Dining and food culture in Chicago

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
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The Big Heat #7: Graham Elliot

The Big Heat No Comments »

Photo: Jim Colombo

Graham Elliot
Chef/Owner, Graham Elliot Restaurant, Grahamwich and Master Chef on Fox and Curator Lollapalooza Food Tents
Mario Batali has his clogs and Graham has his bone-white mod eyeglass frames, his Speedo, and his Daisy Duke/Chippendale dancer ensemble. Needless to say, there hasn’t been a voice this loud in Chicago since Jay Mariotti fell off the face of the earth. Unlike, Mariotti who was afraid to step foot in the locker rooms about which he wrote, Elliot at least puts his food where his mouth is. His eponymous restaurant is always a great imaginative romp.

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No Reservations: The anti-Bourdain Wayne Cohen puts it straight on the line

Food writing No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

At a time when most people savor the benefits afforded by an AARP card, Wayne Cohen ripped a page out of the “Jackass” playbook and pulled a crazy young man’s stunt. In 2008, Cohen, then president and owner of the now-defunct Norridge-based Maurice Lenell cookie company, was bought out of his ownership stake. Instead of sailing off to the Turks and Caicos he became a line cook.

Most of what you know about chefs is of the baby-kissing-glad-handing and preening-in-the-glossy-food-magazine variety. That’s the executive chef. A hard-working one maybe does a few hours of prep and surveys the quality of dishes leaving the kitchen. They work hard, but mostly motivating personnel, writing menus and finding great products. An executive chef is not a line cook.

A line cook is the sweaty dude standing over an industrial range breathing grease and fire, working six pans at a time and trying not to flare up a few years worth of burn and knife scars. The line cook is doing this for six or seven hours having spent the previous four hours destemming tiny leaves of thyme or dicing celery into perfect one-eighth-inch cubes. A line cook is also generally a 22-year-old white kid with thirty-thousand dollars of culinary-school debt or a slightly older Latino dude who’s washed a hundred-thousand dishes to earn the position.

A line cook is not a 52-year-old former executive with spinal stenosis and a nerve sheath tumor like Cohen. Frankly, a much younger Cohen couldn’t hack it. He says, “I thought I might make it a career, but after you’ve shucked 200 ears of corn in 115 degrees of heat with no air conditioning, you think maybe, this isn’t what I want to do.” 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 »

Stairway to (Hamburger) Heaven: Edzo’s brings a seventies show to Evanston

Burgers, Evanston 4 Comments »

kdk_1598By Michael Nagrant

If you lived on the north side of Chicago in the early eighties you might have seen a gleaming brick red Crown Victoria rolling down Dempster Avenue blasting Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” If you pulled up next to that bitchin’ ride and glanced in the back seat, you probably would have seen a young Eddie Lakin slunk down in the maroon leather bench seat slurping on a milkshake.

Lakin’s father, the car’s owner, grew up in Albany Park with the Skokie hotdog barons who opened legendary spots like Herm’s and Poochies, and many weekends, he’d take his son to visit his friends’ restaurants. It was there, chowing down on burgers and Polishes, that the seeds for his forthcoming Evanston burger shack Edzo’s were planted.

Lakin is probably the most overqualified owner of a burger and hot dog joint since Hot Doug Sohn walked out of Kendall College and bestowed duck fat French fries upon the world. A political science graduate of the University of Illinois, Lakin worked as a record store clerk after college, but realized there was no future in it, and enrolled at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (CHIC). He says, “You come up with an idea in the morning, do the prep, plate it, and send it out to the customer all in the same day. There’s an immediacy to cooking that’s really gratifying.” 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 »

Reinventing Breakfast: Local chefs dish on morning matters

Breakfast/Brunch No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

In Chicago you can score foie gras milkshakes and edible seaweed-flavored paper for dinner. Breakfast, though, has remained a relatively familiar selection of eggs, pancakes and bacon. Innovation usually comes in the form of sickeningly sweet towers of chocolate and fruit-infused pancakes or savory breakfast burritos as big as Jay Leno’s head. Breakfast is really one of the last frontiers for culinary innovation. There’s really no master of the flat-top, no diner designer kicking out orange-juice bubbles and French-toast snow to the morning masses. To find out why, I checked in with John Bubala, former chef/owner of Timo, who now teaches classic-breakfast cooking at Kendall College culinary school, as well as Chicago’s top dinner dramatists, Grant Achatz of Alinea, Homaro Cantu of Moto and Graham Elliot Bowles of Graham Elliot restaurant to see why innovation has been slow and what their visions of breakfast look like.
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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 »