Sky Full of Bacon

So I did a couple of best of’s for Thrillist, this one of the best Italian beef in Chicago, this one of tavern cut pizza, and this one of barbecue. Mostly I had a pretty firm idea of what I thought the best for each list should be. But in each case, I felt there were a few places in each category that I had been meaning to try forever, and I should try before I passed definitive word on that category. Some made it onto those respective lists— Villa Nova lived up to its pizza rep, I was delighted to find that Duke’s on south Harlem, which I had blown past to go eat middle eastern food for ages, was as good as it was and used live charcoal for its sausages, and Green Street Smoked Meats turned out to be surprisingly good BBQ as well as by far the most faux-atmospheric fake honky tonk in town, one of those places like at Disneyland where it’s so dark and midnight-feeling inside that it’s disorienting to walk into straight from sunlight and early evening; you feel like you just blacked out for several hours.

But others didn’t quite make the cut— or didn’t come anywhere near. Here’s my report on the ones left on the cutting room floor.



There were several Italian beefs I felt I should try, including Duke’s and Bari (both of which made the list), and my son Myles had a day off from school the day I had open to do it, so we made an Italian beef expedition out of it, hitting both those places and more, eating only as much of each sandwich as seemed necessary to be able to write about it. Another one I wanted to try was The Patio on Taylor Street, and as long as we were there I thought we might as well establish a baseline and get a few pics at the original Al’s a few blocks east, so we started there. I don’t rank Al’s #1 but it’s clearly top-tier, and Myles really enjoyed it.

The Patio.

Commenters on the article plumped for The Patio but as far as I could see, its only merit is for people who think Al’s small, $7 or $8 sandwich isn’t enough food. For $6 at The Patio you get a bigger sandwich, but it has none of the spark that Al’s has— it’s a plain, fairly drab broth, and the meat is ordinary (but there’s lots of it!) Not top ten material, clearly.

Now, after the article came out people listed lots of their own choices in the comments. Some I flat out disagree with; Buona Beef isn’t much good at anything, and while Portillo’s is better, I still don’t think its beef is exciting enough to make a top ten, though I might give it a spot in the next ten. While the guy who suggested some place’s beef and cheddar croissant, well… One that really intrigued me, though, was Serrelli’s Food Mart in Elmwood Park. Now, being down the street from Johnnie’s may be as unpromising as being down the street from Al’s, but Serrelli’s is mainly an Italian grocery, and it’s primarily known for selling its premade Italian beef to people for their own parties at home— there are big tubs in the refrigerator case.


That said, they also have a sandwich counter inside, so I ordered a beef there. I watched as the guy got out some fresh roast beef, portion controlled with white paper, and dropped it into the broth. A few minutes later:


The bread was good. The broth was as good as any in town, full of bright spice flavor. But the sandwich was done in by the unmistakable fact that the beef had just met the broth moments before; it had no real taste of its own. Admittedly, I was there at a very off-peak hour, which makes me think that this all might be better at lunchtime when the meat’s been in the juice for a while in anticipation of faster turnover. Even moreso, it’s probably better at home, when you make it and let it sit for a while. There’s promise here, for sure, but an IB from the counter at almost 3 p.m. was not a contender that day.

The Patio
1503 W Taylor St
(312) 829-0454

Serrelli’s Food Mart
6454 W North Ave, Elmwood Park
(877) 385-2333



There were only two pizzas I felt I needed to try, after trying so many Great Unknown Pizzas, and only one was open for lunch, so I went to La Villa, which is just down the street from Smoque. (The other, as noted, was Villa Nova in Stickney, which made the list.) It’s really more of a banquet hall— there was a funeral lunch the day I went, but credit to our waitress for knowing how to keep a small order from getting lost behind the table of 30— and initially I was impressed by the pizza, which had a handmade, biscuity crust which was on the more substantial side of thin crust.

The problem was that after the crust, there just wasn’t much zip to this pizza. Both the sausage and the tomato sauce were too mild to make much of an impression. This wouldn’t be a bad pizza if it was your local delivery choice, but I can’t recommend it for any great distance of travel, which is essential to making a list like this.

La Villa
3632 N Pulaski Rd
(773) 283-7980



I actually had two barbecue lists in the works— one for Thrillist and one for Where Chicago which isn’t out yet— and of course I wanted them to be different in a way that was tailored to their respective audiences, so I’m not going to give away ones that didn’t make the former but did make the latter. Except that I do want to encourage people to check out one that made the latter list, which is Uncle J’s on 47th. If it sounds like Uncle John’s… yes, it’s his daughter and her family. Joe Roy turned it up in this Serious Eats article on the heirs to that beloved, now-closed BBQ spot, and I have to say, it’s awfully close. Maybe a touch Uncle John’s Lite, smokewise, but it jumps to being one of the best places that’s also pretty accessible (a pretty quick jaunt from 43rd on the Ryan). Anyway, the tips and links will bring you back pretty quickly to Uncle John’s (though that may not be so necessary; check out this intriguing bit of intel at LTHForum).


And I’m going to put in a word for another place that didn’t make either list, but I think deserves more respect than it got by being stuck in a bro-bashing train wreck of a thread at LTHForum, which also takes Mike Sula’s review as gospel, untried, which isn’t fair, I think. Admittedly, I had an unusual experience of Old Crow Smokehouse in Wrigleyville, which was that a PR rep and the chef stopped by my house with a box of things to try. (Curiously, they left off the Asian side of the menu that Sula describes entirely.) So take this hack plug with whatever tub of salt you want. But I thought the brisket and the smoked chicken were quite good, and I thought the housemade sauces had some real kick and complexity (I saved a couple of them for future use when the meat was all gone). The chef, a former steelworker turned midlife BBQ guy working long restaurant hours, has a good story, too (I wonder if a bit of the LTH antipathy has to do with perceived loyalty to a rival midlife BBQ guy). Anyway, if you actually try it for yourself and agree with Sula (who didn’t slam it as badly as some places), fair enough, but I think it deserves more of an actual trial than it seems to be getting. Again, we come back to Mike G’s Axiom of Modern BBQ: almost any BBQ place open right now would have been the best BBQ on the north side in the 1990’s.

Uncle J’s Bar-B-Q
502 E 47th St
(872) 244-3535

Old Crow Smokehouse
3506 N Clark St
(773) 537-4452

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.


So here we at the end of another year, a year in which I stopped being a Grub Streeter and started being an audio podcaster and a regular Reader contributor. For me the year is summed up by two conversations I had that are on Airwaves Full of Bacon shows. The first was with Lisa Shames, who does CS’s restaurant issue; she said what seemed to be the trend of the year was personal restaurants driven by the interests of their creators. The second, three or four months later, was with Anthony Todd, and we noted the fact that the second half of the year seemed to be much more about big projects, big corporate restaurants.


So which was right? Both in their time, but as I look at the things I like… they’re pretty much all from the former category. The meals I loved were from labors of love, which mostly aren’t big corporate restaurants aiming to pack them in (though occasionally they can be; Three Dots and a Dash, for instance, would fall into both categories). But for me, consistently, the best food and the best experience was also the most personal food and the experience that came most from the heart. And so these are the meals I treasured from 2013 (basic rules: dishes tried for the first time in 2013, nothing against old favorites, and this isn’t a magazine charting the best openings, so if it opened in 2012, or earlier, doesn’t matter):

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10. Pork shoulder tacos, cheesy beef, brisket chili and other things at Cookies and Carnitas— A last-minute fave, too late opening to make all those mid-December “Best of 2013” lists, but this creative taco and other stuff joint is everything good about our food scene in one taco: guys with big name training going out on their own, and taking farmer’s market stuff and making insanely delicious regular guy and ethnic food at affordable prices in an underserved neighborhood.

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9. The French Laundry. With a couple of more weeks to think back on it, I feel that this meal was more of an historical experience more than a cutting edge one, a trip to see where today’s cutting edge grew from. But hey, I like going to places that encapsulate a certain time, though usually it’s more 1929 than 1999. Anyway, I think it was worth it for the classics like oysters and pearls which are genuinely great dishes, and for the overall treatment of the guest which is as good as I’ve ever experienced— but for a great meal of this type, you don’t have to leave Chicago, see below.

8. Midnight Special at Leadbelly. If you liked Kuma’s but didn’t like the scene it became, check out this cheerfully semi-obscure neighborhood joint on the far northwest side with a gentler rock and roll attitude and, frankly, quite a bit better burgers, houseground meat on housebaked buns, a good bottled beer list and some crazy toppings— my favorite, so silly it makes me smile, is the Midnight Special, inspired by Frito chile pie, which has pico de gallo and actual Fritos on it.

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7. Sumi Robata Bar. “In an age of giant restaurantosauruses, Sumi Robata Bar is a little jewel box of a place devoted to the most direct and simple way of presenting beautifully crafted food straight from the kitchen to the diner sitting right in front of it as it’s made. It’s remarkably satisfying to see someone realize the vision in their head so completely and successfully.”

IMG_8215 Hot link, Big Guys
6. Hot Link at Big Guys I’ve been to this Berwyn place making their own sausages twice, and I’ve written about it twice— for the Reader and Serious Eats Chicago. And in a podcast. And now here. I really like these no-artsy-fartsiness sausages: “My favorite, the Hot Link, is an excellent rendition of a fat, spicy smoked Chicago hot link, topped with barbecue sauce with some kick and soothing pineapple cole slaw. Simple and to the point; it isn’t served from behind bulletproof glass, but other than that it has all the other satisfactions of a trip to a South side barbecue joint on a bun.”

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5. Peekytoe crab in tomatillo sauce, Nordic beet dish and other things at Sous Rising: “I could go on course by course, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise and in any case, it’s sort of not the point, I don’t want to do 7 THINGS YOU MUST EAT AT SOUS RISING RIGHT NOW, because in so many ways it wasn’t about the food in a list-the-ingredients sense, certainly not in any my-carrot’s-morally-superior-to-yours way… It was about the pleasure of experiencing someone else’s pleasure at making food for you, and the shared pleasure at the table as we had each new thing set in front of us… Maybe something in fine dining has gotten a little too pinched and status-driven at times, though I’d blame media at least as much as chefs for looking at food in terms of gets and firsts and musts. But all it takes for all that to melt away is one chef to welcome you into his space and make delightful things for you. Well, two chefs and a server-slash-wife— this was, as much as anything, a meal suffused with the happiness of two people who are happy at home.”

Sous Rising is now gone but it’s becoming a restaurant called 42 Grams; read my interview with them here.

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4. Kouign-amann and other things, including the Counter Culture coffee, at Bad Wolf. “Jonathan Ory doesn’t look like he makes pastry. Corned beef sandwiches, more likely, at first glance. But some of the most gorgeous classical pastry in Chicago is coming from the (large) hands of the big, bearded, balding Ory, in tiny quantities that sell out almost every day at his Roscoe Village coffeehouse.”

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3. Grace. I don’t typically get to go to things at this (price) level enough to have a sense of their development, but I went to Grace three times in the past year (twice as a guest) and so I saw it evolve with practice. What I think I saw, more than anything, was the food move from being more of a visual experience to one that successfully combined visuals and flavor into a unified experience. There were standout dishes from the beginning but a tendency— as in the photos above; I only shot pictures at the first of the three meals— to make everything into a sprawl along the plate, which I guess is kind of an Eleven Madison Park influence. (You see it at many restaurants of this type, not just Grace.) It’s beautiful to look at, and part of what you’re paying for is the sheer pleasure of transient art being made just for you, but the problem I have with this style when it’s applied to everything is that you can wind up eating a whole meal of, basically, little salads.

Over the year I think the dishes have tightened up and gained focus, while maintaining the delicacy and artfully crafted visual effect that Grace had had all along. And at the most basic level, I came away from the most recent menu (officially 9 courses, but there’s always a few extra things tossed in) thinking there were about 4 or 5 wow courses in the meal, not just 2 or 3. Add in perhaps the best service in town— at least the best combination of knowledge and relaxedness— and you have a series of dishes that are always engaging to look at and puzzle out a little, but are also focused enough and varied enough to deliver the flavor pop and lushness that makes it a consistently great journey of discovery. Which to me, is what you pay this kind of money for.

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2. Brisket bibimbap at Smalls Smoke Shack & More. I’ve heard people talk about this place as if it’s promising but inconsistent. Wow, not my experience at all. I’ve eaten from it four times and been deliriously happy every time whether it was pulled pork, brisket, or fried chicken. And I love the combination of Texas BBQ with Asian sides (although the elotes never did much for me); to me that reinvents the genre, accompanying classic barbecue with lighter sides that have some Asian vinegary sparkle. But best of all, orgasmically good, is the brisket bibimbap, which I wrote about here at Serious Eats: “The smoky salty greasiness of the brisket transforms everything it soaks into, imbuing it with a late night honky tonk vibe bibimbap has never known before.”

1. Crazy squid, chili clams and others, Fat Rice. And if meals are a journey… and I said they are so I’m stickin’ with it… the place that has offered the most eye-opening, different and exciting set of journeys this year has been our first and only Portuguese-Macanese Asian hippie cafe. My first review here saw it as more promise than greatness, the second quite a bit better, but I’ve been back several times since then and each time there have been remarkable new things showing different sides of this fusion, sometimes bright and light (like the spicy chili clams), but more often deep and funky and full of flavors to burrow into (most recently, the bacalhau and the crazy squid). Along the way Fat Rice has gotten consistently, and rapidly, better at bringing every dish to a sharp point, using spices and vinegars to make them bright and invigorating. There’s no place where I’ve felt more that my horizons expanded every time I went, no place that I’m more excited to go back to and see what’s new at.

* * *


There were a lot of lists of the 149 or 212 best things someone ate this year, which is an impossibly large number to deal with (or to have any sense of what it says about the critic). Instead, I’m going to try to make my runners-up as practical as possible. These are all things I was happy to eat and would be happy to return to, and will hopefully give you some new ideas of places to go:

• Best new Korean BBQ joint to open in decades, Gogi
• Pineapple fried rice and other things from Silom 12. A lot of excitement about the Thai food at Rainbow Thai Cuisine from the LTH crowd, and I’m happy about Spoon’s venerable nam khao tod living on there in fine form, but this is where I think new things are happening in Thai food, for me anyway.
• Chicken wings, DAK
• The beautiful bibimbap at En Hakkore (though I am not any great fan of their paratha Korean tacos, which are too sweet).
• Hot and sour soup and Dungeness crab at Go4Food in Chinatown
• Crab and other things at Nha Hang on Argyle
• Shoyu ramen at Ramen Misoya

• Best new Eastern European-Russian joint to open in a long time, Chill Cafe
• Turkish breakfast at Pide ve Lahmancun
• Grilled kabobs at Manara
• Well-made, fresh-tasting old school pizza at Bartoli’s and Pizza Castle, new school at Forno Rosso and the one with grapes at Floriole and, yes, Eataly.
• The sides and oh yes, also the chicken at Honey Butter and the biscuits at Ms. Biscuit (both in this post).
• Butter beans at Parson’s Chicken & Fish
• Smothered pork chops, caramel cake, Macarthur’s
• Meatball sub at Bombacigno’s J&C
• Italian beef at Joe Boston’s
• Cherry lambic sorbet at Jeni’s Ice Cream

• Grilled chicken at El Pollo Real
• La Gringa at L’Patron
• Brisket cemitas from the Smoque-Cemitas Puebla collaboration
• The non-authentic but authentically delicious Cuban sandwich at Sauce and Bread Kitchen
• Anything John Manion puts in an empanada at La Sirena Clandestina

• It’s too late for the unfiltered, mindblowingly un-wine-like Sicilian wine and the clams dish in Telegraph’s Sicilian-themed wine dinner, but I think their monthly wine pairing menu series is one of the best, reasonably priced alternatives for those who find Next too expensive now (or all along).
• No, you can’t eat that, but yes, Next: The Hunt was probably the best Next meal I had, and the climax of my Next experiences— which is why, as its prices rise to a level only Next could command, I feel it’s time to move on.
• I’ve really turned around on Yusho, which I’ve gone from not thinking much of to really liking over multiple visits.
• Out of season, but sure to return: the panzanella at Avec (I know there’s mixed feelings about new chef Perry Hendrix among my friends, but that was flat out one of the best things I’ve ever had there)
• The one cocktail I had at Three Dots and a Dash which I hope will be followed by many more
• The tonics at Billy Sunday, the pickles at Dillman’s, the sort of salad thing at Nightwood, the dessert at Longman & Eagle (the last four all in this post)
• Lamb meatballs, coconut gelato/macaroon dessert, Found
• Shortrib sandwich and brussel sprouts, Farmhouse
• Lobster salad at MK
• And of course, the premiere party at The Butcher & Landan.

No, I haven’t eaten there yet: Tanta, A10, Dusek’s, Nico, etc.


• Brisket dish at Milkwood in Louisville
• Xochitl salami (with chili and a little chocolate) from Milwaukee’s Bolzano Sausage (now at Eataly)
• Pulled pork sandwich from Fatted Calf
• Chocolate croissant, well done, Tartine
• Cheeseburgers from Sport Burger (in an original Valentine building!), Wichita
• Po’ boy at Dommelise’s

Ten best for: 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

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).