Yellowtail in a sauce of guajillo chile and hibiscus flower, with mango relish garnish at Leña Brava Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

If nothing else, the events of 2016 have proven that vast numbers of our countrymen are all too happy to eat shit. In Chicago, of course, we have a higher standard—at least when it comes to restaurants. So even as the rest of the world obediently trundles toward oblivion, at least the city’s restaurateurs have been good enough to provide plenty of estimable places to eat and drink the dread under the table. So here, as the incoming overgrown Oompa-Loompa in chief might say, are the best!

This was the year of the open, roaring fire, when in ever-greater numbers chefs were bestowing the twin kisses of smoke and char upon their food, and their guests were embracing the psychological comforts of a warm hearth. For the night is dark and full of terrors, after all.

At John Manion’s El Che Bar chef de cuisine Mark Steuer summons the spirit of an Argentine churrascaria, passing everything from sweetbreads to scarmoza to thin-cut pork chops through the flames. “Manion’s been drawing on his South American upbringing since his days at the late, great Nuevo Latino spot Mas,” I wrote. “And each time he returns to his roots feels more right.” Rick Bayless leaped toward the flames with Leña Brava, his “love letter to the seafood-dominant riches of Baja, with its inherent Mediterranean and Asian influences, cooked in the crucible of three wood-burning fires at the back of a busy, clamorous room. The alluring aromas of the ‘ferocious wood,’ as the name translates, permeate the restaurant, particularly the second-floor bar, and even the restrooms, where you might feel as if you’ve wandered among the fading embers of a forest fire.” Difficult as it may be to choose among the menu’s delights, the whole butterflied, grilled striped bass done in one of four regional styles is one of the most crowd-pleasing dishes of the year. Grant Achatz and company got into it too with the Alinea Group’s first casual concept, Roister, roasting everything from pineapple to carrots to A5 Wagyu steak—but the dish that steals the show is the whole chicken, “thighs boned and fried, breasts poached and roasted, the rest folded into chicken salad, served with chamomile flowers and a creamy, eye-rollingly delicious sunchoke sauce that mimics a classic country gravy. Eat this family style with an order of the fat, soy-dusted Yukon fries, served with a creamy tofu-based mayo and topped with shimmering bonito flakes, and you realize that the fried chicken wars that have raged through the city in recent years have been decisively won.”

There’s no wood-fueled flame at Northbrook’s Pro Samgyubsal, which specializes in grilled pork belly. Korean barbecue blazes best over natural lump charcoal, but the gas-assisted flames here still manage to summon a gestalt of primal carnivorous lust: “as [the burners are] fired up and the yawning overhead exhaust fans kick in, any draftiness is replaced with a porky warmth that suffuses the air and seduces your olfactory system.”

Hanbun's <i>ja jiang mian</i>
Hanbun’s ja jiang mianCredit: Danielle A. Scruggs

Hanbun, another suburban Korean restaurant, makes the list this year—and in my view, it’s the most important and exciting of the lot. Inside a dim food court in far-flung Westmont, David Park and his fiance, Jennifer Tran, both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, present a daily lunchtime menu of extraordinarily refined Korean classics at budget-friendly prices. And on the weekends they offer a lavish multicourse modernist tasting menu “so different from what any Korean restaurant in the region does that it’s worth a pilgrimage or two (or more) from wherever you are on the map.” And at $63 it’s a steal.

Smyth's tomato-peach sorbet with spicy flowers
Smyth’s tomato-peach sorbet with spicy flowersCredit: Danielle A. Scruggs

Meanwhile back in the city, pricier tasting menus were ascendant to the point where I wondered if they were all sustainable in this economic climate. But at Oriole chef Noah Sandoval and pastry chef Genie Kwon are making such delicious, approachably modernist magic in a laid-back environment that, while dining, you might forget that it’s among the most expensive restaurants in the city. “Overall Sandoval and Kwon present a crescendoing succession of delicate dishes with excellent product and superb flavors and compositions from which not an ort should remain on the plate. . . . Oriole has joined the ranks of the city’s high-dollar but truly fun multicourse events . . . that you should make a point to experience, if only once.” Similarly, at the other end of the Fulton Market District, Smyth chefs John Shields and Karen Urie Shields are pushing a menu that “leans gently toward the oceanic and the Japanese, with gutsy ingredients and savory desserts, [and] shows more than enough originality and imagination to keep it in mind long after you’ve dropped such serious coin on the ticket.” Entente in Lakeview doesn’t operate strictly as a tasting venue, but if you come armed with a small group of stout eaters it’s not a bad move to order Schwa vet Brian Fisher’s entire “casual fine dining” a la carte menu. Truffled Carolina Gold risotto, duck breast with miso yogurt, and sassafras profiteroles are the result of the “audacious, compelling cooking” performed by Fisher and pastry chef Mari Katsumura.

Immm Rice & Beyond's <i>khao rad gang</i>
Immm Rice & Beyond’s khao rad gangCredit: Jamie Ramsay

An increasingly crowded field of quality Thai restaurants was joined by a relatively unique concept in Immm Rice & Beyond, which specializes in khao rad gang, or rice and curry dishes, including a daily-changing menu dished out from steam tables by servers eager to put together a combo that’s right for you. “Still, there’s a uniform rusticity to a lot of these dishes that comes about in part by the time they spend settling on the steam table. As with any buffet, it’s important to find the sweet spot. [Chef-owner Dew] Suriyawan’s menu is posted on Facebook each morning, but arrive too early and some dishes may not be ready; show up too late and they may be gone.”

Relief from an eight-year dearth of Malaysian food was at hand when Serai opened its doors in Logan Square, “representing that syncretic blend of Indian, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, British, Dutch, Portuguese, and native influences. . . . It’s good enough to skip a long trip out to Penang in Arlington Heights or Asian Noodle House in Hoffman Estates whenever you get a hankering for curry laksa, char koay teow, or Hainanese chicken and rice. Serai does all of those Malaysian classics and more, and it does them quite a lot better than its suburban competitors.”

The loss of last year’s innovative Mexican Cantina 1910 was mitigated by the opening of Topolobampo vet Brian Enyart’s Dos Urban Cantina, which took the cuisine someplace radically new. “There are no molten blankets of cheese, no searing chile burns, no baseline foundations of acidity. Instead Enyart goes deep, exploring bitter, thick moles and intense flavors while harnessing the fulsome power of nuts, legumes, and fungi.”

In somewhat the same way, the never-ending tide of unimaginative Italian spots was brightened by the opening of Spiaggia alum Sarah Grueneberg’s Monteverde, focusing on handmade pasta, its production on full display on an elevated platform behind the bar. “In these bloated times, nobody but restaurateurs seems to think we need more Italian spots. Now that Monteverde has proven to be the city’s most essential pasta destination, maybe they’ll come around to the idea.” On the other hand, the folks behind the great Osteria Langhe proved there’s room for originality with the opening of their sophomore spot, the fast-casual Animale, featuring plenty of outstanding offal and chef Cameron Grant’s own extraordinary pasta. “Guts to go never tasted so good.”

The national progression toward vegetable-forward dining was magnificently expressed at the West Loop’s Bad Hunter, where Dan Snowden’s mostly meatless menu satisfies across the board. “The operative gratification behind most of the vegetable-centered food at Bad Hunter: the flavor-driving forces of fat and umami are deployed with such assuredness that even the most hard-core carnivore won’t miss meat at the center of the plate.” The long-awaited return of former Nightwood chef Jason Vincent, Giant, wasn’t necessarily part of this herbivorous movement, but some of his most memorable dishes were plant based, like the eggplant agrodolce, which “reigns supreme among the vegetable dishes, the soft sweet-and-sour flesh given texture by crushed cashews and balanced by crema, all to be soaked up with thick, toasty house-made pita.”

Bunny, the Microbakery's toad in the hole
Bunny, the Microbakery’s toad in the holeCredit: Danielle A. Scruggs

This annual list always seems to include one or two establishments that didn’t make it past their first year. This year it’s Elizabeth chef Iliana Regan’s magical Bunny, the Microbakery, where the bread was the name of the game, like the black boule “colored with squid ink and ensanguined with pork blood . . . a tribute to Tyrion Lannister’s visit to Castle Black, created for a Game of Thrones dinner at Elizabeth, proving that even in a bakery Regan’s dark sense of humor translates.”

Fortunately, we’ll be getting another budget-friendly taste of the chef’s culinary black comedy when she opens her izakaya Kitsune early next year—if any of us make it that long ourselves. Until then it’s best to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we’ll probably be dead.   v

Over on the Bleader, read Mike Sula’s expressions of love for the 151 delicious things he ate and drank in 2016.