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The 100 best dishes in Chicago 2014: small plates

From simple bread and butter to elaborate small plates at Alinea, these are the best bites in tiny packages

Amy Cavanaugh
Written by
Amy Cavanaugh
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The shared plates trend can be annoying, like when you have to share a single bite among the table. But appetizers and small plates really give Chicago restaurants a chance to shine, as chefs can take risks and try new things on a smaller scale. With creative dishes like Next Steak's salmon coubliac and heftier dishes like Authentaco's earthy huitlacoche quesadilla, it's no surprise this is our largest category this year.

RECOMMENDED: The 100 best dishes and drinks in Chicago

Best small plates

Beet salad at 42 Grams
  • Restaurants
  • American
  • Uptown
Every dish at Uptown newcomer 42 Grams is a knockout, but the beet salad, with an egg yolk, flowers and a light-as-air beet macaron, sums up just what we love about Jake Bickelhaupt’s cuisine: It’s both great and fun. No longer available.
  • Restaurants
  • Contemporary American
  • Lincoln Park
  • price 4 of 4
The single piece of sous vide eggplant, which practically melts as you cut into it, is so perfect that the rest of the dish—eggplant broth with fried mustard seeds and cacao nibs, banana three ways, chilies and cilantro—is almost unnecessary. Almost. Part of a tasting menu until December 31.
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Basket of biscuits at Analogue
  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Logan Square
  • price 1 of 4
Sometimes we go to Analogue for Alfredo Nogueira’s smoked fish dip, and other times we go for the fried chicken sandwich. But we always go for the warm, flaky biscuits, served with spicy pepper jelly and sweet Steen's cane syrup butter. $6.
Huitalacoche quesadilla at Authentaco
  • Restaurants
  • Mexican
  • River West/West Town
The housemade tortilla is stuffed with melted Chihuahua cheese and huitalacoche (a fungus that grows on corn; trust us, it’s good) for an earthy, mushroom-like taste. $4.50.
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Slow-roasted beets at Bohemian House
  • Restaurants
  • Czech
  • River North
  • price 2 of 4
Chef Jimmy Papadopoulos has reinvented Central European cuisine with dishes like these beautifully tender beets, which are set atop a beet and crème fraiche puree with smoked walnuts, apples and a molasses and caraway vinaigrette. $9.
Grilled brun-uusto at Boltwood
  • Restaurants
  • Contemporary American
  • Evanston
Evanston native Brian Huston is serving up the kind of food the town didn’t realize it was missing. That includes bar snacks like the sweet and salty grilled brun-uusto, a Wisconsin take on a Scandinavian cheese served with La Quercia ham, arugula and a rotating variety of fruit. $14.
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Chicharron quesadilla at Cemitas Puebla
  • Restaurants
  • Mexican
  • West Loop
You’ll need to eat this fast—the salty, crispy chicharrons won’t retain their crunch for long, so squeeze some spicy chipotle sauce on top and get to work. $2.75.
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Vuelve a la vida at Dove’s Luncheonette
  • Restaurants
  • Mexican
  • Wicker Park
The next time you have a hangover, go straight to Dove’s and order this shrimp and squid ceviche, which is packed into a sundae glass and topped with crabmeat. Bright and spicy, there’s a reason the dish name translates to “back to life.” $14.
Ravanelli at Eataly
  • Restaurants
  • Italian
  • River North
Head to the Piazza counter for these radishes, which have a soft but slightly crisp texture and delicate leaves that shatter when you bite into them. The sweet Italian honey cuts the bitterness. $12.
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Fried mushroom at Elizabeth
  • Restaurants
  • Contemporary American
  • Lincoln Square
This dish certainly isn’t as cute as the owl-shaped pats of foie gras, also on the fall menu, but the thick, meaty mushroom fried with acorn breading proves that beauty is only skin deep. Part of a tasting menu.
Sesame fries at the Fat Shallot

Sesame fries at the Fat Shallot

The food truck makes excellent fries, with a crisp exterior and pillowy filling. You can get them as-is, or you can get them doused with spicy sesame aioli and black sesame seeds. For us, it’s a no-brainer. $4.
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Mushroom soup at Herb
  • Restaurants
  • Thai
  • Edgewater
Part of a bargain $35 three-course prix-fixe menu, this thick, rich coconut and turmeric broth, filled with mushrooms, sunchokes and hearts of palm, was the most sumptuous thing we ate all year. No longer available.
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Beef patty from 3 JJJ's Better Taste Jamaican Jerk
  • Restaurants
  • Jamaican
  • Roseland
We’ve been to a few area Jamaican restaurants this year, and this spicy, richly flavored pocket of ground beef is the best beef patty around. Even better news: You can find it at either the 3 JJJ's Better Taste Jamaican Jerk food truck, which roams downtown, or the Roseland restaurant. $2.50.
Beef ribs at Lao Pi BBQ
  • Restaurants
  • Armour Square
This no-frills stall in the food court at Chinatown's Richland Center is serving skewers of meat, veggies and seafood grilled over coal and showered with cumin, chili and sesame seeds. Our favorite is the beef rib, a meltingly tender, perfectly seasoned bite. $2.
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Momotaro tartare at Momotaro
  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • West Loop
It only took one bite to see why the restaurant is named for this dish—dehydrated tomato, Dijon and onion puree give it an incredible sweetness and depth of flavor. $10.
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Salmon coulibiac at Next Steak
  • Restaurants
  • Eclectic
  • West Loop
It’s tough to overshadow a beautiful steak at a steak dinner, but this dish, salmon wrapped in mushroom mousse, herbs and buttery pastry, does just that. No longer available.
Crab, Coconut, Ten Bridging Garnishes at Next: Trio
  • Restaurants
  • Eclectic
  • West Loop
We don’t know the science behind this orb of coconut milk, and we don’t care—break into it, then scoop it up with bits of sweet crab and garnishes like lime, avocado, cashew and pickled ginger. Part of a tasting menu available until December 31.
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Fried giardiniera at Parts & Labor
  • Restaurants
  • Hamburgers
  • Logan Square
Parts & Labor is a burger joint. But if you leave without dunking tangy pieces of fried giardiniera in sriracha mayo, you’ve missed out. $4.
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Xiao long bao at Yum Cha Dim Sum Parlor
  • Restaurants
  • Millennium Park
Soup-filled xiao long bao are tricky to nail, but Yum Cha makes it look easy with tender wrappers filled with rich pork and broth that rushes out when you bite into it. $6.95.
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