Thanks to all who responded to my request to review The Fooditor 99 at Amazon and help balance out a two-star rating (no review, so I don’t even know why!). There’s over a dozen new reviews, which not only help me by getting the rating back up to nearly five stars, but also help people who visit the page better understand if it’s the right book for their needs. Thank you for your support and kind words, such as:

1. BANCHET RECAP

The Jean Banchet Awards for 2020 were always likely to come down to two top restaurants that both opened about two years ago (and were thus first eligible for Restaurant of the Year this year)—Oriole and Smyth. In fact, the Shieldses (Smyth) and the Sandovals (Oriole) presented Best New Restaurant together in recognition of the main event later that evening. In the end, Smyth took Restaurant of the Year, fittingly for what’s not only the most interesting and experimental avant-garde restaurant in Chicago but one of the top such places in the country. But the Oriole folks hardly left empty-handed, since Oriole won best sommelier for Aaron McManus, their spinoff Kumiko won best bar, and Mariya Russell of Kikko (Kumiko’s basement spinoff) won best chef de cuisine, to add to her being the first black woman with a Michelin star. She gave an especially moving thank you in which she noted that, being black, she might find it hard going in many fields, but has found nothing but family in the tight-knit Oriole/Kumiko crew.

Speaking of Michelin, in an amusing rebuke to the French tire guys, the sushi omakase they declared (insanely, in our opinion) to be inferior to all the other new ones, Kyōten, won best new restaurant. Owner Otto Phan didn’t mention Michelin, but thanked Chicago for welcoming nobody nobody knew, and pledged himself to doing his best every night.

In a crowded field (not least because there were two duos nominated), Anna and David Posey took Chef of the Year for their far West Loop charmer Elske, which has really settled into a uniquely welcoming vibe among upscale spots. Apparently surprised to be the winning team, David Posey thanked his wife and called himself “her loser husband.”

Andersonville’s Korean-Italian Passerotto was named best neighborhood restaurant—accepted by staffers since Jennifer Kim is on a research trip in South Korea—while Turkish restaurant Cafe Istanbul took best heritage restaurant (deserved for cag kebab alone), given by the couple behind Ras Dashen, and Publican Quality Meats won best counter service restaurant (given by, well, me with Barry Sorkin of Smoque). Rising chef of the year went to Jess Galli, baker-chef of Logan Square’s Middle Brow Bungalow; she noted that she’s always considered herself a baker, not a chef, but the city’s embrace of her and this nomination has made her step back and really look at how people in kitchens define themselves too narrowly. Do we need to note how many women winners that is so far? I think maybe it’s time to consider that unexceptional—of course those women won.

Craig Harszewski of Brindille took pastry chef—surprisingly, a 3-1 male field this year—and rising pastry chef went to Tatum Sinclair of S.K.Y., whose arrival lifted an already stellar new spot a couple of additional notches. S.K.Y., which won best new restaurant last year, also won best service. Kevin Beary of The Bamboo Room, the most exciting tiki bar experience in town right now, won best bartender; and Tzuco won Best Design for its impressively novel evocation of Mexican themes.

Finally, the culinary achievement award went, richly deserved, to friend of Fooditor Ina Pinkney, who gave an inspirational speech that had many in tears, about her journey starting as a child with polio, not finding her restaurant destiny until middle age, all the way to standing on the stage of the Jean Banchet Awards— after having fed Jean and Doris Banchet at her restaurant.

2. POP UP 2.0

Jeff Ruby kind of buries the lede in his review of Trevor Teich’s Claudia—that the former pop-up is still kind of a pop-up, now in a Loop office building, and that’s how Teich finally got his place open for, probably, a couple of percent of what something like Curtis Duffy’s next restaurant will cost. But to be fair, that’s the inside baseball that interests somebody like me.

More to the point for most people: “A veteran of L2O and Acadia, Teich has a great eye and a terrifically cockeyed palate. At my meal, he presented four canapés surrounded by moss in a bento box that made it look like the whole thing had just washed ashore. Each bite was a sunken treasure: a scallop cracker with a preserved egg yolk soaking into it; crisp black squid-ink madeleines made from a pancake-like batter; a caviar-topped potato beignet that dissolved on the tongue like a briny cloud; and sushi-grade yellowfin tuna stuffed with silken pâté de foie gras. The umami was electric, and Teich’s attention to detail was exacting: The tiny dot of ponzu on the tuna had taken a month to ferment to his rigorous specifications.”

3. OKONOVIRANTI

Friend of Fooditor Kenny Z has observed that Paul Virant, whose “brand” has been a commitment to farm to table, switching to opening a Japanese bar food joint just seems wrong, somehow. Nick Kindelsperger opens his review of Gaijin with the same question. Meanwhile, Eater has a piece this week on the new bar from the Giant guys (Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar) which will serve drinks with Chinese food. Has the world gone mad?

No, I think this is 2020 (indeed, much of the 2010s as well). Chefs have been eating late night Chinese for decades. Everybody is into deep, funky and spicy Asian flavors now. So I think that playing with Asian flavors is just what gaijin chefs do now, and the question of cultural appropriation is not a matter of whether they can, but how well they do it. In Virant’s case, he’s hardly abandoned his commitment to high quality ingredients, well grown by farmers—it’s all over the menu at Gaijin, which prepares okonomiyaki to the kind of exacting standards you’d expect from the chef of Vie.

Anyway, enough of my thoughts on Gaijin, which seems to me to be exactly the kind of thing to eat right now. Kindelsperger does something kind of odd, and kind of great, in his review, which is recruit a Japanese chef already serving okonomiyaki to help him review it, a Macy’s-told-me-to-go-to-Gimbel’s kind of moment that is in marked contrast to the usual omniscience reviewers affect. He chose Brian Mita, of Izakaya Mita.

In the end, Kindelsperger liked it: “I loved the tender octopus ($16), which also arrives drizzled with hot sauce and honey gastrique.” And Mita found it respectful—and fun: “The show of okonomiyaki at Gaijin was everything I wanted.”

Becan X

4. DR. TONGUE’S HOUSE OF 3-D BEER PAIRINGS

At October, the beer magazine where Fooditor contributor Sarah Freeman is now managing editor, she takes a look at what’s happening at the new, more fine dining-y iteration of Moody Tongue under Jared Rouben and Jared Wentworth: “Rouben and Wentworth spent weeks coming up with the pairing for the tasting menu, where they would taste over a dozen different beers with each course, finding the perfect match: Maine lobster with creamy chawanmushi is paired with a pressed Asian pear saison while Berkshire pork belly is served alongside Carolina Gold rice and a bruleed banana dunkel weizenbock. And if you choose the more causal bar, you’ll hardly be slumming it with the likes of smoky beet tartare served with spruce infused ricotta, and the Japanese sweet potato agnolotti looks and taste unlike anything you’ve ever had at a brewery.”

And speaking of Moody Tongue, here’s more from a Forbes contributor, too.

5. DUMPLINGLAND

There was some discussion last week on Twitter among food writers about readers who want more coverage of suburbia. Which mostly means they want to read about the upscale American restaurant in their town. But what they need is more coverage of the immigrant food scene in the suburbs, which is booming in many areas yet doesn’t get attention even when it’s noticeably better than similar things in the city.

Which is a long way of saying that you should definitely be paying attention to Steve Dolinsky’s series on Chinese food outside of Chinatown, which is often, if not only, focused on Chinese places in the burbs. The newest edition focuses on an old LTHForum favorite, Katy’s Dumplings in Westmont and Oak Park, and a new Libertyville spot, Dangela’s Dumplings, both handcrafting Chinese dumplings beyond the city’s Great Wall.

6. LEADER OF THE PACK

Crain’s has the second installment in its review of Time Out Market and Joanne Trestrail seems to declare a (not entirely surprising) winner of the celebrity chef cookoff: “Abe Conlon’s (Fat Rice) chickpea soup with spicy garlic sausage, potato and fava beans ($14) is a robust bowlful of winter-appropriate goodness, a substantial meal in itself, alone worth a trip to this food hall. We also liked the three big, plump Portuguese sardines with potato, chilies and black olives ($15) and applaud Conlon’s courage in offering the dish here; the same could be said for his roast pork and Manila clams with sausage and fennel ($20). All delicious, if not exactly in sync with the Taste of Chicago-like vibe.”

7. WELL, ISN’T THAT ESPECIALIDAD

Titus Ruscitti has a new installment of his series focusing on Mexican restaurants with a specialty of the house, including the red pozole at Antojito Pozoleria Martha in Little Village, and tamales at Restaurant Y Tamaleria La Bendicion in Cragin: “It’s possible the best Mexican tamales in Chicago are made at this Salvadoran owned restaurant on Cicero. But don’t take my word for it. Consider the fact they open at 5a and usually sell out by early afternoon seven days a week.

He also visits Tostini, which is a curious blend of Turkish and Polish flavors on Morse in Rogers Park, “particularly in the Kofte and Potato Tostini. Kofte are Turkish meatballs made of beef that typically come more flattened than the traditional Italian meatball. They also add cheese before it’s all loaded into a sliced Middle Eastern flatbread and pressed. After it’s heated through and toasted they add cabbage salad and a sauce similar to ketchup/mayo.”

8. NECESSARY BREAKFAST

Spekaing of Ina Pinkney, her breakfast column is back with three spots. Necessary Coffee in Logan Square is a tiny spot attached to an art studio: “We had almost every coffee and tea beverage on the menu along with an assortment of empanadas, pastries and doughnuts. Each drink was worthy of silence and then sounds of wonder.” She also visited Argentine bakery Klein’s Cafe: “Each pastry had a slightly different dough and was well suited to the filling. The golfeado, which we saved for last, was a sticky bun with cinnamon, dark brown sugar, anise and white cheese.” And she visits the new version of Wishbone, where she says she always orders the corn cakes. She’s not the only one.

9. EL MANI PADME

Phillip Foss continues his confessional posts at Medium with one on how meditation has helped him be a better person and chef: “I highly recommend making meditation a part of anyone’s daily ritual, but especially for professional chefs. Our deeply ingrained mantras of always ‘pushing harder’ and ‘being better than your last dish’ are preached by me and my colleagues ad nauseam. I get that there’s truth behind them, but what am I really saying about myself when I fuck something up? I think you can agree neither of those mantras speaks very much toward the premise of self-acceptance.”

10. ROAD TO MANGO LAYS

Apparently continuing the Munchies theme that seems to have overtaken much of the city, can’t think why, Mike Sula conjures a panel to taste different Asian flavors of Lay’s potato chips.

11. EVER MORE

If you want to know more about the Banchets, as well as the upcoming Curtis Duffy restaurant Ever, check out this interview with Ever GM/Banchet host Michael Muser at Better.

12. KOMPLET COVERAGE

90 Days, 90 Voices, the journalism project about immigration (we participated here), is now Borderless Magazine, and they have a piece on one of our favorites (#98 in The Fooditor 99), Astoria Cafe, a Serbian bakery and lunch spot famous for one gut-bomb item, komplet lepinja: “‘I had one lady from out of town who said, ‘Oh my God, Chicago, never mind the deep dish pizza. Komplet lepinja is where it’s at,’ says Astoria Bakery and Cafe owner Tanja Jeftenic. ‘It’s very unique, no one else has it [in Chicago]. It’s kinda the poor man’s dish, but it’s so delicious.’ Komplet lepinja consists of a homemade bun filled with Serbian cream cheese and an egg that is covered with roasted pork and its juice and then baked.”

13. 3 OVER 80

The latest episode of Chewing is all about the oldsters—93-year-old Gus Rickette, founder of  Uncle Remus fried chicken, 85-year-old Raymond Lee of the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, and the hosts’ own great aunts, full of Chinese cooking wisdom. I can’t find a permanent link but it’s episode 72 here.

14. WEEK OF EATS

Anthony Todd isn’t doing his restaurant week spreadsheet this year, but he points to someone who did much the same thing on Reddit—among other tips for the annual promotion.

15. QUINTET

I’ve mentioned a couple of times the fact that Toronto seems to be the first city of its size to have no working restaurant reviewers. At Heated (which I just realized is the name Mark Bittman and Medium had to replace Salty with), Corey Mintz, a Toronto reviewer in the mid-2000s, has a good essay on what the decline and absence of traditional reviewing means for cities: “While that job of critic has been all but eradicated from the landscape, its responsibilities have been adopted and adapted… I’ve spoken with a lot of food writers and editors beyond Toronto — New York, San Francisco, LA, Louisville, Kansas City. And the recurring theme is that the work of serious restaurant coverage has shifted from criticism to reporting, from impartial observer (always a fallacy, the pretense that something inherently subjective could be totally objective) to advocate and ambassador.”

16. EVENT HORIZON

RPM on the Water will host a charity wine dinner on behalf of Chicago-based BACKBONES and Wheels Forward, which both support paraplegics/quadriplegics, and featuring Chicago’s Peter Kuhnz and New York’s Yannick Benjamin, two wine professionals who work in wheelchairs. It’s Sunday, January 26; go here for tickets.

WHERE MIKE ATE

Boqueria, a New York import in Fulton Market, looks the part of the dark, sexy nightspot for a hot neighborhood, with its black-tiled walls warmed by attractive wooden built-ins, curving around the back walls. The menu hits all the expected Spanish tapas and few unexpected ones, by item hardly any different from what you might find at Cafe Iberico. But if these classics-bordering-on-cliches are executed at a high level, that’s not so bad, and the first bite I had seemed to promise a very high level—pristinely fresh boquerones, anchovy fillets, in olive oil with a grating of orange zest and served with a few perfectly fried fingerling potato chips.

A full meal later, I had more mixed feelings, mostly executionally. “Crispy cauliflower” with a lemon aioli—well, it might have been crispy before it sat in a hotel pan for two hours. Likewise octopus was perfectly sous-vided, but it badly needed some time on a grill or a frying pan to crisp up the slimy-feeling skin. There’s kind of a cafeteria feel to the mass production for the busy room, that reminds me a bit of the big halls in Greektown cranking out moussaka by the square yard. Plates that require cooking à la minute are your best bet, like fried skate wing or grilled lamb skewers, both quite nice—that is, if you’re really there to eat, and not just have something to eat while you drink.

Sparrow Black 2019