Sky Full of Bacon

Hanging with the makers of Chicago’s modest ethnic cuisines.

This is my tenth ten best list (links to all are at the end of the post) and one that marks a significant change. When I started compiling them a decade ago, it was very much with an eye to advocating the little joints, the ethnic spots, the finds to be found in the urban wilderness (or on trips to areas of regional specialties like Austin). I praised fine dining when it was excellent— Trio under a young fellow named Achatz, Avenues under Bowles, Spring, Moto, Schwa, Blackbird, Vie, beloved departed Mado, Longman & Eagle and Ruxbin all have turned up over the years, among others. But the real point was to call out the wonders of everything from TAC Quick to Burt’s Pizza to Smoque to Sun Wah to Taqueria Ricardo to Taza Bakery to Khan BBQ to Pleasant House… all those little places that everybody knows, now, as part of the fabric of the city.

And now I have a job which is primarily engaged with the world of fine-ish dining, or “chef-driven restaurants” in the too-precious but somehow unimproved-upon phrase, and I get to go to a lot of fine dining places… and guess what, there’s a lot of that on my list. Okay, so I guess that means, middle age happens, you go from one side of the political spectrum to another, from being current with music to satisfied with the oldies, you eat at fewer hot dog stands and more white tablecloth places, right?

Some of that, probably, but I don’t think it’s that easy. The thing that happened to fine dining in this same decade was that it got funkier, realer, more attuned to the things that made that ethnic food great. And the places I really loved this year and thus made this list bridge those two opposites— they make straightforward food rooted in tradition, but because they’re from people with more formal training and expertise, who shop at farmer’s markets and all that stuff, they are faster than the mom and pops to reach the sublime. (Not always— it remains true that a $1.50 taco is nearly always better than a $3 taco in this town— but in the best cases, yes.) So here’s my list, no longer mostly cheap but still, I think, mostly funky; as always, this is stuff new to me this year, don’t assume that I don’t still love Butcher & Larder or whomever:

10. Grilled langoustines, brussel sprout salad, merguez empanada, seafood moqueca, La Sirena Clandestina. I’ve been surprised to see middling reviews for John Manion’s South American place, which scored 4 out of 6 dishes for terrific funky, get-down flavor for me. Maybe there’s some inconsistent execution in a new place, maybe it helped that Manion told me what to order (the middling reviews had none of the above in them except the risotto-like moqueca, which they all praised), but order the list above and if it doesn’t make you happy from the inside out, I don’t know what would. The next night at L2O, as exquisite as some of those seafood creations were… Manion’s charred, funky langoustines kept popping into my head.

9. Bacon bread, brussels sprouts with kielbasa, Allium. I’ve had other plenty good things at Kevin Hickey’s reinvention of the restaurant in the Four Seasons into a high-end tribute to his south side origins, but these two seem the most iconic because they show off the remarkable trick he pulled off, bringing a pure shot of authentic Chicago (the bacon buns inspired by Bridgeport Bakery, the coarse, porky Polish kielbasa tossed with charred crispy brussels sprouts) into the most generic of environments, the international hotel dining room, and appointing himself the south side’s culinary cultural ambassador in the process.

8. Phil’s Last Stand. Phil’s imitation In-N-Out burger is my favorite burger of the moment, but most of what else he does is dead-on (char dogs, crispy fries)— while I admire that his media-savvy doesn’t extend to irony. This isn’t a reinvented stand, or a take on a stand; it’s just a stand, and glad to have it. (Curious note: I wrote the foregoing, then a few days later had a chef say almost exactly the same thing to me about a completely different kind of place.)

7. Steelhead trout, Kai Zan. Okay, so when I finished Next Kyoto, I was pretty sure it would be on this list. Beautifully crafted, well-researched, full of interesting surprises… and I have to think about it to recall something from it. But mention Kai Zan and I instantly see this suggestively silky and supple square of fish, dressed with admirable restraint. Not only see it, but remember what it was like to put in my mouth. If I’m still thinking about something two months later, how can it not be on my list?

6. Manila clams with merguez broth and other things, The Purple Pig. The first couple of times I ate at The Purple Pig, I found it a clever downtown imitation of a real pork-lovin’ place a la Vie or Mado or Avec. Seemed like a nice job by some sharp guys of concepting up a restaurant for the Michigan Avenue crowd, much like all our new diner places. Slowly, each time I’ve returned, The Purple Pig has labored to convince me it’s the real deal, and I accept that now. Did it get better, or did I get better at ordering from it? Maybe both; I kind of ignore the charcuterie, for instance, and pay more attention to vegetables or seafood, and that great not-too-sweet dessert of faro in a mascarpone-like cream. This clam dish was a marvel, porky and briny at the same time, and it is not alone on this menu in being wonderful.

5. Kentucky Bourbon dinner at Big Jones. I’ve always liked Big Jones but, you know, it’s easy to like southern food, doesn’t mean you think it’s great great. Where chef Paul Fehribach soars is in his regular historical dinners, which recreate recipes from specific places and eras— doing what Next does in a single night. This 1830s Kentucky bourbon dinner was fascinating for serving things people would be afraid to eat now (calves’ foot jelly, which was pretty wonderful, actually), things that tasted more like honest home food than restaurant food (mutton barbecue), a door opened into another world that was completely unlike anything else on our food scene this year.

4. Anise hyssop and others at EL Ideas: “I gathered that this is a problem he’s had with some local critics, too— not being sure his restaurant is real enough and serious enough to be worth the investment, of time or money… Let me cut to the chase and say that you have nothing to fear and a lot to anticipate excitedly from EL Ideas. If it’s not a “real” restaurant, then too bad for real restaurants, because in so many ways it’s a warm and engaging experience like fine dining has often forgotten to be. I didn’t entirely buy Foss’s line of patter about the setup overlooking the kitchen space being cozier and more welcoming and erasing the barriers between the chefs and the diners, but that was, in fact, pretty much exactly what it was, and what it did; even if you don’t leave your seat and wander into the kitchen while they’re working, you have no more distance from the chefs, physically and otherwise, than you do from a friend throwing a barbecue in his backyard.”

3. Nathan Myhrvold’s dishes at the Charlie Trotter 25th anniversary dinner. Well, here’s the exception to my general theme. As much as I’ve enjoyed molecular tricks in the past, Myhrvold’s ultrascientific approach took it to a new level— as in the centrifuge-spun caprese salad which was only a tiny shooter of tomato water and separated whey… yet tasted like the most amazing caprese salad you ever ate with an actual fork. It was a real mind bender, to have so much real flavor in such a disembodied form— but it’s not just about tricks; Myhrvold’s pastrami, which happened by some process too complicated for me to recall after a couple of glasses of wine, was utterly delectable as, unmistakably, meat.

2. Publican Quality Meats. Given what’s going on here with housemade sausage and bread and so on, I wanted to love the first round of sandwiches, and I… liked them. None was as good or rich or multidimensional as the one bite of the cocido I had one day, which had the benefit of that more deeply flavorful sausagemaking downstairs. I’m not saying I didn’t go back there a lot, but it wasn’t with quite the rapture that others felt for this place, based on the sandwiches. Then came the chicken parm, and then the PB&L (a pork belly and lamb sausage), and for me PQM hit the magic sweet spot of blue collar food made with artisanal care… and now I would tell anyone that PQM is on the short list of true must-visits in Chicago.

1. Vera. People ask me if I have a favorite restaurant. I don’t, really, because I have to always try new places; I’m not a guy who has a place that he goes back to over and over. But I had a favorite restaurant, once: Rob and Allie Levitt’s Mado. I loved the freshness and simplicity of how they treated things from the farmer’s markets. I loved the spirit of adventure in the air. I knew them and trusted them, and I mourned Mado not being in my life even as I admire what they’ve done next (The Butcher & Larder). And the closest I’ve come since then to feeling the same about a place has been Vera, Mark and Liz Mendez’s restaurant, which is officially a Spanish tapas bar, but to me is just a place that does kind of Mediterranean stuff with whatever’s at the farmer’s market, sometimes makes great things, sometimes makes just pretty good ones, but the great ones are terrific (boquerones, grilled tongue, and whatnot) and everything speaks of simplicity and honesty and directness in its path from the soil (or the sea) to my mouth. It’s my favorite restaurant. I think.

Other things I thought seriously about putting on here, besides Next Kyoto: Next El Bulli (at least what I had of it); Nellcôte for rabbit sausage and Taleggio with green onions and grapes and speck pizza; L2O for the earliest, most delicate courses, like the cauliflower mousse; crispy tripas at La Chapparita; chicken soup with crispy rice at Lao Shanghai; pizza from Armitage Pizzeria; braised escarole at Eataly; fried pickle salad at Stout Barrel House; polenta with pork belly and schweinekopf at Table, Donkey and Stick; fried dino-chicken wing, Golden Palace.

Best Things Eaten in Late 2012 List (click Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately under Categories to see all these lists):

• Grilled langoustines, brussel sprout salad, merguez empanada, seafood moqueca, La Sirena Clandestina
• Red skin mashed potatoes, The Southern
• Fried chicken, Macarthur’s
• Pollo tinga, La Catrina (3658 W. Diversey)
• Maultaschen with chicken consommé, schweinekopf, polenta with roasted bacon, Table, Donkey & Stick
• Mussels with coconut broth, Libertad
• Pastrami hash, Eggy’s Diner
• Doner, Iskender doner, falafel, Zizi’s
• Edwards Surryano ham, both by itself and at Avec
• Lots of things at L2O, almost all on the delicate small piece of fish side, but the desserts are pretty great too
• Greens at Pecking Order
• Grilled sardine, African chicken, Fat Rice
• Gyros, Covo Market
• Ramen at The Aviary
• Ramen at Ginza

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

Let me end with a toast to using the internet to share the delight of food and good company; I raise a new Chicago brew I can’t wait to try with Thai food…

For Sky Full of Bacon’s 20th episode, I take a trip to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands— and find the same issues there that farmers, chefs and diners face in the midwest, but with palm trees.

Eating locally, farm to table, ethnic food cultures— this time the subject matter of Sky Full of Bacon finds a new, tropical location. I’m invited to the St. Croix Food and Wine Experience in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but go beyond the fancy events in the resorts to see the whole picture of food on this small island (pop. 40,000). From beer-drinking pigs to a rainforest farm which sees farming in terms of how it affects both land and ocean, it’s a picture both familiar and exotic. (33:25)

Here’s the St. Croix Food & Wine Experience site.

Here’s ARTfarm on Facebook.

Here’s Jason Kessler, who’s in my video, writing at Food Republic about two of the places in the video, the market and Ridge to Reef Farm. The top photo in the market piece will look very familiar once you’ve seen the video.

One idea I had early on for a Sky Full of Bacon video was following a restaurant from beginning to opening— seeing the decisions that are made behind the scenes that shape the diner’s experience in often invisible ways. But I didn’t have the contacts to get in on the opening of a major restaurant from the beginning. Until I was at Grub Street Chicago, and I was approached about doing something about one of the biggest openings of the year, Grace, from former Alinea #2 Curtis Duffy, very early in the process. Hey, I have just the idea for how to cover that, I said.

And so in late March I met with Duffy and his architect in the gutted space to talk about how this blank canvas would become Duffy’s vision of a restaurant:

Construction is a long process, but it’s not the only thing happening in the development of a restaurant during those many months. In May I met with chef Duffy and his new manager/sommelier, Michael Muser, to talk about how you create a wine list for a restaurant that doesn’t exist yet:

By July they were starting to get the restaurant’s furnishings in, and so we talked plates, glasses, silverware, and how you shape the guest experience with all of them:

In September I returned to the space, built out but far from finished, to talk about how the restaurant was designed to facilitate a certain service flow that maximizes both efficiency and the gracefulness of the guest experience:

The restaurant was finally ready to open in December. I returned on their very first night of paying service, a week before the official opening, to conclude the story:

(To see the original posts that ran nationally at Grub Street announcing the videos, click on the months highlighted in the text above.)

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The fifth and final chapter of Finding Grace, my series about the creation of Curtis Duffy’s Grace, is here:

A corn husk broth, simple and remarkably satisfying.

If Michelin ever actually wrote a review of Next, which it apparently refuses to do, it would say less about Grant Achatz and chef Dave Beran’s ever-changing dining experience than the fact that Next seems to make Michelin’s head explode does. If Michelin is all about adhering to a rigid set of standards, Next is all about doing it new every time— and about a virtuosity that mocks the claims of authenticity that are at the heart of Michelin’s traveler’s guide mission. The guidebook to what to eat there meets the restaurant that brings every there to here.

But having eaten Next two and a half times— the half was noshing about half the El Bulli menu in the kitchen while it was being photographed on opening night— I think it’s not hard at all to see the consistent restaurant under the changing themes. Sourcing is more diligent and far-reaching than anywhere in town, technique is extremely refined and precise, though sometimes too much of it can be applied— pastas seem to be a problem and the chicken noodle (made mostly of meat glue) in the Childhood menu was an example of a trick that was better to contemplate than to actually eat.

Each meal is essentially theatrical as much as culinary, though the danger of coming off like EPCOT is always in their minds. So the menus, even when they follow a traditional format like kaiseki, also function as a kind of wordless narrative which takes us through the moods of the cuisine in question, with certain evocative tropes— like scattered leaves— which obviously have meaning to Achatz and Beran (both small town Michigan-raised) reappearing across wildly different themes. You’re dining within someone else’s dream of a culture.

In contrast to the kitchen’s exacting, if unspoken, vision, the atmosphere at Next still has some of the casualness of the relatively low-priced adventure that it started as (but quickly ceased being when it turned out that demand was through the roof). The staff seems young and sometimes a little giddy, their enthusiasm about what Chef has done shading toward fannishness; and the room is deliberately neutral, meant to evoke a train station leading you away (but also reminding one of a simple storefront theater where Shakespeare and Mamet get the same minimalist setting).

A sauce for one dish.

I liked the conceptualness of Childhood as a show, but didn’t come away desiring any of the dishes again. Kyoto, hewing closer to a real-world model, is far more successful in food terms. I’ve had kaiseki and omakase meals before, and this wasn’t the most out-there by any means; this meal at Sankyu, for instance, was more of a mind-blower in terms of strange textures and new experiences. But the microfocused precision of Japanese food is as good a fit for Next as anything they’ve done, and the meal was, simply, beautiful, a series of exquisitely executed dishes which gained in dramatic effect from their placement within the Next storyline, which took us from fall to winter, and in and out of the farm and the sea. And in and out of Japan and the midwest; a number of dishes were altered to make use of American ingredients, introducing homey midwestern flavors like corn or maple into a Japanese-context dish and, somehow, producing the shock of the familiar as palates prepared for the exotic were suddenly taken back to, well… childhood.

Things I remember as particular delights— a smoky corn husk broth which set the autumnal tone, and was amazingly satisfying and comforting; duck prosciutto, pretty as ribbon candy, tucked among the leaves of a “forest floor” course; a maple-tinged chawanmushi; a hearty broth, similar to the ramen they’ve been serving at The Aviary, served with wagyu beef; a persimmon filled with persimmon gelee and accompanied by edible maple leaves (and lots of powdered sugar; they were a bit bitter). Some courses were overly salty, especially a course of fried items, and though the robata-style box with pieces of brook trout was a cool presentation, I suspect it was a more exciting dish on days when it came with eel, as it apparently does.

And for this meal, not wanting to lose the delicacy of the meal in alcohol, I chose the non-alcoholic pairings and had a fascinating, if not always easy, series of teas and concocted sodas— though there was one, using roasted barley, which immediately conjured up a very midwestern picture indeed. I even passed it around and the same thought occurred to others in our party— “Convenience store on the highway.” Somehow the roasted barley suggested, with remarkable precision, the smell of a 7/11-type mini-mart downstate, mixing coffee burning in industrial pots with donuts in the air, maybe a little pine-scented air freshener. The power of food to evoke specific places at Next is truly extraordinary, even when it may not be intentional.

Pickled complements to something or other. See more of my photos at Grub Street.

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Before Next I stopped at La Sirena Clandestina, John Manion’s South American-inspired restaurant (see my interview with him here), to have the drink that would take the edge off and ease me into an evening of non-alcoholic pairings. (As it turned out, Next had the same idea; even the non-alcoholic meal started with sake.) I didn’t taste anything, but I could tell I’d be happy hanging out here and eating Manion’s Brazilian comfort food.

And so I did and I was. La Sirena Clandestina reminded me of its neighbor down the next block, Vera, which is never a bad comparison— the restaurant with the least touristy frillery evoking the place turns out to be the one most true to the spirit. (Well, never bad except to Michelin, who overlooked my favorite restaurant of the year entirely in favor of mediocre white tablecloth spots.) I’ve been kind of burned out on South American food in Chicago— too much of it seems muted, like canned food, a dim reflection of what must be brighter and livelier at home. Manion puts the life back into South American flavors in dishes that had the freshness of good ingredients, whether it was an empanada filled with sharp, funky lamb merguez, a tart shaved brussel sprout salad, or massive shrimp dripping with butter, char flavor and the sea. Best of all is moqueca, something like a South American risotto in that shrimp, mussels and some kind of white fish sit atop a heat-tinged soupy rice which is incredibly comforting (but has too much kick to be lulling). As at Vera, things tastes like themselves and are never dressed up to the point of losing themselves; only enough to be even more of themselves. There’s an essential honesty to the cooking that puts La Sirena instantly among my favorite openings of the year.

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Strikingly similar to some of La Sirena’s stewy dishes is a dish like the African chicken at Fat Rice, a comforting dish full of good fresh finds (hunks of potato or whatever) hidden beneath its main protein. Otherwise Fat Rice, which is mostly Asian and specifically aimed at recreating Macanese food (the food of the Portuguese colony of Macau, and its European influences), is mostly about Asian flavors, but there are similar virtues in the way it highlights fresh ingredients. The dishes that have equivalents in local Asian restaurants bring brightness and clean flavors to sometimes muddled dishes like potstickers or the flat noodles in XO sauce.

Other dishes are, mostly, just simple and good— a crispy grilled sardine, or a clear pumpkin broth. I don’t think the food is as sharpened to a fine point of finesse as Manion’s food at La Sirena is; his is great out of the gate, Fat Rice (which just opened a week ago; we may in fact have been the first customers to actually eat on its opening night, though it had been doing soft opening dinners for several days) will be more of a journey of discovery. As comfortable as a dish like the African chicken is, you want to believe there’s a sharper, more refined dish to be found within it. Yet there’s so much to like here already in terms of good ingredients and honest approach that it, too, becomes an immediate favorite; I will be happy to see how it’s progressing every few months or so. And to congratulate when it wins a Bib Gourmand, Michelin’s pat on the head to restaurants they don’t quite get, but feel like they should be seen to like a little.

Disclosure: I was known to, and comped some items at, both La Sirena Clandestina and Fat Rice.

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I was approached by Shin Thompson of the former Bonsoirée with an offer I couldn’t refuse: shoot 6 pop-up dinners by 6 chefs vying for the job of chef at a new restaurant in the former Bonsoirée space called Table, Donkey & Stick. The restaurant’s theme was “Alpine Inn” and each chef was given a fair amount of leeway to execute their vision of hearty, welcoming Alpine cuisine using, if possible, whole animal cooking.

It was like a homemade Top Chef! I also knew it would take over my life for a couple of weeks, but that’s okay. So here it is, 24 minutes of video shot and edited entirely by me within a couple of weeks:

How did it all turn out? Go here to find out.


At some point at dinner at Elizabeth a thought crossed my mind: is this the end? This was not a comment on the imaginative and thoroughly interesting meal, but rather on myself, as I waited for the next entirely new and novel taste sensation to cross my palate. We had the deer menu, which is the foraging-based one, and while there were many things in it which were familiar— I believe I’ve had carrots before— there were also some that had come out of a forest one way or another, from autumn olives to matsutake mushrooms. And forest food has a distinct difference from plant or root food— it’s intense, woodsy (well duh), and… not exactly food, to our sensibilities. More like something between food and not-food. So when I ingested something like spruce soda, part of me was excited to be opening new territory on the border between food and the country next to it, but part of me was haunted by a thought… so have I exhausted the world of food? Are there no new flavors left in known cuisine, that I have to go hunting for novelty in a land beyond food?

Iliana Regan’s response to this would surely include the observation that many of the things I’m assuming to not be food have been food for other cultures and eras— spruce, to name one, was used like hops are today in beer around George Washington’s time. Or they’re simply other forms of food— those carrots are wonderful, but when their familiarity is joined with Queen Anne’s lace jam, all you’ve done is reunited today’s carrot with its grandmother’s flower. (At the bottom of that Queen Anne’s stalk is a little bulb that would eventually be bred into the modern foot-long supermarket carrot. I learned that in a Sky Full of Bacon video.)


The other thing is that if you want to talk not-quite-food, there’s plenty of modernist manipulation going on in this meal, in which twigs and sprigs rest atop emulsified stabilized this or that. So if you think Elizabeth’s little storefront is doing a sort of eccentric, primitive folk art food— a reasonable impression from media and Regan’s deceptively dreamy manner— there’s also plenty of cutting-edge technique under the Etsy-obsessive picnic in the woods image that she’s constructed.

But how was the food, you ask, suspecting I could go on for paragraphs in this vein. And you’re right. This is a meal that everyone who thinks about their food should have in order to think about it, and conversely, if you’re going to go there because it’s new and trendy but you’re going to be disappointed that it didn’t hit familiar notes, please, spare us all and go have a steak at Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf.


Elizabeth has its moments of conventional comforts— a ragu on top of polenta is warm and comfy, and without being told you’d never know the odd thing about it, which is that that’s not beef, it’s raccoon. Right where you want a red meat course comes a course of venison, both loin and a sausage wrapped in cabbage (which led to the only real executional misstep of the night, in that my wife’s wasn’t warmed properly). Matsutake mushroom tea isn’t expected, exactly, but it’s certainly warm and nurturing. But most things are out to surprise you in some way. I loved a bite the menu simply calls “rice crispy,” which had puffed rice and other savory flavors topped with a single chip of air-dried… did she say bear? I think she did. The meal ends with a caramel whose comforts are instantly undercut by a livery tang. Even at the end, you’re not getting out of these woods easy.


All this happens in a small storefront where the kitchen is entirely open to the dining room; the obvious comparison that everyone makes is Phillip Foss’s EL Ideas, but I compared that experience to a backyard barbecue and it has a definite party-at-Phil’s-place vibe, a downshifted haute cuisine that says “I could make you the most precious thing you ever ate, but I’m just going to make something that sounds good to me.” Elizabeth by comparison looks as quietly, seriously efficient as surgery back there, and if the welcome is genuine in its desire to make us part of the family— at one point, we’re moved up one communal table, to the one the Owl menu diners have just left, to be closer to the kitchen and the other remaining diners— well, Regan seems relaxed and whimsical when she comes out to introduce a course, but everyone else works like they have a boss who wants things just so. (People have worried that her scant kitchen experience suggested that Regan was taking on way more than she could manage with the three menus running side by side. Talk to her for five minutes and you realize that, like Grant Achatz, she’s the type who knows exactly what she wants and doesn’t screw up anything, ever.)


As in the movies, where a “personal vision” these days is something a director brings to a corporate property like Batman, the restaurant scene has gotten so good at blending chef’s strengths with huge commercial projects that we take it for granted that any chef’s goal is to get to the 500-seat restaurant which updates the traditional genre with farm to table ingredients or a knack for charcuterie or whatever will keep the chef happy cranking it out night after night. Elizabeth is a restaurant not so much opposed to thinking about a restaurant that way as simply existing in another dimension where the question doesn’t make sense. As with a Terence Malick movie, either you’re in for trying to keep up with a completely personal journey, which will sometimes frustrate you but promises showing you something you’ve never seen before… or you shouldn’t even start. Part of the thing about going in the woods is that people do get lost there.

* * *


Of course, we haven’t really exhausted the world of food at all; even when we’ve tried something, who’s to say we’ve really had it? Surely part of the fascination with food comes from its evanescence— one person says X is the greatest barbecue place in the universe, but on the day you go it isn’t and some other place blows you away. In Spain I had delicious iberico ham at every opportunity, but transcendent iberico ham only once, at an upscale restaurant. What was the difference?

I went with two friends to Kai Zan, the new sushi restaurant of the moment, at least the moment between B.K. Park leaving Arami and the launch of his upcoming Juno. It’s a tiny place, where I was wedged into a table like I haven’t been wedged into anything since my late grandfather’s early 60s British sports car. We ordered the omakase, which starts at $50, telling the waiter that we’d pay a little more for something exceptional, we weren’t afraid of anything, and we didn’t want to just see tuna and salmon all night. He immediately called our bluffs by saying that they had live uni (sea urchin) tonight, would we be interested?

I’ve eaten uni. I think I even liked it once, at NoMI Kitchen where it came with iberico ham and avocado on toast. I’m not opposed to it, but let’s face it, it’s got all the squishiness and fishiness that says to a westerner, you’re eating something that you shouldn’t be and you will be paying for it later. (To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever felt ill off it, only during it.) But I was in the kind of company where we all felt, if you’re promising us a better uni experience— it wasn’t actually live so much as “extremely recently dead”— then we should, in the name of our honor as gentlemen and officers of her majesty, eat uni.

As it turns out, we ate a lot of uni. Possibly 50% of all the uni I’ve ever eaten, in fact. One grade of it was in the cup above, alongside a scallop and a shiitake mushroom. More of it was in something else, and then finally came our live uni, half a dozen pieces draped on a plate. I would have happily not eaten any more by that point… but I also would have been sorry not to have had this uni. Squishy, yes, fishy, no, it was mild and tasted of the sea in a clean way. It was the best uni of my life, in the sense that it explained why I disliked previous uni but not, entirely, why anyone should really want uni— why it’s a food at all (except for desperation by seashore-living peasants millennia ago). But that is part of what I find fascinating about Japanese food— they seem to live much closer to the border between food and not-food than I do (though quite possibly they feel the same way about westerners).


Another thing I had I have no such ambivalence about. It was some kind of wild trout— I forget the exact descriptor, but this was plainly cold-water fish, muscular and yet ribboned with lush layers of fat. It was easily in the five best pieces of sashimi I’ve ever eaten, delicate yet firm, fatty yet meaty, containing contradictions and multitudes… and, significantly, prepared with a confidence that it needed nothing more than the sprig on top and the lemon below.


Sushi falls into two schools these days— there are a few minimalists remaining, like the great Katsu, but the trend these days is to gussy fish up with other flavors. The late Kaze restaurant (Kaze the chef is now at Macku) was a notorious practitioner of this with his banana toppings on tuna and the like, those rolls full of mayonnaise and sticky-sweet sauce are the ubiquitous offenders, and I wouldn’t say this kind of thing is strictly unknown at Kai Zan, but it’s kept from overwhelming the fish (or the fresh wasabi, which made many appearances, unmistakable both on looks and the lack of the instant horseradish burn). A couple of dishes got out of their control— a starter with a raw quail egg in it was like taking a swig straight from the soy sauce bottle— but most were simple and successful. On the whole, they’re buying beautiful fish, treating it with respect and enhancing it in only small ways. And the final tab for a meal which wedged us even further into our tiny table was all of $75 per person (it’s BYO), even with every special in the house thrown in. I tweeted this when someone broke the news of B.K. Park leaving Arami:

BREAKING: Katsu back to being only place to get sushi in Chicago

Which may not have been strictly true, but came closer to it than you’d wish. Kai Zan steps us that much further back from apocalypse.


Disclosure: my meal at Elizabeth was comped, as a media guest. Kai Zan was paid for.

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Well, I’m a full month behind on tracking my favorite things I ate this year, so here’s the list for July through now:


• Cheese curds at The Old-Fashioned in Madison, The Brewery in Mineral Point
• Ribs, 17th Street BBQ, Murphysboro, Illinois
• Filipino soup at Max’s
• Grilled beef tongue at Vera
• Fries at Au Cheval
• Fries at MBurger
• Beet, chicken tacos, Bullhead Cantina
• Manti at Afghan Kabob
• Margherita, sausage at Armitage Pizzeria
• Nathan Myrhvold’s modernist pastrami, caprese salad shooter, Trotter’s beer-can squab with tripe ravioli, at Charlie Trotter’s 25th anniversary dinner
• Tea-smoked duck at Lao Yunan (former Spring World), different from other Tony Hu versions
• Bonsoiree a la Beverly Kim: Chawanmushi, smelt, makkoli cake
• BLT dog, Bill Kim’s Urban Belly Dog, Franks N Dawgs
• PB&L (pork belly & lamb) sausage at Publican Quality Meats
• Phil’s Last Stand’s imitation of an In’N’Out burger
• Burger with tomato jam at Burger Bar
• Fried Dill Pickle Salad, Stout Barrel House & Galley

Armitage Pizzeria.

Trenchermen: bacon cured sweetbreads, smoked sturgeon dish, heirloom tomato salad, coffee cake with smoked meringue
• Choucroute garni at Everest
• Sopa Azteca, Masa Azul
• Taleggio with green onions and grapes and speck pizza, rabbit sausage, Nellcôte
• Deep Purple Poutine, iNG
• Rice Krispy, carrots, raccoon ragu and polenta, Elizabeth
• Salmon from Ming Tsai’s new book at Takashi
• Lots of fresh uni, wild trout, Kai Zan
• Not-perfect-yet chestnut pasta with guinea hen sugo, Avec
• Duck and vinegary slaw ordered by pointing at what someone else was eating, Pho Xe Lua
• Ramen, Ginza
• Chicken soup with crispy rice, Lao Shanghai
• Enormous roasted chicken wings, Golden Palace
• Calamari dish, Bar Ombra
• Chicken boti, Ali’s BBQ
• Butternut squash velouté, fall chocolate dessert, Acadia
• Miche, La Fournette
• Hard kiwi-quince jam, from Orianna Kruszewski at the Green City Market
• Smoke cocktail, Allium
• Something from The Aviary… wish I could remember what…

Beets, Vera.

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Me in full Guy Fieri mode at a fundraiser for Share Our Strength, in which local food writers were challenged to identify ingredients blindfolded.

One year ago tomorrow I took over Grub Street Chicago. Actually, I started posting two weeks before that, but at that point I was filling in after Nick Kindelsperger’s departure (mainly because I had just done the same several weeks earlier when he went on vacation). It took two more weeks for me to officially become the guy.

At the time, I must admit, I wondered if I could do it; I had done it for one-week stints and usually overdid it so much (wanting to show off) that I was exhausted by week’s end. It was also a question for me if I wanted to continue on the path that had gone from being fervent advocate for small joints without publicists at LTHForum to covering mostly mid to high end chefs with Key Ingredient; I mean, I liked reading about Next and Graham Elliot and so on, I certainly liked eating at them, but writing about them for most of your day… it was a question worthy of some thought deeper than “What, you mean I can actually get paid for this?”

In the end I decided that writing for Grub Street offered the most important thing any job can— the opportunity to make my own opportunities out of it. So sure, I cover the sceney-scene, and some of it means covering total BS places, but it also means that when a glitzy place like Nellcôte comes along, I can focus on the side of it that’s more real and chef-geeky and interesting to me, and not just whether or not it’s hot enough to draw a Landan twin. In the end, I think that given a choice between seizing an opportunity to see what you can make of it and shying away from it, you should usually do the former and see where it goes. So I did, and have had many reasons to be glad I did. Any gig where covering Charlie Trotter merely proves to be the stepping stone to getting an inside look at a barbecue competition (they have the same publicist, as unlikely as that may seem) is offering something way more diverse than just the chance to eat on the cuff at fancy hotels.

Anyway, to mark the occasion, I thought I’d link ten of my favorite things I wrote during the past year there. (I left videos out of the equation, because they’re already linked to here on the masthead.) Most of it’s daily journalism, and as easily discarded, but a few were done with more care and bear rereading now. Here goes:

The taco slideshow (of several national slideshows where I contributed a Chicago section, this is the one I devoted the most love and care to, including shooting every single photo myself)
• Giving Michelin crap about ignoring Next
Occupy Next? The Economics of Privileged Dining
• Interview with Andrew Zimmerman (I’ve done several interviews I’m proud of, but this one probably has more solid, no-BS commentary on being a chef and training young people than any of them). Part one; part two.
• My sociological analysis of the Marilyn Hagerty-does-Olive Garden brouhaha
• My take on the Trib’s somewhat one-sided take on Charlie Trotter
• Is This The Worst New York Times Piece on Chicago’s Scene Ever?
• Edward Gorey at the Opening of RM Champagne Salon
• My Oral History of the 24-Hour Chowathon (part 1; part 2)
• Swedish Restaurant Owner, Leader of Vanished Community, Dies

Scouting tacos for the taco slideshow. Photo credit: Liam Gebert.

Watch 4th-generation Italian grocer Jim Graziano wrestle with an 85-lb. parmigiano-reggiano cheese as he tells his family business’s story. (7:26)

The fourth chapter of Finding Grace, my series about the creation of Curtis Duffy’s Grace, is here:

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