Omnivorous: 2008 on My Tongue | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Omnivorous: 2008 on My Tongue 

The best things I ate and drank this year

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Last year around this time I did what most scribblers do when they want to knock off early and settle down for a long winter's nap. I picked out some of my favorite new—or new to me—restaurants of the past 12 months and packed them into a column.

Two of those spots, Baccala and Village Hut, had already gone out of business, and in the year since three more—Nazarlik, Wings Around the World, and Kim's Korean Restaurant—have tanked. I don't know what that says about my taste or anybody else's, especially since I seem to be out of sync with so many of this year's crop of turbohyped media darlings, including Graham Elliot, Urban Belly, and Province. (I still haven't made up my mind about the Publican.)

I already shouted out my favorite new restaurants a few weeks ago, so instead I'm going to get dreamy over particular bites. These are a few dishes or drinks from 2008 that I just can't stop thinking about, primarily because they were excellent but also because of the context in which they were consumed.

Mulefoot headcheese ravioli with whole-grain mustard pasta, cavolo nero, and pork consomme with lemon oil at the Whole Hog Dinner The Reader's Whole Hog Project mulefoot dinner was a meal for the ages—six incredibly delicious courses made from some very special pigs. I've heard a few people complain that the ravioli by Avec sous chef Justin Large were too salty, but I've heard from far more that this was their favorite course. Mine too—I wanted to miniaturize myself and lay my head on these two crispy pillows of citrus-and-baking-spice-scented unctuousness.

Chicken and dumplings at Turner's Family Soul Food Murilee Johnson, the "big boss lady" at this Auburn-Gresham soul kitchen, has an arsenal of hearty granny food in her repertoire, but this toothy, thick stew is the very manifestation of love on a plate.

Birria tatemada with handmade tortillas at Birrieria Zaragoza Juan Zaragoza made many pilgrimages to his hometown in Jalisco to master this specialized variant of slow-roasted, ancho-massaged goat in a clean, piquant consomme. Garnished with salsa, onions, cilantro, and lime and transported from the plate with some of Maria Guadalupe Jungo's tortillas, this dish alone could change the reputation of the underappreciated chivo.

Tengumai Jikomi Yamahai Junmai at L2O Sommelier Chantelle Pabros paired this oddball sake with a geoduck ceviche, launching one of my most unforgettable meals of the year. Hailing from Japan's Ishikawa prefecture, it's gamy and rich but balanced by a nice acidity. I'll toast anyone who finds it retail.

Poached duck egg with pork belly and braised greens at C-House I actually did not like Marcus Samuelsson's foray into Chicago one bit—well, except for this bit. The yolk oozed into a pile of black kale sitting next to some crisp slices of sherry-mustard-seasoned pork belly. I had a surplus of garden greens on hand this summer and because of this dish I rarely ate them without a fried egg or two on top.

Choripan at Cafecito Philip Ghantous admits he's an aggressive seasoner, and this compact sandwich, a Cuban-Argentine hybrid, is pugnacious testimony. Bread, a dry, salty Spanish chorizo, grilled onions, and garlicky chimichurri—it's a beautiful thing, capable of creating some very ugly respiratory pollution.

Shortbread at Mado Eating Allison Leavitt's fragile, buttery biscuits is like being seduced by a ghost. I know I'm not alone on this one—these seemed to have won approval from every critic in the city.

For good measure, here's a list of delicious almost-rans, excluding eats out of town and from home kitchens:

Tiger Balm at Violet Hour

Peerless Potato Chips

Giant soft pretzel at Laschet's Inn

Guy Vanek's Czech dumplings at Stanley's Tavern

Salsa de cacahuate at Cermak Produce

Loukaniko at Mythos

Loukaniko at Nia

Cabbage and carrots steamed in coconut milk and peach cobbler, Ja' Grill

Soon dubu chigae at Chodang Tofu Village

Duck-fat-fried chicken at Takashi

Barbecue fried chicken at Crisp

Chef's special crispy eggplant at Lao Beijing

Eight precious stir-fried in hot sauce at Lao Shanghai

Hot link at Cole's Choice Barbecue

Das Caramelini lavender and honey salt caramels

Pickled watermelon, spicy eggplant, and chicken tabaka at Chaihanna

Crab salad in pink-peppercorn-laced rock melon at Sixteen

Antelope at Schwa

Ghormeh sabzi at Masouleh

Smothered rabbit and bread pudding at Doggy's S.S. Soul Eatery

Bandaged Cheddar and Earth Schmier from Bleu Mont Dairy

Yoland Cannon's Mississippi hot tamales at J's Fresh Meats & Food Mart

Porchetta and sunchokes at Mado

Any noodle dish at Pho Xua

Lamb in mole at Mixteco Grill

Wild Oregon morel risotto at Avenues

Beef-and-lamb shawarma at Dawali Mediterranean Kitchen

Anchovy brioche; ishidai with shiso leaf, preserved lemon, and heart of palm at L2O

Double-cut Berkshire pork chop with watermelon chutney at Graham Elliot

House-roasted sweet-hot peppers and rigatoni in "Sunday" pork gravy at Viaggio

Milanesa torta at Las Tortugas de San Luis

Fideua negra at Mercat a la Planxa

Semolina-beet gnocchi at Perennial

Steak and eggs on acid at Blue 13

Grilled mackerel Caesar at the Bristol

"Fish-and-chips" (fried skate wing) at Duchamp

Chorizo-and-banana-leaf tamal at Tamalli

Cambodian seafood salad at Watt Khmer Metta

Shabu-shabu at Shabu House

Apple-parsnip soup at Soul

Smoked sable ceviche at Province

Borjomi mineral water, puri, and pelmeni at Bread 'n' Bowl Company

Baby seal confit at Cribv

Care to comment? Find this column at And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.


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