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 #5: Paul Kahan, Donald Madia, Eduard Seitan, Terry Alexander

The Big Heat No Comments »

Paul Kahan

5
Paul Kahan, Donald Madia, Eduard Seitan, Terry Alexander
Chef/Owners/Managers of most of the edible things that are remotely cool in Chicago
We could separate each of these guys out on their own, but by now they’re the culinary equivalent of Bogie and Bacall, Han Solo and Chewbacca, or as the music-loving Kahan might appreciate, Marr and Morrissey. They make sweet music together. They’re not involved in every single one of these projects together, but collectively they are responsible for Blackbird, Avec, The Publican, Big Star, the Violet Hour and Mia Francesca. If they felt like opening a coffee shop/organ-meat emporium in a fully operating bathhouse, it would literally and figuratively be the hottest spot in town.

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Hot Plates: My top ten tastes of summer

Fast Food/Street Food, Ice Cream No Comments »

Photo: Brent Hieggelke

By Michael Nagrant

1) Taylor Twosome: There’s nothing like a slushy cup of Mario’s watermelon- or cantaloupe-chunk-studded Italian Lemonade and a nutmeg-spiced combo Italian Beef from Al’s. Despite plenty of comers, they’re still both unparalleled originals. Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t say visiting these institutions wasn’t an excuse to chill on a nearby Taylor Street stoop and watch the inevitable black-socked sandal-wearing old Italian dudes hunkered down in aluminum folding lawn chairs snoring under their rattan-weave porkpie hats. If those guys have turned in early, there’s always a beer-soaked 16” softball game down at Sheridan Park worth catching. Al’s  #1 Italian Beef, 1079 West Taylor; Mario’s Italian Lemonade, 1068 West Taylor

2) Beverly Bi: A freshly ground and griddled buttery patty sandwiched between a fresh pillowy bun from the Soulian family’s Top Notch Beefburger in Beverly just ain’t complete without a five-colored scoop of orange sherbet, pistachio, strawberry, chocolate and Palmer House (Venetian Vanilla with cherries and walnuts) ice creams at the orange adobe palace of The Original Rainbow Cone. Top Notch Beefburger, 2116 West 95th; The Original Rainbow Cone, 9233 South Western Read the rest of this entry »

Jam Session: Rockin’ Taco vs. Big Star in the Clash of tortillas

Lakeview, Mexican, Wicker Park No Comments »

Rockin' Taco's tofu taco

By Michael Nagrant

Johnny Cash was givin’ me the middle finger. So it goes at Lakeview’s Rockin’ Taco, where posters of rock gods, including a squinty eyed Bob Marley smoking a fatty blunt, an impossibly youthful Clash slumming in an alley, and a pissed-off Man in Black giving the big eff-you to the camera, hang near the cash register.

I thought it was a metaphor. I thought everything was.

After the Beatles vs. Stones, there is maybe no more prevalent turntable-side discussion than The Clash vs The Jam. And those who pick The Clash, at least to those born in America (for Brits have generally always derided The Jam as unserious popsters—probably spot on when you consider the Motownesque backbeat of a “Town Called Malice”) and subject to the overwhelming popularity of “Rock the Casbah,” are sometimes regarded as pop-swayed dilettantes. American Jam fans tend to be argumentative types who appreciate (or pretend to) their driving-though-less-hooky singles like “Eaton Rifles.” Those folks also tend to count the slightly greater post-Jam success of Paul Weller over Joe Strummer’s post-Clash career (far too much) as evidence of The Jam’s musical superiority. Of course, those who argue too vehemently about these things sometimes still live in their parent’s basements.

So, yes, of course, Rockin’ Taco with its dingy shiny head-shop-stereotype posters and cheesy big-screen-television-clad dining room was all about the friendlier Clash. I mean, c’mon, they serve hot dogs and tofu tacos. They have a special called the Friday Night Fight where if you polish off ten ghost pepper (hottest pepper in the world—check out the YouTube videos of people eating them to understand the decline of Western Civilization) hot-sauced tacos in an hour, with only one drink and one napkin to save you, you get a t-shirt, a picture on their wall and “eternal glory.” Hell, it wasn’t just Johnny Cash. The whole idea of this place was giving me the middle finger. 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 »

Sky High: Big Star burns bright at night

Mexican, Wicker Park No Comments »

Sunday night’s a stern nine degrees outside, but the 100-plus patrons at Big Star beam like crazy at the unconscionably fashionable new spot right by the Blue Line’s North and Milwaukee stop.

The ceiling of the late Pontiac Café is cut through by eight or more skylights, and emptied out by daylight, its simple box might resemble Blackbird’s simplicity that requires an ever-moving throng for the room to come to life; notably, the players here include Blackbird partner Paul Kahan, as well as other contributors from avec, The Publican and The Violet Hour, just across Damen to the west. Like the Rainbo Club to the south, it’s panopticon-style: there are no obstructions to the looking and being looked at, unless you count the fine small tacos in front of you, notably the De Panza, two bites of crunchy braised pork belly that would make a fine final meal along with a two-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper, using the bar’s Kold-Draft ice cubes. “Super-fresh” is a phrase that rolls off Kahan’s tongue, and along with Buck Owens-style country on the turntable, it’s a daydream of a roadhouse, bare walls, dim bare bulbs dangling overhead. Read the rest of this entry »

Common Sense on Common Culinary Misconceptions

Trends & Essays 2 Comments »

By Michael Nagrantsushi000036

According to biographer Craig Nelson, in the last few weeks of his life, everything Thomas Paine ate triggered episodes of vomiting. In response, he allegedly gave food up entirely until he died. Maybe that’s the real story? We think maybe Paine just witnessed the bad behaviors and fibs of colonial celebrity chefs and restaurateurs and couldn’t take it anymore.

We know the feeling. As their modern counterparts have grown in stature and the PR machines have heated up, so has the mythology of dining out. Since the truth shall set you free, we bring a little common sense to bear on some common culinary-related misconceptions.

Untruth #1: High-end chefs only drink Miller High Life and eat burgers at Kuma’s Corner on their days off. 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 »

To Be Franc: What does it mean if French super-chefs come to Chicago?

Trends & Essays No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Like a geographic Rodney Dangerfield, the Midwest gets no respect. Whether it was the California stylings rooted in locally grown politically vetted food of Chez Panisse or the haute wizardy of Daniel Boulud in New York, for many years, America’s culinary consciousness, much like our artistic one, veered to the coasts.

Yet the Midwest, with its blue-collar denizens, immigrant culture and industrial engineering has a gritty ingenuity that required attention. In recent years, the Midwest has cinched up its rust belt and started deconstructing the roots of its rustic cuisine. At places like Avenues restaurant, pot roast and sauerkraut pierogies have given way to seared Kobe beef medallions and sauerkraut bubbles. The sweat of laborers that once powered the assembly lines now fuels our kitchens, and Chicago is the hub of America’s food renaissance.

The most recent validation of this idea is the fact that the greatest of the French chefs are about to invade. According to a recent Chicago Sun-Times article, Joel Robuchon, once dubbed the “chef of the century,” is planning to open a restaurant in Chicago at the end of next year, while Alain Ducasse, whose global restaurant empire has earned enough critics stars to form its own culinary constellation, dropped in to dine at Avenues amidst rumors of a potential new restaurant. Read the rest of this entry »