Michael Nagrant has a long essay on Phillip Foss’s graphic novel/memoir Life in El, about finding a balance between aspiration and a healthy life, I guess you’d say:

One of the other lucky ones has been Phillip Foss, Michelin-starred chef of Chicago’s El Ideas, a guy who has, in an effort to escape self-hatred, dabbled in self-sabotage all of his life. I know Phillip, because, years ago, in one of his destructive modes, he attacked a fellow food writer for writing a bad review. The short story is that I defended the food writer by breaking down Foss’s anger in a blog piece. This opened up a dialogue between Foss and I that led to mutual respect and a few additional articles. The longer story is Foss wasn’t entirely wrong about that other food writer, a person, I sometimes suspected of stirring up shit just because it was amusing to them. And, while I had good intentions at the time, defending the tired kneejerk “you’re not in the arena” critique of a critic by a chef because they didn’t like your food, I was also exactly Phillip Foss. I was a young and angry writer, as he was a young and angry chef, trying to get mine amidst all the injustice we perceived of the outside world.

It’s a strong piece that seems to be powerfully frustrated by a world in which it is ever less possible to find an audience and make a living talking about food, or being idiosyncratically creative about food—even as everyone talks about food, which of course is why it’s hard to be the one who rises above others. Anyway, I think it is well worth reading even if I (complainer about the media scene though I am) am in a different place myself. As Foss’s self-made career in a nowhere space on the south side shows, it’s a great time to do what you want to do on your own terms, but money and fame don’t necessarily follow. Nagrant has a sharp take on how those bitch goddesses work:

As a somewhat more objective outsider (than Foss would be of himself) who has eaten Foss’s food in addition to Carlson’s, Grant Achatz’s, Charlie Trotter’s, Joel Robuchon’s, Thomas Keller’s and so many more great chefs work, I say, with no irony or intent of provocation, Foss is literally in the same class. That Foss doesn’t have two stars, is because Michelin is in the business of refinement while Foss is in the business of enjoyment.


I vaguely knew that someone had taken over the long-running Kiko’s Bosnian restaurant on Lincoln Avenue, but I’m a lot more interested to check it out after Mike Sula’s writeup on 016 Restaurant (named for Leskovac, Serbia’s area code): “It’s not a foam-and-forceps situation, but rarely do most Balkan restaurants roast Slagel Farm chickens, drizzle charred scallion oil over feta-stuffed peppers, or develop a Nashville-style hot chicken sausage with ground ajvarka, let alone offer a cocktail menu built around different Serbian fruit brandies.”

While you’re at it, check out his writeup on the coffee drinks at Dark Matter’s Caravanserai, which is collaborating with a Mexican chocolatier, La Rifa: “They’ve sacrificed cacao-colored dogs on your altar, burned incense in your honor, and offered you blue iguanas and bright feathers. But this [is] your favorite part: fermented, dried, and roasted cacao beans, crushed into a paste and decanted to a lather with water and chilis. So bitter. So fruity. The food of the gods is just the best.”


Phil Vettel says that Amy Morton’s Stolp Island Social in Aurora is aimed straight at the Paramount theater crowd: “The menu abounds with dishes the kitchen can deliver in a hurry. Snacks such as deviled eggs and marinated olives appear instantly; more composed plates include burrata cheese on a bed of ratatouille, lamb meatballs with minted yogurt and pistachio pesto, and a colorful composition of hummus topped with cherry tomatoes, watermelon radish, cauliflower and smoked heirloom carrots.” Two stars.


Jaipur, an old and seemingly tired Indian spot on Randolph Street, has reopened on the other side of the street  (right next to Rooh, in fact) and, says Joanne Trestrail, sprung back to new life: “If you’ve eaten in one too many tech-forward food halls lately, it’s especially welcome. Where else in this neighborhood can you eat lunch on Sunday-dinner china (with matching salt and pepper shakers) using nicely weighty flatware, while sitting at white-clothed tables? The accoutrements might be formal, but the mood is not the least bit stuffy.”


Eater talks to Curtis Duffy and Michael Muser about the road to their next restaurant Ever, from the implosion of Grace to how they conceive Duffy 2.0: “Duffy says the overall gist of the menu will be ‘light, green, herbaceous, fun, whimsical, but still respectable with the ingredients.’ In other words, ‘It’s still the same style of food — it’s my food,’ he says.” While as for design, “Muser summarizes it as ‘if the Starship Enterprise had an awesome restaurant in it, this would be it.’”


Two sandwich spots that have gotten a lot of online love are written about in Chicago mag. Dennis Lee, who was really the first one to call attention to what Ethan Lim has been doing lately at Hermosa, writes about it: “Lim, who grew up in a Chinese American family and has done stints at Next and the Aviary, drew on his fine-dining background to reimagine a dozen or so beloved Asian dishes as sandwiches. Hot-dog-stand classics are all well and good, he says, but ‘I get bored with a static menu.’ His only sandwich-invention parameters? ‘Every sandwich has to have a balance of texture, salt, acid, fat, and depth.’”

And Titus Ruscitti sings the praises of JT’s Genuine Sandwich Shop, and owner Chris Cunningham’s takes on midwestern classics: “The breaded pork tenderloin, a staple in both Iowa and Indiana, is one of the country’s most polarizing sandwiches: It’s frequently served in comically large portions, in which the bun covers a fraction of the tenderloin. JT’s version is much more manageable, featuring fresh Iowa pork loin that’s hand-trimmed and pounded out fresh before being bathed in buttermilk brine. Then, it’s breaded and fried to order.”


Michael Nagrant has another piece this week which goes a very long time talking about how we react when a place serves something other than our expectations—he calls it the Deli Dilemma, for the deli that dares serve anything besides pure nostalgia. Eventually the piece reveals that it is, sort of, by the way, a review of Chef’s Special, the Chinese-American tribute joint from the Giant guys: “The food here suffers from Deli Dilemma big time. The egg rolls are huge and dappled like old deep-fried McDonald’s apple pies. I appreciate that they contain gigantic shrimp as opposed to the typical krill-sized ones that most traditional American Chinese spots use. But, these egg rolls are missing the deep bbq pork punch of the now defunct Kow Kow egg roll, and the peanut butter-tinged salty sweetness of my current go-to egg roll at Lee’s Chop Suey.”

8. KFC

It’s a typical week for Titus Ruscitti—first he visits (as I did recently) Choongman Chicken, a popular Korean fried chicken chain opening around the U.S. (It’s up on Milwaukee in Glenview.) Then a survey of hot dog stands that have housemade tamales (talk about content aimed right at your brand).


I’ve seen Foxtrot stores in upscale neighborhoods but didn’t really know much about them. Anthony Todd explains: “Originally, it was meant to be an online delivery service to bring people high-quality versions of typical convenience store fare — ice cream, wine, beer, pizza, and snacks. Since Illinois law makes it difficult to deliver liquor from a warehouse, [founder Mike] LaVitola opened a single small retail location to facilitate orders, not realizing that the location would take off. ‘We thought, ‘Let’s open up a cheap, out-of-the-way little spot in the West Loop.’ It was designed to act more like our warehouse,’ LaVitola says. ‘But the West Loop is neither cheap nor out of the way anymore, and people kept coming in.’”


I went to a 40th anniversary party for Jimmy Bannos’ Heaven on Seven, and compared to many media events I’ve been to lately, it had a laidback New Orleans vibe with old veterans of the scene rather than influencers—I spent a good chunk of the evening reminiscing about Jacob Bros. Bagels with Bill Jacobs (Piece) and Lin Brehmer and Terri Hemmert. Anyway, Steve Dolinsky talks to Jimmy Bannos about how his family’s Jewish-style deli became the city’s longest-lived Cajun restaurant: “‘Just getting out of chef’s school, I started making everything from scratch. Curing my own corned beef, butchering our own meat,’ he said. ‘1983, I got Paul Prudhomme’s cookbook and made a couple things from that and that’s what started it.'”


Chicago mag posits that Illinois will become a leader in some dystopian Hellscape called “the meatless future,” which won’t come about as long as there are barbecue competitions to fight back in the name of all that is good and holy, but ironically making more fake burgers will actually hurt the soybean farmers who grow for them: “The more we replace animal protein with plant-based meat, ironically, the fewer beans we’ll need. That’s because, according to the Illinois Soybean Association, 80 percent of the beans grown in this state are ground into animal feed. A plant-based burger requires just one-tenth the amount of soy to produce as a hamburger.”


Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter Fried Chicken talks at the James Beard Foundation site about being a good owner of a restaurant with human employees: “’Benefits are super-expensive, but we decided to figure out how it could be done,’ she says. By implementing a price increase on the food, negotiating a price decrease on raw materials, extending the operating hours, and redesigning the kitchen for greater efficiency, Cikowski and [co-owner Josh] Kulp freed up the capital necessary to invest in their employees’ well-being. ‘If you can’t afford to take care of your employees,” she asks, ‘what kind of business do you have?'”


Jonathan Zaragoza does an in-depth interview with a site called Better — Neighbor. I thought this part about how he helped change the atmosphere at his parents’ Birrieria Zaragoza after working in more upscale restaurants (notably Sepia) was especially interesting:

Over the years while I was working elsewhere, I would receive texts from people that had visited my family’s restaurant saying the experience was just ‘alright’. I really didn’t like that. I understood that my parents were doing the best that they could, but I wanted to remove the possibility of someone not feeling fully satisfied.

So, I uniformed everything. Now, all the recipes are weighed out, measured in grams. I set up a POS system to help us keep track of our bottom line. We have been lucky over the years to have a lot of support from the community here in Archer Heights.


David Hammond looks at cognac, and why we don’t see it so much on cocktail menus, but might soon: “Perhaps the reason why many bars in Chicago don’t have cognac cocktails on their menus is that the stuff is often more expensive than other dark spirits. ‘Making alcohol out of grapes is fundamentally more expensive than making it out of grain or sugarcane,’ says Alex Schmaling, head bartender at Beacon Tavern (405 North Wabash), ‘so the entry-level price on any brandy is simply higher. There are some newer cognac brands priced affordably for cocktail menus, and as a result, I think we’re already seeing more cognac on menus.'”


Crate Free Illinois, which is trying to raise awareness of alternatives to factory farming, will have an animal welfare town hall at Dovetail Brewing on Wednesday, March 11, including vegan food, a screening of the documentary “Carnivore’s Dilemma” and a panel discussion afterwards. Learn more about the organization and event here, and get tickets here.


Amy Cavanaugh talked to WDCB’s Gary Zidek about Chicago mag’s cover story on shopping like a chef in Chicago.


A few years ago I was leafing through Yelp looking for unheralded restaurants, and I found a place on the edge of Logan Square that had five star ratings for farm to table breakfast. It turned out to be on the second floor of an office building, among many other quirky things—growing its own herbs out back, keeping bees, feeding weddings, and doing elaborate dinners which it called “midwestern omakase.” Under chef Leonard Hollander and manager/coffee nerd Chad Little, Arbor proved to be the restaurant I went to more than any other in the last few years—not for dinner, mainly, but for healthy breakfast (the seasonal vegetable-filled Midwest Grain Bowl was my standard order), a place to work and, frequently, a taste of whatever strange and mad scientist-y thing Chad was working on in the way of things to do with coffee.

In a city where “hidden” things are quickly known to a million influencers, Arbor was truly one of the few cult restaurants in town. Like Michael Nagrant says of Phillip Foss above, Leonard Hollander was too interested in following his own muse to play the game in a way that was easy to sell by the rules. He liked to change things around constantly, with the result that a meal often felt like a promising first draft, not the refined, replicable perfection we expect from top restaurants. Yet I admired that he was taking us on that adventure, and I felt that Arbor had personality to burn that more than made up for rough edges. Anyway, though it got good reviews and made some lists, it never really found a place in the Chicago foodie pantheon. I think it was our loss, not seeing it for what was so exceptional about it.

Chad left a while back and now Leonard has announced that Arbor is closed. I’d talked to him enough to know that he was keeping a hell of a lot of plates in the air, alongside some personal bumps in the road. Maybe it’s one of those cases where stepping away from the restaurant that was five things will help you find the one thing that finally wins you acclaim. Anyway, it was an impressive, thought-provoking run for this regular customer.