Equal parts warm and captivating, this Andersonville storefront turns out Italian-tinged Korean fare and food-loving wines in a homey space.
Mingling California’s bounty with Asian and Mediterranean influences, Erling Wu-Bower’s sprawling River North restaurant is imaginative and intensely likable.
This next-door sibling to Ravenswood's relentlessly popular Gather doles out crowd-pleasing, plant-forward dishes in a casual space that suits the 'hood.
Chef/owner Stephen Gillanders wows with craveable, Asian-inflected dishes at this handsome Pilsen newcomer that pulsates with warmth and generosity.
Clever, mostly tasty small plates are well-paced at this lighthearted addition to Restaurant Row, where thought-provoking cocktails alone are worth the trip.
Time Out loves
Any taco shop that opens within a mile of the intersection of Milwaukee, North and Damen will be subject to the Big Star question: Is it as good as Big Star? Is it as cheap? Most important, is it worth potentially missing out on a seat on Big Star’s patio? To maximize the pleasure Antique Taco is capable of providing, ignore all these questions. It’s not that Antique can’t compete with Big Star—it can. But why pit the two against each other? Wicker Park, it turns out, is big enough for both. So on nights that call for shots of whiskey and boys with mustaches, keep going to Big Star. And on the quieter, reflective nights of summer, head to Antique. The vibe is cute and vintage (and some of those vintage items are for sale), but the space is uncluttered enough that you can relax. And the tacos, more composed than most, feel like meals in miniature: Light and crispy battered fish is topped with smoky cabbage; sumptuous carnitas carry a considerable kick from an adobo rub. A corn salad is a decadent mixture of kernels, onions, beans and mayonnaise—it is probably one of the only mayo-based salads you’ll eat and yet still find sophisticated. And the hefty meatball slider is given a proper sauce: a smooth mole poblano. Could you sit on the sidewalk patio with a glass jug of the rosemary margaritas (good, but hard to find the rosemary) in an attempt to re-create the other taco joint in the ’hood? You could. But Antique works best inside, with the happy staff, the adorable interior
Before going to the Angry Crab, some advice: Wear clothes you don’t mind getting messy and bring lots of booze. The new BYOB Cajun-style seafood restaurant gets packed at dinnertime, so track down the server doubling as a host and get your name on the list. You’ll probably need to wait for 30 minutes to an hour, but once you’ve cracked open a beer, it’s not so bad. Especially because the wait is worth it. The menu is simple, with seafood like clams, crabs, lobsters and shrimp sold by the pound and tossed with your choice of spice—lemon pepper, garlic butter, Cajun or all three mixed together. While the lemon pepper didn’t offer much flavor, the luxurious garlic butter and spunky Cajun spice really complemented the seafood. Then choose a heat level. The second level offered slight spice, but the third made my lips burn, and that’s what I’d get again. Don’t miss the two-pound Dungeness crabs, which are packed with sweet meat. They’re a mess to eat, and you need to really work at them with crackers. The tender crawfish and plump shrimp were easier to unshell, and we dipped everything in excess garlic butter at the bottom of the plastic bag, which is how the food arrives to the table. There’s not much beyond seafood, though Cajun fries sated our hunger before we ordered, and steamed rice helped quell the spice. Some post–Angry Crab advice: Take a shower, as my hair smelled like garlic the next day. Gross, yes, but it just reminded me how much I can’t wait to return. Vitals A
There’s nothing quite like the smell of something being cooked over a fire. If you’ve walked by Leña Brava, you know that smell has been turning heads since the restaurant opened. Something about the nostalgia of camping and cooking over an open flame, meats dripping with grease and fats just gets me, and had me eyeing everything on the “fire” section of Rick Bayless’s newest Randolph Street restaurant. Leña Brava (which translates to “ferocious wood”) has two sections on its menu, fire and ice, the former consisting of dishes cooked over open flame or in a wood-burning oven and the latter being a raw bar. A quick glance at the menu makes it easy to fall in love—all the aguachiles and ceviches sound so delicious that it’s hard to pick just one, and the same goes for the fire portion with oven and hearth dishes that are a perfect contrast to the first half of the menu. But I’ll make this easy for you—get the braised shortrib and the verde ceviche. The shortrib is hearty and warm, with Oaxacan pasilla salsa that floods the plate over a buttery cauliflower mash. The ceviche, on the other hand, is bright and acidic, with baja hiramasa yellowtail, green chile adobo and a variety of vegetables like cucumber and radishes. A word to the wise: You’ll want to pick either an aguachile or a ceviche, but steer away from ordering one of each if you have a small party. While delicious, they’re highly acidic and can take a toll on the taste buds. The restaurant continues to hit high notes
Let’s play a little choose-your-own-adventure. A. Are you serious about your drinks and want to chat with the bartenders while snacking on shared plates? B. Do you want to be in the middle of the hottest new restaurant, or willing to put up with chaos to tackle the dinner menu? C. Are you an early riser who wants to sneak in breakfast before work or have a leisurely morning meeting? If you answered A, just show up and snag seats at Salone Nico, the bar adjacent to Nico Osteria (or at the even quieter bar upstairs). If you answered B, head to Open Table to make a reservation for dinner. And if you answered C, you’re in luck, because Nico serves the best new breakfast in town. Gold Coast newcomer Nico Osteria, an Italian seafood restaurant from Paul Kahan’s One Off Hospitality that's located in the Thompson Hotel, may offer a variety of experiences, but you'll get excellent food and drinks at all of them. On a recent night, we showed up early for our 9:30 reservation so we could have a drink at the bar first. It’s something you should do, too, since the food is ideally paired with wine (there's an excellent list of Italian wines from Bret Heiar), but you won’t want to miss out entirely on Matty Eggleston’s cocktails. The list is divided into three aperitif and three full-strength cocktails, my favorite of which is the Nico, a Negroni-esque drink that's strong with a bitter backbone and made with gin, amaro, Cocchi Americano and mineral water. The other cocktails, like the
You know that feeling you get when you discover a great little indie band for the first time and every track sounds like it was written for you? Unknowingly, you take partial ownership of the group, turning every listening session into a small, mildly smug act of self-expression. Restaurants can have the same effect, you know. At least, that’s how I felt about dining at Passerotto, which translates to “little bird” in Italian. Jennifer Kim’s (Snaggletooth) charming new restaurant is at once breezy and intensely felt, comfy yet dressed up. The Italian-influenced Korean-American cuisine is unique and wholly delicious, and the wine somehow elevates it further. Inside, the brick-walled space with white penny-tile floors and exposed ducts feels like a stylish friend’s lived-in apartment. Two- and four-top tables with dusty-blue chairs line half the room, which is outfitted in quirky framed Japanese prints, succulents and digital weavings mingling with Kim’s family photos. A long bar offers seats on both sides, blurring the staff-customer barrier. Delineated in both English and Korean, the single-page menu breaks out into composed raw proteins (hwe), little shareables (jom), noodles and rice (gooksoo and bap), and heftier platters for two (du myung). Lesser-known European wines dominate the beverage section, which I took as a sign to ask our server—who happened to be general manager/drinks architect Tegan Brace (Danke)—for pairing suggestions. Of course, you can also spring fo
Let’s knock this out right away: You’re getting the arroz gordo. It’s a spectacle to behold, a paella-like thicket in which sausage, pork, clams and prawns are piled on a bed of rice—a dish worthy of sharing its name (which translates to fat rice) with the restaurant itself. Tackle the prawns first: Crack their shells and disengage their plump insides. Now the clams. There might be a stray sandy one in there, but the rest have integrity. Next, a tea egg (boiled, then cracked and steeped in tea and soy sauce, such that the liquid seeps in, marbling the exterior): It’s fragrant and saturated with seasoning. And now the unsightly hunks of pork, a disappointing mass of tough and chewy meat. Just when the arroz gordo becomes almost senseless, there’s an olive: an acidic reprieve. And then there’s the soul of the dish, crisped black at the pot’s edges, packed with nuggets of Chinese sausage and pickled raisins that burst with sweet, tangy juices. I’m talking about the rice. There’s something about big, conglomerate dishes like this—the fat rice, the low-country boil at Carriage House, the moqueca at La Sirena Clandestina—that makes them immensely pleasurable to eat. They’re the opposite of faddish: They’re dishes with long histories, things you don’t have to think about to enjoy. This sense of history and of place is what makes Fat Rice’s approach so successful: Owners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo (formerly the duo behind the supper club X-Marx) are cooking the food of Macau,
I arrived at Blackbird two weeks ago at 9:45pm on a snowy Thursday. I walked in, and the hostess kindly asked for my coat. I hesitated. It was a cold night. I had walked a mile in bad weather to get there. I was still thawing. But I was also familiar with the legend about Blackbird’s owner, Donnie Madia, and how coats on the backs of chairs made him furious. Having met Donnie a few times, I could see how this would be the case. I handed the coat over. But I kept my bag. I took a seat at the bar, by myself, and I had every intention of eating my dinner unoccupied—no phone, no book. That was the way I wanted it. It was also the way I think Donnie would have wanted it. Still, should a cocktail instill in me the boldness to take out my novel, I wanted to be prepared. The place was almost empty—just a few tables still occupied in the back, near the kitchen. I had the bar all to myself. So when I saw the bartender, my server, ruffling through the day’s newspapers, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had leaned against the wall and started reading. Instead, she fished a New Yorker out of the pile and handed it to me with a raised eyebrow. Yes? she asked with her eyes. Yes, I nodded, and took it from her hand. It was the type of service gesture I expect from a specific kind of great restaurant, but not necessarily from Blackbird. My last meal here—lunch, several months ago—had been presided over with excruciating snobbishness. And since then, the Blackbird group of restaurant
You don’t get a glimpse of Marisol Escobar until the bill arrives, affixed to a black-and-white postcard depicting the late avant-garde French-Venezuelan sculptor (who was the first to contribute work to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art). But this restaurant’s namesake is homaged throughout the menu—in a cheeky ’70s-style salad dressing and a steak sandwich (the artist loved late-night steak and eggs). She also typifies a creative freedom that permeates chef Jason Hammel and chef de cuisine Sarah Rinkavage’s wide-ranging menu, in which fleeting produce serves as both the inspiration and medium. The MCA’s cool glow spilled onto the wet pavement as my dates and I arrived on a soggy Thursday evening. Housed on the ground floor just inside a street-level entrance, Marisol is partitioned off only a third of the way to the ceiling by wooden booths, creating a disconcertingly exposed feeling of dining in a lobby. Walking in, your eyes are immediately drawn left, to British artist Chris Ofili’s magnetic figurative mural overlooking the enclosed private dining room. Its brilliant jewel tones are echoed in the chairs, benches and couches scattered throughout the mostly grayscale dining room, where Ofili has also etched abstract flora on the windows and walls. Marisol is the centerpiece of a $16 million renovation that aims to make the MCA more accessible. (A companion counter-service café called The Street peddles coffee and pastries.) I tend to find cocktails too bold for foo
“Are you sure it’s west of Ashland? I can’t see it,” the mister frowned, as we strode down Chicago Avenue, past novelty and jewelry shops and the palatial Annex on a Sunday evening. It was chilly, so the sprawling restaurant’s windowed facade was closed, and the dim, candlelit interior hard to see from the sidewalk. But that only made entering this boho-chic boite that much more transportive. Bonhomme Hospitality (Celeste, Black Bull) has a knack for aesthetics, and this dramatic, three-part space evokes the sense of being framed inside a singular, precious shot in a Wes Anderson film no matter where you stand. Executive chef Marcos Campos and chef de cuisine Jonathan Meyer’s global shared plates inhabit this namesake’s bohemian spirit fairly successfully, while the cocktail menu proves low-proof sippers can be just as tasty as their boozy counterparts. It’s hard to keep your mouth closed when you first walk in. To the right of the entryway, an atrium-like enclosed patio bedecked in colorful tiles, painted brick, climbing ivy and potted plants, recalls a sun-bleached courtyard in southern Spain. Our two dates were getting a headstart in the sexy cocktail lounge, which is anchored by an L-shaped brass and vintage tile bar beneath repurposed street lights from 1970s Chicago. A host led us up a short gangway—ducking to avoid a slap from a waving palm—and through the back dining room to a table overlooking the bright open kitchen. Mixing elaborate antiques (midcentury chandeli
I didn’t expect to find myself in the middle of a clubby lounge in a steakhouse at midnight, but Maple & Ash inverts expectations. You enter the Gold Coast restaurant through a crowded bar, then take the elevator upstairs to a lively lounge before being whisked into the calm, elegant dining room. I also didn’t expect the chef's choice option to be called "I Don't Give a Fuck” or the “Baller” seafood tower, but I did expect classic steaks and sides from chef Danny Grant and exceptional wines from sommelier Belinda Chang. The dichotomy places Maple & Ash in line with other new steakhouses, like RPM Steak, Swift & Sons, STK and Boeufhaus, which update classic dishes while offering a cooler ambience than old-school spots. The meal begins with a round of freebies—a mini gin cocktail, citrus-cured olives, nubs of Hook’s cheddar and radishes with butter—to snack on while you peruse the menu. Seafood is a good choice to start. Pile refreshing salmon tartare atop pieces of fried phyllo dough and order coal-roasted seafood, available in a tower or individual pieces. Fat, sweet crab legs are rich and spicy from garlic butter and chili oil, and the half lobster with the surf and turf has the same presentation. It’s perfect, though the accompanying filet is mushy rather than tender. The bone-in rib-eye is a better choice, with a juicy center, mineral flavor and charred edge. Nearly every table in the dining room ends with sundae service, a $19 tower of ice cream toppings—hot fudge, salt
Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh All throughout my dinner at Bohemian House, I wondered why the restaurant had opened in River North and not, say, a hot dining ‘hood like Logan Square or Randolph Street. It’s not just that the space feels homey, with mismatched flowered china, couches for lounging, and a back bar made up of blue tables stacked on top of each other and mounted on the wall. The décor is a stark contrast to the slick restaurants all over the neighborhood, but it’s more because the food, from chef Jimmy Papadopoulos (formerly of Schaumburg steak house Sam & Harry’s), feels intensely personal, like he invited you into his house and made you dinner. This is serious, thought-provoking food, but Papadopoulos makes it approachable. For starters, it’s a treat to dine at a new restaurant that isn’t a big Italian place or a fried chicken joint. I love these things, obviously, but the world is a big place—there are so many more cuisines to celebrate and flavors and ingredients to try. Here, the menu melds Czech, Austrian and German influences into a cuisine that’s rich and deeply flavored with pickles and vinegars to cut through heavier dishes. Start with a drink. There’s a list of straightforward cocktails, like basil lemonade spiked with Pimm’s and an old-fashioned made with house vanilla-fig bourbon. Drink these while you’re perusing the menu, because while they’re pleasant, this is Central European food, and when you eat that area's food, you want to be drinking
Either people really like this new barbecue joint, or the pitmaster is simply not making enough food. Having finally scored some eats after two 8pm visits were met with, “Sorry, we’re out of ribs and chicken,” I decided both theories are correct. People really like it because the food is damn good and the owners have yet to figure out just how many Chicagoans are starving for great barbecue. On the nights Smoque was cleaned out, I was told to call ahead to reserve slabs and birds, the two most popular items. After doing so, I was rewarded with near-perfect spareribs—juicy, pull-apart tender, with subtle smokiness that didn’t overwhelm the tangy spice rub clinging to the sticky, crunchy exterior. As a testament to their deliciousness, I dabbed a bone with the decent house-made sauce only once. The baby back ribs, true to their nature, were lean, so they came out a bit dry, but the pillow-soft chicken more than made up for it, with slick seasoned skin giving way to meat that’s partially pink from smoke and fully flavorful. Like everything I ate, pulled pork was only lightly seasoned, letting the charred bits and juicy strips of shoulder speak for themselves. Beef brisket wasn’t juicy enough; a cut with more marbling might help. Canned pork-and-beans get gussied up with caramelly onions, bits of brisket and brown sugar, while creamy mac and cheese gets a perfectly simple crust of bread crumbs. Don’t bother saving room for the so-so cobbler; order another slab of spareribs inst
Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh Prior to last week, I had never eaten bear. Or snail roe, which I didn’t even know was something people ate. Or foie gras molded into tiny owls. Welcome to dinner at Elizabeth, Iliana Regan’s two-year-old Lincoln Square restaurant, which is equal parts fascinating and adorable. It’s easy to be charmed by soup served in owl mugs and decor like tree branches or a white deer head that greets you at the door. But at $354.78 for dinner for two (with service and tax, but before drinks), merely to be charmed by dinner is not enough. My dinner (always) needs to be delicious and, if I’m paying that much, it needs to be something I can’t get elsewhere. Dinner at Elizabeth is both. Elizabeth opened in September 2012 with communal tables and three tasting menus, which ranged in price and size. In other words, your enjoyment of dinner depended heavily on your tablemates, which you had zero control over, unless you bought the whole table. Now, two years later, the communal tables have been replaced with two or four-seat tables, there’s a single tasting menu each night, and there are beer pairings in addition to wine and nonalcoholic pairings, plus a cocktail list. And while you can order tickets online, a la Next and Alinea, as I did, you can also just call up the restaurant and reserve a table. In other words, it’s become a more diner-friendly experience. According to Elizabeth’s website, the restaurant offers “new gatherer” cuisine, which is a way o
Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh While we were driving to dinner at Boka last weekend, my dinner date confessed: “All I want to eat for dinner is chicken.” “You’re in luck,” I said. “Lee Wolen is a god of chicken.” When the Boka Group overhauled its ten-year old flagship restaurant earlier this winter, it made a few key changes. It revamped the space so it’s unrecognizable from its previous, staid incarnation—now, there’s a huge moss- and plant-covered wall (designed by former Time Out dining editor Heather Shouse’s Bottle and Branch horticulture company) with paintings of elegantly dressed-up animals; a bar area that feels like a boisterous brasserie, with dark leather, brick walls and dim lighting; and portraits of Bill Murray and Dave Grohl as generals. Bartender Ben Schiller had already departed for the Berkshire Room, and he was replaced with Tim Stanczykiewicz (GT Fish & Oyster, Balena), who handles the list of crowd-pleasing cocktails that don’t overpower the food, like a bee’s knees. And it brought in chicken god Lee Wolen, formerly chef de cuisine at the Lobby, to take over for GT Fish & Oyster’s Giueseppe Tentori. At the Lobby, Wolen’s star dish was a roasted chicken for two, a dish brought to Chicago from New York’s NoMad (the sister restaurant to Eleven Madison Park, where Wolen was a sous chef). It’s a different dish at Boka, but it’s still a knockout—lemon and thyme brioche is stuffed under the skin, then the breasts are roasted and the legs confited, shr
In Chicago, fusion food is arguably easier to come by than authentic ethnic cuisine. That’s not to say that cross-cultural fare is a bad idea; Kimski, Mott Street and En Hakkore are examples of top-notch spots seamlessly blending traditions. But in some ways, creating something authentic seems like the harder feat. That might explain my high hopes for HaiSous, a new restaurant in Pilsen from Embeya vets Thai and Danielle Dang. The tagline promises “a true Vietnamese kitchen preserving heritage through food,” something most Chicagoans haven’t experienced south of Montrose Avenue (aside from the smattering of pho and banh mi spots downtown). Guests can choose from a $33 tasting or the a la carte dinner menu; my date and I went with the latter, which didn’t disappoint. Divided into five sections, the dinner menu offers “for fun” salads, drinking food, house specialties, vegetarian dishes and pickled things. Start with Dang’s papaya salad, a family recipe that’s bursting with fresh, herbaceous flavors. Shards of young papaya, culantro (a cousin to cilantro) and savory Vietnamese beef jerky dance in a puddle of mouth-smacking chili sauce. Similarly refreshing—though a touch sweeter—is the hand-shredded duck salad, with crunchy green cabbage, banana blossom, scallion oil and ginger. En route to the “drinking food” section of the menu, we ordered a round of adult beverages, the favorite of which was the Sake Signature Cocktail, a comforting blend of Japanese rice wine, honey, Tahi
The people of the Loop have been waiting. They’ve been waiting for an alternative to Bennigan’s or for a liquor list that goes beyond Old Crow and Miller draft. Now, thanks to Billy Lawless, the wait is over. The Ireland native and his father (same name, but call him William) ventured far from their neighborhood pubs the Irish Oak and the Grafton to open a big-deal spot on a big-deal strip of Chicago. And they did it right. A lot of money was sunk into the Gage, and it shows—the design strikes the perfect balance between “What a swank new spot” and “Has this place been here forever?” Multiple rooms extend beyond a big, beautiful wooden bar, with shiny, sage-green subway tiles wrapping each room into the next. Booths are big and comfy, tables are dark wood and sturdy, a couple of TVs by the bar are unobtrusive, and little details give the place a touch of vintage class. Drinks and food sport downtown prices, so plan on spending some loot and don’t look back. Like sweet ’tinis? The signature Gage Cocktail— pear Grey Goose, Aperol, clove-infused apple juice with a splash of cranberry and lime— is your drink. Are you a brown liquor sipper? The whiskey list is lengthy and expertly selected. The beer list goes beyond the basics and wines are accompanied by clever, straightforward descriptions. Assuming that even happy hour–goers need something quality to munch on, chef Dirk Flanigan has created a “snack” menu that includes shrimp cocktail (fresh but with a blah aioli), crispy chi
I couldn’t get into the lobster roll at GT Fish—the bread was too sweet, the lobster too wet. And when it came to the stuffed squid, I found myself digging out the chorizo, shrimp and rice—the squid itself had been overcooked, and I wanted to avoid having to gnaw on it. Desserts—I’ll get to those in a minute. But let’s just say they did not provide happy endings. Everything else at GT Fish I loved. I loved the cocktails, which was no surprise given these expert Dark & Stormys were designed by Benjamin Schiller. And I loved the room, which ever since the Boka Group (those guys behind Girl & the Goat and Perennial, among others) announced would become GT Fish I’ve mistakenly referred to, in conversation and in print, as a “fish shack.” Clearly, I did not know of what I spoke. Fish Bar in Lincoln Park—that’s a fish shack. GT Fish is a restaurant. And in contrast to Fish Bar, here the nautical details lend the room a sleekness. The aura is cool, salty. Not unlike the wind in Cape Cod. The Cape is not the only thing this place is selling, though. With every order of oysters—cool and plump and ocean-kissed—comes two bottles of GT-branded hot sauce, in packaging that leads me to believe we’ll soon see the stuff at Jewel. The sauce itself is neither remarkable nor un, but it’s indicative of this restaurant’s secondary ambitions: to raise the profile of chef Giuseppe Tentori, perhaps even to the level of the other star chefs in this company, Paul Virant and (especially) Stephanie I
Something awkward happened just after the craggy, golden-fried chicken thigh arrived at our table at S.K.Y. The meat was propped up on a ring of sweet creamed corn, and a beaker of bright orange hot sauce sat expectantly in the center of the plate. The server glanced from my date to me. “Shall I pour the sau—” “Yes!” I interrupted, nearly launching out of my chair. As the sauce pooled into its creamed corn barrier like magma, my date brought a sense of civility back to the conversation with a well-timed remark about last seeing a beaker in middle-school science class. In all fairness, though, I wanted that chicken in my mouth as quickly as possible. Lacy, tempura-like crust crackled audibly at the suggestion of my knife, revealing succulent thigh meat imbued with garlic and Korean chili flake. I dragged my forkful through the fiery lake of fermented habanero-vinegar hot sauce, scooping up bits of the creamed corn dam as I went. The resulting bite was a textural, irreverently American jumble of tangy heat, umami and sweetness. The entire pan-Asian menu at chef/owner Stephen Gillanders’s first solo venture—named for his wife’s initials—reverberates with a similar alchemy of meticulous skill, humor and heart. Aromatic, nuanced cocktails and craveable desserts make this striking Pilsen newcomer a must. Walking in, you can easily imagine the window-filled space flooded with natural light by day. At night the dim, bluish-hued room envelops you like a snug wine cellar. We walked
“It’s hard to lump this food into a category,” says Bellemore executive chef/partner Jimmy Papadopoulos, of the self-appointed “Artistic American” label Boka Restaurant Group selected to encapsulate his menu. “It’s very bold and bright with unique layering. I like cooking from the heart and soul.” If I were tasked with summing up the utterly captivating dishes emerging from the tidy open kitchen at this newcomer in the former Embeya space, I might lean toward “enchanted woodland romp.” But diners would probably prefer a less esoteric descriptor. Two dates and I arrived early on a snowy Saturday. I was grateful I’d made a reservation as the restaurant and bar were already brimming with life. There’s an unmistakable luxury-furniture-store vibe to the soaring room, where plush crescent booths, a marble bar and hulking chevron pillars are illuminated by arching floor lamps and brass chandeliers. Bird-themed touches—like an oddly magnetic photo of a nude torso with flapping dove head, taxidermied peacocks and a fanciful owl mural overlooking the back dining room—lend welcomed humor. I first crushed on Papadopoulos’s imaginative cooking at Bohemian House, where he breathed elegance into oft-clunky, homespun Czech stalwarts like beef dumplings and chicken paprikash. At Bellemore, he balances resourcefulness and evident skill with an unmatched knack for layering textures and flavors. Barman Lee Zaremba’s smart cocktails reflect the kitchen’s affinity for intricate flavors. My fro
Food writers often squirm at the descriptors we lean on to talk about restaurants and bars (I’m looking at you, contemporary American). But “fusion,” or the idea of combining elements from different cuisines into a single dish, might be the worst of all. The word first cropped up in the 1980s, when chef Norman Van Aken claims to have coined it in the name of “Floribbean”—squirm—cooking. In my dozen years of food writing, I can say that chefs on the whole can’t stand the term, mainly because it represents a glib catchall for the years-long process of tinkering with flavors and techniques to achieve flawless balance. “I hate the word fusion,” said Pacific Standard Time executive chef/partner Erling Wu-Bower as he knelt beside me, sweating and coated in flour, on my first of two visits. “This food is American.” Unfortunately, diners require more context from restaurant slogans, however inadequate or trite. For instance, I might have rolled my eyes the first time I read PST’s tagline pledging Californian warmth and authenticity. But visiting cemented how maddenly short this descriptor falls of conveying the enterprising dishes that mingle pristine West Coast bounty with Mediterranean influences and Wu-Bower’s sensory memories of cooking with his mother, a Chinese immigrant and food writer. Then again, maybe not. “People have always cooked that way out west, no boundaries between cuisines,” Wu-Bower told me. Perhaps we should call it assimilation cooking. With tables booked
It’s harder than it looks to nail it, the look and the feel of “effortless cool.” It’s even harder to straddle the fence between bar and restaurant, so that everyone eating gets drunk and everyone drinking ends up feeding their face. But that’s what’s happening at Maude’s Liquor Bar, the latest from Brendan Sodikoff (Gilt Bar, Curio). The two-hour weekend wait signals restaurant. But ramble up the stairs late night and it’s a whiskey-fueled roundtable of postwork line cooks, serving themselves from a community bottle then paying by the honor system at the end of the night. That industry crowd rarely makes it to Maude’s before midnight, when the kitchen closes, so they miss the food their brother-in-arms Jeff Pikus is putting out, a menu as indulgent and classic as his past work at Trio and Alinea was groundbreaking. But nothing is lost on the deep-pocketed scenesters who arrive before them, who gulp down delicious whiskey smashes and stab at $70 shellfish towers. These are the folks paying for those gleaming subway tiles (which don’t come cheap, not even the randomly chipped ones), the mismatched crystal chandeliers and that Victorianesque sofa. But in return they’re getting butter-smooth chicken liver slathered on toast with fig marmalade, ideal with a gin and crème de violette concoction dubbed “Smokey Violet.” And still-quivering oysters from both coasts. And big fat mussels, smartly steamed in a broth studded with punchy picholine olives but inexplicably, annoyingly left
Tops among the thin crust pizza joints in Chicago is Coalfire, a little spot in West Town that turns out blistered pies with a chewy, slightly crisp edge from its 800-degree coal oven. While the crust is a work of art itself, toppings are inspired—soft whipped peaks of ricotta balance coins of spicy pepperoni; thin slices of fiery 'nduja, a spreadable Calabrian salami, with fresh mozzarella; and a garlicky white pie are among the standouts. The restaurant fills up fast, but there's take-out, and a second, larger location coming soon to Lakeview.
Just when it seemed that the fried chicken bubble was dangerously close to bursting, here is Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, a storied Memphis import that serves tender chicken cocooned in a light, thin exterior that shatters when you cut into it. It’s spicy, with heat that gently sneaks up on you, though not remotely close to the incendiary Nashville-hot style at the Roost and not so hot that it doesn’t benefit from a squirt of Crystal hot sauce out of a plastic packet. I usually prefer dark meat, but Gus’s breasts are surprisingly juicy and flavorful. The chicken, which is fried in peanut oil, is available in single pieces, combinations of up to 20 pieces or a half bird. It comes with white bread, very sweet baked beans and crisp cole slaw. Adding on the cornmeal-crusted fried green tomatoes is a good call, though the too-soft mac and cheese is not. The dessert menu is comprised of pies and a root beer float, and the chess pie is sweet without being cloying. Gus’s has outposts across the South, though the Chicago location is the first phase of an ambitious expansion that includes openings in Detroit, Kansas City and Los Angeles. I can’t speak to the fried chicken scenes in those cities, but in Chicago, even though the past two years have brought us exceptional fried birds at The Roost, Honey Butter Fried Chicken, Analogue and other spots, the dining landscape still has room for a place like Gus’s. Vitals Atmosphere: With checkered tablecloths, neon signs and lots
A major player in Chicago’s 19th-century meatpacking industry, Gustavus Swift lends his name to Swift & Sons, a sprawling steakhouse that honors tradition while skillfully updating the genre. The restaurant is the second collaboration between Boka Group (Momotaro, etc.) and B. Hospitality (Formento’s, etc.)—the first, Balena, showcases chef Chris Pandel’s Italian fare. Pandel also mans the kitchen at Swift & Sons, where his dishes display similar finesse while rethinking the staples of steakhouse cuisine. Take the hot platter, a spin on the traditional icy seafood tower (you can get one of those, too) with a langoustine stuffed with fluffy shrimp mousse, a pair of oysters basking in bonito butter, and, since the kitchen was out of the usual scallop on my visit, a marvelous clam packed with bacon, breadcrumbs and melted cheese. Surf and turf features an eight-ounce cap steak, beautifully tender with gentle ribbons of fat and served alongside citrus-poached lobster perched atop ribbons of fennel. Tartiflette, a potato gratin, comes layered with caramelized onions and slices of country ham—as expected with country ham, it’s a salt bomb, but it’s hard not to enjoy the cheesy dish. Not everything is reinvented, or needs to be—bone-in ribeye comes with a flawless char and a savory, zesty steak sauce; white wine brightens creamed spinach, and steak tartare is chopped up with cornichons and mustard seeds. The textures are spot-on, though it needs another shake of salt. Meg Galus ex
Restaurants within restaurants and bars within bars have been taking off lately—it helps owners maximize space and try out smaller concepts. Recently, Heavy Feather opened inside Slippery Slope and DAS Doner inside the Radler, and now Swift & Sons joins them with Cold Storage. The oyster bar only takes up a fraction of Boka and B. Hospitality’s sprawling steakhouse, but it makes a big impact, with fresh and cooked seafood dishes. Start with oysters, which are available by the half or whole dozen or as part of a seafood tower. The perfectly shucked offerings change regularly, and on my visit included bivalves from Rhode Island and Massachusetts, teeming with liquor. Chilled crab legs aren’t on the menu, but ask nicely and you’ll receive fat chunks of crab to dip in horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce or creamy mustard. It’s hard to fill up on raw seafood, so order a refreshing Louie wedge salad with a generous amount of crab, or grilled octopus tentacles atop a bell pepper-nduja spread. The best, though, are the sardines, large, meaty fillets, accented with salsa verde. To eat: Spritz the fish with lemon, then place atop a saltine. End with a sundae or shake from Meg Galus, whose fresh mint ice cream is marvelous. Employees of the future West Loop Google office will be able to pop over to Cold Storage for lunch, and the menu includes sandwiches like shrimp banh mi. They’re extra lucky, because they can also head right next door to the steakhouse for dinner. Vitals Atmospher
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Sometimes you just need a regular bar. Not a sceney, precious cocktail den, or a sports bar with 100 flashing TVs. I’m talking about the come-as-you-are third place, where you stop to catch a baseball game over a round of beers, or grab a hearty dinner and stiff cocktails after a long-ass day. A few menu misses aside, this affable Pilsen newcomer ticks most of those boxes, and raises them one impressive patio. Positioned a few doors down from ever-bustling Dusek’s/Thalia Hall, Monnie Burke’s is—simply put—enormous. Its 180 interior seats are sprawled comfortably across bistro tables, cozy perimeter booths and a lengthy bar dotted with flat screens. The industrial interior and no-frills decor hint of a nondescript suburban sports bar—less surprising when you learn the minds behind Monnie’s (Oak Park mayor Anan Abu-Taleb and wife Margi Abu-Taleb) also own suburban microchain Pizza Capri and Maya del Sol in Oak Park. The restaurant’s namesake is co-owner Margi’s aunt, a social worker who taught at Loyola University and was active in Cesar Chavez’s 1960s farm worker movement. She also acts as the muse for a spot aiming to honor the ’hood’s historic diversity. In the weeks since Monnie Burke’s opened, I’d heard tell of the coveted back patio, a roomy 180-seater draped in bald-bulb lights and dotted with planters. So despite a misty, late-summer chill hanging over the city, my date and I couldn’t resist dinner al fresco. Not 30 seconds after I settled into the cold metal chair
The rooftop restaurant and bar at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel offers some of the best views of the city, with an expansive look at Millennium Park and the Lake. The drinks, from Nandini Khaund, are mostly balanced, and very pretty, while the American food is also mostly well-executed and comes in massive portions and is designed for sharing.
With exposed brick and plasma-screen TVs, Pequod's is firmly a neighborhood bar. But Pequod's is a bar that serves some of the best pizza in the city. The signature pan pizza is ringed with caramelized cheese, and slices are massive—one piece makes a meal. Add veggies to lighten it up a bit, or go all in, with the sausage pie, dotted with perfectly spiced, Ping-Pong ball–size pieces of seasoned ground pork.
There are a million steaks in this world, and not one quite like Lula's. Slices of flat-iron pattern a plate, semolina gnocchi tucked here and there. It is not steakhouse food. And it is definitely not that strange genre of Italian steakhouse food. This is a steak strewn with kimchi whose heat and crunch is compulsive. Specks of fried sardine pop with brininess, riffing on the fermented cabbage’s funk. It sounds strange, doesn’t it? It’s anything but. Aesthetically, it’s striking. Technically, it’s accomplished. It’s a dish that is very much of its parts: the high quality, consciously sourced, thoughtfully prepared beef; the rustic housemade pasta; the commitment to canning (kimchi); the penchant for small, sustainable fish (sardines). These are the traits that, for more than a decade, one has come to describe as being soLula. But this steak is more than that. It’s a dish that, in its inspired flavor combinations, is greater even than the sum of its very great parts. And it’s not just the steak. On recent visits to Lula, dish after dish pushed the envelope from interesting to exciting. I had a bite that combined sweet-potato puree, black lentils and candied peanuts, and I was left with nothing else to say except, in awe, “Peanuts!” Multiple times. If food can be genius, that flavor combination—it was the accompaniment to roasted pork loin, by the way—is Stephen Hawking. Surprises like this turned dishes from familiar to wondrous, whether it was cocoa nibs injecting soft not
If you sit in the back half of Mott St, you’ll be dining next to shelves stocked with Cholula hot sauce, jars of beans, tea…and a box of Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch. Is that a dessert ingredient? Nope, it’s breakfast for “the early crew,” our server told us. With little storage space in the kitchen, Mott St has constructed a pantry within the dining room. The front half of the restaurant features a bar and two- and four-top tables, and there’s a communal table in back. Add in huge windows, materials sourced from Craigslist and pulsing music, and the room has an energy that makes you want to stay all night. Everyone—the enthusiastic and knowledgeable servers, the kitchen staff, the twenty- and thirtysomething diners, apparently even that early crew—is having a ball at chef Edward Kim’s playful new Asian restaurant, which opened a month ago not far from his much-lauded Ruxbin. But while the vibe may be relaxed, the level of cooking is anything but casual. The Asian night market–inspired menu feels overwhelming at first. There are about two-dozen dishes, many of which require peppering your server with questions. What’s the forcemeat of the day? On my visit, it was a mild but flavorful Chinese sausage that’s fried like a spring roll. You fold it into a lettuce leaf with sprouts and basil, then dip it in a tangy fish sauce. What’s the collar of the day? Yep, Mott St has a daily fish collar preparation. We had halibut, pan-fried and served on the bone. (While the cut is rich,
At this tiny Pilsen storefront, regulars get special treatment (a.k.a. refried beans, not always on offer), newcomers just get blank stares, and everybody gets the carnitas. Ordered by the pound, the juicy pork is served to you on a platter with nothing but a side of corn tortillas and a spicy salsa verde so that you can concoct your own tacos. Not leaving any part of the pig to waste, the limited menu also includes fresh, warm, delicious chicharrones.
Springing from the mind of chef Grant Achatz, fine dining institution Alinea has been the recipient of numerous awards and is regularly named the best restaurant in Chicago (and the United States, for that matter), bringing culinary expertise and flawless service to each and every meal. In January of 2016, Alinea closed for renovations, reopening in May with a complete overhaul of the menu, tossing out the original one, which changed frequently, that had garnered the restaurant many accolades. This was my first Alinea experience, which is a pretty big deal, not just because of its reputation, but also because I consider some of my first visits to other Alinea Group restaurants to be some of my finest eating and drinking experiences in Chicago. My first time at the Office—when I was invited down to the bar on a whim by my server at the Aviary—left me forever lusting after the browned butter bourbon concoction they whipped up for me. But Alinea was a bit different—my trip was planned in advance while avoiding all the murmurs about its magical new menu. I wanted to see it for myself. And it is magical. The food comes and goes effortlessly, wine glasses filled and replaced throughout the meal, with the sheer beauty of excellent service extending all the way down to your entry. We walked in and were immediately whisked to the second floor salon for the most affordable meal ($800 total for two diners including a wine pairing). The salon is meant for groups of one to six people,
It took some time wandering through River West on an icy, blustery night before we finally found the much raved-about Oriole—from industry vets Noah Sandoval, Genie Kwon and Aaron McManus. The door in the back alley is relatively unmarked, as if the restaurant knows it’s worth seeking out. And it’s not wrong. Here is a fine diner that gets everything right, right from the start: The moment we entered, the host whisked away my jacket and replaced it with a steaming cup of sochu-laced cider. It was like she was reading my mind. The room itself is a jaw-dropper—exposed brick gives a warm feeling, while tall wooden columns remind you that you’re in one of the trendiest neighborhoods in town. Pristine white tablecloths drape every table and napkins are folded perfectly. The first choice you’ll make when that napkin is safely in your lap is whether or not to take the $125 drink pairing with the $190 tasting menu (you should—it’s perfect); the last choice you’ll make is if you want tea or coffee when it’s all done (you want that too—you’ll want to savor every moment you can at Oriole.) Our meal starts with a bite of Golden Osetra caviar, with a rich coconut dashi, lychee and grape to brighten the bite, which feels lavish and sets the tone for the rest of the meal. It’s served in an almost egg-shaped bowl with all the components resting inside providing an extra element of surprise. Interestingly presented dishes appear throughout. Take the puffed beef tendon—an über-fancy pork rin
The Revival Food Hall brings 15 food vendors and a book/record shop to the Loop packed with hip restaurants like Furious Spoon, Graze Kitchenette, Black Dog Gelato and the Fat Shallot. Stop by for a meal or a drink—there's something for everyone with plenty of seating to make your next lunch stop a relaxed one.
The new West Loop spot from husband and wife David and Anna Posey (he of Blackbird, she of the Publican) has a name that comes from the Danish word for “love”—a nod to David’s heritage and the fact that the couple got engaged in Copenhagen. The food, however, is not Danish; the menu was made with simple fare and seasonal ingredients in mind. You can choose from a prix fixe menu (eight courses) or à la carte options; on our visit it seemed that groups were taking the latter route while couples opted for the tasting menu. Elske is a perfect intro to fine dining, with reliable and approachable dishes that will school diners new to coursed meals on what to expect—with complicated ingredients that are still complex in flavor, but without overly meticulous plating. We were hooked from the first dish. Two bowls—one filled with smoked fruits and vegetables like radishes topped with dill, the other an herbal tea of the same fruits and vegetables—contrast the bright crunch of the plants with the warm beverage, their flavors blending seamlessly together. The initial combinations (with options for wine or non-alcoholic beverages) were a sparkling Spanish white from the Canary Islands and a white grape juice carbonated with yeast and star anise. My date and I shared both, and after the first sip of the “juice pairing,” as our servers called it, we were taken aback. It’s bubbly and dry—it could have passed as wine. I’d never thought about how closely dry drinks could mimic their boozy cou
I don’t think of red carpeting when I think of diners. I don’t like to think of carpeting when it comes to any restaurant, really, but I especially don’t think of carpeted diners. Nor do I associate diners with anything from the era that plush red carpeting comes from (that’s the ’70s). When I walked into Little Goat and saw that carpet, and the golden vintage wallpaper, and the wood booths, I thought it reflected the spirit not of the chrome diner of “Nighthawks,” but of the 24-hour, family-friendly, breakfast-all-day restaurants where teenagers perfect their angst. Think Perkins/Denny’s/Waffle House. The fact that on each visit to Little Goat I found myself surrounded by young families and their babies only fed into this. But, of course, I purposely showed up at Little Goat at odd hours in an attempt to miss the crowds, which a 5:30pm arrival just barely does (by 6:30pm, you’re probably in for a wait). Stephanie Izard draws crowds no matter what she does (I recently received a press release from a dental association claiming dentists voted Izard as the Chicago chef with the best smile, proving the woman need not do anything but flash her teeth to get attention), but the idea of a Stephanie Izard diner is particularly enticing. Because the sad truth nobody wants to admit about diners is diners are not very good. You can romanticize them all you want (and God knows chefs in this town love to point to Diner Grill as their favorite spot), but all that romance gets you are panc
Let’s get this out of the way: Roister is not your typical fine dining establishment. It’s loud, it’s boisterous and you sit at a bar. The concept that occupies the former iNG space comes from Alinea’s Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, with chef Andrew Brochu (Alinea, EL Ideas). “The kitchen is the restaurant, the restaurant is the kitchen,” is the slogan on the website, a nod to the fact that for the most part, seats surround the open kitchen. There are a few two-top tables and a handful of seats at the liquor bar toward the back. If you can score a reservation, you have the option of the a la carte menu or the chef’s tasting dinner. The chef’s tasting dinner will sit you in front of the open kitchen, whereas the a la carte menu is served in the dining room and back bar. The a la carte menu is packed with small, medium, large and shareable plates. Whatever you decide to order, you need to get the beef broth—a small plate umami bomb with beef cheek and tongue and soft egg in al dente bucatini noodles. Speaking of things you should absolutely get, the chicken you’ve been hearing about is well worth the hype. It’s on the shared courses menu, which serves 2–6. Our server thought it was ambitious for two people. I’d say you could feed three comfortably with it, and four with a few other plates. It comes three ways: braised chicken breasts, deboned fried thighs and a chicken salad made with the legs and the wings. The breasts are perfectly braised and juicy, the fried chicken is cr
Be forewarned: A trip to Proxi will undoubtedly leave you wanting more. It’s not that the menu is lacking; on the contrary, it’s rife with so many tough decisions that you’ll have to book a second visit to try it all. Tempura elotes or roasted baby potato carbonara? Baby octopus or raw tuna? BBQ lamb ribs or Wagyu sirloin? It’s not for the indecisive, but Proxi has officially landed on my short list of restaurants I’d gladly frequent every weekend if I could. The magic starts as soon as you walk through the massive doors off Randolph Street (Proxi is located next to its sister restaurant, Sepia, and down the street from Avec and Blackbird) and into the sun-drenched, tile-adorned bar. My date and I arrived early and grabbed seats at the bar for a round of cocktails. I was immediately enamored with the Don’t Chouette It, a play on an Aperol Spritz with blood orange juice and champagne ice cubes (really); the bright orange concoction evolved as I sipped, making it both dynamic and delicious. The bold but sweet Josper O.F., on the other hand, was the perfect transition into dinner, with Japanese whiskey, roasted demerara, Thai bitters and barbecue smoke. Back to those tough decisions. Chef Andrew Zimmerman’s menu is divided into three sections—veggies, fish and land-cruising meat—and your server will advise you to dabble in each. You can’t walk out of Proxi without trying the tempura elotes, clusters of perfectly fried sweet corn with chives, chili, lime, parmesan and a mayo dr
A framed print of Shel Silverstein’s poem Me and My Giant hangs on the wall of this ironically named Logan Square restaurant—it’s tiny, sitting only 44 people. But what Giant lacks in space it makes up for in flavor. After closing Nightwood in 2015, chef Jason Vincent took time off from the Chicago dining scene before opening Giant with partners Ben Lustbader and Josh Perlman in summer 2016. The menu is filled with shared plates, each with a bit of its own flair. The theme is “simple, unpretentious Midwestern fare,” but expect nothing but big flavors from dishes that might sound unassuming on the page. The menu starts with an attention grabber: uni shooters, bite-size fried balls with a crunchy exterior filled with melty, buttery, briny uni. Peppers are abundant, beginning with sweet biscuits with a sugary crust and a jalapeño honey. Pasta is the other star—our favorite is the “sortallini,” a little like tortellini, served in a refreshingly acidic and bright sauce that’s packed with guanciale, basil and pine nuts. As hard as it is to go wrong with anything on Vincent’s menu, it would be a shame to overlook dessert; choices like cajeta ice cream bring nostalgic notes of strawberry crunch ice cream bars. You’ll feel cozy in Giant’s small confines—the restaurant is crammed with tables that you’ll have to maneuver to get in and out of. But somehow, it doesn’t feel overwhelming—with evenly spaced courses the small space works. Just don’t expect much privacy; you’ll be right up n
When we say Podhalanka has an “old world” feel, we mean old world in that “premodern comforts” kind of way. Not that this dive doesn’t have electricity, but it is dark and not as clean as your mother would like. What it lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in tasty, authentic Polish eats. We love the beet salad, cabbage soup, potato pancakes and pierogi. We also love talking about the old country with the buddy on the barstool next to us.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell exactly what a restaurant is striving to do. While I know what I’m getting into when I go to, say, a steakhouse or a sushi restaurant, there’s a category of American restaurants that can be harder to classify. And then there are restaurants that can’t seem to classify themselves. The Dawson, the new restaurant from owners Billy Lawless (Henri and the Gage) and Branko Palikuca, opened in October with an all-star line-up: chef Rene De Leon, formerly of Next and Alinea; Clint Rogers, late of Henri, the general manager and leader of the beverage program; and Annemarie Sagoi, formerly of the Charleston, helming the cocktail program. And then De Leon left, less than a month after the restaurant opened. It never bodes well when the chef departs so swiftly, but sous chef Patrick Russ (who was most recently at Next) immediately took over as executive chef, then slowly started changing the menu, which once ranged from sausage pigs in a blanket and tofu spring rolls to Mughlai curry and wood-grilled whole fish. The changes have been subtle, as the pickled onion rings, pork tacos and curry remain. The burger got a little bit bigger and the toppings changed completely. The roast chicken was swapped for smoked chicken. There are a few more salads now. I’ve only eaten at the Dawson under Russ—I made my first visit, just for drinks, while De Leon was still there—and there were even more menu changes between my first and second dinners. But the changes have
At Longman & Eagle, there are old fashioneds, stirred slowly and carefully behind a dark, gorgeous bar. There are dozens of whiskeys for three bucks; the house favorite, Cabin Still, is mellow and gentle. And there are flannel shirts, and mustaches, and Grandma sweaters. A lot of them. But if you’ve gotten it into your head that eating at a restaurant owned in part by the Empty Bottle guys means that you’ll be systematically ignored by a waitstaff of smelly, aloof, strategically scruffed dudes and the waifish, Lycra-clad women who dig them, then you have seriously underestimated the genre. Truth is, the folks working here are some of the friendliest and most professional hipsters you’ll ever meet, and their graciousness isn’t lost on the neighborhood. Why else would I have been seated next to couples with babies and families with tweens? Yet, however welcoming and well-informed my server was, T.G.I. Friday’s this is not, and it was hard not to notice that those groups were ordering their fair share of burgers. And, not to start things off on the wrong foot, but the Kobe burger, like most Kobe burgers I’ve had, is nothing to get excited about. The meat’s mushy, the bun’s too big for the patty, and mine reeked of smoke from the bacon, despite the fact that the strips were scarcely cooked. (If those tweens were ordering it simply for the awesome beef fat–fried fries, though, bless their hearts.) To do this restaurant right, you’ve got to allow yourself organ meats. Get the bee
Sarah Grueneberg left Spiaggia to open her own restaurant, Monteverde, in late 2015, but while she brought along the masterful Italian techniques she honed there, she left the fine dining trappings on Michigan Avenue. At Monteverde, the Top Chef alum's wonderfully relaxed West Loop restaurant, assistant servers wear Blackhawks hats, a TV flips on when the hockey game starts and a gluten-free menu is featured prominently on the website—a nice touch for a pasta-focused restaurant. That menu is important, since the pastas are the main draw. Made in house, they’re all perfectly cooked and accompanied by sauces and ingredients that look surprising on the menu, but make sense once you’ve taken a bite. The cacio whey pepe ratchets up the classic with four peppercorns and whey, so it’s creamy and intensely peppery. To make the wintery tortelloni di zucca, Grueneberg stuffs squash into delicate pasta, then serves it with apples and bacon. If you sit at the bar, you’ll spy pasta-makers rolling out pappardelle, later tossed with tender nuggets of duck, olives and parsnips. Grueneberg knows more than just pasta—arancini packed with spicy nduja sit atop poached tuna sauce; artichoke crostino come with rotating toppings, including shaved black truffle; and grilled octopus chunks share a skewer with sweet potatoes. Desserts are on the smaller side, which is ideal after so much pasta. Salted butterscotch budino wears a delicate bruleed cap, while the perfectly nice sorbetti are upstaged b
Don’t get us wrong, we love the fresh toppings, including meaty chunks of mild sausage and fresh vegetables that are crisp and crunchy when you bite into them. But it’s really the sauce—full of fresh tomato flavor, speckled with oregano, basil and the faintest hint of red pepper—that’s made this pizzeria an institution. Both the deep-dish and the (not very thin) thin-crust resist sogginess after a night in the fridge, making them the breakfast of champions.
If Au Cheval weren’t such a bizarre and, frankly, difficult restaurant at which to eat, you’d find me there every Friday night for the matzo ball soup. Pre-Cheval, the most I ever wanted from a matzo ball soup was glistening pools of schmaltz. Post-Cheval, I demand it not only glisten but also be stocked with roasted carrots and cippolini onions, sophisticated complements to an enormous matzo ball that is more accurately described as a matzo souffle. This soup is a rarity on Cheval’s menu, but not because of how it tastes. Perfectly executed, endlessly cravable food is in every corner of this place. The chopped chicken liver—another great Jewish dish Brendan Sodikoff’s “diner” is elevating—goes on thick challah with soft salted butter, a combination that is (sorry, but I’ve got to be a drama queen here) so delicious it’s devastating. And the beef stew is exemplary for both its supple texture and silky sauce. Where the soup stands out is its lightness: You can actually start a meal with it (it shares this distinction only with two salads). It’s also a dish you can eat in its entirety without feeling as if you’ve taken a shower in hot beef fat. This cannot be said for much of the rest of the menu. The omelette boasts a smooth, puffy, unblemished surface that looks like butter, but also literally tastes like butter, so much so that it’s hard to take more than one bite. A ham “sandwich” with cheese fondue is not a sandwich at all, but rather a crock of melted cheese dotted with
After visiting the Duck Inn’s bar, I’m convinced chef Kevin Hickey is someone I want to go drinking with. After all, when I go drinking I want to eat, and Hickey clearly knows what people want with a drink in hand. The fried cheese curds are like little clouds placed atop aquavit-laced Bloody Mary ketchup. The hamburger sandwich, served on rye bread with grilled onions and a thick slab of Brun-uusto cheese, is a greasy but worthy update of a patty melt. And the duck fat dog, a duck and beef link with a snappy casing and a garden of toppings, is a magnificent specimen. Bartender Brandon Phillips also knows what people want to drink. Cocktails range from $7–$14 (most are $10), and they’re pretty good—the Don is a Manhattan riff with walnut liqueur, while other drinks are more global, like the lychee chuhai, a Japanese shochu and soda cocktail. The Duck Inn marks Hickey’s return to Bridgeport, the neighborhood he grew up in, after years of working around the world and around Chicago. He’s also the chef at Bottlefork, also part of Billy Dec’s clubby Rockit Ranch Productions, but Duck Inn has little in common with your typical Dec restaurant. Instead, it’s the restaurant Hickey has wanted to open for years. It’s named after a place his great-grandmother owned in Bridgeport in the 1930s, and the bar menu offers modernized versions of some of the same dishes she sold—a hamburger sandwich, tamale and hot dog were just 5 cents each, and not, I’d assume, nearly as good as Hickey’s ver
You’ll find some of the most interesting and indulgent dishes at Smyth. Case in point: On one plate, tender pieces of Dungeness crab are covered with slices of rich foie gras and scrambled kani miso (a.k.a. crab innards). It’s a small but powerful bite that oozes with opulent ingredients. It’s surprising, then, that it feels like you’re eating it in your best friend’s living room—if your best friend happened to be a particularly fantastic cook with impeccable taste in décor. It’s all part of the high-low mix that defines Smyth. The West Loop fine-dining destination is homey and welcoming with dishes that are truly over the top. That balanced dichotomy is all part of the vision for chefs and owners John and Karen Urie Shields (Charlie Trotter’s, Alinea), who dreamed up a happy, easy-going spot that would highlight the time they spent in Smyth County, Virginia. The restaurant is filled with oak wood, yellow light and lived-in touches, such as vases of thistles and a rolling bar cart. Like the Loyalist, the relaxed but classy bar downstairs, it feels like a place where you could truly unwind. The big difference here is the caliber—and price—of what you’re about to put in your mouth. First things first, you’ll have to decide how many courses you’re in for: five, eight or 12. We went for the 10-course menu, which has since been discontinued. Regardless of your choice, prepare for luxurious ingredients (think caramelized lobster, crispy duck tongue and creamy uni) to make their
There are rules when eating at avec. One of them is “No talking about Israel.” A few weeks ago I was eating dinner and my friend—not I—was breaking that rule. Loudly. The man sitting next to me, whom I did not know but whom I spent the evening less than one inch from, leaned into our space and said, “What nation are you talking about?” This is why you don’t talk about Israel at avec. I shut down the conversation by slicing an X in the air with my hands and saying one word: “no.” But the man—his name was Brandon, I learned later—was undeterred from talking to us. He changed the subject. “Have you guys ever had these dates?” he asked. He pointed to the hot casserole in front of him with only one date left. “They’re so good.” The bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates are, of course, another rule of avec. You must order them, every time, until you’ve had them so often that you no longer need to be at avec to taste them—you close your eyes, access your taste memory, slip into a bliss coma…. “Are you guys tourists?” I asked Brandon. He and his companions looked wounded. “We live up the street,” they said. The idea that a Chicagoan exists who has not yet eaten the avec dates was inconceivable to me. But here were three people who had lived in Chicago for years and were just now at avec for the first time. Rules dictate this situation, too. “You must eat the focaccia,” I said. “And probably the brandade.” They nodded and smiled. But I knew they weren’t listening. They’d alr
Ever since it launched in the spring of 2011, Next Restaurant has been wowing us with ever-evolving concepts. There are three themed menus a year, which have included Paris, 1906; Modern Chinese; Vegan and more, and all deliver innovation and flavor. The dinners are ticketed, so you buy tickets in advance.
Plenty of new Mexican restaurants opened their doors this year, but Mi Tocaya is one to watch. The tacos are the main attraction, including the spicy Campechano stuffed with al pastor, chorizo and carne asada and garnished with salsa and a squeeze of lime. Pair your order with a reposado tequila margarita, an easy summer sipper. But the best part of dining here is the open kitchen, where you’ll spot chef Diana Davila crafting unique regional specialties. And hey, the cozy outdoor patio doesn’t hurt either. Vitals: Atmosphere: Chef Davila makes this place feel like home with an extra special twist of controlled chaos and color in her vibrant Mexican kitchen. What to eat: Tacos are at the top of our list, but we’re certainly not saying no to the queso and guacamole. What to drink: Margaritas rule the roost with a draft and stirred option. Where to sit: The space is quaint and cozy, so it’s likely you won’t have a choice in the matter. On a warm day, the patio is perfect, but you can’t beat the hustle and bustle happening inside.
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