Buzz List for April 2, 2018

Neighborhood restaurants rule Chicago's list, everyone's talking to Diana Davila, The Warbler's mixed reviews, and Thailand's secret plan

S.K.Y./Instagram
Stephen Gillanders on the line at S.K.Y.

1. WHO ARE THE RESTAURANTS IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD?

Somewhat counter-intuitively, given all the expensive hotel restaurants that opened last year, Chicago magazine’s best new restaurants issue declares that 2017-8 is “the golden age of neighborhood restaurants. This year’s top spots are attracting crowds with audacious cuisine that used to be the domain of posh prix fixe temples.”

To make that claim stick, you’re going to have to find something for the number one spot that can credibly beat out the two mega-downtown Boka restaurants that opened this year. Fortunately, there’s Pilsen’s S.K.Y.: “To understand the subtle yet slightly mad genius of S.K.Y., consider its lobster dumplings… The springy filling, chock-a-block with gently sweet tail and claw meat, brings to mind shrimp har gau from a dim sum cart. By contrast, the glossy butter sauce—green with chervil, chive, and mint—redirects you to the froufrou lobster ravioli so popular in bistros 25 years ago. That the two streams come together beautifully is a miracle wrought by the dumpling’s skin.”

The list runs to 15 places, and sure, the big places show up—Bellemore and Somerset, Marisol and BLVD—but so do little neighborhood places that could (Hai Sous, Daisies, Mi Tocaya Antojeria). It also recognizes, as past Chicago mag lists often did not, that not everything has to be a formal, sit-down contemporary dinner—so there’s pizza (Pizzeria Bebu) and sushi (Raisu) and Indian (Penny Pollack’s fave Mango Pickle) and even a sandwich shop (Tempesta Market). It’s a very good list, start eating your way through it (and reading past Fooditor stories about many of them; I’ve run stories on 8 out of 15).

2. STARS IN THE S.K.Y.

Speaking of S.K.Y., the headline to Phil Vettel’s Tribune review mentions a “rough start,” which makes it sound like a food problem. Well, S.K.Y. had various issues opening in Pilsen, but the food was never one of them, and it pretty well sailed to the top of local dining lists in the last four months, including now getting three stars from Phil: “Gillanders shows a deft hand with heat, which he employs the way other chefs use acidity. The highlight of his fried chicken (a boneless, skinless thigh), is the twice-fermented hot sauce (habanero-based, but deeply nuanced) poured tableside against a levee of creamed corn. Sliced-off-the-bone pork chop with wild-rice risotto is balanced beautifully with a habanero-honey sauce so rich, you can’t believe it’s butter-free, but the chef swears this is so.”

3. WAR BLIRDS

“An apparent greatest hits of the banal bar food so many mediocre spots on the strip traffic in” is not a very promising opening to a review of The Warbler, the new spot from the team behind Lincoln Square’s Gather. And I’ve seen some rather dire things on Twitter. So Mike Sula finds some standout dishes— “‘Creamy’ barley, the words beckon. The bowl is possessed of such an engrossing array of textures—molten tamari-cooked egg, cool pureed cucumber, verdant tahini-slicked gomae, crunchy black sesame, the bacony seaweed seasoning dulse, and slices of soy-and-sesame-slicked scallions—I startled myself with sudden cravings for it days later. It’s sensational.” But at the same time, “I stumbled over other executional errors that made me wonder how long it should take a kitchen to hit its stride.”

4. WAR BOIDS

On the other hand, Maggie Hennessy not only likes The Warbler, she disagrees with Chicago mag’s year-of-neighborhoods premise: “The true neighborhood joint is an elusive ideal—the kind of place that can draw people in a few nights a week with the magnetism of just-right food, service and vibes… The Warbler—Gather’s roomier, more relaxed younger sibling next door (the former, short-lived sites of Mash and Bad Dog Tavern)—appears well on its way to neighborhood-haunt status too, if the bustling crowd on a recent evening was any indicator. Its anything-goes comfort dishes are assembled with care, matching the upscale diner feel of the space.” (Time Out)

5. BOOTH ONE-HALF

Joanne Trestrail raises something I’ve asked about Lettuce Entertain You’s second try at running the Pump Roo-, er, Booth One: “How far can the remembrance of things past, no matter how beloved, take the restaurant now? Successfully capitalizing on retro glam involves a delicate balancing act—banishing dowdy irrelevance while attracting diners who have many more choices than they once had.”

But the real issue might be that she also points to something I’ve heard elsewhere about Lettuce’s portions these days: “To say chef-partner Doug Psaltis’ lunch menu skews light understates the matter. Portions are small, flavors delicate, textures on the wispy side. We get it. We don’t want surf ‘n’ turf at noon, either. But on our visits, we and our guests, ladies all, left hungry.”

6. MAKING A LIST

NewCity’s Big Heat issue of 50 top figures in food and drink is out, with Diana Davila (Mi Tocaya Antojeria) on the cover. The focus is on chefs and mixologists this time, and I’m not going to say that there are a lot of surprises as to which local figures are notable in compilers David Hammond and Lauren Knight’s estimation. But it’s good for calling out the ones who you know matter and a few up and comers—and there are fun arty photos of most of them by Monica Kass Rogers.

7. BEWITCHED

Besides making Chicago mag’s list and NewCity’s cover, Diana Davila of Mi Tocaya Antojeria turns up in two stories this week. First, a provocative interview with David Hammond at NewCity (“Almost everyone here is Latino, and when I’m talking about food, I’m talking about connecting. That’s what I feel is my magic power”). Note the story about being at a competition where another chef did Mexican with a Jewish bent; pretty sure that was the Reader’s Key Ingredient Cook-Off… and we judges gave the top prize to Davila (though that other one was good nevertheless).

There’s another at The Latin Kitchen, whose questions are pretty rote but her answers are often more interesting (Q. “What’s a simple, delicious Mexican meal that anyone can make?” A. “No such thing. Cooking isn’t that easy”).

8. IT TOCKS FOR THEE

There have been lots of stories about Open Table, Tock and other rival reservation services, not always clear on details, but ex-Tribune-ite Marissa Conrad puts it all together in a very good piece for Grub Street that explains why Open Table is both dominant and vulnerable, and who the others are looking to take them down. Here’s the real point (similar to the one that people are making about social media these days): “They’re free for diners to use because you, the diner, are not their real customer. You, and more specifically your presence at restaurants, are a feature — you’re part of the product that’s being sold to restaurant owners. And that’s why you might end up looking through three or four different apps before finding an available reservation you want — since all of those apps do basically the same thing, but are competing to become the service you check first.”

9. OUTFLUENCERS

Certain people have influenced fashionable subjects (including food) since long before there was Instagram, and they will continue to do so, but the craze for the idea that Instagram posts could magically drive traffic like nothing else is probably ebbing, and a piece at the Financial Times looks at why that notion boomed and busted: “Kay Montano has spent more than two decades as a make-up artist working with clients such as Vogue, Calvin Klein and Versace. She says: ‘I came up in the business when it was about authenticity and experimentation. This new culture of instant gratification and pursuit of 15 minutes’ of fame means there is no time to cultivate a real craft or genuine skill… The industry suffers because the quality of work is depleting [sic; presumably she means diminishing].’”

Though of course that’s a point that’s independent of platform—lame content does little for a brand whether it’s in a magazine, a blog or on Instagram. What we can hope for is that the fad as a fad will end, leaving fewer, better practitioners.

10. GOOSE EGGED

The Trib’s Josh Noel has been chronicling Goose Island in the wake of its acquisition by Anheuser-Busch (his book on the subject is coming in June), but his latest piece shows that being part of Bud has hurt Goose’s standing as the king of Chicago beers (and there’s someone who wants to topple them in a Revolution) without really establishing the brand strongly nationally: “Virtually every major Goose Island brand was down nationally last year in grocery, convenience, big box and drug stores, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI: 312 Urban Wheat Ale fell 19 percent; Green Line Pale Ale and Four Star Pils were each down 35 percent; Honker’s Ale fell 49 percent; even sales of Goose Island variety packs were down 33 percent.”

11. THE THAI PLAN FOR WORLD DOMINATION

I had to check the date on this Munchies story, but it’s no prank: why are there so many Thai restaurants in America when the U.S. Thai population is relatively small (1% of the Mexican population, and about 7% of the Chinese population?) Turns out the Thai government is a serious sponsor of Thai cuisine around the world, not only helping finance restaurants but even offering, franchise-style, three models for a Thai restaurant which you can basically build from a kit. You can’t say it hasn’t paid off—tourism is big business in Thailand, of course, and part of that is making sure travelers worldwide are already familiar and comfortable with the food.

Incidentally, one thing the Thai government does is maintain a list of authentic, recommended restaurants—though it’s a bit out of date (In-On Thai is currently closed but set to reopen this summer), here are Chicago’s.

12. EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT CHICKENS

South Side Weekly attends an Urban Livestock Expo to learn about keeping chickens in Chicago.

13. RISOTTO VOCE

Mike Sula talks about the new cookbook from long-running chef John Coletta (Quartino), Risotto and Beyond, and includes his recipe for a blood-red radicchio risotto.

14. WHEN CRITICS RULED THE EARTH

Speaking of influence, the Reader’s Archive Dive pulled up this piece about the restaurant critics scene in Chicago circa 1980, and how restaurateurs sometimes took badly to it (let’s just say dog poop and a doorbell play a role in this story).

WHAT MIKE ATE

I’ve decided I need to catch up on all the tap rooms that have opened this last year or two, so the family and I went to Half Acre’s Balmoral Tap Room & Garden on Sunday night (they serve brunch all day Sunday, and I knew at least one kid would be all over having French toast for dinner). It was all good comfort food, if not as sophisticated as other beer-driven eateries like Forbidden Root. I liked the location tucked away by the river, and I’m sure it’s really nice in the summer. Next stop: Eris or Metropolitan or…

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