Sky Full of Bacon

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

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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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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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