Somehow I’ve gotten a reputation as a professional againster. People say that I don’t like anything and I don’t mind telling you so; that I’m characteristically unimpressed. It’s true that of all the critical duties I’m responsible for I most hate declaring anything “the best.” (Because what if it isn’t?) I don’t OMG at dinner, I’ve never eaten anything I would vow “to die for,” and the word “killer” as an expression of approval makes me homicidal.
But I like a lot of things. I love a lot of things. And if the annual roundup of the year’s top new restaurants bores you, at least it gives me the opportunity to collect all the things I loved about them in one place, just to prove what a warm and gentle honeybun I am. I had some help this year from Reader editors Sam Worley and Mara Shalhoup, who also really liked some things a lot.
It’s too soon to tell whether we’re going to love Matthias Merges’s A10 (look for Shalhoup to tell you next week), Paul Kahan’s Nico Osteria, the Radler, or some new joint the kids call “Eataly,” all of which opened in the last month or so, but we’ll figure it out pretty soon. What follows, in no particular order, are 15 of the most exceptional new restaurants (and a few bars) to open in 2013; places that were different, daring, rigorously traditional, or all of the above—plus a list of honorable mentions.
I know, I know, Lincoln Square’s Thai storefront Rainbow Cuisine wasn’t new in 2013, but it was new to me, and to a whole lot of other people who religiously and regularly packed into its tiny dining room to devour the food of Wanpen Phosawang, a former cook at Spoon who struck out on her own with a dishwasher and her engaging husband, Pramote Rukprueksachart. If there’s one dish that encapsulates the dazzling array of flavors and textures Phosawang summons it’s her naem khao tod, “a masterful balance of textures—fryer-fused clumps of alternately puffed, crunchy, and soft rice, spiced with red curry paste, chiles, fish sauce, and sugar, and mixed with peanuts, slivers of fresh ginger, and bits of raw soured pork,” I wrote in my review. “The first person to market this dish as a movie-theater snack will make a fortune.”
Japanese food was everywhere, for better or worse, but two places stood out in a sea of pretenders as exemplars of purity and tradition. Noodle slingers all over the city got a tough lesson in how it’s done when the highly focused Japanese chain Ramen Misoya set up shop in a Mount Prospect strip-mall storefront; it’s a place where nothing can “extort energy from the chefs’ single-minded pursuit of gorgeously constructed bowls of ramen.” Gene Kato’s Sumi Robata Bar set a similarly high standard in River North, where “the former Japonais chef methodically seasons bits of skewered flesh and vegetable and carefully tends to them on a pair of charcoal grills until they’re sizzling, fat-slicked, and ready to be gnawed off the sticks.” It’s an operation “faithful to the idea that Japanese food is about proper and minimal application of technique on superior raw materials.”
I don’t know if you’re counting, but there are a total of four spots in River North on this list, so observations that we’re biased against the neighborhood due to its air of excessive douchebaggery are false. Superchef Gastón Acurio touched down there to introduce his county’s wildly syncretic cuisine at Tanta, which boasts a “variety of ceviches (here spelled cebiches), street food skewers, pollo a la brasa, hearty meatcentric entrees, and [a] heavy representation of Nikkei cuisine—the food developed by Japanese immigrants who began arriving in Peru in the late 19th century.”
And score another for River North. Shalhoup declared Three Dots and a Dash, the long-awaited collaboration between beloved barman Paul McGee and behemoth restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You, the opposite of a sellout: “McGee’s cosmopolitan tiki bar is suavity meets Disney—007 with a dash of Pirates of the Caribbean. Is that a bad thing? No, it’s not.”
Even Worley managed to have a couple of successful nights avoiding the neighborhood’s “asshole emporia,” specifically, at Dillman’s, the omnipresent Brendan Sodikoff’s deliesque not-a-deli, where “the food is pure id: cured meat, schmaltz, creme fraiche, cheese, bone marrow, a menu of strong drinks. One of the best salads is hardly a salad; rather, it’s a mound of wonderful smoked whitefish nestled inside half of an avocado, with some lettuce on the side, like an afterthought, finished with a light lemon vinaigrette.
“The id bit is true of most trendy places, I suppose—fat being the new, uh, fat—but the difference here is the thoughtfulness, and for that matter the specificity.”
Worley also liked the Berkshire Room, the cozy new home of Benjamin Schiller, one of city’s top cocktail talents, whose “drinks are unimpeachable, ranging from the classic (vieux carre, manhattan, and a ‘continuous negroni,’ its bitterness further sharpened with age) to the more imaginative, like the Antique, a rum base modified with spikenard, an aromatic Himalayan plant related to valerian, as well as Himalayan salt.” And I can attest that it’s every bit as fun to just sit there and explore Schiller’s library of very rare and special whiskeys.
The bagel made a comeback at places like Dillman’s, but nobody did them better than Reno pastry chef Katie Wyer, who figured out a way to make toasty Montreal-style bagels “skinny and slightly sweet, with a moderate but unmistakable char and whiff of smoke, yet still possessing the all-important chewiness New York partisans live and breathe for.” She did it in Reno’s 900-degree wood-burning oven, which also happens to produce some of the greatest pizzas in the city.
We saw a few things we hadn’t seen a lot of before. For one, the Setiawan family opened Rickshaw Republic, the city’s sole Indonesian restaurant, serving the regional diversity of some 17,000 islands in the archipelago. It’s “one of the more unique and special places in town, and not just for the singularity of the food. Sure, the Setiawan family have cornered the near-nonexistent market on Indonesian food in Chicago, but they’re such earnest ambassadors for it that even if you’re a first-timer, you should be evangelizing its virtues after you leave.”
More heretofore unseen, highly specific regional cuisines popped up in Chinatown and Bridgeport. Of the three restaurants that opened specializing in the cooking of Dongbei (China’s three northeasternmost provinces), Homestyle Taste serves hearty, heavy food that “is exceptionally suited to relieving the primal anxiety that you might freeze to death.” Sichuan restaurants continued to proliferate as well, but Sze Chuan Cuisine managed to stand out despite being situated way down on the lonely southernmost end of Wentworth. “Eating Sichuanese can sometimes feel like a full-contact sport,” I wrote, “the heat and thrum of ma la-saturated dishes spiking the heart rate, draining the sweat glands, and simultaneously dulling the senses, so each course eventually blends into the next, offering little opportunity to taste anything but a dish’s most dominant forces. At Sze Chuan Cuisine the spice isn’t ‘tamped down’ so much as balanced. There’s plenty of heat, but it’s restrained enough that other forms of deliciousness are able to rise from the flames.”
It was a big year for ersatz, big-budget barbecue, and as such it was generally pretty disappointing. That wasn’t the case with Ben’s Bar-Be-Cue, which, like Rainbow, wasn’t exactly new. Hiding in plain sight on the west side, the small takeout-only joint has “a light touch with the rub [that] produces a commensurately light but pleasing bark on the ribs and tips, which are eminently gnawable, saturated with smoky flavor, and retain just enough fat to keep them moist well into leftover time.” Speaking of take-out barbecue, Smalls Smoke Shack does some decent Filipino-tinged smoked meats, but Smalls really dominated this year’s fried chicken war: “The thing that brought me back, however, and will again and again, was the fried chicken, buttermilk-brined and lightly battered, but fried hard, so that it maintains a moist interior whether you’re taking it 15 minutes away or sipping a whiskey at the [neighboring] bar while you wait.”
Finally, boutique tacos rivaled barbecue for pointlessness, and I could not have been more skeptical of Takito Kitchen, from former Carnivale chef David Dworshak. I’m never happier than when I’m wrong: “With these tacos, as with the polenta, Dworshak goes off script, subtly weaving in the influences of other parts of the planet. Crispy redfish is cradled in a purple-tinted hibiscus tortilla and seasoned with toasted coconut and coconut custard, which gives it an unmistakable southeast Asian character. The pork belly is dressed with mozzarella and served on a black sesame-studded tortilla. The best taco in the joint, the ‘lamb chorizo,’ is a single sizzling link that’s like nothing so much as a North African merguez sausage, draped with a charred and melted slab of Scandinavian (via Wisconsin) Brun-uusto cheese and sprinkled with crushed peanut.”
In totality, it looks like it was a pretty good year restaurantwise.
- Ajoomah’s Apron
- Billy Sunday
- Blackwood BBQ
- Chop Shop
- Johnny Casserole
- The Little Goat
- Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed
- Parson’s Chicken & Fish
- Ward Eight
- Yan Bang Cai
Over on the Bleader, read my expressions of love for the dozens and dozens of great things I ate all year long.