I could announce that the best restaurant to open in Chicago in 2014 was the Jerk Taco Man’s Jamaican Jerk Shack and I’d feel pretty good about it.
I mean, the west side rarely gets much love in the food-writing game—obsessed as we all are with who’s cooking at the new Boka Group restaurant, or what the next Next menu is, or what Rick Bayless tweeted about the chayotes in Chihuahua. But the truth is, I doubt it would have much effect on business in Austin. If you’re the sort of person who thinks of food as a way to learn more about the whole wide world—or maybe just about a neighborhood you’ve never been to before—perhaps you’ll check it out. I think you’ll be quite taken by the steroidal tacos bulging with sweet, spicy, smoky jerked steak covered with molten cheddar cheese.
But everybody else? They’ll probably be eating Italian. That’s because this year eight major Italian restaurants opened for business, five of them downtown and all but one on the north side. I don’t know what economic tea leaves so many capable restaurateurs were reading that made this situation come to pass, but at least the restaurants were all fairly distinct. And most of them were pretty good. Four of them are on this list, and two earned honorable mentions. But one of them didn’t survive.
I find it hard to believe Cicchetti closed because it was unpopular, or even because it lost its chef—the great Mike Sheerin, who “created the most daring, forward-looking menu” of all the new Italians, as I wrote. It was an untraditional and audacious approach to Venetian food, crippled, I suspect, by its location on the ground floor of Northwestern’s Galter Pavillion. More regionally orthodox was Osteria Langhe, the stylistic opposite of Cicchetti, trafficking in a rigorously traditional expression of the cuisine of a hilly subregion of Piemonte where some of the most treasured foods in the world come from. Chef Cameron Grant was intent on “simple, minimally seasoned dishes that rely heavily on the quality of their elemental ingredients.” I was particularly taken by his two pastas; the almost transparent egg-rich plin was “easily my favorite pasta dish in the city.”
There was nothing simple or minimal about Joe Fish, Rosebud Restaurants’ brassy Italian seafood house with massive portions—a “throwback” to a time when to eat out was to be part of a performance. Paul Kahan and One Off Hospitality opened an Italian seafood spot too, Nico Osteria, which Reader editor Mara Shalhoup called “simultaneously rustic Italian and refined Italian.”
At least One Off left continental Europe for its second restaurant to open this year, Dove’s Luncheonette, a Mexican diner next to the group’s Big Star. I called the norteño and Tex-Mex-focused food “big, cheesy, saucy, and on occasion gloriously sloppy,” all served in an environment that pays tribute to classic Chicago diners like the enduring Moon’s Sandwich Shop and the late Busy Bee. “It may not fill the vast void that the Busy Bee left in Wicker Park in the late 90s, but the food and vibe should have enough soul to power it for as long as Moon’s has been around.”
I am always loath to declare an absolute favorite in these roundups, but this year it’s simple. At Parachute Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark have finally opened the cheffy modern Korean restaurant that lives up to the potential of this great cuisine. Baked potato bing, pork belly mung bean pancakes, and house-made noodles in spicy lamb ragu are among the “great dishes loaded with assertive, bright, uncompromising flavors in an atmosphere fueled by a perpetual source of conviviality.”
The aforementioned Boka Group had two of the better openings this year. First was a reboot of its ten-year-old flagship, Boka, under the command of former Peninsula chef Lee Wolen. I didn’t love how Wolen adapted his signature roasted chicken, but he made some terrific ramen broth, a “virtuous and debauched” roasted broccoli dish, and “hearty greens and a poached egg . . . mined with iron-rich deposits of blood sausage,” the “kind of food that will ensure Boka’s continued relevance for a long time to come.”
Japanese was everywhere this year. And everything Japanese (except ramen) was at the Boka Group’s Momotaro, an overwhelming concept that includes a subterranean izakaya, a sushi bar, and a hot kitchen. What’s remarkable is that nearly everything, from the noodles to the nigiri to the robata skewers, is serious stuff, well done and delicious. “It’s rare when a restaurant that tries to do so much—especially a Japanese restaurant—does very much well. But whatever sustaining magic the Boka Group has tapped into, it’s helped them open a rare place indeed.”
It’s not so rare, however, that it wasn’t done twice. Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto swept in and relaunched the old Japonais to great effect, delivering a menu that’s a bit more out-there than Momotaro’s—gyoza with puttanesca and bacon foam, sashimi terrines, tableside tofu service—but just as likable, particularly with regard to the sushi and the house-polished rice it rides on. What’s truly rare is “when an out-of-town chef comes to Chicago and manages not to condescend. That’s probably how Morimoto’s elevated Japonais to the very top of the food chain for raw fish in Chicago.”
For all the ramen bars that opened amid the Japanese takeover, only one of them managed to get it right. Under the direction of Jeff Pikus (and literally under Green Street Smoked Meats), Brendan Sodikoff’s 16-seat High Five Ramen keeps it simple with a brief selection of increasingly spicy bowls built on an extraordinary tonkotsu broth, in addition to offering a chicken-broth-based shoyu ramen and a lighter seafood-based soup. The key to its dominance is a “stripped-down focus that makes High Five Ramen the most convincing approximation of an actual ramen-ya the city has seen to date.”
Nearly as many barbecue joints opened as Italian restaurants this year but—similar to the ramen situation—only one of them is worth a damn. That would be Sodikoff’s Green Street Smoked Meats, which in my view supplants Smoque for the best brisket in town. In Reader associate editor Gwynedd Stuart’s view Green Street is “summertime incarnate, from the smells to the cocktails . . . to the rows of outdoor seating, which seems almost cruel when we’re shivering in our damp parkas in April.”
Three Vietnamese restaurants opened this year along a small stretch of Lawrence Avenue in west Lincoln Square, heralding a small but burgeoning community far removed from Argyle Street. One of those restaurants, New Asia, was actually a reopening of an older location with a popular specialty, pho ga, or chicken soup, made with freshly killed birds from a neighboring live poultry shop. It’s a remarkable rendition, “a clean but intensely chickeny broth seasoned with a lighter dose of heady cinnamon and five spice than you find in the standard bowl of beef pho” and full of chewy, juicy meat—and the occasional embryonic egg.
One suburban restaurant made our list this year. Spicy Lao Thai, in a Burbank strip mall, specializes in the Lao-influenced food of far-northeastern Thailand, where owner Nakhon Phanom put herself through grammar school working a papaya salad stand. That means powerfully funky and spicy jackfruit salad, the chile-slicked chicken breakfast soup kow tome, and turmeric-loaded egg rolls—food you won’t find anywhere in the city limits.
I usually find it pretty hard to see past the inherent shallowness of certain Lettuce Entertain You restaurants, but that was easy to do with RPM Steak, where making the scene seems more important to patrons than the solid menu developed by chef Doug Psaltis, It’s markedly different from “the typical Chicago expense-account feeding lot” and offers some very good and relatively inexpensive butcher’s cuts likely to satisfy any hard-core carnivore.
Speaking of steak, chef Nick Lacasse of Mfk slow-cooks a buttery rib-eye cap that’s my favorite steak in town. But this impossibly cheerful subterranean Spanish-influenced and seafood-focused restaurant mostly turns out “small plates of unvarnished simplicity that testify to the virtues of leaving good stuff alone.”
Though chefs Thomas Rice and Kurt Guzowski are leaders in Chicago’s charcuterie revolution, their Randolph Row restaurant Tête Charcuterie is about far more than just French-style preserved meats. Take the salad made with 30 different ingredients or the curry-spiced fluke garnished with hearts of palm dressed with citrusy aji pepper vinaigrette. “It’s going to be exciting to see what comes out of that curing room in the next few months, but just as exciting to see what comes out of the heads of these two badass chefs.”
Maybe no chef had a better breakout year than 42 Grams‘ Jake Bickelhaupt, the Trotter’s, Schwa, and Alinea vet who went from cooking underground dinners in his Uptown apartment to cooking universally lauded multicourse modernist meals in an 18-seat former fried chicken joint. “It’s a lot of money, but it’s money well spent to experience a worthy talent outside of the usual arenas.”
Finally, the Cajun food at Analogue turned out to be a lot more than just something to soak up the drinks at this Logan Square craft cocktail bar. Chef Alfredo Nogueira’s “substantial, powerfully rich, and deceptively complex food”—from his fatty, rich chicken-and-sausage gumbo to his spicy chaurice dog to the best biscuits in town—is born out of formative experience.
Overall, it was very good year, and not just for Italian.