1. 2019 IN A BOX

It’s only on newsstands, not online as yet, but Chicago magazine put out a special issue, much like last year’s 50 best restaurants issue, but this time the 50 best dishes in town. (Only a few have recipes, and most aren’t things you’d likely make at home anyway.) Look over the list, which ranges from dishes from the hot upscale restaurants of the moment (A5 wagyu at Oriole, Jeong’s circle of salmon tartare, etc.) to a smattering of low end favorites (birria from Birrieria Zaragoza, fried shrimp from Calumet Fisheries, a cheeseburger at Edzo’s). If there are any notable ones you haven’t been to yet, go. Then take the magazine and place it in a time capsule, because in 100 years it’ll give people the perfect picture of what dining in Chicago in 2019 was like.


At least one of Phil Vettel’s visits for his review of Cafe Cancale, the new French seafood spot from One Off Hospitality in the space that has been many things but most recently Publican Anker, happened when I was there with 8 or 10 other writers for a media preview. (He didn’t sit with us but was quickly hustled off on his own by the staff.)

Anyway, he’s pleased by the casual playfulness that starts with classic French seafood but rings a few changes on it: “Walker has no problem putting softshell crabs on the menu (the vadouvan aioli and buckwheat-flour batter add a subtle French influence), and his version of quenelles de brochet (soufflelike fish dumplings, traditionally made with pike) employs Wisconsin walleye, over a rich (yet cream-free) lobster sauce with English peas. In at least two dishes that might call for creme fraiche, Walker uses a Oaxacan crema that’s a fixture at sister property Big Star.” Three stars.


On one side of a street on the northwest side is the Guatemalan consulate; on the other is Cafe Antigua, a spot offering nostalgic tastes of home to Guatemalans, says Mike Sula: “There’s the traditional tamal colorado, soft, silky masa enshrouding a whole piece of pork or chicken, snugly swaddled in banana leaf. Paches are similar, but formed from potato dough. Chuchitos are mini tamales wrapped in corn husk, tamalitos little tamales mixed with the earthy, somewhat sour leafy greens of a legume called chipilin, native to Mexico and Central America. On the sweeter side, rellenitos de platano are ripe plantains stuffed with sweet black beans, deep-fried, and powdered with confectioners’ sugar.”


This one is from last month but I find it tough to know what’s new at the CS site, to be honest. Anyway, read it now—it’s Ariel Cheung on her almost sound-alike Jeong: “I wasn’t familiar with tteokbokki, and my quick pre-meal sweep of social media had uncovered shots of what appeared to be an unglamorous cluster of pale tubes covered in a sienna-tinted chile sauce. But the stir-fried rice cakes ($14) came highly recommended by our affable server, and even now, I’m craving the chewy, spicy, tangy dish. Chef-owner Dave Park toasts the tubular rice cakes in schmaltz, which lends a light sweetness to the dish. It’s a great representation of what he calls his ‘approachable style of Korean food,’ uprooted from its humble suburban food-court beginnings as Hanbun for a fresh start at Jeong.”


And congrats to the musical buff who gets that headline. Graham Meyer goes to Eataly’s Bar Sabbia summer pop-up and: “Bar Sabbia feels designed more for happy hour than a business lunch. The above-average food makes good use of the high-quality ingredients for sale elsewhere in the store, but the menu mentions sharing several times, encouraging sipping and grazing more than hammering out a contract. It’s also still unmissably in a store.”


I used to find myself in the south suburban vicinity of Palos Park and I knew one place to eat—a now-gone branch of Vito & Nick’s. Here’s a new one, as Ji Suk Yi visits Original Island Shrimp House: “Focused on regionally accurate specialties, the restaurant uses certified, sustainably wild-caught, premium seafood from New England, the Gulf States and the Pacific Northwest. ‘Bite into a lobster roll and be transported to Maine; sample the peel-and-eat shrimp and you’ll swear you’re in the South; try the king crab and you’ll taste the Pacific,’ said owner Tim Keefer.”


I tried Interurban Boathouse for lunch last fall (after liking the bakery in Lincoln Park) and it was pleasant enough, but didn’t have me racing back. But Titus Ruscitti says they do a mean Japanese vegetable pancake, and I’m intrigued: “Their homemade pop tarts are pretty damn fantastic and a great snack to stack up on. As good as the pop tarts are the ode to Okonomiyaki in the form of a Japanese vegetable pancake is my favorite thing on the menu. They don’t call it Okonomiyaki as it’s more like an homage to that dish. A terrific one at that. I noticed broccoli and green onion amongst other greens that are binded together into the form of a buttermilk pancake and cooked until crisp like a potato pancake. The Nori, katsuoboshi flakes, and soy based BBQ sauce definitely give it the character of Okonomiyaki. It’s worth a trip here for this dish alone.”

He also has a look at some northwest Indiana spots that would be worth bookmarking if you pass through that way regularly. I’m going to find a reason to be at Panini-Panini sometime.


Ryan Sutton’s take on the Au Cheval in New York City is that it’s too tasty to completely slam, but too expensive and full of itself to approve of as a diner: “[Owner Brendan] Sodikoff’s use of the term feels more ironic than honest. Is ‘diner’ really the right description for a venue that books up between 5 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.? Where a host says ‘we’ll text you,’ rather than invite you to hang out in the downstairs bar? Where the lighting is as dim as at a nightclub? Where food isn’t delivered as platters with sides, but rather ordered a la carte, as at a steakhouse? In a city where affordability and accessibility feel under assault at every angle, ‘diner’ isn’t a term worth ceding ground on.”


If you want a full review in a few short words, read what my friend Kenny Z tweeted about The Albert and chef Larry Feldmeier’s cooking there. He went twice in two nights (here’s the second night).


Damn, five years already for mfk.? Anthony Todd talks to Scott and Sari Zernich Worsham about one of the city’s perfect little restaurants, a subterranean temple to simple Spanish pleasures: “Scott laughingly describes sections of the mfk menu as ‘curmudgeonly’ – in other words, funky stuff he’s trying to get diners to love. Into this category falls its notorious (and delicious) crispy prawn heads, which he crows about getting Guy Fieri to eat on national television. Sari also gleefully recounts stories of getting people to love anchovies, often by way of some of the simpler dishes on the menu — croquettes and albondigas (meatballs) — which she calls ‘gateway drugs.’”


RPM On the Water is the latest outpost of the Lettuce Entertain You sub-brand, and Anthony Todd talks to chef Doug Psaltis about one part of it, Pizza Portofino: “’This, for us, should be [like] one of those great pizzerias of the Riviera, the Italian coast — someplace you’d go for charcoal grilled seafood, fantastic pizza, and salty, minerally coastal wines,’ Psaltis says.”


Ever wonder where restaurants get those unique and interesting plates they have? Chicago magazine introduces us to David Kim, whose plates lie underneath food at restaurants like Oriole, Schwa and Jeong: “‘It’s good when chefs know how they want the object to function. If they make something the size of your thumb that’s a one-bite thing, that gives me a lot of creative maneuverability to design how [the plate] will look,’ Kim says.”


I considered Stanley’s Tavern in Back of the Yards for my Food-I-Tour last summer, but decided that a crowd of visitors might be a strain on 94-year-old Wanda Kurek, who worked there her whole life and still made homey Polish food 5 days a week there. She passed away this week at 95; the best piece on her came from my friend Casey Cora several years ago at DNAInfo, though there are choice bits in this one from Mike Sula, too (“‘It’s the world according to Wanda,” he says. “Right is right, wrong is wrong. You’re an asshole? Get out!’”). Suffice it to say that a true embodiment of Chicago history has passed from the scene.


Before Kenny Z went to The Albert, we went to Band of Bohemia to check out new chef Soo Ahn, a veteran of Grace and EL Ideas. Given that pedigree, his food’s a little more artfully precious than predecessor Ian Davis’ was, and once or twice dishes seemed to have an extra element or two they didn’t need—the lamb saddle, on a gorgeous taleggio puree, would have done fine without a sweet-and-sour-sauce-ish ring around the plate.

But there was a beautiful “pineapple three ways” halibut dish that got more variations out of a one-note fruit than you would have guessed, deeply-flavored Parisian gnocchis with morels, and what will likely become his signature dish, a salt-cured carrot that turns a supermarket vegetable into a meaty main course (and made me think of Bugs Bunny eating a carrot with steak knife and fork). Equally impressive is a dessert called “Dill and creme fraiche,” which sounds like a garnish in search of some smoked salmon, but proved to be lush, refreshing and altogether wonderful. Bonus points, too, for the very smart move of making the $20 beer pairing (beer being the place’s focus) free on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Visitors in town last week meant I finally had a reason to justify the somewhat pricey handmade goods of Jewish-Mexican bakery Masa Madre. (There’s no shop; you order online and they tell you how to pick it up near Pilsen.) Is a loaf of chocolate babka worth it? Am I still thinking about it a week later?

And I went to Politan Row, to sample as many of its stalls as I could—which proved to be on one visit just the Keralan (Indian) food at Thattu, and falafel and hummus at LaShuk. The former is fantastic—I don’t buy the trendy notion of “clean” eating or vegan food as better than any other, but hell if I didn’t feel virtuous as all get out eating the black chickpeas (more like mocha in color) with their bright, fresh spices, accompanied by scented rice and appam (a rice crepe). I had tastes of a couple of others as well, and if I could find a reason to eat here every week, I would. La Shuk I just had a couple of bites of before taking it home to my son, but I had a lot of the same feelings about the fresh, creamy hummus and brightly green falafel, which compare pretty well to the spectacular versions I had recently at Galit.