Liam’s top 7.
I think this was a great year for food in Chicago—so great that everyone knows what was great about it and more or less agrees already. Who can’t love 42 Grams and Parachute and Baker Miller and so on? For one more list to justify its existence at the very end of the year— when it feels like they’ve been steadily appearing since October, like Christmas ornaments at Target— it has to show rigor and novelty and not just look like a subset of the monster lists of 100 best things that suggest we live in such a renaissance of culinary wonders that we don’t even need to make choices at all.
Pete Wells introduced his New York Times list with a similar viewpoint, and in particular called out the first fish-or-cut-bait point for a critic or, in my case, a reporter who attends media dinners: “Have I gone back, or wished I could?” Which of course really means, would I spend my own money there? In several of these cases I attended media events or tried the food for free while taking its picture or something, but in every case that made the list, I returned happily on my own dime. Believe me, food writers don’t get any more sincere than that.
That helps get you past the other moral speedbump, which is that all these places are run by really nice people who are trying really hard and you want to be nice to them and like what other people like. Pick the place that everyone likes and no one will question your judgement, but no one will notice it that much either. So I try to name the places that really struck me, even if it means consigning some places I liked a lot from chefs I know to the seeming purgatory of a runners-up paragraph. I’m sorry! It’s not you, it’s me! But the heart wants what it wants, and it wants different things from all over town and at all levels, and a true list for me has all kinds of food side by side, and the presence of one is not an aspersion on another. I come back to what Duke Ellington said (but I got from Peter Schickele) about music when whether jazz could be as good as classical was a serious debate: if it sounds good, it is good.
As always, my only rules are that the citation is for at least one specific dish I loved (and more to the point, still remember), even if it’s also for the restaurant as a whole; and the dish has to be something new to me this year (so I couldn’t really credit Paulina Meat Market for the fact that their housemade pastrami seems to have taken a leap up in quality of late). Here goes:
10. Fried chicken threeway tie: [Evanston] Chicken Shack, Five Loaves Eatery, and Fork. Hey, I didn’t say only one restaurant per entry on the list was a rule! I did two fried chicken lists for Thrillist and tried a bunch of fried chicken that was new to me this year, and three standouts deserve shared praise for being nearly as good as the platonically perfect homemade chicken in my head that I work to get ever closer to at home. The first two (one in Evanston, one a sweet breakfast and lunch cafe on 75th street) earn it for not only frying well but seasoning properly; so much fried chicken is texturally right but needlessly bland, but these places know how to use their salt and pepper shakers, and the smoky sweet barbecue sauce at Chicken Shack is the best argument high fructose corn syrup ever had for itself.
The third, a perennially overlooked farm to table place in Lincoln Square run by a former Lettuce chef, takes a far more baroque approach to the chicken half of chicken and waffles—it’s marinated in black tea and ginger and who knows what all—but the result is wonderfully complex and crispy. Also, it comes with candied bacon.
9. Kohlrabi salad, gemelli with sundried tomatoes and bottarga, A10. Chicago has lots of Italian food and yet I seem to have more and more friends who find it disappointing. Worse yet, I have to agree with them at least a good deal of the time—Chicago knows how to make a lot of B level easy to like Italian (-American) food, not so much A level Italian cooking that shows the Italian love of beautiful ingredients highlighted simply like jewels in a setting. The A though is well placed in the name of Matthias Merges’ Hyde Park spot, which to me, more than Yusho, fulfills his promise of bringing Trotter-level technique and precision with flavor to reasonably priced, accessible food.
8. Pate de campagne, tagliatelle with beef heart/pig’s blood ragu, etc. Tete Charcuterie. I tried Tete Charcuterie’s food at a preview where I took pictures, and found it very well crafted but thought, well, here’s a heavy meat palace I’m not likely to go back to over and over. And I’ve been back twice myself, and set up a business dinner for my wife there as well. So I guess I liked it more than I thought! Yes, it’s devoted to meat, often pretty strongly (I had a pork liver pate there with two other diners which was a bit too strong for all of us), but the chefs are clearly guys with high overall skills who can not only make a beautifully balanced pate or sausage, but do the same with a salad or a plate of pasta, too. We remain desperately short on French restaurants, but in its own, straight-out-of-the-butcher-shops-of-Les Halles way, this is the best French restaurant opening in some years.
7. Pancit noodles, kare-kare, fried kawali, etc. Isla Pilipina. It may have been one step back for Filipino food with the quick closing of Laughing Bird, but a cuisine that baffled me for years is finally making progress toward becoming widely accepted like other Asian cuisines. For my own part, I’d tried Isla Pilipina years ago, as chronicled in a post at LTHForum that was mainly about the transsexuals who dropped in for fried chicken the same night, and not been inspired to return for a good decade. But the place soldiered on, in a Lawrence strip mall, and especially under the second generation, grew its skills and improved its menu—and returning at long last, I loved the homey yet brightly flavorful food as much as Chinese or Thai.
6. Oatmeal, toast, Baker/Miller Bakery & Millhouse. Okay, I’ll be a partial exception to the universal love for this place, even as I know and like the owners—I’m not wild about the muffins and baked goods. They seem heavy and a bit hippie coop-whole-grain-good-for-you-ish. The bread is heavy, too, but in a good way, as in, a slice of this is like eating a bread steak. It’s the closest we’ve come to lembas bread, a few nibbles filling you satisfyingly for the whole day. As for the lusciously creamy oatmeal, how often do you eat something that’s an entirely new texture? It’s miraculous.
5. Miso ramen pozole at Arami, by Rick Bayless. I considered leaving this off because it was a one-off at Arami in October, which happened because Arami chef Fred DesPres is married to one of Bayless’ chefs, but I decided, why not mention the kind of serendipitous collaboration that happens on our scene all the time? Anyway, it was the best of miso ramen, and the best of pozole, made into one hearty Japanese-Mexican dish with all the soupmaking chops of a chef who I think is sometimes more seen as a curator of food culture than the kitchen master technician he (also) is. I just remember on the first season of Top Chef Masters, Bayless was kind of condescended to by all these French and Italian food chefs, like you’re gonna win this with tacos pal, and then they’d go feed the people passing by or at an event— and they all went goggle-eyed when they tasted Bayless’s stuff, and he won the whole season. This was the kind of dish that did that.
4. Dim sum in Toronto. There’s a whole post about that here, but to summarize, best xiao long bao I’ve ever had at 369, great pork dumplings and other things at Dragon, and the amazing King of King’s Pork candy at John’s. Thanks Renee!
3. Bing bread, pork belly mung bean pancake, pat bing su etc., Parachute. I’ve believed Asian food is the future of American dining for a long time, but it took until Fat Rice to have a place in Chicago that hit the sweet spot of hipster, almost comfort food atmosphere with bright, sometimes challenging Asian flavors. And one of the joys of Fat Rice was watching it improve and grow more confident with each meal in its first year or two. Now I feel the same way about Parachute, which is one of our best new restaurants and gets better and more interesting each time. If you want to subscribe to a place that sells tickets for a new menu every four months, that’s all good, but for the same kind of experience, don’t forget to simply try a rising star like this place every few months during its most fertile early days of self-discovery.
1 (tie). Charcuterie, Thuringer, Fried Brussel Sprouts, etc. at The Radler; and tasting menu at 42 Grams. I went back and forth on what should be number one before finally deciding to do the cop-out and call them a tie. The thing is, they’re such perfect examples of opposing approaches that they sum up so much about how I think about food. 42 Grams is ambitious, daring, a look-at-this! menu of magic tricks; it’s just fun to go on a journey like this, be part of the show, agree to be wowed time and again. Where The Radler is unassuming by comparison, so relaxed a neighborhood place that I feel it is underappreciated because it demands nothing of you, yet the skills at every level are so high and the finesse so exacting that you should pay it more attention. One is a special occasion, the other makes an ordinary occasion special; they’re both experiences I’m immensely glad to have had.
Places I feel guilty about leaving off:
Boka, especially after a more recent meal, Lee Wolen is making beautiful plates that are as finely executed as at any of the tasting menu joints, but in a more easygoing setting with the more traditional app-entree-dessert format. That is deservedly a recipe for packing the house every night.
MFK, which makes such nice simple stuff, I love the philosophy but maybe the very fact of being simple and direct like that makes it hard to say, “This was a wow!” about any one thing. It’s sure nice to go to and hang out in, though.
River Roast, I’m the last guy to just want a steak for dinner but I used my son’s birthday as an excuse to go here a second time and eat all the meats
Cellar Door Provisions: I have certain Kenny Z-like issues with $14 open face sandwiches with three slices of beet on them, but that great dark crusty bread and those great dark crusty croissants are, well, great, dark and crusty.
Place I just went that I’m still processing: Oaxaca