In the course of a year the Reader's restaurant critics eat many things we end up wishing we hadn't—we do it so you don't have to. Of course we eat a lot of very good things too, and of those a few are so wonderful they change our perspective on food and what it means to us. It's those rare bites that make the added pounds, occupational indigestion, and occasional bout of food poisoning worth it.
These are some of the things we ate (or drank) in 2009 that we'll keep eating (or drinking) even though we don't have to. For a much longer list from just me, see our Food Chain blog at chicagoreader.com/food. —Mike Sula
The Hard Sell at Bar DeVille Brad Bolt created this magical cocktail with Chicago's native wormwood spirit, Malort, a bitter liqueur so notoriously fierce that its enduring presence on the bottom shelf can be attributed only to its popularity as a macho rite of passage. But mixing it with gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, and lemon juice with a grapefruit twist yields a nuanced, layered potion that evolves on the palate. This drink opened my eyes to new possibilities for bitter flavors.
Headcheese-and-smoked-tongue torta at Xoco Made with naturally raised pork from Wisconsin's Maple Creek Farm, this symphony of dueling flavors (tart pickled vegetables vs. earthy black beans), textures (creamy goat cheese vs. crusty bread), and temperatures (warm and hot slices of fatty meat) rivaled in complexity and harmony a perfect Vietnamese banh mi. It's no longer on the menu.
Hand-dripped coffee at Asado Kevin Ashtari, proprietor of this tiny Lakeview coffee shop, didn't invent hand-dripped coffee—that's probably as old as the beverage itself. But applied to his small-batch, house-roasted, fresh-ground beans, this simple, slow technique produces a perfectly balanced cuppa so full-bodied you can almost chew it. Inspired, I bought my own ceramic dripper, and my automatic machine has been collecting dust ever since.
House-made yogurt with young favas and lamb confit at Taxim This seasonal, simple, brilliantly fresh dish was the first thing I tasted in David Schneider's regional-Greek-revival restaurant. Inspired by like recipes from Greece's mountainous northern Thraki region, where the use of animal fat reflects the scarcity of olive oil, it harks back to a time and place when necessity bred perfection.
Rosemary bacon from E & P Meats A simple rosemary-rubbed slab of cured meat from these now-dormant suburban underground charcutiers filled my house with a porky herbal perfume and prompted me to try my own hand at making bacon, a process so easy and satisfying everyone should do it.
Buttermilk biscuit at Hot Chocolate Like a sausage McMuffin with exponentially better ingredients, this was one of my all-time favorite brunch items: an enormous, flaky, buttery biscuit loaded with a Gunthorp Farms sausage patty, scrambled egg, and melted aged cheddar. Despite a pretty healthy appetite I never managed to finish more than half of one—maybe because I don't consider any meal at Hot Chocolate complete without the assorted pastry platter and a mug of decadently rich cocoa. Sadly, the combo's now served on an English muffin.
Cochinita pibil at Mixteco Grill Shredded pork, marinated in achiote and orange juice and slow roasted till delicately smoky and impossibly tender, is served with a side of incendiary habanero salsa so you can make it as fiery as you like. It not only convinced my pal that she liked pork after all but also nearly ended our friendship as she kept stealing bites off my plate.
Lemon-and-basil pasta with corn and asparagus at Grocery Bistro I wasn't nostalgic for summer until this assignment brought to mind this dish I had at the Grocery Bistro in July. The sweet smokiness of the roasted kernels was a perfect complement to the lemony, creamy sauce, speckled with petite pieces of asparagus and bits of fresh basil. Unfortunately the responsible chef, Monica Walters, is no longer at the restaurant, which is on its third chef in less than a year.
Almond croissant at Alliance Bakery These croissants are not only stuffed with almond paste but also topped with a thick, sugary glaze that drips off the pastry and caramelizes as it bakes. I know that sounds like gilding the lily, but the end product's not as tooth-achingly sweet as you might expect.
Guacamole with pomegranate at Estrella Negra I'd never had pomegranate seeds in guacamole before I tried Estrella Negra's, and since then I've been wondering why not: the little bursts of fruity sweetness contrast beautifully with the creaminess of the avocado, the tang of the lime, and the saltiness of the fresh-fried tortilla chips.
Chorizo at Folklore Made at sister restaurant Tango Sur from a 60/40 mix of pork and beef, it's crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and deliciously garlicky throughout. I thought it couldn't get any better—until I dipped it in the even more garlicky chimichurri sauce it's served with.
Dominguero burrito at Abuelo's Mexican Grill Burritos are usually low on my list of must-try menu items, but the ones at Abuelo's blew the lid off my notions of just how good this northern Mexican creation can be. The Dominguero is made with carnitas, griddled crisp without oiliness and browned without a trace of burn. Iceberg lettuce, one of the last leaves I usually want to see on any sandwich, is just one of several well-placed greens countering the richness of the meat and adding a light, fresh crunch to break up the doughy density of the flour tortilla.
Salami from Romanian Kosher Sausage Company Arrayed prettily against the back wall like a line of high-kicking chorines, organized from youngest to oldest, are some of the tastiest old-school kosher (glatt, even!) salami you'll find in the city. They're all made in-house; though the older ones are a little more expensive, they're chewier and tastier, and if you're going to eat your salami straight they're worth a few dollars more. Hung in your kitchen, they continue to dry and get more delicious until you're ready to enjoy them. And enjoy them you will.
Zuppa Barese at Ciao Amore I've seen zuppa Barese presented several ways, including as a fancy-pants seafood-saffron broth, but chef Cesar Pineda (whose mom is a native of Bari) prepares a rich, substantial, and superbly gentle cream soup of hard-boiled egg, noodles, and potato. It'd be criminal to tart up its noble simplicity with more than a turn of the pepper mill.
Mexican hot dog at Delicias Mexicanas The Mexican dog has many variations, but here it's swaddled in bacon and griddled, allowing the juiciness of the sliced pork belly to saturate the sausage. Then it's dressed with onion, jalapeños (pickled and fresh), mayo, mustard, and (gasp) ketchup, which beautifully sets off both the crunchy sweetness of the griddled onions and the heat of the peppers. To get this wiener at its best, stop by late in the evening, when patrons of local cantinas stream in and Doña Blanca Diaz keeps a fresh mess of links bubbling in lard on her stove.
Financier at Restaurant Michael Though I tasted it months ago, Michael's financier still haunts my dreams, buttery soft and spongy—a pleasant contrast to the crunchy cookie it was served with, which held ginger ice cream whose slightly stinging sweetness was intensely magnified by vanilla-scented blueberries in a honeylike syrup. There's a lot going on in this grand finale, which satisfies more than just a sweet tooth.
Pide at Istanbul Restaurant In the past, Yasar Demir made great bread wherever he cooked—including A La Turka, Cafe Demir, and Cousin's—so I was delighted to learn that he'd returned from an extended trip to Turkey and opened Istanbul Restaurant in Lakeview this summer. The pide—often called "Ramadan pide" because that's when Turks love to eat it—is as good as ever: a round, sliced, sesame-seed-topped loaf about the thickness of focaccia, it usually arrives warm from the oven with a dish of herbed olive oil for dunking. It's almost impossible not to fill up on this freebie, but I try to save room for one of the boat-shaped stuffed pides, a meal in itself.
Ribollita alla Delfina at Piccolo Sogno Chef/co-owner Tony Priollo loved the twice-cooked vegetable and bread soup at Da Delfina restaurant in Artimino, Tuscany, so he decided to prepare his ribollita in the same style. More like a pancake or savory bread pudding (depending how much the edges are crisped on any given evening), it's rustic and deeply soul satisfying. I admit, though, that it competes for my affection with Piccolo's wondrously moist wood-fired whole fish baked in a Sicilian salt crust—at least when the fish is branzino.
Salmon crudo at Roof I didn't expect much from the food at the Wit Hotel's 27th-floor bar, which was all the buzz this spring, but on a quiet, drizzly weekday afternoon I fell in love with chef Todd Stein's salmon crudo. The five slices of buttery-rich raw salmon were deftly complemented by the lemon emulsion, pine nuts and, especially, little pieces of hot, red cured Calabrian chiles.
Chicken liver paté at Fianco Paté isn't supposed to be an Italian restaurant's forte, but the thick slab of chicken liver paté here was the smoothest, silkiest, most beautifully seasoned I've had all year. It came with grainy mustard, sweet strawberry preserves, two kinds of olives, and grilled crostini for an intriguing contrast of flavors and textures. These days the menu just lists house-made paté, but if it's chicken liver, don't miss it.
Crispy poached duck egg and Gunthorp Farms pork porterhouse at Sepia The foodie world was all aflutter when Andrew Zimmerman replaced Kendal Duque as chef at Sepia earlier this year, but once I tasted his breadcrumb-coated crispy poached duck egg, oozing sunny yolk onto a bed of lightly sauteed morels, asparagus and ramps, I knew all would be well. This dish, the essence of spring, isn’t currently on the menu, but the juicy, flavor-packed Gunthorp Farms pork porterhouse (which I had with bourbon, cherries and cheesy grits) is, and it’s almost as delicious.
Buckwheat honey from Some Honey Most honey is too sweet for me, so I was flabbergasted by the bold, earthy bite of the raw, natural, unfiltered buckwheat honey from Some Honey in New Lisbon, Wisconsin. Owner Jim Lato says the mineral-loaded honey, which comes from the extremely delicate little white blossoms of buckwheat groats, is popular with eastern Europeans and with marathon runners, who mix it with bee pollen into little balls they take on the road for a quick energy boost. I prefer it with Fage Greek yogurt or spread on fresh challah from La Farine Bakery. It’s available at Whole Foods and Green Grocer Chicago.
Parmesan and Lambrusco at A Tavola My year’s most memorable food-and-wine pairing was a simple hunk of imported Parmesan and a glass of chilled Lambrusco at A Tavola. The brightness of the sparkling red wine, which was dry yet fruity, complemented the robust saltiness of the cheese perfectly—not that surprising, since both are specialties of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. You can re-create the experience retail or ask for it at the restaurant, where you might want to follow up with the ultramoist chocolate-walnut torte with soft whipped cream, one of my all-time favorite desserts.
Where to find our critics' picks
2148 W. Chicago | 773-276-7567
ITALIAN | DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED: SUNDAY | RESERVATIONS RECOMMENDED
The dining room at A Tavola is dimly lit and intimate, with only ten tables. The menu is equally tiny, enough so that strict vegetarians may have a difficult time making the most of it. I went with the halibut, lightly dusted with seasoned flour and panfried, accompanied by a lemon and caper sauce—very simple, but perfectly moist and light. An appetizer of grilled portobello and sauteed oyster mushrooms stood out for its surprisingly complex flavor. There are also three small pasta dishes, including the best gnocchi I've ever had, swimming in sage butter and topped with fried sage leaves. The "vanilla-scented" panna cotta (sorry, but that's a descriptor best left to candles) looked like flan and tasted like marshmallows, which fortunately I like. I'm also one who believes there are few more wonderful things you can do with food than bake it with a crisp crust of Parmesan cheese, so the polenta, thick and gooey, may have been my favorite. There was one bite left at the end of the night, and I seriously thought about having it wrapped up. —David Wilcox