The most exciting things to happen to restaurants in Chicago this year didn’t happen in any brick-and-mortar space. Food trucks—along with shared kitchens, underground dinners, and pop-ups—have offered creative entrepreneurs new ways to get their food in people’s faces. Both Matt Maroni (Gaztro-Wagon) and Phillip Foss (Meatyballs Mobile)—two fine-dining chefs kicked out of their kitchens—bounced back, delivering food far more creative than the premade cupcakes and sandwiches other trucks have been pushing. For their pioneering efforts, I’d include them among the “best” restaurants in 2010.
But I’ve said it before: trying to suss out the “best” of anything is a fool’s game. This isn’t even a comprehensive list of the best places we’ve eaten in 2010—if it were, I’d have been happy to include Saigon Sisters, the subject of this week’s featured review, among them. Rather, it’s our best attempt to identify the new restaurants that have done something new—or made something old new again—this year. They’re in alphabetical order.
Below, in the listings, we’ve cited more new spots that have made Chicago a better place to eat in 2010. And over on our blog the Food Chain (chicagoreader.com/food) I’ve posted a much longer list of the best individual bites I’ve taken this year. —Mike Sula
* Yes, we know Big Star and Sprout opened in late 2009, and that’s also when John Manion yanked Branch 27 out of the weeds. But we visited them in 2010, after giving them the customary minimum of a month to iron out the kinks.
Arami Sushi chef B.K. Park, a veteran of Mirai, Meiji, and Aria, leaves the spicy mayo and tempura crunch to everyone else and focuses on the fundamentals of traditional Japanese cooking: rice, fish, soy, seaweed. Park’s sushi showcases outstanding quality and character across a wide variety of fish, both familiar and less common (madai, kampachi, shima aji). Even if you don’t opt for omakase (chef’s choice), pieces arrive in an experience-enhancing progression, starting with the most delicate and ramping up in intensity throughout the meal. At the top end of the intensity scale is the toro hand roll, in which incredibly rich tuna belly is chopped into smooth submission, the fat threatening to melt into the rice—an instant candidate for last-meal consideration. BYO to begin with, Arami now has a full beverage program from owners Troy and Ty Fujimora, who also own Small Bar and the Exchange.
Balsan A raw bar and an eminently shareable selection of charcuterie set the easy, informal tone at Jason McLeod’s Balsan. The charcuterie, mostly house-made, is among the best I’ve tried in town—slabs of squab and black trumpet mushroom terrine, a buttery foie gras torchon, and luscious duck rillettes were all beautifully presented with cheeses served at precisely the right temperature, pickled vegetables, and other well-chosen accents. Small plates like a veal heart salad or diver scallops strewn across a body of curried apple puree are also easy for a group to pick over, and a couple of them are among my favorite bites of the year—including a soft-boiled hen egg meant to be mashed up with sauteed wild mushrooms, potato puree, and a crispy potato tuile. There’s also a short list of “sides” such as a satisfying crock of two-bean cassoulet and the ultimate french fry—sizzled in beef tallow, with a delicate, crispy exoskeleton barely protecting the thin, fluffy insides.
Big Star Unlike Paul Kahan’s other ventures (Blackbird, Avec, the Publican), Big Star is a bar first, and both food (by Justin Large, formerly of Avec) and drink (by Michael Rubel of the Violet Hour) are pitched to a very agreeable price point. If you’re not in the mood for a well-engineered cocktail, you can slum it with a one-buck Schlitz shorty. Or if you can’t decide between a mixed drink and beer, try a Michelada—Tecate in a salt-rimmed glass with lime and house-made salsa. As for the food: The queso fundido, with roasted poblano rajas and house-made chorizo, is surpassingly wonderful. High-quality pork belly and al pastor tacos are served on fresh hand-pressed minitortillas that make the big flavors seem almost dainty. There are only a few tables, and they’re for parties of four or more, so smaller groups must hover and pounce on just-vacated bar stools. But ordering from the carryout window is always an option. The patio’s currently about halfway toward being enclosed.
Branch 27 Ronin chef John Manion doesn’t not coddle anybody. When I visited at the start of the year, after he’d been tapped to save this restaurant in the former Eckhart Park public library branch, he was roasting goat legs, compounding butter with bone marrow, and daring diners to look whole grilled sardines in the eye. He offset the funk of those humble fish with a sweet, tart escabeche and peppery arugula. He fried chickens livers hard like Harold’s, but fluffy inside, plating them with garlic aioli and some welcome shrubbery, and prettied up a clovey boudin blanc with shreds of yellow squash and green apple. Among the most extraordinary dishes that have made appearances on his seasonal menus: rabbit leg, braised and shredded with pickled carrots over grilled corn bread, and a light cioppino, sweetly scented with Pernod and fennel and filled with salt cod, sturgeon, mussels, crab, scallops, and head-on shrimp. Manion’s cast-iron Dutch-oven cassoulet—a mainstay—brings together an irresistible meaty quartet of pork belly, duck confit, herbaceous lamb meatballs, and smoky merguez sausage; don’t order it solo.
The Girl & the Goat The second you spin through the revolving doors of Stephanie Izard’s Randolph Row restaurant, you’re blasted with a besotting roasty meatgust issuing from the wood oven at the back of the room. And there in the rear, backlit by kitchen light and open flame, is the Top Chef herself, sweating in front of the exposed line and expediting orders. The menu of rustic, shareable plates, broken down into vegetable, fish, and meat categories, is strongly seasonal, and unorthodox (but not offputting) combinations are Izard’s thing. She’s particularly fond of mammalian garnishes on fish dishes: a hiramasa crudo sprinkled with crispy lardons and drizzled with Peruvian chile aioli was one of the most delicate things I’ve ever put in my mouth. And her efforts with the fifth quarter are truly original. The roasted pig face, slabs of luscious head meat stacked like pancakes with a fried egg on top and potato stix, is notorious, but the less-lauded braised beef tongue with masa, salsa verde, and rough sauteed greens actually deserved more acclaim—like a Vietnamese banh mi, it was a beautiful orchestration of taste, texture, and temperature.
Henri Henri is more than an elegant follow-up to its boisterous neighboring sibling, the Gage. It’s a smart kick in the dangling prairie oysters of gastropubbery, with chandeliers, Laguiole knives, velvet walls (with faux gator skin in the bathroom), salt and pepper shakers, ballotines, bouillabaisse, and escargots de Bourgogne. It does seem like Gage executive chef Dirk Flanigan, abetted by chef de cuisine Chris Cubberly (Delacosta, Brasserie Ruhlmann), stopped a little bit short of the canyon’s edge, with options for killjoys such as a short-rib-topped burger or a pair of pizzas (pissaldiere to you, François). But shellfish towers, game of the day, and plats du jour are simple and unsullied by pointless reinvention. Dover sole meunière, the dish that made Julia Child fall in love with France, is a crispy, perfectly browned fillet with a supertart sauce of lemon, butter, and capers. A white-bean cassoulet is as old-school as it gets. But one of the most memorable plates is a reinvention of the best sort—a lobster and foie gras “Wellington” with a juicy plug of good spinach inside and a pastry encasement that through some fortunate accident arrived soft and doughy. It’s as good as the first bite off the dim sum cart when you haven’t eaten a thing all day.
Kith & Kin In September, when executive chef David Carrier was abruptly fired from this Lincoln Park spot, chef de cuisine Andrew Brochu stepped up. The menu is globally influenced—mussels, for instance, are served in a curried, slightly bitter IPA with a few pieces of grilled, almost sweet naan. Even French Canada gets a nod, with rillette-like pork creton, one of several spreadable “crocks” served with crostini. Any two could easily make a swell meal on their own, especially paired with a beer from the substantial list. There’s a small selection of well-made classic cocktails that includes a helluva good Sazerac; the five-spice hot buttered rum could pull double duty as dessert.
The Purple Pig Snout-to-tail cooking is the name of the game at the Purple Pig, a convivial take on an Italian enoteca from Scott Harris (Mia Francesca), Jimmy Bannos Sr. (Heaven on Seven), and chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. A sow’s ear became the proverbial silk purse in crunchy-chewy fried strips with crispy kale, marinated cherry peppers, and a fried egg to mix in. Intriguing “smears,” as they’re called on the menu, include pork liver paté and roasted bone marrow with herbs; pork blade steak and milk-braised shoulder are among the hot dishes. Of our four cold antipasti, expertly seasoned giant Greek lima beans paired with olive-oil-poached tuna was the favorite, and hot and cold complemented each other in crisply fried sardines crisscrossed over a refreshing salad of shaved fennel in a lemon vinaigrette laced with capers, pine nuts, and currants. The all-European wine list has at least 50 bottles for $40 or less; any can be ordered by the half bottle, and quite a few are also available by the glass or quartino.
Ria The menu at this fine-dining spot in the Elysian Hotel may be abbreviated to a handful of nouns, but it speaks volumes. Each plate is an expertly composed work of art. A single perfect rectangle of grilled sturgeon balanced by two dominoes of pork belly and five precision-carved baby carrots, for instance—splashed with a blazingly orange sauce. Or pink knuckles of lobster and pale scallop dumplings trickled with impeccably clear pale-gold consomme—it could be a damn Kandinsky.
Aesthetic perfection is the point, of course. Executive chef Jason McCleod was schooled in classical French cooking and put in years with the Four Seasons organization and other haute hotels. But just when you think you’ve got him figured for a fussy formalist, one of a battalion of solicitous servers turns up with “Cheese,” a giant wheel of Comté, the smooth, nutty, unpasteurized French cow’s milk cheese. Sawed off into rough wedges and served with buttered caraway toast, it was shockingly rustic, messy and deeply satisfying.
Sprout Dale Levitski’s comeback takes the format of a $60 diner-determined three-course prix fixe. On my visits at the start of the year, first courses like a meaty, tender veal cheek with escargot atop salsify puree were substantial and for the most part technically impeccable. And some—including a pair of seared scallops with smooth parsnip that echoed the texture of popcorn with some freeze-dried corn—suggested that Levitski and his Top Chef co-contestant Sara Ngyuen are having lots of fun. The meat-and-potatoes ethos Levitski likes to talk about showed up all over the second-course selections like silky, tender sous vide venison medallions on a cauliflower mash. But my favorite dish on the menu was the tender, almost lean strips of Wagyu draped over brandade with a drizzle of garlicky chimichurri—not just meat and potatoes but also surf and turf and churrasco all at once.
Best of the Rest
4882 N. Clark | 773-878-4882
ITALIAN, CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11
Chef-owner Giuseppe Scurato (Boka, MK, Topaz Cafe), who prowls the dining room taking comments on his unclassifiable menu, animates this otherwise wintry space facing a cemetery with a gruff but welcoming warmth. On my visits there early in the year, I found a lot to compliment him on when he came around, from a flavorful tangle of octopus with puttanesca sauce and tart preserved lemon to a cold veal tongue and white bean salad perked up with celery, pickled carrot, and pink peppercorn. A simple country paté came with pickled fruit mostarda—which also shows up to brilliant effect in the house old-fashioned, the standout on a short list of cocktails. Not surprisingly, Scurato’s most winning dishes are the ones that reference his Italian heritage. (He’s a native of Sicily.) His house-made strozzapreti with wild boar ragu has the kind of toothy textural mojo passed down by generations of nonnas; his pillowy gnocchi with rabbit confit sauce is dressed in a thin arugula pesto that had my table gobsmacked. An Acquarello aged-rice pudding accented with crunchy puffed rice brittle made playful but respectful use of esoteric ingredients. Some of the simple, not overtly Italian dishes were successful too: a tender dino-size lamb shank with horseradish mash nicely bridged the gulf between Mediterranean and midwestern. But a rangy venison ragu atop an overly sweet, almost breakfast-appropriate craisin-studded polenta was a surprising disappointment, and a piece of whitefish in a wide bowl of rapidly cooling New England clam chowder offered nothing more interesting than the dueling flavors of bacon and cream. Still, as unfocused as it can be, there’s a lot to love here, not least a long and approachably priced wine list. —Mike Sula
2459 W. Armitage | 773-697-4597
MEXICAN | DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO
We barely suppressed our smirks when our server confided that the only restaurant in Chicago that could compete with Chilapan was Topolobampo. Oh, reeeally? As the food, by chef Jorge Miranda (Las Palmas, Adobo Grill), started to arrive, however, we were humbled. The Empanada Potosina, corn masa flecked with guajillo chiles and stuffed with queso panela, was airy and delicate, a far cry from Argentina’s breadier empanadas. This light touch carried through all our other dishes: the chayote and tomato in a green salad were sculpted into small shells and dabbed with fresh, flavorful guajillo-sherry vinaigrette. Budin Azteca was a layered casserole of feathery, flaky tortillas with chicken, cheese, and a poblano cream salsa—a kind of vertical enchilada, deliciously crusty and, again, unexpectedly light. Sampling over half a dozen salsas in various preparations, we were wowed by the range; tastes were intense but never stupidly spicy, and the chile-based sauces tingled the palate without overwhelming it. The focused, inventive menu has vegetarian and sometimes vegan options as well as a provocative caboose of desserts. Housed in the former Tamalli space, hard by the Blue Line stop at Western, Chilapan is intimate despite the train rumbling by, and the service is exceptional. Plus, it’s BYO with no corkage fee. —David Hammond
1863 N. Clybourn | 312-281-5187
tuesday-saturday 11 AM-7 PM, Sunday 11 AM-5 PM | Closed monday | BYO
By mid-March, when it had been open just a few weeks, Franks ‘n’ Dawgs had caught the attention of local food blogs, press, and a couple TV stations. A gourmet sausage shop—why hadn’t someone thought of this before? Someone had, of course. The real question was why no one had seriously challenged Doug Sohn’s encased-meat eminence since he opened the game-changing Hot Doug’s more than six years ago. But Franks ‘n’ Dawgs owner Alex Brunacci—whose brother, Frank, is the executive chef at Sixteen—is uncomfortable with the inevitable comparisons, pointing out that they, unlike Hot Doug’s, make several of their sausages in-house, and that in place of grill cooks there’s fine-dining talent in the kitchen. Chef Joe Doren (Blackbird, Sixteen) has dreamed up some extraordinarily creative and powerful flavor combinations. The top-loader buns—locally baked pan de mie, buttered, griddled, and split along the upper length—permit a peek at tantalizing presentations like a lamb keema dog with English peas, cucumber salad, house-pickled pearl onions, and socca. Other combinations include the Tur-Doggen (turkey-and-date sausage with crispy duck confit, herby aioli, onion relish, and pickled carrots) and the N’awlins Dawg (andouille sausage with mustard, ketchup, fried okra, shrimp, and chives). We were delighted by the Mystery Corn Dawg, a rotating sausage selection encased in unconventionally fluffy breading made with Anson Mills polenta, served with sauerkraut and two mustards. In addition to offering a charitable dog of the month, Franks ‘n’ Dawgs has been enlisting local chefs to oversee the creation of a signature sausage sandwich every month or so. You can also get jumbo or junior 100 percent all-beef hot dogs, chili dogs, or chili-cheese dogs—but with so many unique wieners to sample, why would you want to? —David Hammond
5973 N. Clark | 773-942-6152
GLOBAL/FUSION/ECLECTIC | tuesday-saturday 11 AM-9 PM | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
Matt Maroni was a man with a plan—the proprietor of chicagofoodtrucks.com and a crucial contributor to the proposed local food-truck ordinance, which is still in the hands of 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack, who hopes to introduce it to the city council sometime next month. When I first visited his Edgewater storefront Gaztro-Wagon this summer, the namesake truck was still parked out back, but Maroni, a former chef at the Mid-America Club, has since launched a hit, offering “naanwiches” that are deservedly getting a citywide airing. Slow-roasted lamb with “gyro fixins” came piping hot, with tomato, microgreens, a tad of tzatziki, and a dash of cherry vinegar. Roasted belly of wild boar with pickled red onions was overwhelmed by the olives and underwhelmed by fennel, but the roasted chicken thigh with mushrooms and bites of melted Brie was among the most delicious sandwiches I’ve ever tasted—succulent, deeply flavored, and redolent of fresh thyme. Deep-fried plantains come in a paper sack the size of a coffee bag with chimichurri; desserts might include oatmeal cream pies, caramel popcorn, candied nuts, and “macaron mixta,” all from Fritz Pastry. We also appreciated the BYO policy and the freely jawing owner and counter guy. —Kate Schmidt
230 W. Kinzie | 312-464-9544
BAR/LOUNGE, SMALL PLATES | DINNER: TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY, MONDAY | OPEN LATE: thursday-SATURDAY TILL 2, TUESDAY-wednesDAY TILL 1
River North’s Gilt Bar is only the latest in a long line of new restaurants testing the limits of how much gastropubbery the market can bear. More than two years after the Bristol and the Publican broke this ground, communal tables, shared plates, odd meats, and beer, beer, beer are everywhere, and if you haven’t had enough I have some marrow bones I can sell you at a 150 percent markup. Chef-owner Brendan Sodikoff spent quality time under the wings of Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse in his early career, but his more recent assignments as corporate chef for Lettuce Entertain You and then in the kitchen of LEYE spawn Hub 51 didn’t inspire much confidence that Gilt would be anything more than a late leap onto a departing bandwagon. But maybe I should give it a pass. Gilt is decidedly less beer-, pork-, and organ-focused than many of its gastropeers, and there are enough simple, well-prepared, and fairly inexpensive dishes here to make me hope it can break the curse on the space that killed the likes of Pili Pili and Aigre Doux. There are plenty of nods in the expected directions, but the meaty options don’t get any more threatening than a pot of foie gras and pork-liver mousse or a six-inch-long marrow bone split lengthwise. Despite its unnervingly humanlike appearance, this is actually a very satisfying presentation of a dish: two convenient troughs with easy access to the precious meat jelly inside. A selection of small, inexpensive vegetable plates tips the balance toward plant eaters. In a couple cases I found myself rebelling against Sodikoff’s minimalist approach and using them as add-ins for simply executed but one-dimensional pastas: fluffy brown-butter ricotta gnocchi became a different and better dish when I tossed on some tart, clovey red cabbage slaw. When it comes to dessert, again, simplicity rules: in addition to sundaes with house-made ice cream and diner-style pies there are terrific versions of basics like brownies and blondies. —Mike Sula
851 N. Ashland | 312-624-8509
CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | BYO, DINNER, RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
An arousing aroma intermittently haunts West Town’s Ruxbin, though I was never able to identify it, even after working my way through most of the concise menu. At one point I was certain it was coconut vapor rising from the heaping bowls of mussels and togarashi-sprinkled frites that regularly descend into the dining room from the loft kitchen—but I was assured there’s nothing remotely tropical in that garlicky white-wine broth. Whatever that irresistible smell is, it’s almost too much for the snug room to contain. I have the feeling that in time we’ll be saying the same thing about the team behind the place—it has an ineffable but definitely likable quality that makes it seem like a way station en route to bigger things. Chef Edward Kim—who trained at the LA Cordon Bleu and externed at Thomas Keller’s Per Se—and his front-of-the-house partners Vicki Kim (sister) and Jenny Kim (unrelated), engaged the salvage design team Alter Ego Form (Simone’s, the Boiler Room) to construct an interesting but ultimately distracting environment from seat-belt-strap banquettes, repurposed church pews, and a darkroom door leading into a water closet papered with rock-show flyers. On one of my visits K-Town Empanadas were the most obvious expression of Kim’s professed French-Asian-Latin inclinations: large, flaky pastries drizzled in chimichurri creme fraiche and full of stretchy Oaxacan cheese and mild kimchi. Most of the other dishes were more difficult to place. The menu’s three multi-ingredient salads—apple, plum, and arugula; fried eggplant, cucumber, and yogurt; jicama, grapefruit, and cornbread—were uncomplicated, well balanced, and bracingly fresh, but none of them was particularly memorable. Kim’s hits, however, are unforgettable. His crispy, moist pan-seared trout fillet was the most perfect one I’ll probably ever meet, dabbed with basil puree and plated alongside asparagus and nutty bulgur tabouleh seeded with sweet dates. A creamy lychee panna cotta topped with toasted coconut, neither too sweet nor too tangy, also served to highlight the quaintness of the only other dessert option, good ol’ flourless chocolate cake. Missteps such as a rare sliced hanger steak splayed on sweet cauliflower puree whipped to smoothie consistency (I needed a straw, not a fork), would be easier to forget on a menu offering more than just a few hints at Kim’s potential. That’s one I’d really like to work my way through. —Mike Sula
1840 W. North | 773-342-1840
BAR/LOUNGE, southern/soul food | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | SUNDAY BRUNCH | CLOSED MONDAY | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, TUESDAY-FRIDAY TILL 2, SUNDAY TILL MIDNIGHT | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY
“I’ll remember the food this time,” said the friend I brought to the Southern, who’d accompanied me when I reviewed this Wicker Park restaurant’s previous incarnation, Chaise Lounge. Swanky Chaise was questionably upscale: the well-dressed young things drawn to the scene on the upper deck or the spacious patio for cocktails seemed unlikely to drop $30 on forgettable entrees. The Southern’s slightly refined Dixie-inspired fare in a casual bar setting is a much better platform for chef Cary Taylor’s talents. The menu divides up items under “bar food” and “plates,” aka appetizers and entrees, but there’s freedom to graze. In the new rough-chic atmosphere, we ate slim, tortillalike johnnycakes taco-style with soft, vinegary pork and sweet chow-chow served in a little canning jar. Red pepper dressed up cheddary shrimp and grits, making for a colorful rendition of this classic. There’s a perfunctory list of wines by the glass—you’ll have more fun ordering from the wide selection of whiskey, old-fashioned cocktails, and southern beers like Abita’s Turbodog and Southern Star Bombshell Blonde Ale. —Heather Kenny
1475 W. Balmoral | 773-334-7168
European, Contemporary | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2
The phrase “Dutch courage” supposedly refers to the bracing shots of genever (aka Holland gin) soldiers threw back before heading into battle in the Anglo-Dutch wars. You have to wonder how many of those chef Joncarl Lachman downed before mustering the guts to list something called zaansemosterdsoep as the second item on his opening menu at Vincent—right after the maatjesharing shot. The former is a thick, brick-yellow mustard soup with a central archipelago of crab salad, smeerkaas (a soft cheese), and tarragon pesto. The latter is a twist on the tequila shot involving the ingestion of a small bite of spiced pickled herring, followed by a tulip glass of that juniper-charged genever and finished with a mollifying disk of cucumber. It’s not that a Dutch restaurant in the middle of historically Swedish Andersonville (in the former La Tache) seems strange. It’s that a Dutch restaurant anywhere outside of the Netherlands does. After rijsttafel, gingerbread, and space cakes, the Netherlands are best known for ample but not exactly titillating plates of sausages, cabbage, and root vegetables. All of these make their way onto the menu, and into a three-course $25 prix fixe: on my visits, pork belly, brown bread, and snert (not some creature hunted out of Seuss, but a thick, Shrek-green split pea soup), smoked sausage and mashed roots, and a cheese course of aged Gouda. Lachman’s charcuterie plate is probably the most generous and satisfying I’ve run across in town—a raft of paté run through with a vein of charred green onion and two fat slabs of headcheese, each redolent of warm spices and loaded with fruit. A fat fillet of beer-battered haddock came on a mound of snert studded with coins of smoked sausage, while half portions of plump, fresh mussels in one of five preparations were enough for two eaters to share. A towering pyramid of crispy suckling pig carved off the daily beast was mounted atop roasted potatoes and apple-cabbage kraut and served with a slab of pork belly that stretched clear across the plate. At dessert salt is judiciously used to enhance the sweet apple caramel sauce that drenches a biscuity tart and on the chocolate cake sandwiching a peanut butter mousse, a luxe Little Debbie that might make some pine for another aspect of Dutch culture—it’s ideal stoner food. —Mike Sula
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