So here we at the end of another year, a year in which I stopped being a Grub Streeter and started being an audio podcaster and a regular Reader contributor. For me the year is summed up by two conversations I had that are on Airwaves Full of Bacon shows. The first was with Lisa Shames, who does CS’s restaurant issue; she said what seemed to be the trend of the year was personal restaurants driven by the interests of their creators. The second, three or four months later, was with Anthony Todd, and we noted the fact that the second half of the year seemed to be much more about big projects, big corporate restaurants.
So which was right? Both in their time, but as I look at the things I like… they’re pretty much all from the former category. The meals I loved were from labors of love, which mostly aren’t big corporate restaurants aiming to pack them in (though occasionally they can be; Three Dots and a Dash, for instance, would fall into both categories). But for me, consistently, the best food and the best experience was also the most personal food and the experience that came most from the heart. And so these are the meals I treasured from 2013 (basic rules: dishes tried for the first time in 2013, nothing against old favorites, and this isn’t a magazine charting the best openings, so if it opened in 2012, or earlier, doesn’t matter):
10. Pork shoulder tacos, cheesy beef, brisket chili and other things at Cookies and Carnitas— A last-minute fave, too late opening to make all those mid-December “Best of 2013” lists, but this creative taco and other stuff joint is everything good about our food scene in one taco: guys with big name training going out on their own, and taking farmer’s market stuff and making insanely delicious regular guy and ethnic food at affordable prices in an underserved neighborhood.
9. The French Laundry. With a couple of more weeks to think back on it, I feel that this meal was more of an historical experience more than a cutting edge one, a trip to see where today’s cutting edge grew from. But hey, I like going to places that encapsulate a certain time, though usually it’s more 1929 than 1999. Anyway, I think it was worth it for the classics like oysters and pearls which are genuinely great dishes, and for the overall treatment of the guest which is as good as I’ve ever experienced— but for a great meal of this type, you don’t have to leave Chicago, see below.
8. Midnight Special at Leadbelly. If you liked Kuma’s but didn’t like the scene it became, check out this cheerfully semi-obscure neighborhood joint on the far northwest side with a gentler rock and roll attitude and, frankly, quite a bit better burgers, houseground meat on housebaked buns, a good bottled beer list and some crazy toppings— my favorite, so silly it makes me smile, is the Midnight Special, inspired by Frito chile pie, which has pico de gallo and actual Fritos on it.
7. Sumi Robata Bar. “In an age of giant restaurantosauruses, Sumi Robata Bar is a little jewel box of a place devoted to the most direct and simple way of presenting beautifully crafted food straight from the kitchen to the diner sitting right in front of it as it’s made. It’s remarkably satisfying to see someone realize the vision in their head so completely and successfully.”
6. Hot Link at Big Guys I’ve been to this Berwyn place making their own sausages twice, and I’ve written about it twice— for the Reader and Serious Eats Chicago. And in a podcast. And now here. I really like these no-artsy-fartsiness sausages: “My favorite, the Hot Link, is an excellent rendition of a fat, spicy smoked Chicago hot link, topped with barbecue sauce with some kick and soothing pineapple cole slaw. Simple and to the point; it isn’t served from behind bulletproof glass, but other than that it has all the other satisfactions of a trip to a South side barbecue joint on a bun.”
5. Peekytoe crab in tomatillo sauce, Nordic beet dish and other things at Sous Rising: “I could go on course by course, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise and in any case, it’s sort of not the point, I don’t want to do 7 THINGS YOU MUST EAT AT SOUS RISING RIGHT NOW, because in so many ways it wasn’t about the food in a list-the-ingredients sense, certainly not in any my-carrot’s-morally-superior-to-yours way… It was about the pleasure of experiencing someone else’s pleasure at making food for you, and the shared pleasure at the table as we had each new thing set in front of us… Maybe something in fine dining has gotten a little too pinched and status-driven at times, though I’d blame media at least as much as chefs for looking at food in terms of gets and firsts and musts. But all it takes for all that to melt away is one chef to welcome you into his space and make delightful things for you. Well, two chefs and a server-slash-wife— this was, as much as anything, a meal suffused with the happiness of two people who are happy at home.”
Sous Rising is now gone but it’s becoming a restaurant called 42 Grams; read my interview with them here.
4. Kouign-amann and other things, including the Counter Culture coffee, at Bad Wolf. “Jonathan Ory doesn’t look like he makes pastry. Corned beef sandwiches, more likely, at first glance. But some of the most gorgeous classical pastry in Chicago is coming from the (large) hands of the big, bearded, balding Ory, in tiny quantities that sell out almost every day at his Roscoe Village coffeehouse.”
3. Grace. I don’t typically get to go to things at this (price) level enough to have a sense of their development, but I went to Grace three times in the past year (twice as a guest) and so I saw it evolve with practice. What I think I saw, more than anything, was the food move from being more of a visual experience to one that successfully combined visuals and flavor into a unified experience. There were standout dishes from the beginning but a tendency— as in the photos above; I only shot pictures at the first of the three meals— to make everything into a sprawl along the plate, which I guess is kind of an Eleven Madison Park influence. (You see it at many restaurants of this type, not just Grace.) It’s beautiful to look at, and part of what you’re paying for is the sheer pleasure of transient art being made just for you, but the problem I have with this style when it’s applied to everything is that you can wind up eating a whole meal of, basically, little salads.
Over the year I think the dishes have tightened up and gained focus, while maintaining the delicacy and artfully crafted visual effect that Grace had had all along. And at the most basic level, I came away from the most recent menu (officially 9 courses, but there’s always a few extra things tossed in) thinking there were about 4 or 5 wow courses in the meal, not just 2 or 3. Add in perhaps the best service in town— at least the best combination of knowledge and relaxedness— and you have a series of dishes that are always engaging to look at and puzzle out a little, but are also focused enough and varied enough to deliver the flavor pop and lushness that makes it a consistently great journey of discovery. Which to me, is what you pay this kind of money for.
2. Brisket bibimbap at Smalls Smoke Shack & More. I’ve heard people talk about this place as if it’s promising but inconsistent. Wow, not my experience at all. I’ve eaten from it four times and been deliriously happy every time whether it was pulled pork, brisket, or fried chicken. And I love the combination of Texas BBQ with Asian sides (although the elotes never did much for me); to me that reinvents the genre, accompanying classic barbecue with lighter sides that have some Asian vinegary sparkle. But best of all, orgasmically good, is the brisket bibimbap, which I wrote about here at Serious Eats: “The smoky salty greasiness of the brisket transforms everything it soaks into, imbuing it with a late night honky tonk vibe bibimbap has never known before.”
1. Crazy squid, chili clams and others, Fat Rice. And if meals are a journey… and I said they are so I’m stickin’ with it… the place that has offered the most eye-opening, different and exciting set of journeys this year has been our first and only Portuguese-Macanese Asian hippie cafe. My first review here saw it as more promise than greatness, the second quite a bit better, but I’ve been back several times since then and each time there have been remarkable new things showing different sides of this fusion, sometimes bright and light (like the spicy chili clams), but more often deep and funky and full of flavors to burrow into (most recently, the bacalhau and the crazy squid). Along the way Fat Rice has gotten consistently, and rapidly, better at bringing every dish to a sharp point, using spices and vinegars to make them bright and invigorating. There’s no place where I’ve felt more that my horizons expanded every time I went, no place that I’m more excited to go back to and see what’s new at.
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MORE THINGS TO EAT
There were a lot of lists of the 149 or 212 best things someone ate this year, which is an impossibly large number to deal with (or to have any sense of what it says about the critic). Instead, I’m going to try to make my runners-up as practical as possible. These are all things I was happy to eat and would be happy to return to, and will hopefully give you some new ideas of places to go:
• Best new Korean BBQ joint to open in decades, Gogi
• Pineapple fried rice and other things from Silom 12. A lot of excitement about the Thai food at Rainbow Thai Cuisine from the LTH crowd, and I’m happy about Spoon’s venerable nam khao tod living on there in fine form, but this is where I think new things are happening in Thai food, for me anyway.
• Chicken wings, DAK
• The beautiful bibimbap at En Hakkore (though I am not any great fan of their paratha Korean tacos, which are too sweet).
• Hot and sour soup and Dungeness crab at Go4Food in Chinatown
• Crab and other things at Nha Hang on Argyle
• Shoyu ramen at Ramen Misoya
• Best new Eastern European-Russian joint to open in a long time, Chill Cafe
• Turkish breakfast at Pide ve Lahmancun
• Grilled kabobs at Manara
• Well-made, fresh-tasting old school pizza at Bartoli’s and Pizza Castle, new school at Forno Rosso and the one with grapes at Floriole and, yes, Eataly.
• The sides and oh yes, also the chicken at Honey Butter and the biscuits at Ms. Biscuit (both in this post).
• Butter beans at Parson’s Chicken & Fish
• Smothered pork chops, caramel cake, Macarthur’s
• Meatball sub at Bombacigno’s J&C
• Italian beef at Joe Boston’s
• Cherry lambic sorbet at Jeni’s Ice Cream
• Grilled chicken at El Pollo Real
• La Gringa at L’Patron
• Brisket cemitas from the Smoque-Cemitas Puebla collaboration
• The non-authentic but authentically delicious Cuban sandwich at Sauce and Bread Kitchen
• Anything John Manion puts in an empanada at La Sirena Clandestina
• It’s too late for the unfiltered, mindblowingly un-wine-like Sicilian wine and the clams dish in Telegraph’s Sicilian-themed wine dinner, but I think their monthly wine pairing menu series is one of the best, reasonably priced alternatives for those who find Next too expensive now (or all along).
• No, you can’t eat that, but yes, Next: The Hunt was probably the best Next meal I had, and the climax of my Next experiences— which is why, as its prices rise to a level only Next could command, I feel it’s time to move on.
• I’ve really turned around on Yusho, which I’ve gone from not thinking much of to really liking over multiple visits.
• Out of season, but sure to return: the panzanella at Avec (I know there’s mixed feelings about new chef Perry Hendrix among my friends, but that was flat out one of the best things I’ve ever had there)
• The one cocktail I had at Three Dots and a Dash which I hope will be followed by many more
• The tonics at Billy Sunday, the pickles at Dillman’s, the sort of salad thing at Nightwood, the dessert at Longman & Eagle (the last four all in this post)
• Lamb meatballs, coconut gelato/macaroon dessert, Found
• Shortrib sandwich and brussel sprouts, Farmhouse
• Lobster salad at MK
• And of course, the premiere party at The Butcher & Landan.
No, I haven’t eaten there yet: Tanta, A10, Dusek’s, Nico, etc.
OUT OF TOWN
• Brisket dish at Milkwood in Louisville
• Xochitl salami (with chili and a little chocolate) from Milwaukee’s Bolzano Sausage (now at Eataly)
• Pulled pork sandwich from Fatted Calf
• Chocolate croissant, well done, Tartine
• Cheeseburgers from Sport Burger (in an original Valentine building!), Wichita
• Po’ boy at Dommelise’s