You can kind of tell where you are in the year by who gets considered for different awards. The Banchet Awards announced their nominees at a time that meant that Anelya, for one, was just too new to be under consideration. This week Chicago mag’s Best New Restaurants issue is out—and Anelya makes it. But other names you might expect to see—Maxwells Trading, Brasero, Cariño—are the ones that are apparently too new to take a long view of; while still other things that seem like old news by now (like Boonie’s or Thattu) turn out to be, hey, within the last year after all. The reason why places don’t sneak in at the last minte is easy enough to see; as critic John Kessler put it on Facebook, “I’m very happy to report that I visited all of these restaurants at least twice, and I tinkered with the ordering of the list right up to the last second when I was told to put down my fork.” (Remember when twice was the minimum a respectable critic went before reviewing? Just be glad Chicago goes that often, few do any more.)

You can see the benefit of not deciding after one visit in the first week of a place in Kessler’s review of #2-ranked Atelier, which I know he had mixed feelings about some months back, but which seemed to have its act together pretty terrifically by the time I went in the fall:

What a difference a few months make. At a recent meal, the faux-rustic room, with its rough-hewn wooden tables and chunky silverware, perks up to the lively crowd that has since found it. The vibe feels like a party rather than a Pottery Barn showroom. The playful cooking speaks to the way our palates are so restless today, always looking to bridge cultures and find simple, familiar pleasures in fine ingredients.

Aside from the gratuitous dig at Iliana Regan’s past aesthetic, this seems spot on to me.

As always for this feature (going back at least to Dennis Ray Wheaton days, if not the Kelsons), it’s mostly about midlevel and higher restaurants, just one low end, hole in the wall immigrant restaurant (Tuk Tuk Thai Isan Street Food). But on the whole, it’s a good picture of the way we eat out now—yes, there’s one of those post-COVID comfy Italian spots on the list, DeNucci’s (#9), and a Boka Group restaurant (the neighborhoody Itoko, the best spot in Boka’s Southport complex), but mostly this is a collection of places by chefs who want to make their food, not just the steaks and pasta they know will sell.

So there’s oddball Warlord, with its defiant we’ll-cook-how-we-feel-like to the-music-we feel-like-playing attitude, at #1. Places like Thattu (regional Indian) and Akahoshi Ramen (scienced-out ramen) and Maman Zari (tasting menu Persian) are making aesthetic rather than commercial decisions in a way that seems like they’re determined to be part of discovering what’s next for our food scene. Kessler is willing to live with the experimentation (or he just likes sitting at the bar, a solution to much of what people object to about places like Warlord, with its long waits, or John’s Food and Wine with its lack of traditional service—except at the bar). Anyway, go read it, see what you go agree with, and get a couple of suggestions for the next time you’re going out.


I just saw this on Donald Young’s Facebook page, but it appears that one of Chicago’s great chefs, Roland Liccioni, has retired and had his last night at Les Nomades the other night:

Last night was my mentor @rolandliccioni official last night and the start of his retirement. Roland Liccioni is a legend and this marks the end of an era. He changed the culinary landscape in Chicago and was a pioneer with the likes of Jean Banchet and Charlie Trotter. I was lucky to be able to start my culinary career with him at the age of 17. I was a heavy metal kid who wore all black, had big curly long hair and a big metal chain wallet – I am still surprised and fortunate that Roland took a chance on me then and for 17 years after the fact. It was a lot of tough love, always pushing me to be better by keeping my head down, focused, and work hard. I am truly grateful to have worked with him for 11 years at various different restaurants and learned many different techniques. Most importantly, how to taste.
Enjoy your time chef! You’ve earned the time off to enjoy all your hard work you’ve put in! Cheers!
The French-Vietnamese chef came to Chicago and worked at many of the top French restaurants of the 1980s, taking over Le Francais with his wife Mary Beth Liccioni when Jean Banchet moved to Atlanta. Where Banchet’s was classic old school French, the Liccioni’s version brought in Asian flavors. As Michael Lachowicz, whose time at Le Francais was under both chefs, told me in an interview for my book:

In that time that I was there, I got to see things that nobody else saw, except for other people who were there during that period of time. Because it went from classic with Banchet, to this modern Pacific Rim Asian influence, Thai style of high end luxury French cuisine with Roland. A lot of Asian flavors—there was cilantro and Thai chili peppers and lemongrass and ginger in a lot of his dishes. I’d never seen that before. It certainly wasn’t Banchet. But I thought it was great.

The Liccionis eventually took over Les Nomades from Jovan Trboyevic; Roland left it when they divorced, but returned some years later and has been the chef of the venerable restaurant since 2011. Other restaurants he was involved with include Le Lan, Old Town Brasserie, and Miramar Bistro in Highwood. He was one of the last chefs featured on the PBS series Great Chefs of Chicago in 1983 to still be working, and won Best Chef Great Lakes from the James Beard Awards in 1997. For a real slice of 1990s dining (and food TV), watch Chef Roland on a late 90s episode of Great Chefs of America.


With food media ever shrinking, Reddit’s Chicago food board seems to be becoming a place where food people can talk directly to fans. Nick Kindelsperger did it a few weeks back, and here are two more: first, Michael Muser answered questions about wine and The Bear:

What is the best wine for the value I can buy at Trader Joe’s or Mariano’s?

For value I like reds and whites from Spain, and Portuguese reds and whites. In terms of what you get out of the bottle, they’re an extreme value: $40 in Rioja goes a long way; $40 in Napa Valley barely gets you in the door. But honestly, I send people to Perman Wine Selections across the street from the Target on Division. You can get great wines at any price point.

Then Mike Satinover of Ramen Lord, who initially chronicled his ramen explorations at Reddit, does one:

what’s the most underrated style of Ramen in your opinión?

In America, old school shoyu all the way. It is by far and away the most popular style in Japan, way more popular than tonkotsu, and outside of that country it’s borderline ignored. I think there’s like… one good Tokyo shoyu in Chicago right now, at Menya Goku.

Three makes it a trend, so look for more Reddit AMAs (Ask Me Anything) in the future. Otto Phan of Kyoten will do one today, March 25.


Louisa Chu gives three stars to Maman Zari, talking to owner Mariam Shahsavarani about doing a Persian tasting menu:

“When we decided we wanted to open a restaurant, we wanted to make sure we could do something that was impactful,” Shahsavarani said. “We didn’t want to be another Persian restaurant in Chicago.”

They try to interpret lesser-known dishes, she added.

“As much as I love kebab, we didn’t need another restaurant that was kebab and rice in Chicago,” Shahsavarani said. “That was the inspiration behind doing a Persian tasting menu.”


Muffadal Saylawala has a chocolate cafe, Oro Chocolate & Coffee in Wicker Park—because he’s not doing 20 years in a Costa Rican prison. A fascinating story from Mike Sula:

“We’re going through the airport, and an officer at security starts getting aggressive and pointing at me. I’m used to getting checked in airports. I’ve learned to accept that’s part of it. But he was like, ‘What drugs do you have?’

“I’m like, ‘What? It’s chocolate. We’re going to the chocolate fair.’” The officer demanded to analyze a bar with a field drug test, which involved placing a sample in a vial filled with a liquid chemical reagent that changes color depending on the material placed inside. The officer told Saylawala his chocolate tested negative for cocaine—but positive for marijuana.

“‘I mean, there’s no way,’” said Saylawala. “‘Children eat our chocolate. They were in the factory yesterday. And we’re going to Amsterdam, of all places. Who takes sand to the beach?’”


Maggie Hennessy reviews Maxwells Trading at Time Out:

How should one categorize the bold, veg-heavy, anything-goes dishes at handsome newcomer Maxwells Trading? In many ways, this singular menu synopsizes what it’s like to live and eat through major American cities right now—where cuisines, heritages and identities cram together and intermingle… Here Chinese soup dumplings collide with pasta traditions of Bologna, Italy; Thai chili sauce dances with bitter greens and rare steak; and edible kelp whisks beurre blanc to the foamy seashore. Maxwells Trading is fresh, fiery and downright fun.


Michael Nagrant loves the deli that took over the restaurant space in the Ohio House motel, Schneider’s:

Maybe the coolest thing, and also most unexpectedly delightful to my carnivorous soul, the best thing I ate at Schneider was a mushroom melt featuring roasty fungi, oozy swiss, a fat crisp golden latke, and a creamy schmear of onion dip swaddled in a pillowy kaiser roll.

When I posted about it on Instagram, someone told me the move was to get it on an egg everything bagel instead. When I shared this idea with [owner Jake] Schneider on Instagram, he gave me a thumbs up and suggested that he loves the sando too, and that next time I should inject a few slices of beef bacon as well.


A few years ago Nick Kindelsperger did an in-depth survey of Indian food in the burbs around Schaumburg and made me jealous, because I’ve long known there was a lot to discover out there, but it was impractical for someone like me to drive my family out there to try Indian food on the promise that it might be slightly better than what you could have, much closer, on Devon. Now a few years have passed, Nick is no longer dining on the Trib’s dime, and there’s a new crop which Titus Ruscitti investigates:

When the question of where to get the best Indian food is discussed you might assume it’s Devon avenue aka Little India to some – but that’s changing. While there’s still alot of Indian restaurants up and down Devon there’s not that many new spots opening and that’s because they’re opening in the suburbs. Chicago’s Indian community has grown so large that it’s spread out around Chicagoland. It’s not just one suburb either. There’s two large communities in both Schaumburg and Naperville and with them lots of South Asian dining options and grocery stores in their immediate vicinities. Today we head to both of those areas to check out some of the newer Indian restaurants that have opened in Chicagoland.


The latest in Steve Dolinsky’s look at classics around town is Le Bouchon in Bucktown:

The whole roasted duck is a show-stopper. Presented tableside then carved and served on a platter with cabbage and spaetzle.

“Actually Julia Child one time she came in here and ate the whole duck by herself. She had an appetite, though, but for most people it’s a two to three-person dish. Red cabbage and some spaetzle, so kind of an Alsatian type preparation. Sauce Bigarade which is kind of like an orange, Gran Marnier sauce,” said [second generation co-owner Oliver] Poilevey.

In the COVID days of endless takeout food, I got the duck for my anniversary. I was a bit alarmed when I got the pale, sous-vided (I think) duck and a zillion deli cups with ingredients. But I followed the instructions, put it in the oven… and it turned out perfectly.


Anthony Todd fills us in on Lettuce’s posh new Italian joint in the St. Regis Hotel: Tre Dita:

Tre Dita’s focus is on Tuscan cuisine. Part of the attraction is sure to be the Pasta Lab, a space that is temperature and humidity controlled to produce the perfect pastas. As any home cook who has tried making pasta knows, there are a zillion variables that can turn pasta from ideal to inedible, and Tre Dita is doing its best to control all of them. “Pasta is an animal; it lives and breathes and sweats,” says Funke. “Pasta, much like bread, is directly affected by its immediate environment.”

Because of this, the lab monitors the complete environment of dough-making. The best part is that it’s all visible to the guests, who can watch the pasta being made through huge windows.


The Infatuation reviews La Serre, a snazzy new French-Mediterranean restaurant in Fulton Market, though see if you can spot the phrase that scares me off:

Dishes like creamy angel hair pasta pair perfectly with 15g of caviar on top, warranting the $55 price.


After quoting Titus Ruscitti last week on the oyster deals at Hugo’s Frog Bar, I got a note from Mitch Einhorn (Twisted Spoke, Lush Wine & Spirits): “Hugo’s is not the only place to get great dollar oysters and great wine, Lush Wine & Spirits Roscoe Village has dollar oysters Monday through Thursday all day long.” Now you know, and maybe you’ll see me there since it’s just down the street.


Friend of Fooditor Cynthia Clampitt on authenticity not being just a matter of ingredients, at NewCity:

Historically, eating well is far from being “authentic,” with starvation or a bowl of gruel being far more common than the meals to which we are accustomed. Even with abundance, there are elements besides the food that make a dining experience authentic. I began to think of meals I’ve had when traveling. Eating with my hands: roasted mutton in Mongolia, baked chicken and rice in Israel, the elements of a sadya, a feast served on a banana leaf, in Kerala, India. Flagging down a food vendor in a passing boat in Thailand. Buying from a peddler in China or Bali or Jordan. Learning how to prepare pre-Columbian foods using pre-Columbian techniques and equipment in Mexico. Negotiating bustling street markets almost everywhere. Sitting on the floor while eating.

I read a description once that I think sums it up: that when we eat a foreign meal in America, it’s usually eating the equivalent for that culture of Thanksgiving dinner.


Sandwich Tribunal has a roundup of things they eat in New England, most of which look fascinatingly terrible, honestly. But worth reading about:

Of course in addition to the Hot Cheese sandwich and the Caçoila, Fall River [MA] is home to the Chow Mein sandwich, featuring crisp Hoo-Mee brand chow mein noodles manufactured at the Oriental Chow Mein Company’s factory in town. On the day we visited Fall River to try these sandwiches, the most well-known purveyor of the dish, Mee Sum restaurant, was closed. However, chow mein sandwiches are available at any number of local Chinese-American restaurants and we were able to get our fix at Sun China Restaurant on Brayton Avenue.


Amuzed had Michael Nagrant on and they reportedly talked for four hours; you get the first half of that this week, as they talk inside Banchet Awards baseball, the unusual way you order at John’s Food and Wine, why no one gets uncanceled, restaurant life during COVID, Nagrant (and Flour Power) vs. influencers, restaurant economics, and more. Part 2 will, presumably, be next week.

Restaurant design is probably the most important thing about our scene that gets the least attention; David Manilow at The Dining Table talks to Nicole Alexander of Siren Betty, probably the hottest local design team (recent work includes Brasero and Akahoshi Ramen).


I theorized above that Maxwells Trading didn’t make Chicago mag’s list because they weren’t sure what to make of it yet. I hold that view because I went there last week—and I didn’t quite know what precisely to make of it either, and am eager to see it come into focus with the next seasonal menu. The early part of the menu (one of those ones divided into categories that do not seem to have clear dividing lines between them) is very much reflective of co-owner Erling Wu-Bower’s time at Avec and Pacific Standard Time (which of course has since become another Avec)—hummus with English spring peas (which my wife felt were not that flavorful—hey, it’s not actually spring yet), prosciutto with caprino cheese and a black current jam, to be scooped onto plump little fried gnocco, a crudo of chunks of suzuki with “nasturtium, peppercess, coconut, peanut, lemongrass and chili,” a refrigerator-magnet-poetry list of ingredients that achieves coherence on the plate it doesn’t have in plain text. These starters were very much how I like to eat now.

So after feeling like I had a handle on it up to that point—Avec 3: Kinzie Corridor—I was then thrown a bit by what followed, which heavily reflects Erling’s Asian heritage (in fairness I should point out that Wu-Bower is not the chef—that’s Chris Jung, who is Korean-American and thus has his own Asian heritage). A roasted Japanese sweet potato bruleed on top and served swimming in golden curry, an earthy clay pot dish with chunks of pork belly (good the first night, really good for lunch the next day)—it was like we started our dinner at Avec, only to switch halfway through to Fat Rice. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But I look forward to going back, when the menu has gone through another season’s development process, to get a better idea of what it’s all about and where Wu-Bower & co. are going now.

As soon as I saw John’s Food and Wine, the new all-day cafe best known for ordering by QR code from the tables, had made #3 on Chicago mag’s list, I knew I needed to get there soon—maybe not everywhere gets packed after a Chicago writeup, but if any place does, it’s one located at Halsted and Dickens in Lincoln Park. So I went shortly after five, and at first glance it looked like people had heard the inside scoop, that you get traditional service at the bar—at 5:20 there were only a couple of seats left, while the tables appeared untouched. But by 6 the tables were all full (I’m sure they were glad single diners like me had not taken them) and I chatted briefly with co-chef/owner Thomas Rogers, who was sort of amazed at how hopping the place was on a Wednesday night.

Anyway,  like it or not the model John’s has become famous for—no floor staff, ordering by QR Code, the bar as a fallback for people (like me) who like to order from a human and maybe have a little conversation about what to have—is likely to be increasingly common; one because post-COVID it’s hard to find staff, two because it works economically for restaurants. In an email conversation with one of their PR people, she shared with me some figures that showed how much they were not paying out not having staff on the floor. It’s kind of like flying—everybody complains about room in an airline seat, but only a small fraction will pay the extra for business class or “Economy Plus.” The difference between airlines and restaurants is that there’s lots of restaurants. and lots of ability to pay for the level of service you want. Based on the packed house I saw that night, people in Lincoln Park have adjusted to this model.

So how was the food and drink, the thing that ultimately matters most (if it sucked, you wouldn’t need to contemplate the service model). I had two glasses of white wine—the first was the one on the main board, basically the white of the day, the second a Sancerre that I got after a conversation with a guy behind the bar (who looked, ironically, like a redheaded version of Charlie Trotter sommelier Larry Stone). Foodwise, I started with a maitake mushroom in a rather acidic dashi; there was still a bite left when a busser brought my next plate, but honestly it was vinegary enough that my palate was burnt out and I let it be taken away. The next course was duck breast, with a date-plum compote and a blood-red saice or gastrique of something—I’m not going to say it was the most eyeopeningly creative plate I ever had, but it was impeccably cooked and certainly made me happy. At the end of it, though, I felt the urge for something else (which would necessitate that second glass of wine, if I ordered it). So I consulted the guy behind the counter again—who recommended exactly the thing I was thinking about, gnocchi with some sweet-ish crumbled Italian sausage. So I could have ordered exactly what I got at the table by QR code, but would I have? Or would I have just decided I was done? Hard to say, but I was definitely encouraged to spend more (and get the Sancerre, which I would not have known about without some wine help) by interacting with a human.

In any case, this review would be noticeably different without it, because it was not only the best thing I had that night, it’s an early candidate for my year-end ten best: the fluffy-soft gnocchi were perfection, and the smoothly rustic crumbled sausage kept me eating it well past the point where I should have boxed it for the next day. So, short answer, there’s very good cooking in the kitchen, and they’re being intelligent about finding a way to adapt to the world of 2024, without proving frustrating. Go eat there… and arriving not too long after prime dining time begins is probably a good idea.