Celebration and hot spots for dining

Arun’s

In 1985, Arun Sampanthavivat handed Chicago its first real taste of Thai food; in return, the accolades poured in. Today, the dining landscape insists that we hold Arun’s to one of two standards: stacking its $85 prix fixe up against other upscale experiences or comparing the parade of Thai standards to those found at the brigade of solid storefronts in town. In both cases, Arun’s, unfortunately, does not emerge the victor. The flavors here are flat, the proteins overcooked, the food obscured by dated attempts to mask it all with random piles of carved vegetables. Arun’s was no doubt deserving of praise when it opened, but now it's on autopilot, and each night that its kitchen continues this way will further dismantle their once-stellar reputation.

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Big Star

Critics' pick

One of this city’s most worshipped chefs opens a new place…and tells you not to pay attention to the food. He teams up with the folks who operate the Violet Hour and presents a volume-driven cocktail list…that the crew says isn’t really the point. So what are you supposed to do? One of this city’s most worshipped chefs opens a new place…and tells you not to pay attention to the food. He teams up with the folks who operate the Violet Hour and presents a volume-driven cocktail list…that the crew says isn’t really the point. So what are you supposed to do? Listen to them. There are some things the owners have no control over, true. They did everything in their power to present the place as downscale, but have you ever been to a dive bar where you have to hover for an hour to get a seat, then spend half an hour trying to flag down a slammed bartender? Thought not. Can’t blame Big Star for the fact that people want—desperately—to go there. And I’m one of those people: I’ve been to Big Star—ahem—four times, and while I’ve fallen hard for the surprisingly inviting atmosphere (good music and Christmas lights do a lot to warm up the minimalist space), if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the owners’ warnings are spot-on. The tacos: They’re good…if you pretty much ignore them. If you go in ready to ponder the al pastor, you’ll spend the night wondering, “Does all this pineapple make this too sweet?” or “This tortilla, although fresh, isn’t that great,” or “This is probably cheaper than

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Wicker Park

The Bristol

Critics' pick

After three years, this popular Bucktown restaurant has matured, from its stronger-than-ever cocktail program to its desserts. We have a hard time moving away from Chris Pandel’s signatures, like the salad of heirloom apples and the devastatingly delicious egg-and-ricotta–filled raviolo, but it’s worth it to try the unusual, always-changing daily specials, from marinated beef tendon salad to cold-smoked salmon with bacon-dill dumplings.

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Bucktown

Duchamp [Closed]

Duchamp has all the elements of a great restaurant: a modern but cozy room, an incomparable patio in the warmer months and an established chef putting out French and American classics. The food lives up to its potential about half the time. For every great dish (tender braised pork shoulder; sweet, spicy and crispy chicken wings) there is a lackluster one (pasty gnocchi; underseasoned fish and chips). Thankfully, the overall experience tends to outweigh a couple of disappointing bites.

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Bucktown

Charlie Trotter’s [Closed]

Trotter remains one of the best chefs in the country, proving nightly that not only did he train the younger talent in town, but he can still school them. À la carte doesn’t exist here, so go full throttle with the impeccable, contemporary eight-course tasting menu and tack on wine pairings; this team hits them out of the park. Trotter changes the menu every other week or so, but his salutations to a season may include Millbrook Farm venison loin with coriander, preserved pearl onions and hedgehog mushrooms, plus roasted Muscovy duck with bitter melon and duck consommé..

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Mon Ami Gabi

Critics' pick

Gabi They say practice makes perfect, and the pitch-perfect bistro dishes here show years of rehearsal. The Epcot Center feel of some other Lettuce Entertain You restaurants is missing. Instead, you get a cozy and bustling bistro serving everything from steamed mussels in a white ale broth to a bananas Foster crêpe. Nightly plats du jour like duck à l’orange and steak tartare are as consistently delicious as menu stalwarts such as seared skate wing in lemony caper butter and the awesome steak frites.

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Lincoln Park

Arami

Critics' pick

“Sushi is very simple.” B.K. Park interjects this repeatedly as we discuss Arami’s menu. You source the fish properly. You care for it properly. You cut it properly. You attend to the quality of the rice. It’s that simple. Park, who is the chef and a partner of Arami, is the former chef of Mirai, and he has a point. “Sushi is very simple.” B.K. Park interjects this repeatedly as we discuss Arami’s menu. You source the fish properly. You care for it properly. You cut it properly. You attend to the quality of the rice. It’s that simple. Park, who is the chef and a partner of Arami, is the former chef of Mirai, and he has a point. Sushi restaurants can compete for the most annoyingly elaborate maki, but ultimately it comes down to: Is the fish fresh? The answer, at Arami—an understated, unpretentious West Town treasure—is an immediate yes. The flavors of the fish are pristine, with nightly specials such as aji and shima-aji—members of the amberjack clan and lighter relatives to yellowtail—whispering delicate, floral sweet nothings. But at the same time, Park is massively underselling himself. His presentations of raw fish employ simple visual elements—a seashell, a precious flower—to construct plates that are enchanting and graceful. And when he goes beyond properly sourcing and cutting, he does so with sophisticated ease. I ate the “secret hamachi” in one bite: I smelled truffle oil, but what I tasted was restraint—and the rush of the velvety fish merging with the crunch of mic

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West Town

Jam [closed]

Jam is now closed. On the heels of the success of Chickpea, Jerry Suqi opened this charming American spot. This time, however, it’s not his mom in the kitchen but chef (and co-owner) Jeffrey Mauro, a Charlie Trotter’s alum, who is putting out twisted classics such as egg sandwiches with pork cheeks and lamb crêpes with Asian pear. Jam takes a lot of risks, some of which pay off better than others, but the breakfast amuse-bouches (such as a mini raspberry muffin drizzled with honey) always get things off to the right start.

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Frontera Grill

Critics' pick

Most chefs behind culinary empires branch to other cities, leaving the original back home to suffer. Rick Bayless kept close to the kitchen and chose to expand in other ways (packaged food line, cookbooks, TV shows). Lucky us. For two decades, this has been the spot for a vibrant slice of Mexico City, a place to chow down on ceviches, earthy mole, wood-grilled steak tucked into housemade tortillas and, of course, insanely good margaritas.

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Cape Cod Room

This seafood restaurant has been the flagship of the Drake Hotel’s dining program since 1933. Sea-blue tablecloths, uniformed waiters and nautical paraphernalia are all proudly presented without a hint of irony, which is why it may be the only restaurant in Chicago where you can, and should, order throwback dishes, like lobster Thermidor or Dover sole prepared tableside.

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