Buzz List for January 14, 2019

The longest speech at the Banchets, Virtue signaled, have you had Gujarati eggs? and Smoque catches fire

Michael Gebert
Jason Hammel accepts his Chef of the Year medal at the 2019 Jean Banchet awards

Buzz List is late this morning because we wanted to cover last night’s Jean Banchet awards:

1. BANCHET FRENCHY

And the best restaurant in Chicago… is in Winnetka! And it’s basically a pop-up inside another restaurant! That was, to jump to the end, the surprise decision at the close of the night of the local Jean Banchet awards—the award for restaurant of the year went to George Trois, chef Michael Lachowicz’s French restaurant inside Restaurant Michael in Winnetka, which was up against Acadia, Avec and Oriole. The city’s critics wouldn’t disagree—it’s had raves from Phil Vettel and Jeff Ruby—but it’s surely the one the fewest in the audience had been to.

Though by that time, the Banchet audience was ready for anything, having lasted through the thank-you speech by lifetime achievement chef Michael Foley, a wildly wandering 20 minutes (speakers were given a maximum of five) that included a funny Jean Banchet story, a poignant tale of the closing of his Printer’s Row that somehow led to a pillow fight over a layaway couch with his dogs, and more. It was the closest the evening got to performance art, as we all wondered what it was going to be about in the end.

In the end what it proved to be was a fitting pairing with Jason Hammel’s chef of the year win, as they both represented commitments to farm to table and restaurants as builders of community from different generations (Foley’s heyday was the 80s and 90s, Hammel opened Lula Cafe in 1999). Hammel’s theme was the strength and commitment of the Chicago food community—and he referenced that article with one of his closing lines: “Our party is not over, and our kitchen is open to all.”

Other awards: Rising Chef went to Alisha Elenz of mfk., while best new restaurant was S.K.Y.—chef Stephen Gillanders noted that they had been planning to leave for South Korea this weekend, but pushed it back because “it would be such an F-you to not be here if we won.” Previous Restaurant of the Year winner Blackbird took two awards, for chef de cuisine Ryan Pfeiffer and pastry chef Nicole Guini, and One Off’s Donnie Madia collected a third as “official accepter” for Pacific Standard Time’s Best Design award. Another past Restaurant of the Year winner, Fat Rice, won rising pastry chef (Elaine Townsend), while tiny Temporis won for Best Service.

On the beverage side, the decidedly one-of-a-kind Moody Tongue took Best Bar, while Best Mixologist went to Stephanie Andrews of Billy Sunday (a past Best Bar winner). Frontera Group’s Jill Gubesch, a multiple previous nominee, finally won for Best Sommelier. Finally, in the reconfigured awards for modest-priced restaurants, Pizzeria Bebu won Best Neighborhood Restaurant (don’t ask if New City really counts as a neighborhood), and the new Counter Service category went to the most venerable of the nominees, Calumet Fisheries way down on the southeast side; while the Heritage Restaurant category, an evolution of the Ethnic Restaurant category, went to A Place by Damao in Bridgeport.

Between those last two, Moody Tongue and S.K.Y., a particularly nice showing for the south side, often overlooked in food and drink discussions; and a good night for women in Chicago restaurants, not only with the wins but strong placement among the nominees—all of the rising pastry chefs, 3 of 4 for best mixologist, and mention of women-owned businesses from A Place by Damao to Pretty Cool Ice Cream.

2. WITH AVEC

Phil Vettel says it makes him feel old that Avec is now 15 years old. Hell, it makes me feel old that the “new” chef, Perry Hendrix, has been with Avec five years by now: “On his watch, Avec’s Mediterranean focus has expanded beyond the Big Three of France, Spain and Italy, venturing further east to embrace Middle Eastern and Moroccan influences… Vegetables are treated like royalty here, particularly the charred carrots, which arrive in a tangle of ribbons and chunks with black-garlic harissa, whipped feta, Turkish Urfa chilies and dukkah-spiced crispy rice. The puffy, blistered-heel pizza is very good; I enjoyed my roasted-artichoke and smoked-tomato pie, since replaced by one with mozzarella, fermented-garlic honey and ’nduja salami.”

3. VIRTUE AND MOIR

Phil Vettel finds Erick Williams’ return at the new Southern restaurant Virtue in Hyde Park sticks to his ribs: “Small-plate highlights include fried green tomatoes, which, topped with remoulade-dressed shrimp, provides two Southern touchstones on one plate. Biscuits, with homemade butter and pimento cheese, and cornbread, with honey butter (the sweet butter isn’t overkill, as Williams’ cornbread is on the savory side) are irresistible, as is the platter of sliced ham with pickled okra, pepper jelly and house-made crackers. Roasted broccoli, presented on an oval platter with bell peppers, cheddar and candied pecans, is a triumph of assertive flavors and textural range — never skip this dish.”

Williams also has a secondary purpose which partly explains why he chose Hyde Park: “His kitchen is a virtual incubator, with eager but inexperienced hires working side-by-side with industry veterans. ‘We’re literally training some guys from scratch — hands-on instruction,’ he said. ‘Virtue is partly a dream come true, partly my biggest challenge, but I know I’m getting the chance to change what the landscape of the kitchen looks like.’”

4. EGG BEGLEY

Indian food is one badly in need of new approaches in Chicago, and it sounds like Egg-O-Holic is just that, offering the late night street food of Gujarat: “The famously vegetarian state of Gujarat in northwestern India is also famously dry. And yet after dark in many large cities, out come the laaris, street food carts, many trafficking in an endless variety of egg dishes well-suited to meet the restorative demands of anyone who happens to have imbibed,” explains Mike Sula.

“The menu is extensive, with ‘eggetizers’ ranging from plain boiled eggs, to masala-spiced French toast, to cheesy egg masala roti; more substantial rich curries and scrambles; and grilled egg and cheese sandwiches. Egg abstainers are appeased with grilled cheese sandwiches and dishes that substitute paneer for the ova.”

5. WIN-WINERY

The closing of Vera was a loss, but Mark Mendez taking over the kitchen at City Winery was a win-win, it seemed to me, letting a top chef focus on the food at a place with a built-in audience over running the whole business. Joanne Trestrail checks it out for business lunch and finds “He’s been tweaking the menu a little at a time, to good effect…Pan-roasted chicken with roasted carrots, parsnips and fingerling potatoes ($24) is excellently flavorful, a homey meal on a cold day. Pulled lamb on pita ($16) with spiced yogurt sauce is gyro-like but without the usual heaviness of that classic sandwich; herbed fries are superb.” (Crain’s)

6. JEWEL OF ILLINOIS

And the best restaurant in Chicago… is in Waukegan! That at least is the conclusion of Yelp, says Nick Kindelsperger after seeing the mega-website’s latest “100 Best Places to Eat in the U.S.” list: “Because I worked in the town for a couple of years, I’m actually quite familiar with Papa Marcos Grill And Kabob (#57). It’s genuinely one of the friendliest family-run restaurants I’ve been to, even if there are more ambitious Middle Eastern restaurants around.” The explanation is that Yelp averages ratings and reviews and to some extent volume of reviews, and then adjusts for the volume of reviews in an area—so that a relatively underreviewed area (as Waukegan probably is, compared to, say, River North) apparently gets outsized results for its best-scoring spots.

Or maybe Bangers & Brews in Bend, Oregon really is an Alinea in disguise at #1. Years ago I set out to make fun of a Brazilian steak-on-swords place in the burbs that was the highest scoring restaurant in the Chicago area on some list. But when I talked to to the owner-manager, he proved to be so service focused and so caring about his customers that I ended up convinced that in its own way, the list wasn’t wrong.

7. BERAN VON CALIFORNIA

Amy Cavanaugh has an interesting piece at Plate (registration required) on Dave Beran and his restaurant Dialogue in Los Angeles—instead of focusing on the former Next chef’s food, it focuses on how he wound up in L.A. (he started looking for a space in New York or San Francisco) and after a first space fell through, regrouped to spend some time getting to better know the city while working for Wolfgang Puck: “’I had six months of immersion in the L.A. dining scene where no one cared who I was or what I was doing, because I was just working for him and I wasn’t in front of the public,’ Beran says. He used the time to visit farmers’ markets that Puck suggested and check out different neighborhoods.”

Another interesting part is that from early on, he built fairer pay for cooks and even profit-sharing into the concept: “‘We wanted to give our staff a sense of ownership and make sure the quality of life was good, both from a paid perspective, but also in the hours that they work,’ he says. ‘You can’t have people working 18 hours a day, five days a week, and burning themselves out. We do four-and-a-half services a week, so one day we’ll do one seating instead of two to give people an early evening.’”

8. BLACK FOR DINNER

This Chicago magazine feature on black-colored dishes is fun mainly for the photos of so many Goth-looking dishes and drinks.

9. WHERE THERE’S SMOQUE

Oh no! Fires are a rite of passage for barbecue joints but they can lead to long, long closings (see County, which just reopened two years later). Beloved Irving Park BBQ spot Smoque had a small fire in its walls this weekend but say they hope to reopen Tuesday.

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