Dining and food culture in Chicago

The Big Heat #4: Rich Melman

The Big Heat No Comments »

4
Rich Melman
Founder, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises
The dude basically invented the salad bar at his inaugural restaurant R.J. Grunts. Forty years and more than forty-plus restaurants later, he was recently named Outstanding Restaurateur of the Year by the James Beard Foundation, his L20 restaurant garnered three Michelin stars, and he continues to open and develop cutting edge concepts that command the attention of Chicago and the world.

See details on the The Big Heat

On A Roll: Is M Burger the best fast-food hamburger in the city?

Burgers, Gold Coast 2 Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels going round and round. I really love to watch them roll. —John Lennon

It’s finally “watching the wheels” time here in Chicago. We’ve been granted a full string of sunny warm days, almost a full three months earlier than last year. Of course, this is the Midwest. It may snow yet, so grab it while you can.

I’d recommend some al fresco eats to enjoy the weather, but that would just be a critical disservice, for everyone knows, al fresco in the Windy city means choking on the curbside dust kicked up by street sweepers running as a function of still relatively inefficient aldermanic prerogative.

Better instead to head over and grab and go from M Burger, the new shake shack from Lettuce Entertain You, and spread out in some off-street plaza in the Loop.

I know. I’m sick of the burger thing 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 »

Return of the Macku: The brothers behind Kaze are back with a sushi champion

Lincoln Park, Sushi No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

There are a lot of toddlers who were more sophisticated than me in 2002. After all this was the decade where fat little Gap-clad cherubs named Holden or Zoe swaddled in architecturally significant strollers pushed by their progressive parents went from mother’s milk to maki in seconds flat. I, raised on La Choy chow mein and almond boneless chicken, made it to my mid-twenties without ever eating raw fish.

Back then “toro” was a lawnmower manufacturer or a bullfighter’s cry, not the silky fatty foie-like tuna I’ve come to covet like scantily clad pictures of Scarlett Johansson (for their art value of course). That all changed in the fall of 2002 thanks to a wicked hangover.

Some things are immutable. You die. You pay taxes. If you’re a Michigan football fan, you tailgate in six inches of mud in the driving rain or bundle up for a God-given pimp slap of a blizzard if you are somehow privileged to score tickets to the year-end Ohio State game, even if it takes place in the urban-planning disaster that is Columbus.

And, as in the fall of 2002, if both teams have a shot at the Big Ten championship, and Michigan has a chance to spoil the Buckeyes’ undefeated season and potential national championship, you certainly do not sell those tickets. In fact, if you have extras you hoard them so you can procure a seat for your warm thermos of hot chocolate.

But, when hours before the game you’re in so much pain from drinking with your old college buddy the night before that you can’t get out of bed, and you’re $20,000 in hock for school loans and a year out of college making almost nothing and some dude is offering you $400 a ticket, bitterness, greed and confusion conspire against you.

I can’t say I’d ever had four Ben Franklins in my pocket before, or really ever again. But they do burn the proverbial hole once they’re there, and the surest cure for a hangover is massive amounts of food. Flush, that means fancy food, and somehow this time the Awesome Blossom at Outback Steakhouse wasn’t going to cut it.

I do not remember how we ended up at a Columbus sushi bar 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 »

The Pastry Trail: Eclair, the moment I met you…

French, Lakeview, Pastry 1 Comment »
macaron

Macaron at Fritz Pastry

By Michael Nagrant

For many folks, a first trip to Paris turns out to be a bolt of culinary enlightenment. For me it was pretty much about trudging up thousands of really old stone stairs with the occasional side of mediocre pan au chocolat. Of course, as in substandard sex or pizza, one can always find something to love in a bad croissant stuffed with the gooey chocolate. But the point remains that during that trip I was not sophisticated enough to know where I should have gone for good pastry.

As such, my formative pastry education did not come from some burly handlebar-mustachioed European tall-hat-wearing chef. Instead, on weekend mornings, where Bostonian kiddies had mountains of Dunkin Donuts’ crullers and Jewish New Yorkers their H & H Bagels, I had Josef’s European Pastry Shop. 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 »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2008: Food

Guides & Lists, Trends & Essays No Comments »

Top 5 New Higher-End Restaurants
L20
Mercat a la Planxa
Publican
C-House
Mado
—Michael Nagrant

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

Gabbin’ with Gras: L20’s tireless Laurent Gras

Lincoln Park, Seafood No Comments »

grasBy Michael Nagrant

You can run Laurent Gras over, but you can’t stop him. Though Gras, the chef of L20 in Lincoln Park, was hit by a car while cycling earlier this year, he’s already resumed a nineteen-hour work day and kicks out four-hour bike rides on his days off. In the last two months he also picked up best new restaurant honors from Esquire magazine and Newcity. I checked in with Gras to see how he was doing post-recovery and to see what was afoot at Chicago’s high-end seafood emporium.

Tell me about the cycling accident.
I was on my road bike and after four or five hours of cycling, I was coming back to the city and…when I got to the middle of the intersection I got [hit] by a car at about forty [miles per hour]. I had seven broken ribs, one of my lungs collapsed, [I had a] fractured pelvis, a big cut in my back. I [had] to go to [the emergency room] and have surgery. It was a horrible accident. I’m still recovering. Read the rest of this entry »