Dining and food culture in Chicago

Staxed : A new Little Italy breakfast spot puts out the hits

Breakfast/Brunch, Little Italy 2 Comments »

Peach French toast

By Michael Nagrant

On December 8, 1967 at the Memphis recording studios of Stax Records, Otis Redding didn’t have a lyric written for the last verse of his newest song, so he improvised and whistled a few bars, planning to return to the studio again to finish. Two days later he died in a plane crash outside of Madison, Wisconsin, his body recovered from Lake Monona. Redding’s partner and lyricist, Steve Cropper, went to the studio right after the crash, finished up the recording, preserved the whistling as an outro and launched Redding’s biggest hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” on Stax record’s Volt label.

In 1965, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where three years later Dr. Martin Luther King would be shot, Wilson Pickett and Cropper wrote a little ditty called “In the Midnight Hour.” They also recorded it at the Memphis studios of Stax, releasing the album on Atlantic Records.

Just as suburban kids found Chess Records’ Chuck Berry through the Beatles in the sixties or Muddy Waters in the seventies via the idolatry of the Rolling Stones and thievery of Led Zeppelin, I’d discovered Stax greatest soul men growing up in the eighties through white culture. 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 »

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 »

Unswayed: Randolph Street’s Veerasway tastes almost as beautiful as it looks

Indian, West Loop 1 Comment »

paneerBy Michael Nagrant

Angela Hepler-Lee is like the new Jerry Kleiner. Years after the Marche and Red Light impresario staked his claim to Randolph Street, Hepler-Lee, who opened Sushi Wabi, De Cero and now a new mod small-plates Indian spot, Veerasway, is taking it back piece-by-upscale-ethnic-piece.

Like Kleiner, who acid-tripped out the classic French bistro at Marche and brought NY Strip to class up the Kung Pao beef at Opera, Hepler-Lee specializes in taking cheap ethnic classics, be it sushi or taqueria fare, and glamming them up with luxury ingredients, a haute chef’s touch and serving the food in a mod, clean dining room.

This makes her a primary target for the serious food community, the folks who generally believe good food only comes from mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall joints, grungy taquerias or the backstreets of Chinatown. When De Cero opened, these folks moaned over the $4 tacos and $9 nachos, and wondered why you’d ever go there when you could get a great taco for a $1.50 down the street in Pilsen. Read the rest of this entry »

Requiem for a Restaurant: Why Del Toro died

Gone but not forgotten No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

When Del Toro opened in December 2005, it was a modest affair, devoid of the auspicious pomp surrounding most restaurant launches.

There was some buzz because local impresario Terry Alexander was reinventing his popular Wicker Park spot MOD. But when I first met chef Andrew Zimmerman, he spoke of the inspiration of a simple grilled monkfish that he had on a recent trip to Spain. He hoped to bring a similar quiet grace to Del Toro. Read the rest of this entry »

Chinese dynasty: Opera hits the highest notes

Chinese, South Loop No Comments »

By Brian Hieggelke

I get especially impatient waiting for new restaurants to open in my South Loop neighborhood. When Hackney’s lit up last year after what seemed to be an eternal build-out, I was there on opening night. Given that, you can just imagine my high hopes when I heard that the KDK restaurant development group was teaming with Arun to bring an upscale Chinese outpost to a nearby street. Even better, by opening across from their Gioco, they were signaling plans to do for South Wabash what their pioneering development has done for West Randolph. Opera opened on a Wednesday, but I did not make it there till that Sunday. Fortunately, it lived up to my anticipation, with rich spicy flavors and a level of presentation unimagined in Chinatown. But it was so early in the game that the liquor license had just been granted, meaning beer hadn’t been stocked, and the wait staff didn’t know the wine list yet. So I waited a couple of weeks, and returned for seconds. The food and the space got even more interesting—and busier—the second time around.
Read the rest of this entry »