If last year was all about Italian food, this year was all about red meat, with some five major steak houses opening over the past 12 months. Steak houses are sort of like the new Union Stockyards, with a never-ending supply of conventioneers herding into these cow palaces, releasing cash from their expense accounts like bovine emissions. Historically, they’ve been predictable, and I’ve tended to greet the announcement of a new one with dread. But lately I’ve been pleasantly surprised. If five steak houses sounds discouraging, as if our famously progressive eating scene is leaping back toward the cliche the national food media always foists on us—that we’re an unsophisticated cow town—take comfort in the fact that three of these establishments are wholly original takes on the form, and are worth spending some dollars in. (I’ll let you know how Maple & Ash and STK have turned out in the New Year.)
Mercat a la Planxa jefe Jose Garces broke ground first, opening Rural Society, his interpretation of an Argentine steak house, with vegetables every bit as outstanding as the steaks. “I could return to Rural Society and happily forgo the steak,” I wrote, though I’d be sure to return to the potent morcilla, blood sausage with enough “raisins, pine nuts, and such measures of clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and orange that it could be served as a Christmas dessert.”
I found myself writing something similar just over a month later about Boeufhaus a self-styled European steak house in an erstwhile Polish deli in Ukrainian Village. When you have creamy stracciatella loaded with smoked onion and plump, seared choucroute duck breast looking as good as the 55-day dry-aged rib eye, you’ve made yourself “the sort of restaurant every neighborhood deserves.”
Finally, the Boka Restaurant Group’s long-awaited Swift & Sons, on the opulent ground floor of the thawed Fulton Cold Storage Building, featured the irreverent classic steak-house stylings of chef Chris Pandel. Delicate and ethereally delicious celery root agnolotti and nearly gelatinous French onion soup were the precursors to the iron-rich meat butter of the rib cap and the beefy purity of the rib eye. “Who knows if Gustavus Swift would’ve felt at home in this gleaming, expansive meat locker,” I wrote, “but the Boka group and B. Hospitality have reimagined the steak house as something at once fundamental and original.”
Spain made a strong showing in Wicker Park and the South Loop. The folks behind Pops for Champagne opened Bom Bolla, which comes closer to evoking the spirit of a Barcelona tapas bar than anything in town, with the most varied selection of Spanish booze in the city to wash down “whole red prawns, salted and blazed scarlet; oysters on the half shell roasted in lardo and squirted with bitter charred orange; and thumb-size chorizos fired until they nearly erupt at the touch.” Bom Bolla’s partner and operations manager W. Craig Cooper announced last week that the restaurant would shutter and that its long-term fate is uncertain. “We do hope to address our financial health by the end of the month,” he wrote in a statement published by Eater. “I cannot say at this time if we will be able to reopen in 2016.” The sleeper in the south was Sociale, an unassuming but more expansive Spanish spot with flatbreads and large entrees that included the best pork chop I’ve had in years, and a soft phyllo-encased semolina custard “that won’t allow you to forget a very good restaurant that, at least outwardly, seems to want to be forgotten.”
A pair of izakaya represented Japan this year, beginning with mother and son Helen and Brian Mita opening Izakaya Mita in Bucktown, perhaps the most traditional, least reinvented expression of the Japanese pub we’ve seen yet, offering from the binchotan “rare bits, dressed with salt and sake or teriyaki—crackly ribbons of skin, fatty tail nubbins, and iron-rich gizzards and livers—in addition to more commonplace bird bits from the thigh and the breast, and a crusty, juicy chicken meatball,” as well as a great selection of sake and Japanese whiskeys that make it the Japanese pub the city’s been waiting for: “simple, honest, and welcoming, with a great variety of interesting things to drink.” Meanwhile, Kee Chan resurrected his Lure Izakaya in the ill-fated Macku Signature space in Lincoln Park, excelling particularly well at fried things like “chicken karaage, tender, crunchy nuggets bedded on a bowl of rice” and slippery mountain yam offset by crunchy tempura batter nibs. Despite the sterile atmosphere, “it’s offering some of the most honest Japanese soul food in town—and certainly the best from the Chan brothers in a long time.”
If some Yelpers are to be believed, Cantina 1910 is the worst thing to happen to Andersonville since the ill-fated Premise. For me it was the best thing to happen to Mexican food in years. But after killing it with a progressive “midwest Mexican” menu that incorporates local ingredients in some very forward-thinking preparations, chef Diana Dávila left the three-month-old restaurant December 16 citing “irreconcilable differences” with management; her chef de cuisine and executive sous chef followed. Too bad—as I wrote, Cantina 1910 was “easily one of the best new restaurants of the year.”
I felt every bit as much love for the Blanchard, where chef Jason Paskewitz has breathed new life into French standards in a casual, almost bucolic Lincoln Park setting. The menu features lush, luxurious echoes of opulence: things like the oeuf Outhier, crowned with caviar, and the blanquette de veau, “a precisely cut, gently braised veal breast lightly draped in truffle-scented veloute, served with the customary vegetables—pearl onions, carrots, and trumpet mushrooms, roasted to intensify their flavors—plus summer squash, crispy sweetbreads, and in bold defiance of the commandment that the dish be entirely white, a garnish of pink and purple nasturtiums.” They “were easily some of the best things I’ve eaten all year, making the Blanchard “full of surprises yet still fundamentally French” and “pregnant with possibilities.”
New York City restaurant emperor Danny Meyer made his first midwestern incursion (after Shake Shack) at GreenRiver—a collaboration with the fellows behind NYC’s celebrated cocktail bar the Dead Rabbit—high atop the 18th floor of Northwestern Medicine’s Lavin Family Pavilion on the Gold Coast. Despite the odd setting it’s solid, with grounded crowd-pleasers like fried chicken oysters and spaghetti in uni-saffron sauce, along with an endless list of complicated culinary cocktails named after Chicago historical figures. “It’s a warm, comfortable environment where perhaps Meyer means to welcome more than just the hospital staff,” I wrote. “GreenRiver might not be easy to get to for much of the city, but I could see it being an easy hang for a certain species of Gold Coaster—kind of a Monk’s Cafe for Montgomery Burns. There’s no safer bar for a centenarian.”
When Via Lima quietly opened in North Center, it vastly improved the city’s already commendable Peruvian offerings, featuring the bright, brilliant syncretic alloy of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, African, and indigenous influences. From the acidic ceviches to the starchy, colorful causitas to the beef heart anticuchos, it’s delivering to a “neighborhood overcrowded with middling sports bars and more in need of a dose of rocoto-pepper-spiked novelty than most.”
Jason Vaughan, a veteran of Brendan Sodikoff’s Hogsalt Hospitality, has never been to India, but you’d never guess it from eating at Heisler Hospitality’s Pub Royale, where he reinvents Anglo-Indian food (with some Chinese touches). From the creamed spinach-like saag paneer to the kung pao-like gobi Manchurian to the salt cod brandade samosas, this is “winning, fresh, and unrestrained Anglo-Indian food in a place that’s mostly about the beer,” and the “imagination and audacity it takes” to pull it off “is just the first of many surprises.”
Similarly, at the Indo-Dutch De Quay postcolonial cultural appropriation produces some delicious things, like the mayo and satay “war fries,” tamarind-soy glazed duck breast, and pandan ice cream paired with spekkoek, or “bacon cake,” an almond spice cake with thin layers that resemble pork belly.
Kevin Hickey went home to Bridgeport and opened the Duck Inn, making it “easily the most likable, comfortable, douche-free restaurant ever from Rockit Ranch,” featuring everything from his signature supersize Chicago dog stuffed with beef and duck meat to chili-cheese fries, chorizo-stuffed chicken thighs, and the “neatly square hamburger sandwich” on buttery grilled rye, blanketed with the gooey Brun-uusto cheese that was made for melting.” “It’s the return of a chef who is of the place and knows just how a new restaurant should fit in.”
Finally, in the penultimate month of the year a team of Hogsalt veterans under the command of Austin Baker quietly opened Bar Marta in Humboldt Park. One of the most versatile of all Chicago chefs, Jeff Pikus is heading the kitchen, which is putting out craveable drinking food like angelic, ethereal double-fried french fries, almost meaty smoked eggplant seasoned with paprika and sumac cooled down with Greek yogurt, sherry-spiked chicken liver with crispy chicken skin shards, and roast chicken with sourdough fried in the bird’s own fat. It was a good way to end a good year. v
Over on the Bleader, read Mike Sula’s expressions of love for the 181 delicious things he ate and drank in 2015.