Dining and food culture in Chicago

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 »

Books that Cook: Selections of the season

News etc., Recipes No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

April showers not only bring May flowers, but a flood of new cooking titles. While I’m usually psyched about all the new recipes, I also get overwhelmed to the point of a potential Xanax habit by the mountain of books to be read. Thankfully, there is a drinks portion of the cookbook market, and this year, inspired by Tony Abou-Ganim and Mary Elizabeth Faulkner’s “The Modern Mixologist,” it only took a few Negroni cocktails to calm me. Through the course of reading ten or so cookbooks, my recipe (and my liver) changed considerably. If you, like me, feel so inclined to lubricate your reading journey through the three tomes I recommend below, here’s my final Negroni recipe:

1) Make your own compound gin: Hit Binny’s for a 1.75-liter bottle of Smirnoff vodka ($16.99). Hit Spice House and procure 2.5 tbsp juniper berries, 1/8 tsp fennel seed, four black peppercorns, 1/4 tsp allspice, 3/4 tsp coriander. Hit up grocery store for 1 tsp fresh orange zest, 1/2 tsp lemon zest, and one sprig rosemary. 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



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.

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.

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.

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 »

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.
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Green-Market Dorks: mado and the making of a neighborhood restaurant

Bucktown, New American 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant

“We’re the green-market dorks,” says Allison Levitt, chef and co-owner with her husband Rob of the just-opened Bucktown restaurant, mado. Levitt’s referring to the band of chefs who get up at dawn most every Wednesday and Saturday to scour the Green City Market looking for the best responsibly grown food for their restaurant kitchens.

These chefs aren’t who you think they are. There are very few big-time local chefs. Most of those guys drop by occasionally, but usually only for a photo-op. The real “green-market dorks” are more likely line cooks, sous chefs and young restaurateurs, a group of inspired, hungry unknowns.

What these folks do is generally unsung. The expectation these days is that all good restaurants operate on a farm-to-table principle, and the idea of a chef going down to a green market is given. This is a mythology. 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 »