Reviewing is mostly utilitarian—should I spend my money here or not?—and that’s fine so far as it goes; eating is mostly utilitarian, too. But sometimes cooking makes a bid for artistic greatness, for being the best humans can achieve in its field, and it deserves writing of equal ambition and knowledge willing to take on similar questions.

Michael Nagrant’s review of Yugen is, first, a reckoning with what a great restaurant—inevitably measured by a tire company’s three stars—is, and what humans go through to make it one:

“You will have to be mentored by someone who has already achieved three stars. And by mentored, I mean you will accept exploitation as your best friend and be made to believe perfection is only the starting point. It would be better yet if, as a young cook, you worked at two Michelin three-star restaurants, and rejected one of your mentors because they didn’t fit with your philosophy. You will also reject the second mentor in the end, too, at some point realizing, you now have your own voice and that the culinary world has passed your teacher by. After all, everyone wants to eat directly off the floor now, not on latex balloon-ware emblazoned with Murakami flowers.”

At present there is only one Michelin three star restaurant in Chicago, 15 in America, 117 in the world. That is to say, it is very much not an easily replicable feat—if you are the owner of a three star Michelin restaurant, who comes to a breaking point with your chef and the manager who is the Angelo Dundee to his Ali. You may still have the physical space, you may hire a promising chef and think that giving her a shot will lead straight back to three stars. It may lead to a good restaurant, but the lightning in a bottle of greatness is something else:

“This is why Yugen, a new high-end Japanese restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop, will not get three stars, or maybe even one. The Yugen team tries. But they’re like me watching Tom Brady. It feels like the staff has binge-watched ‘Mind of a Chef’ on Netflix and now thinks it knows what to do. It does not. It struggles to pour water correctly…

“The food too is generally bloodless. Canapes included velvet-textured tamago, but raw centered takoyaki. The soup dumpling is silky and reminds me of a similar wrapper I had with soup dumplings from Benu in San Francisco. But, the dipping sauce at Yugen is oily, missing the classic acidic brightening of black vinegar.”

In the end, the notion that you can watch a world class restaurant die and then expect to reanimate it straight back to the same level gets a serious disabusing from Nagrant: “A Michelin three-star restaurant is always a unique voice, something that doesn’t exist anywhere else, not a diluted reminder of what once was.” It’s a piece that wrestles with the profound things that make for greatness, from a reviewer informed enough to look at Chicago dining on a global scale, and it deserves reading in its entirety. Do so here.


When Kyōten didn’t get reviewed by the Trib for a few months, I wondered if it ever would, but this week Phil Vettel turns up with a triple review of all three of the high end sushi meals to open to date (he notes that Mako, from Juno’s B.K. Park, will soon follow). Kyōten comes out on top, getting three stars for both fish and Otto Phan’s running commentary: “Octopus, sliced immediately off the boil and tossed with torched avocado and ponzu, is a revelation, as is the Alabama red shrimp (‘I think it’s the best shrimp in the world’), formed into a nigiri so delicate the chef places them directly into each guest’s hand. Tilefish nigiri is equally tricky to handle, especially graced with a dab of creme fraiche, horseradish (not wasabi, Phan makes clear) and caviar. (You’ll have stray caviar clinging to your fingers after this dish; you won’t mind.)”

Takeya gets one star, and the superlatives are muted by comparison. But Omakase Yume gets two stars and some consumer advice for those hesitant to pay full freight for Kyōten: “Kyoten undoubtedly is the omakase that will command the most attention in the months to come, and deservedly so. But at almost half the price, Omakase Yume offers quality, complexity and innovation for nearly $100 less. That’s irresistible.”


Maggie Hennessy gives five stars to Hyde Park’s Virtue and its upscale soul food: “The Butcher’s Snack was an ode to carnivory on a precious, toile-patterned plate. We smeared cheesy housemade crackers with peppery turkey rillettes and robust head cheese, offsetting the unctuous terrines with pickled okra halves and swipes of zingy pepper jelly. Half a dozen succulent shrimp wrapped in tarragon-tinted remoulade could’ve stood alone as an appetizer. Instead, the Creole staple acted as the sauce for a pile of thick cornmeal-fried green tomatoes.” More than just the food, Virtue is a commitment for chef-owner Erick Williams: “Easygoing hospitality permeated interactions with our server and bussers. It didn’t surprise me to learn that about 95 percent of the 32-person staff lives on the South Side—another quietly deliberate move by Williams to establish a community and frame of cultural reference for employees.”


The search for new south side barbecue spots to add to the hallowed few (Lem’s, Honey 1, Uncle J’s, not many more) is ever ongoing. Mike Sula talks about two, both revivals of previous businesses. At Slab BBQ, which Nick Kindelsperger has written about, “Roughly hacked tips and cleanly separated ribs are robustly smoky and markedly tender right off the smoker; links are snappy and bite back with considerable chile heat.” While at Full Slab, previously in Grayslake, owner Samuel Gilbert’s “ribs and links, cooked on a large Old Hickory offset rotisserie smoker, are meatier, less rendered, and a bit chewier than the Slab’s, though they’re not nearly as smoky.”


As part of Restaurant Week, Louisa Chu takes her 85-year-old parents to the glitzy downtown nightspot Tao, in the former Excalibur building: “We can’t say we’d go back at full price, but agreed this was a lucky deal of a Lunar New Year meal for the fun setting, sweet service and surprising quality and value of the food. On our way home, my parents insisted the cooks must be Asian. Like any discussion in my family, it got loud.”


Are we feeling the rumbles of a tectonic shift in Chicago? The best restaurant in town has been Alinea for so long, it seemed as inevitable as the mayor being named Daley. And that could happen again, too! But Steve Plotnicki’s Opinionated About Dining, which polls high-roller international diners, just put out its master list of the 100 best restaurants in North America. And there are two (expensive, cerebral, tasting menu, Trotter protegé) Chicago restaurants in its top 10… but the first one isn’t Alinea, it’s Smyth, at #6. Alinea follows at #10, and Alinea Group still places Next at #58, which is no slouch, but Plotnicki’s crowd still seems to be finding Smyth fresher and more interesting these days.

Other Chicago spots on the list include Oriole at #22, Schwa at #74, and others including Elizabeth, Elske and El Ideas among runners-up. See the list here.


Ji Suk-Yi has a piece on Andersonville’s Lost Larson bakery and the brother-sister team who run it: “‘All of our products use Midwest whole grains in them, even the pastries and croissants, which adds great flavor to the products, but also makes them a bit healthier,’ said Bobby [Schaffer]. ‘I personally don’t like overly sweet desserts; everything has to have some balance, so you won’t find anything with a ton of sugar at the bakery.’” (Sun-Times)


The most interesting thing to me about Brass Heart, the tasting menu spot in Uptown, is the vegan tasting menu, which chef Matt Kerney has to thread a particular needle with: “‘The hardest part of the vegan menu was definitely trying to create a cohesive menu that wasn’t stacked with hydrocolloids [thickening agents like starch, guar gum and pectin],’ Kerney says, ‘and I didn’t want to do a menu with meat substitutes, like seitan and tofu. But making sure to just not put vegetables on a plate was difficult, because there’s only so much manipulation you can do before you end up with something that requires a hydrocolloid to hold it together.’” David Hammond spoke to him for NewCity.


What would you guess was the most common fast food in America, 100 years ago? Chili. Chili parlors were everywhere then, and nearly extinct now. But not entirely; Titus Ruscitti visits a few that have been around a long time including Lindy’s in the city, Bishop’s in Westmont, and others downstate.


Ina Pinkney subs for Rick Bayless on The Feed, talking breakfast with Steve Dolinsky. But really, it’s just for the chance to hang out with “Brooklyn girl” Ina; this episode is like an order of her Heavenly Hots.


Phil Vettel names his favorite chefs of the year, Diana Davila of Mi Tocaya Antojeria taking the top honor. I liked the Renaissance-style portraits by E. Jason Wambsgans.


Crain’s picks six spots as the best for business lunches in 2019.


Restaurant Week is over, which means it’s time for the fourth annual Black Restaurant Week, which started Sunday. You can see the full list of black-owned businesses participating here.


I don’t always note closings, you can find that news elsewhere, but sometimes there’s one that really hurts, because I watched it from beginning to end. I’ve known chef and original co-owner Nathan Sears for years, dating back to Vie where he was the longtime number two and a mad scientist of meats and pickling, and back when The Radler was a gleam in his eye and that of co-owner Adam Hebert, I interviewed him for my old Airwaves Full of Bacon podcast, full of dreams for a lively, culinarily interesting German beer hall.

By the time I interviewed the two of them again for Fooditor, they’d been battered by the reality of running a bar on a Logan Square strip, and Sears eventually left to take a hotel job with benefits for his family’s sake, while The Radler stripped down its concept to beer and sausages. Still, the food quality and level of kitchen skill remained very high—and that seems to be part of the problem, as Hebert recently announced closing due to the fact that they just weren’t making money in a big space on Milwaukee. If you can, stop in for a last chance at gemütlichkeit before closing night, February 24.


I was a big fan of Chef Lamar Moore’s breakfast food at Currency Exchange Cafe, and I love the idea of a tavern with soul bar food—which is basically what the best of Swill Inn’s menu is. Moore’s fried chicken wings are like a mini-trip south, and I loved the gas station culinary art of the taco in a bag; a couple of dishes come with an “everything biscuit,” which is a flakey, buttery biscuit with bagel stuff on it, and some kind of genius. Things that stray from that concept are less exciting—poutine was fine, but it seemed to be missing a chance to take poutine up a notch with soul, or at least more flavorful sausage than is in it now. (Hot link poutine!) So poke around the menu for the things with the best odds, but it’s a cozy getaway for hot food on a cold night.