Our favorite restaurants of 2011 | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

Our favorite restaurants of 2011 

From three iterations of Next to the humble pies of Bridgeport

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No, I'm not writing subjectively when I apply the word "best" to the following list of new restaurants. That's so 2010.

This year, in the service of indisputably factual year-in-review content, the Reader sprang for expensive state-of-the-art software that mathematically calculates excellence and originality in restaurants. CriticKiller2012 (TM) plugs variables as wide-ranging as cuisine, location, price point, chef pedigree and culinary school transcripts, pending litigation, vendor lines of credit, health department inspections, ambient temperature and decibel level, median diner income, location, design down to the tablecloth fabric, and front-of-the-house sex appeal into a secret algorithm that precisely determines the very best in contemporary dining. As a signing bonus, it also spat out a second tier of honorable mentions.

You're certainly free to disagree with my opinions—but not CriticKiller2012's. It's programmed to assassinate dissenters (which is why you won't be hearing much from Yelp in the future.)

Over on the Bleader I've compiled my own list of memorable bites and sips ingested in the last year, but now that my job's obsolete I can get on with my real life's work: penning a series of romantic adventure novels for teenage girls that chart the star-crossed romance between a moody cheerleader and a smoking-hot triceratops. —Mike Sula

click to enlarge JEFFREY MARINI

El Ideas This year Phillip Foss shelved his Meatyballs Mobile to get back to conceiving and executing the wildly creative and intricately presented dishes he'd served at Lockwood. At El Ideas, he and Andrew Brochu—the Alinea vet who came aboard after his last gig, Kith & Kin, closed—serve multicourse prix fixe menus in the space's snug dining room. Brochu's involuted take on frozen broccoli and cauliflower with cheddar sauce is one of the more luxuriously rich and satisfying things I've scraped up in many months. Foss, too, is back in rare form. His "eggs" dish was another of the best I've eaten all year, a cool disk of uni flan perched on nuggets of sweet rock shrimp with custardy soft French-style scrambled eggs and arctic char roe, its layered richness slashed with a smear of acidic yuzu and a dollop of finger-lime pulp. An ever evolving foie gras course—ours with chestnut puree, apple-Calvados foam, and five-spiced chestnut granola—is served without utensils so guests, who by now might be well into their cups, can lick it right from the plate. By the time you read this, most of these courses are likely to have been altered or completely replaced—the pair is constantly conceiving new ones while making sure their ingredients don't overlap. For the $135 price tag, diners are eating the work of two chefs for the price of one. —Mike Sula » 2419 W. 14th, 312-226-8144, elideas.com.

click to enlarge ANDREA BAUER

GT Fish & Oyster A smart abstraction of the panregional seafood shack, GT is candlelit and carefully appointed with wood paneling hung with shark's teeth and framed oil paintings of tall ships in distress, and though it's perpetually mobbed by a spirited crowd taking its time at having a good time, there's plenty of room to breathe. For former Trotter's chef de cuisine and current Boka exec Giuseppe Tentori—who supplies the G and the T—it's a significant step away from fine dining, but not an overstep. The complex, even challenging dishes familiar to his fans are balanced by smart updates of domestic and international classics, ranging from clam chowder and crab cakes to squid paella and miso-glazed cod.

He doesn't mess so much with the most hallowed of these—a modestly sized $22 lobster roll, which abounds with sweet chunks of shellfish in a buttery roll next to buttermilk-battered frazzled onion, nested like a disassembled Awesome Blossom. But even most of the familiar dishes have tactical improvements. Terrifically fresh and skillfully shucked raw oysters in three varieties from each coast come with cocktail sauce emulsified with sweet apple; steamed Alaskan crab legs are perfumed with lemongrass, oranges, and lemons. For the most part the more ambitious dishes are every bit as appealing as the simpler ones.

Head mixologist Benjamin Schiller's cocktail program ranges from old favorites like the spicy bourbon-based Old Money to the fruity, boozy Italian Ice, apricot eau de vie, Bols Genever, and fresh mint layered in a tall collins glass like the Italian flag. —Mike Sula » 531 N. Wells, 312-929-3501, gtfishandoyster.wordpress.com.

click to enlarge JEFFREY MARINI

Lao Hunan Tony Hu, as you might know, is the chef-entrepreneur behind Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing, and Lao Shanghai, and the city's most prolific and passionate proponent of Chinese regional cuisine. Here he successfully exploits Mao's lifelong devotion to the simple peasant food of his southern home province. It has its own name—mao jia cai, "Mao's home-style cooking"—and is characterized by a liberal use of pickled vegetables, salty smoked meats, and lots of garlic, shallots, and chiles. To pull it off, Hu's recruited chef Jin Chang from New York City, a veteran of Hunanese hotel kitchens. The menu's filled with powerfully seasoned dishes you won't find anywhere else in town, beginning with a small selection of cold appetizers. Many are loaded with a gradually ascending heat that may bring you to the edge of agony, but never so much that it imbalances the other flavors. The shining example of this is Famous Hunan Chile in Black Bean Sauce, a deceptively simple plate of two imported green chile varieties whose mounting intensity never obliterates the earthiness of the fermented beans. It's one of the most irresistible things I've eaten all year. —Mike Sula » 2230 S. Wentworth, 312-842-7888, tonygourmetgroup.com.

click to enlarge ERIC FUTRAN

Maude's Liquor Bar The new project from Brendan Sodikoff (Gilt Bar) and executive chef Jeff Pikus (Gilt Bar, Alinea) feels more like a New York brasserie than anything else—I was constantly reminded of Balthazar. Drawing its influence in part from the bistro, in part from the brasserie, the menu features charcuterie, braises, and classics like French onion fondue. All of the dishes are plated for sharing, and while there's more than one way to build a meal from the list of offerings, every evening at Maude's should start with raw oysters from le bar a huitres. The festive Grand Plateaux seafood platter includes a dozen each of the Kumamoto and Conway Royal oysters, as well as ample portions of bay scallops, mussels, clams, and shrimp cocktail—a steal at $70. Fans of Gilt Bar will recognize the roasted marrow bones with red-onion jam and grilled bread, the bones cleaved lengthwise to afford uniform roasting and easy access. Other carryovers are cones of exemplary pomme frites made from Kennebec potatoes fried in lard and an excellent steak tartare topped with a slow-cooked egg yolk. Daily specials in broad categories like cheese, fish, and sausage round out the brief menu, along with some hearty stews and a limited number of steaks. —Kristina Meyer » 840 W. Randolph, 312-243-9712, maudesliquorbar.com.

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