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 #2: Stephanie Izard

The Big Heat No Comments »

2
Stephanie Izard
Chef/Partner, Girl & the Goat
Last time we did this list, the queen of all food media and “Top Chef” 2008 winner was a line cook at Vong’s Thai Kitchen and Spring, neither of which are around anymore. But, Izard, a curly head Energizer Bunny just keeps on ticking. Her Girl & the Goat is the hottest ticket in town and she’s also working on a new diner and a cookbook. Grant Achatz might be on the Time 100 Most Influential People List, but if Izard was walking next to him in a shopping mall, he’d be one lonely dude.

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My Favorite Things: Vegas Edition

Burgers, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Little Italy, Near North, New American, Pastry, River North, Steakhouse, West Loop No Comments »

Girl and the Goat

By Michael Nagrant

If he weren’t dead, I’d sure like to have a few words with Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable about the weather in Chicago this past July. I mean I’m sure in 1779, Lake Michigan’s unbesmirched shores were breathtaking and all that. But, as the area’s first non-indigenous settler (usually this means Native American-exploiting white dude—but, refreshingly du Sable was a black Haitian who married a Potawatomi woman and became a high-ranking member of the tribe) Du Sable must have known (he set up a fur-trading post on the north bank of the Chicago River) that, when the pelt business dropped off in July because it was hot and swampy and no one wanted to drape their sweaty bodies in beaver, well, the sticky heat might also be a minor annoyance for future generations. Of course, Du Sable was no Al Gore, and thus couldn’t be expected to anticipate global warming, let alone invent the internet, and so I guess the jungle climes we’ve endured most of this past month aren’t entirely his fault.

Still, what to do when my curly blond fro is frizzin’ like one of those “just add water” sponges that turns in to a four-foot-wide dinosaur from the humidity? Head to Las Vegas in August. Crazy, right? Well, as the joke goes, it’s a dry heat.

Actually, while I’ll relish swimming next to Elvis-jumpsuited dudes in huge football-field-sized pools while sipping on suntan-lotion-scented pina coladas in the shade of fake plastic architecture, my real intent, as it always is, is to discover the real side of Vegas food. While I’ll check out French masters Joel Robuchon’s and Guy Savoy’s places and local boy Shawn McClain’s new Vegas spot Sage, I’ll also be out searching for what some consider the best Northern Thai food in America at Lotus of Siam and the Japanese charcoal-grilled fare at Raku. However, while I’m baking in that arid desert, I couldn’t leave you without a few of my new favorite things. Every single one of these tasty treats is as sure a bet as a pair of panties gracing a Tom Jones concert stage. See you in a few weeks. Viva Chicago, baby! 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 »

Big Cheese: Organic School Project gets unhealthy

Cuisine, etc., Events, Organics No Comments »

moxieAt a fundraiser for the Organic School Project, everyone mills about Goose Island Brewery, shoveling in spoonful after spoonful of mac ‘n’ cheese, throwing back brews and enjoying one cupcake (and then another). A wellness program created by Chef Greg Christian that works with the Chicago Public School System to get kids eating healthier, OSP plants organic gardens at schools, teaches youngsters about nutrition and works to combat obesity. Everyday, OSP provides Alcott Elementary with all organic, natural and made-from-scratch lunches.

This information, coupled with the images being continuously broadcast from the Goose Island TVs of OSP children eating organically and working in gardens, endows one with a creeping sense of guilt. Shouldn’t this event practice what it preaches? Nah, let’s try the Mac-tini. The Adam Seger-designed mac ‘n’ cheese-inspired cocktail made with cheddar cheese, maple syrup, fresh lime juice and CapRock vodka, flies off the bar and down the throats of fundrais-ees with surprising speed. Read the rest of this entry »

Down with the Drawing Room: A new sheriff’s in town at the Rush Street spot

Gold Coast, New American No Comments »

chow4By Michael Nagrant

At 8:30pm on a Friday night, The Drawing Room at Le Passage is kind of a lonely hearts club. There’s a six-top of cargo-shorts-wearing sunburned dudes slurping down Coronas. There’s a bony bald-headed Nosferatu-like guy in a smart-looking suit making his way through some food. In the opposite corner, an employee, head-to-toe in black sporting a taut ponytail, a “Marked for Death”-era Steven Seagal look-alike, warily scans the room. Finally, there’s a lanky, lonely old dude, who with his slicked-back gray hair, Harry Caray face-engulfing black-rimmed glasses, turquoise nylon windbreaker and Daisy-Duke-length boating shorts looks like a Viagra Triangle Aristotle Onassis.

Clearly he’s somebody, a regular or a Gold Coast moneybag, because even though he strolls in twenty minutes after us, he gets his drink first, while our table only an apology from the bartender that we’re next. But that’s the way it’s always been in this canyon under Rush Street: if you’re somebody, you get served, and if you’re nobody, it’s back behind the velvet rope with the herd. At least that’s how it was in the Billy Dec days, when his homey David Schwimmer ran free in the VIP Room. Sitting here now, beside white stone columns and under the glinting crystal chandelier, you can almost hear the ghost whispering, “Yo, I’m Ross from ‘Friends,’ baby. Let’s hook up.”

And so while the pecking order may not have changed under the new management of Three Headed Productions, I’d heard the food and drink had. Read the rest of this entry »

The Trouble with Takashi: The new work of Beard Award-winning chef Takashi Yagihashi

Bucktown, New American No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

It’s probably not a good sign when your restaurant’s banquettes look like they’re covered with spermatozoa. I know the interior designer for Takashi thought the fabric pattern they chose, thousands of long, subtle, flaggelating lines punctuated by random ovals, seemed modern, harmless and organic, but unfortunately, it’s too organic. During my entire meal I had flashbacks of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and eighth grade “PBS NOVA” health videos.

With its clean lines, expansive bird mural and predominantly monochromatic color scheme, the entire space looks like a fight between a 1950s-era Herman Miller designer and a Feng Shui specialist. Set in a former brick two-story workman’s cottage that used to house Scylla, a neighborhood lair that could have doubled as your home dining room, Takashi now looks like a true restaurant, a mini-zen cousin of Paul Kahan’s Blackbird space. Read the rest of this entry »

Culinary Mythology: A Lenten meal that isn’t much of a sacrifice

Gone but not forgotten No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

As a first-generation American (my mom was born in Poland), I’ve seen the ease and speed in which cultural traditions are lost, and so I’m determined to preserve the meaningful ones. It’s probably why as a secular Catholic, too lazy to attend regular Sunday mass, I still try to adhere to most of the other religious traditions, and not just the ones that include bowing to massive binges of guilt. And so with Lenten season upon us, I and 2.4 million local Catholics are in need of a seafood fix for our Friday meat fasts.

I decided to put away the McDonald’s Fillet of Fish this year in favor of haute fare, and so I chose Bucktown’s seafood-focused Scylla, where the menu was recently retooled with no entrée priced over $18. Even though the restaurant is named after the six-headed sea monster that ate part of Odysseus’s crew, at these prices, there wouldn’t be too big of a bite out my wallet.

Chef-owner Stephanie Izard did some time under Shawn McClain at seafood-focused Spring before opening her spot, located in a Bucktown red-brick worker’s cottage on Damen, two years ago. Unlike other restaurants converted from former residences, ala Charlie Trotter’s or Alinea, Scylla, with its arched roof, hardwood floors and window coves still retains the character of a true home. There’s a warmth and lived-in aura that reinforces boisterous gatherings of friends and family breaking bread.
Instead of relying on luxury ingredients like truffles, Kobe beef or caviar, Izard employs a bit of alchemy transforming seemingly ordinary pantry items like shallots into a savory oniony crème brulee custard, along with matchsticks of zingy and crunchy apple and bitter endive that cuts the rich sweetness of the custard. Read the rest of this entry »

Mass Appeal: Resolution for a food revolution

Trends & Essays No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve got no problem making them for others. Sure it’s already three weeks into the year, but I’m gonna make a resolution for chefs, and as I’ve learned, they’re not always the most scrupulous bunch. It’s a good bet that whatever personal resolutions many local chefs made for 2007, they’ve already been violated like Ned Beatty’s character in “Deliverance.” So I propose a new resolution, which requires no abstinence from sin or substance-I’d like to see local food stars commit to making well-prepared, well-farmed and creative food affordable in 2007. Read the rest of this entry »