By PAT BRUNO firstname.lastname@example.org // Dec 31, 2010 02:36AM
The culinary conveyor belt was running at full speed throughout 2010. Like magic, storefronts turned into restaurants practically overnight. Space was repurposed so fast that paint was still drying when the doors opened for business.Hordes of the hungry waited and waited with breathless anticipation for the opening of Girl & the Goat on West Randolph Street. As it turned out— for me, anyway — it was much ado about nothing. It’s a nice restaurant, but once the fog of hype that surrounded it cleared, it was, well, just another restaurant. Speaking of hype, the anticipation of the Michelin ratings for Chicago restaurants caused a lot of chefs and owners to lose a lot of sleep. Frankly, the Michelin ratings are rather inflated and tiresome; take it all with a grain of fleur de sel. In a nutshell, the rating setup is three stars, two stars and one star. And then there is the “Bib Gourmand,” the criterion for which is stated as restaurants of “good value” — high-quality restaurants that serve two courses and either dessert or wine (minus tax and gratuity) for less than $40. Forty-six Chicago restaurants got the Bib Gourmand. I agree with many on the list, but there were many that were notably absent (Quartino Ristorante, for example). And several are listed that stretch the point of the $40 cutoff (Deca in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel comes to mind).
Where I really had a problem, though, was the restaurants that received the coveted Michelin stars. Alinea and L2O were the only two Chicago restaurants awarded three stars. Alinea is more about molecular gastronomy than real food. L2O, as luck would have it, lost its high-profile chef, Laurent Gras, a week or two after the ratings came out. Notably absent from a three-star rating was Spiaggia. It has often been noted that the Michelin inspectors look down their nose at Italian restaurants. This slight proves it beyond a doubt. Three restaurants — Avenues (Peninsula hotel), Charlie Trotter’s and Ria (Elysian hotel) — were awarded two stars. Ria? Not in my book. Notably absent from the two-star rating was Les Nomades, which is very high on my list of best Chicago restaurants. In the one-star category, I agree with many of the choices (except for Graham Elliot, Longman & Eagle and Schwa, which really don’t deserve a star). But notably absent in this category is Riccardo Trattoria on North Clark Street. If you are interested, you can check out all things Michelin at michelinguide.com. ♦ ♦ ♦ And now, here is what I have to say about Chicago Dining 2010. All of my picks are from restaurants that I reviewed on these pages in 2010.
THE TOP TEN
The process by which I picked these restaurants had to do with not only how I felt when I was eating in them but also how I felt weeks and months later — knowing that I wanted to go back and try more dishes. The atmosphere (clean, comfortable) helps. Good service is a biggie. Value? Indeed. And comfort in knowing that the restaurant cares about the customer. Sensational hype? No, I don’t buy into that. Any restaurant of worth has to offer some form of culinary drama. It could be as simple as a well-made hamburger or a perfectly done steak, or it might be as complicated as a black truffle risotto or a perfectly done chicken dish. Here are those restaurants that wowed me in 2010 in one fashion or another, and specific dishes (which may no longer be on ever-evolving menus):
Prairie Fire, 215 N. Clinton; (312) 382-8300; prai riefirechicago.com. Sister restaurant to Prairie Grass in Northbrook, with Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris splitting their time between the two places. The cuisine is a two-way arrangement of contemporary American and Greek. The atmosphere is urban chic (booth seating is quite luxurious). Low noise level allows for polite conversation. Try the chicken liver pate, crispy lamb rolls, braised BBQ brisket and pork schnitzel. Finish off with a towering double-chocolate cake. (★★★, reviewed March 19)
Macku Sushi, 2239 N. Clybourn; (773) 880-8012; macku sushi.com. Sushi and more served up by some of the best sushi chefs (Macku Chan and his brothers) in Chicago. The pristine quality of the dining room is a metaphor for their artful, delicious, beautifully presented sushi creations (and that goes for the food that gets some heat, too). Try the spicy scallops tekka maki, dragon makimono, black cod and green tea mochi. (★★★, reviewed Feb. 19)
Benny’s Chop House, 444 N. Wabash; (312) 626-2444; bennyschophouse.com. Casually elegant steakhouse in every way. Tablecloths, dark wood, soft lighting and handsome bar. Nice place to impress friends. Service is formal without being uptight. Try the jumbo lump crab cake, Madagascar prawns, bone-in dry-aged New York strip. On another level are the creative clam BLT and the potato gnocchi. Comprehensive wine program, too. (★★★, reviewed May 28)
Revolution Brewing, 2323 N. Milwaukee; (773) 227-2739; revbrew.com. A small-batch brewery and restaurant that is a lot of fun despite the sometime frenzy (weekend crowd). The atmosphere is rustic Wisconsin camp dining hall. The food is upscale pub grub with the likes of bacon fat popcorn (delicious), housemade sausages, fish and chips and cherry bourbon cake. (★★½, reviewed April 23)
Old Town Social, 455 W. North; (312) 266-2277; old townsocial.com.This one flew under the radar, because of the overhyped brew of gastropubs that had me doing the beer barrel polka all year long. Nevertheless, I loved the atmosphere as much as the food, a good part of which was the enjoyable selection of artisanal cheeses and charcuterie along with a fine rendition of steak and frites. (★★½, reviewed June 28)
Markethouse, 611 N. Fairbanks (at Doubletree Hotel Chicago); (312) 224-2200; mar kethousechicago.com. A quiet, casual, comfortable refuge in which to enjoy contemporary American food fashioned in elegant style by executive chef Scott Walton. The food is quality and the prices are reasonable. Start with a delicious housemade country pate or mushroom risotto. Continue on with rotisserie chicken and finish with butterscotch bread pudding. The under-$10 executive lunch is a true bargain. And wines by the glass are reasonably priced, too. (★★★, reviewed Aug. 27)
Deca, Ritz-Carlton hotel, 160 E. Pearson; (312) 573-5160; decarestaurant.com . Bistro/brasserie dining in one of Chicago’s finest hotels. Luxury dining at reasonable prices without getting all pumped up and pompous about it. Noted dishes include French onion soup, pan-seared sea bass, Wagyu burger and profiteroles. (★★★, reviewed June 11)
The Fifty/50, 2047 W. Division; (773) 489-5050; the fifty50.com. This is pub grub taken to another level (and there are three levels for dining and drinking). The menu has more options than the Bears’ playbook, but I was taken by the boneless wings, the fried chicken and the Chicago Club sandwich. Lunch is quiet and civilized; dinner brings out a beastly and boisterous crowd. But with three levels to work with, it’s all nicely spaced out. (★★, reviewed Sept. 24)
Henri, 18 S. Michigan; (312) 578-0763; henrichicago.com.The only fine-dining restaurant to open in Chicago in quite some time, Henri is a class act, from upholstered chairs to black suede walls and crystal chandeliers. The cuisine — a blend of modern French and contemporary American — ranges from a simple “market potage” to a sensational pappardelle with lobster. (★★★, reviewed Oct. 15)
The Rosebud, 1500 W. Taylor; (312) 942-1117; rosebud restaurants.com. I really like this restaurant. Why? Because I have been dining there on and off for all of the 34 years it has been open. Consistently delicious Italian food served in an Old World atmosphere. One of the originals in the now booming part of Chicago’s Little Italy. The braciole, the cavatelli and a simple plate of sausage and peppers take me back to my childhood. And that’s all the comfort I can ask for. Finally, thanks to all of you, my loyal readers. Keep the e-mails coming. And a Happy New Year to all. May it be the best ever. (★★★, reviewed Jan. 22)
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