Otto Phan’s Kyoten landed in the top spot on Chicago mag’s best new restaurants list a few years ago; now its less pricy followup, Kyoten Next Door, gets a very favorable review from John Kessler:

Phan also keeps the cost in check by eschewing the small appetizers that have become a fixture of modern omakase menus and instead serves a traditional Japanese-style version almost entirely made of nigiri passed, piece by piece, by Jorge and Mugi, the two itamae-san behind the counter. (For now, Phan stands to the side with a glass of wine and chats up guests, letting his staff get their footing and only occasionally swooping in to check the flavor on a lobe of Hokkaido uni.) The meal unfolds like a taut album you listen to on headphones, each of the dozen pieces a track that brings a new hook and a singular vibe — lush, moody, edgy — at just the right moment.


Louisa Chu reviews Smoque Steak and its unusual three-step preparation—sous vide for even cooking temperature, smoked for a taste of smoke, seared in butter for richness and texture:

The ribeye steak is cooked by sous vide for twice as long as the other steaks. It’s also double the size at 16 ounces, except for the strip, which weighs in at 14 ounces.

When youslice through ribeye, the marbling is remarkable. Mom Chu said it looked just like the snow flower fat beef she’s seen on her favorite Chinese cooking shows. That’s typically wagyu sliced thin for hot pot.

While the ribeye was tender, I’m not sure sous vide cooking is best for the steak I had or the cut in general. It’s a matter of temperature and texture, too temperate and too soft for my taste. But that may be exactly why some might love it, for tenderness above all.

Still, she finds the thoughtful approach to the five cuts they offer worth thinking about.

Michael Nagrant, whose review of Smoque Steak a few weeks ago was not so hot-ish, is thinking about other things:

I don’t trust this particular review. She has given Smoque Steak a rating which would put it on par with Asador Bastian in the steakhouse realm (3 stars from her colleague Nick Kindelsperger), and very close to the 3.5 starred Daisies, a review she wrote. Louisa has only given one four-star review to Kasama, which means three stars is a very high standard for her.

…There are a lot of ways to think about three stars, but ultimately it means you’re probably in the top 10% of Chicago restaurants. And yet, what we’re told by the Trib here is that Smoque Steak probably needs a pastry chef, their most expensive steak is cooked in a suboptimal way, and that service isn’t worth a mention.

I think there’s some truth here, because I think that Louisa is rarely a reviewer per se—she writes about the people and the history; she’s much more of a feature writer about restaurants and restaurateurs. Which is really the state of things—nobody maintains that old school separation between anonymous reviewers and writers of stories, which involve talking to the chefs and owners, often face to face. (One of the things I’ve been digging into for my book is how that was done in the old days—Allen Kelson told me a lot about how Chicago magazine tried to keep its secrets, but admits that he was widely recognized and the best they could do to fight it was to send two parties to the restaurant on the same night, so they could see if the Kelsons got better service or a noticeably more generous meal. Paula Camp, Phil Vettel’s predecessor at the Trib, has a great story about knowing that Gordon recognized her, so she sent a party ahead to order and then arrived just in time to eat the food intended for the nobodies.)

But no publication can spend like that to maintain anonymity now—and of course, in a world where so many of us are indie artists, we can’t maintain it for ourselves if reviewing is only one part of what we do. I know that I’m widely recognized mainly because of Key Ingredient at the Reader, for which I shot most of the chefs of the moment. Nagrant also did a podcast with chefs—the first one in Chicago to do that—so there are many restaurants and restaurant groups, starting with Alinea and One Off Hospitality, where he can never be anonymous, either. That’s not to say that his complaints have no validity—he makes a pretty good case that Louisa takes it a little easy on Smoque Steak, though it’s also true that she probably just felt differently about it than he did—but really, that’s just not how the world works now. Ultimately he seems to obsess about the most inconsequential but troublesome aspect of reviewing—assigning mathematically precise star ratings to wildly different restaurants:

If we look at food quality and consistency, Asador Bastian, which also got three stars from the Tribune is headed by Doug Psaltis, who ran Alain Ducasse’s Monaco empire, whereas Smoque Steak is run by a chef, Dylan Lipe, who previously headed up slightly above average BBQ restaurants.

…There is nothing wrong with what Smoque Steak is doing. I think it’s an amazing business move to identify a hole in the market and fill it. But making a smart business decision does not equate to delivering a restaurant on par star-wise with a restaurant that’s going above and beyond that baseline, even if it is significantly more expensive.

In the world of my other obsession, film, you see this argument a lot—how can a great work of serious art and a Bugs Bunny cartoon deserve the same numerical rating? The answer is, the rating is relative to what they set out to do. There are four star movies about postwar Italy and four star Bugs Bunny cartoons. They’re not out to do the same thing, and they each have their moments in our lives. (Well, mine anyway—give me Rocco and His Brothers and Bully for Bugs.) Nagrant seems to be arguing for a return to a way of deciding who is star-worthy that historically often shut entire genres out of the highest ratings—how could Mexican food get the same ratings as French, how could dumplings deserve as high a rating as a steak?


One more review of Smoque Steak—from Dominic Lynch at The New Chicagoan:

The first bite of steak sold me completely on the Smoque Steakhouse concept. The smoke was evident but not overpowering. It was present enough to know that other steakhouses aren’t doing this and that there is clearly room in the market for Smoque’s approach, yet by the end of the meal, it pleasantly disappeared into the mix. The sous vide worked well and each steak was pink from edge to edge and still retained its chew. The kitchen was even able to produce a nice crust on each cut. The sides (carrots and mashed potatoes) were approachable yet slightly elevated, slotting nicely into the larger concept.


Boka is having its twentieth anniversary—surprising, given how much of a venerable classic Boka seems, that Boka Group’s entire history is in this century. Grimod begins by going through Boka Group’s recent history—in Chicago with Le Select, but also in L.A., New York, and Nashville—before returning to the group’s original namesake restaurant. As always, it’s a long piece and there’s much about food and wine, but I was most affected by this passage which seems to me to capture exactly why Boka is different from models like Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park, and Chicago is different from New York:

Boka sets the tone of being a “neighborhood restaurant” brilliantly, and the restaurant is clearly rewarded for doing so. You do see some of the usual tourists and transient star-chasers throughout the dining room. But what strikes you more is the older couple, complete with a foldable walker, that you see helped into their seats. Or, perhaps, it is the family whose young daughters feel comfortable enough (and are allowed, for better or worse) to dine here in jean shorts and flip-fops. You must also mention the young father trying to foist an oversized stroller—strewn with every manner of bag and bauble—through the door.

Such moments may raise eyebrows at other establishments, but Boka responds with perfect deference. The restaurant accepts these parties as they are rather than asking them to fit the mold of what “fine dining” demands. In doing so, it has truly endeared itself to the community and come to transcend what that Michelin star signals from the outside.


Steve Dolinsky visits everybody’s Keralan favorite, Thattu:

The Indian state of Kerala is tropical, with a massive coastline that stretches out more than 300 miles. Spices like black pepper and cardamom originate there, and coconut trees are abundant.

So when a local couple decided to open a restaurant dedicated to the food from that region, they had to consider the source of their spices as much as any other decision they had to make.


Titus Ruscitti visits the newly reopened izakaya Nomonomo:

…out of nowhere I passed by one day and they were suddenly open again. I was excited enough to go over there a day later and try some of the skewers and also the udon. They also have small plates featuring a nice selection of Japanese bar food. But it’s the skewers grilled over binchotan charcoal and udon that dominates the menu. We started with a few skewers including a shishito slathered in tare sauce on the rec of our waiter plus a few of the chicken options and a couple specials including a Tsukune (ground chicken) stuffed with cheese. I liked them all and have been back a couple times since my first visit. This is a good spot for solo dining.


More on non-alcoholic beverages in Chicago at NewCity, this time at Go Brewing in Naperville:

The concept is simple: keep your brews under .5 percent alcohol without compromising the flavor. Master brewer James Bigler is here to make the magic. From crisp lagers to American wheats and tropical IPAs, the beer is abundantly flowing. The best part? Your NoLo beer taste-testing adventure can go on and on. Cerveza Chelada is appropriately sweet, tart and salty, Suspended in a Sunbeam Pils is deliciously fresh, light and floral, and Street Cred Nitro Bold is smooth featuring notes of espresso and cocoa. From creamy, to hoppy, to malty, to light, to surprisingly delicious sour to gluten-free, Go Brewing’s twelve NoLo beer options don’t feel limiting at all. Instead, they are inviting experimentation, good company, and guilt-free fun.


Three Dots and a Dash is ten years old at doing something from 50 years ago, and Anthony Todd talks to mixologist Kevin Beary about the place and where Tiki fits in today:

Beary, who has been with the bar for eight of its 10 years (the opening tiki guru, Paul McGee, went on to open Lost Lake), describes the changes over the years as a move from faithful replication to its own innovation. “When I took over, Three Dots was very focused on reintroducing some of these really classic tiki and tropical drinks, and trying to reinterpret those in the most accurate and classic way,” explains Beary. In part, this was because the nation was just being reintroduced to genuine tropical drinks; only a very few of the classic tiki bars remained in business, and most of what guests thought they “knew” about these drinks likely came from artificially flavored junk poured over crushed ice at beach bars.


You’ve probably run across the name Theaster Gates somewhere—he’s quite the south side artistic figure. Food & Wine tells more in a piece on him as one of their 15 game changers for 2023.


The Infatuation visits Afghan restaurant The Helmand:

With so many great kabob spots near the Kedzie Brown Line, did Albany Park really need another one? According to Helmand: “Yes.” Every skewer (lamb, chicken, ground beef) is juicy, smoky, and seasoned with peppery spices.


It’s always funny for me to read about a place I know well, but have never felt the urge to write about. Four Moons Tavern is literally the closest food and drink establishment to my house, but what I enjoy about it is that it’s a turn-off-my-critic’s-brain experience—well-made homey food (there are more famous burgers in the nearby vicinity, but not more solidly reliable ones) and the beer list covers a lot of top area brewers (a lot of Dovetail these days), yet it’s also a place where I’ve watched the owner-bartender defuse a brewing fight between two patrons at the bar, one of them drunkenly annoying the other with almost perfect comedic timing.

Anyway, that’s as much as I’ve ever written about it or likely will, but Dennis Lee devoted an issue of The Party Cut to it. Here he is on something I’ve never ordered, the meatloaf:

We loved it. Everything was drowned in brown gravy, I could tell someone’d taken care to make fresh mashed potatoes (the little chunks of potato were a dead giveaway), and to be perfectly honest with you, I secretly think frozen or canned corn is delicious. This is about as Midwestern of a meal as it gets, and even as the kid of Korean immigrants (who rarely ate meatloaf growing up), I could tell that this was someone’s version of home cooking.

Hopefully you’re seeing a theme here. The food at Four Moon Tavern isn’t particularly notable on paper. There’s good wings, great nachos, a sturdy burger, a perfectly good sloppy joe, and some homey meatloaf.

A fitting tribute to a never-gonna-be-famous, but deservedly treasured, place.


Not many places could interest me with the headline “New Zealand Cheese Rolls,” but Sandwich Tribunal can:

At the far end of the mountains, in the southernmost portion of New Zealand’s South Island, lies the region of New Zealand known as the Southland and it was here in this more sparsely populated area far from the cities of the North Island where the New Zealand treat known as the cheese roll was invented.

There’s not much to it, a kind of rolled-up version of a Welsh rarebit, made with evaporated milk, cheddar cheese, and onion soup mix in many of its simpler incarnations. Many recipes call for finely diced raw onion as well, or cayenne pepper, or mustard powder, or Worcestershire sauce. But these are relatively recent innovations on the cheese roll.


On the first Chewing in a couple of months, Monica and Louisa talk about Beards and The Bear, but start by talking about favorite summer vacation foods—not what I’d choose, but hey, chacun a son gout and all that.

Joiners Podcast talks to Greg Wade, of Publican Quality Bread.

Friend of Fooditor Jim Graziano talks his housemade giardinera and other Chicago Italian-American eats with a podcast called Growing Up Italian—I learned a lot just in the first few minutes about what makes canonical giardinera (for instance, that the name refers to things from your garden, which is why some feel olives don’t belong, though Graziano’s uses them anyway). This link takes you to a video version (shot at J.P. Graziano & Sons), though it’s on all the usual podcast services.


I finally got my act together to go stand in line on a Monday night to get into the hot new place among the kids, Warlord. Well, maybe not the kids, seemed like a lot of older people (older than “kids”) were in that line at 6 pm… actually 6:10 by the time they got around to opening the door. But to their credit, seating was calmly carried out, without giving a feeling of things being rushed, and our table seemed to be ours as long as we wanted it.

The menu was short, and mostly different proteins, including the swordfish collars you can see hanging over the fire in the photo, a fillet of Ora King salmon, and a thick ribeye good for two at least, plus one pasta with blue crab, and a matsutake mushroom in something like bordelaise. Surprisingly, other than a side of fries, there was nothing in the way of vegetables, here smack in the middle of prime growing season—but I suppose as the name Warlord suggests, this is a place about wrestling big meats and other kinds of rustically macho dishes into submission. That got a little odd at the end when our server asked if we wanted more, and we’d pretty much ordered most of the short menu—it would be weird to order either fries, or that $70 swordfish collar, as an end of meal add-on.

So I thought our meaty meats (and our meaty mushroom) were mostly satisfying if not wildly different from, say, Ora king salmon elsewhere, but I could see why the younger part of the audience liked the place—the dark atmosphere and the curved booths which line the dining room gave off a swanky supper-club vibe, but the soundtrack, which included full albums by the Clash and Frank Zappa while we were there, isn’t your mom’s Sinatra era background. If it sounds hip and fun to you, check it out, if it doesn’t, hey, Smoque Steak is not far away.

After meaning to a couple of times, I met up with a friend at another seemingly hot new place, Boonie’s, a Filipino restaurant in Lincoln Square. I’m very sympathetic to the idea of Filipino food being the next hot Asian cuisine, and we get closer with each new place that seems to come along—Bayan Ko, Cebu, the Filipino side of Kasama’s offerings. Boonie’s is the first one I’ve been to—I have yet to try Kasama’s dinner menu—that seemed to have fine dining precision in how things were prepared (thought not at all how they were priced). I’ve had sisig once before, and thought it was a greasy gooey mess, but here, with egg mixed in tableside, it was gooey but well balanced with the garlic rice alongside it (you get rice, but take the upcharge for the garlic rice), and delicious. Pancit noodles were perfectly fine, and a main of grilled mahi mahi in a vinegary broth with tomatoes, which struck me as an unsuspected link between Jewish food and Filipino, but was quite good. I was very happy with it and finally trying it—we’ll see how long before I go back to try more, given the short menu which I’ve now had half of (including an eggplant dish which I will simply recommend against); again, dinner ended with a question if we’d like anything more when we’d nearly ordered everything, which seems to be the nature of dining in 2023.

I’m always keeping an eye on the pop-ups that seem to last for a while, to judge by turning up at Mike Sula’s Foodball things or wherever, but I rarely succeed in trying them—I had one marked on my calendar for next week and then I saw on Instagram that it was sold out already, so much for that. But one called Laos to Your House allowed me to preorder for Thursday night, and after my very good Lao meal in Toronto, it seemed worth a try—I got a “Lao Bento Box” which included two meats, some papaya salad and sticky rice, plus full orders of khee mao (sweetish noodles; the only non-hot dish, my wife scarfed that) and nam khao. It was all pleasant enough, but not notably different from my favorite Thai spots. If you’re looking for something different, but not that different, check it out!