Barbara Revsine / May 2012
From haute hotels to neighborhood boîtes, fresh breezes are blowing in the Windy City.
What’s new and hot in Chicago? Breakfast and burgers head the list, followed by bakeries, barbecue, butchers, bacon, beef, bars, booze, and, as always, bella Italia.
After quinoa with walnuts, cranberries, agave nectar, and flax seeds; fluffy Brussels-style waffles; or house-made pop tarts filled with foie gras, who needs dinner? At Jam (breakfast all the time) in Logan Square, breakfast sells best, even after dark. Waffles in South Loop and Brunch in River North don’t even do dinner, and neither do Charlie Trotter alums Gregory Ellis and Steven Fladung at 2 Sparrows in Lincoln Park.
The family behind Papa Milano’s introduced breakfast pizzas at its new Mama Milano’s Pizza Bar in Old Town. Prasino (très green) in Wicker Park offers shredded carrot pancakes for breakfast, grilled fish tacos for lunch, and soy glazed black cod for dinner. Similarly eclectic, Jam ‘n’ Honey (beyond breakfast) in Lincoln Park lets breakfast blend into lunch, but entrées like short ribs in a red wine reduction are dinner only. Eggy’s (urban diner) in Lakeshore East serves breakfast all day.
Burgers are even bigger than breakfast, and some spots showcase both, especially on weekends. Allen Sternweiler’s cozy Butcher & the Burger in Lincoln Park is DIY to the max, beginning with the choice of burger (beef, salmon, elk, vegan, etc.) and seasoning, followed by the bun, toppings, and cheese. Grange Hall Burger Bar (regionally sourced) in West Loop features burgers and house-made ice cream and pie.
Primo burgers turned up in some unexpected spots, including the sizzling hot Pump Room (très chic) on the Gold Coast, Laurent Tourondel’s stylish BLT American Brasserie (eclectic American) in River North, and Debbie and Carlos Nieto’s snazzy Nieto’s (bueno options) in north suburban Highland Park. There’s even a burger on the lunch and lounge menus at Michael Jordan’s Steak House in the InterContinental Chicago hotel.
Beyond the burger, meat reigns supreme at other venues. Paul Kahan’s Publican Quality Meats in Fulton Market is one-part artisanal butcher shop and market and one-part restaurant. Smokin’ hot barbecue is drawing crowds at Barn & Company (baby backs and brisket) in Lincoln Park, Rub BBQ Company (meats hand rubbed with secret spice blend) in Rogers Park, El’s Kitchen & Bar in Lincoln Park, and Porkchop (pork belly sliders) in West Loop.
River North hot spots Cantina Laredo (modern Mexican), Bombay Spice (refined Indian), and Roka Akor (Japanese robata grilling) offer a contemporary slant on their cuisines of choice, as do Tozi Korean BBQ Cuisine (tabletop grilling) in Wicker Park, Vera (Spanish) in West Loop, Bodega N. 5 (quick-serve Spanish) in the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel, and Tavernita (pinxtos and tapas) in River North.
Name chefs and restaurateurs snagged headlines: Takashi Yagihashi’s Slurping Turtle (Japanese comfort food) in River North, Trotter alum Matthias Merges’ Yusho (Japanese-inspired) in Logan Square, whirlwind Brendan Sodikoff’s Au Cheval (diner-ish) on Randolph Street, and Tony Hu’s Lao Hunan in Chinatown.
Paul Virant joined Perennial in Lincoln Park, which then morphed into Perennial Virant (artisanal American). In River North, Didier Durand revamped Cyrano’s Bistrot and opened Cyrano’s Farm Kitchen (French-inspired), and Kim Nguyen remodeled and reopened Pasteur (Vietnamese) in Edgewater. Brothers Michael (Blackbird alum) and Patrick Sheerin (The Signature Room at the 95th) pooled their considerable expertise for Trencherman (hearty, creative American) in the space formerly occupied by Spring in Wicker Park, and Dale Levitski opened Frog N Snail (Midwestern bistro) in Lakeview.
Top tier hotel restaurants shifted gears, as Seasons in the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago morphed into the more casual Allium (regional American), where a house-made hot dog is meant to signal approachability, though its price tag is $14, and The Peninsula Chicago expanded its meeting space by closing Avenues. And yes, Charlie Trotter’s is closing, but you still can’t get into Next. Overall fine dining still does well in Chicago. And there are new projects swimming against the dial-down tide. Chris Nugent brings fine dining to Lincoln Square at Goosefoot, Phillip Foss to Lawndale with El Ideas, and Ryan McCaskey to South Loop at Acadia. And Graham Elliot is bringing in chef Andrew Brochu to elevate his restaurant to a new level.
Catering to Chicagoans’ insatiable appetite for Italian cuisine, Tony Mantuano opened Bar Toma and the Melman offspring (RJ, Jerrod, Molly) debuted RPM Italian, both in River North; Filini Bar and Restaurant brings burrata and bomboloni to the new Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel; and Ripasso speaks Italian in Bucktown. Meanwhile, the Bristol’s Chris Pandel, John Ross, and Phil Walters, in a joint venture with the Boka group, installed Balena in Lincoln Park.
Edible hits range from pan-seared scallops at Quay (contemporary American) in Streeterville and Midwestern lamb at Telegraph (wine bar) in Logan Square to wood-roasted shellfish at Urban Union (varied price points) in University Village and vegan s’more pancakes at Bleeding Heart Cafe & Bakery (lotsa veggies) in West Town. Bread & Wine (market/restaurant) in Irving Park includes an on-site market. Also new and noteworthy are Jared Van Camp’s Nellcote (Euro-inspired) in West Loop and Michael Kornick and David Morton’s Ada Street (libations/small plates) in the developing Elston Corridor.
Flight delays at Chicago O’Hare International Airport have their upside now that HMSHost, together with the Chicago Department of Aviation, are plying passengers with bubbly and sushi at Bubbles Wine Bar in Terminal 3 and wine and small plates at Beaudevin Wine Bar in Terminal 1.
Looking ahead, new projects and restaurants are in the planning stages for sommelier Alpana Singh, chef/restaurateur Scott Harris, and noted chefs John Manion, Stephanie Izard, Curtis Duffy, and Bill Kim, to name drop just a few.
In a restaurant-friendly town like Chicago, there’s always room for one more.