Over the lifecycle of this blog, I have moved from cooking as well as tasting others cooking and reporting back to, more or less, only cooking. I have not stopped eating and appreciating. My cooking is hobby home cooking. Writing about what I am cooking is fun. While visiting restaurants is something I love to do, the cooking happening in most of these restaurants inspires what I try to cook at home and I do not feel like I have the chops to “review” it. I know whether I like it, but that has no bearing on whether it was good.
There was plenty to like in 2013.
In Chicago, there was a glutinous flour pancake filled with sweet custard from St. Anna Bakery in Chinatown, the biscuit at Bang Bang Pie across the street from our old place in Logan Square, the tofu from Sumi Robata Bar and the Sturgeon, sunchokes and Caviar from Next: The Hunt. Outside of Chicago was any and all doughnuts from St. Germain Bakery in WI, an entire meal of goodies from Raku in Las Vegas, the gigantic meat plate at Cypress in Charleston and a simple styro of BBQ from Scott’s in Hemmingway, SC.
Of the dishes I ate in Chicago in the last year, the following lists my ten favorite dishes:
10.) Spring Pea Gazpacho – Vera
I have a strong leaning for food from Mark Mendez and a subgroup for which I have an even stronger leaning in gazpacho from Mark Mendez – strawberry, tomato, peach, pea, it doesn’t matter. This small cup of soup was so in the late spring moment of sweet peas and mint that I almost felt bad getting a crispy sheet of serrano ham to dunk into it. Almost.
9.) Chocolate, mushroom, and violet – Elizabeth Restaurant
Going to Elizabeth is a truly unique restaurant experience. With the cook, Iliana Regan, delivering the food to your table, you get unique access for explanations and questions you rarely get anywhere. On top of it, and more importantly, the food she delivers to you is so interesting that access for questions and explanations is so valuable. If you have the chance to go see Iliana at Elizabeth, it is so worth your time and money. This dish finished our Spring meal with this course. The candy cap mushrooms included in a dessert caused a stir at our table and this dish was a unlike any I had all year. It was bitter, earthy, and tartly sweet – all things that I love, but am not used to in a pastry course. Many places use the dessert courses as a sensory bomb to give you something familiar and comforting to end your meal, but Elizabeth has done a great job of making sure your pastry courses are as exciting and thoughtful as the others.
8.) Pistachio Gelato – JP Graziano
Former Moto pastry chef Ben Roche teamed up with the great Italian grocery, JP Graziano, to make what is essentially the sole rival in my heart to the great Milwaukee frozen custard, Leon’s Butter Pecan. The pistachio gelato doesn’t taste like any pistachio gelato I have ever had. It tastes like fantastic pistachios. The texture was fantastic. With a bunch of other great flavors, there was always at least a scoop of pistachio in our bowl. With Roche helping open a restaurant on the East Coast, we look forward to the summer when I hope he is back and bringing the ice cream to Jim at JP Graziano.
7.) Mapo Tofu – Yan Bang Cai
In early 2013, I tried about a dozen mapo tofu dishes. I was constantly cold and chili oil slicked soup warmed me better than most things. My favorite from that group was from Double Li in Chinatown. When Double Li abruptly shut down, I was heartbroken, but in the very same space opened Yan Bang Cai. While some of the standout Double Li dishes are no longer with us, the mapo tofu is even better. A deep rich, spicy broth with leeks, with ground pork and tofu bobbing up and down. You get a little of the numbing szechuan peppercorns, but, unlike some versions of mapo tofu, you are not completely numb by the third spoonful.
6.) $50 chicken – The Lobby
I was skeptical. Hell the dish isn’t called $50 chicken, but like when Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction says about a milkshake “I don’t know if it’s worth five dollars but it’s pretty f*^*ing good.” the same goes for this chicken. I don’t pretend to be the arbiter of value, and seeing a roasted chicken for $50 was shocking, but once I ordered it, then ate it, I no longer questioned. This was an amazing roasted chicken (check photo here http://www.timeoutchicago.com/sites/timeoutchicago.com/files/imagecache/timeout_492x330/Lobby.venue.jpg) . There was butter and brioche nestled firmly under the deeply burnished skin of the breast which soaked up all of the delicious fat. The legs were pulled from the bones and stirred with the roasting juices and served alongside with vegetables, in our case morels and ramps. Would I order it again? Hell yes.
5.) Bacon tortellini in brodo – Nightwood
There are few places where I ate more in 2013 than Nightwood. When my kitchen was in ruins and my family was in Oklahoma, I ate there multiple times in a week. I practically potty-trained my daughter by bribing her with brunches at the counter at Nightwood. There were many dishes I had (cantaloupe/goat cheese, caramel pig ears, walleye/pigeon, tripe) which could have ended up here, the last dish I ate at Nightwood in 2013 takes the cake. A brunch dish, which was far more sophisticated in flavors and concept than anything I have seen in Chicago recently, this dish was warming and complexly delicious. The broth was rich and the tortellini delicate. The bacon in the name is a misnomer as this is a great tortellini in brodo not some sort of novelty brunch dish.
4.) Churros y chocolate – Masa Azul
There are few places which do modern Mexican food quite as well as Masa Azul in Chicago. In reality, I see many of the dishes I have had as adaptations of traditional dishes with embraces of more modern techniques. Masa Azul is quickly becoming a standby night-out stop that is far too rare for us. On one of our first visits, we brought the kids and while they enjoyed dinner, the churros served with chili enhanced chocolate turned us into a family caricature fighting over the last of the food. Only this was two parents in their 30s fighting with two kids under 4. As we were distracted by our cocktails, our younger daughter peeled the last two churros for herself. She was raised well as the deep,spicy chocolate are fantastic and these churros are even better.
3.) Gingerbread – Bad Wolf Coffee
I was admittedly late to the Bad Wolf Coffee pastry party. Not because I did not believe or had no desire, I did and I did. I do prefer being late rather than never, however, as this place is amazing and this gingerbread is really a sinisterly delicious piece of pastry. This is basically a gingerbread cake baked in a loaf pan, but that does not capture its greatness. It is aggressively gingerbready and contains none of the trademarked dryness which so often plagues gingerbread cake. While butter is likely a major part of the process, I could not help but slather on a little more.
2.) Pork skin taco – Butcher & Larder
The weekend specials at the Butcher and Larder reached another level this year. They would have to beat some of the dishes rolling out of the New Years Eve dinner we hold there annually. This taco starts with a shell made from pork skin and was filled with pork, onions, cilantro, salsa roja and avocado crema. While the shells read as novelty. They were delicious, crunchy, and provided a porky boost to the tacos.
1.) Hamachi, golden trout roe, pomelo, THAI BASIL – Grace
Unlike most Oscar winners, we ate my favorite dish of 2013 within a month of last New Year. Our visit to Grace was exceptional and rivaled any meals I have ever had. The standout dish was the hamachi course which featured the cleanest flavors in a meal filled with them. The leanings were Thai and there were varied flavors, textures and temperatures. The tube shown above was frozen ginger water with the other ingredients within the cylinder. We were instructed to crack the cylinder and go from there. It was a truly special dish.
10.) Anything with Bolognese on it – Three Aces
9.) Pickle Tots – Trenchermen
8.) Sea urchin with nori, shiso, & Buddha’s hand – Yusho
7.) Deer isle shrimp, cauliflower, cuttlefish noodles, chorizo, marcona almonds – Acadia
6.) Foie Gras & Strawberry Jam – Au Cheval
5.) Sunflower Seed Risotto – El Ideas in Food
4.) Corn Cake & Trout Roe – Elizabeth
3.) Corn Husk Tea – Next: Kyoto
2.) Chestnut Souffle, Marcona Almond Nougat, and Shortbread – The Butcher & Larder
1.) Tongue Pincho – Vera
10.) Peruvian Ceviche and Roasted Chicken – D’Candela
9.) Broiled Mackerel – Ginza
8.) Strada – Longman and Eagle
7.) Scallops with pumpkin brandade, pecans, fried brussels sprouts, and pomegranate – Girl and the Goat
6.) Tai Gan Hunan Style – Lao Hunan
5.) Merguez Flatbread with anchovy, raisins, yogurt, and orange – Avec
4.) Tom Yam with Beef Balls and Tender – Aroy Thai
3.) Braunschweiger – Butcher and Larder
2.) Head on shrimp, garlic, and chilis – Vera
1.) Fava Beans with Preserved Lamb and Yogurt – Taxim