Sky Full of Bacon


If 2020 was adjusting to a new reality, 2021 was new reality and old reality all mixed together. We returned to restaurants, and we returned to restaurants shutting down because somebody on staff got COVID. We traveled– I even went overseas– and yet by year’s end travel seemed to be shutting down too.

So who the hell knows what’s next. Myself, I didn’t go to restaurants in 2021 nearly as much as in past years, partly because I just have adjusted to a new life doing more cooking at home, and partly because I’ve been working on this book, so I didn’t knock myself out to go to every Esme or Rose Mary that opened this year, and there’s just no way to keep up with all the things that pop up doing Malaysian food via announcements on Instagram, sold out in three minutes. So after two decades of being on top of such things, I yield that floor to others. Still, I ate some good things around the world, here were my favorites:


10. Sochi
This new Vietnamese restaurant in Lakeview just seems a cut above in everything, deeper flavors for familiar things like pho and a bowl of cellophane noodles and grilled pork.

9. Date shake, Shields Garden, Palm Springs CA
Ice cream shakes made with brown sugar-y date sugar are a local treat in Palm Springs. We tried Shields Garden, which has been cranking them out since 1924, and even shows a free film explaining the sex life of the date, hyped in classic roadside attraction fashion.


8. Frenchie, Lardon
The new place I’ve been to the most this year was Lardon, a Logan Square restaurant built on its in-house charcuterie program, by chef Chris Thompson (who was chef at the better-than-it-has-to-be Southport spot Coda di Volpe). They’ve expanded quickly to dinner and other things, but I love their original lunch menu of sandwiches and meat and cheese boards, in particular the Frenchie, crusty French bread with a schmear of pate, brie and their housemade ham.

7. Talard Thai
The best Thai grocery in town also has a cafeteria area in the back that, like Immm Rice and Beyond, serves from a steam table, so things have the long-simmering depth of flavor of the best street food in Thailand. I usually don’t really know what I’m getting there, just point at anything that looks good and get three things for about $10, but I’ve been happy with practically everything I’ve tried.


6. Tasty Cuisine
A couple of friends invited me to a vintage Chinese restaurant in the burbs (Des Plaines). Oh, exciting! you say. Well, it may look like your typical takeout Chinese place, and mostly it is, but they knew the daughter of the family that runs it– an influencer– and that got us the food they make for themselves, like this shrimp-toast chicken, chicken fried with the shrimp paste you put on shrimp toast. It was the most eye-opening Chinese meal I’ve had in some time.

5. Colombia Tierra Querida dessert, Adorn
I consider hotel restaurants guilty until proven interesting, but one that made it this year was Adorn, in the Four Seasons. The chef is Johnathon Sawyer, who won a James Beard award in Cleveland, but besides doing idiosyncratic food for a hotel (you may have tried his vinegar at Publican Quality Meats, you’ll certainly try it here), he hired a terrific pastry chef in Juan Gutierrez (ex of Longman and Eagle and other places), and gives him his head with imaginative desserts reflecting places like Mexico, India and Colombia.


4. Sardinian sheep cheese
I went to Pordenone, Italy in October for the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Pordenone is not the most historic place in Italy, but it’s fairly prosperous (they make Electrolux vacuums there), so they make up for it by bringing in festivals of all kinds. One day, in the plaza in front of my hotel, there appeared a regional foods festival, meats and cheeses from Alto-Adige or Sicily or wherever. I brought home some hard cheese but my absolute favorite, but too fragile, I thought, to travel, was the Sardinian soft sheep’s cheese offered by this lady– ambrosia in curdled milk form.


3. Bolognese in Bologna
While in Pordenone, there was one day I felt I could skip the films, and so I took the high speed train 3 hours away to perhaps the top place in Europe I’d wanted to go and never been: Bologna. As you probably know, a town named for lunch meat is going to be quite the foodie paradise, and I noshed and brought home anything I thought could travel, as well as having lunch at a place festooned with many stickers of recommendation from guidebooks called Anna Maria Trattoria, where I had perfect fresh spinach pasta with bolognese, followed by a roast goose leg and potatoes fried in what tasted like goose fat enhanced with butter. Simple and perfect.

2. Mom’s pork nam prik, Hermosa
I finally went to one of the Cambodian dinners at longtime favorite Hermosa, and it was excellent overall, but one thing in particular blew me away for depth of soul, a funky nam prik (I think) with hunks of pork by owner Ethan Ling’s mom. It was worth hanging on to for spreading on other things all night.


1. Oriole
There’s one dish in particular I could name, housemade tofu with fresh herbs and I think a coconut broth– it was very white and green, I know that much. (That’s not it above, but it’s similar.) But really I just have to say that for all I liked new places I tried this year, Oriole remains in a class by itself for imaginative food, warm and well-informed service, and an overall rewarding and appealing experience that, at the end makes you happy to open your wallet and pour out everything you have. They deserve it for making you feel so good!

I’ve been making ten best lists forever at different places; here’s the whole list of them:
2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003