Making my list of favorite Chicago restaurant dishes of 2011 was particularly divergent from previous years for a number of reasons. 2008 and 2009 were years of exploration. Like the first year you had an income and lived near record stores, your collection went from Dylan, the Beatles, the Pixies, the Clash and every artist on the Singles Soundtrack to obscure singles from Neutral Milk Hotel, the Beta Band, Gomez, and A Tribe Called Quest. The whole world is at your finger tips and everything is new and awesome. 2010 was a year of deep diving and expensive, epic festivals. I had built up enough experience in 2008 and 2009 to know what to look for and had established go to’s that were putting up exciting dishes on a weekly basis. I also had the time, resources, and inclination to invest in tickets to multiple dining events where I could eat 25-30 dishes from the best chefs in Chicago. Then comes 2011, during which there were a number of big developments.
Mado closed – Yes, my favorite restaurant closed in 2010, after a Halloween blowout, but the hole remained well into 2011 where my better half and myself would wander the landscape looking for soulful restaurants that grabbed our heart the same way that Mado did. Nearly a year later, we think that we may have found one (see #2). On the flipside, we now have an absolutely amazing butcher in Chicago and Rob and Allie have a lovely little bundle that they now have some time with whom to spend.
We took a kid-free road trip to San Francisco – Our week-long trip West reopened my eyes to what Chicago does well and what it does not. There is a strong civic, almost defensive, pride to the Chicago dining scene that causes us to go other places expecting to look down on the city’s scene. We found the opposite to be true in San Francisco which really is an amazing city to visit as someone who loves food, coffee, and wine. We found ourselves saying, “Man, if Chicago had something like this, it would absolutely kill.” From the local food market in the Virgin Terminal at SFO to the Blue Bottle/Four Barrel/Ritual coffee roasters and shops to the Ferry Building Market, it seems like areas that Chicago is making strong efforts to improve are already excellent in San Fransisco. The general dining scenes are great in both cities and the excitement around new things make the comparison unfair, but we do not have multiple amazing coffee roasters/shops in town (we have a great roaster and a great shop, but not the same). Having real food at an airport is certainly not here despite the addition of Frontera Fresco to ORD. Finally, we do not have a central market that has much of the best in higher profile artisan food makers. The French Market is where we thought it would happen, but it clearly isn’t happening there. San Fransisco, to me, is the yin to Chicago’s dining yang and you could go months and eat delicious food every day in both spots, but there is little overlap.
In the traditional restaurant scene, we dined like kings (and queens). While our lunch at Chez Panisse was delicious and memorable, our dinners at the French Laundry and Incanto are worth exploring in more detail. We had just finished a short hike through Muir Woods on our way from San Fransisco to Napa when an unidentified caller came up on my phone. It was the French Laundry asking if we could make it in at 9:15 that night, as we had been wait listed since seats were up for reservation. Without skipping a beat, I confirmed, although in voice an octave higher than normal due to excitement. We arrived super early since we were coming from Sonoma, so we walked through Yountville stopping to enjoy the restaurant’s garden which was spectacular. The garden was one of the most serene, complete, and well-organized of any utilitarian, non-ornamental garden that I have ever seen. We would find out at dinner that it was no mistake as the attention to detail, however outlined in Ruhlman’s chronicling of Thomas Keller, still shocked us.
Once seated, we made our way though classics and newer dishes. It was the best meal that I have ever had – better than L20 under Gras, better than Schwa, and, despite recent rankings, better than Alinea. If I included individual dishes on this list, 4 of the top 5 would likely be from the French Laundry. There were dishes where we had little idea of the starting point, but loved, and others where the roots were so lovingly clear and we adored those as well. A few classics that stood out were the “Oysters and Pearls”, “Halibut”, and the “Coffee and Doughnuts”, which is the only dessert that I have had anywhere that could approach Allie Levitt’s shortbread. The newer dishes that stood out were “Mitts of Lobster”, “Rabbit Sirloin with Favas and Speck”, and “Calotte de Boeuf”, which was where the light came on for me. The eye of beef dish showed me why I was enjoying each dish so much, it was that attention to detail paired with an obsession with never missing the big picture. The beef was so meltingly tender without being stringy or mushy, but the simple dice of carrots were identically sized and each individual pea, which were grown across the road along with the carrots, were each halved perfectly. Despite all of this attention to minutiae, the dish still had amazing amounts of soul and tasted like it was grandmother-made. It was the attention to detail in each dish, but without being a sterile, cold meal that made it such an amazing evening.
Contrasting to the tidal wave of detail keeping at the French Laundry was the stark rusticity of Incanto. The casual nature was welcomed at this point, however. Given the profile of Incanto with meat-lovers, I was surprised to see that it was a simply decorated restaurant in the middle of a residential neighborhood away from the hustle and bustle. There was no pomp. We arrived and were seated immediately. The menu was a dreamland of rustic Italian dishes filled with interesting ingredients, not simply meat, despite the reputation. Since we had spent much of the day touristing around town, we were hungry and ordered accordingly, starting, as we did for much of the weekend meals, with olives. We moved on to a few vegetable plates, then pasta dishes, and finally finishing with venison liver with cocoa and lamb heart tartare.
It was exactly what we missed about Mado and, in fact, for the Chicago crowd, the best way to describe Incanto is Mado on steroids. The flavors and vibe were similar, but amplified. The pasta was made in-house skillfully and the sugos, both duck and pork, were amazing. The meats were pristine and seasoned well. It was our last meal in the Bay Area and it was a great counter balance to the opulence of the French Laundry.
I got healthy – Our February ended on a sad note with our beloved Mojo passing too soon at 8 years old. With mortality on the mind, two daughters under two, and way too much food in and on my stomach, I decided to get real about my health. Having always been a substantial man, from my days as an offensive lineman in college (and after) to being a professional working 80 hours per week at my desk in my twenties (and after) to being an advocate for eating delicious foods as much as and as many times as possible. My body composition had reached a critical point and I made up my mind to take responsibility.
Fearing that I was making a move that would leave hobbies of charcuterie making and tasting as well as eating well in the back room, I looked to some foodishly inclined people who lost substantial amounts of weight and looked how they did it and remained happy (thank you for inspiration Art Smith, Nate Appleman, Joe Bastianich). Using some general rules, I managed to take control of my input and output and lose a substantial amount of weight. I made a list of things that I ate and really liked and things that I ate that I could give or take. I reduced the former and eliminated the latter and filled in, when needed with vegetables. Being someone who cooked came in really handy. Never did diet food or some Rocco DiSpirito recipe using Splenda and butter substitute spray cross my lips. There are too many healthy, natural foods to mess around with making half-assed food because that is what I was used to eating. I took up running immediately and about a month into it, healthier living became a habit.
I still eat lardo and sausages and bacon, but I don’t eat them every day. I still blog about things that are delicious and unhealthy, but eat them less. I no longer use the excuse that I love food too much to be less fat. During the “dieting” time, I ate at the French Laundry, Chez Panisse, Incanto, and all of my favorite Chicago places. Devouring everything, just not all of everything. I don’t intend to condescend and tell you that it was easy, because it wasn’t. It was insanely difficult and, at times, unpleasant (as was I, at times), but not a moment goes by that I wish that I didn’t do it. That is really my tipping point, I wanted to be less fat more than I wanted that next bowl of ice cream. Two-thirds of a year later, I am two-thirds as big as I was then and I do not intend to ever go back.
I met the “Charcuterie” team – In the fall, I attended a demo, that I not-so-humbly take some responsibility for setting in motion, with Rob Levitt and Michael Ruhlman. On top of getting his new book and getting it signed (it is weird to get books signed, but I get them signed to me and one of my daughters, that way when I kick off, splitting the books is easy – not to mention that if my folks got the great chefs of my childhood to sign my name into their books, I would have started cooking much earlier), I was able to speak with him and ask questions. It was a charcuterie geek’s dream and, accompanied by meeting Brian Polcyn at Baconfest 2011 and Thomas Keller in December 2010, completed the Charcuterie team cycle.
With those considerations in mind and without further pomp, here is this year’s list:
10.) Peruvian Ceviche and Roasted Chicken – D’Candela
It is out of character for me to pair two completely unrelated dishes from the same restaurant in my top 10 list, but this combination was perhaps the restaurant dish that I ate the most in 2011. It is a fantastic combination of a beautifully roasted rotisserie chicken combined with the tart freshness of a ceviche of mixed seafood from a standout, if out-of-the-way, Northside Peruvian joint.
There is no official combination here, but since, if I am getting takeout, I get this as much as possible (and they know my name, face, and order embarrassingly enough) and serve it as a plate with a chicken quarter and ceviche mixto, unofficially at my house, it is a combination platter. The photo above shows it as I eat it. At home and together, as it should be.
9.) Broiled Mackerel – Ginza
In an area with a Rainforest Cafe, Joe’s Stone Crab, and about 10,000 American Girl bags, you would never expect to find such a cool little place like Ginza. Ginza, in all of its dingy, fake wood-paneled charm, serves what I consider to be one of the two places that I get to only every now and again and every time I leave, I wonder why I don’t go at least once per week (Nightwood being the other).
This mackerel is a lunch special and is best enjoyed quietly sitting alone at the bar after slurping through some of the most diverse complimentary soups given out at a divey Japanese restaurant. Sometimes noodles, sometimes veg, and sometimes meat, but never boxed miso soup with precut chunks of tofu, it is a soup that you don’t just eat because it is there, you eat it because it is good and Chicago is a cold place. The mackerel is fishy, no doubt, and the crispy skin isn’t for your tilapia and pinot grigio loving aunt. The fish is never dry, but never too oily despite the crispy skin and is austerely served with rice, a slice of lime and tomato, and shredded cabbage. Did I mention that the skin is crispy?
8.) Strada – Longman and Eagle
Brunching is not my favorite. Mixing a bad crowd (if there is a meal with more attempts at substitution, enlighten me. It has to be terrible to serve or cook because it is annoying to even listen), subpar coffee, and food that is usually no better than you get at home. But brunching at Longman and Eagle cannot be more different from the typical brunch at the Bongo Room (Rant: How is there still a line there? Do people not realize that all you need to do to make (insert kitschy flavor) cupcakes into (insert kitschy flavor) pancakes is alter the ratio of fat/egg/flour? Most cupcakes suck. So do the pancakes that taste like them).
We’ve ordered the Tete de Cochon Open Faced sandwich, which is as good as the dinner dish on last year’s best of list, but even better was the Strada. This savory bread pudding included sausage, pumpkin, apple, dates, and Gruyère, baked in a large ramekins and topped with a sunny side up egg. The blend of egg, bread, fruit, meat, and cheese was a great middle ground for me since I have such a hard time deciding between sweet and savory breakfasts. It easily qualified as the best brunch item that I have had since the waffle at the Publican and registered as a real surprise as far as flavor combinations go.
7.) Scallops with pumpkin brandade, pecans, fried brussels sprouts, and pomegranate – Girl and the Goat
Given the sheer number of ingredients, this is another out of the ordinary dish for my liking, but it was clearly the best dish we had at the much-lauded Girl and the Goat. I had ordered the dish reluctantly because I do not find scallop dishes particularly captivating, but the pumpkin brandade piqued my interest.
And I am glad that it did. The odd harmony of flavors and the play on textures was really great. The scallop was perfectly done and the rest of the dish was tremendous. I was expecting to be let down at GATG, because I loved Scylla and this seems to be the antithesis of what Izard did there (not to mention the wave of fame for the persona rather than the food that has painted, maybe too negatively, my perception of the Goat), but we had a really good meal there and this dish was the leader of the pack.
6.) Tai Gan Hunan Style – Lao Hunan
Being perfectly honest, this selection was made in part due to the photo availability of the tai gan hunan style rather than merit. Not because it was not worthy of being a top dish, but rather that the four dishes that we had at Lao Hunan were all worthy of number 6 here and I simply could not decide which was my favorite. The tai gan hunan style, famous hunan chili in black bean sauce, and ground pork in sour beans have all been discussed at length among those discussing Lao Hunan and they are really amazing new Chinese dishes in a landscape that could use something new, but the smoked wild duck, which hasn’t really gotten the same love, was also simply fantastic, if a notch lower on the Scoville Scale. The dishes from Lao Hunan are addictively spicy. You will sweat. Your nose will run. You may cry a little.
With that much food and that much heat, the only dish of the four that we finished at the table was the tai gan, which is a cold plate of crunchy, tart pickled vegetables doused in chili sauce. I absolutely adored the spicy and tart playing off each other in a way that I had not seen in other Chicago Chinese dishes. For me, I would order all four again, but I would not miss the tai gan or the hunan chilis in black bean sauce no matter what. In fact, given the price range and the hours of operation, I implore you to close your browser and getting to the red line for some sweat worthy Hunan cuisine.
5.) Merguez Flatbread with anchovy, raisins, yogurt, and orange – Avec
If Avec took reservations or wasn’t so damned good that it was always packed, we would go all the time. Actually, I would guess that the preceding sentence might be the one most uttered in the Chicago food community along with commenting on how jack-assy the seats are at Avec. The place makes food that makes me crazy every time I go, which isn’t often enough.
The flavors are so off the charts and the beer list so good, that if I have an early Sunday afternoon without the kids, you know were to find me (or at least where I want to be). There are several dishes that you can simply read off the menu and people simply know these are the classics from Avec and others that you read and wonder how they’ll make it even mentionable. While this dish is probably on the next rung down from a classic, this merguez flatbread has so many amazing flavors that smack you in the face that reading merguez flatbread doesn’t do it justice (which is why I added the other ingredients in my description). The sweetness from the orange and raisin are a great balance to the salty anchovy and merguez. The tartness from the yogurt is a great element as is the crunchy nature of the flatbread. If you’d call it a pizza, it would be beat out its neighbor to the North at Great Lake for best pizza in America.
4.) Tom Yam with Beef Balls and Tender – Aroy Thai
I have probably eaten close to 100 meals at Spoon after living around the corner for years, but had never walked the half mile east to Aroy in all of my time in Lincoln Square. Spoon’s Naem Khao Thawt ranks as one of my favorite things to eat anywhere and anytime, but this soup has converted me to an Aroy man.
This hot and sour soup will put sweat on your brow and has tons of flavor complexity with lemongrass and chili and even a great amount of textural complexity between the broth, soft meatballs, and tender beef. Despite the placement on the menu in the soup section, it is a complete meal and I have never left Aroy without at least a pint leftover. On a cold day, I can think of few things that I’d rather eat.
3.) Braunschweiger – Butcher and Larder
It is no secret that I am a Sconnie and when Rob pulled this out for Packer playoff time last year, I had to get a chub. Frankly, it was the best meat or meat related product I have had from the Butcher and Larder, which is really saying something, or anywhere else for that matter in quite a long time. There wasn’t a single bite a the meat-a-palooza of Baconfest 2011 that would make me even pause before choosing the smoked liverwurst. After having Rob and Chris’s liver mousse over the years at Mado, I knew that their touch with liver farce was what I looked for as a standard when I tried out new offal dishes and smoking it only made it better.
These extra wide chubs of spreadable smoked liverwurst were there and gone quickly, but they stuck in my mind like little else. I find little objectionable about their liver work, as mentioned above, but smoking the chub seemed to round out any of the really strong liver-y nature of the mixture. You are left with a back and forth between the sweet minerality of the liver and the savory smoke. Since the Butcher & Larder opened, there have been many high points with their charcuterie – the mortadella is the best that I have ever had, the Lil’ Johnnies were ridiculously good, and the summer sausage is one that would make any Sconnie the envy of the pot luck – but this braunschweiger is the best of the bunch by a country mile.
2.) Head on shrimp, garlic, and chilis – Vera
This is where things got interesting. Vera, the new West Loop Spanish wine and sherry focused small plates restaurant opened by Mark and Liz Mendez, got far less press leading up to their opening than other places, but once they opened, praise was everywhere. We bellied up shortly after the opening and we were blown away by the focus and simplicity. It seemed as if every dish was conceived, tested, perfected, and then one more thing was taken off of the plate, but only in the best way. The dish that left us wanting to order another was the shrimp, garlic, and chilis.
I am not sure who, between my dining partner and myself, decided to order the nondescript shrimp, but once they arrived at the table with their heads on with garlic and chili wafting over the plate, we both kind of let a giggle out and went in hands first. The table next to us stared as we maniacally went through the shrimp leaving the heads for last and promptly (and messily) dispatched of the really good stuff in the heads. As mentioned above, we have been looking for a safe haven since Mado closed and Vera is as close as we have gotten. Maybe it is the husband/wife team or the clear love and care for ingredients, but something about Vera tells me that they will do very well and we’ll be in as often as possible.
1.) Fava Beans with Preserved Lamb and Yogurt – Taxim
The first crack that I had at this dish was on a night that I was looking for something similar to the favas, treviso, and parmesan that I had at Mado in Spring of 2010. A little searching found that Taxim, a restaurant that I had tried a few times and liked very much generally, but could not understand why nobody noticed this place, was serving favas with preserved lamb and yogurt. The dish did not sound like what I had wanted. I wanted something fresh and light highlighting the favas in a raw preparation, but what I had gotten was so much more. It was a dish that I would return to Taxim to have more times than I care to admit, sometimes coming in just to order this.
The favas were cooked lightly which actually enhanced the most basic flavors of the favas. The preserved lamb provided an intense savory lambiness, but the ratio of fava to lamb was such that the intense flavoring was more of a seasoning element than anything else, like a lamb salt. Finally there was the yogurt which defies explanation. It is so good, that I cannot do it justice. The creamy texture of the yogurt, the al dente favas, and the small crispy/tender bits of lamb created great textural contrasts to a dish proved to be a near perfect bite to me.
As a whole plate, this was the best that I had in 2011 in Chicago.
I would be remiss to omit some of the great bites that I had in 2011 that were not restaurant dishes, but still stand out as memorable.
Uplands Cheese Rush Creek Reserve — After our last trip to Italy, my opinion on American cheese was down to zip, which for a kid from America’s Dairyland is a sad story. There was good cheese to be had and we like Roelli and Widmers, but certainly nothing adventurous and boundary pushing and certainly nothing that was earth shattering. Cypress Grove Chevre was the only cheese that we saw in restaurants where the makers were really trying. After buying a wheel of the Rush Creek Reserve for my bride on Valentine’s Day, those thoughts went out of the window.
These rind edged canisters of rich, funky fondue-textured cheese could please the snobbish cheese snob and the humble Sconnie tavern rat in the same swipe of crusty bread. It was the best cheese that I have ever had.
Christmas Chilis and Black Beans from Three Sister’s Garden — I spend a lot of time walking around the Green City Market with my daughter and there are few things that I found that we liked more than visiting with Kathe Roybal of Three Sister’s Garden.
If there were two things that I liked better than visiting with Kathe, they were eating her black beans and Christmas Chilis, often together. The chilis are fruity and spicy like no others available locally. Their vibrant colors drew in my daughter, but the flavors made them an addition to nearly every savory dish from June to November. The beans were incredibly earthy, but still retained a really clean flavor. The Rancho Gordo beans that I brought back from California never stood a chance.
Cox’s Orange Pippin Apples from Nichols Farm — In a staunch effort to avoid the Honeycrisp, a perfectly fine apple which has been elevated by strong marketing and trendification of heirloom produce to a status defying its real value, I tried nearly every variety of apple that I could try at the Green City Market and found many that I liked, but none that I loved like I did the Orange Pippin.
The beauty contest isn’t likely to be won by the russeted orange pippin, but the aromatic and delicious apple carried the most complex and delicious flavor of the over 30 that I tried.
Dark Matter and Anodyne Coffee — While above I bemoan the lack of a true coffee scene in Chicago, I list these two midwestern roasters as shining beacons in a sea of boring beans. I feel that Intelligentsia and Metropolis are too big and commercial to take the same risks and provide delicious small batch roasts that got them to where they are now. Asado makes a fantastic cup in shop, but their beans haven’t made hit me in the same way.
Dark Matter in the Ukranian Village and Anodyne in Milwaukee both make amazing cups of coffee, in shop, and make beans worthy of making a similar cup at home. I’d be happy to put either up against the San Francisco roasters that we visited and see how it turns out.
To wrap up, attached are past lists for perusal.