Dining and food culture in Chicago

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 »

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 »

Guy Talk: Turns Out, Five Guys Got Nothing on Wendy

Burgers, Lincoln Park, Oak Park No Comments »

fiveburgerBy Michael Nagrant

How many guys does it take to make a great burger? Based on my recent experience at Five Guys in Oak Park, it’s definitely more than five. Of course, quantity probably doesn’t matter, as McDonald’s Corporation employs hundreds of thousands of people and they’ve yet to get it right.

Actually, the number of folks it takes to make a great burger probably isn’t as philosophical a question as how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop. There’s no doubt in my mind the best fast-food burger available in Chicago these days can be found at Marc Burger in the food court at Macy’s on State, and that burger was invented by one man, chef Marcus Samuelsson (C-House).

So what’s wrong with the Five Guys patty? It all starts with cooks who use spatulas and grill presses to smash the life out of the beef. Once grilled, these well-done juiceless pucks look like Wile E. Coyote after one too many anvils to the head. While struggling under the weight of the press, the patties never really get griddled, but instead steam in their own juices.
You also wonder why a place that cooks patties to order makes their burgers well done, but at Five Guys, it’s not really a secret. Their corporate Web site answer is “By cooking all of our burgers juicy and well done we are able to achieve two goals: Insure a consistent product [and] Meet or exceed health code standards for ground beef.”

Translation: we don’t trust our training programs or our grill cooks to do a good job, so instead, we’ve decided that cooking the living moo out everything we serve is the only way to succeed.

I’d give them slack on this point, but the high-volume Marc Burger grill manned by everyday hairnetted joes somehow manages to turn out perfect, juicy medium-pink beauties one burger at a time and have so for a while.

Lest you think this is the sound of one man typing, one of my good friends, a non-food-writing burger aficionado, suggested that the Wendy’s double is better than the Five Guys burger. I was skeptical, but as I reflected on it, he’s right. The Wendy’s burger (also fresh, never frozen beef just like Five Guys) sports discernible grill marks, good seasoning and a flame-broiled taste. The dense grayish mass at Five Guys tasted as if it hadn’t come within ten feet of a saltshaker.

Even the squishy sesame-seed bun here, which disintegrates under a dollop of mayo and gooey cheese, isn’t much more inspiring than the patties. If I’ve learned anything eating hundreds of burgers in my lifetime, the greatest buns are usually of the potato variety and are best when toasted and topped with a touch of butter, as at local chain Culvers.

The skin-on fries at Five Guys are decent (though much better ones are available at Hot Doug’s or Susie’s in Irving Park), but at $2.59 for a “regular” portion they’re kind of pricey. Five Guys would be better off cutting the portion size and the price in half.
This all being said, the real central question of Five Guys is not how many folks it takes to make a great burger, but rather, how can so many well-respected news outlets can be so hoodwinked into loving it?

Where some burger joints might hang framed prints of scary clowns or fat purple blobs, Five Guys has culled over twenty years of good reviews and posted mini-billboard-style excerpted quotes from the Atlantic City Weekly to the New York Daily News. On one wall, you’ll find a decade or so of successive reprints of the Zagat guide fawning over Five Guys.

It could be that all of these signs work as a form of mind control, but I suspect Five Guys’ success is actually a function of cheap nostalgia and relatively sad competition. Up against the garbage served by mega chains, save Wendy’s, the flawed Five Guys burger is much better.

More than anything though, Five Guys is also capitalizing on the East Coast’s and Midwest’s yearning for the glorious burgers of West Coast chain In-N-Out. Absent their gooey animal-style patties, we settle for second best.

One thing Five Guys has going for it is crispy bacon and oozy cheese and a menu of condiments (any and all free with your burger purchase) that makes the salad bar selection at Whole Foods jealous (golden-fried onions are best). But this is just lipstick (on a cow?). And as we learned last November, when you put lipstick on something, all you end up with is a rifle-toting civil-liberty-revoking hockey mom who can see Russia from her backyard.

Five Guys is located at 1115 Lake Street, Oak Park, and at 2140 North Clybourn in Chicago.

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2008: Food

Guides & Lists, Trends & Essays No Comments »

Top 5 New Higher-End Restaurants
Mercat a la Planxa
—Michael Nagrant

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

King of the Court: Slurping noodles in the age of label whores

Loop, Pan-Asian No Comments »

brothBy Michael Nagrant

This weekend, I was chowing down in a mall food court and Tommy Hilfiger was foremost on my mind. It was as if I were reliving my junior high glory days, those times when my mom stuffed me and my posse into the back of our teal Lincoln Town Car, aka the “land yacht” (a nod to its two-and-a-half-Chicago-parallel-parking-space-inhabiting body length) and dropped us off for a parentless afternoon to unleash mayhem on the mall.

We’d spend the afternoon parsing through the latest Z Cavaricci’s or flashing white suburban N.W.A.-inspired gangster poses while trying on fresh LA Kings or Raiders hats at the Foot L ocker. Cavaricci gave way to Girbaud or Guess and eventually a phase worshipping the wares of the aforementioned urban prepster Hilfiger and his country-club cousin Ralph Lauren.

The low point of my laughable label obsession arrived in the form of a $300 Polo sweater depicting a knitted teddy bear outfitted in a reflexive ursine-Lauren-like sweater. Stewart Smalley wouldn’t have been sensitive or stupid enough to wear the thing, and here I hankered for it as a symbol of the ultimate in high-school chic. Though I begged my folks for it mightily, they never caved. To quote Garth Brooks: “Thank God for unanswered prayers.”

Tuckered out from the fashion grab, those days we often headed for a food court outfitted with the usual suspects like oozy Cinnabons or fake-parmesan-doused breadsticks from the Pizza Hut Express. If we were particularly flush with allowance, the aspirational choice was cheddar-doused spuds served in a wax-coated paper cup and griddled beef hoagies from the Great Steak and Potato Company.

These days, while Great Steak still lives, my mall-food-court grazing isn’t quite as pedestrian, at least not when I’m at Macy’s on State Street. Over the last year or so, I’d been making it around the place one kiosk at a time. Rick Bayless’ killer huaraches at Frontera Fresco and Marcus Samuelsson’s juicy patties at Marc Burger have both gotten positive nods from me. (And just so I know it’s not some anomaly, my wife ordered a burger this weekend at Marc Burger and it was just as good as the last one I had. I stand by my assertion that this is one of the best burgers in the city. And Bayless was meeting with his kitchen staff while we were there too, proving he’s no absentee toque.)

This time around, I stopped in at Noodles by Takashi from the James Beard Award-winning Takashi Yagihashi, chairman of the eponymous haute hood hangout in Bucktown. I’d been tough on his gourmet operation for its lack of value, but his kiosk at Macy’s offers the ultimate in cheap eats, and maybe the ultimate in upscale chef-driven noodle joints.

Noodles by Takashi offers a spectrum of pop-Asian delights from spring rolls to pork buns to steamy soups. I settled for some Shoyu Ramen, a kettle-sized bowl of broth. I tucked in to the thing and worked my way through star anise-perfumed pork, toothsome broth-coated veggies and silky noodles, until only a dinky little puddle was left. As the micro-broth spots on my shirt could attest, the bowl was slurptastic.

This bowl also reinforced my disappointment in the value of the soups I had at Bill Kim’s Urban Belly in Avondale just a few weeks before. Takashi was charging $9 (downtown no less), while Kim $13 for what was essentially the same thing. Kim’s pork was slightly better and probably of higher quality, but I preferred Takashi’s noodle texture, and that his pork was seasoned with five spice, rather than overwhelming the whole broth as at Urban Belly.

While sucking down the bowl, I’d heard that Tommy Hilfiger was in town and about to light the Great Tree about a hundred feet away in the Walnut Room. Sated on good well-priced noodles, and intrigued at spotting a glimpse of the inspirational haberdasher of my youth, I headed on over. A group of festively garbed Dickens-novel-worthy carolers made their way through the Christmas canon, while I craned my head a couple of times, jostled for a prime viewing position and eventually decided it wasn’t worth the wait.

I wish you could take this as a metaphor that just as I’d reformed my bad food-court ways that my decision to spurn Tommy Boy meant that I was clearly over my label obsession. But, a few moments earlier I’d spotted a cool baby blue toddler-sized long-sleeve Polo rugby and bought it for my 19-month-old son. I’ll protest that it’s because I really love the new distinctive multi-colored super large Polo logos (Lauren’s re-tooling his brand by imitating the successful Louis Vuitton/Murakami collaboration). But, when I really think about, the hyper-steroidal-sized logo is kind of a billboard that partly says, “My dad is a label-whore.” Clearly, I still have some bad habits to work out.

Noodles by Takashi, 111 North State, 7th Floor, (312)781-4483

The Captain of C-House: The cuisine of Prince Marcus Samuelsson

Gold Coast, Seafood No Comments »

chouse-004By Michael Nagrant

If, as restaurant lore suggests, many chefs come from the ranks of artists, bandits and miscellaneous misfits, then Marcus Samuelsson, executive chef of C-House and Marc Burger at Macy’s is, by comparison, a prince. The youngest chef to receive three stars from the New York Times, he’s also an entrepreneur, a TV personality, a cookbook author and a tireless ambassador for Swedish and African culinary and cultural heritage. He’s as much an intellectual as he is a master culinary craftsman. More importantly, those of you who read my burger round-up a few weeks ago know he also makes a mean grilled patty. Samuelsson was in town last week to work on some new dishes at C-House and I caught up with him to see what’s on his mind.

You opened up Merkato 55 (in NYC) which honors your African heritage, and of course you’re famous for Scandinavian cooking at Aquavit which honors your Swedish upbringing. Is cooking in one particular discipline more satisfying? You were born in Ethiopia, but maybe you have more nostalgia and memories of growing up Swedish since that’s where you were raised?
Africa will always be a part of me and Sweden will always be a part of me. They are also both minority cuisines. Read the rest of this entry »

Burger Battle: Which new burger spot has the best patty?

Burgers, Lakeview, Loop, South Loop No Comments »

Marc Burger

By Michael Nagrant

Not since Karl Marx and Martin Luther have manifestos been so hot. Though these days, the protesting masses aren’t quite the blood-spattered, frothy-mouthed rabble they once were. Rather, like blogs, the green movement and plastic bracelets etched with catchphrases, i.e. anything that was once relevant or cool, corporations have also co-opted the yearning declaration for their marketing purposes.

I know, because last Saturday I set out to find the ultimate griddled patty from new burger spots Epic Burger in the South Loop, Marc Burger in the Macy’s food court and The Counter in Lakeview. During my quest, I was inundated by laundry-list rules and table-top tomes about the evils of trans-fats and frozen spuds, and the virtues of hand-formed antibiotic- and hormone-free grass-fed meat. Read the rest of this entry »