Sky Full of Bacon

I have eaten many things lately and written about them widely; find out about Italian beeves and thin crust pizze at Thrillist, go try this neighborhood Mexican thing I wrote about in my last regular column piece for Serious Eats Chicago, and so on. Here are some more:


Boka. Well-off older people in Old Town and Lincoln Park have a new clubhouse and its name is Boka. Some might find a disconnect between Lee Wolen’s artful, slightly precious food and the more hipster room, which has the funky Tim Burtonesque touches of another Boka Group spot, Girl & The Goat. But a packed, silver-haired Boka on a Saturday might be an argument that coherence is overrated; Avec has always had a disconnect for me between Italian-German comfort food and its severe Swedish sauna decor (and lack of comfort), and it’s taken that disconnect all the way to the bank. I suspect Boka will too, for a long time to come.

As at The Lobby, Wolen’s food is clean, precise modern food, executed flawlessly, that makes fairly classical flavors seem like they were just invented. Octopus in a pork broth that, as Mike Sula said, would make a great bowl of ramen (below); delicate yet muscular loup de mer (above) with artichokes and olives; his celebrated roasted chicken with brioche under the skin— there are resemblances to Izard’s hit-all-the-flavor-receptors-at-once approach, especially since every dish has its spot of citrus for a sweet note (which gets a bit expected when you try everything, like I did), but it’s all much subtler, more contained. You have to look at the menu description to see how complex the dishes can be, and that, rarely, there’s never anything on the plate that’s just there to fill you up— every vegetable, every little bit of something green, is in there for a clear reason in the conception of the dish’s overall flavor. (It has to be the fewest starches I can remember seeing on plates like these, ever.)

Once or twice a dish seemed to lack pop— I wanted more briny rusticness from the salt cod ravioli— but mostly you admire what he can do within the bounds of restraint and a dish plated in a neat little circle. Nobody colors within his own lines better at the moment than Wolen. The kitchen was a little slow on a packed Saturday night, but the room full of people happy to be there didn’t seem especially concerned by it. Disclosure: we dined like real people, but I was known to them, not least because I had just interviewed Wolen, and he comped us to a complete set of the available desserts. I also attended Boka’s 10th anniversary party. On the other hand, Wolen, and especially Boka partners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, seemed to know a lot of people there that night, so that probably was close to a typical experience…

1729 N Halsted St
(312) 337-6070



Homestead. The rooftop restaurant above Roots Handmade Pizza has promoted its previous #2, Chip Davies. The menu still looks a lot like Chris Curren’s, with some dishes carried over or evolved, but what I liked best was the new spin Davis brought to many of the dishes, of middle-eastern flavors and ingredients such as green almonds (which could have been favas if I hadn’t been told). The middle-eastern tinge gives Homestead something distinctive to hold onto as it otherwise serves up nicely comfy kind-of-rustic-Italian dishes like the orecchiete with smoked oxtails, or roasts a chicken but puts it in a tagine broth with golden raisins, which you might see anywhere otherwise. If we ever have a nice day and people can sit on its patio, it will be exactly the sort of unpretentious summer neighborhood restaurant experience that everyone hopes for in Chicago. Chris Teixeira’s desserts seem a bit too fancy for the room, but hey, disconnects and all that; I admire that he keeps the sweetness damped down and the combination of a chocolate one and a carrot one, after the rustic food, was pretty great. Disclosure: this was a media dinner, which my son and I attended.

1924 W Chicago Ave
(773) 904-1145


Les Miserables. As long as I’m disclosing, the same son and I went as guests on opening night to Drury Lane’s new production of Les Miserables, after seeing the movie some months back. 20 years ago, I saw it at the Auditorium Theater, from about six blocks away it felt like, and watching the famous revolving stage moving from that distance had all the excitement of watching a chair swivel. Better seats and a more intimate production made this a far more satisfying experience, a thoroughly professional one (led by a Valjean, Ivan Rutherford, who had been in the Broadway production’s long run and done it 2000 times around the country by now, and is, shall we say, very comfortable in the role), where the focus was on the actors over the (handsome but not overly expensive) setting. The slickly pro cast had two particular standouts, Mark David Kaplan giving the rogue Thenardier more humor and rascally charm than Sasha Baron Cohen’s muggy performance in the movie, and the one major example of race-neutral casting, Quentin Earl Darrington as a most ominous Javert, a regular Darth Javert in stentorian James Earl Jones-tones that set Javert even more apart from the citizens in the story.


Isla Pilipina. I went to Isla Pilipina in a rather memorably titled LTH post many years ago, but hadn’t returned until almost a decade later when we went with some friends, who had just visited the Phillippines. Anyway, it is a very different place a decade later, much more professional in the manner of any well-run, well-packaged Asian restaurant, and packed on Saturday night. We ordered tons of food (with kids, there were eight of us), including two 20-piece orders of lumpia (devoured almost entirely by the kids), funky kare-kare (oxtail and green beans in peanut sauce), lechon kawali (deep-fried pork belly with a kind of gravy), fried chicken, grilled sirloin with a Filipino marinade tinge, garlic rice, pancit noodles and more (the spaghetti with hot dogs in it, which the kids were enthused about based on description, came late and went untouched, alas). Anyway, suffice it to say that it will not be another 10 years, and Isla Pilipina quickly zoomed to where it should have been all along on my list of Asian neighborhood gems.

2501 W Lawrence Ave
(773) 271-2988


Paco’s Tacos. When I put Zacatacos on a Thrillist list of south side places, several people suggested Paco’s Tacos instead. But a year or so ago, for a Grub Street list, I had tried the two back to back and it was no contest. Titus of Tweets of Taco said, you need to go to the original Paco’s, inside a supermercado. So I gave it a try. We stood in a good-sized line. A guy behind us seemed to be talking legal advice for his crew on his cellphone, or maybe that was our recent Breaking Bad-viewing coloring the conversation. We got our tacos. He’s right, these are much better than other Paco’s, and rank highly among south side steak tacos. Still think I’d pick Zacatacos first, but always worth knowing another one.

4556 S. Ashland
(773) 523-9745



Taqueria Coacoyula. I spotted this place driving down Fullerton and thought it said it offered breakfast tacos, which would be a great find if true (and good). I must have conflated the signage, which does reference breakfast on weekends but not tacos. Still, I gave it a try at lunch, paying 50 cents extra for hand made tortillas. And I would still rate it a find, making very satisfying salty steak tacos in chewy, delectable freshmade tortillas, and doing a nice job on pastor tacos even without a cone (but lots of pineapple tossed in). That stretch of Fullerton (Austin to Cicero or so) is full of good things worth exploring, including this steak place, this modest comida, the tacos de canasta at La Chilangueada and more.

5823 W. Fullerton
(773) 237-2730



Detroit Kabob House. Cathy Lambrecht and my kids and I tried to go here once after she did a canning demo for their 4-H chapter, and they chased us out 15 minutes before closing. But we tried again at lunch recently and got a decidedly better welcome, and I’m glad we went back. They don’t use charcoal like some of the Bridgeview-area middle eastern places (or ones in Detroit, that is, Dearborn), but even on gas grill, they did a terrific job grilling kebobs and other meats. I was less excited by the sides— baba ghanoush was fine, Jerusalem salad kind of a mess— but it’s a definite stop along the Niles stretch of Milwaukee for some simply, expertly grilled meats.

9021 N Milwaukee Ave, Niles, IL 60714
(847) 967-9100


Post-dinner bathroom selfie, representing the cool, subtle atmosphere of Tanta.

Peru is the future, the international culinary press tells us. Bilbao is apparently over, twigs in Denmark and Norway are so last year, but Peru is the coming thing, says the S. Pellegrino Top 50 List, and just as this improbable announcement happens Chicago gets an outpost of a chain from one of the top chefs in the country, Gaston Acurio. Yes, it’s a chain, Acurio has some 60 restaurants or something, but still, there are high hopes for this culinary consulate in Chicago that seem mostly to be realized— Sula likes it, Vettel likes it okay, Chicago mag’s crew likes it so much that it snags the #3 spot on their best new restaurants list.

I walk in and it’s a small, noisy place, half-full in the restaurant but full at the bar. In other words, it’s River North. My dining companion is not here yet so I’m told to take a place at the bar. I walk over to the two open seats and… there’s a Reserved sign on them. Seriously? Reserved at the bar? Did they not know this when they sent me to take them, ten feet from the host stand?

I manage to squeeze into another place, making no friends on either side, and look at the festive, aggressively You’re Having a Fun Latin Time! bar, a colorfully painted description of their signature Pisco Sour telling me Ay Caramba, you want one of these, Señor! I get one. Anthony Todd arrives and so I decide to just pay my tab and go sit. We are in the process of doing that when the host comes from the stand, apparently offended that the fact of Anthony standing there with no chair breaks the plane of orderly drinkers at the bar, and suggests that we pay up and go sit. Using the waiter/host voice that, in France, I call “Would Monsieur be so kind as to put his pants on and come down from the chandelier?”

We take a very long route for such a small restaurant, past many attractive and comfortable empty tables, to be told to squeeze into a 2-top in a middle of a row of them, the kind of table where getting up at the end bears a strong resemblance to a game of Jenga. Just to see what happens, I pretend to misunderstand and take the marginally more desirable, equally unused table at the end, where I’ll only be elbow to elbow with one side and have a nice comfy divider on the other.

Would Monsieur be so kind…

Our waiter comes out shortly and he launches into the kind of speech that you get at T.G.I. Friday’s. (Need more flair, kid!) Our menu is divided into large small plates and small large plates and small large shrimp boats and large small small large family platsters and Peruvian food brings you the taste of many cultures including China, Scotland and upstate Saskatchewan and we suggest starting with nine cebiches, eleven shrimp boats and a plate of our Jack Daniels Jalapeno Ranch Dressing Potato Skins topped with an entire marlin. I may have gotten that last one confused with an item at Guy’s American Kitchen.

We wait for him to leave and then discuss amongst ourselves; Anthony had been once before so he has some idea of what we might want. The waiter comes back and we order a cebiche and something or other involving octopus. “That’s a great start, and should I put in an order of our Cheesy Cinco de Gallo Muy Latin Potato Bark Scrumpins as your third item?” he upsells, desperately, hope against hope that tonight, he will make his numbers and not have to sleep chained in the basement where, late at night, you hear the scratching and the unearthly cries.

We’re both shaking our heads at how a place renowned when it first opened as an addition to the sophisticated Chicago scene has devolved to such a Schaumburg mall parking lot level of clumsy, hard-sell customer experience. But at least the food should be good, Anthony says, it was all bright and interesting however many months back he had eaten here. Here’s what we had:


Fluke cebiche. Although this was full of flavorless, styrofoam-peanut-like white corn things, to make it look bigger, the fluke itself was nice and delicate and the tangy liquid was just so and, if you wanted an argument for Peruvian cuisine, this was the best one of the night and reasonably priced for the quantity. If only they hadn’t felt the need to tell us to eat it with a spoon like soup (Would Monsieur care to use silverware rather than his toes?), which instantly cheapened the experience of some sashimi-level fish.


Pulpo anticucho. This was advertised as skewers. It came out looking like an 8-year-old trying to make something like sushi, using mashed potatoes for the rice. We hadn’t drunk enough yet to need fried potatoes with every course.

Chaufa aeropuerto. Mike Sula had praised this pork and rice dish in the Reader. Which turns out to make perfect sense, inasmuch as he loves Korean food and the name the rest of the world knows for it is dolsot bibimbap. It was a perfectly decent rendition, comfy and unchallenging, lots of nice crusty rice. And $23 for something that goes for around $9 around town. Anthony thought that it was tamer than it had been before, when there was more complexity to what little spice it had.


Adobo de res. The beef cheeks in this dish were cooked beautifully, and the sauce would have been fine in a French bistro, the only problem here was that any promise of Latin spicing went unfulfilled (the sauce was supposed to be adobo sauce but only had the slightest, the cilantro-pepian goo around it was overly sweet).

Nothing was terrible, but nothing seemed focused either, nothing seemed to even reflect the same culture as we ping-ponged from Mexico to Korea. Nothing after the cebiche seemed to come from any tradition deeper than “Hey drunk Americans, here’s a mess of fried potatoes.” We went in looking for a new cultural experience (which Anthony feels he had at that first early visit), we found, basically, a Señor Frog’s for adults, another Mercadito, the same old Latin cliches of a muy bueno good time mi amigos, with Piscos instead of margaritas, apparently dumbed-down and ironed flat since opening for who their customers in River North really are. If this is the future, ay caramba.


Sometimes people express the notion that my dining life is so much more interesting and exciting than theirs. As if they couldn’t largely do the same; it just takes the will to drive too far for things too strange to be entirely comfortable. But sometimes, once in a great while thankfully, you get one that just goes completely, comically, tragically wrong from start to finish. Here’s a story like that.

I was, I admit, feeling a bit sorry for myself; Twitter was full of friends on business trips or food media junkets to Vegas or Napa, my sister the world traveler had just posted pics of herself with camels in Abu Dhabi and antelope in Senegal, and I had a tub of salad greens in the fridge. I had serious cabin fever and nothing to do about it. Well, we could at least be travelers of a sort in our own city by going to Chinatown. I picked out a place called Yan Bang Cai, fairly new on Cermak, and we headed there. Chinatown was hopping, but a couple of tables were open and we get pointed to table #1.

The view from Table 1.

I’m just slow enough on the uptake to realize that us four fairly large non-Asians have been squeezed into a table the size of an elevator (and we got the shaft, ba-dum ching!) So my plan to go out and see the world means I am now squeezed even closer face to face with my family than we were at home, and basically afforded a close view of two walls while behind me, in the distance, I can hear a restaurant. It’s sort of like the vantage point you have on a music festival like Lollapalooza— from the Porta-Potties.

They’re obviously short-staffed, but we manage to get a set of menus. I had done some reading beforehand and had some dishes in mind. But I instantly realize I’m not going to find them— I’ve been given the most hilariously dumbed-down white people’s menu ever, full of Chinese-American classics like Shrimp Toast and Almond Chicken. It’s the Chinese equivalent of a guy in a sombrero and a big droopy mustache telling you to try the Taco Burger, seenyore, it’s muy bueno!


At least give it this much: it had a note advising you there was an “authentic” menu too. Though when we ask for it, in another first-in-a-long-time we’re told they’re all in use and we’ll have to wait for one. But eventually we get it and it’s a hoot in its own way, with its page telling us which dishes were particular favorites of which Chi-Commie leader (Mao, Deng Xiao-Ping, etc.) when he visited the salt mining region of Sichuan. So we order some things… and commence to wait in our Porta-Boothie.


And wait, quite a long time. I’m sure we’re not the only ones who had to, the Chinese punks in faux-hawks, skinny black jeans and tennis shoes, looking like the cast of a John Woo remake of West Side Story, who were making the most noise had time to go smoke a few times out front. Finally, one dish— a twice-cooked pork (i.e. pork belly) dish with cabbage and hot sauce arrived.


It was the best thing we would eat that night— not that much of an achievement since that list would prove to be shorter than we expected. But I really liked the kind of braised, or at least wilted and softened up, cabbage in the spicy oil. We pretty much finish it, and then… we wait some more. And more. We pass the one hour mark. Next, at least 20 minutes later, we get potstickers, gummy and pretty poor, and “small plate chicken,” which comes out smelling like Indian curry.


It’s all right, but I’d rather have good Indian food. Or middle-eastern or lots of places where they know how to do more with a chicken than this, which is kind of stew it to death. Nevertheless, we eat a fair amount of it, because it is the last food we will actually see there. Many more minutes pass, we’ve been there well over an hour, and we begin to consider scenarios of giving up. Put money on the table and walk away? I give it serious thought for the first time in years. We’re about to go when a waitress comes out. We tell her we just want our food wrapped and the check, if she can cancel the remaining dishes. Oh no, it’s already cooking, we’re told.

Perhaps she believed that. I will be charitable. Since one is soup with noodles, I don’t believe it’s really so much cooked as assembled, but let’s assume she thought that was true. We give in and sit down.

At an hour and a half we know, though, that nothing was cooking at that moment twenty or more minutes earlier. We will never get out. We are doomed to the smallest table in the slowest Chinese restaurant on earth, unable to see the actual restaurant as Plato’s cave-dwellers see only shadows, not the thing itself. My butt hurts from sitting. The only redeeming thing I can think of is that the kids are old enough to be both patient and self-possessed; if this had happened when they were five years younger and whinier, it would have been a hundred times more miserable.

One more dish arrives and we ask for it to be packaged up, and please bring the check. The check of course charges us for the last remaining undelivered item, which we want to see about as much as cholera at that point. We get her attention and point the error out. It’s on its way. Of course it is. But we cannot argue. Just package it to go, please. I’m sure at that point she ran back and told the cook to make a salt miner’s eggplant fast, or they’d lose the sale.

So at an hour and 45 minutes we finally can wedge ourselves out of the booth and leave with a full meal’s worth of leftovers. If Deng Xiao Ping had had this experience on a state visit, he’d have flooded the salt mines out of pique. Some of this I can’t fault them for— they were clearly short-handed in front, and evidently in back and on the sides, too— but I can fault them for so manifestly not thinking about it from the customer’s point of view in any way shape or form, like even admitting that it had been, and would continue to be, a loooooong f’ing time for the food. There’s really no choice; Yan Bang Cai wins Sky Full of Bacon’s lowest award, the GFY.

They shoulda sent us a rescue squad!


The estimable Alan Richman has a piece up in which he decries a new tendency toward what he calls egotarian dining experiences. What is that exactly? Well, I’m not sure by the end and I’m not sure he is either, which I think is an honest reflection of his conflict. Basically he wants to disapprove of chefs who do too weird things, too egotistically show-offy things… and, it seems, too Redzepi-influenced things full of twigs and bizarre combinations. The problem with his piece is that he keeps having to acknowledge that some of it is pretty great.

What we have, it seems to me, is a movement that’s letting chefs just put themselves and their influences and their journey of personal discovery out there, almost uninhibited by normal commercial concerns. And so, guess what? Give chefs their heads and somewhere some of them turn out to be fatuous blowhards who forgot to make it taste good, or forgot that people might not want a pig’s blood tree moss pudding. (That’s never happened in a glitzy downtown spot, of course. Well, the blood moss pudding hasn’t, anyway.) Yet when I think of what we have in Chicago that kind of resembles what he describes, I can’t think of any place currently operating that landed on that side of the tightrope. We have by now a small movement of these experiential restaurants where the chef is on stage and you’re the participatory audience, and so far, to put it bluntly… none of them suck. None of them are full of crap. They’re all pretty wonderful, really, each in a way that could only come from that chef. (We also have, in Iliana Regan, what Richman says this movement never has: “Not once have I seen a female chef prepare such food.”)

Salad with beet macaron.

Tom yum soup in coconut noodle.

Maybe we’re just lucky, but anyway, that brings me to 42 Grams, the new restaurant version of Sous Rising, the underground restaurant I wrote about (and mostly loved) here. I don’t have a lot to add to what I said then; the restaurant version hasn’t traveled far from the underground version in either distance (it’s downstairs from their apartment) or approach, though I do think the increase to full-time service has, unsurprisingly, sharpened technique and the menu, and I thought the lesser courses had mostly gone away (one came back in a new context, but I’ll get to that in a moment).

Chef Jake Bickelhaupt is young and his influences can be picked out— especially when he does a classic El Bulli trick (the espresso espuma that you can turn upside down and not spill… which I saw Ferran Adria demonstrate two days later). But where the young chef who overuses powders and gels is becoming a cliché (more than one chef has said to me some version of “They want to make molecular cuisine before they know how to roast a chicken”), Bickelhaupt has technology under his control and doesn’t forget to make things taste good. The “espresso” comes as a scene change into dessert, just as the meal started with the wit of a gelled cocktail, but what’s in between is mostly simpler, less visibly tricky, and focused on the simplicity of a star ingredient— meltingly sweet and gentle uni on a circle of brioche with maple cream underneath, sushi meeting biscuits and gravy; or the flavors of tom yum soup curled up inside a coconut noodle. Inventiveness is almost entirely in the service of producing delight.



One time it wasn’t at Sous Rising was with an intense peccorino romano crisp which, I wrote, “sort of crossed the line from cheese smell to puke smell.” It is a rule, of course, that if you write 1000 words of praise the chef will only remember the criticism in passing. At a bigger restaurant that might just mean him muttering to his staff that “Hey, Mr. Puke Smell is in tonight.” But much of the point of 42 Grams is that you’re right there with Bickelhaupt, his wife Alexa and the two cooks helping him; she’s taking you through it course by course and the cooks, though focused on the task at hand, are right there too. So one course was introduced by way of telling the story of a writer who came in and said a dish smelled like puke. So I was offered a new (and frankly much better) variation, the Flaming Hot Cheetos version, while the others got the regular one.

And this to me is why this kind of dining is so much fun, such a magical experience well worth the cost (you are basically getting a private chef experience for eight people). The egotarian chef of Richman’s piece probably would have banned him for saying that, refused to serve him cured lichen ever again, but in Chicago it’s playful and intimate and theatrical and about having a party, not giving a symposium. So the food critic stings with words, and they respond in food.

Me and my Flaming Hot Cheeto.

Foie and scallop with blueberry and oxalis at Senza.

Barely a week later I went to Senza, which is known for two things: it’s gluten free, and the chef, Noah Sandoval, had worked at Schwa (actually, he was in the Key Ingredient video we shot there). Which potentially meant a third thing: a rare serious restaurant somewhere near the cutting edge, in Lakeview where restaurants are rarely serious and never cutting edge.

So after 42 Grams, maybe that’s cutting edge for Lakeview. It is a tasting menu, and it has some very fine courses with a lot of creative (but not egotarian!) touches, but I wouldn’t put it out as far as Schwa in terms of wild-ass crazy creativity— no chocolate and parsnip desserts. As for the gluten free, that’s a complete success— most of the meal you simply don’t think about the absence of anything, and the few things that are clear gluten-free substitute dishes— a loaf of surprisingly convincing black bread, a terrific agnolotti, a chocolate cake— were entirely satisfying; you never had to squint to convince yourself something was good. The agnolotti, in fact, was maybe the best dish, a melt in your mouth texture with the combination of lushness (a truffle slice, a parmesan crisp) and bright fruit (kumquat, huckleberry) that was a consistent approach throughout the meal.


Other standouts included a lamb dish with both tender loin and a gamier chunk of belly, and a dessert— the kind that Richman describes as horse feed— in which oatmeal was joined with bright fruit flavors, pine nut foam and a meringue stick (I think it was meant to evoke something classic on a stick but I can’t figure out what now). Service was attentive and neighborhoody in the best sense, welcoming as if you were someone they’d expect to run into around the neighborhood. And it included one thing that floored me at the time, though in retrospect it makes perfect sense from their point of view of keeping a tasting menu on track. They don’t have valet parking and the best I could find was a two-hour spot two blocks away. When I needed to go feed the meter, they took down the location and description of my car, and someone ran out and fed it for me.

One more I’ve been to lately:

Analogue. Everybody loves this new Logan Square bar with an oh-so-hip unmarked entrance, and is praising their Cajun food as the best ever. I think they’ve been drinking! Okay, I’m not dissing it. It was pretty good. I went early on a Tuesday– one of those times when the bar is so empty that having the lights so low seems kind of silly; you just want to say, go ahead and turn a light on so you can see your work, folks. Anyway, I liked the drinks quite well, and I liked the Cajun food fine. The biscuits are genuinely great. The gumbo was good and had pretty good depth of flavor. The fried chicken sandwich was hard to judge because it was drowned in too much one-dimensional hot sauce, and on boring white bread; I was more impressed by Parson’s handling of such classic Southern stuff. So, as a non-barfly who ate early in my drinking, I find it kind of wildly overhyped by some— but that said, compared to the boring burger bar I just had open near me, I admire its ambition and the food is certainly above average for the genre. So this isn’t a diss, just a tempering of expectations. No need to serve me a Flaming Hot Cheeto next time I come in, which I will.

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I went to the Pleasant House Bakery in Three Oaks, MI after shooting a video which will debut shortly. It is very much like Pleasant House Bakery in Chicago, but with beer.

Things I have eaten lately, in brief, and mostly not in grief:

Dusek’s. I really liked this Pilsen gastropub. I really liked that it wasn’t as crowded and sceney as Logan Square gastropubs. And I recognized that that was because… places like this hadn’t ruined Pilsen yet for places like this. Anyway, most of it was very tasty, a little but not too arty, though as my dining companion Anthony Todd pointed out (he had been here before), what had been a little more rustic was now being plated more pretentiously on long square plates and big-rimmed round ones, which meant that the small plates could pretty much hog the whole table. One dish, also, the General Tso’s Sweetbreads, seem to have gone downhill since he ate there (too much ginger, the sweetbreads now cubic and rubbery— whatever, it’s off the menu entirely now). But pretty much everything else was terrific, especially the Juicy Lucy (a fantastically beefy version of the Minneapolis burger with cheese in the center; see Anthony on it here). Because we pooh-poohed the sweetbreads, they sent us some desserts we didn’t really need, but we were glad they did anyway, especially for something called a ginger cazuela cake, which was made with sweet potatoes, molasses and lots of ginger, a perfect emblem for a meal of refined yet straightforward comforts.

1227 W 18th St.
(312) 526-3851

Little Goat. I keep puzzling out Little Goat diner. I’m convinced that somewhere here is a near-brilliant adaptation of Stephanie Izard’s big-popping flavors approach to mainstream, middle American food. But something conceptual or executional hasn’t worked on past visits. Finally I found the dish that made it all make sense: it’s on the lunch menu and called pork belly pancake, though I had it for late breakfast. It’s basically kind of a savory pancake like you’d get in certain Chinese restaurants, topped with some tender pork belly and then kimchi and some crispies of some sort, piled four inches high. (There’s a pic here, but mine was neater and tidier.) It sounded like a gut bomb, and certainly still has the like-everything-in-the-pantry-mixed-together approach that seems to be Little Goat’s trademark, but it was surprisingly light and delicate, both in texture (all that pile on top is as fluffy as snow) and in the balance of kimchi heat and sweetness and porkiness and comfy pancakeness.

Little Goat
820 W Randolph St
(312) 888-3455


Sing’s Noodles. Speaking of Chinese pancakes, that was one of the things we had at Sing’s, a new spot in Chinatown run by the guy who used to be in the window stretching noodles at Hing Kee, Liu Chang Ming. (I always knew him as the guy who looked like he belonged in a Hayao Miyazaki cartoon— he has the square face and broad smile of many of Miyazaki’s human characters.) Anyway, we ordered lots of noodley things and were generally happy with the noodles; the problem was that few if any of the dishes as a whole had the depth of flavor and Chinese funk of what I’m used to at places like Lao Sze Chuan. (Also, bummer, we tried to order soup dumplings but didn’t get them, unless they have really dry soup dumplings.) The dish with the chipped noodles below, for instance, looks a lot more flavorful than it was, and so was a duck soup. So maybe this is a place to go when you have visitors, so they get something a little tamer that will be still be satisfying, plus the floor show of seeing the noodle-stretchers at work.


Sing’s Noodles
2172 S Archer Ave
(312) 225-2882

Chengdu Impression. I got more of a kick from this new places from a nephew of Tony Hu in Lincoln Park, which expanded my better Chinese delivery choices from about two to three. The LTH thread has focused on offal exotica, but I had to order more conservatively for the family. Even so, I was impressed with the complex flavor of a standard Chinese-American dish like Yu Shiang Chicken, and one as simple as it sounds called Pork Fried Noodles. On the other hand pot stickers had little variety of flavor and were encased with what seemed to be genuine Naugahyde, and I had mixed feelings about Twice Cooked Pork with Pancakes, which would have been better with more starchy pancake and fewer slices of fatty pork belly, no really it would. Well, whatever, it was probably the most authentic-seeming Chinese meal I’ve ever ordered by phone, close to the best I’ve had on the north side at all, and a very happy find.

Chengdu Impression
2545 N Halsted St
(773) 477-6256

County Barbeque. I went to a PR event for new bartender Mike Ruble, but it also gave me a chance to try a barbecue place that reviewers like Mike Sula hated when it opened. And you know what? Six months on, it’s a lot better, as is often the case with barbecue spots. I thought there was respectably strong smoke flavor and good moist texture in almost all the meats, which include brisket, pulled pork, burnt ends, ribs, sausage, chicken (probably the least exciting) and more. I also liked some of the more gimmicky but amusing bar snacky things like the bacon and barbecue parfait, and the general arty-take-on-a-honky-tonk feel, which is faux as all get out but entirely pleasant to kick back in. On Twitter a discussion of barbecue included me observing “Almost any BBQ place today would have been the best BBQ place on the north side in the 90s.” County isn’t on the north side, but it just shows much better the scene has gotten when the upper middle of the pack is this solid.

County Barbeque
1352 W Taylor St
(312) 929-2528


Bub City. Speaking of faux-BQ, my experience with County and being downtown gave me the urge to finally check this downtown pseudo-honky tonk out too. And I’d say it’s respectably decent and within the spirit of good BBQ, based on one sampled meat (pulled pork, above), but a little more like a big foodservice operation kicking out food that’s been held for a while, a bit lifelessly, at what are definitely downtown prices; County, admittedly much smaller, had a more polished hand with the final dishes, and how to give barbecue some nicer-restaurant gloss. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing to have had this downtown in the 90s too, and in this case I can say that pretty definitively, since in the 90s I was eating at the bar in this exact spot, Frankie Z’s, which had decent, but far from stellar, barbecue chicken.

Bub City
435 N Clark St
(312) 610-4200

Commonwealth. I love my neighborhood, Roscoe Village, but I can’t wait to escape it to go eat. And this new, vaguely farm to tableish bar at Roscoe and Damen, unfortunately doesn’t provide strong reasons to change that. It’ll be pleasant enough when I need a nice enough bacon cheeseburger, but it just feels ten years behind places like Dusek’s, from a world that hasn’t even discovered pork belly sliders yet, and ten steps below it in ambition.

2000 Roscoe St
(773) 697-7965


Pasta al Gusto. Another spot in my hood (hey, it was the Polar Vortex, I tried not to drive), this is the kind of Italian-American food, or maybe Mexican-Italian-American food, where they’re happy to put grilled chicken on top of any Italian classic you want. I ordered lasagna, fairly indestructible, and it was fine though I feel like you should make lasagna with ground beef, or with spinach, but not both; I ordered a salad, with grilled vegetables, which was really pretty nice. But it all kind of felt like mall Italian, serviceable and fresh enough but with no real feel for the magic of Italian food, hence the willingness to throw grilled chicken breast onto everything. My hope is that the subs on the menu might be pretty decent (UPDATE: No); even if the bread isn’t Damato’s-level, just being able to get a decent Italian sub in my area would be a great leap forward.

Pasta Al Gusto
1648 W Belmont Ave
(773) 281-3663

Mini Hut. My sister visited for a few days and then I had to drive her to Midway. Far be it from me to waste that kind of mileage, so I used the opportunity to finally hit Mini Hut, widely-acclaimed by people who were expressing a preference for old school fried chicken over all the newfangled places that have opened recently. And I have to say, for that style— a light-colored thin coating on the skin, like you often find at cafeterias and old style coffeeshops; maybe I should dub it 50s-style chicken— though it may not be my style, this is an excellent example that makes the case for that style pretty impressively. They’ve actually heard of putting salt and pepper in the coating, as so many barely do, and they know how to fry it and leave it juicy. The place is nothing to look at (it has the air of a seedy pool hall) and more than a little hard to find (it’s off Archer on a street you can’t get to from Archer), but from the number of people working a kitchen barely 10 feet long, you know they’re serious about their chicken.

Mini Hut
6659 W Archer Ave
(773) 586-2115


Other things I’ve eaten and published lately:
I ate very soul-filling cassoulet at Sunday Dinner Club.
And this Rick Bayless restaurant’s historical meal.
I tried burnt flour pasta and pizza at Quartino.
I did half of this Thrillist list of things to check out on the south side.
Check out El Azteca for pretty good Mexican steak.
And I talked to a blogger about doing a food podcast here.

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Um, yeah.

November and December felt like a zillion new places opened and I didn’t have time to go eat at any of them. I’m trying to catch up now, not only with new places but with places that everyone’s been to but me:


Wood. I used to live not far from here in Lakeview, but boy, I never eat in Lakeview. It’s a mystery how a neighborhood full of disposable income, one assumes, just never seems to have anywhere in it that you need to eat at, when ratty old Logan Square is coughing up new must-try places like fur balls. But Senza finally made one destination stop in Lakeview, and a lot of people have told me Wood, despite the tee-hee Boystown humor of the name, was another.

Not quite, I think. I think it’s a very solid neighborhood place, which is what Lakeview needs more of first before it worries about rivalling Randolph Street. From the name I expected a driftwood and foraged branches interior, which it has a little of but a lot more disco and smoked glass mirror. Foodwise, I would call it classic, a little behind the times (not a bad thing when the times it’s taking you back to were good times) but extremely well executed. A half chicken— one piece fried, one confited— reminded me of the great chicken at the short-lived Kith & Kin. A venison dish— again done two ways, a sausage and some loin, with crispy spaetzle— could not have been better cooked, the sausage cooked to a supple done-ness that many here still overcooking sausage could learn from. Small plates, I should say, were plenty big; a beet salad would easily work as a starter for two. Nothing blew my mind, nothing changed how I viewed cuisine, but for upscale comfort food, an admirable place. Every neighborhood should have one.

3335 N Halsted St
(773) 935-9663

Gather. I also expected more rusticness here— from descriptions, including the communal dining, I envisioned something kind of weathered barn-y, like Farmhouse or Grass Fed Beef in Bucktown— so I was surprised by the sophisticated look of this Lincoln Square spot. Which extended to the food; I was still puzzling why Wood felt like 2004 to me, but I started to understand a little better what I meant when I saw the plates here with their brilliant beet purees, their dribs and drabs and crunchy little nubbins on top. But it’s not just a matter of visual presentation; I felt they were aiming more ambitiously for cutting-edge flavor combinations (and hit the slightly preposterous menu notes of our time more often, with ramp aioli and pork belly with caramelized milk and such things).

Does every neighborhood need that? I don’t know, but Lincoln Square went from not having it to having it pretty quickly with Goosefoot, Elizabeth and (much more modestly priced) Gather, so it seems the question is settled. (And settled in another way by the closing of La Bocca della Verita, the kind of Italian place that used to be the epitome of neighborhood dining in this town.) Overall, I found Gather lived up to its promise of sophistication pretty well. A charcuterie and cheese platter was well put together for contrasts; dishes like the pork belly and sturgeon with salmon caviar and blinis as an accompaniment were thoughtful and interesting and certainly pretty well executed, if not quite as sharply as at Wood. My only advice would be that the communal seating up front is better than the tiny boxed-in seating area in the second room, which makes getting up to go to the bathroom a communal project.

4539 N Lincoln Ave
(773) 506-9300

Phil Rubino and Mike Sheerin in the kitchen at Cicchetti.

Cicchetti. When I heard that Mike Sheerin was going to an Italian place, it didn’t sound that promising— someone with his training, and his cutting-edge inclinations at Trenchermen with its eccentrically avant-garde comfort food, seemed unlikely to be happy cranking out standard Italian dishes. And it wasn’t promising that Cicchetti was named for a style of bar food from Venice, but the food wasn’t really like what those places actually seem to have (or so my friend Kenny Z tweeted, and based on what I saw, I believed him).


Happily what seemed Cicchetti’s likely pitfalls turn out to be the best things about it. The food is only vaguely Italian— inspired by the casualness of bar dining, and some Italian ingredients, but far from pasta and red sauce in final effect (except for Nonna’s Meatballs— is that Nonna Sheerin or Nonna Rosenthal?) There’s obvious Italian inspiration for octopus, dyed black with squid ink and sitting in a sea of polenta, but the polenta is so buttery that it seems more French. While the pickled sardines on pumpernickel (run through a pasta machine into a flat crisp) seems more Nordic than Neapolitan:


Italian cuisine is giving Sheerin (and sous chef Phil Rubino, once of Highland Park’s short-lived Moderno, most recently of Acadia) a base to play with, and some dishes are simply very good Italian (the saffron risotto was great, and exactly what it said it would be), but nothing about it restricts them to a single cuisine’s palette of colors or to its familiar forms. Sheerin sent out this plate of carpaccio (disclosure), and at first glance it might seem a relatively conventional Italian antipasto:


But then he explained how it was made— Painted Hills flank steak was glued with meat glue, then allowed to age like salumi for a few weeks. So a little of his WD-50 heritage there, crossed with Trenchermen cured meats. And the dish, on closer inspection, is as artfully plated as a dish at Acadia, but in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself as strongly; while the dabbed aioli (or whatever it was) again seemed more French or Nordic than Italian. This is the kind of steak dish I thought Next Steakhouse might offer as a buildup to the big meat course, an imaginative play on steak that uses its familiar accompaniments, takes the meat in a different direction, and offers the pure sensory satisfaction of beef without knocking you out for the evening. Instead, it’s here, and it’s terrific.

So Cicchetti, best new Italian restaurant in town? Not exactly (and that’s even if Nico hadn’t just opened). It’s more a personal restaurant, a reflection of its star chef and his high end skills, than you would have ever guessed from the name, the concept, and Sheerin’s hired-gun role— yet somehow it’s also as comforting and unthreatening as “Italian restaurant” promises. (The same is true of the design, which manages to mix rustic and big-city-sophisticate notes successfully.) You could take your Nonna here, where Trenchermen would have had her scratching her head, and still feel like you’d been somewhere adventurous enough for you. That’s a great combination that deserves to triumph over its nondescript location in an anonybuilding in the Northwestern medical complex.

671 N Saint Clair St
(312) 642-1800

The Dawson. Design was also a redeeming factor for this Billy Lawless project, which looks from the outside like a massive River North bro bar, except further west. (The infamous chicken fried steak that wasn’t fried had jaundiced me against it too.) I went there for the Between Bites reading with David Hammond, Nick Kindlesperger and others, and afterwards a couple of us grabbed a bite downstairs. The downstairs bar was sleeker and chicer than I expected, with a kind of 19th century industrial gaslight look; I was immediately impressed that there was more going on here than I’d expected.

The drinks were excellent, but the food only fair. The menu has something for everyone, pork belly tacos and crab cakes and pickled onion rings, but if anything stands out, we never really found it. Chestnut ravioli, big as a bathroom tile? Not bad, not delectably memorable. Crab cake? Plenty of meat, but had a canned tuna taste that didn’t deliver on the richness of crab. A burger topped with bacon and tangy white cheddar, too greasy, somehow not quite making those basic elements into a satisfyingly indulgent whole. Overall, I’d say my opinion of the place went up from seeing it, it’s not a hack bro bar as I feared, but the food needs time to find its focus and sharpen the dishes to adding up to at least the sum of their parts.

The Dawson
730 W Grand Ave
(312) 243-8955

The Brixton. Two letters away from The Bristol, and located in the Andersonville space that was Brasserie 54 that was Premise that was In Fine Spirits, and after all that, two seconds after walking in the door I felt like they’d finally found the restaurant that made sense in the space again, the neighborhood gastropub that Premise didn’t want to be. Kevin McMullen, who was at EL Ideas for a while, is the chef, and the things I tried mostly hit the right note for the space of seeming approachable but dressed up a little (as in the squid ink Jackson Pollock splatter all over the plate of a very tart lemony octopus dish). I liked the octopus and a silky chicken liver mousse a lot; I was a little disappointed that brussels sprouts with pancetta sat in a puddle from having been steamed, roasted would have been better. Andersonville isn’t as low on first-rate neighborhoody places as Lakeview, but it’s not overrun with them yet either, and The Brixton is a creditable, approachable addition to the list.

The Brixton
5420 N Clark St
(773) 961-7358

Limoncello at Cicchetti.

Photos by Myles Gebert, unless he’s in them.

Myles and Liam with Satchel Paige, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City.

Here’s what I had with friends over Christmas in Wichita, at a bar called The Anchor close to downtown: a couple of West Coast Belgian-style saison ales, and a pastrami sandwich made with housecured pastrami. No, this is not the Wichita I grew up in, clearly. At least some of the food world’s trends have reached the onetime chain food capitol (birthplace to both White Castle and Pizza Hut!) But as I’ve chronicled in past posts like this one and this one, when I go back to the state of Dorothy I want the old school stuff— barbecue in Kansas City, diner burgers in Wichita. This last trip was not one of my most dedicated ones to that goal— I settled for second tier spots (including a bowling alley with a burger special that was just ok, but you can’t argue with burger and two hours of bowling for $8, not when you’re entertaining a bunch of kids). But here are a couple-three* data points, anyway, if you should ever find yourself there, like Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

* That’s a Kansasism. Or maybe just something my mom says.


I had one plan for barbecue at each end of trip in Kansas City: to finally visit Oklahoma Joe’s, one of the city’s most popular newer chains, in its original gas station location. Everybody said it’s the place to go now. But I have to admit to a little inner doubt. I suspected that like, say, Rendezvous in Memphis, this was white yuppie barbecue (despite the gas station location) with more reputation than smoke flavor, and there was better to be found elsewhere. So when I came across a couple of recommendations for a place called Woodyard BBQ, in a middle of nowhere industrial zone (home to this western store, too, added bonus), I was seduced.


Woodyard has a great story— the place supplied wood to a lot of the barbecue spots for close to a century before a later generation decided to get in the business themselves— and they couldn’t have been nicer as we walked in fresh off our flight from Chicago, and they were putting turkeys in the smoker for Christmas take-out business. The ramshackle place with its handpainted signs— calculated downhominess, but still kind of authentic to the place— had a good time vibe that was welcome to weary travelers.



So I wish I’d loved it. Part of the issue is that I think we got some rewarmed leftovers— hey, it wasn’t even noon yet, I understand— but it also didn’t have as much smoke flavor as I’d have wished. I’d put it in the second tier and give it another try, but the atmosphere promised more.


We stopped in Lawrence to see an old friend and to show my kids Where Dad Went to College; they were mainly impressed by the hills that we would go traying on in the snow (that is, sledding on a stolen cafeteria tray). Then on to Wichita, and one thing that finally happened. I grew up listening to people say that the rolling plains were one of the most satisfying landscapes on earth. Uh uh, never bought it. Always wanted mountains or skyscrapers or something, anything else. But at long last, after being far away from them for many years… they do roll like the ocean, and coated with a little snow, they glistened like white gold, and they really were beautiful, mysterious and hypnotizing in their serene emptiness, like the sea. Well, they beat corn fields up here, for sure, which really are monotonous.


If you recall my Indy-Louisville post from earlier this year you heard about Valentine Buildings, a style of prefab burger joint designed to fit onto a semi for shipping anywhere. They were made in Wichita, and what amazes me is that I never knew about them till now; it’s exactly the sort of thing I’d have been all over when I lived there. I think a lot of times they’re hard to recognize because they get added onto; compare Sport Burger above, in Wichita, with the preserved one at the museum in Auburn, Indiana:


Anyway, we’d have gone to Sport Burger just for the experience (alas, you can’t sit inside the very compact interior) but in the words of Samuel L. Jackson, damn, these are some tasty burgers! Amusingly, I thought they’d be slider size— it was kind of hard to see them being made— and cheap enough that we wound up ordering three each, only to find that they were more like McDonald’s cheeseburger-sized. Two was plenty, three way too much.


But they had a good crispy edge (not quite Schoop’s lacy, but nice and crunchy), grilled onions, wrapped in white paper so the bun steamed— as good a 30s-style burger as I can remember having lately.


Here’s a list of surviving Valentine diners in Wichita, though many have not survived since then (but may have other businesses in them now); it seems likely that Sport Burger is the only one still serving burgers. Another fact I gleaned there: at a Valentine diner called Brint’s (know it well, used to hang out and drink beer at the nearby Mile-High Club and play George Jones songs on the jukebox), in 2007, one of the segments for the pilot for a TV show about old school places was shot there. The name of the show was “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Yes, that one.


Smoke rising from L.C.’s BBQ In Kansas City. Wait, you say, what happened to Oklahoma Joe’s? Well, after hitting Moon Marble Co. to see a marble-making demo, followed by the jazz museum and the Negro League Baseball Museum*, very timely as the kids have watched the movie 42 (about Jackie Robinson) a bunch lately, we were right at prime time lunchtime on Saturday at Oklahoma Joe’s. And so were about 200 other people; I swore we took a cell phone pic of the long, long line, but I can’t find it. Anyway, we stayed in it long enough to see how fast it was moving, which was pretty glacial, and I decided, no way this is worth a Franklin BBQ level wait in the cold. Another time, we can hit at a non-peak hour and get in much faster. So instead we went back to L.C.’s, my current favorite in K.C., for the third time. And for the third time, it still was.

Despite the apparent expression, he liked it.

As we were coming out, I suddenly heard a voice say “Mike!” Took me a second to recognize him but it was, believe it or not… no, not Guy Fieri or even Steve Dolinsky (who we had run into at Tortas Fronteras on our flight out, incidentally). It was Jeff Sanders, better known as Buddy Roadhouse, BBQ sauce maker and all-round BBQ guy from DesPlaines and frequent helper-outer at Burt’s Pizza.

We both said “What are you doing here?” which is, in retrospect, kind of a stupid thing to ask a BBQ guy coming out of a BBQ place. Anyway, I told him how we wound up at L.C.’s after scratching Oklahoma Joe’s and he endorsed our decision, saying Oklahoma Joe’s was exactly the kind of yuppie BBQ I suspected and that L.C.’s remains the best in Kansas City. Someday I’ll verify or refute that for myself, but for now, I was happy to have gotten back to L.C.’s and happy to have that choice validated.

* Sad irony to note: the museums are right by Arthur Bryant’s, but where that once would have been the point of visiting Kansas City in itself, everyone seems to agree that it has slipped enough that we zipped right past it.

Waiting for our plane on the plains, at Kansas City International.


Four days in wine country at the posh Calistoga Ranch which is pretty much California New Age Heaven on Earth, legal seminars for the wife, arranged dinners and tastings in wine caves for entertainment/networking… to me all that meant one thing: how many other things I want to try can I squeeze in around the planned activities? Stand in line for two hours to get into Mission Chinese or Swan Oyster Depot? No, probably not. Hit Tartine on the path between the airport and I-80 to Napa, Thursday evening? Yes:


Those are ham rolls— or prosciutto rolls more likely— but we didn’t actually have them, that was just the best picture I took in line. Still, it gives some idea of the quality of baked goods at this well-known, cookbook-writing place, darkly-baked flakey crusts shedding a shower of crumbs with every bite. You can’t buy bread there just by walking in— there’s an elaborate, hilarious system by which you order it three days in advance and pick it up after 4:30 on The Day of Baking— but we stocked up on pastries, all excellent, and ordered a couple of sandwiches which seemed overpriced until you got them and they were on such a massive loaf that they made up three sections, each big enough to pass as a sandwich on its own. The place fit my preconception of San Francisco to a T— excellence in the product somehow going hand in hand with a sort of shaggy-haired, spaced-out chaos in which dozens of people seemed to be wandering randomly in and out of the baking area to chat, and no one occupying a seat seemed to have anything resembling a “job” or “somewhere they needed to be.”


On to Napa, and our wine cave-based activities continued until Friday night. We wanted a reasonably laidback dinner and the recommendation I got, for a porky, easy to like place— a Napa answer to Nightwood, say— was Farmstead in St. Helena.


It was a bit more cartoonish than its Chicago equivalent would be— big farm implements hanging from the ceiling, and the waitress looked to be dressed for a more upscale version of the WLS Barn Dance— and it did nice enough versions of good artisanal porky and local vegetable-y food without replacing the best such Chicago places in my heart.

We needed to have something more casual that night, because we had much more ambitious plans for the next day’s lunch:


We were the envy of others dining at Press or Cindy Pawlcyn’s with our coveted The French Laundry reservation. How did we manage it? Well, my wife explained, Mike knows a guy… I was at lunch with a well-known Foodie and asked him where I should go in Napa. He said, are you going to The French Laundry? I said, yeah right, like I thought to be up at 6 am making the call three months ahead, or whatever you do. He said, let me make a call. And sure enough, we had a reservation for two for lunch on Saturday.


My first thought upon entering the restaurant and being seated downstairs was that I understood better why Keller’s and Trotter’s restaurants were the yin and yang of models to follow for our own leading chef, Grant Achatz, in his early years. They are similar in many ways that make them different from restaurants people open now— from the old house setting with (inconvenient during service) stairs, to the copper pots displayed in the kitchen, they both had a feeling of being twenty-some years old as Alinea, approaching 10, certainly does not (even though it too has stairs and sprawls over multiple rooms in a much more modern space). But more than that, it faces the challenge of having been so influential that you feel like you’ve eaten at The French Laundry before you even sit down to eat at The French Laundry. Could it live up in 2013 to still being top dog in a world it made, as Trotter’s ultimately did not? The meal started with some valedictory courses, dishes that everyone coming there expected to see the way visitors to Orlando expect to see Mickey and Cinderella. We started with the cornet of tuna tartare that looks like an ice cream cone (The French Laundry Cookbook, p. 6) and a gougere (p. 47), we had Oysters and Pearls (p. 23):


We had the parmesan crisps that I tried and failed to make once (p. 37), and the truffle oil infused custard with a potato chip with a chive embedded in it (p. 16):


So this was not Trotter’s world of dishes changing every night, clearly, but there was nothing to mind about this— these were legitimately great dishes, tasty and beautiful to the eye. Might as well ask Disney to tear down The Haunted Mansion after a year. This portion of the menu was, indeed, pretty magical, delicate little jewels of mostly seafood flavors like this yellowtail tartare in a passion fruit foam, probably the best bite of the entire meal:


Food gets more elaborate than that, certainly, but not really prettier, I think.

That was the high point for a meal that got a little rougher as it tried harder to play the luxury card. King crab was beautifully cooked, tender as a baby’s bottom, but the mandarin orange foam sauce seemed a candy flavor that needed something more adult about it, a dash of cumin, a bit of fish sauce, I don’t know what, but something that tasted less like a circus peanut. We had agreed, knowing how absurd it was, to the topping of a fish roulade with shaved Alba white truffles for a mere add-on of $175 per person. There was something giddy about watching the truffle shavings fly like hundred dollar bills, but really, in the end, the thrill is all in the intoxicating aroma and they didn’t add that much flavor to a dish that seemed a conventional old school-French roulade, not terribly interesting on its own:


More surprising was how the “main” courses— the largest meat courses— were so French, not even in a Robuchon-Ducasse 1980s kind of way but flat out turn of the century L’Escoffier. One was a goose forcemeat baked in a shell with a wine-blueberry sauce (seen below), the other a lamb shank also ground and cooked into a sort of corn dog on the bone:


It was a surprise, not only that such old-fashioned classical French food should turn up in the middle of a meal I expected to be more avant-garde, but that one of Keller’s basic principles in the book, which I had internalized through years of tasting menus— that you should have about three bites of anything and then move on as the novelty ended— was so disregarded. At this point The French Laundry was proving to be most like my dinner last year at L2O, where delicate and genuinely magical seafood courses gave way to the businessman’s demand for a hunk of steak and a bite of lobster at the halfway point. (This being Napa, replace “businessman” with “retiree.”) If the dishes had been exceptional in some other way, it would have been less of a surprise, but insisting on forcemeats seemed even to tamp down the original flavor— the lamb shank had little of lamb’s sharp gaminess, the goose was likewise inoffensive more than recognizable. I realize French is in the name, but it was almost unreal to have such antique food in the place you thought would be the furthest from it. There was more than a little L’Escoffier in dishes at Next’s The Hunt, yet they still seemed modern and, more importantly, were focused on getting the deepest meat flavor in an old-time-French way. These seemed to prize making an archaic form (the goose crust was paraded around the room a couple of times to show off) over delivering the flavor.


As at L2O, dessert was the comeback, and we were happy being back in the realm of small, delicate, magical flavors on tiny plates again. We finished up with chocolates— “But they’re waaaafer thin,” I always hear in my head at that point— and were invited for a brief visit to the kitchen, which it will come as no surprise looks an awful lot like Alinea’s, white countertops and drawers, all organized to a rectangular perfection. One thing Alinea surprisingly didn’t copy as it opened Next: the monitor showing what’s going on at Per Se in New York (that’s The French Laundry in the inset image):


Afterwards, Larry Nadeau, who is the maitre d’ (but essentially acts like a GM on the floor), sat and chatted with us for a bit. I’m sure some of that was due to our coming via the famous Foodie, but I will say that The French Laundry bested any restaurant I have been in in terms of service that was welcoming, observant, and personally involved; it really is a model for that, as good as exists in the world.

For cuisine? Dining here clarified something I had thought about the other food I’d eaten in California at our events (where it was catered by well-regarded restaurants), and even about dining in Chicago. I think of Chicago fine dining as having two main schools— the Achatz one, descended from Keller, delicate and conceptual fine dining built on subtle flavors, and the Paul Kahan one, porky and built on bright, in-your-face use of acidity and saltiness. The difference was apparent in most of our meals this weekend— they just don’t salt things as much in California, and they don’t add that acid punch I’ve grown used to in food. Chicago food seems more sharpened to a point— and that was true even as I compared The French Laundry to, say, Grace, which is obviously descended from Keller via Achatz. Curtis Duffy doesn’t add acid to his food in the same way he would if he’d worked for Kahan rather than Achatz, but even so I felt like dishes at Grace are more likely to be brought to a point of tart or acidic contrast with, say, citrus, like the finger limes in his wagyu beef dish (seen in this video). And I liked The French Laundry courses that came closest to working like that, like the yellowtail with the passionfruit foam. That’s the Chicago way— bringing a fruit to a fish flight. Keller’s classics are genuinely great dishes, artistic in taste and visuals, but get away from those and I don’t feel like the dishes are as heightened and rigorously refined as the ones his followers are producing, with 20 years of The French Laundry-influenced cuisine as a baseline to push beyond.


On the road back to the airport the next day, we had more time than I expected, so I sent out an APB on Twitter for quick lunch in San Francisco. Two people suggested The Fatted Calf— a butcher shop and charcuterie maker— and one mentioned the Oxbow Public Market in Napa (the town), which has, among any other things, a branch of The Fatted Calf. And unlike things in San Francisco itself, it would doubtless be easy to get to and park at.

Even more, perhaps, than the Ferry Building’s market, I would recommend the Oxbow Market as representing precisely the state of food and drink at the moment. I could have spent hours perusing bitters at the cocktail furnishings stand, but then how would I have gotten my cheeses and chocolates and muffins and breakfast tacos? In any case, we hit The Fatted Calf and grabbed a couple of sandwiches to go, along with any charcuterie we could put our hands on that would survive travel, and grabbed our sandwiches to dine al airport bencho.

A roast beef sandwich was decent, but not nearly as good as The Butcher & Larder’s wonderful one with the house-pickled fennel. So it was reassuring to know that, as gorgeous and enticing as the Napa market was, Chicago is no slouch. On the other hand… the pulled pork sandwich topped with house pickled veggies was as good as any barbecued thing I can think of in town, yet in a way all its own. I was even tempted to call it, for all of $12, the best thing we ate all weekend… okay, different beast than Oysters and Pearls and anyway, we were susceptible to any comfort to be had in an airport at that point. You can’t compare. But it was pretty great. Last minute hail mary pass by the market in Napa to try to steal the game, well played.


Now on display at San Franscisco airport: Japanese toys


Photo credit: Dennis Lee

I can’t stand the thought of going from one audio podcast to the next (coming soon) without a food post in between. Admittedly I’ve had twenty bazillion things published at the Reader, Serious Eats, whatever, so it’s not like you can’t hear all you want of my voice and more. But I don’t really review at the former (except in the sense that you can tell what I think sometimes, unabashedly), so here are some things I’ve eaten recently, all fairly modest. Let’s go!


Gogi. New Korean BBQ place in the former Hai Woon Dae space, which looks completely classed up and transformed to me, though Mike Sula says the layout is the same and it just got a snazzy black paint job. What’s not the same is that this is a definite step up in ambition compared to other Korean BBQ joints around town, the quality of meat being on par with the superior cuts at Chicago Kalbi, and the variety better than that (and better than pretty much all the others, with their standard repertoire of kalbi, bulgogi, and maybe a little chicken or octopus). My favorites were the galbi (beef) and dwaeji galbi (pork ribs); pork belly, which is cooked on a platter rather than over the flame, was more like getting a side of bacon with the meal, but did come with fried kimchi (which was sort of like getting hash browns with it).

Also a big improvement: the service, which takes an active role in at least starting the process of cooking your meat. Which is helpful with things you might not know how to cook like the meat that’s attached to bone; the family who opened Gogi, who own the bar next door, are eager to please and handle that for you. Though you’re there for meat, among the side dishes I really liked both the gyeran jjim, a kind of Korean souffle, and the seafood haemul pajeon (pancake); on the other hand I found the steak tartare (yukhoe) bland and would spend that $18 on more grilled meat instead. The grilling, incidentally, is done by a gas-charcoal hybrid (unlit charcoal dumped on a grill which fires it with gas), which maybe takes a little longer to heat up but works well enough. I’m just happy to see real charcoal Korean BBQ, which has seem a slowly endangered species, making an exciting comeback.

6240 N California Ave
(773) 274-6669

Galbi (beef) and dwaeji galbi (pork ribs) on the grill at Gogi.

Pork belly, samgyeopsal, cooked on an iron skillet in the shape of a pig, at Gogi.

Grill at Cho Sun Ok.

Cho Sun Ok. Another venerable Korean BBQ spot which apparently got a fixup recently is this Korean restaurant on Lincoln, which has been around long enough that Calvin Trillin mentions it in one of his early 70s essays on food (he was taken there by the late U of C linguistics professor James McCawley, a proto-chowhound who sadly died in 1999, just before the internet exploded with food). They don’t cook with charcoal, but their setup is interesting nonetheless, with tabletop grills made of the same kind of heavy pottery as dolsot bibimbop is cooked in; they’re used after some dishes to fry rice in the crunchy residue of the meat. Most tabletop gas grill experiences have been kind of wan by comparison to charcoal places, but I liked it better than I thought I might, and it’s crazy that I hadn’t tried it till now. Service was a little harried, but nothing a little patience couldn’t handle.

Cho Sun Ok Restaurant
4200 N Lincoln Ave
(773) 549-5555

Kimchi stew (kimchi jjigae) at Cho Sun Ok.

Silom 12. So many kind-of-upscaled Thai restaurants open up that are of no great interest— or so we assume; who knows? I ignored this Bucktown spot (in the old Cafe Matou location, no less) until my friend Charlotte ordered from it via GrubHub and praised the wok hay of the Pad See Eiew. Frankly, not sure what that even means, but it was good enough for me to order the same way some night. I really liked everything I got, not only because all of it was pretty good in a Thai funky way, but because it was just different; I love the classic Thai places we all discovered on LTHForum back in the day but it’s been a long time since I had anything new from any of them.

The dish I liked the best, frankly, was the one I thought I was ordering to have something basic for the kids to like. They neglected to mention that “Pineapple fried rice” was also “calamari and other kinds of seafood fried rice,” but it had good seafoody funk and, all in all, I’d put it up against the best thing I had at Mott Street, their crab brain fried rice. An orange chicken dish put some respectability back into that dish (in a way that takeout of the same dish from Lao Sze Chuan decidedly did not), with a bracing burnt orange hint and some Thai depth of flavor; I liked the pad see eiew for reasons that must include its wok hay, and we also had Larb Tod, a ground chicken dish which I can’t remember now but liked. That was all chosen pretty randomly off the menu, so there’s clearly more to explore, and I will.

Silom 12
1846-48 N Milwaukee Ave
(773) 489-1212

Honey Butter Fried Chicken.

Honey Butter Fried Chicken. There’s been lots of sturm und drang online about the fact that this long-awaited fried chicken place serves most of its chicken deboned; I tried to get basic facts and the owner’s perspective on why they do it that way out in this piece but it rages on. Here’s my basic feeling: yes, fried chicken should have bones, but it’s a big world and it’s not going to kill you if one place does it differently. And I really really liked the sides, the corn with Thai curry flavors or the mashed potatoes made with schmaltz. And I liked sitting on the patio in October. And I liked that my kids liked it and we had a good evening together. I’m as much of a nitpicker on certain things as anybody, but you gotta see past the chicken bones for the forest sometimes.

What I have to disagree with strongly is the idea, which has come up a few times, that the chicken seems “processed” as a result. No, it seems carefully deboned and brined and breaded and fried, and is in my opinion very tasty… just lacking in the textural variation that a bone gives you. Talking about it as if they’re basically serving you Chick-Fil-A sandwiches minus the bread winds up supporting the sort of people who can’t understand why it isn’t as cheap as it would be from some place that really does use processed industrial horror chicken. Honey Butter buys reasonably humane chicken— Miller’s Amish chicken from Indiana, used by many restaurants in town— cuts and debones it by hand, breads it and fries it with care. If it’s not your thing it’s not your thing, but failing to keep the distinction between that and industrial food isn’t helping the cause of convincing people why they should pay more than fast food prices for better than fast food things.

Honey Butter Fried Chicken
3361 N Elston Ave
(773) 478-4000

Sides at Honey Butter.


El Pollo Real. Speaking of chicken! The name of course basically means “Chicken King,” but I prefer to think of it as the Pollo Real Deal. Titus Ruscitti first called it to attention at Serious Eats, and it is, so far as I know, out of millions of Mexican places promising chicken “al carbon,” the only other one in the city besides Taqueria Ricardo actually cooking over live charcoal.* I like black char bits and this was a little lighter than Ricardo for those. But the chicken was moist and full of flavor (and the air was full of smoke outside), the house salsas are pretty good, and the guys who run it are enthusiastic and happy to show off their cooking setup, so there is everything to like about this place and you should make a trip to Little Village sooner rather than later for it.

* Not counting South American places like D’Candela.

El Pollo Real
3823 W 31st St
773) 847-3907



La Palapita. For various work and kid reasons I have roamed the far northwest side a lot over the years, but though it has all kinds of Chicago realness, that translates into interesting food less than you might think— aside from Polish, it’s unquestionably the champ for that. (I think like a lot of burbs, it’s all homeowners who cook at home, so it doesn’t support as much restaurant culture as you might expect.)

One eternal question: really good Mexican in that area. This place looked promising— the name made me think it might be related to a south side place, which was clearly mistaken, though an old post by Titus suggests it might actually be connected to La Pasadita. Anyway, it’s a tallest dwarf kind of thing; the menu is clearly authentic in a no-concessions-to-gringos kind of way, and both grilled steak tacos and a torta were fine without being special enough to rate much of a drive. It’ll scratch the itch if you can’t travel further, but I’m still looking for the great northwest side Mexican joint.

La Palapita
4263 N Milwaukee Ave
(773) 427-4438


Ben’s BBQ. I was delighted to learn that the owner of this place isn’t actually named Ben— that was just a name that was already on it. That’s in the best tradition of south and west side BBQ places, which tend to run through owners till they find the one who sticks and masters the aquarium smoker. The actual owner is a good guy— he came out from behind the bulletproof glass to offer tastes of the ribs to everyone waiting— and with the closing of the original Uncle John’s there was a lot of enthusiasm on LTHForum for this place being the next great Chicago-style African-American BBQ joint. Maybe in six months or a year; what I had didn’t have the depth of smoke of the best ones, and was a bit dried out (admittedly, it also traveled a half hour before I got it home, but I’ve driven others as long). That’s not to knock it, just to say it isn’t in the top ranks with Lem’s, Barbara Ann’s (which is back with a vengeance, though they still can’t do the links like Mack did), Exsenator’s and the others who have been around for decades. Not as good yet, anyway, but I wish them continued improvement and the customers to sustain it.

Ben’s Bar-Be-Cue Restaurant
5931 W North Ave
(773) 637-0003



Ms. Biscuit. This was a place whose name had registered with me years ago (I think Peter Engler had posted about, maybe even as far back as Chowhound) but I’d never gone, and if I was in that area (rarely), I was more likely to hit Chicago Chicken & Waffles anyway. But it got some recent LTH and Serious Eats attention (the latter by Titus again, who seems inescapable this week), so it was time to go.

Now I wish it had gotten the buzz years ago, because with various new places drawing attention for their biscuits, we need a baseline, and these are, by a comfortable margin to me, the best old school biscuits I know of in Chicago, noticeably better than the ones at Edna’s/Ruby’s. (I’m not going to argue about them vs. the higher-end joints, that’s a different animal.) Breakfast is solid and good quality overall, so I have no hesitation about an overall recommendation, but these fluffy biscuits— available grilled or regular, both terrific— are the kind of thing you think you have to go into the deep South to find. No, just south 54th street. One thing though: as you might imagine, it gets busy on weekends. Saturday morning, we probably waited 45 minutes after seating to eat. I don’t want to even know what Sunday after church is like.

Ms. Biscuit
5431 S Wabash
(773) 268-8088


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In life, some are sweet and some are sourpusses.

Lots of reviews, I’ll do a bunch of trendy places here, deal with some less famous places in the next one.

Back when I first started palling around with other Chowhounds, and especially when we launched LTHForum, those of us who were the core group were seriously hardcore— we were crazy, in that we thought nothing of driving an hour each way to go eat Tacos del Pacifico on the southeast side. As soon as Vital Information or Erik M. or Rene G or whomever found something, we’d take off for it, we had to have it, whatever it turned out to be. And we thought that we’d flush out dozens more crazy people like us over time, and to some extent we did, but we also had to adjust to the fact that not everyone who wanted to participate would turn out to be as willing to accept anything as we were. We had to adjust to people who wanted to tell us how wrong it was the way Burt ran Burt’s up in Morton Grove, and that he really needed to become more like other, normal pizza places— when it was the non-normalness that we loved about his place. Certain threads became dominated, not by people who had been there, but by people who hadn’t but who wanted to vet a place as thoroughly as possible before they went. It was a strange attitude to those of us who loved to take off for places in order to be surprised.

But apparently all that was nothin’ compared to how batshit people have apparently been getting at Brendan Sodikoff’s Dillman’s when they find that the deli— sorry, deli-inspired American brasserie— doesn’t have a deli case and sell corned beef by the pound. Outrage and personal offense, screaming and yelling, apparently. But Manny’s doesn’t have deli cases… yeah, but they aren’t in a location (the former Steve’s Deli) that used to have such things. Apparently these people have shown up wearing their jacket with the plastic pockets for carrying soup home, and they’re furious and confused by Dillman’s lack of a retail counter, and the overall look which is part Italian coffee bar, part power lunch joint with red leather booths, part Admirals’ Club at the airport… and no part the deli they expected.


Me, I just don’t see what they’re getting so nuts about. Dillman’s aims to put a new Sodikoff spin on deli classics and I was mostly pleased with the changes (and accepting of the prices the changes came at). Delis may not abound, but there are enough traditional ones that it’s certainly worthwhile to have one place taking a fresh approach to the genre. And jeez, it’s not that hard to figure out; yeah, it may have a Sodikoff look (the enormous chandelier and so on) but there are plenty of traditional visual cues, like the checkerboard tile, that say old school deli, too. Also, they put the actual list of food items on a piece of paper for you to look at. It’s not that hard.

Anyway, I had the reuben, an order of potato pancakes and the pickles. In order of satisfaction: the potato pancakes are basically the very thin-cut (almost hairy) potatoes from other Sodikoff-restaurant dishes, like the duck heart gravy hash at Au Cheval. More hash brown cake than latke, so fine, but not really a latke. (Hint: a little egg would help.) The reuben was quite good; the corned beef had a rich, quality-beef flavor (much as Au Cheval’s vaunted burger does) but what really made it was the fact that the bread might have been, at the outside, four hours old when my sandwich was made. The freshness of the bread really lifted this sandwich up.

And the pickles were spectacular. I “demanded” my pickles like the sign says— they’re free but you have to ask— and there are two kinds. The “fresh” pickles taste as good as those ever do, at Kaufman’s or anywhere, and the sour ones taste even better, though not for the faint of heart. (They tasted, in fact, a lot like Jonathon Sawyer’s beer-garlic vinegar, which Publican Quality Meats sells, though that could either be because they actually use that, or simply because they had a similarly fresh garlic-vinegar bite.) Anyway, that so much love went into the thing you don’t pay for is a good sign indeed. Dillman’s is a new kind of deli. If you can’t hack that, your loss.


How come The Little Goat Diner doesn’t stump people in the same way? It surely breaks the diner mold as much as Dillman’s does the deli mold, yet somehow it’s universally loved. As you may recall I had lunch there a couple of months back and liked the food as food fine, liked it less as an expression of a chef’s philosophy. I returned for breakfast recently with my son, figuring that if Little Goat was going to shine at any meal, this would be it. I ordered something called Bull’s Eye French Toast, which proved to be toad in the hole and chicken and waffles (but with French toast) all in one, with slices of fried chicken breast and topped with strawberries and “bbq maple syrup” (Blis maple syrup which they add smoke flavor to). There’s no middle ground on a dish like that— it’s either going to be delicious or a godawful train wreck. It was the former; here was the working man’s version of Izard’s culinary philosophy of something sweet, something savory, something acid on the same plate. I would have preferred a real chicken leg and thigh, say, over this sliced up chicken breast thing that came a little too close to being chicken fingers to me, but apart from that, it was the rare cheffy, reinvented-breakfast dish that didn’t have you grumbling for them to leave breakfast the way they damn well found it.


However, I did find execution from the busy (but not, just then, slammed) kitchen a little sloppy in spots— home fries came out sitting in a gross quarter inch of oil, and surreally, my French toast was topped with a single… kidney bean. (No harm, but odd.) But it certainly wasn’t, at least, because Izard isn’t onsite personally keeping an eye on the operation— while I was eating in the diner, I saw her go up to the pass and taste a dish (which she tweeted later that afternoon) and talk with the cooks about it for a bit, and by the time I got to the bakery next door, she was right there in the front window, kneading dough with one of the bakers.

Around the time of Pete Wells’ famous takedown of Guy Fieri’s restaurant in Times Square, I tried to think what would be the closest equivalent to that in Chicago, and I guess it would be this, in terms of TV celebrity having a splashy, tourist-friendly mid-priced spot. Except theirs is cynical to the core about providing a packaged pseudoexperience, and ours is sincere as can be about making happy food that’s easy to like and a little quirky. Chicago 1, New York O.

Speaking of drawing crowds, there’s been a lot of commentary that it’s more pleasant to go to Three Dots and a Dash at an off time, rather than Friday night at 8 p.m. when it’s full of frat boys, which is treated as if it’s an unusually keen insight into the nature of popular bars. Anyway, I went one relatively quiet Tuesday and on the plus side, my one drink (I was planning more till I tasted how strong that one was) made a strong case for Tiki as not just a silly fad, but a legitimate area of mixology. At least in Paul McGee’s hands, it wasn’t just fruit juice with lots of rotgut in it but a subtle and balanced drink of some complexity. And the soundtrack seemed appropriate to the vintage theme, which it apparently isn’t always (it is, after all, a project of the younger Melmans). What I don’t think it achieves— what popularity keeps it from achieving— is the intimacy which would allow a communion of drinkers and mixologists over tiki’s lore. I kind of think that already happened, back at The Whistler, and Three Dots, its Tiki drinks nailed down neatly on a printed page, is the final result of that shared interest, not a place for further colloquy.

Beyond that, my only complaint is… it’s not Tiki enough! It starts out well with the torches hilariously decorating a downtown alley way, and the entrance down a stairway decorated with skulls, but the room is just too orderly, a rectangle with tables set on a grid. It needs more wackiness, a big water feature in the middle or hula girls or something. Tiki is over the top, but Three Dots and a Dash is just a little too tidy— at least for what was, after all, the 1940s version of tune in, turn on, drop out.


Matthias Merges’ second bar-restaurant (after Yusho), Billy Sunday, aims for classic Americana, and the interior looks like an old time ice cream parlor gone Goth. In a town where drinks are too often overly sweet, I really admired the simple tartness of many of the cocktails, including a whole list of tonics which ain’t kiddin’ about being tonics, not cocktails by another name.

So it was a surprise that all the sweetness seemed to go into the menu, which is short but so scattershot that it’s hard to pick out a theme in a bar snacks menu whose Americana ranges from a hot brown to baked gnocchi (actually, it doesn’t range, that was the entire entree list right there). Both of the “Things in Jars” we ordered were too sweet to finish, even with very good La Fournette bread—a sweet onion and eggplant marmalade, sure, that was expected, but chicken liver with “curried raisin mostarda” shouldn’t have been as sweet as jam, too. Off the “Snacks” menu, there were many ways one might have expected chipped beef to be reinterpreted, but the deconstructed version shown above, a canoe of rye toast topped with clotted cream and cold slices of dried beef, had to be one of the least comforting, about as “Americana” as a modern art exhibit.


So my fellow diner and I were about to write Billy Sunday off for food, except we were still hungry, so we ordered one more thing. The hot brown wasn’t canonical (no bacon, the smokiness supplied by the turkey itself, and with perfectly in-season tomatoes on top) but it was terrific, exactly what one would want upscaled, modernized comfort food to be, and more understated and well-balanced than the excess that often passes for comfort food these days. How do you sum up a restaurant where you had three things that didn’t do it for you at all, and the fourth that you’ve been thinking about ever since, and that might end up on your ten best list for the year? I don’t know how to guide you; go have that hot brown while tomatoes are still good, and beyond that, you’re on your own.

Another item that said “hey, remember me for your ten best list” as soon as I ate it: a panzanella salad at Avec, now under Perry Hendrix, formerly of Custom House and Eggy’s Diner (which I liked a lot). This despite the fact that it barely lived up to its billing with corn and blueberries or something in-season like that; there were a couple of each, not enough to matter. What mattered was perfect farmer’s market tomatoes, garlicky dressing… it was summer in a bowl, as perfectly as you could ask. How is Hendrix changing Avec? I have no idea; the menu looked exactly like what I’d expect it to be at the beginning of September, many familiar things still on it, other things coming in with the season. Taking over Avec is maybe a little bit curatorial at this point, a non-broken restaurant that doesn’t need any fixing, just a sure hand to maintain it at the top of Chicago’s gastropubs, the top of our more casual chef-driven restaurants… the top of our restaurants, period.


Speaking of catching our farm to table restaurants at their high points of in-season produce… we went to Nightwood for my wife’s birthday. I finally had the pork off the spit, which was melty tender and good, and other things I got a bite of here or there were mighty fine too… but again, it was a simple and vegetable-based thing in season that wowed the most. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly what it was— kind of a salad, I guess— I just remember sungold tomatoes, and corn, and little nubby bits of wild mushrooms, and… who knows what all. Just gorgeousness. I’ll have the gorgeousness, please.

I wrote a review of Longman & Eagle— first visit in over a year— but wound up putting all the good stuff into this Reader piece. Here’s the review part, reverse-engineered out of it:

I hadn’t been back simply because, by 2012, Longman & Eagle’s progeny were all over town (especially Logan Square) and I was trying them… Longman & Eagle was the rare restaurant that spoke perfectly to its moment—comfy porky small plates with fancy, we-could-make-everything-like-this-if-we-wanted touches, encyclopedic seriousness about beer and whiskey, a uniform of flannel shirts and alt-country on the sound system, a whiff of Portland “Don’t like it? Fuck you” attitude (though the Longman folks showed some very Chicago sardonic good humor in reprinting their worst Yelp review and handing it out as a postcard). Even Michelin realized that they needed to notice it if they wanted to look up-to-date, giving Longman & Eagle the only Michelin star won by a place that would piss off your grandparents.

Returning the other night, I found a Longman & Eagle that for the first time, ever so slightly, seemed to be preserving a lifestyle moment rather than embodying the current one…

But, as I said at the Reader, the dessert (“warm, squishy squares of doughnut in a mad Technicolor knife fight of bursting, wildly contrasting flavors, black sesame puree and coconut sorbet and puckeringly tart lime-palm sugar granita”) was spectacular.

Chicken at Owen & Engine.

That said, as much as I admire Longman’s creativity and bold way with flavors, I have to say that two other places that plainly kind of followed in its path impressed me more recently than the things I had that night there. Pan-roasted chicken at Owen & Engine is a simple dish, but so beautifully done that it made me instantly regret having eaten so much of the very good grilled octopus that preceded it. By comparison, Longman’s chicken galantine was three times the work for less satisfaction, as much as I admired its smoky saucing and such. And The Fountainhead under Cleetus Friedman is quickly becoming my go-to neighborhood spot— partly because it’s far enough (a mile and some) that at least I get a good walk in. I think Cleetus is a great maker of housemade ingredients more than he’s a great chef, but any straightforward thing you have there— a burger, even a turkey sandwich— is going to be, to use a cliché of the moment, elevated by the care he took to make it what it is in-house. (A turkey sandwich sounds like boredom on a menu, but note that somehow this review has two of them in it— the hot brown is the other.) Add that I can always get a decent seat there (at Longman I am guaranteed the last, worst seat at the bar whenever I walk in) and the beer list is at least as good, and it’s a place that deserves loyalty in a transaction that’s entirely free of ‘tude, dude.

Disclosure: although I’ve met or worked with a number of the above chefs, all of the above were anonymous except Nightwood where we had a reservation, and all were paid for (though a birthday treat was sent out at Nightwood).