Sky Full of Bacon


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.”

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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.

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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

Ina Pinkney • Daniel Boulud Goes to Milwaukee • Paul Bartolotta on Daniel Boulud • Dr. Bruce Kraig on Street Food Around the World • Big Guys Sausage Stand


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This is the book edition, and first up is Ina Pinkney, whose Ina’s Restaurant will close at the end of 2013. But not to fear…


the recipe for her Heavenly Hots is in her book, Taste Memories. You can get it at the restaurant, order it here, or visit Women & Children First in Andersonville. The restaurant is at 1235 W. Randolph; make reservations through the end of the year at 312-226-8227. Here’s a piece I wrote about Ina.


Next I spoke with Daniel Boulud whose new cookbook is Daniel, My French Cuisine (essays by Bill Buford). The occasion was a trip to Milwaukee, and I spoke to the chef who was hosting him as well, Paul Bartolotta:


Here are Gilles and Kegel’s; I went to Uplands here.

Dr. Bruce Kraig is one of the editors, with Colleen Taylor Sen, of Street Food Around the World:


Some places we talked about include Rickshaw Republic at 2312 N. Lincoln.


Then I spoke with Brendan O’Connor of Big Guys Sausage Stand, 7021 Roosevelt Road in Berwyn. I’ve written about it and him for both the Reader and Serious Eats Chicago.

Brendan O'Connor, Big Guys


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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


Now on display at San Franscisco airport: Japanese toys