Sky Full of Bacon

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Liam’s top 7.

I think this was a great year for food in Chicago—so great that everyone knows what was great about it and more or less agrees already. Who can’t love 42 Grams and Parachute and Baker Miller and so on? For one more list to justify its existence at the very end of the year— when it feels like they’ve been steadily appearing since October, like Christmas ornaments at Target— it has to show rigor and novelty and not just look like a subset of the monster lists of 100 best things that suggest we live in such a renaissance of culinary wonders that we don’t even need to make choices at all.

Pete Wells introduced his New York Times list with a similar viewpoint, and in particular called out the first fish-or-cut-bait point for a critic or, in my case, a reporter who attends media dinners: “Have I gone back, or wished I could?” Which of course really means, would I spend my own money there? In several of these cases I attended media events or tried the food for free while taking its picture or something, but in every case that made the list, I returned happily on my own dime. Believe me, food writers don’t get any more sincere than that.

That helps get you past the other moral speedbump, which is that all these places are run by really nice people who are trying really hard and you want to be nice to them and like what other people like. Pick the place that everyone likes and no one will question your judgement, but no one will notice it that much either. So I try to name the places that really struck me, even if it means consigning some places I liked a lot from chefs I know to the seeming purgatory of a runners-up paragraph. I’m sorry! It’s not you, it’s me! But the heart wants what it wants, and it wants different things from all over town and at all levels, and a true list for me has all kinds of food side by side, and the presence of one is not an aspersion on another. I come back to what Duke Ellington said (but I got from Peter Schickele) about music when whether jazz could be as good as classical was a serious debate: if it sounds good, it is good.

As always, my only rules are that the citation is for at least one specific dish I loved (and more to the point, still remember), even if it’s also for the restaurant as a whole; and the dish has to be something new to me this year (so I couldn’t really credit Paulina Meat Market for the fact that their housemade pastrami seems to have taken a leap up in quality of late). Here goes:

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10. Fried chicken threeway tie: [Evanston] Chicken Shack, Five Loaves Eatery, and Fork. Hey, I didn’t say only one restaurant per entry on the list was a rule! I did two fried chicken lists for Thrillist and tried a bunch of fried chicken that was new to me this year, and three standouts deserve shared praise for being nearly as good as the platonically perfect homemade chicken in my head that I work to get ever closer to at home. The first two (one in Evanston, one a sweet breakfast and lunch cafe on 75th street) earn it for not only frying well but seasoning properly; so much fried chicken is texturally right but needlessly bland, but these places know how to use their salt and pepper shakers, and the smoky sweet barbecue sauce at Chicken Shack is the best argument high fructose corn syrup ever had for itself.

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The third, a perennially overlooked farm to table place in Lincoln Square run by a former Lettuce chef, takes a far more baroque approach to the chicken half of chicken and waffles—it’s marinated in black tea and ginger and who knows what all—but the result is wonderfully complex and crispy. Also, it comes with candied bacon.

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9. Kohlrabi salad, gemelli with sundried tomatoes and bottarga, A10. Chicago has lots of Italian food and yet I seem to have more and more friends who find it disappointing. Worse yet, I have to agree with them at least a good deal of the time—Chicago knows how to make a lot of B level easy to like Italian (-American) food, not so much A level Italian cooking that shows the Italian love of beautiful ingredients highlighted simply like jewels in a setting. The A though is well placed in the name of Matthias Merges’ Hyde Park spot, which to me, more than Yusho, fulfills his promise of bringing Trotter-level technique and precision with flavor to reasonably priced, accessible food.

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8. Pate de campagne, tagliatelle with beef heart/pig’s blood ragu, etc. Tete Charcuterie. I tried Tete Charcuterie’s food at a preview where I took pictures, and found it very well crafted but thought, well, here’s a heavy meat palace I’m not likely to go back to over and over. And I’ve been back twice myself, and set up a business dinner for my wife there as well. So I guess I liked it more than I thought! Yes, it’s devoted to meat, often pretty strongly (I had a pork liver pate there with two other diners which was a bit too strong for all of us), but the chefs are clearly guys with high overall skills who can not only make a beautifully balanced pate or sausage, but do the same with a salad or a plate of pasta, too. We remain desperately short on French restaurants, but in its own, straight-out-of-the-butcher-shops-of-Les Halles way, this is the best French restaurant opening in some years.


7. Pancit noodles, kare-kare, fried kawali, etc. Isla Pilipina. It may have been one step back for Filipino food with the quick closing of Laughing Bird, but a cuisine that baffled me for years is finally making progress toward becoming widely accepted like other Asian cuisines. For my own part, I’d tried Isla Pilipina years ago, as chronicled in a post at LTHForum that was mainly about the transsexuals who dropped in for fried chicken the same night, and not been inspired to return for a good decade. But the place soldiered on, in a Lawrence strip mall, and especially under the second generation, grew its skills and improved its menu—and returning at long last, I loved the homey yet brightly flavorful food as much as Chinese or Thai.


6. Oatmeal, toast, Baker/Miller Bakery & Millhouse. Okay, I’ll be a partial exception to the universal love for this place, even as I know and like the owners—I’m not wild about the muffins and baked goods. They seem heavy and a bit hippie coop-whole-grain-good-for-you-ish. The bread is heavy, too, but in a good way, as in, a slice of this is like eating a bread steak. It’s the closest we’ve come to lembas bread, a few nibbles filling you satisfyingly for the whole day. As for the lusciously creamy oatmeal, how often do you eat something that’s an entirely new texture? It’s miraculous.

5. Miso ramen pozole at Arami, by Rick Bayless. I considered leaving this off because it was a one-off at Arami in October, which happened because Arami chef Fred DesPres is married to one of Bayless’ chefs, but I decided, why not mention the kind of serendipitous collaboration that happens on our scene all the time? Anyway, it was the best of miso ramen, and the best of pozole, made into one hearty Japanese-Mexican dish with all the soupmaking chops of a chef who I think is sometimes more seen as a curator of food culture than the kitchen master technician he (also) is. I just remember on the first season of Top Chef Masters, Bayless was kind of condescended to by all these French and Italian food chefs, like you’re gonna win this with tacos pal, and then they’d go feed the people passing by or at an event— and they all went goggle-eyed when they tasted Bayless’s stuff, and he won the whole season. This was the kind of dish that did that.

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4. Dim sum in Toronto. There’s a whole post about that here, but to summarize, best xiao long bao I’ve ever had at 369, great pork dumplings and other things at Dragon, and the amazing King of King’s Pork candy at John’s. Thanks Renee!

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3. Bing bread, pork belly mung bean pancake, pat bing su etc., Parachute. I’ve believed Asian food is the future of American dining for a long time, but it took until Fat Rice to have a place in Chicago that hit the sweet spot of hipster, almost comfort food atmosphere with bright, sometimes challenging Asian flavors. And one of the joys of Fat Rice was watching it improve and grow more confident with each meal in its first year or two. Now I feel the same way about Parachute, which is one of our best new restaurants and gets better and more interesting each time. If you want to subscribe to a place that sells tickets for a new menu every four months, that’s all good, but for the same kind of experience, don’t forget to simply try a rising star like this place every few months during its most fertile early days of self-discovery.


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1 (tie). Charcuterie, Thuringer, Fried Brussel Sprouts, etc. at The Radler; and tasting menu at 42 Grams. I went back and forth on what should be number one before finally deciding to do the cop-out and call them a tie. The thing is, they’re such perfect examples of opposing approaches that they sum up so much about how I think about food. 42 Grams is ambitious, daring, a look-at-this! menu of magic tricks; it’s just fun to go on a journey like this, be part of the show, agree to be wowed time and again. Where The Radler is unassuming by comparison, so relaxed a neighborhood place that I feel it is underappreciated because it demands nothing of you, yet the skills at every level are so high and the finesse so exacting that you should pay it more attention. One is a special occasion, the other makes an ordinary occasion special; they’re both experiences I’m immensely glad to have had.


Places I feel guilty about leaving off:

Boka, especially after a more recent meal, Lee Wolen is making beautiful plates that are as finely executed as at any of the tasting menu joints, but in a more easygoing setting with the more traditional app-entree-dessert format. That is deservedly a recipe for packing the house every night.

MFK, which makes such nice simple stuff, I love the philosophy but maybe the very fact of being simple and direct like that makes it hard to say, “This was a wow!” about any one thing. It’s sure nice to go to and hang out in, though.

River Roast, I’m the last guy to just want a steak for dinner but I used my son’s birthday as an excuse to go here a second time and eat all the meats

Cellar Door Provisions: I have certain Kenny Z-like issues with $14 open face sandwiches with three slices of beet on them, but that great dark crusty bread and those great dark crusty croissants are, well, great, dark and crusty.

Low-end places I seriously considered: Red Hot Ranch for the fake In’N’Out burger that’s better than In’N’Out, Mezquite Pollo Express, this chicken soup

Place I just went that I’m still processing: Oaxaca

Ten best for: 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

Airwaves Full of Bacon 15: Soul Food Truck With a Side of Negro League Baseball • Hanging Out With Scott Worsham and Nick Lacasse of mfk • Why A Wisconsin Butcher Shop Was Run Out of Town • Anthony Todd on the Best of 2014

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(1:55) First up, I talk with Don Curry, who recently launched the Negro League baseball-themed Southern Pitch Food Truck. You can follow it on Facebook and Twitter.


(12:10) Then I hang out with chef Nick Lacasse and owner Scott Worsham of mfk.


That’s the razor clams dish referenced multiple times above; here’s the piece Scott wrote for Morsel. My favorite fact about M.F.K. Fisher is that she was a gag writer for Bob Hope in the early 40s, no joke.

(30:38) In 2012 I made a documentary about butchers called The Butcher’s Karma; the part about Bartlett Durand and Black Earth Meats was this segment, The Zen Butcher. We talk about what happened since then, none of it good. (There’s a longer version of this interview and a fuller telling of the story here.) Here’s Black Earth Meat’s Kickstarter.


(40:30) And finally, Anthony Todd and I talk Michelin, Shake Shack and other things.

Here’s the Kickstarter for a movie about composer Kevin Macleod.


I’ve been cranking out a ton of work for the Reader, Thrillist and other things, including two print pieces for the Reader in the next month, so blogging has been a low priority, alas. Nevertheless I want to make notes on some things before I forget them entirely, so here’s lots of notes, starting with the Montreal chunk of our Canada trip in August. If it doesn’t seem like a lot of new things to have tried, well, I also ate all of these.



MONTREAL: Other people (David Hammond) have thought nothing much of Schwartz’s, the famous Montreal deli, but besides gratitude for it being open late Sunday night when we got to town, it charmed me as old Jewish delis with the sheer exuberant life of such places always do, and the smoked meat (pastrami in other words) was plenty good. As for St. Viator’s, I wasn’t wowed by Montreal bagels, I see the virtues of the smaller, chewer bagel with a hint of woodfire smoke, but it wasn’t something that changed my life. That said, I wouldn’t be against them being more accessible, either.


The next night we ate at a cute pizza and sort of Bristol-ish meats and fresh things place called Dolcetto in the old city, which was nice, but a price tag of over $200 Canadian for a few small pizzas, salads etc. drove home just how expensive the town, especially that area, is. We decided not to even think about money for the next two nights. As I observed in the Toronto section, I typically go to other places for their unique low-end dining rather than the high-end dining which may be much closer to what I can get here. But in this case, Montreal’s high end dining seemed to promise a native Quebec cuisine you couldn’t find in other cities. Also, it was Susan’s birthday, or close enough. So we were ballers.


Joe Beef was booked weeks before, but it turns out that Joe Beef has another concept two doors down, Liverpool House, whose concept apparently is… “Just like Joe Beef.” Honestly, several of the famous dishes in the book were right there on the menu, like the breakfast sandwich with foie:


Foie would prove to be a major theme over the next two days (as would, I must admit, “excessive over-ordering”). Joe Liverpool was, in the end, a lot like porky places in Chicago, but an excellent example of the genre and all I really remember specifically after that was that we had a good time and sweated butter on the way home. The next, we had…


More foie at Au Pied de Cochon! We just got into the last available early seating and watched the place (which looks very 80s, not that there’s anything wrong with that) fill up around us. Clams with a beer cheese sauce were pretty great, Myles finally got to have poutine, in general we enjoyed Au Pied, I don’t think the kitchen is as accomplished as Joe Beef but it was satisfying, easy to see why it’s a neighborhood favorite.


But what is Quebec cuisine? I left feeling that probably more than anybody wants to admit, it’s an invention of the marketing department, like the ploughman’s lunch in England (a “tradition” invented in the 60s to boost lunch traffic at pubs), at least I can’t imagine 1900s lumberjacks really making an entire cuisine out of foie and maple syrup like this.


One other thing we did there: Liam and I went to the Jean-Talon Marche, a food market with plenty of shops for charcuterie, bierocks, etc., and an area full of fresh fruit, which I bought for the long trip back.



I didn’t really find anything mindblowingly different, but it was certainly a pleasant day with him; he’s a good, curious companion for such places. Especially when he gets a crepe. I made him try to order it in French. Did he succeed?



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Now on to things eaten in Chicago!


River Roast— I skipped a media preview for this for some other more promising preview, the idea of a meatcentric (but not steak) place on the river from Tony Mantuano (which is to say, Levy Restaurants) seemed total tourist bait. And since then… I’ve paid my own not inconsiderable cash to go, twice, and had a great hearty time both times. The whole roasted meats are all satisfying (beef and fish outstanding, chicken tasty but a little dry, a new addition of Berkshire pork very nice but a tad plain, they need to think up something to go with it), while the kitchen sent us a charcuterie platter (head chef John Hogan says he’s known for his pates; I didn’t know that, but I can believe it) that was excellent as well. I am not a steakhouse guy at all, but the hearty roastiness of everything at this place gets me right in the nostalgic comfy part of the brain.



Dove’s Luncheonette— I’ve been to this Mexican food American diner from the Blackbird etc. crew twice on my own dime, too. The first time I had pozole, right after having a special miso pozole made by Rick Bayless (as in, standing there serving it himself) at a special event at Arami (the chef there is married to one of Bayless’ chefs), which was fantastic. So Dove’s pozole was up against tough competition and I just thought it was all right; I also found it nearly impossible to dig out of the enormous bowl with the spoon, without having to tilt the spoon so far that all the pozole fell out of it.


Better was a side of beets with a little mole, but I have to say I had philosophical problems with it; it was a substantial plate for $8, which to me is completely misunderstanding the nature of diners. They’re where you go to be among people when you don’t have anyone to be among. That melancholy separate-togetherness is what diners are all about (see this Thrillist piece) AND SO THERE’S NO SHARED PLATES IN THEM. (You can share a Sun-Times in a diner; you do not share food, that’d be like getting too chummy in a men’s room.) Should have been a single portion, half as much for $4. In a diner.

Anyway, went back a few weeks later and had the one thing that wasn’t Mexican food, sort of a fried chicken and gravy plate, and I liked it a lot better. Which doesn’t really help, since it’s the only thing like it on the menu. Anyway, I have some mixed feelings (as I did about Big Star’s Mexican food in a blue collar 70s America context/concept, frankly) but as always with this group, even a straightforward concept turns out to have more than a few layers to tease through.

Paul the day man and Oliver the night man at Belmont Snack Shop.


Uncle Mike’s Place— One thing about doing that diner piece was that after a certain point, I felt like I was writing Ten Places To Get The Exact Same Thing For Breakfast. I needed a ringer that did something different, and I thought of this Filipino diner, which people like Cathy Lambrecht had written about at LTH but I had never been to. I got a big breakfast sampler that included a fried egg over garlic rice, hunks of both tocino (sweetly marinated pork) and steak, a salsa and some kind of sweetish bean puddingy thing. After trying a few better Filipino things, this seemed pretty simple in its flavors—like diner breakfast!—but a good time was had from all. I might do this once a year from here on.



MFK and Salero—Two Spanish-ish small plates places, one I loved instantly, one I don’t know what I think yet. MFK does simple, direct things with seafood. It’s the kind of place you can drop in, have three things, be full and go. Well, it’s too popular to drop in easily at night, but it is open for lunch and in the afternoon. Did I love everything? You don’t have to, you just try things and some will be really good. Like Vera.

Salero is next to Blackbird, a somewhat more formal looking space, though they’re friendly at the bar. The sardine thing shown above, that I liked as easily as I liked things at MFK. Other things, like a red pepper stuffed with short rib meat, I didn’t equally take to. How do you get one place of this kind so quickly, while another kind of puzzles you? I don’t know, but that was my reaction.

Bohemian House— The idea of an upscale Czech place downtown is improbable, and for that very reason endearing, surrounded as it is by all the blaring cliches of River North. The inside is like a hipper version of Smak Tak or Staropolska, River North’s idea of a medieval castle. The cocktails looked bizarrely sweet, the wine list, as my dining companion shelf said, looks like the middle shelf at Jewel, but the craft beer list was good. And really, what did you think you should be drinking in a Czech place, rum and coke?

I’d read a lot of praise for it, so it was disappointing that the opening courses were all about 3/4 of what they should have been, I thought. A cauliflower salad had too sharp a vinaigrette, a beet salad was all right, the short rib pierogi, gummy, were a particular disappointment. I was ready to write it off when the entrees turned out to be by far the best things—chicken paprikash was maybe a bit overwhelmed by the taste of hot paprika, but it was beautifully roasted, and a roast duck was pretty much perfect (hey, River Roast, where’s your roast duck?) So I don’t think this makes my best of the year list, but it definitely makes my Thank God It’s Not Another Italian Restaurant in River North list, and I’ll recommend it to those looking for something different.



U Gazdy— The pierogi above belong not to Bohemian House but to a rustic Polish spot out in Wood Dale, near the southern end of O’Hare, which Cathy Lambrecht wanted to check out one day. Not that the Polish restaurants in the city feel like they’ve gone mainstream, but this definitely felt even more rustically out of Chicago, like the building was entirely carved by forest dwarves, starting with rye bread served with smalec, a lard spread, which you use like butter, except for the fact that you think every bite is a mortal sin. The pierogi were very good, a nice light dough, and the schnitzel was all right, but the out-of-Chicago feel was the best part.


La Habanera— A Logan Square Mexican spot that immediately made me regret going there by confronting me with two strong suggestions of inauthenticity: a menu that translated basic Mexican food words, and a portrait of every white person’s favorite historical Mexican, Frida Kahlo. Well, that was too harsh a first judgement; it’s a real Mexican family place, with some accommodations to its neighborhood. I ordered a pambazo, the spicy sandwich where you dip the bread in a spicy chile de arbol sauce and crisp it up a little on the fryer, then stuff it with the usual stuff (steak, lettuce, crumbly cheese). I liked all that, but the chile de arbol sauce was too salty and made it a little hard to love the effect of the bread. I’d give it another try and see what the standout on the menu is.


El Conde SA— There are two of these now, one in Pilsen and one closer to Little Village, specializing in a Mexico city treat called tacos de canasta, basket tacos. They’re premade tacos which steam and stay warm in a basket; they usually just have some form of meat in them. They’re a little soggy, so after trying them in two places (the other was La Chilangueada) I may not need to have them a lot more until I’m in their natural habitat, a bar in Mexico City where someone walks in like the tamale lady to sell them. I also had a sope with carne asada and the steak was very good, so I count the tacos de canasta as a bit of a novelty but this place as a whole as a good find to have.


Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse— And one last thing which was, honestly, sublime. It’s the oatmeal at this new bakery from the former 2/3 of the Bang Bang Pie team, which makes a big deal of grinding their own flour. I talked to Dave Miller about it— he says the way they grind it leaves both big pieces and a fine powder, and then he cooks it in half and half, and the oatmeal plumps up into this lush, creamy viscous goo that has a wonderful mouthfeel. It was kind of magical, and when I redeemed my Kickstarter gifts (two bags of whatever grain I wanted), I made sure that the rolled oats was one of them.

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And finally, a cautionary tale, I guess. The irony is that food-obsessed me lives in one of the most whitebread neighborhoods for food, Roscoe Village, the epicenter of Sunday breakfast. So I was excited that we were finally getting a hip-sounding kind of place in Endgrain, which grew out of pop-up doughnuts from Nightwood, which is just about as hip as it could possibly get, right? And as it happened, a preview slideshow would be one of the last things I did for Grub Street.

A few weeks later I took the family for breakfast there. We made the mistake of arriving at 9:40 am, plenty late for breakfast if you ask me. They were open… but not open for breakfast, just for doughnuts and coffee. And the fact that we wanted to be seated, even if we had to wait to order, kind of flummoxed the (admittedly, very green) server and hostess. I basically had to tell them, look, other people are having coffee, you can bring us coffee too and menus, even if we don’t order for another 20 minutes. It was ineptitude, not malice. But it left a bad taste, to feel like we were supposed to sit there without so much as water, in a holding pen, for the crime of coming in too early for the wrong thing.

Some months later I went there for lunch. I walk in and there are people at the counter. But I immediately get the Serbian Social Club what-are-you-doing-here vibe. Uh, lunch, that’s what I’m doing here? Oh, no, we don’t do lunch on Tuesday. We do doughnuts and coffee. I suppressed saying “Not nearly enough to stay open, clearly,” and left.

And even though I’d pass it and see it open and full of Logan Square type hipsters at night, I never went back. I often thought I should give it another try, but two tries and never once feeling really welcomed into a place right in my neighborhood meant I never worked it up to try a third time.

And now it’s closed. Turns out my neighborhood full of families can’t really sustain a place whose hours have nothing to do with the normal routines of family life. At Logan and Kedzie they might have made it, but they were too out of step for Roscoe and Wolcott. Ironically, I just saw them mentioned in a national article about hip places to eat in Chicago. I’m sure they were very excited to be in Bon Appetit or whatever it was. This will finally put us on the map! But they were already on a map; they should have paid more attention to where it said they were.

Airwaves Full of Bacon 14: Hunting Frogs with Iliana Regan of Elizabeth • Hiring Grant Achatz • Wine Lists and Wine Writers in Chicago • The Squeezonk of Tolerance

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They’re out there…

and there’s only one way to stop them!

(1:15) I go frog-giggin’ with Iliana Regan of the foraging-based Chicago restaurant Elizabeth and her friends Tonya Pierce and William “Getty” Sikora, and then see how she turns foraged frogs and childhood memories into a fine dining dish. It was a long drive, so we had a lot of time to talk about foraging as a trend and a lifestyle on the way.



You can read more about this at the Reader here and here.


(24:34) Henry Adaniya (right above) was back in town for Next’s newest menu paying tribute to his restaurant, Trio, where he gave Grant Achatz his start over a decade ago. The full interview was here in the Reader but I selected an excerpt about hiring, and almost not hiring, a kid named Achatz.

Black truffle explosion

(30:36) So wine retailer Craig Perman wrote this on Facebook. Then Shebnem Ince, who works for him, wrote this, and my friend John Lenart wrote this. What are they all talking about? Wine lists, and why we don’t have more food writers critiquing them. So I gathered all three of them at Perman Wine Selections to talk about all that some more.

Shebnem Ince, Craig Perman.

(63:13) And I read a story at the last Between Bites, at Homestead, in July, called The Squeezonk of Tolerance.

Another Between Bites event is coming up at Frontier on October 20th; here’s how to find out more and get tickets.

between bites

Canada remains ever vigilant against American invasion at Fort George, near Niagara Falls.

People often ask me before I go to another big city if I plan to eat at [INSERT EXPENSIVE TASTING MENU PLACE HERE]. The answer is almost always no, for two reasons: one, I feel like I should be true to my school and spend those bucks on the people I cover in Chicago, not go chasing the shiny thing in New York. But two, I don’t feel a burning need to go eat the food of guys in New York who’ve staged at Alinea and Mugarritz and basically have the same background and outlook on international modern food as plenty of chefs here. If I’m going somewhere different, I want to eat what’s really native to and reflective of that area. Barney Greengrass means New York to me more than Eleven Madison Park does, so that’s what I want to go have.

Up to a point, anyway. So for Toronto, the most interesting thing to try for me was Chinese food; 20 years ago, before so many Hong Kong Chinese emigrated to Canada, I went to a place in Toronto’s urban Chinatown, but that’s now dwarfed by the area out in Markham and Richmond Hill, where hundreds of import businesses are served by dozens of Chinese restaurants in strip malls. But for Montreal—if there’s such a thing as Quebecois food, it’s at top restaurants like Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon, so I did what I never do and got two high-end reservations back to back at those two places (actually Liverpool House, Joe Beef’s other concept, though as far as I could tell the concept is “Exactly like Joe Beef two doors away”).


Montreal will be in part 2, Toronto in this post. But first—we had to drive there. And driving toward great food up through the back end of Ontario is a somewhat dispiriting experience, punctuated by rest stops whose choices are almost Stalinistically identical (Tim Hortons, KFC, Taco Bell, a convenience store called Marché). From there it got culinarily worse, as we went to Niagara Falls, the town of which is a nightmare of alleged fun attractions (wax museums! Dino mini-golf!) which even the kids couldn’t put behind them fast enough. More attractive for certain was Niagara-On-The-Lake, but it’s a typical weekenders’ quaint little shopping and eating town, take Napa and replace all the wine geegaws with maple syrup gewgaws. We had lunch and walked around and shopped a little, and we were done.



Finally, Toronto in time for dinner. Online I found a noodles joint called Chinese Traditional Bun that sounded promisingly funky, down some steps into a ratty little room, but with ladies making food right by the entrance. They looked at us like we had to be lost, but we convinced them we weren’t and sat down. We had pretty good xiao long bao, soup dumplings—well, Liam had most of them:

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There was also this interesting, sandwich-like thing with lamb in it. It was good, and very unusual— I wonder if it’s a Chinese thing or was invented in Toronto and has no antecedent back home to speak of. [UPDATE: see tweets at bottom.]


But the best thing was dan dan mien, with housemade noodles (below). Scissors were provided to cut them as you ate. I also ordered something that said it was a lamb stew with Chinese bread in it. I don’t know what Chinese bread is, there were lots of little pieces of what looked like pasta in an enormous, fairly flavorless bowl of weird lamb cuts. Sometimes the price of experimenting on something new turns out to be that you have to waste a huge bowl of something in front of the people who made it, alas.



On the way there we had spotted a tiny window where a guy offered lamb skewers, so on our way back we ordered the minimum order of four and watched as the guy took them out of a home freezer, rolled them in cookie sheets covered with spices, and grilled them by hand over an electric grill. This would have been more novel if I hadn’t had basically the same thing in Chicago a few weeks earlier at the skewer place in the Richland food court next to the Chinatown Square mall, but it was cool, nevertheless, to buy street food like this on the teeming streets of Chinatown.

We wanted to get to Montreal early in the week so as not to have all the driving back at the very end, so our last stop in Toronto for the time being was hitting a place in Markham for breakfast dim sum on the way out of town. We’d actually stayed in Markham, 20 years ago, when it was farm country and the TV series of Anne of Green Gables had been shot nearby (never mind that it’s set in P.E.I.) Now it was a busy suburban area loaded, absolutely packed, with strip malls of Chinese-oriented shops.


I knew there was a knockoff of Taiwan’s famous Din Tai Fung nearby, but an article in The Globe & Mail steered me to a place they said was both better and less likely to be packed, 369 Shanghai Dim Sum. Indeed, at 11 we were the second table there, though it filled up fast. First choice was xiao long bao… which were the best I’ve ever had. I’m a little leery of saying that, since there has been a lot of xiao long bao obsessiveness online, so I didn’t haul out the micrometer to measure the wrapper. I’ll just say: most delicate wrapper, best tasting soup, you can’t argue with that.



Most of the other things we had evidenced similarly quality, from shrimp dumplings to pastries filled with pork. At one point I saw something interesting on a nearby table, a bao with kind of a ridged top, something like a croissant, and quietly asked the waitress what it was, not wanting to seem intrusive toward the other table. “This?” she said loudly, sticking her finger right into the middle of their plates. I said yes and she explained that it was a snail. Or snails. I couldn’t tell if she meant it was just shaped like a snail shell, or actually had snails in it. I decided not to inflict an order of those on the family, but I still wonder.


* * *

Renee with the menus at John’s Chinese BBQ.

Coming back after a few days in Montreal I planned another Chinese-palooza with my friend Renee Suen, who writes for Toronto Life. As someone who often guides other journalists, radio hosts, etc. to places in Chicago, I was delighted when I told her that we had gone to 369 Shanghai Dim Sum based on the Globe & Mail piece by Chris Nuttall-Smith— and she replied “Yeah, I took Chris there.”

Piri-piri chicken.

We planned to meet for more dim sum the next day, so the night before we tried something else we don’t have in Chicago— we went to a Portuguese grilled chicken and meats place called Piri-Piri. To be honest, it wasn’t that different from all the South American grilled meats places we have, but it was likable enough.


You have not tasted the power of my Dragon Fu-sion!

Since we’d had Northern dim sum, Renee wanted us to try Southern dim sum too, and she directed us to a place called Dragon Boat Fusion Cuisine, which was packed and barely able to contain the crowds that hovered around the host stand and which she had to beat back out of the dining room regularly. We waited a half hour but finally sat, and it was worth it. Things maybe weren’t as delicate as at 369, which being Northern-style uses a different kind of wheat wrapper anyway, but they were well-made and the fillings were a cut above any that I’ve had here, from something as basic as pork in an egg white wrap to the BBQ pork bao and this cool-looking thing you dipped in mustard and plum sauce:


Custard buns.

BBQ pork pastries.

Yes, there were children deciding what to order.

We were full but not done; Renee wanted us to try one of her favorite dishes, something called “King of King’s Pork” at a Hong Kong BBQ place, John’s Chinese BBQ. It’s a hunk of meat somewhere in the vicinity of pork belly, double-glazed in a honey sauce. And it’s awesome, the ultimate meat candy.


My delight in it was slightly diminished by the display in the foyer as you enter the restaurant: an assortment of shark fin skeletons, a reminder that this is the real Chinese cuisine, eating endangered species to this day in north America. China really has set up shop in this corner of Canada, on a scale well beyond the ability of food writers or much of anyone else to fully comprehend.


At Fort George we saw them fire this…

In honor of these guys, Canadian paratroopers who dropped on and right after D-Day.

ADDENDUM: from a couple of friends via Twitter:

Airwaves Full of Bacon 13: Smoked Salmon Tasting With Ethan Forman of H. Forman and Son, London • Paul Fehribach of Big Jones on His Southern Cookbook • Michael Nagrant on Life as a Restaurant Critic in 2014

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It’s the very far from fat free episode!

(1:40) First up, David Hammond and I taste smoked salmon with Ethan Forman of London’s H. Forman and Son, makers of superior smoked salmon which you can find at Eataly, Whole Foods, and a number of north shore delis including Kaufman’s, Upper Crust, and Once Upon a Bagel.

Sashimi cut.

Paul Fehribach with caul fat for making chaudin.

(17:25) Then I talk with Paul Fehribach of Big Jones, who has The Big Jones Cookbook coming out next year, based on his extensive research into southern food. I’ve written several times about his digging into old food ways, like here, here and here. A longer version of this interview was at the Reader here and here.

Salt-rising bread.

Pancit noodles at Isla Pilipina.

(36:10) Then I talk with Michael Nagrant, reviewer for Redeye, about reviewing and the restaurant scene in 2014, and we mention lots of things along the way. Here are links to things he wrote about: the chicken-donut sandwich, North Pond, Isla Pilipina, Laughing Bird, Publican Quality Meats, Bohemian House, Tete Charcuterie, and MFK.

So contrary to what it says in the podcast it doesn’t look like my last appearance on WGN Radio is available online, but here’s the episode of Outside the Loop in which I talk about the food journalism scene.

A photo my son Liam took of the zoology building at the University of Chicago.

From the news our food scene seems like it’s entering a more corporate-concept phase— steak houses and ramen shops from the best-known restaurant groups, every day something interesting closes to reconcept as standard Italian, and so on. It would be easy to think that we weren’t going to see much in the way of personal restaurants this year.

And yet somehow we’ve had three restaurants open within the past year that seem about as good as they can be at giving three chefs who’ve been around the scene a while a platform for the expression of their mature selves, personal and without significant compromise. One is The Radler, for longtime Vie #2 Nathan Sears, representing his notion of a German beer hall with fresh food, meaty yet light and winning. One is Parachute, from Beverly Kim and her husband Johnny Clark, a Fat Rice-like hipster cafe with Korean flavors and fine dining execution. And surprisingly, the third is Matthias Merges’ A10, in Hyde Park.

The surprising part is not that Merges was capable of such a thing— as the guy who ran the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s for 14 years, he seems capable of pretty much anything. But his first two concepts were just that, concepts, and that seemed to be the direction he was going. Yusho seemed very smartly thought out as a kind of refined-Japanese-comfort-foody bar, and the concept was independent enough of who was actually cooking there that it would be possible to replicate at least a few times without losing quality— and so there’s one in Las Vegas, and one coming soon to the same stretch of Hyde Park as A10. His second place, Billy Sunday, seems less well thought out— I liked the drinks (a tonic-based cocktail program) a lot, but the food (helmed by John Vermiglio, formerly of Table 52 and G.E.B.) seemed a weird mess of things that didn’t go together, or with the setting.

But the point is they both seemed conceived in terms of how to market them to a certain audience in Logan Square. Very smartly so, but still. A10 also originated in a business deal— Merges was approached by the University of Chicago, which is trying to redevelop 53rd Street to help make Hyde Park more attractive to prospective students and job candidates. (You see U of C security all over the street at night, giving the entire neighborhood a kind of Universal City Walk feel even though there are plenty of non-U of C businesses along there.)


So A10 seemed like a smart concept for the neighborhood, contemporary Italian with French and just plain modern touches. (The A10 is the highway that connects Italy and southern France, so the French part is more like the Rhone and the Riviera than Paris or Burgundy.) But it’s a surprise that it also turns out to be one of the best Italian restaurants in town, and the clearest example yet of how Merges’ Trotter heritage translates to more accessible and reasonably priced food.

I should say that Vermiglio is the official chef here as well, so I have no idea who’s responsible for what exactly, but Merges did walk in soon after we arrived on Friday night, incidentally blowing my cover (I’ve interviewed him and videoed him for Key Ingredient; he sent us a couple of extra things and stopped by to say hi). In any case let’s assume a meeting of minds between the two of them on an approach to food. The salads seemed like pure Trotter’s, with hair just mussed a little for Italian rusticity— a blend of cucumber, melon, red pepper puree and grilled onions, or kohlrabi and apple slices shaved with downy parmigiano, the kohlrabi sourced, we were told, from the Cook County Jail’s gardens. Simple height-of-summer produce dressed just enough and no more, and despite the efforts at seeming more casual, nearly as perfect-looking as they would have at Trotter’s (note the spacing of the tiny bits of chopped green whatever on the kohlrabi salad above). I should note, though, that there was an exception to this that didn’t delight in the same way, a kale salad with tonnato dressing and pumpernickel (pumpernickel is the new Italian bread, apparently, to judge by this and Cicchetti). It was heavy and wintry, but that’s our fault for ordering it I guess, more than theirs for having the apparently-inevitable-at-the-moment kale salad on the menu.


More than one restaurant has gone downhill after the salad course in peak season, but not this one— the pastas, made in house, were superb. The best was this gemelli with some kind of sauce involving oil-cured sun-dried tomatoes, some kind of roe (bottarga maybe, under another name?), saffron (I think that was in the pasta itself) and lemon. I’m not sure of the precise composition of it, all I know is that it sang, it absolutely shone of lemony brightness with an undercurrent of brine and cello-deep notes of tomato. I want it for an alarm o’clock every morning, to jolt me into the light.


My son Liam had bucatini carbonara, which he pronounced excellent (I’ve made it many times; he quizzed the waitress to see if it was heavy on the pepper like mine is), and we also nibbled on green tomato lasagna with blue crab and bearnaise sauce— I wondered if green tomato lasagna would mean the pasta or what was in between them, but it proved to be the latter. I don’t think anything was either French or Italian about this, except the basic idea of lasagna, but what it did remind me of was the one thing that I had really liked among the food at Billy Sunday— their version of a hot brown, which was heavy on sliced tomato and mornay sauce, as I recall it. There was also a special of corned short ribs with cabbage, which turned out to be what that would make if you think about it— a reuben in a pan without bread, basically.


Desserts were a little anticlimactic, fine but not as creative-seeming as the savory courses; they included a nice coconut panna cotta and, as at Yusho, soft serve (chocolate malt, which had a lot of barley tang). One other thing I noted about A10— the staff seemed a little older and enthused to be there. A lot of people have wanted higher-end choices in Hyde Park, but I suspect servers from the other restaurants around the area have wanted it even more than most, hoping to make more money than you can at, say, Mellow Yellow or Ragin Cajun. For now, at least, A10 has very interactive and conscientious service which is happy to see you.

1462 E. 53rd

* * *

Salt for your fries?

When I ran across Ivy’s Burgers, Hot Dogs & Fries in Edgebrook, I thought I might have discovered a place right under the noses of many of the more active remaining LTHers who live on the northwest side. Turns out that Rene G, who lives in Hyde Park, had actually been there and eaten a Japanese dog with seaweed salad (!) there, and there are a handful of other mentions, though more about it opening soon (a year ago) than about how it actually turned out to be. Actually, you know who didn’t mention it? The guy who wrote the best hot dog in every neighborhood post at Thrillist, and tried to find every dog spot doing the Hot Doug thing of more exotic dogs. Oh well, it probably wouldn’t have beaten out Superdawg for that area anyway.

Still, let’s give it a nod, it’s always good to know a better dog and burger joint in every neighborhood, especially one close to something you might do, like bike on the forest preserve bike trails at Devon & Caldwell; and while I like the sleepy-50s feel of that area (I spent a few moments reading the 80s and 90s clippings on the front of the Filipino restaurant on Caldwell there), I can’t say it’s a bad thing that something from this century has opened up along there, too. Great smoky Polish, good-looking burgers (haven’t had one yet), the chili dog was decent but the homemade chili a little watery, eating it was a race against time before the bun fell apart; there are more exotic dogs on the menu, fresh-cut fries— served saltless so you can salt them yourself from the exotic salt bar— and good-looking shakes, plus a message about sustainability in the wood they used for their tables, or something like that. Always happy to know about one more dog spot that’s pushing the envelope and trying to do something unique.


Ivy’s Burgers, Hot Dogs & Fries
5419 W. Devon

Barbecue at Mariano’s. I wrote about the sushi bar at the Lawrence/Ravenswood Mariano’s recently, and after a couple of more visits around meal times, all I can say is Eataly missed a bet not being located here. The place gets packed every lunchtime and every night, it may not say the best things about a neighborhood if its local wine bar is where you also get toilet paper, but the neighborhood has embraced it for all those purposes. I’m going to be a little contrarian on barbecue though, at least contrary to my usual position vis-a-vis Mike Sula, who usually blasts a new barbecue place and then six months later I find it’s not bad. Sula had generally positive things to say about “Todd’s BBQ” here even if he could never find out if there actually was a Todd.

Me… well, sure, it’s high among supermarket barbecue, of that I have no doubt, because how much supermarket barbecue isn’t simply meat that’s been sauced and got no closer to smoke than the Pall Malls rolled in the meat cutter’s sleeve? They use a Southern Pride smoker, which has the potential to make real barbecue, so give them points for that right off the bat.

I ordered brisket and pulled pork; the brisket was pretty good, if awfully loose and floppy, like it had spent a lot of time in a warming drawer steaming itself. Still, I’d put it on the thumbs-up side. The pulled pork (which was, incidentally, chopped, not pulled) didn’t have enough smokiness and basically, like most supermarket pork it didn’t have much flavor, but what flavor it did have was a little off, industrially vaguely unpleasing. The sauces (in help yourself bottles at the counter) were all way too sweet, but that’s easily remedied, just buy your own of something better. There’s rotisserie chicken behind the same counter which doesn’t appear to get smoke, and some other chicken, it appears, going on a gas grill. Anyway, a fair showing but better really isn’t that far away; I will probably drive an extra mile or so for Smalls or somewhere instead. On the other hand, if one person wants barbecue and the other wants sushi, this is the place.

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I did two roundup lists for Thrillist lately, the first on hot dogs. I didn’t think there was really any way to rank hot dogs, given that you’re mostly using the same basic materials (a conclusion someone else came to shortly after), so I decided the sensible thing was to pick one good spot in 25 different neighborhoods. The north side I could pretty much cover from past experience, but it meant Son #2 and I had to make a couple of runs to the south side, trying one dog at each of several places.

Good news, bad news. The good news is that there is one glorious stretch for hot dog-dom on the south side, and that’s 35th street near Comiskey, not too surprisingly, with three joints— 35th Street Red Hots, Johnny O’s, and Morrie O’Malley’s— making as good a dog as can be found anywhere.

The bad news is: it was surprising how mediocre the rest of the south side was. In particular the natural casing dog, with its snap releasing the garlicky juices, was almost impossible to find at places you’d think would have them like Donald’s (pictured above), Parisi’s, Fat Johnnie’s (which somebody ranked as best in town once) and so on. I had a lot of lukewarm dogs in every sense, crowned a few tallest midgets like Fat Johnnie’s (at least it has atmosphere, same for Parisi’s; Donald’s didn’t make it), and am forced to the conclusion that the best dogs are mostly on the north side, except for that one great stretch of 35th.


Another list was southern and soul food. I only had to try a couple of places to fill out the list, but it was harder to do that, because you can’t go try four soul food places in one trip; more like try one, lay on the couch the rest of the day.

So it was a bummer when we went a long way for one that turned out not to be very good, like Dan’s Soul Food & Bakery on 79th. It had some good Yelp reviews and sounded promising from what they said. And it could have been if they’d ever discovered the salt shaker, or hadn’t discovered instant mashed potatoes. in other words, if it had more soul! But it was just bland, and used a couple of dispiriting shortcuts.


But I did try some better things, and I stand by all the soul food places on that list. Back on the north side, Carriage House is a place that didn’t get a fair shake the first time I went there. Son #2 basically didn’t want to eat anything, and it kind of ruined everyone’s evening. So I wanted to try it again and when he got invited to a baseball game the rest of us went. The idea is to evoke Carolina Low Country cuisine, more than the deep South food more common here, and when it does that it can be very good. The balls of braised pork topped with country ham above, for instance, were great, and so were smoked/glazed chicken wings and the fried chicken thigh (though at small plate prices of $9 for one piece of chicken, it makes any of our new fried chicken joints look like a bargain).

The problem came with things that just seemed like upscale food without any interesting southernness. A shrimp and pork belly pie sounds like a deep, savory pot pie kind of thing full of funky, fishy pork and shrimp goodness— but turns out to be two empanadas, basically, tasting mainly of dough, for an absurd $16. The menu needs an editor’s hand that says, does this one make your eyes roll back in your head with Southern flavors that sing of the heritage of the south, or could you imagine having this same experience, basically, in any kind of restaurant? There are enough things that do the first that the ones that do the second need to stop dragging them down.



Anyway, in the course of this piece there was one long trip down south that I was so happy I made. I had actually gone to Maple Tree Inn when I first moved here, somewhere around 1990. It was kind of a Cajun diner in Beverly then, run by a self-taught cook (who learned during the Cajun craze of the 80s) named Charlie Orr. It was one of my very rare trips that far into unknown territory for food back then, and memorable, though I assumed it was long gone in later years. I was surprised when LTHers remarked on it and it turned out to still exist in the southern suburb of Blue Island, in an old speakeasy building. Charlie passed away in 2010, but his family still runs it.

The house special Voodoo nuts, andouille sausage around garlic cloves.

And it’s pretty great. Not just for the extremely well-executed classic Cajun food— my crawfish etoufée was as good as I’ve ever had, well-balanced and full of life— but for the total package of being in a vintage building on a sleepy, stuck-in-the-50s strip in a small town. We sat on the veranda, which is newer and sunnier, but there’s an equal case to be made for the dark tavern front room which includes an 1890s original carved bar. If you ever want a getaway from the city that’s actually fairly speedy to get to (I thought it might take hours, but we zipped right down there at 5:30 on a weeknight), yet feels like you’ve gone off to Wisconsin with some New Orleans thrown in, it’s highly recommended.



Valois Cafeteria. You may think that I’ve been everywhere. I want people to think I’ve been everywhere! That’s part of the brand image! But there’s always another somewhere, isn’t there, and probably the most famous place left in Chicago I’d never been— famous enough that it had a book written about it— was Valois Cafeteria, the Greek steam table cafeteria line place not far from the U of C. I’d never been because everybody considers it a breakfast place, really (there is a conspicuous silence on the virtues of any other meal here), and the logistics of hauling yourself to breakfast all the way on the other side of town aren’t that favorable when you have hungry kids and plenty of places serving the same thing in between.

But Son #2 took a computer camp at U of C and he loves breakfast joints, so there we were one morning at last. How’s the food? Standard, I’d say. You could certainly have it elsewhere, and closer (to me), Greek diner food. But even on a fairly sleepy morning with not that many people in the place, you could see why it’s more than a diner, it’s the heart of a community. If you’re a college student, it feels like they’re going to take care of you and make sure you get fed. If you’re a working joe with just a few bucks for breakfast, the Greek guys behind the counter in their white uniforms look like the staff of the Ritz, ready to take care of you with military precision. I thought it was interesting that it has a reputation as the great integrated place in a segregated town, because I thought the staff was maybe the most clearly defined by race I’ve seen anywhere— the Greek guys cook, the black lady takes your money, the Mexican ladies clean up. Those lines don’t look like they ever get crossed. But it’s a well-oiled machine that helps a whole community run. God forbid anyone should ever look at that and decide it needs changing.

Life in the shadow of the Bomb at Valois.

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Airwaves Full of Bacon 12: Making Vodka at CH Distillery • Restaurant Designer Karen Herold • Lisa Shames on Chicago Social’s 2014 Restaurant Issue • Ramadan Dining With My Halal Kitchen’s Yvonne Maffei

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This is the episode whose theme is no theme! Well, I’ve just been doing a lot of interviews lately, and here’s some of them.


(2:04) First up, I go inside CH Distillery, Chicago’s first distillery and tasting room, in the West Loop, and learn what’s brewing and distilling there from owner Tremaine Atkinson. Although you expect whiskey and bourbon, it’s interesting to learn that vodka, rum and amaro also play significant roles.



(21:08) Next up I talk with restaurant designer Karen Herold about how she makes restaurants work for success and to keep people wanting to come back. We talk about the design for Balena in particular, but you can read more from her about specific restaurants in the second part of this interview at the Reader.

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(39:26) In Episode 3 I talked with Chicago Social dining editor Lisa Shames about 2013’s restaurant issue, and she’s back this time to talk about 2014’s. Lots of restaurants get talked about in this including Cocello, Nico, Cicchetti, 42 Grams, Dusek’s, A10, Tanta and The Radler.


(54:48) And it’s Ramadan, so I talk about the fasting and the feasting that happens this month for Muslims with Yvonne Maffei, who has a halal food blog, My Halal Kitchen. We met at an event organized by Chicago Foodways Roundtable at Khan BBQ. Other restaurants she mentions include Usmania Chinese, Delhi Darbar (D.D. Kebab House), and Tahoora.


Finally, as I mentioned I’ve been on WGN Radio twice recently with guest host James VanOsdol; I appeared with Barry Sorkin to talk about BBQ, and solo to talk hot dogs.


The Radler. I love Vie and feel deep sympathy with its core philosophy, I’ve known Nathan Sears who was its #2 for a long time, and a kind of casual but updated German beer hall sounded right up my alley. So why didn’t I love The Radler the first time? Things were nice enough (except the fried spaetzle, which I think are too dry, like getting Chex Mix as a side at dinner) but somehow it didn’t click for me that first night, even things others loved like the onion tart were just… nice.

And that might have been the end of it, if I didn’t know the chef and respect his work. You try a place, it’s okay, you’re done. But there had to be more, I thought. I wasn’t going to give it up that easily. A month later I went with another friend.

I loved it. I felt entirely in tune with its philosophy. Back in one of my podcasts Nathan had said “Germans eat tomato salads, but you never see a tomato on a German menu,” which to me is the most succinct expression of this restaurant’s reason for being: things grow in Germany, which don’t fit an American idea of German food, but there’s no reason not to use them. (He’s also joked, or not joked, that it’s really an Italian German restaurant, Italian techniques and desire for fresh ingredients applied to German dishes.) So you get some slices of summer sausage with a salad and spring peas, or fritters with a beet puree and fava beans. What the hell is that? A kid might put that jumble on a plate, you think. Except it’s great, the combination of salty cured meat or friedness and spring green freshness. Another example came at a all-veal dinner he did with Scott Manley at Table Donkey & Stick: slices of pink veal tossed in a tomato vinaigrette, as light and fizzy as a big hunk of cow could possibly be.

So how can a place be magical twice but strike you as a miss the first time? Is it because the seasons changed? A little, I think, things were greener the second and third time. Did I mature as a human being and a diner in a month? Hey, who am I to say. But mainly, I think it just goes to show that restaurants aren’t movies or plays or books or concerts. They’re ineffable, they’re about the moment on a certain night different from all other nights, and sometimes the moment just doesn’t work when it should. After three visits The Radler is one of my favorite new restaurants, maybe the best new restaurant of the year, doing wonderful stuff that’s different and full of life and freshness, with the stalest of ethnic cuisines. It has an easy atmosphere in a sometimes pretentious scene, it has a fine beer list of Germanish things which actually go with food because they’re not all IPAs. So go. And if it doesn’t work for you, wait a month and go again.



Kinmont. I had a great dish by Duncan Biddulph, chef of Kinmont, recently— a kind of fish soup or stew with a puckeringly strong tamarind bite. But it wasn’t at Kinmont— it was at the Reader’s Key Ingredient Cook-off party, and I clearly wasn’t the only one who liked it, since it won among the tamarind dishes and I think won the whole thing. It was a well-crafted and imaginative dish, but when I went to Kinmont, the seafood restaurant Biddulph helms from the Element Collective group (Nellcote, Leghorn, etc.), only half that equation was at work there. Well-crafted, yes— everything was well-executed, certainly, but imagination seemed much more tightly reined in. The first thing we had was the most satisfying— a trout dip, relatively simple but timeless, smoky trout and cream cheese and bits of onion and greens in perfect proportion. It not only fit our mouths perfectly, it fit the faux-midcentury-Wisconsin lodge atmosphere just as well. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely wild about the concept going in— the faux-lodge thing has been done before, in a Lettuce Entertain You way, at places like L. Woods or The Canoe Club on Halsted a decade and a half ago— but at least it was being carried off really well here by this group.

Clam chowder was likewise nicely executed, satisfying, then the main courses came… and they were perfectly good pieces of fish, cooked just right, and no more. Is that enough for a concept? It’s true to that food, but I couldn’t get that excited about a straightforward fish place that, say, makes McCormick & Schmick look really puny, but no more. It’s nice that they’re dedicated to sustainability, and I’m sure there’s a market for a pretty straight fish place as there’s a market for conventional steakhouses, but that kind of safe business dining doesn’t excite me… and when I know the chef can do more interesting and eye-opening things, I wish they were on the menu of his restaurant.



Laughing Bird. Is this finally the Filipino moment? We seem to have enough places trying to make Filipino flavors accessible through other styles of food (Pecking Order with fried chicken, Smalls with barbecue) and Laughing Bird gives us a nice, hip Filipino spot with a familiar chef (Top Chef alum Chrissy Camba, recently at Bar Pastoral). Hey, Portuguese-Macanese worked, why not this?

I hope it works. It’s not cohesive yet, at its best pulling off Filipino flavors with fine dining finesse, at its least successful (the pancit noodle dish, surprisingly) coming off like an overpriced version of delivery Thai. That’s the death for any attempt to do cheffy Asian food, the $16 dish that’s half as good as the $8 version. But the good was good enough that you hope it has the time and finds the audience to work its way to a menu that works as well as Fat Rice’s does.

A plate of charcuterie was interesting, ranging from super-smooth chicken liver to a block of grilled meat that, nobody wanted to say, was surely inspired by the ubiquity of Spam in parts of the world where Americans went in WWII. I’d have liked more Asian flavors (and fewer French or Jewish deli ones)— Mike Sula liked the little cubes of adobo gel, but I couldn’t taste anything in them. Octopus with dinuguan (a blood-based sauce) was great, though, and I especially liked the “crispy pork a la Nadim,” which seemed a train wreck by its description: a tough little piece of tonkatsu (breaded pork) atop some Manila clams in a broth the color of a fire engine, with braised fennel at the bottom. Our server, the bartender, told us to eat it all together, and he was right— that spicy rich broth brought the gnarled pork to life and the fennel gave it complexity that made me wonder why bland things like bok choy are so common in Asian cooking when fennel exists. It was a wow dish; will it and a few others make the awkward space (the former Tank Sushi in Lincoln Square, which is about big enough to play softball in) and somewhat inexperienced servers (the bartender had previously been Tank’s delivery guy; that said, he was a great host) work in time? Here’s hoping.



Sushi counter at Mariano’s, Ravenswood. Mike Sula reviewed, and had unaccustomed praise for, the barbecue from the mega-Mariano’s at Lawrence and Ravenswood, and I live as close to it as he does, so I might as well toss in my two cents. I didn’t hit it for the BBQ, though— I was still detoxing after this— instead I went to the sushi counter. And like him, I’m surprised how entirely respectable the grocery store version can be. It’s mostly rolls, but you can get sashimi and nigiri with pretty nice quality fish, and at least the dragon roll I had was done well, not gooped up as has become the common practice. It’s not Katsu, but it’s certainly as good as a better neighborhood sushi spot.


Disclosure: I was recognized every time at The Radler and comped this or that, including the veal dinner. The others were all paid for, though there might have been a comped dessert at Kinmont, I can’t remember for sure.

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