Buzz List for April 15, 2019

Chicago mag gives the little guys a big win, Finom Coffee has food worthy of coffee, Turkish coffee has food to eat with it, and who do Influencers influence?

Finom Coffee/Facebook
Writer's Breakfast at Finom Coffee

1. BEST OF THE BEST

A decade-plus ago, one of my food reviewing love-hates was Chicago magazine’s annual best new restaurant list (the number has varied over the years, usually around 15). It was a good touchstone for what was new on the scene… at least among a certain type of restaurant (serves dinner, somewhat upscale, one place from the burbs ranked somewhere around #12). But for us holier-than-thous at LTHForum, it was also frustrating—where were the Mexican places, the barbecue joints, the dim sum parlors, or anything that you ate at times other than dinner?

I want to go back in time to 2006 (the year Spacca Napoli just got a throwaway mention because they were busy honoring Block 44 and Il Mulino—yeah, yeah, okay, and Alinea and Schwa too). I’d tell LTH-era Mike, It gets better! This year’s list has a couple of big budget players on it, yet overwhelmingly it’s about neighborhood places doing international cuisine, starting with the ultimate one-chef’s-vision restaurant, Kyōten, at number one: “Otto Phan’s groundbreaking (and groundbreakingly pricey) sushi bar is the result of painstaking orchestration — years of rigorous training, obsessive sourcing of ingredients — combined with sheer force of ego.”

From there it mixes a few big downtown spots (Aba, Pacific Standard Time) with places that represent cuisines from all over the world, or even moreso, more than one cuisine mashed together according to the chef’s own quirks—there’s Funkenhausen, and Bayan Ko, and The Swill Inn, and Fooditor fave Munno Pizzeria & Bistro (hey look, Neapolitan-style pizza!). The downside of recognizing the glories in our neighborhoods is that things change quickly—the mom and son who ran Xocome Antojeria have sadly already left it, and Japanese bar food spot Yokocho shut down after just weeks (with plans to reopen elsewhere). Then there’s Brothers and Sisters, whose name change to All Together Now just came in before publication. But independent restaurants are often lightning in a bottle, and this year’s list, more than most of its predecessors, is one to act on—quickly.

2. YUGEN YOUR WAY

A while back Jeff Ruby wondered if he would even want to go to what followed in the Grace space. It’s something of a credit to Yugen that it has to be taken seriously enough to review, as he does this month, but he can’t entirely exorcise the spirit of Grace: “The restaurant was unforgettable, and so was [chef Curtis] Duffy’s intense presence. At various points I catch my wife casting furtive glances into Yugen’s glassed-in kitchen in search of a stray smolder from the guy.”

There’s a Duffy-worthy high point: “a sashimi course that manages to honor the simple freshness of hiramasa (yellowtail) while surrounding it with a tableau more complicated than quantum physics.” But “the problem is that nothing that follows quite reaches these heights. A dish of aggressively overseasoned roast lamb and duck has none of the nuance or spark that preceded it. One dish — a shabu shabu of Miyazaki A5 wagyu — never came at all.” After the review, the restaurant said that Ruby had been given an old menu and there is no A5 on the current menu. But I’m not sure that isn’t worse than forgetting the dish, given how ubiquitous the fancy Japanese beef is on high end tasting menus at the moment (Yugen, at $205, is one of the highest-priced)—and that it was one of the hallmarks of dining at Grace.

3. FINOM DE PLUME

I was actually working at Finom Coffee when I saw that Maggie Hennessy had given the unique Hungarian-meets-coffeeshop spot four stars, and was able to congratulate owners Rafael Esparza and Daniel Speer immediately on the good word: “Relying on little more than a toaster oven and an induction burner, Esparza and Speer Macgyver everything from veal-brain pate on toast to custardy scrambled eggs to sausage-and-pepper ragout. It’s delicate yet sustaining—like the dainty, mismatched china it sits on—and, frankly, the sort of food we should expect alongside a $3.50 cup of coffee.”

4. NEW ROUNDUP A LA TURK

Roscoe Village, where I live, has long been something of a center for Turkish food in Chicago despite, so far as I’ve ever been able to tell, not having that much of a Turkish population. Lakeview suddenly seems to be in the same position, and Mike Sula checks a number of them out, such as Turkitch (outgrowth of a Turkish frozen food line, based in Milwaukee): “It’s bright and open, with plenty of room to stretch out before the gleaming glass display cases showing off the sandwiches, sweets, and a few of the hot dishes. Some of the latter are fairly uncommon in these parts, such as menemen, a saucy tomato, pepper, and egg scramble, or the soujouk omelette, a layer of over easy eggs ringed by coins of salami-like beef sausage. Both are ideally sopped up with wedges of lightly toasted, black sesame-spackled breads, basketed and served with each order. And they’re best idled over with ornate demitasses of thick, inky coffee, or curvaceous glasses of black tea.”

But just to show the variability of experiences to be had, Sula has praise for one called Ali Baba Doner, but of another observes, “Anyone who’s ever stood in line for doner (or al pastor, or shawarma) understands what a grave disappointment it is to approach a glistening, sizzling, spinning monument of meat, only to be served old scraps that had been previously set aside for expediency, maybe even only minutes before.” Sadly, that’s exactly the experience I had at Ali Baba Doner a few weeks ago. If you have the setup, why not use it to produce the best possible product?

5. JEONG AMERICANS

Titus Ruscitti gets right to the point on Jeong: “Having worked in the kitchen of some of the city’s most respected restaurants you can consider Chef Park a classically trained chef so to say. He’s taking the food of his culture and basically putting out contemporary plates of some of his most fondest dishes having grown up in a Korean household. No better example of this than an order of mandu – the Korean word for dumpling. The kitchen hand makes these with kimchi / pork stuffed inside. They’re served in a bowl lined at the bottom with a cucumber emulsion and topped with Thai basil. Another dish that I could eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and still be fine with having it again the next day. This would pretty much be the case for every plate we ate. Nothing here bored.”

And he visits a place on Argyle I wrote about once, Double Happiness, and finds more about where its Chinese-Vietnamese fusion cuisine comes from: “Without much communication with ownership I’m guessing the specialty here is Chiuchow style noodles via Chaozhou of the Guangdong Province of China. This makes sense when you consider that the Teochow people (native to this area) are the largest Chinese ethnic group in Vietnam.”

6. BREAKFAST SPECIAL

Ina Pinkney is back going out for breakfast, and hits a triple. First: “Taureaux Tavern, which opened last fall, buzzes with the lunch and after work crowd, so breakfast is like the secret garden. I have never had better oatmeal, this one with bruleed bananas and served with a small pitcher of warm oat milk. That touch alone elevated my opinion.”

At All Together Now, “a thick slice of fragrant dense sourdough bread covered in creamed eggs (soft-boiled, mixed with bechamel), pork fat collards, pickles, pearl onions and Aleppo pepper was a showstopper.” And she tries four different toasts at Middle Brow Bungalow: “Each was beautiful to look at and tasty because the toppings were unique and the breads that carried it all were varied and remarkable.”

7. INFINITE LOOP

I could do without the declared exoticism in the headline, but Joanne Trestrail in Crain’s reviews three international cuisine spots for lunch downtown: Bien Me Sabe, offering arepas near Symphony Hall—”the After Party arepa, filled with succulent roasted pork, Gouda and guasacaca (like guacamole but less chunky), is a triumph”—plus two in the French Market in the Ogilvie center: Chinese jianbing at Jian (“messy but fun”) and Ethiopian food at a branch of Edgewater’s Demera (“vividly flavorful and very filling”).

8. MY FELLER NUGGETS

The Feller is the latest restaurant to open semi-independently within a bar (Spilt Milk)… and the star of chef Adam Wendt’s show is chicken nuggets. Anthony Todd has the word on why you want them: “Wendt takes fresh dark meat chicken, grinds it and emulsifies it with herbs and duck fat, sous vides the result, then portions them out, dredges the nuggets in a buttermilk breading and fries them. It’s still processed chicken, in a sense, but this is definitely not a fast food nugget – and it’s selling like crazy, quickly becoming the Feller’s most popular dish.”

9. INFLUENCERS: THREAT OR MENACE?

David Hammond writes about the hot, much-mocked profession of social media influencers, and talks to three people (including me) about it: “Most of us are comfortable with mass marketing, and we don’t have any problem with people promoting products and getting paid for it. So why are some scandalized by influencers who promote products—food, cosmetics, whatever—and get paid to post pictures on social media?”

10. E PLURIBUS TRUNK

Ariel Cheung is impressed by bright flavors at Grand Trunk Road: “Tender, herbaceous lamb chops awaited along with mozzarella-marinated Malai Murgh ($18), plump bites of chicken tossed in green cardamom and housemade Garam masala. The mozzarella ‘gives the chicken an extra dimension of flavor,’ [chef Behzad] Khan says. ‘Plus, it’s chicken coated in cheese—you can’t go wrong with that.’”

11. MOMOSE HEY

Steve Dolinsky talks to Julia Momose about creating cocktail experiences at Bar Kumiko.

12. IACP-ECT, TAKE CARE TCB

Congrats to two Chicago nominees in this year’s IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) awards: Jeff Ruby of Chicago mag was nominated for his reviews for Chicago mag, and Chandra Ram—Beard nominated for her cookbook with Bill Kim, is IACP nominated for her other one, The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook.

13. REVIEWER-SKEWERED

A Charleston restaurateur bars Post and Courier critic Hanna Raskin from his new restaurant. She reviews… a little food, a lot of attitude. Does she rip into them? No, much better, she shows them up beautifully in more-sorrow-than-anger mode:

Yet even from the literal scraps of evidence I could tell that something special is happening at Malagon. What I couldn’t tell from looking at a Basque pig-in-a-blanket smuggled out in a Kleenex was whether the servers have deep knowledge about what’s on offer, if the wine list complements the dishes or if the room’s quiet enough for carrying on conversation. So I honestly have no clue if you should go. But based on Panella’s request that The Post and Courier not tell its readers about Malagon, it’s possible he’d rather you didn’t.

Read it all. It has things to say about a lot more than one restaurant.

WHAT MIKE ATE

Since Winter Came Back, good thing I ate out while I still could this week. I made a second visit to Jeong, this time to dine a la carte, and there’s a real difference between the tasting menu—essentially fine dining with Korean flavors, quite refined (and at $87, I didn’t miss the A5)—and the a la carte menu, much stronger Korean tastes (and spice level). A simple dish of broccoli and apples has surprising depth, while a beef mandu (basically a big ravioli, related to the one from Hanbun that graced the first edition of The Fooditor 99) is hearty and satisfying. Mackerel sashimi dials sushi up a notch with a pool of spicy sauce to drag it through, and a braised short rib makes a comforting conclusion with a complex brown butter sauce. Just make a reservation already, it’s a standout for the year.

I dined with PR at Mako, the latest omakase sushi option and easily the most stylish room to date among them (I loved the teapot that glowed from underneath). Chef B.K. Park (Juno, Arami) makes a strong entry with a menu that ranges from an outstandingly oceany-tasting crab chawanmushi to smoked abalone. Sashimi, cut a bit small (which I prefer, though some may find it a bit stinting), was generally very strong—otoro, uni, and horse mackerel (topped with a garlic confit) were all standouts. Pairings, which include sake and wine, seemed especially well-chosen. A few dollars less than Kyōten (once you pro-rate its service-included price), Mako justifies a price and position close to the new sushi champ and is worth putting in your sushi rotation as well.

Finally, we went to the full-fledged Cafe Istanbul in Wicker Park—and you’d sure say the local Turkish community has found it. It was packed on Saturday night and the staff was struggling valiantly to keep up; even when things fell behind, their genuine concern and efforts to stay afloat were impressive. Anyway, I’ve been a fan of cag kebab—the old-fashioned style of doner, cooked on a sideways doner next to a charcoal fire—since we had it in Istanbul, and though the version at Cafe Istanbul isn’t quite up to that (a little more well done than I’d go for) we liked all the meats we tried, including lamb and chicken kebabs. The only other thing we tried that I recommend strongly was mujver, a zucchini pancake—I was expecting flat and instead it was an inch thick (deep dish?), but it had a nice crispy texture and soft interior and went well with the usual yogurt sauce.

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