Dining and food culture in Chicago

The Big Heat: Chicago’s Food & Drink Fifty 2014

The Big Heat 7 Comments »
Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

This year’s selection of Chicago’s dining and drinking leadership focuses on the artists behind the beautiful and delicious compositions on our plates and in our glasses. A few on our list may be celebrities, at least in the food community, but that’s not why they got into this business, with its long hours, burnt fingers and demanding customers. Whether it’s food or drink, fine dining or pizza, salumi or chocolate, these chefs, mixologists and artisans toil behind the scenes so that we can enjoy some of the finest and most innovative food and drink in the country. It’s thanks to this impressive group—and the hundreds right behind them on our ever-growing short list—that Chicago is considered a national culinary treasure. It’s unquestionable that we lost one of our giants this past year with the passing of Charlie Trotter, but his legacy is carried forward in the artistry of the many who served under him. And they, in turn, are inspiring the next generation to learn classic cooking techniques, respect the work of legends past and dare to innovate. Oui, Chef. (Amber Gibson)

Big Heat was written by Brendan Buck, Stefan Castellanos, Amber Gibson, Veronica Hinke, Ben Kramer,  Marla Seidell and Sara Tenenbaum

All photos taken on location at the Arts Club of Chicago by Joe Mazza of BraveLux.

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

Guides & Lists, The Big Heat 3 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 #3: Grant Achatz

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Photo: Lara Kastner

3
Grant Achatz
Chef/Owner, Alinea, Aviary and Next
A member of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People List. While Achatz has pushed the emotional boundaries of the dining experience more than anyone, his immediate legacy is training cooks to be better versions of their forebears. He’s the torchbearer of the legacy handed down from Escoffier to the great French Brigades through to Thomas Keller. As a result guys like Curtis Duffy (Avenues), Jeff Pikus (Maude’s) and David Carrier (ex-Kith & Kin) are bringing a new level to every restaurant they touch and improving how we eat. If that weren’t enough, Achatz’s cancer survival and push to be the best at all costs is a comic book-like hero mythology that inspires us all.

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Staying Power: Personal observations on Grant Achatz’s “Life, on the Line”

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By Michael Nagrant

Grant Achatz could sell ice to Eskimos. Of course, the chef/partner of the best restaurant in America (according to Gourmet and S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best) would melt that ice, infuse it with a phase-shifting stabilizer so that it re-formed as ice the minute an Inuit shoved it in his mouth.

Point is, Achatz, who has reached a level of canonization befitting of saints (miraculous tongue cancer survivor—it’s only a matter of time) and Nobel laureates (why not), could sell his kindergarten finger paintings for a princely sum. His book released this week, “Life, on the Line” (Gotham, 400 pages) co-written with his business partner Nick Kokonas, will likely be a bestseller.

If not, the recently recorded Fresh Air interview and rumored pending feature film starring Ethan Hawke/Christian Bale/Tobey Maguire/George Clooney (okay, I made Clooney up) as Achatz, will put it over the top.

There’s really very little new I could say that would influence a determined foodie or People magazine bio-hound’s acquisition of the book. As a food journalist, I wasn’t even sure I’d write about it. What’s left to say about the toque that launched a thousand profiles? And so, I’ve decided not so much to be a food journalist here, but instead to add to the Achatz culinary canon as a genuine fan.

Having spent hours on Google chat, the phone and in the kitchen working as a contributor on the Alinea cookbook, I wish I could say I write as a friend, the ultimate insider, but few really know Achatz that way. In fact if there’s any criticism of the book, it’s that Achatz never dwells too deeply on anything. His ex-wife is a bit of a cardboard cutout, and when his long time sous chef, Jeff Pikus, who ran Alinea during his absence, quits, Achatz says, “fuck him” and moves on. Then again, this lack of nostalgia or self-examination is the essence of Achatz’s success. He knows cancer doesn’t respond to sentiment and so he gives it the big middle finger too. 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 »

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

Avenues

Avenues

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.

Alinea
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.

Avec
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.

Avenues
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_coverfar

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 »

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 »

The Fearless Mr. Foss: Unlocking the man at Lockwood

Cuisine, etc., Hot Dogs/Sausages No Comments »

By Michael Nagrantcover

Do you like pinball?

What do you mean?

You know, do you play it? Do you find it fun?

A minute or so passed without an answer from one of Chicago’s mega-celebrity chefs, as he faced a local food reporter while they stood near a pinball machine. The chef was usually so prepared that he’d given the same answers to many questions for almost twenty years with almost no variation in delivery or syllable. His ability to stay on message made even the disciplined Barack Obama look more like the drunken political godchild of Gerald Ford and Sarah Palin.

But that’s when the chef expected to be interviewed. The reporter had not given the chef a heads up that he’d stop by this particular photo shoot. And when he did, the chef was so befuddled he couldn’t even answer a simple question about an arcade game without calculating what the answer might say about him.

Sure, chefs are the new rock stars, but rarely have they acted like them. I chose to write about chefs and restaurants in no small part because I had no interest in profiling celebrities so doped up on fame that their paranoia and control made Kim Jong Il look asleep at the wheel. 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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