It takes a special kind of myopia to worry that restaurant reviewing is dying when more Americans are doing it than ever. (Online restaurant critic, the last job Americans will do.) But the old model—wherein the critic was an anonymous figure with the power to slam what needed to be slammed and the publication was big enough to (usually) withstand a restaurant's fury without worrying about being cut off from access for future stories—has become rarer, although it survives in a few places (like this publication). One-person food journalism operations—by which I mean blogs, but also once-major players whose food sections have been downsized to the point they're no bigger than a personal blog—have to thread an impossible needle. They have to review restaurants as honestly as they can, on their own funds or as PR guests, while always looking over their shoulders to see which bridges to future access are about to burst into flames. (Or by simply saying "to hell with it" and getting right into bed with the industry.)
So in that environment it's a big deal that Eater, the New York-based food news and chef gossip site, announced yesterday that it was going into the reviewing business in a serious way. Ryan Sutton, the Bloomberg critic who just garnered attention in Chicago with his reviews of Next Steak, Grace, and Elizabeth, becomes their chief reviewer for New York; Bill Addison, a former Atlanta Magazine and Dallas Morning News critic, becomes a roving restaurant editor covering the scene nationwide; and Robert Sietsema, who's been an Eater contributor since he got cut from the Village Voice last year, will be an occasional New York reviewer in addition to various other kinds of coverage he provides.
Tragedy struck the family of a longtime Chicago chef late last month. On February 13, Dean Zanella—who's best known for his years as chef of 312 Chicago in the Loop—and his wife, Mary Bridget Reidy Zanella, welcomed twin girls, Anna Grace and Nora Joan. Complications set in, and Mary passed away on February 22.
Now friends of the family have set up a fund-raiser to help Zanella with the cost of caring for his new daughters alone. There will also be a fund-raising event at Hot Chocolate on March 31; details to follow.
Zanella was chef of 312 Chicago for about a decade when he left it to open Aldino's, Scott Harris's short-lived Italian restaurant and deli-grocer on Taylor Street. He was then chef of Rhapsody for two years, but wasn't retained when the restaurant reconcepted as Tesori. Most recently he has worked at Chicago Firehouse.
Back in October, when I wrote about the great southwest-side Guerrerense grocery Cremeria La Ordeña, owner Nicolas Aguado mentioned that he and partner Luciano Dominguez were scouting locations in Albany Park for a second spot to sell their hard-to-find cheeses, meats, beans, and moles. Yet I had no idea Ordeña #2 would top the original location in its amazing mole selection. Located on a bustling stretch of Lawrence Avenue, the store has a long mole bar with 13—count 'em!—different imported moles (not counting the packaged Teloloapan brand). North-siders take heed: that's five more than the south-side location, which makes Albany Park the mole capital of Chicago. All are sold by weight and are available for sampling before purchase.
Leghorn Chicken, the long-awaited chicken sandwich stand from chef Jared Van Camp and the others at Element Collective (Nellcôte, Kinmont, etc), opened at 11 AM at 959 N. Western yesterday, and closed less than two hours later, all 600 of the chicken parts prepared for its sandwiches gone. Under normal circumstances 600 would be a very ambitious number for a sandwich shop on opening day, so I wouldn't say that I think selling out was exactly part of the plan—but I doubt anybody really minded it either. As with Brendan Sodikoff's Green Street Smoked Meats a month ago, running out on opening day makes for good buzz, perfect for spreading even more widely by social media. In any case, it's proof that there's no such thing as a neighborhood restaurant or a soft opening any more, as a corner on Western in Ukrainian Village became Chicago's foodie epicenter on a Thursday—for an hour and 45 minutes, anyway.
If you weren't aware of Leghorn until everybody had already been there, it combines much of what's of the moment (and different from a certain chain chicken joint that closes on the Lord's Day). The chicken is local and sustainable; the approach evokes authentic southern styles, including "Nashville hot" (a nod to the incendiary chicken at Prince's and other Oprytown favorites); and it gives money to support gay rights, a bonus for people who are jonesing for a sandwich from that other place but are unwilling to support it. Leghorn reopens today at 11 AM with another several hundred pieces of chicken; the first reviews should start coming out any moment, I suspect.
Other things happening on the scene:
Now that Chicago's in the middle of a doughnut boom, I realize how naive and deprived I was. Now I live in the Land of Firecakes and Do-Rite Donuts and the Doughnut Vault and Glazed and Infused (all of which, incidentally, are walking distance from the Reader's offices). If I want to go farther afield, there's Dat Donut and Old Fashioned Donuts. Chicago is suddenly doughnut paradise. The old-fashioned buttermilk at Firecakes makes Krispy Kreme look like nothing. And the coffee's better, too.
Maybe news of Chicago's doughnut renaissance has reached California, because Stan's Donuts, a 49-year-old LA institution, has opened up its first Chicago location, right across the street from the Wicker Park Glazed and Infused. If that's not a direct throwdown, I don't know what is.
Quoth Ina: "I garnish it with whipped cream . . . but that's just me, when something is too healthy."
In 1998 I was looking for an excuse to throw off the yoke of seven years of quasi-vegetarianism. It had been an instructive experiment, but it had run its course—I needed to sink my jaw into some animal flesh. I broke the fast at a North Center barbecue joint called N.N. Smokehouse, where I devoured a smoky, shmaltz-slick half chicken like I hadn't eaten in weeks. I was reborn. And while my perspective could've been clouded on my first visit by years of vitamin B12, creatine, and a docosahexaenoic acid deficiency, N.N. subsequently became a holy place for me.
Operating long before Smoque or Honey 1, or any of the less-impressive horde of big-budget barbecue spots that have proliferated in recent years, N.N. Smokehouse was something of an anomaly on the north side. Its owner, Larry Tucker, was actually smoking meat, low and slow, in an environment where barbecue meant ersatz boil-b-que or mushy, steaming ribs slathered in sauce. Apart from N.N., you had to be on the south side if you wanted real barbecue. When it closed a few years later it left a gaping void in the north side, and even though Tucker moved around from spot to spot, after that the magic was gone.
So I was both thrilled and terrified when Tucker reappeared at Ravenswood Q, just a few blocks west of where N.N. used to be, in the spot vacated by Cafe 28. The menu isn't as crowded with irrelevancies as, say, Old Crow Smokehouse, but there are enough nonbarbecue items—a turkey burger, salads, buffalo chicken egg rolls—to make me nervous that Ravenswood Q would suffer from the same lack of focus as most of the other newcomers. I was even more rattled when I walked through the door and smelled nothing.
Many people looking at the line ahead of them at Fat Rice, Chicago's only Portuguese-Macanese-hipster-Asian-fusion restaurant, have surely wished the place would expand. Now it is—but instead of adding space, it's adding hours with a dim sum brunch on weekends. Which includes some classic Cantonese-style dumplings, as well as things found only in Macau.
"Dim sum is specifically Cantonese, and you see it in Macau all the time," says Abraham Conlon, chef and owner of the Logan Square restaurant with his wife, Adrienne Lo. "But for our version, we wanted to incorporate just a couple of more Macanese things."
For the last several weekends they've been doing test runs, refining the menu for invited guests, and the menu will launch this Friday. I got to photograph what they think will be the final lineup during prep for Saturday's run; slide show after the jump.
I was told it's not going to be on the menu forever—just as long as it's cold like this—but it's a very good sign of what these fellows are capable of, working with all-local ingredients in this former Guatemalan bakery. Right now that means a smoked beet salad, celery root soup with apples and brown butter, a couple of tartines, a quiche with roasted Vidalia onions, and house-made sausage with poached eggs and mustard.