Dining and food culture in Chicago

The Big Heat #22: Alpana Singh

The Big Heat No Comments »

Alpana Singh
“Check Please!”/Lettuce Entertain You Wine Queen
We’ve seen little old Mexican dudes who have eaten a lot more chicken livers than foie gras stop dead in their tracks in a Pilsen grocery store and stare in awe like a 12-year-old girl spying Justin Bieber at a shopping mall when they’ve spotted Singh. She is the culinary darling for foodies and the McDonald’s-loving set alike. Despite her celebrity, she’s wicked smart on wine and one of the nicest people we know.

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Gilded Boy: Overnight sensation Brendan Sodikoff’s recipe for success

News etc., River North, West Loop No Comments »

Photo: Kari Skaflen

By Michael Nagrant

Brendan Sodikoff could be Liberace’s son. He’s got the same round cheekbones, the unmistakable wincing smile, and a pair of deeper-set eyes that draw you into a maelstrom of mischief, brooding and delight. Which is funny, because Sodikoff, owner of Gilt Bar, Maude’s Liquor Bar and the forthcoming Doughnut Vault and Ox Diner, is quite possibly the anti-Liberace. In this era of frenzied battles for food-blog scoops, Sodikoff launched his first project in February 2010, Gilt Bar, by saying almost nothing.

This wasn’t some wily move by a cunning impresario to generate buzz. It was a defense mechanism. The first-time restaurateur wanted to make sure things were ironed out before the throngs descended. Sodikoff says, “One of the worst days of my life was when I signed the deal. It was only me and this restaurant [Gilt Bar] filled with stuff. I couldn’t imagine where to start.” Add in the fact that he’d just acquired one of Chicago’s most snake-bitten spaces, home to excellent but short-lived gems like Havana, Aigre Doux and Pili Pili, during a crippling recession, and keeping quiet seemed like career suicide.

Months before he’d almost resigned his dreams. He says, “I’d been looking at spaces for six or seven years. I’d kind of given up on the possibility of finding something that would work because it was cost-prohibitive.” He lived across the street from River North’s Aigre Doux and noticed their clientele dwindling. He adds, “So, in my frustration I asked them if they’d consider selling their business. They couldn’t move fast enough.”

And the crowds, they came. Sodikoff is the fastest-rising local restaurateur I’ve ever seen. Thirteen months ago, no one had heard of him, and now he has four projects on the table. His second restaurant, Maude’s Liquor Bar, has three-hour-plus waits on weekends. 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 »

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 »

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 »

Dipping in the L20: Is this Chicago’s best restaurant?

Lincoln Park, Seafood No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Pour my beer in a Solo cup and give me a spit-roasted pork taco and I’m a happy man. It’s not that I don’t appreciate luxury dining, but the balance between food and other details at the high end has increasingly tipped toward silly. Given the current climate, it’s probably only a matter of time before someone offers high colonics in lieu of a post-meal digestif.

Couple this kind of silliness with $4 gas prices, disappearing rice and wheat, increased prices on European wines, and top it all with $20-plus pizzas, and it’s enough to make a food lover grab a leg of prosciutto and a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano and head for a cave.
Read the rest of this entry »

Chain Gang: A look at the Chicago mainstream

Trends & Essays No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Batman eats at Ben Pao. Rather, according to last month’s tabloids, his alter-ego Christian Bale does. As I recently wrote of Katie Holmes’ order of Gino’s East pizza, you figure folks who have millions of dollars could find themselves a first-rate food concierge to point them to better fare. Bale is after all an extremist who almost starved himself to death for his role in “The Machinist.” Comparatively, a stop in Chinatown for spicy Lao Szechuan stylings or the Yunnan delicacies at Spring World is like a Sunday cruise in the Batmobile.

Truth be told, while the Ben Pao menu contains crab rangoon, it’s always walked that Lettuce Entertain You line of being chain-like, but with creativity. It’s actually pretty good. But with so many independently run blood, sweat and soul-drenched restaurants in Chicago, it feels dirty to devote a thought to corporate spots, many who don’t buy locally or consciously. Read the rest of this entry »

Sweet Sojourn: The star-crossed story behind Aigre Doux

French, River North No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Mohammad Islam would make a first-rate drug pusher. The executive chef and co-owner of the new River North hot spot Aigre Doux (which means sweet and sour in French) is standing next to his wife, pastry chef and co-owner Malika Ameen, and Oriana Kruszewski, aka “The Walnut Lady” in the basement pastry kitchen. Islam repeatedly dips his hand in Kruszewski’s zip-locked stash, and gives me handfuls of her black walnuts (they taste like extraordinary dried apples). Kruszewski’s also brought along some homemade preserves, frozen cornelian cherries and raspberries. Islam is handing spoons of the stuff to me as if he were a countercultural shaman bestowing a particularly robust strain of Humboldt County pot. As Islam chews on a cherry, there’s a child-waking-up-on-Christmas-day-like glint in his eyes as he tells Kruszewski he’d like to see her at the back door of Aigre Doux every two weeks. Kruszewski looks at him and tells him he’s crazy, and that if he buys her high-quality-but-pricey products that frequently, he’ll go out of business. Read the rest of this entry »