I seem to go back and forth on what kind of thing makes my top 10 (restricted to things I had for the first time during this year); some years I’m down on fine dining and all my pleasures were down-homey, other years I have good luck and encounter some great chefs working in ways I really like. This year tended toward the latter; I really, really like what Allie Levitt of Mado called “The Green Market bunch,” chefs who are interested in finding the best ingredients at local markets or from regional producers and bringing out their flavors to the fullest. Nearly all of my best fine dining experiences— and even some a few rungs down from that— fell into that category, the master manipulators and molecular gastroenterologists did not do nearly as much for me this year (not that they got as many chances, since I tended to go to the locavorish places in the first place).
As for down-home dining, it wasn’t a year of many great new discoveries, though old favorites continued to please (and Sun Wah in particular has really blossomed in so many ways this year). But as I went through the year, I found more than I expected. So here’s a top ten:
10. Grilled sable liver at Taxim, with a nod to its melitzanosalata, duck gyros, some dish or other with lentils and Greek yogurt, etc. I’ve always liked the comfiness of Turkish food, which is really a closer description for what this Greek restaurant serves than anything that suggests the party food of Greektown. Others have my same level of enthusiasm (e.g., Mike Sula) while many, including a lot of LTHers, seemed underwhelmed by the relatively restrained approach of Chef David Schneider. I might agree that Taxim still lands slightly more on the potential than the achievement side as yet, but still, I liked the best of what I ate there an awful lot.
9. Cucumber cocktail at Graham Elliot. Though I had some very good dishes on two visits to Graham Elliot, the best thing I had there was a terrific summer cocktail from mixologist Lynn House, using her housemade cucumber soda, vodka and a little egg froth on top. It’s called Almost Paradise, and it’s too modestly titled.
8. Fried bologna at Taste of Melrose Park. Okay, this one was a total package deal from a pretty magical night, but really, it’s surprising how good that fried bologna was. With a nod to Pierogi Fest in Whiting, for also helping redeem my faith in street fests.
7. Steak tacos at Las Asadas and Tacos el Jaliciense, and pastor at Tierra y Caliente: Two of these are sort of ringers, since I ate at the old Las Asadas on Western and elsewhere before they opened a new one on Western, and Tierra y Caliente is the former, and widely praised, Carniceria Leon on Ashland north of Division. So I’d been to both in previous incarnations, but both hit new peaks— I ate at both the old and the new Las Asadas within a short time, and the latter blew the former away for sheer juicy beeferifficness. And maybe I just timed Tierra y Caliente perfectly one Saturday afternoon, but it was pretty much the pastor poster child that day, crispy and tart. As for Jaliciense, that’s a nice little stand on a triangle of land near Grand and California that also can turn out a heck of a nice steak taco. I have more Mexican delights coming in a longterm project I’ve been working on, but those should do for now.
6. Edzo’s. Oh yeah, baby:
5. Black-eyed pea cassoulet at Chaise Lounge. Cary Taylor and this glitzy-rowdy Wicker Park spot were in my sustainable fish video, and seafood is the focus there, but I have to say, as terrific as some other things were— lobster pot pie, scallops in beet schmear, an unexpectedly good almond cake at dessert— it was this amazing blend of Franco-Southern comfort food that I could just curl up with right now. If there’s a relatively undiscovered front-rank chef in town, Cary has quickly become it.
4. Hoosier Mama. Too many contenders for the best thing I had from there— could it be the savory pork, apple and sage pie, the best bang for your pork buck in town at $4 a slice? The Southern-sweet simplicity of discoveries like Hoosier Sugar Cream pie or oatmeal pie? Apple quince, cranberry chess (okay, not as wild about that one, but it looks nice below), maple pecan? Luckily, one doesn’t have to choose— even if Hoosier Mama is pricier than supermarket pie, it’s still luxury on a budget compared to ordering dessert out, and a much surer bet.
3. Mado. What do I look back and think of first from several meals at Mado? Rabbit agnolotti, I guess— because they’ve completely turned me around on their spare approach to pasta (partly, I hasten to add, because they’re better at it now). But austerity has rarely had so much flavor as when Mado tosses housemade pasta with the bare minimum of stuff. Unless, of course, it’s when Mado simply dresses a few vegetables, or simply roasts a fish in their woodburning oven, or simply does any number of things so perfectly.
2. My country ham, tied with green label organic prosciutto and speck from La Quercia. Read all about the former here; as for the latter, I’ve never even gotten to try the creme de la ham at La Quercia, the acorn-fed Berkshire, but noshing on a variety of hams at the Eckhouse’s home during the shoot for Sky Full of Bacon #10, the green label organic clearly seemed a level or two above their already excellent product, and as good as anything I ate in Spain (not that it’s the same style, exactly, but close enough). Meanwhile, the hint of smoke applied to the speck, light as it is, lifts this German style into its own special dimension.
1. Vie. As I wrote then: “As much as I admire what’s happening at the very high end, my soul likes a little funk in the mix, and I find the precious arrangement of things into little cubes to get sterile sometimes, however exquisite it may be. For me, then, in my experience there’s no Chicago restaurant at work right now better than the meal I had last Saturday night, for its dedication to getting the best, richest, most purely satisfying flavor out of the best ingredients. And if you can think of other things a restaurant should be doing first, well, we just have different priorities, I guess.”
Since everybody’s writing insanely long lists these days, here are some more from the short list I kept through the year: the sublimely weird, weirdly sublime pad thai using jellyfish for noodles at Schwa; Thai beef jerky at Spoon Thai; pork shu mai at Shui Wah; chicken soup at Belly Shack, and my own hummus soup for Soup and Bread at the Hideout; classic American breakfast at Nancy’s in Columbus OH, which is no more, and a best-in-ten-years Denver omelet at the unjustly underappreciated Palace Grill; pork shoulder at Avec, Paul Kahan’s blood sausage corn dog at the Green City Market BBQ, and pork belly tacos, if nothing else yet, at Big Star; more pork belly, with quince, at Boka; consomme chivo at the Los Potrillos grocery on Belmont, and shrimp ceviche at El Abuelo y Yo; duck egg in an orange-scented pesto at The Bristol; the velvety pasta at Fianco, and the pork orrechiete, which is NOT the one from John Coletta’s book, at Quartino; my own strawberry mint sorbet; Lithuanian bread from Ideal Pastry on Milwaukee Avenue; juicy grilled kebaps from Coach’s Corner in Whiting or Hammond, I forget which; brats and other sausages from Ream’s Market in Elburn, Ilinois; bacon-gorgonzola-venison sausage at Brand BBQ; cured, lox-like trout at Browntrout; Saxon Creamery’s Green Field cheese; Elizabeth Dahl’s concord grape sorbet at Landmark; raccoon; and our honey.
And as always, I end the year grateful for you, dear reader-viewer, whoever you are who finds charm in these random dispatches and, hopefully, something a little closer to art in the videos by which I chronicle my love for those who make beautiful food. Happy New Year!