon Bleu Paris-trained pastry chef, things turned out a little differently.

In 2000, the former Frontera Grill cook asked her old boss what he thought about her dream to open a Mexican-style bakery. Though Bayless believed in his protégé, he told her he wasn’t sure Chicagoans were ready for a concept like that. He was probably right, for at that point if any non-Latino Chicagoan had stepped foot in one of the Near South panaderias, they’d be rewarded with leaden churros and stale industrial-shortening larded cookies. It would be tough to get past that reputation.

The weight of Bayless’ recommendation was heavy, for he knew something about launching a concept before its time. Back in 1987, when Clark Street was still a semi-seedy district, he opened a little regional Mexican joint, with his mother and mother-in-law’s retirement savings, called Frontera Grill. His first customer, expecting Tex-Mex style fare, warily scanned the menu, then got up and said, “This is not Mexican food. You’re going to fail.” 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 »

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 »

Rock the Zebda: Algerian takeout ups the Middle Eastern ante

Algerian, Irving Park 1 Comment »
Lamb Brochette

Lamb Brochette

By Michael Nagrant

Zebda, a new tiny Algerian take-out spot in Irving Park, is the kinda place you’d likely drive by without a second thought. Unless you’re a cabbie who hangs out at owner Mohammad Djeddour’s coffee shop Tassili next door, it’s practically invisible. Even though I had the address, I passed it twice before spotting the word “Zebda” (which is the French-Algerian word for butter) painted on a plate-glass storefront window.

Step inside and the perfume of cinnamon from flaky pastilla, or crepe-like pockets filled with curry chicken, flares your nostrils. The entire countertop is larded with glinting confections like orange flower water, honey and sesame-coated, flaky Ramadan cookies called Shebakia. There’s also a tray of diced curried fish and pepper pastillas and a generous pile of smoky, blistered, griddled, pita-like flatbread. Read the rest of this entry »

The Out-of-Towners: Best of Chicago (that you can write about while living in New York)

Trends & Essays No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

“These Vagabond shoes are longing to stray…”
“New York, New York”–Fred Ebb

When New York’s food critics wake up to find that they’re “king of the hill, top of the heap,” it’s a sure bet they can’t wait to turn their eyes to the rest of the world. Such was the case last week, when Frank Bruni, New York Times chief reviewer, ate from coast to coast, scouring for America’s ten best newest restaurants (opened between Jan 1, 2006 and December 31, 2007) and JJ Goode, a New York freelance food writer, examined the nation’s best breakfasts. Read the rest of this entry »

A Return to the Yucatan: Xni-Pec is naked in the grotto

Cicero, Mexican No Comments »

Pork poc-chuc

By Michael Nagrant

Last year, Xni-Pec restaurant might have been the best thing to happen to Cicero since Betty Loren Maltese got locked up. Putting a regional Yucatecan restaurant in the same category as the incarceration of a multi-million-dollar embezzler might seem like hyperbole. But for most, the Yucatan is Cancun, which means most people’s conception of Yucatecan cuisine is Senor Frogs or Carlos ’n Charlies. Any restaurant that challenged such notions had to be exceptional.

The fact that that owners Antonio and Maria Contreras worked their magic, cooking up rare regional Mexican fare like vaporcitos (yucatecan tamales) and panuchos (fried tortillas stuffed with black beans) in a brick citadel of a storefront whose exterior conjures a nondescript dive bar, was more extraordinary. Even the interior of the restaurant, filled with wood-laminate-bench-style seating that channels McDonald’s circa 1982 and an orange and yellow color palette that conjure an explosion at the Reese’s Pieces factory, didn’t promise much. Read the rest of this entry »