Chicago magazine announces that John Kessler will be its official lead restaurant reviewer (see more below) with his double review of (casual South Asian) Wazwan and (tasting menu) The Coach House at Wazwan:

The Coach House, open for dinner Thursday through Saturday, offers an eight-course menu ($150). Here, [chef-owner Zubair] Mohajir’s cooking flirts with brilliance. His sense of seasoning is impeccable, and many of his flavors have this great wait-for-it moment when they open up. But I find some of the courses a bit awkward, and they throw off the pacing of the meal. Also, the setting and service may not be transportive enough to justify the high price. That depends on your point of view. For me, this vital new restaurant is one to support and watch grow into its potential….

In contrast with the Coach House, Wazwan is an easy date, lunch or dinner, weeknight or weekend. You can arrive with a six-pack and settle in for a great sandwich or a bowlful of yumminess and rice. Mushroom korma made with cashew butter, coconut milk, and various fungi both stewed and fried is pure decadence, vegan-style. Beef nihari momos with Sichuan peppercorn are hella spicy and sticky with meat juices. And that great Chettinad masala makes an appearance, here served with chicken and basmati rice. A special shout-out goes to Mohajir’s signature dish, the THC Sando. With its tandoori honey glaze, achara pickles, and gochujang aïoli, it sounds like a hot, gloppy mess for stoners. Instead, it’s the most carefully constructed and seasoned fried chicken sandwich in town.

One interesting point is that Kessler’s first review makes it clear that star ratings are all relative: the chicken sandwich side gets three stars compared to other casual joints; the side that’s competing with Ever and Oriole gets two. This is in contrast to many reviewers, where it seems like upscale food gets at least one star just for being upscale, with the result that some restaurants are on a two to four star scale and others seem to be on a zero to two star scale, based on price and social status.


You have to follow them on Instagram to know about this—maybe somebody’s working on the story—but a number of Chicago chefs were in a surprising place last week: the Poland-Ukraine border, cooking for refugees via Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen. You can see pics from what they did at the Instagram accounts of Paul Kahan, Tony Priolo and Giuseppe Tentori. Kahan also announced that there would be a fundraiser for Ukraine but I can’t find the link for it; his Instagram account links only to a 2021 book dinner.


The first thought I had at seeing Louisa Chu reviewing Milly’s Pizza in the Pan was, why do we need another story on this pizza, which was widely written about (and praised) when it debuted in 2020?

When I included pizza-maker and owner Robert Maleski’s caramelized crust pie at Milly’s Pizza In The Pan among our 25 best pizzas around Chicago, mere months after he launched in 2020, it was then a Burt Katz-inspired composition. Better and more artfully arranged ingredients on a thick-yet-airy crust as canvas, ringed around with a burnished cheese frame.

What was once an ode to a master, a radiant still life, has evolved into an immersive work in progress. And Maleski, emerging as his own culinary legend in the making, bears the burdens of the process.


How serious are the guys behind hot new restaurant Lardon, which just opened Union? Anthony Todd tells you at Dish:

Unsurprisingly from a team that makes everything from scratch, even seemingly simple appetizers at Union are the product of some serious work. Take a classic (and delicious) bar snack – a stuffed fried olive. [Chef Chris] Thompson’s take on the dish is a three-day process. “Mortadella is emulsified and braised and sliced and ground; the olives are pitted and stuffed and breaded,” he says. And of course, everything is made in-house from the whole pigs that arrive regularly at the restaurant. The pimento cheese (another bar staple) is combined with salumi from the cave at Lardon, then served with housemade crackers. “Everything has a little more love,” laughs Thompson.


Would you pay $1200 to have someone cook for your party? Probably not, but if you’re the kind of person with the kind of friends who would be impressed to learn that you’d hired the former executive chef from Alinea to cook for your party, and who had probably paid the three or four figure cost to eat at Alinea at some point, then you might be interested in Simon Davies’ Ilixr. Eater has a story here, including that Ilixr will kick off in the beginning of May with a three-night all-star event with Davies, Andrew Brochu, Julia Momose (Kumiko) and former Alinea wine director Jill Zimorski. Tickets are, where else, on Tock.

P.S. Just one complaint—God, I hate it that everybody has to validate what they’re writing about by giving the tire company free publicity. Eater’s headline is “A Former Alinea Chef Promises ‘Michelin Level Dining’ at Home,” just days after running a headline about Kasama that called it “America’s Only Michelin-Starred Filipino Restaurant” (a contruction which has been widely copied, incidentally, as if “America’s Only Michelin-Starred Filipino Restaurant” was part of Kasama’s name). That comes awfully close to saying that the only reason to pay attention to a very fine restaurant by Asians is because the French approve of it, which to me borders on unconscious racism in Kasama’s case—and in Davies’ case, as if “Former Alinea Chef” wasn’t diddly without reference to an auto parts company.


I tried Sfera Sicilian Street Food when it started in a ghost kitchen; I thought the calzone-like scaccia was a gut bomb, but I loved the arancini, coated with panko, which were as good an example of that southern Italian standby as I’d ever had. Still, it was hard to make a meal out of one thing on a two-item menu. Mike Sula (who liked the scaccia more than I did) reports that owners Daniela Vitale and Steven Jarczyk are at work on more snacky things, making my return more likely when they open their restaurant in Edgewater later this spring. But speaking of ghost kitchens, this is interesting:

Contrary to the idea that they’re an incubator for big ideas, “the ghost kitchen concept for the most part is a graveyard of small business dreams,” says Jarczyk. “They’ll promise you the world and then absolutely deliver nothing for an incredible price. We are in the hospitality business, and when you’re not given the opportunity to show hospitality as a new business, that’s really hard.”


Titus Ruscitti keeps turning up signs of a South American food boom here. Don Pablo’s Kitchen and Bakeshop sounded familiar—turns out Mike Sula already covered it—but Titus also liked the Chilean empanada spot on Argyle:

I made sure to give the “Clásica” a try on my first trip in. It’s made with hand-cut sirloin steak, onions, hard boiled egg, black olives and spices. Also pictured up above is the “Pluma Pesto” which is served fried with pulled chicken, creamy pesto, onions, hard boiled egg, black olive and spices inside. The dough on each of these was high quality and I very much enjoyed them both. I thought the classic baked version was better than a busy spot in Miami that I recently tried (there’s a handful of Chilean restaurants in South Florida).


David Hammond talks to his buddy Lou Bank about the environmental pressures on the native agave plant population caused by the popularity of mezcal:

“In many regions of Mexico,” Bank tells us on his Agave Road Trip podcast, “agave spirits are integrated into the fabric of everyday life; they’re part of the religion, literally. The spirits are almost always called ‘mezcal’ locally, even though they’re not certified. The spirits are served at many of a community’s religious fiestas, so when the production of these spirits is at risk, the cultural heritage of the entire community is at risk.”


The Tribune likes to do nostalgic pieces about dishes with a long heritage, preferably from Marshall Field’s. This piece starts out being one to uncover the history (and the woman) behind Mrs. Hering’s chicken pot pie, still served at the Walnut Room—but it doesn’t quite work out as planned.


A decades-old business will close at the end of the month, it’s packed as a result, and the owners say they didn’t realize how much it mattered to people. Dinkel’s? Could be, but in this case it’s Just Hamburgers in Paxton, IL, south of Kankakee on I-57, according to the Iroquois County Times-Republic (h/t Titus Ruscitti):

“Since we announced that we’re going to shut down, our business has doubled, which I guess is a good way to go out,” [owner Cary Hasselbring] said. “It’s been chaotic around here. I’m very shocked that people are coming out of the woodwork.”

Perhaps Hasselbring, who has worked at Just Hamburgers since he was 10 years old, doesn’t realize the sentimental attachment people place on a business like this, especially those who remember going there as a child.


One of the best storytellers among Chicago chefs is Kevin Hickey of the Duck Inn—a real Chicagoan who worked around the world to wind up running a bar and restaurant next to the house he grew up in in Bridgeport. Hear him for yourself on Amuzed with Michael Muser as he tells tales of the days when he was running kitchens of Rush Street restaurants surrounded by peep shows and crack dens—in high school. Plus: When Covid Hit, Mister Kelly’s, The Slap, and so much more.


Belinda Chang has been a sommelier at all kinds of places, but when lockdown hit she started doing a weekly Zoom wine and cocktail event with guests (like me). Heather Lalley tells the story of her pivot to a new career.


If you’re under 50, unless you grew up on the North Shore you probably don’t know the name Bob Chinn. But if you did grow up there, or were reading restaurant reviews in the 1980s and 1990s like I was, the Chinese-born restaurateur, who died at 99, was a giant—his Wheeling restaurant, Bob Chinn’s Crab House, was one of the busiest restaurants in the country. WGN’s obit gives you the outline:

Bob Chinn’s Crab House opened in Wheeling in 1982 when Chinn was 59 years old. It became one of the country’s highest grossing restaurants, with the establishment earning over $24 million in annual revenue by 2012… The restaurant grew to a 700-seat capacity and sales that eclipsed 2,500 meals on the average day, with 3,000 pounds of seafood flown in to the restaurant daily.

Jeff Ruby wrote a somewhat negative review in 2010—the last time until now that I remember anybody writing about the place, even as it continued to pack them in above almost anywhere else in the region—but it nevertheless gives a pretty vivid picture of what an operation Bob Chinn’s was:

Regulars at this sprawling beer-hall luau embrace the cartoonish vibe and welcome the menu’s endless choices. Do you want your shrimp jumbo or scampi? With chili, garlic, tempura, or coconut? Once you choose from countless daily catches, do you want it steamed? Char-grilled? Blackened? Beer-batter fried? It all seems designed to brain-screw newbies like me, who inevitably surrender and let the server take over. Our relaxed waitress was more than happy to do so. She was also pleased to crack our crab legs and chat about Chinn, who is 87 and still hanging around in his blue fisherman’s jacket. I feel certain that she would have given me a clarified butter back rub had I asked.

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Not that long ago Chicago, with the exits of Phil Vettel from the Tribune and Jeff Ruby from Chicago magazine, had no major media restaurant reviewers. The Trib filled their gap with Nick Kindelsperger and Louisa Chu, and with this month’s reviews of Wazwan and The Coach House by Wazwan, Chicago magazine inaugurates John Kessler as its official reviewer (of upscale restaurants; he’s been reviewing more modestly-priced places as a freelancer for a couple of years).

Kessler brings a wide range of experience to the position, having worked in restaurants and lived internationally, and then writing about food for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1997 to 2015, much of it as their lead reviewer, before moving to Chicago. Here he’s best been known for the controversy he stirred up with a 2018 piece talking about what he found tired and lazy on the Chicago food scene—but the response of many then (that he was just a hater) is belied by his wide-ranging coverage of immigrant restaurants for the same magazine. I spoke to Kessler (with whom I’ve shared a number of those meals) about becoming The Man from Chicago Mag:

FOODITOR: You were a reviewer in Atlanta and then you decided to give that up. Why were you done with reviewing then?

JOHN KESSLER: You know, I gave it up more than once. Honestly, I feel that if you do it too long at a stretch, you’re not doing either the restaurants or the readers any service. Because it is impossible not to become part of the industry, rather than something of an outlier commenting on the industry. When people get to know you, your guard is let down. And it’s too easy to parrot the story that they want to be told, rather than thinking them up yourself.

I think reviewing is good when you have a focus to it. Like you’re putting a certain amount of order into how you see things, but you know, it gets very routine over time.

But now you’re doing it again in Chicago.

Well, this is fun, man. I mean, Chicago is an awesome and fascinating dining city. I have a lot of thoughts about it. I don’t think the way that I review restaurants has been really done here yet. And I look forward to sharing my perspective.

The way people review here is they tell a lot of story. I just got off the phone with a chef, and he was all eager to talk about his experiences and philosophy. Critics here spend way too long writing about the chef/owner, and not enough about the food with any real insight.

I think what I do well as a reviewer is that I’ve got a really finely tuned bullshit meter, but I’m also a nice person. I try and bring both of those things into the review. I think there’s some reviewers who are mean for the sake of being mean. I certainly don’t mind being mean, but it’s nothing personal. I think I go into a review thinking, what is the best way to tell the truth, that is nothing personal.

But it’s also completely 100% on the side of the consumer. I’ve worked in the industry a lot. I’ve done every position in restaurants. I went to culinary school, I have lived and traveled around the world, I have a deep knowledge base. And so if I see something that just isn’t what it’s supposed to be, I feel compelled to call it out.

There’s been a lot of conversation about how reviewing is changing. A lot of reviewers are primarily writing from an identity politics perspective—fine, food writing’s a natural vantage point for talking about different cultures, but I feel that as soon as you’re advocating for X type of restaurant as a category, you’re not “100% on the side of the consumer.”

Let me say two things. One is that as a white man, I understand I have the privilege of walking into any restaurant and saying, to my taste, I like this, I don’t like that. And I understand that not everybody feels they have that privilege. And I think that’s incredibly important to acknowledge that. And I’m not using privilege as a good term here. I think it’s been unfairly doled out.

On the other hand, rather than, say, identity politics, what I feel is that there is a generation of American cooks coming up, who feel themselves, their identities, are somehow hyphenated. There are people who have grown up, wherever they grow up, to make the food around them, but having a very different kind of food that they eat at home that reflects the culture of their parents. And so that makes it an incredibly exciting time to explore food, and to look at what people are cooking. So what I would rather say is that what we’re seeing is the development of new kinds of American cooking.

That’s one of the big changes over the last decade or two—everything has an Asian influence now, even upscale fine dining.

I think I was a little bit early on that because I lived in Asia for a couple of years when I was young, and then being a restaurant critic. The best food in Atlanta was Asian, not all of it, but so much of it was. They say how your cells are replaced every seven years, I think I’ve got a lot of Asian food in my body by now.

Restaurant reviewers tell us what they think is important by what they choose to review. For a long time we knew what kind of dining mattered to a pretty upscale publication like Chicago. What matters to you, what do you want to tell readers about?

The first thing that matters is getting a better sense of who the readers of Chicago magazine are, and reviewing the restaurants that they want to hear about. It’s not necessarily, the most sort of small, insider-y restaurants that excite people who work in the industry. So I really do think that is the main thing.

For me as an eater, I love it all. Like most people who’ve explored food a lot, I love trying things I haven’t tried before, and I love trying really exemplary preparations of things I have tried before. So if I find, you know, just the best cassoulet I’ve ever had, that’ll be just as important as you know, getting a better sense of what a Burmese tea salad tastes like. I’ve had a few but I can’t say I’m an expert on it, right?

One thing I will talk to: I’m not a huge, huge consumer of American street food.  I love a good Chicago hot dog, but you know, all the kind of greasy-ass drunk food, I think has its place, but I don’t find it particularly interesting. But there are other food writers and everything, so it’s okay.

They printed your picture with the announcement. No anonymity for you?

Anonymity was important to try for when it was possible, but in today’s world it’s impossible. However, there’s a big difference between being anonymous and announcing your presence. I still think it’s important to try and not draw attention to yourself or to your name. Being an anonymous shlub suits me just fine.