Sky Full of Bacon

My Top Ten of 2011

Here’s my list of ten best things I tasted this year, most of which you can still go out and have, though considerable airfare may be involved. As I did last year, I disqualified all the Key Ingredient dishes because they’re just one-offs made under unusual circumstances; I also decided not to count the one-night-only “Modern Midwestern Cuisine” dinner planned by Steve Plotnicki and Bruce Sherman at North Pond, although it was good enough to qualify and certainly has me interested in visiting North Pond again after some years since my last visit,not to mention some of the other restaurants involved such as Niche (St. Louis) and June (Peoria). (You can read more about it at Grub Street Chicago.) Michael Nagrant and I will delve into the year in far more exhaustive detail at some point this month, though we both took vacations at the end of the year rather than knock heads in time for Jan. 1.

10. My strawberry-mint-basil jam— For a party this year I made a Dale Degroff cocktail combining these flavors with gin. I liked the combination so much I made it into jam with good things I bought at the Green City Market, or even grew myself. It’s really good, you’re just going to have to trust me. Or make it your own self next year.

9. Corn cake and greens, Yah’s Cuisine— The least likely spot on this list goes to a south side vegan soul food restaurant visited after shooting an interview with Peter Engler for my barbecue video. Before the visit, I’d have said the soul in soul food inevitably came from pork; Yah’s deep, heartfelt food proves me wrong. (Or proved; there’s some reason to think that Yah’s is closed, though no one has confirmed that.)

8. Ham sandwich et al., Roscioli, Rome— We ate a fantastic meal one night at this artisanal deli/foodshop with a pop-up restaurant on its premises, full of great handcrafted Italian tastes, and had great takeaway pizza from its neighboring bakery a day or two later, but maybe the champ of all was the greatest ham sandwich of my life— as good a vehicle as any fancier dish for demonstrating how something can be even more than the sum of terrifically well-chosen parts.

7. Short ribs & spaetzle, etc., Perennial Virant— So, yeah, I said what the ad says I said, sort of, if you read this post it’s more or less there. But it’s not number one on my list, did I mean it? Well, yeah. I mean, there were other restaurants I loved on first visit (Vera and Telegraph and Bar Toma and who knows what), and they may well end up on a ten best list once I’ve been to them a few times, maybe even ranked higher. But Perennial Virant seemed like a culmination for Paul Virant as I’ve followed him over the past few years, his food a little more casual than in Western Springs, newly in a BoKa Group high-energy city setting, yet nonetheless fully realized out of the gate and perfectly attuned to my tastes. Even so, as successful as PV’s PV is, it seems half-overlooked already— there are so many openings, novelty smacks you in the face almost daily, and Virant has been such a familiar figure that you don’t think of him as having not been here all along and thus something new in town. So stop to smell the short ribs and spaetzle— Paul Virant, once out in the suburboonies, is now right down the street from you, buying from the market and cooking it that night to bring out all its smoky porky fresh farm flavor. Doesn’t that deserve as much cheering and insane hype as anything that happened this year?

6. Sehzade Erzurum Cag Kebabi, Istanbul— Winner of this year’s Screw the Fancy Stuff, Just Give Me Meat Over Open Fire Award goes not to the latest barbecue joint I’ve discovered, as it usually does, but to Istanbul’s possibly unique old school cag kebap spot, located near the Sirkeci station where the Orient Express ended. The preindustrial ancestor of the ubiquitous doner kebap, cag kebap is handcut lamb stacked onto a giant metal skewer and roasted sideways over fire, then hand sliced and threaded onto skewers. More to come on this in an upcoming Turkey post, but suffice it to say that the owner is brother to any great BBQ pit master— picking out just the right mix of crispy and fatty bits and occasionally rounding out a skewer with burnt ends from the tray below.

5. Tarte flambee, Paris-Brest, Balsan— Will Balsan under chef Danny Grant be around next year to make anybody’s list? With the sale of the Elysian it’s an open question, and pastry chef Stephanie Prida has already moved on to L2O. So this choice reflects the ephemerality of the magic that comes together in high end restaurants, but the two visits I’ve made this year to Balsan all confirmed that— especially for a hotel— this is a great big city restaurant with high capabilities and the kind of cosmopolitan atmosphere that makes you feel cool for living here.

4. Pleasant House Bakery. If the video above doesn’t explain why I keep going back for that mushroom and kale pie, go here.

3. Dry chili fish filet, Chairman Mao’s Favorite Pork Belly, and others, Lao Hunan— I said somewhere that this was the best Chinese meal I’d had in some years, then had to think what that previous milestone would be— which, in fact, was probably Lao Sze Chuan. In any case, an overfamiliar cuisine (Chinese, in all its gloppy Americanized familiarity) came to new life at Tony Hu’s newest and so far best attempt to showcase a particular regional Chinese cuisine— and teach us how much more there is to Chinese food that what we know and take for granted.

2. Lots of skewers, Yakitori Totto, New York— “If there was a place like this in Chicago I’d become an alcoholic just to hang out there every night. Or a yakuza.” Well, maybe there is one now, given all our Japanese bincho grill openings. I haven’t found its equal yet, but I’m willing to give them time. And my liver.

1. Everything, The Butcher & Larder— As I said in the Reader’s best-of issue: “When Rob and Allie Levitt walked away from Mado to open an artisanal butcher shop and have regular lives as a family, it was hard to see how cold raw meat in a case could compensate for the loss of all the beautiful things at Mado. Which just goes to show how little we understood Rob’s vision, and how quickly he’d turn his butcher shop into one of this city’s most essential spots for food appreciation, education, and evangelism.”

No place in town has given food more respect and meaning in the last year, no place, not even Next for all its fertile creativity, has thought more about food and done more to convey that thinking to its customers and get them thinking too. And if these all seem extravagant claims to make about a place selling raw meat for other people to cook along with a couple of prepared sandwiches each day, well, I’m at work on a video to validate that claim, so give me a little time to make that case in full. Working at the most elemental level of cookery, with the most direct contact with farmers and animals, The Butcher & Larder is the food revolution people like Michael Pollan write about at the level of rubber meeting the road. And that people have gone so wild for it is one of the most encouraging things to happen on our local food scene in years. None of which, however, should be taken to suggest that their placement at the top of my list is because of anything other than food— than the ground beef and sausages I’ve bought there for hamburgers or pizzas, the roast beef or porchetta sandwiches I’ve eaten there; the top spot is more than sufficiently justified by the amount of deliciousness they brought into my life last year.


I don’t usually do worst of the year, but the greatest disparity between hype/acclaim and actual execution had to be Shake Shack in New York, whose rare-well burger (one side was one, the other the other), frozen Ore-Ida fries and lukewarm shake would get Danny Meyer run out of Wichita on a forklift. But then, Wichita is a serious burger town, unlike New York City, which is a trendy burger town.

Here are other things I enjoyed in the last quarter, most of which you could go have now; you can see previous quarters by clicking on “Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately” under Categories at right.

• Red snapper, bluefin sashimi at Arami, though didn’t like the cooked stuff nearly as much
• Chestnut and buttermilk doughnuts, Doughnut Vault
• Fish course, cider doughnuts, Madeira-maraschino cocktail, Next Childhood menu
• Chocolate frosted cake doughnuts, Zettmeier’s in Tinley Park
• Speculoos shake, Edzo’s
• Rabbit bolognese, octopus, Telegraph
• Pork belly, octopus, Vera
• Lentil (maybe) soup, Barwaqo Kebab
Bob Andy pie, made by me
• Duck sugo, fish & chips, Owen & Engine
• Low country oysters, Chicago Food Film Festival
• Sunchoke-hazelnut soup, Acadia (preview)
• Walleyed pike, Cafe des Architectes
• Olives, burrada, espresso at Bar Toma
• Shoyu ramen, Takashi
• Tequila manhattan at Trenchermen preview
• Potato pieroshki, Bai
• Honey Butter Fried Chicken at Dose Market
• Blueberry-bergamot preserves by Marianne Sundquist/Mess Hall & Co.
• Strawberry marshmallow, 240sweet
• North Shore Distillery Aquavit, at Ikea Julbord dinner
• Omelet full of lentils at Lula Cafe
• Side of blue cheese coleslaw, Knockbox
• Assorted dishes at Ciya Sofrasi, Istanbul, post to come
• Assorted pizzas at Pizzarium, Rome, post to come

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

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