1. THE TWO ROBERTS

When Robert Et Fils opens in the former Kitsune space on Lincoln Avenue in the spring, it will represent a not-so-common example of classic French fine dining tucked away in an intimate neighborhood setting. It will also represent a redemption story for a chef who’s been kicking around the Chicago scene for a number of years, Rob Shaner.

“I grew up with midwestern parents, eating the typical 80s meals, casseroles and canned fruits and vegetables,” Shaner says. That changed when his father was transferred to Paris while Shaner was in high school—”Paris was a huge awakening for me.” In America, they were Bob and Rob, but “neither really works in French,” so they became Robert pere et fils, exploring the food of Paris together.

But Shaner didn’t follow a cooking path right away. He graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and then went back to France, where he enrolled in a program in social psychology—briefly. Working assorted 9 to 5 jobs in New York, he next wound up in a master’s program at the University of Chicago, but didn’t complete that. “I wanted to be a professor, yet I loved cooking, and so I sort of bounced around for a while,” he says. He was also drinking heavily by this point. “When my dad passed away in ’08, I was in a bad spot. Before he died, we had one of these kind of awful but necessary sitdowns. He was a successful businessman, and he was asking me, ‘What are you going to do? You don’t have a direction.’

“We kept coming back to food. And before he died is when I got back to cooking again, though it was really when I quit drinking, five years ago, that I kind of understood my father and the lessons he was trying to teach me for so long. The progression of my career has been in the kitchen, but also just becoming an adult, learning how to run a business and be a father—things that I didn’t want to deal with when I was drinking.”

Rob Shaner at Royal Grocer & Co. in 2017

Shaner worked his way up through various Chicago kitchens, becoming executive chef at Homestead on the Roof and then Royal Grocer and Co., which is where I met him and was impressed by dishes like a hot pink, radish-based pasta. A stray mention in that Fooditor piece, of his admiration for The Bristol, led to Chris Pandel recruiting him to take over The Kennison, which the Boka Group is a partner in.

But creating a restaurant of his own, which evoked that time of exploring Paris with his father, was “something that’s been in the back of my mind, being pieced together, since I first fell in love with cooking and food,” he says. Now that it’s finally happening, he’s giving his father first place in the restaurant’s name “because I always fantasized about the two of us opening a restaurant.”

Robert Et Fils, an intimate, white tablecloth neighborhood French restaurant such as you might stumble across on a Parisian side street or in a small village, will offer “a 5 to 7 course fixed price menu where you’re getting actual courses rather than just bites. You can really spend time with a dish, rather than just getting a snapshot. It allows more time to enjoy the people around you, rather than focusing on the food.”

The restaurant will seat 24—”I’m limited by space and I want it to be,” he says—with a more casual patio in the summer months. The design by Siren Betty (Giant, Good Measure) moves the entrance to a curtained foyer through the side door—partly a weather consideration, but also to create the neighborhood getaway he envisions. “I want the space itself to feel like you’re sort of going in a wormhole. And I want the experience to be like a little vacation for the diners. That for me means warmth, and feeling comfortable,” he says.

The beverage program is still in the works, but Shaner anticipates a limited but well-chosen, mostly French wine list plus some classic cocktails and non-alcoholic choices. He expects the price to be “not too far over a hundred dollars,” well below most of the city’s tasting menus.

Shaner considers his approach to cooking French cuisine traditionalist yet playful, and a little experimental. “I’ve always been fascinated by looking at food historically. When I was at The Kennison I came across the the New York Public Library’s online archive of menus, and I started seeing stuff you would never see now. Like braised celery. Who wants to eat braised celery? But to me that’s a huge challenge—they were cooking that and people were eating it, so there’s got to be a way to do it.”

And as in France, he’s flexible about names—”I know ‘Robair Ay Feese’ is hard for Americans, so I expect people to just call it Robert.” Watch for it next year.

2. ARRIVEDERPI

There’s a classy way to announce the departure of a long-running chef. Bruce Sherman and North Pond demonstrated it recently, prompting lots of looks back at an influential and impressive tenure. And then there’s how Levy Restaurants announced the departure of Tony Mantuano after 35 years at Spiaggia—news-dumping it right before Thanksgiving. It feels a bit of an ignominious end, whether or not it is.

Phil Vettel has the official story, in which Mantuano says all positive things (now was the time, it’s in good hands, etc.), and we know nothing more than that yet. (I will note that I was promptly invited to write about New Year’s Eve at Spiaggia! Yeah, don’t think that’s the story I’m interested in about your restaurant just at the moment…) A couple of people have observed that it means that Levy’s latest restaurant, Maddon’s Post, has lost both of the names involved in opening it. Maybe that’s part of the reason for the… retirement, who can tell?

Anyway, earlier this year I ran an interview with Mantuano about 35 years at Spiaggia. It’s an example of the tributes he should be getting now, and isn’t, because of the way his exit was handled.

3. MAKO ONE

Phil Vettel called Kyōten the best sushi in town less than a year ago, and now he’s doing it again—he says B.K. Park’s Mako is even better: “Park then shuffles the deck, alternating between nigiri selections and composed plates; among the latter are kusshi oyster with tomato and smoked trout roe, torched arctic char with burnt-scallion ponzu and, one of the evening’s highlights, perfectly grilled squab bearing a smoked-soy glaze. (With its crispy skin and edge-to-edge medium-rare meat, this dish would be a standout anywhere.)” Four stars.

4. HERMOSEYING

It’s funny and honestly, in darkening food media times, encouraging to see how many people picked up on a little Asian-flavored sandwich shop in Hermosa (named Hermosa)—Dennis Lee went there and raved about it, Michael Nagrant followed him and loved it too, and then Gary Wiviott posted on Instagram about it and tagged Mike Sula (meaning they’d gone together). (Titus Ruscitti, of course, had been there two years earlier—maybe too early as the most interesting items are fairly recent. Apparently Louisa Chu had been there for a piece on an old school Chinese dish called 554, too.)

Anyway, Sula talks to owner Ethan Lim, another of those thoughtful second-generation Asian cooks doing American-style takes on Asian flavors: “Over the years he’s rotated experiments in and out based on dishes that don’t typically take sandwich form: The char-siu-egg fried rice 554 at Chinatown’s Seven Treasures; the deep-fried salt cod and potato-brandade croquette topped with brussels-sprouts slaw on a Spanish batard inspired by a memorable meal at Avec; the herbaceous Persian frittata kuku sabzi, topped with braised mushrooms on a buttery bun. But the Cambodian fried chicken sandwich is among a trio of newer sandwiches for which Lim has drawn upon his family’s own home cooking.”

Even I finally went! And it’s a great little place, and that Cambodian fried chicken sandwich is out of this world. Check it out. I might even have a story of my own in the works…

5. TITUS AND ON IT CUZ

Buzz List is off for a week and that just means the posts at Titus Ruscitti’s blog pile up! He visits El Sabor Poblano, which Mike Sula wrote about and which made The Fooditor 99 this year (including a snap of the chicken with mole on the back cover); Robert’s Pizza in Streeterville; Israeli fave Galit (“Not only is the food and design of the space great but the fact it’s helping bring my old stomping grounds back to life is a plus in my book”); and… this is the one you need to bookmark… a massive Los Angeles Taco Tour.

6. STONE COLD

No publication has reviewed Jacob Bickelhaupt’s Stone Flower, but the top-price-tier chef’s counter restaurant has prompted some discussion anyway—at LTHForum. Two posters, Nsxtasy and GAF (who is Gary Alan Fine, a professor and author of a book on kitchen culture) went, and besides praise (high if not unalloyed) for the tasting menu (“My favorite was the sturgeon – by a good measure – however, I haven’t been dreaming of any of the dishes, the way I have dreamed of some of those of Chefs Achatz, Cantu, Shields, Sandoval, or Regan”), Fine addressed the chef’s reputation: “Whatever the reputation of Chef Jake Bickelhaupt might be (in his angry, aggressive, alcohol-fueled past) on Saturday he was mellow, calm, and seemingly happy. We all struggle to be better people… I felt that it is unfortunate that Stone Flower has received so little culinary attention. It is a serious restaurant, certainly among the ten best currently operating in Chicago, which I suspect it would be widely considered if the chef were anonymous.”

Others responded vociferously (“We all pick and choose who we want to support with our dollars… at least own that you’ve made a decision to support him in spite of his undisputed past without minimizing what he did as mere ‘reputation'”), and others suggested that it shouldn’t even be a source of discussion at a, uh, discussion site (“Lets get back to food and save the arguing for political discussions”). Anyway, it’s all here if you want it, both the first evaluations of the actual experience outside Yelp, and the inevitable result of talking about it online.

7. UNFINISHED SYMPHONY

Joanne Trestrail contemplates the ongoing saga of a restaurant space with a built-in audience but a lousy restaurant: “We’re interrupting our usual programming to comment on Opus, the elegant, white-tablecloth restaurant that opened in Symphony Center in September (site of Tesori and Rhapsody, previously)… Our excuse is that it is so lovely, so well located and, frankly, so full of potential that we have to ask: Why does eating there feel like going to the early-bird, pre-show meal on a cruise ship, with proximity to the theater its chief virtue?”

8. REINED OUT

And Graham Meyer isn’t any more impressed by post-Aaron Lirette Free Rein under Kristine Subido: “Free Rein now shows the shackles of the hotel it’s attached to, displaying the typical timidity and underperformance of a hotel restaurant. Carolina shrimp ($16) promises tamarind, ginger and black mustard seeds, but the merely decent roasted tomato sauce dominates the dish. The grilled cheese ($12) is all dry white bread, the cheese not even reaching the crusts, much less oozing over the side. Lunch suffers from chronic underseasoning, although shakers do reside on the tables.”

9. TAMALES AND THEY’RE RED HOT

Someone just asked me what the best tamales in town were, and I had some candidates—but by no means the feeling that I had a definitive answer. Well, Nick Kindelsperger probably does now, after a roundup that looks at everything from factory-made tamales to the artisanal ones at 5 Rabanitos (which would have been one of my candidates, for sure).

And as he points out, “When I started looking for Chicago’s best tamales, I figured I’d spend most of my time at local Mexican restaurants, before briefly mentioning Delta-style tamales and Chicago’s strange mass-produced style. That was it, right? How wrong I was. In ‘The South American Table,’ Maria Baez Kijac writes, ‘If I had to choose one food that epitomizes the creole cuisine of South America it would be the tamale.’ In other words, I had missed a whole continent.” In fact he winds up citing them from Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Peru, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Mississippi Delta—plus Chicago’s own Supreme and Tom Tom tamales.

10. I AM CERES, AND DON’T CALL ME SHIRLEY

Ceres Cafe, a tavern and lunch spot near the Board of Trade, is the kind of generic place that can go decades with no more media attention than the occasional list of patty melts. Then it makes the news as the place a police chief got hammered before his DUI, and it gets a raucous tribute like this at Chicago mag: “When the news broke, anyone who’d ever drank at Ceres — or even heard of it — laughed hard enough to choke on a martini olive. ‘A few hours’ of drinking at Ceres is, conservatively, the equivalent of three Bears-tailgate keg stands, half a TBOX bar crawl, or 30 seconds chugging from a fire hose spewing hard liquor.”

11. BUST OR BOOM OR BOTH?

Crain’s has a piece on whether a restaurant industry decline is in the offing. It points to some interesting things, in particular that as the retail sector shrinks, restaurants are all that’s left (and left to tax), yet “fewer shops mean fewer potential diners strolling the street, reducing walk-in business.” I believe the overall figures on restaurant closures, yet when Crain’s cites examples it’s a short list of decidedly not-that-essential places (apart from Quiote; Pastoral doesn’t get a mention). So I don’t see a decline as yet that threatens Chicago as a city where creative things are happening… just one where it’s maybe harder to make money in a bro bar.

12. FILL OF PINOY

Filipino food is always on the verge of being the hot new cuisine, but maybe this time… Chicago magazine highlights four places putting their own spin on the cuisine (three of them are, by the way, in the new Fooditor 99—maybe it really is happening!)

13. AURORA RISING

I took my kids to see Penn and Teller at the Paramount Theater in Aurora a few years ago, and it’s an art deco masterpiece that may be the most beautiful theater interior in Chicagoland. So that makes me more interested than I might be in Amy Morton opening her third restaurant an hour away from me, as Anthony Todd reports:Stolp Island Social is located within the Aurora Arts Center, a complex of studios and artists’ lofts across from the Paramount, and occupies a space that once housed the Block & Kuhl department store back in the 1920s and 1930s. That was during Aurora’s heyday, a time that Morton hopes to evoke with a vibe she describes as ‘1920s Aurora meets Coco Chanel.'”

14. SEARS & PIZZA

You might think Steve Dolinsky has said all there is to say about pizza, but there are always new pizzas: at ABC 7 he talks about Roebuck Pizza, making its crust with wild yeasts: “We bring to pizza-making a philosophy that brewers bring to beer, which is yeast can have a really big impact on the flavor of the finished meal, so we wanted to do that with pizza,’ owner Greg Shuff said.” While Mickey Neely is doing a Sicilian crust pizza on Monday nights at Ludlow Liquors in Avondale.

15. TORTAS ALL THE WAY DOWN

Sandwich Tribunal has a great piece on Mexican tortas, which roams the whole region and turns up some little-known tortas in some rarely-explored parts of Chicagoland—I’m so ready to go check out La Mexicana Super Mercado in Harvey.

16. CHICAGO TRIBUTE

So you were hoping that the Tribune board would stand up against the vultures and deny Alden Capital the two seats it wanted on the board and make a firm stand for its employees and the future of journalism. Yeah, and I was hoping House Harkonnen would stand up for better working conditions for spice farmers on Arrakis. The board gave Alden its two seats, strongly suggesting that they are good with Alden’s mission to suck the Tribune dry and pay out fat dividends.

Joe Cahill at Crain’s expresses a sensible incredulity at this cravenness: “It’s an extraordinarily generous concession to an investor that has done nothing for the company. Alden hasn’t provided Tribune Publishing with additional equity capital, as Ferro did when he acquired his stake from the company in 2016. Alden bought shares from other investors, not the company. Tribune Publishing gets none of the $145.4 million Alden is shelling out… Maybe directors hope to use the next several months to find an acquirer with less rapacious tendencies than Alden. But if no such savior has emerged during the company’s decades of struggle, how likely is one to step forward now?”

17. GET SAUCED/GET SOUPED

Sauced Market will have its annual Night Market Before Christmas on Tuesday at Recess at City Hall in the West Loop, starting at 5 pm. Get more info here and more importantly, get one of these Israeli pita sandwiches, which will be at the market (and according to Sauced’s twitter, may be their last appearance in town).

And before that, on Monday, is an event in Bridgeport that I participated in (that is, made soup for) last spring and really loved—it had a warm, artsy, neighborhoody feel that I haven’t felt in my own neighborhood for a long time. It’s Souper Bowl at the Co-Prosperity Sphere, and $15 gets you all the soup you can eat (and take home at the end); all the money goes to charities. Ariel Cheung has a piece on the last one at Block Club.

18. IT’S YEAR END LIST TIME

Time to start tallying them even though there’s still nearly 1/13th of the year left:

Food and Wine’s 19 Biggest Openings of 2019 includes Gaijin.

USA Today is running a poll for best restaurants to open in the last year, and several Chicago spots are on there.

Not a year end list, but Bang Bang Pie made this listicle by the great Colman Andrews of great pie shops—in fact it came in at #1 (with Hoosier Mama close behind at #4).

Iliana Regan’s Burn the Place made two more lists,  Smithsonian’s food book list and Buzzfeed’s list of queer books.  And at Better, Julie Chernoff lists 12 best cookbooks of the year (including Paul Kahan’s) plus two memoirs—one of them, needless to say, Regan’s.

Chicago mag lists four locally-related cookbooks—two of which we’ve interviewed the authors of here!

19. IN MEMORIAM

Everyone knows Rubi’s at Maxwell Street, right? Great hand-patted tortillas for steak tacos, pork with mole rojo, all kinds of good things. But I didn’t know half of what’s in this terrific Sun-Times obituary for the woman behind it (she named it for her granddaughter), Basilisa Diaz Galindo, who died recently at 84:

On Saturdays, she started selling her food at soccer games played by teams from Guerrero. “Tacos barbacoa, fruit, mango,” her granddaughter said. She also offered te de canela, cinnamon tea, with a good kick from a shot of rum.

Ms. Diaz sold her sandwiches at indoor matches at the Odeum Expo Center in Villa Park. She wasn’t supposed to bring in outside food, but, “The soccer teams, they would help her smuggle the tortas in the Odeum. They would put them in their bags and say they were uniforms,” her granddaughter said.

She was proud about giving many other Mexican immigrants their first jobs in America. “I came here to give jobs to people — not to be given a job,” she’d say, according to her granddaughter.

And Lou Ragusi you never heard of, but especially if you went to Loyola, you probably knew the sub minichain he started, Capt’n Nemo’s. He passed away last week at 88. Here’s the Sun-Times’ obit—would you like a sample of soup?

GET THE FOODITOR 99—AND GIVE IT

There’s still time to order The Fooditor 99, the only restaurant guide that matters, here in time for Christmas. You can also pick it up at Sparrow Coffee in Naperville. But the important thing is, don’t eat another meal without it!

Becan X