Well, some kind of pot, anyway. There’s a new French restaurant, from a high end chain, called La Grande Boucherie. To judge by the photos, no expense has been spared to bring back the heyday of… Le Select last year. I have not been, which makes me somewhat unusual among Chicago food writers, who have posted a lot about the place after being feted and fed there at a preview event. Though when I asked one food writer of my acquaintance who went, they suggested that it was as loud and annoying an event as the last one they went to… at a sister restaurant of La Grande Boucherie, Olio e Piu. (So why’d they go to this one?)

Anyway, I’m always amused to find out which PR firms do not know that Fooditor publishes original restaurant reviews for an audience of faithful readers quite regularly. In a world where food writers become ever scarcer, you’d think being up on who’s left would be one of the top jobs for people in the PR industry. But whatever; if it proves to be longer-lasting than Le Select, or Bistro Margeaux or Brasserie Ruhlmann, then I’ll get around to checking it out one of these days. No biggie.

But Michael Nagrant, who unlike me jealously guards himself against the influence of PR firms, spotted a scandal in all this wining and dining. He points to a photo on Instagram:

The lady in the pink jacket doing the pull is one of Chicago’s bigger food, drink and general PR mavens, Victoria Kent.

The guy in the matching pink sweater lighting her indulgence is Jeffy Mai, her live-in partner. Nice, supportive boyfriend, right? Well, yeah, but also, he’s the editor of Time Out Chicago. Look around and over the years there’s been so many photos of them at free media dinners hand in hand, Jeffy getting the intel to pimp for his publication, and Vicky the dangled carrot, “Hey, look if you hire me, my boyfriend will write about you!”

Well, that might be reading a bit much into it all. Yes, Time Out did run a piece on the place:

On the food side, executive chef Maxime Kien showcases raw bar offerings, modern French dishes and large-format meats like chateaubriand for two and a butcher’s tray of dry-aged steaks. There will also be a variety of cheeses and charcuterie, plus traditional favorites such as French onion soup and escargots. The beverage program will highlight cocktails from mixologist Tim Williams of Pour Souls, an absinthe collection and an extensive list of predominantly French wines.

The thing is, that’s certainly not a review—it’s a preview piece, the kind that often gets written after a preview event, or even without one, straight from a press release, conveying basic facts and the marketing pitch of the restaurant. I think which side of the restaurant business Time Out Chicago was on was settled when they opened Time Out Market; the magazine has been a ghost of its former self for some time. But it does run occasional reviews by Maggie Hennessy—though it’s been a month since her last one—and if she actually reviews Le Grande Boucherie (I’m not convinced it’s one of the year’s notable openings yet, on a par with Hennessy’s last two subjects, John’s Food and Wine and Anelya) I expect she will be forthright about what is, and isn’t, good.

Nagrant points to another thing I noticed the other day on Instagram—what an influencer does when they’re not treated like a big deal, or at least that’s his interpretation of @chicagoismyboyfriend going to Warlord and reacting like this:

She went to Warlord a few weeks ago and trashed it as not worth it. What I know about Warlord is they don’t do comps and she had to wait in line like everyone else. Some of her critiques may have been fair. You will wait for a table at Warlord. They get slammed. Sometimes there are pacing issues.

…But, again, because she takes free meals and glorifies those spots and then goes to a place where she didn’t get a free meal, and doesn’t like it, how do we know what is real? If she’s wrong, 70,000 followers who trust her are likely now, “Fuck, Warlord.”

Is that a fair interpretation of her reaction? The thing is, and I think this is Nagrant’s real point about taking PR freebies—you just can’t know. I find her dislike of many aspects of Warlord plausible, and know others who don’t care for it—but Nagrant’s interpretation, whether or not it’s correct, is plausible enough, too. So did she not like it, or was she offended by how she was treated? Maybe, either one, or both. Can’t tell.

This is the eternal debate—I’ve certainly been having it with Nagrant for decades by now—but however you come out on the propriety of accepting invites (I go to the occasional preview, though by now it’s a handful a year), you can’t deny that it is a factor that people are free to consider as they read what you write. My preview experiences are mixed in with all kinds of other things, which I think make it clear that I’m scouting the city and looking for what interests me, by my own idiosyncratic ideas of what’s interesting (I just went on Friday to a Lenten fish fry at a church on the far northwest side, about as far as you can get from anything resembling the commercial restaurant-PR nexus), which I hope gives me credibility when you read about a place that is more hypeworthy. But I see lots of influencers who pretty much only go out for fancy food at places I know are scattering invites like snowflakes. And, well, I pay them attention accordingly, that’s all.


The Reader has a best of Chicago issue, and the food categories are… quirky, usually designed to have only one possible answer (e.g., “Best Boba from fine-dining chefs”), but often interesting. Best saffron ice cream? Well, that leads to a whole discussion of that flavoring for sweets in middle eastern restaurants. See the whole food list here.


David Hammond went to Norman Fenton’s Cariño, and was wowed—it says so right in the headline—by the commitment to hand-making Mexican foods:

Tortillas, used in a number of dishes, are made in-house—and I mean, from start to finish made in-house. The corn is brought in, nixtamalized (that is, cooked and steeped in an alkaline solution to soften the outer husk), and then ground before being patted into shape by hand and cooked.

The tortillas star in a long serving box that’s filled with stuffed tortillas, each looking different and containing surprising elements. The tacos dorados are molded into a tube, fried golden and filled with delicious chicken liver mousse; the teteles are a Oaxacan specialty, tortillas folded into a triangle and here filled with duck confit, complemented perfectly with a gooseberry sauce; and the tostada is a flat circular tortilla disk with avocado and trout roe. These proteins are not commonly found in traditional Mexican tortillas, but they all worked and they’re good examples of how Fenton is pushing the boundaries of what we know of as Mexican cuisine, with outstanding results.

There’s one surprise in his piece: he was invited as a guest of the house. I would not have thought of Cariño as being the sort of place that had PR that was inviting writers like him to dine on the cuff. That said, since I am referenced at one point to help establish Hammond’s bona fides as a scholar of Latin food, I trust him.


Louisa Chu visits the newly renovated Ramova Theatre complex in Bridgeport. But how’s the chili?

Whatever we’re going to call it, you should get a bowl, with the Load It option of sour cream, cheddar cheese and green onions. It’s not over-the-top Cincinnati-style loaded, but that’s forgiven when your other add-ons arrive all at once: a golden mini duck fat corn dog (originally from The Duck Inn); a not-so-mini grilled cheese sandwich on beautifully crusty Publican Quality Bread; a puffy, pickle-speared Salisbury steak slider; a crisp, creamy house-made tempura-esque macaroni and cheese ball; and a decidedly not house-made Tom Tom Tamale. It’s $34 for six delightful courses that will take you on an insightful chef’s tour of diner food.

5. 1923 MAXWELL

Steve Dolinsky finds lots of interest at Maxwells Trading:

There is an exuberance in the kitchen at Maxwells Trading – which occupies the first floor of a non-descript brick two-story building in West Town. Cooks are busy grilling over open flames or sauteeing braised vegetables under the watchful eyes of Erling Wu-Bower and Chef Chris Jung. The goal for the owners was simple.

“A beautiful bar where my partner and I our wives could sit down, have a martini and listen to records and eat kinda the food we want to cook and the food that we want to eat,” said Wu-Bower. “My mother is from China; Chef Chris Jung’s parents are from Korea, and we grew up in the big cities of America,” he said.


Besides policing the world of food media, Michael Nagrant went to check out Brasero, the new restaurant from John Manion in the former Funkenhausen space:

Given time to reflect during the pando, Manion came back stronger with a twist. He renamed El Che Bar to El Che Steakhouse and Bar and all the expense accounts suddenly flew in. Call it the Chicago pivot or whatever you want, but it’s the move that works. The boys from Perilla know this, that’s why they’re working on Perilla Steak right now. I should frankly rebrand this newsletter The Hunger Steak Joynt if I were smart.

A name change is nothing if it doesn’t deliver. And that’s the thing, always there, always waiting, were the talents of Manion ready to be devoured. And when he got people in the door they ate well.

I’m glad this worked, because now we have Brasero, beachy and boisterous, overflowing with fluffy greens flowing with citrus, hearts of palm, hearty crouton and bitter endive all lacquered with the sheen of a wonderfully acidic Calamansi vinaigrette.


Cindy’s in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel has a view only a Pritzker could afford to build; now it has a new chef who you’re about to hear a lot about, because she’s on the next, Milwaukee-set season of Top Chef. Or you may already know her, because you saw her win Chopped. Anthony Todd introduces Kaleena Bliss:

Bliss’s food is more refined and seasonal than the previous menu, and while many dishes lend themselves to sharing between dates, they definitely aren’t meant for a crowd. The room will change to reflect this, with a focus on a more intimate dining experience — it’s hard to take a romantic date to a restaurant where you might be sitting elbow to elbow with four other couples. The bar area is also being redesigned, with a more defined barrier between the bar and dining room, preventing happy hour spillovers.


Nick Kindelsperger turned up doing an AMA (ask me anything, not American Medical Association) at the Reddit group r/Chicagofood. The questions are fairly expected, but his answers are thoughtful on topics ranging from his favorite cheap lunch (pupusas at Cermak Market) to Michelin (“I think it’s helpful for people who travel a lot and entertain business clients. But that’s not me”), and he’s frank about why he left the Tribune: “It’s as bad as people imagine.”


The last thing I want is memories of bars in the 70s, and most cocktail bars focus on an earlier, classier time, but I suppose it was inevitable, and Amy Cavanaugh says that Golden Years, in Ukrainian Village, brings back hints (and music) of the decade. Here’s co-owner Zach Rivera:

“I wanted to put together a list of cocktails from the ’70s or using ingredients from that time — Galliano, orange juice, brandy, and cognac were huge — in addition to older cocktails that people are still drinking or that have gained popularity again, like the highball.”

He turns these old-school elements on their head by serving concoctions like the Florida, with grapefruit juice, sloe gin, Galliano, and a blend of red bitters. Says Rivera: “I didn’t want to be as on the nose as a Harvey Wallbanger.”


I’ve gotten fresh pasta at Pasta Fresh, but never eaten at the restaurant next door, owned by the same family, BarTucci’s, Titus Ruscitti did and tells us about it:

The pasta portion of the menu is solid in size with 12 options to choose from. Each one of them is a substantial amount of food for a reasonable price as the majority are under $20 a plate. An order of Vodka Rigatoni con Salsiccia was my pick and it hit the spot in all the right ways. I don’t think that it’s a distinctly Chicago dish but it’s one that most spots in the city do right thanks in part to the abundance of quality Italian sausage available in Chicago. This was loaded with chunks of Italian sausage mixed into a flavorful vodka cream sauce clinging to fresh al dente pasta with peas.


I got through Nick Kindelsperger’s AMA without having to think about caesar wraps, but damn if Dennis Lee doesn’t make us sit through reading about the one at the Village Tap again. I will gi ve him credit, though: he admits that most other things on the menu, like the Pimento Mori burger, are actually better:

This thing is so popular that the QR code menu warns that it tends to run out in the evenings. I hate saying this, but in short, it’s…okay. Maybe it’s because I got swept up in the hype as much as everyone else did thanks to social media, but I was hoping I’d be floored by this chicken Caesar salad wrap. Village Tap’s version is a tortilla filled with romaine, grilled chicken breast, herbed bread crumbs, Parmesan, and garlic Caesar dressing.


On Joiners: Jason Vincent (Giant, Chef’s Special) talking about getting into food as a kid in Cleveland.

On The Dining Table: Erling Wu-Bower, from Avec to his new Maxwells Trading.


Before COVID times, one of my favorite hangouts with my laptop and a cup of coffee was Finom Coffee, run by Rafael Esparza. One year when I was promoting The Fooditor 99 on Car Con Carne, we parked outside it and had Rafa on (to feed us), a sign of both how interesting and unexpected the food was, and also that Esparza was always fun and lively to chat with. Anyway, what I really loved about it was Esparza’s cooking, which had a lot of personality—starting with the fact that though he’s Mexican, the food was supposedly Hungarian. But what really impressed me was that Esparza had worked at all kinds of fancy places (e.g., Momotaro) and he knew all the tricks for making food look posh, but at the same time, he didn’t want to just do expensive food. So $9 or something would get you a piece of toast with brains delicately cooked on it—and topped with edible flowers. High-low fusion, of the kind we associate with Won Kim’s Kimski or other sort-of artful cooking at modest prices places.

Finom Coffee closed during lockdown and I kept an eye on Esparza, to see what he was up to, via Instagram mostly. (His account was fairly filthy-minded, and he eventually got booted off.) He helped start Evette’s, but soon left, trying to get involved with helping released prisoners reintegrate to society, and he was a host at Longman & Eagle for a bit. But then he returned to cooking, announcing a pop-up called FAFO, with Anthony Baier, whom I’d met at Kimski where he was sous chef for a long time.

And it’s very much in that same genre of high-low food following their own weird experimenting with flavors. The things I had—none of which you could accurately guess from their names on the menu—recalled things at places way out of the league of a pop-up in a mediterranean sandwich shop, but of course it’s precisely guys like Esparza who execute the food at places like that (and indeed, he invented the first dish we had while working at Sushi-San). That was a Japanese egg salad, which had chorizo verde—and, it turns out, culinary grade ants—under a big glob of housemade mayo (which is mostly egg, of course). It reminded me of things I’ve had at Elske, which also has a thing for food hidden under a big glob of something. A dish called Steak & Eggs, which kind of had neither of those things. reminded me of the milk bread sandwiches or such at Kumiko. (It was topped with fish roe, that’s the eggs.) A grilled cheese sandwich was made with malort-infused Merkt’s cheddar, and had the kid’s comfort food goes weird vibe of a sandwich from Big Kids. I don’t mean at all to suggest that Esparza and Baier were imitating these other places, just that there’s a vibe out there, of mixing fancy cooking with comfy flavors, professional cooks cooking up what appeals to themselves, and FAFO, like Kimski or Warlord, is playing in that sandbox.

That includes drinkwise—though the present location in a Lakeview branch of Evette’s does not serve alcohol. (Esparza says they’re in talks to take up residency at some place that does strong bar business but doesn’t have its own food.) Still, we had, I guess mocktails, in that we were given tastes of some of the elaborate drinks they’ve created. The best was a take on something like a bloody Mary, which tasted of A1 Steak Sauce and was, as it turned out, ringed with ground up steak chips (a sort of dehydrated beef jerky product invented locally) and—bugs again!—ground grasshopper powder. (Or chapulines, as they call them in Mexico.) Sounds weird as hell, was surprisingly well-balanced and satisfying,

Okay, all the mentions of bugs may have already scared you off, or maybe it was “none of which you could accurately guess from their names on the menu” that chased you off. But if Esparza and Baier made it a $200 tasting menu, their oddball experiments would be a hot thing among food writers right now. Going for $15 or $20 each at a pop-up, they may not have the same cachet, but if you have an adventurous spirit, give FAFO a try. You can always eat normal food the next night.

When’s the last time I went to the same bar two nights in a row? I can’t think when, even while traveling, but Friday after my Lenten fish fry dinner on the northwest side, I decided to stop in to the only interesting cocktail bar I could think of in that part of town, Moonflower in Portage Park. I had been there a year ago, and it was fine, although the drinks didn’t strike me as that imaginative or interesting. So we popped in—and for whatever reason I was much more impressed by the cocktail selections this time, which had a lot of interesting combinations and some real oddball accents, like the “plum powder” (one of those names where you both know what something is, and have no idea what something is) which coated the rim of a cocktail made with gin, white vermouth, peach nectar and milkis (a Korean carbonated yogurt soda).

In the meantime, I read the Amy Cavanaugh piece above about the 70s bar… which it turns out, is from a couple of people involved with Moonflower. Then the next night, I had all the odd things at FAFO, but no alcohol, and heading back to the plum powder place seemed the logical continuation of the evening. So we went back to Moonflower—but the upstairs was full, and we’d heard the night before that there was a downstairs. So we headed for that—which turns out to be its own bar with its own menu, Nightshade. The drinks are different  but in the same vein of originality—lots of less common spirits like soju or cachaca, and some distinctly unusual ways of making a cocktail—the Guess Again (my theme this weekend) was pisco and Galliano with a vanilla cream cheese whip on top, kind of a ginger-orange Dreamsicle flavor. In short, I’m not going back a third night, but I suspect I’ll be back in not too long.