I am curious about Atelier, the second iteration of Tim Lacey’s fine dining restaurant in the Elizabeth space (it was still called Elizabeth in Lacey’s first iteration). Well, I’m curious about a lot of things I’m not necessarily spending the sum to check out just yet, waiting for a special event for and also for my sit-through-many-courses batteries to recharge. But Michael Nagrant went and had a lot of thoughts:

Hunter’s work is American in that his tasting menu reflects the way food-interested people eat in modern times, say Greek one night followed by Chinese or Thai, then Mexican, and Italian.

Most high-end chefs haven’t done this because fusion is a dirty word. Critics have grown to believe that fusion is confusion, that a chef must have a single point of view.

But, in Hunter’s case, that point of view exists, it just happens to be in consistently turning out elevated versions of international classics executed elegantly.

The south is represented in a Smurf-sized cast iron skillet of whipped blue cheese dotted with apple sambal and chili jam, clouds of funk tempered by a fire-tinged pie-like sweetness.

Africa makes an appearance in akara or mahogany-colored deep fried lentil fritters bursting with ginger.

New York and Katz’s deli drops in with a scrim of pastrami ringed with translucent lardo-like fat swooshed with sour lacto-fermented house ketchup-infused thousand island.

There’s been very little written about Hunter and Atelier’s actual food—really just this at Chicago mag—so I’m excited by the preview that Nagrant offers of what’s going on there. Especially since I’ve been invited to a media dinner next week which, irony of ironies, is probably the result of media-dinner-refusenik Nagrant asking Lacey why nobody much had written about it.

Nagrant followed it up with another piece the next week:

Atelier ticks all the boxes for a media darling. That’s why I believe the lack of reviews, frankly the dearth of overall coverage of the spot, is also a fascinating case study of the current state of Chicago food media.

But, what exactly does this reticence say?

First, it says there aren’t many reviewers left, and they don’t have the budgets such positions once offered to try every tasting menu in town. But Nagrant senses something darker in the neglect of a restaurant with a black chef:

Features or content of Atelier were light in all mediums. Comparably, even before it opened, Ummo, the new Italian spot from Somos hospitality had more coverage in a week this summer than Atelier had all year.

Ummo, now open for only two months, also got a review this week in the Tribune, while Atelier still waits.

What’s the difference here? The Trib recently covered Otto Phan’s very expensive Kyoten (meals start at $440). Ummo is much cheaper to hit up than Atelier if the Trib’s resources were taxed on primo sushi. They were. Not only did they review Kyoten. They reviewed sister restaurant Kyoten Next Door too which costs $159 not including tax or service charge. This price is basically comparable to a meal at Atelier which costs $165 on weekday nights before those fees.

Ummo also held a media dinner and comped free meals to both the professional and influencing classes. Atelier did not.

I get the feeling Nagrant thinks it should be self-evident that Atelier should have gotten attention ahead of one or both of these, but it isn’t to me. Ummo is a hot new place in River North—and, yes, it has a top PR rep behind it. Not surprising it’s getting checked out. While Otto Phan knows how to get attention on his own, and trying his top sushi spot is a way for a reviewer to set a baseline for himself in a genre. Frankly, you have to make a case why a tasting menu in Lincoln Square rates equal attention—you could do so, much as I touted Norman Fenton’s iteration of Brass Heart, but I’m not going to be surprised if it takes a while.

In the case of Atelier I know there were at least two critics who visited Atelier that regularly write positive and negative reviews like I do, but for some reason decided not to write a review at all. Why would they pull their punches when they usually don’t?

Ultimately it feels like they treated Atelier, helmed by a black chef, differently than they would a restaurant run by a white chef? How else explain how a media so hungry to elevate black chefs during black history month, or because of the BLM-driven pandemic awareness, suddenly wasn’t hungry to write a review about, in my opinion, one of the best chefs (period) working in Chicago right now?

I think what’s happening in this case is not an overt but more of a subconscious racism (which I know sounds like a luxury phrase only a white dude could say – and that might be right). It might also be overt too though.

Race had to come in here somewhere, though in an odd way. As he admits, you can’t say all those white reviewers have ignored, say, Erick Williams. But Nagrant seems to be saying it was racist to not give Atelier a less than great review, if that’s how you feel about it. So if they had ripped a black chef up and down, would that be anti-racist? What publication would think, we should run a really devastating review of a black-owned restaurant because no one will take that badly in 2023?

But whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s back up a step first. What’s the evidence for believing that Atelier is uniquely neglected, and for a specifically race-based reason? Let’s compare it to comparable restaurants—such as Lacey’s earlier iteration in the Elizabeth space, under a white chef, Ian Jones. When I was thinking about going there, I couldn’t find any reviews, and I knew of only one friend who had been there. On his recommendation I tried it, and wrote a very positive review in Buzz List.  But I don’t know of anyone else who reviewed it before it was gone—including Michael Nagrant. Likewise, I was a big advocate for Fenton’s Mexican tasting menu at Brass Heart, which to my knowledge was also never reviewed by anyone but me—which maybe points to part of the issue with Atelier, that it’s tough to get attention when you’re considered the second or third chef in a space; I hope Fenton will get more attention for his upcoming restaurant (although I couldn’t find it in Eater’s most recent piece on upcoming openings).

In short, tasting menus are just one side of our food scene, and everyone working in it has to cover all kinds of things; it’s not necessarily a sign of anything if they don’t cover the thing you’re hot on. You cover it! Make it famous! I look forward to trying Atelier next week, with Nagrant’s observations being in part my guide.


Chicago mag’s cover story is on the 25 best pizzas in town—and it’s basically a list if you think Chicago didn’t have pizza until a few years ago, because it’s mostly those hot new pizzas that everyone talks about (Milly’s is #1, and you’ll also find George’s, Paulie Gee’s and Kim’s Uncle Pizza on the list). Though there are, thankfully, some nods to old school classics—Vito & Nick’s, Pizza Nova, and D’Amato’s turn up on it. I am very much a pizza traditionalist, and a nice-looking crust with some weird-ass stuff on it, like the Milly’s pizza with rapini, ricotta and banana peppers, just isn’t my thing next to pepperoni and sausage. Still, there’s a few finds here—there’s an old school pizza on far west Belmont I really like (Bice’s) but they find a different one out there in Frank’s; and all praise for calling attention to Louisa’s in south suburban Crestwood, which is probably the most authentic Pizzeria Uno pizza being served now (the late Louisa DeGenero worked at Due for years).

Then there’s John Kessler’s paean to the pizza at Whole Foods:

It’s the warm hug I crave after my weekly therapy session. Though the crust tastes like less than nothing, it has a nice chew.

I too occasionally had this pizza, when I still went to Whole Foods (COVID brought me new habits of where to shop). And “tastes like less than nothing” pretty much nails it—and not just the crust.


Nick Kindelsperger starts by asking about how people will react to expensive tacos, but it quickly becomes clear that his real theme is how they’ll react to chain tacos that suck. First up, Florida-based chain Bodega Taqueria y Tequila:

Amble up to the first Midwest location of this South Florida taco chain, and you won’t find a counter, but a gleaming Airstream trailer. To place an order, you chat with an employee through the front window, just like at a taco truck. It’s a neat bit of design work.

Too bad I hate nearly everything else about this place, from the indifferent service to the quote plastered on the wall encouraging everyone to become a functioning alcoholic. (The quote changes often, but both times I went it had something to do with ignoring your problems by drinking more tequila.) But what I hate the most are the tacos. These are thoughtless creations with brittle tortillas, weak salsas and mushy meat.

Texan Taco Bar, from the Parlor Pizza team, fares little better:

…unlike Big Star, Texan Taco Bar doesn’t seem to have any ambition to serve great tacos. While there’s a competency here that avoids any Bodega-level taco travesties, you’ll also spend a lot of money on some middling tacos.

Only Tacombi impresses enough to get a whopping *1/2 stars:

Tacombi seems legitimately concerned about the fundamentals. All of the tacos start with some good corn tortillas, which are currently being made in Tacombi’s own tortilla factory in New York. (Wolos said he hopes to soon send fresh masa to Chicago for the staff to make the tortillas here.) A small salsa bar hides in the back, offering a solid salsa cruda, made with fresh tomatillos and chilies, and a complex and legitimately spicy salsa roja.

Instead of offering a dozen different fillings, Tacombi focuses on just a few. I’m not thrilled with the al pastor, but it’s at least cooked on a trompo, the traditional vertical rotisserie. The pork gets a solid red chile marinade but has also been dry both times I’ve visited.

My conclusion: eat something else in the West Loop (the location of all three), and if you want tacos, drive a little further south to 18th or 26th street.


Speaking of people reviewing Ummo, I quite liked Louisa Chu’s piece on the River North steakhouse, which digs into how Mexican-born chef Jose Sosa works Mexican flavors and ingredients into the more or less Italian cuisine he cooks there and cooked at various Gibsons Group restaurants:

“When I was working at Hugo’s, I added chicharrón to the fish tacos,” Sosa said. But he wanted to do something different.

He used the concentrated consommé of octopus to make his own chicharrón with tapioca flour. It’s a technique modernist chefs borrowed from Asian prawn crackers and the airy wheat crackers under Mexican chicharrones preparados.

A chicharrón seems to be a surprising item for a contemporary Italian menu, albeit not listed, as is the choice to call it a chicharrón.


While I was away, Steve Dolinsky just kept piling up stories. He went to Waterleaf, the restaurant of the culinary program at the College of DuPage, and he checked out Taco Sur in Little Village:

All day long, customers tuck into plates overflowing with tacos and bowls filled to the rim with hearty birria, inside Taco Sur, which hugs the corner of Pulaski Road and 31st Street in Little Village. The menu is an homage to Tijuana.

“Tijuana I think is between a flavor from California and Mexico, drawing together,” said Veronica Fabre, the owner of Taco Sur.


Titus Ruscitti went to Warlord and gives some flavor of the place in his writeup:

First off it’s important to note that they’re closed on Tues, Wed, Thurs and they don’t open until 6p on Fri, Sat, Sun, Mon. There are no reservations and waits can be up to two hours if you don’t get seated at 6pm. If you don’t like loud music you might not want to visit but if you like food cooked over a live fire you very much might want to visit. Most of the stuff on the menu touches that fire which is sitting behind the chefs counter. We had a front row seat for the cooking and also for a bit of a meltdown by one of the chefs. I won’t name names but I got a kick out of it, it was like a scene from The Bear. Service didn’t seem to skip a beat so whatever. Shit happens. It was just a temper tantrum.

He also has a post about places to eat in, and near, South Bend. One of the towns he stops in is Middlebury, but he doesn’t visit my favorite place there: the Village Inn. Not a member of the coffeeshop chain of that name, Middlebury’s Village Inn has decent diner food and excellent homemade pies—it’s the only place I’ve ever seen the hyperregional specialty Bob Andy pie, reportedly named for two horses.


Dennis Lee has a real find: an Ecuadoran convenience store, J&J Ministore and Restaurant, on Pulaski:

It’s located on Pulaski, about half a block north of Milwaukee. Its exterior barely indicates what’s inside, other than an Ecuadorian flag symbol on its banner, and a sun-faded photo grid of its menu items in the window. But when you walk through the glass door of that tiny storefront, you won’t find yourself in Chicago anymore.


Lots of pieces about Jason Hammel and his Lula Cafe cookbook. Here’s Steve Dolinsky:

The Lula Café Cookbook not only features the dishes from their humble beginnings, but also their more ambitious dishes, dictated by the Midwestern farms and farmers they’ve come to know personally over the years.

“So to me that makes the experience of cooking and then the experience of eating, a deeper, more emotional experience, and I think that really matters, especially now,” said Jason Hammel, the chef-owner of Lula Café, who also wrote the cookbook.

WTTW has a piece about “the soup that started everything” for Lula Cafe:

It all began with a bowl of soup. On the day that he moved to Chicago, Jason Hammel first tasted his now-wife’s cooking in the space that they would eventually turn into the cherished restaurant Lula Cafe. It was a bowl of sweet and sour cabbage soup, noted as “Lea’s Amazing Soup” on the board of the Logan Beach coffee shop, a place recommended to him by a friend that led him to rent in Logan Square in the first place.

The same soup, and story, turns up in a piece by Aimee Levitt at Eater:

As the staff expanded, the cooks developed a playful and improvisational style of recipe development, starting with what was available at the markets and growing, through free association, into unique and surprising combinations, such as plum and tomato or pork belly with watermelon. The menu changed daily, aside from some old favorites from the Logan Beach days: the Tineka, a vegetable sandwich with Indonesian satay sauce, and Pasta Yiayia, tossed in a cinnamon garlic sauce like [wife Amalea] Tshilds’s Greek grandmother used to make.

Maggie Hennessy has a piece on Pasta Yiayia (enough with soup already!) at WBEZ:

The pasta has become something of an icon, recreated countless times across the recipe blogosphere; one Lula manager even dressed up as Pasta Yiayia last Halloween, essentially wearing a plate of it. For me, it tastes like the hominess I feel whenever I sit in Lula’s warm, funky dining room beneath the whitewashed tin-print ceiling. The salty tang of the cheese and sweet and toasty hits of garlic, the nutty browned butter and sneaky warmth of cinnamon tangling with thick, toothsome pasta; it’s rich, comforting and a bit unexpected — so much more than the beige-hued sum of its parts.

Hammel was on WDCB’s The Art Section here.


And speaking of chefs and books, Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark worked with podcaster Andrew Friedman (Andrew Talks to Chefs) on a book, The Dish, chronicling the path of one dish at their former Wherewithall to diners’ plates. This is mentioned in what’s otherwise a piece about Wherewithall’s replacement, Ukrainian restaurant Anelya:

Last year, Clark led efforts by Chicago’s culinary community to support the Ukraine. In April, he made his first trip to the country and says that while he was struck by the tenacity and determination of Ukrainians to carry on their lives, it was clear to him that residents were struggling to cope.

Amid the devastation, however, he encountered a group of chefs working to reclaim and expand on Ukraine’s historic food traditions — a phenomenon Clark dubs “the old-new culture.” At Anelya, where the kitchen staff is almost entirely composed of Ukrainian refugees, the approach is encapsulated in a bowl of borscht, one of the country’s best-known dishes. Borscht is native to Ukraine, but it was among the Soviet Union’s approved foods and was promoted as a Russian invention. In 2022, UNESCO declared borscht cooking an endangered Ukrainian heritage.


We haven’t run into each other at this Roscoe Village spot, though I did see Peter Klein (Seedling) the last time I was there, but Amy Cavanaugh says she likes Loba Pastry’s new location as a place to hang with coffee and a pastry:

The new space is larger and filled with wood furnishings and so much sunlight I moved from a window-side table to the counter to keep working on my laptop. Sweets are arrayed in the pastry case, and offerings land throughout the day. With luck, you’ll try an Emmie, an ooey-gooey baked oatmeal custard with a sticky caramelized exterior dotted with sesame seeds. It tastes like a canelé (and is gluten-free).


At Time Out, Maggie Hennessy generally likes Persian tasting menu Maman Zari:

The first few courses—all vegetarian—positively sang. Abdoogh khiar, a chilled yogurt soup with cucumber, walnuts and raisins, was a sensual refresher heaped with minty chopped dill, mint, tarragon and basil. The more I stirred (as suggested by our considerate server), the more I appreciated each component: The walnut’s bitter edge and chalky crunch; the mild, slowly softening lavash cracker; the plump, sweet raisins; the quenching cucumber; the yogurt’s round-edged sourness.


I tried pulque in Mexico City with David Hammond; apparently one of us wanted more. Hammond talks about it and its place in Mexican culture relating to the Day of the Dead:

Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” tells me in a recent communication that “Many Santa Muerte devotees believe the Mexican skeleton saint favors ritual offerings that are native to Mexico and the Americas. As such, pulque was the most important fermented drink in Mexico, and it was offered to the Aztec gods and goddesses, most importantly, Tepoztecatl, god of pulque and fertility.”


The Infatuation goes for Mexican food in West Town, not the West Loop, at Diego:

Diego serves things like crispy tostadas topped with a simple but well-balanced mix of yellowfin and avocado, or a spicy macaroni and shrimp salad. There are plenty of tasty tacos on the menu too, and despite primarily being a seafood spot, some of the best food here is meat-based. Case in point: a thick burger so smoky and juicy, it’s singlehandedly doing its part to end the smashburger trend. Add in an excellent Cali-style steak burrito, and Diego is a wealth of beef-based riches.


Michael Muser’s Amuzed talks to David Posey (Elske).


Congrats to Ethan Lim for the documentary about his family’s journey from Cambodia to America, Ethan Lim: Cambodian Futures, winning the Gold Hugo for best short documentary in the Chicago International Film Festival.

Ethan also offers some remembrances of his late mother at Instagram, a lovely short memoir of growing up in an immigrant restaurant family:

Momma Lim was born in a time and place when the world looked a lot different. Raised by my great grandmother, Mom was brought up to be tough but with a lot of love. Preparing a meal meant starting a fire from charcoal multiple times a day. Mom’s love language was through food. A lot of care. And a lot of time. Soup was her specialty. The flavors developed from countless hours of simmering bones and aromats, while tending to an open fire, achieved mom the title of The Soup Lady of Battambang, the town where Mom was born.
Dad would push a cart to sell mom’s beautiful elixirs while she tended to home with small children and running her own small business offering delectable dishes. With minimal education, Mom learned the greatest value was through hard work and connecting within a community. When locals learned through a friend that Mom and Dad had set up shop in a new location, they followed. Life was simple. It was rewarding.
And then the war happened. And Mom learned to be fierce. Shouldering 7 children through the footsteps of those who walked before them to ensure land mines weren’t triggered, parents safely ensured my older sibling’s passage. Mom recounted when she stood toe to toe with a Khmer Rouge general demanding my oldest sister to be released from the brutal work camp. And won.

There’s more; read it all.