It was a light news week, so I run long with what I do have….


During COVID days, it was hard to find anything to write about that eight other people weren’t already writing about. Oh, your fancy chef just started making Detroit pizza? Get in line, pal—or I’ll get in line, behind writers from every other outlet left in town. That’s why I was very fortunate to have my upcoming book to work on—there’s nothing for me to talk about by myself in 2020? That’s fine, I’ll talk about 1978.

Michael Nagrant has a new pizza to talk about, but more than that, he has the question of whether there are still discoveries to be made:

There are no hidden gems anymore.

Because of the internet everyone knows everything.

It turns out that this is utter bullshit.

I know because I just ate one of the best pizzas in Chicago last Friday night and it’s not on a single “best of” list1.

How could this happen?

I have theories.

I don’t think there are no hidden gems. But you do have to poke around parts of the metro area that don’t have PR and steady traffic. If you want a hidden gem, I’d start driving west, or north, or something. Go eat Uzbek in Buffalo Grove or Mongolian in Niles. Which does make his pizza find unusual, because it’s at Wells and Ohio. Not exactly uncharted territory. In fact, I remember some opening attention paid to a place called Pistore’s, but not anything anybody said about how it was, until Nagrant. What he finds is pizza, but also somebody we’ve been overlooking this whole time.

So remember last week when I mentioned Roland Liccioni’s retirement at Les Nomades? Nagrant knew about it ahead of time, not sure how, and he went and observed:

While I was in the kitchen watching Liccioni’s retirement unfold, one of his former pastry chefs and the owner of Pistores in River North (the name is derived from the Latin word Pistor a medieval sweet and savory baker), Joel Reno, dropped by to wish his old boss well and also to grab a quart of Liccioni’s lamb-bone stock.

I was talking to Reno when Juan Lopez, former Charlie Trotter-vet and expediter for the last 20 years at Le Nomades jumped in our conversation and said, “Joel is a legend. Everyone called in sick one night and he did 90 covers by himself.”

Who was this guy? Why had I never heard of him?

Because Les Nomades is, as I’ve said before, a restaurant that seems faintly haunted, not of this world. The people in the dining room could be ghosts at the Overlook; you’re not sure what decade it is there. It exists (who can say for how much longer) for people who’ve been going for decades. The time I went was for a dinner set up by someone who had belonged when it was a private club run by Jovan Trboyevic, and told me stories of Trboyevic throwing people out for being too loud. (They’ll be in the book. It’s pretty much the second restaurant talked about at any length in the book, after The Bakery.) A contemporary, non-ectoplasmic restaurant owner mentioned Roland’s retirement as the kind of thing they could have built up as an event and packed the place for. But I think they think the people who should know, did know.

Anyway, on to Joel Reno’s pizza. To judge by Nagrant’s piece on Pistores, it seems like a French restaurant, mostly—Reno used to teach at the French Pastry School, so the desserts look exquisite—but despite that, pizza is a main draw:

Well it’s almost two inches thick of cloud-like bread puffing yeast perfume and sporting a universal top-to-bottom lacy caramelized cheese rim and two thick racing stripes of sweet ripe tomato sauce, an ideal of the Detroit-variant of pizza arts.

No hidden gems? Of course there are. Start here, with a fancy chef’s Detroit pizza.


Last week I speculated that there was a cutoff date for consideration for Chicago mag’s best new restaurants—which is why certain things you might expect to be on it (Maxwells Trading, etc.) were not. John Kessler confirmed that for me: “FYI, we only looked at restos that opened during the calendar year of 2023, excluding the last week of December.”


Grimod at Understanding Hospitality delves into the history behind what might be the most exciting, yet still overlooked so far, new opening of the year: Cariño from chef Norman Fenton in the former Brass Heart space. (I am flattered that in doing so, he draws substantially on this Fooditor piece about Fenton’s career leading up to Schwa. Nice to see that spoon with a gelatin ball containing a langoustine, which I put a lot of effort into photographing in a way that did it justice.) Grimod’s view is that there’s clear continuity to some of the Brass Heart-era dishes, but the key addition to his repertoire is the use of housemade and -ground masa tortillas:

…the chef next indulges guests with a trio of finger foods made from masa. Namely, he utilizes two kinds of single-origin corns from Central Mexico: Cónico Azul (a purple-blue variety) and Tuxpeño (possessing more of a golden color).  Across these bites, it is again possible to see some of the lasting influence of Fenton’s work at WILD and Brass Heart from 2021-2022 in terms of presentation, construction, and even the retention one particular recipe. Still, the majority of the work here is new.

The first item, going left to right, is styled after “Tacos Dorados.” These “golden” morsels (named thus for their color after being cooked) are alternatively referred to as a taquitos and comprise filled, rolled tortillas that are fried and topped with condiments like crema, salsa, guacamole, and cheese. For his version, Fenton fills a rolled and fried shell with chicken liver (a substance that would conceivably melt if stuffed into wrapper before cooking) then tops it with purées of avocado, queso fresco, and adobo. Some dressed lettuce and Fresno chili curls then form the finishing touches.

On the palate, the “Taco Dorados” bite is crisp but cohesive, with the filling doing a good job of keeping the splintering shell together. As it coats tongue, the chicken liver is expectedly rich and meaty. However, more importantly, it is both smooth and clean. This allows the fruity, tangy, and smoky notes of the assembled purées to assert themselves alongside the bright lettuce/pepper topping. Overall, this makes for a balanced, enjoyable package that ranks among the best of this trio.

Grimod has also had the taco omakase:

The “Taco Omakase,” which you only sampled twice, generally follows the same trend: combining familiar items from the dinner menu (the “Michelada,” “Aguachile,” “Tostada,” “Tetelas,” and a supplemental “Quesadilla”) with unique tacos made with ingredients “Octopus,” “Suadero,” and “Wagyu.” Of these, the latter two have been great successes due to their unabashed meatiness and smoky, sweet, and spicy notes. However, the “Octopus,” in its chewiness, might represent the weakest thing (from a technical standpoint) served across all of the restaurant’s menus.

Still, on the occasion of your second omakase, you appreciate that Fenton mixed things up with a couple new classically inspired tacos (featuring “Lobster” and “Prawn”) that were good and great respectively. These dishes, along with a warm version of the opening oyster, affirm that this late-night format does allow for a certain degree of dynamism: the kind that such an intimate format promises but has not quite been realized by the full tasting. You refer, explicitly, to the chef’s claim that the menu “could change at a moment’s notice depending on the arrival of ingredients at the back door or random brainstorming between him and his crew.”

He sees it as, long-term, the year’s most promising opening:

Supported by a stellar team, taking a stage of his own design, [Fenton], drawing on every technique and life experience he can, bares his soul through cuisine. Perhaps you can already see the limits of what the chef learned at The Aviary, Schwa, and Brass Heart. Finally letting those ideas and constructions and crutches go—standing even more nakedly in front of customers spending a couple hundred dollars for a luxurious expression of an adopted foodway—is, perhaps, the scariest part.

My quotes are, as usual, just a fraction of the total verbiage that Grimod indulges in. Yet I can think of few places doing anything so innovative and different that would deserve such in-depth consideration and exploration. Will Cariño, capable of only seating a small number (due to both price and size of restaurant), and located far from the hot neighborhoods the press mostly covers, get that level of serious evaluation anywhere else? I wonder.


The last in Steve Doliinsky’s month-long series devoted to Chicago classics is Shaw’s Crab House:

There have been hits and misses in the Lettuce Entertain You portfolio over the years, but there’s no denying Shaw’s Crab House has become the city’s preeminent destination for seafood since it opened on East Hubbard Street.

“It’s quality, and staying true to your quality has a certain authenticity when you’re not chasing trends. You know there’s a virtue in being classic,” said Executive Partner and Divisional President Bill Nevruz.

That means a proper chowder and a more decadent lobster bisque. The crab cakes are made from lump crab, not backfin. Then there’s the plump shrimp cocktail and fried calamari that’s both crisp and tender.


Titus Ruscitti goes to Greenville. South Carolina—which first means explaining why:

While I realize Greenville South Carolina is a spot most people will never find themselves you never know exactly what the future holds. We stopped there on the drive down to South Florida last January but it wasn’t at random. I decided to make it the halfway point (give or take) and spend a couple nights checking out the hub of South Carolina’s Upcountry region. I’d been hearing that Greenville was on the come up and decided why not stop there and check it out as it made sense from both a geographical standpoint and also getting to go somewhere I’ve never been. Plus I’ve always been intrigued with the local chili dog culture as there’s lots of hot dog stands in the area.


The Infatuation likes Esme and gives it almost 9 out of 10:

The food is fun without being too whimsical, with dishes like charred ribs topped with banana caramel and wrapped around a ceramic “bone” you eat like a Flintstone. There’s also savory sweet potato ice cream topped with caviar, and a canapé that tastes like a Cheeto from the future.

They also appreciate the vibe at always-busy Akahoshi Ramen:

Couples in booths steal tastes of each other’s ramen, while shoulder-to-shoulder strangers at the long communal table randomly synchronize their spoon lifts. Our favorite place to sit is at the kitchen counter, with its view of cooks making giant noodle pulls using equally giant chopsticks, woks breathing fire, and Ramen_Lord blow-torching pork slices.


If there’s anything you have to hunt for in odd parts of town, it’s doughnuts, at least if you want something besides Stan’s. Edward McClellan goes doughnut-hunting on the south side, and there’s more than Old-Fashioned and Dat Donuts—I’m a fan of Pticek and Sons, a Polish place you’d only find, like I did some years ago, by driving aimlessly in random directions:

Our final stop was Pticek & Son Bakery, a Polish bakery in Garfield Ridge. We walked in at 3, just as the women in white smocks were about to lock the door. There were five doughnuts left, all chocolate frosted. It was a doughnut with presence and gravitas, solid but soft, sweet but not sickeningly so.

“As for a classic chocolate cake doughnut, it sets the bar pretty high,” my friend said.

He asks at the end for suggestions of places he missed. I’d say keep going south. On a road trip once I tried Dinkel’s-like old school doughnuts at a place called Fleckenstein’s, in Mokena, and I haven’t been but really want to try Hi-Way Bakery in Crete because their website shows a Faulds oven not used for pizza.


Everybody’s talked about the new service model at John’s Food and Wine, Here’s a novel idea—talk to the chef-owners! Anyway, that’s what David Manilow did at The Dining Table, speaking this week with guys in charge, Adam McFarland and Tom Rogers.


Following Nagrant’s comments above, I was trying to think what new hidden gems I know of. Years ago, when people on LTHForum were kvetching that everything had been discovered and all there was left to do was talk about Wendy’s, I made an impassioned plea to just go out and discover your own neighborhood—don’t look for the hot place that you read about somewhere, but try every open storefront you could find.

In that spirit, I thought about my own neighborhood, Roscoe Village, of which, as a food writer, I am not exactly the best citizen—I see the poké place on Roscoe that I never went to just closed. I don’t often get excited about food near me, and I suppose that lack of enthusiasm is often justified, though probably no better or worse than any other neighborhood of similar demographics. If Roscoe Village is known for anything, it’s breakfast—though I am not super-excited about that, either. Orange, which I was never a huge fan of, is gone, Kitsch’n was a favorite of my kids so I’ve had everything there a million times over the past quarter-century, and Lucy’s Cafe, the former vaguely New Agey-religious Victory’s Banner, is vegetarian, and so the idea of going there worries me—what if I need bacon suddenly?

But one thing is happening in Roscoe Village—coffee places with pastries. There’s nothing on the exalted level of, say, Leigh Omlinsky’s pastries at Daisies or even, perhaps, Hexe Coffee, but there are certainly a few that qualify as interesting. Here’s my neighborhood report:

Loba Pastry and Cafe—Descended from the late and much beloved Bad Wolf Coffee, Loba is a woman-owned cafe now at Addison and Lincoln. They have a fairly small repertoire of items but they’re mostly interesting and things you won’t see elsewhere—like the pineapple sourdough muffin. That said, between the small repertoire and the small space which is usually full no matter when you go, I have a little Yogi Berra attitude about it—it’s so busy nobody (me) goes there any more (though I do).

Sweet Rabbit—Located in a former Schlitz tied house on Belmont (most recently a Starbucks), this bakery with a small seating area has a nice array of fairly homey baked goods. a buckwheat kouign-amann doesn’t quite have the magical texture of this item (Loba’s, like Bad Wolf’s before it, is better), but danishes are well made and the “honey bunny” (kind of like a cinnamon roll) is quite good. And it’s a very friendly place—when I went the week before Easter, the owner was giving every order a free hot cross bun. Admittedly, to drum up Easter day sales for that item, but still, friendly. Guess where I went for pastries on Easter morning?

Levant Coffee—On Roscoe closer to Western than Damen, this coffee spot was on a soft-opening when I went recently. But besides coffee, they had interesting doughnuts from Beacon Doughnuts and also some perfectly good bagels with cream cheese. I’ll see how it develops.

The Bakehouse Chicago—My favorite of the bunch, and not just because it’s by far the closest to my house (though that doesn’t hurt). Behind the generic name and storefront (next to Kitsch’n), there’s, I think, a Venezuelan family, the mom cranking out everything from quiche (the ham and gruyere is excellent) to fancy birthday cakes in back, the sons (I presume) hustling up cappuccinos and warming the pastries in front. I don’t know for sure that the croissants are made in house, but I’d sure bet on my favorite Item (along with that quiche)—a pastry with guava and cream cheese inside it. I’m not a fan of TVs at breakfast, but sometimes they’ll be playing soccer from somewhere—and I can’t begrudge them that version of a taste of home.