Omnivorous columnist Mike Sula knows what he likes—and what he doesn’t. A good plate of chivo, a well-made cubano, an epicurean feast from the sea? All good. Budweiser foam, all-you-can-meat, stripper poles? No thanks. Here are his picks for the best new Chicago restaurants so far this year, from the humble but heartwarming storefronts that sustain so many of us to the upscale restaurants that continue to make this town a culinary mecca.
We also solicited picks from Sula and other critics for additional noteworthy new spots; you’ll find full reviews of these online at chicagoreader.com/notablerestaurants08. And for tips on some promising places so new we can’t even review them yet, see our sidebar on where the new star chefs are heading on their nights off.
Birrieria Zaragoza Juan Zaragoza learned to make birria from a master: Miguel Segura, who runs the venerable Birrieria Miguel at the market in Zaragoza’s native town of La Barca, Jalisco. Birria is a regional Jalisciense variant of the more widespread barbacoa, meat traditionally slow-cooked in a pit. Originally goat was wrapped in pencas de maguey, or agave leaves, set over a vessel to collect the drippings, and buried in an underground pit, where it steamed for hours over hot wood-fired rocks, absorbing the essence of the leaves. When finished it was portioned and served either added to a consomme made with the drippings or seca (“dry”), with consomme on the side. These days ovens have replaced the pits.
Zaragoza goes through five to seven young goats in a weekend, seasoning the meat with kosher salt before gently cooking it in a sealed steamer on a stovetop for up to six hours. Unlike most birrieros, he makes his consomme, which is tomato based, without drippings; it’s a method he learned by videotaping Segura’s wife, and it results in a clean broth without the fat and excessive saltiness that can ruin a plate of chivo. After steaming, he lightly applies an ancho-based mole to the meat and transfers it to an oven. He’s hired Guanajuato native Maria Guadalupe Jungo to come in a couple times a week to make tortillas on a mesquite wood press he brought back from La Barca. When these are freshly pressed and heated on the grill until slightly puffed, they’re an exquisite vehicle for the goat, lightly drizzled with the consomme and garnished with salsa, onions, cilantro, and lime.
Cafecito Prior to opening his South Loop Cuban-style cafe, Philip Ghantous was a frustrated actor-waiter with zero kitchen experience. So how the hell is it that this Lebanese-American from Peoria is now pressing the best damn Cuban sandwiches in the city? It probably has to do with the near-manic pursuit of perfection that should have made him a success at anything—and would probably put him out of business if he weren’t situated in a part of town desperate for a high-quality, low-investment breakfast-and-lunch spot.
The sandwiches on the board are divided between the rigorously authentic and appealing riffs on the classics. The cubano is a perfectly proportioned construction of light, cracker-crisp Gonella bread, mustard, pickle, ham, cheese, and mojo-marinated, house-roasted pork shoulder that fairly drips with flavor; it’s also used in the lechon sandwich. The steak on the palomilla, two breakfast sandwiches, and in a chimichurri-dressed sandwich is marinated in yet another mojo. I hate to use the word fusion, but that’s what Ghantous uses to describe some of his less traditional efforts, such as a Cuban-Italian hybrid of tomato, fresh mozz, and basil or a jerk chicken variant dressed with his habanero-lime mayo. He allows his Middle Eastern heritage to peek through on a roasted veggie version, swiped with jalapeño hummus. The less common, Argentine-influenced choripan—a dry, salty, Spanish-style chorizo with grilled onions and chimichurri—may not be for everyone, but it’s in the running for my sandwich of the year. Ghantous admits to having a heavy hand with seasonings, most evident in the garlicky chimichurri, which he makes a week in advance so the flavors have time to integrate. But the real secret to these phenomenal sandwiches lies in his sense of overall balance and proportion. Small-batch house-made salads fill out the backside of the menu, and the coffee comes from Tampa roaster Caracolillo.
L2O High-profile restaurants opened in an unceasing succession this year, but none was as keenly anticipated as Laurent Gras’ dreamy undersea sanctum, L2O. Given a ghetto pass from Rich Melman and the old Ambria space to work in, the impeccably pedigreed Gras—who worked under the titanic Alain Ducasse in Paris before making his name in New York and San Francisco—has executed an encompassing vision (documented on an absorbing blog, l2o.typepad.com), orchestrating everything down to the most minuscule element to provide a thoroughly transporting dining event.
Architecturally, this Lettuce Entertain You project evokes a twilit submarine fantasy world where the creatures at the top of the food chain are rewarded with the finest little fishies, many shipped at great expense from where they’re pulled from Japanese waters (see your check) and all prepared using an integrated battery of classic techniques and modern innovations. One could go on and on listing the ways L2O has advanced the cause of eating in Chicago. There’s the in-house bread (and butter) program, featuring a half-dozen varieties, the ultimate achievement among them the buttery, light anchovy brioche I’d devour even if they were attached to fishhook and line. There’s the sommelier prodigy Chantelle Pabros, whose unguarded passion for her selections is breathtaking (ask her about the sakes). There’s the flawlessly professional service that’s simultaneously relaxed and relaxing. And then there are the chef’s creations. Whether you order the four-course prix fixe menu ($110) or the dozen-course tasting menu ($165), the progression begins with raw courses and moves on to warm and cooked ones in increasingly dramatic presentations. (There are also “singular” items available a la carte.)
I tried the tasting menu, and in general I preferred the early raw courses and amuses, usually exceedingly fresh pieces of fish judiciously accented with brilliant but not overpowering flavors: for example, a touch of the Basque chile powder Espelette with a crab ceviche, or a bite of tuna tartare and a slice of cured foie gras kissed with a bit of chocolate and tomato gelee. Not that I wasn’t awed by the later courses, but those were the only ones where I could find anything at all I didn’t like, and in most cases I was reaching. Among the most enjoyable: a textural duel between madeira-marinated morels and a fat diver scallop and a halibut fillet with a side of a rich, cheesy aligot drizzled with a zesty tomato-Chablis bouillon by the server. Like the halibut, many courses are finished tableside on wheeled gueridons, the delicate broths and sauces applied with a flourish—just some of the many gestures calculated to maximize the intimacy of this most rare of experiences, one that continues to haunt me.
Mado By the time you’ll be reading about what I ate at Allison and Rob Levitt’s minimalist Wicker Park restaurant, you may have to wait until next year to try some of it. That’s because much of the menu at Mado, in the space formerly housing Barcello’s, reads like a shopping list for the week’s Green City Market. Preparations are simple, with all due reverence given to the superior quality of the ingredients, raised by an A-list of regional agrarian rock stars. The porchetta, a riff on the central Italian boneless roast pig, was presented as a slab of luscious pork with amalgamated crispy bits, dressed with a light salsa verde and some arugula. Raw sunchokes, sliced into small coins and tossed with lemon and parsley, were every bit as memorable—and so uncomplicated it’s a wonder you don’t see this dish everywhere. Trout with walnuts was deftly grilled over wood to yield perfectly lush pink flesh under delicate crispy skin. Desserts were also excellent in their restraint, particularly a rhubarb fool: layers of lightly tart fruit and lightly sweet whipped cream. Don’t overlook the fragile, buttery shortbread, which crumbles at a touch—it’s listed modestly on the menu but it’ll be the last thing I forget about this place.
Masouleh This modest Rogers Park restaurant specializes in home-style Persian food—stews, soups, and small sides, many based more on vegetables than meat. While Goly Nassiri-Masouleh works the front of the house, her husband, Azim, works the kitchen, laboring over regional dishes such as mirza ghasemi, roasted eggplant stewed with tomato and garlic. Gilan, the northern Iranian province where Azim is from, is noted for its heavy use of garlic, eggs, vegetables, and green herbs that infuse dishes with fresh, grassy flavors. Torshe tareh, for example, is minced sour spinach textured by a small amount of cracked rice and flavored with garlic, cilantro, parsley, and a minty dried herb called khol wash, from a dwindling stock Azim’s sister brought over from Iran. Other specialties include zaytoon parvardeh, a side dish of olives marinated in a mixture of garlic, chopped walnuts, pomegranate syrup, and a touch of golpar, a spice that comes from the giant hogweed and is sometimes called Persian marjoram. Then there’s the mirza ghasemi, the region’s most famous food, which is similar to the northern Indian baigan bharta but for the addition of scrambled egg.
The menu also includes a triumvirate of three classic Iranian khoureshte, or stews: vegetable beef with green herbs (ghormeh sabzi), eggplant, beef, and yellow split peas (gheimeh bademjan), and chicken in a thick walnut-pomegranate sauce (fesenjan). And every weekend Azim prepares a more labor-intensive northern dish as a special, for example, morghe torsh, chicken and yellow split peas seasoned with garlic, lemon juice, cilantro, dill, parsley, mint, and khol wash and finished off with scrambled egg. There are kebabs as well, but why bother with ordinary Middle Eastern when you can eat like an Iranian?
Mercat a la Planxa Jose Garces’s splashy homecoming from Philadelphia—where the Chicago-bred celeb launched two successful tapas restaurants in as many years—marks him as a sort of Spanish imperialist. But the chef isn’t stamping out his empire with a giant cookie cutter shaped like the Iberian Peninsula. His other restaurants have affinities for distinct Spanish regions (Andalusia and the Basque Country), and at this one, Mercat a la Planxa, signifiers of Catalan cuisine dot the menu: Spanish scallions (calçots), charred and served with romesco sauce (salbitxada); cured sausages like butifarra and fuet; and pa amb tomaquet, grilled tomato-garlic bread, to name a few.
The small bar and lavatories on the ground floor of the Blackstone Hotel serve as anteroom to the wide-open bi-level upstairs dining room, which somehow feels close in spite of its spaciousness. The menu is a bit intimidating in its depth and pricing, especially considering that these are small plates, but with the exception of a $13 grilled flatbread, most were pretty darn good. I can’t get my mind off the inky black, superrich fideua negra—angel-hair and baby squid topped with saffron aioli—and even an old standby like bacon-wrapped dates was distinguished by a tiny pitcher of blue cheese and skewered over a small bowl of frisee that helped cut the richness.
Ordering the kitchen’s much-talked-about whole roasted suckling pig (cochinillo asado) is a bit like adopting a child, requiring a group of four, two days’ advance notice, a faxed form, and a $75 deposit. Chef de cuisine Michael Fiorello escorts the little guy to your table and carves him up there, separating the delectable crispy skin and the fatty cheek tissue from the rest of meat, and, at our request, going so far as to remove the tiny, creamy gray matter from the skull, grill it, and plate it with a rich sherry reduction. Given enough notice they’ll brine the pig for up to three days, though ours was plenty juicy and flavorful. It includes sides of calçots, roasted fingerling potatoes, and two particularly fantastic dishes—sauteed spinach with raisins, pine nuts, and julienned apples, and a cassouletlike crock of white beans with bacon. Even at $45 per head, this might be the best value in the restaurant, and it’s well worth the effort.
Sixteen Every critic who steps off the elevators on the Trump Tower’s 16th floor is going to have the pin already pulled from his grenade, braced for any hint of the Donald’s trademark vulgarity. At least I know I did. But though the prohibitive prices and cheesy tunes piped through the sound system raised my hackles, the food at Sixteen is bewitching. It certainly confirms the reputation of chef Frank Brunacci, who launched his globe-trotting career in Melbourne, Australia, and went on to London’s Les Saveurs and Ritz-Carlton restaurants in Atlanta and New Orleans. Here he offers at least one signature dish from his past, a vanilla-scented crab salad in a cylinder of rock melon (that’s Aussie for cantaloupe, Yank). Everyone I describe this to snirches, and maybe that’s why the menu doesn’t mention vanilla, but with the briny crab, the sweet melon, and the acidic pineapple dressing it makes for a novel harmony of clear flavors—unrestrained, sure, but not obnoxious. That goes for many of Brunacci’s presentations, from a lamb loin perched atop “forbidden” black rice and lightened with grapefruit and lemongrass accents to duck “Percik,” a take on Malaysian roast duck splashed with a currylike cumin-and-carrot jus.
The restaurant recommends that you order desserts, by pastry chef Hichem Lahreche (who has a similarly impressive CV, beginning with a run at D.C.’s Citronelle), at the start of the meal—they’re constructed like birds of paradise, particularly the monnaie du pape, a wafer protruding from a scoop of luscious milk sorbet with Drambuie gastrique. And then there’s the spectacular view, smack in the middle of one of the greatest architectural airspaces on the planet. Now if only the Donald can get those lenders off his back . . .
Takashi I wonder what the Polish immigrants who probably once inhabited the compact Bucktown cottage at 1952 N. Damen would make of its transformations into Glory, Scylla, and now Takashi, chef Takashi Yagihashi’s French-Asian synthesis. Dimly lit and battleship gray, the restaurant is cozy without being cramped, and a trip to the restroom provides a startlingly intimate look into the kitchen—you might stop short at the sight of the chef hard at work (golly, he’s not just a Beard Award winner, he’s . . . he’s human!). There are a number of irresistible keywords on the menu, things I’d probably order anywhere—duck fat, pork belly, sweetbreads—and a few I might instinctively avoid in a pricey place like this. But even a trio of small, cold tofu squares carries the potential for surprise and delight, dressed with seaweed, eggplant “caviar,” and raw okra and smoky marinated shimeji and enoki mushrooms. Another surprise, a konbu-marinated fluke sashimi appetizer garnished with a thread of saffron and a garlic chip, stirred up some controversy in my group, but I thought it worked just fine.
There were no surprises where the well-prepared duck-fat-fried chicken or crispy, juicy veal sweetbreads were concerned, but their respective foils—spicy, slightly pickled cabbage slaw and cream-kissed green peppercorn sauce—made all the difference in the world. A wild striped bass with more tiny shimeji mushrooms was bathed in a savory broth that came with its own spoon, and pork belly with steamed buns, mizuna, pickled daikon, and a dollop of mustard reminded me of one the greatest sandwiches I’ve ever had, at a now defunct Chinatown restaurant. We did encounter a few less successful dishes: a roasted duck breast and leg confit needed some crisping, potato-and-prosciutto-encrusted salmon was simply dull, and there was an ugly collision of sours in a sheep’s-yogurt panna cotta with a yuzu gelee overcoat. With a handful of expensive disappointments like that, I wouldn’t call this place a terrific value—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t mostly terrific.
Viaggio Ristorante & Lounge From a distance Viaggio seems to have lassoed all the cliches of an upscale southern Italian red-sauce joint, beginning with a limited menu of pastas and meats dominated by tomatoes, peppers, ricotta, and bitter greens. I wasn’t reassured when I walked in and found two mirrored disco balls hanging among the half-dozen flat-screens, half of which were playing, I kid you not, The Godfather, Part II. But chef Anthony Risoli, a transplant from south Florida, quickly disabused me of my assumptions, beginning with a plate of house-roasted sweet-hot peppers and a basket of Turano’s bread to sop up the oil. All four ample appetizers show a bold but deft touch—things could so easily go off the rails but they don’t. Fried calamari tossed in tomato sauce were sweetened with a drizzle of aged balsamic, and two tremendous, bready meatballs in red sauce provided a counterpoint to a pile of verdant romaine leaves.
Both pastas we tried—the signature rigatoni in “Sunday” pork gravy, with enormous chunks of tender pork and an ice cream scoop of ricotta, and the linguine with fresh-shucked clams tossed with whole cloves of roasted garlic—were cooked perfectly al dente. Entrees like a gigantic pork chop (plated with more sweet peppers set against bitter rapini) and, Poseidon forgive us, a sea bass Francese special of silky fish in lemon butter sauce, topped with spinach and jumbo lump crabmeat, are big enough to feed two. Rissoli is doing relatively few things exceptionally well—the quality of these familiar dishes is so high (and the portions are so huge) that everything more or less justifies the initially startling prices.
The dinner menu price of a typical entree is indicated by dollar signs on the following scale:
$ less than $10
$$$$$ more than $30