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Monday, April 22

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Feature Sat Dec 27 2008

Yes We Ate: The Year in Food

Chicago had a lot of reasons to eat well in 2008.

An historic presidential campaign changed the tenor of politics and sent
people rushing to celebrate at newly elected President Obama's favorite eateries. A Chicagoan won Top Chef. The Cubs and Sox were both in the playoffs. Chicago got closer to being the 2016 Summer Olympics host city. Bouncy castles remained free, thanks to the city's Aldermen (I knew they were good for something).

On the other hand, the economy has majorly soured, major industries are getting government handouts, and progress seems to be at a standstill. But we still had to eat, even if it meant cooking more at home, using more coupons, scouring the circulars for deals, and keeping hope alive, because this too shall pass.

The Drive-Thru staff has compiled a list of the good and the meh (because if it was the worst, we wouldn't get past the first bite) eats of 2008, for your reading pleasure.

~ * ~

Best: I feel like it was sort of Year of the Pig for me. In January, I went to Avec for the first time and tried some Iberian ham that redefined my sense of the limits of pleasure achievable through pork. And just a few evenings ago, I dug into a Virginia ham that a family friend sent over for the holidays. Totally different, but also totally enjoyable fatty, salty goodness. Those were some pretty nice edible bookends for my year.

Soy cheese at Atomix. It just tasted so wrong. And wet. Ugh, I shudder just thinking about it. I also had a decidedly depressing return meal at Shikago this past summer -- the cold spinach salad was one of the most awful things I've ever eaten, tasting uncomfortably like how an old, gray dish sponge smells. Not good.

-- Andie Thomalla

Best: I do realize that it's certainly not the best food I ate in 2008 if seen from an objective point of view, but I have to say the French bread I baked for the first time in my life made me (and my husband) pretty darn jubilant. Objectively the best food might have been the simple grilled sardine I had in Montreal. It was incredibly fresh, and even the guts were delicious. Definitely the best sardine I've ever had.

Meh: I had high hopes for Big Jones, a new Southern restaurant in Andersonville. We went there for breakfast one day. The biscuits and gravy wasn't bad, but it was dull, lacking in that little sparkle that brings you back for more.

-- Yu Kizawa

Best for unexpectedly vegan-friendly: Spacca Napoli has received a lot of attention, but I'm not sure everyone knows quite how well they master cheeseless pizzas. "I wanted to eat those slices continuously, like a child binge eating after sneaking into a closed chocolate store."

Best for going out of their way for a vegan dish: Avec made me a vegan meal, off the menu, by making some changes to a dish they were offering. "Spaghetti was brilliantly nutty with almond slivers, with a nice chew from the looks of breadcrumbs, fennel, parsley, hot red pepper and plenty of oil."

Waiting another year for Dodo to re-open. They closed in October 2007 with plans to re-open in early 2008, which have been pushed into 2009. "The tofu scram had just right amount of oil to perfectly coat the tongue with each bite. Potatoes, carrots, parsnips, millet and quinoa made the meal very hearty. Bits of tender mushrooms and softened kale, shredded red onion and leeks, a bit of citrus and deep Asian flavors finished it brilliantly."

-- Chris Brunn

Best: Rather swiney dishes. Pancake w/pork seconds from the
wok from Katy's Dumplings in Westmont and braised pork belly seconds from the deep fryer w/kimchi, pea shoots and peanuts @ Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in the Miami Design District.

Meh: Way too much meh in the world. If you accept it, you deserve it.

-- Alan Lake

Best: The fritatten soup at the Austrian Bakery (2523 North Clark Street). My family lived in Germany when I was a kid (army brat), and I used to love fritatten soup. This tastes just like the soup I ate back then, and now nourishes me during the dark, cold days of winter.

Favorite foods in my own kitchen: rhubarb. I made several rhubarb crumbles last fall (or was it spring?), and there were never any leftovers. And agave nectar.

Meh: The scotch egg at the Gage. I'd heard so much about them, but when I tasted mine, my reaction was that exactly --- "meh." Also, the burgers at Counter Burger. I can't say mine tasted bad, but my daughter got a piece of gristle in hers the size of a knuckle. It made me feel sick for the rest of the meal.

-- Lori Barrett

Best Dining: Dinner at Alinea and the brie salad at Swim Cafe.

Best Recipes: Homemade pickles (thanks Mandy!) and homemade gnocchi.

Best Ingredients: Fig balsamic vinegar and Cynar.

Meh: Bacon Brittle. I tried to make this for Valentine's Day and it was messy disaster. I'm looking forward to tinkering with the recipe a bit.

-- Gemma Petrie

Best: I loved the butter flight at Juicy Wine Co. and the hatchapuris at Argo Bakery. Yum!!! And I bought a Cakegirls cake for a couple of friends who moved out of the city....most expensive cake I'll ever buy, but it was totally worth it in both taste and friends' reaction (and perhaps the shopgirl's reaction when she tried to explain how to get 20-24 slices out of the cake (the smallest size they make), and I interrupted her by saying it was going to feed four people. Good times!). Also really enjoyed the cocktails at The Whistler, and I wish I lived closer to it.

Meh: I was meh about the BLT cupcake at More. I also went to Quenchers for the first time, and although the beer list is great, the overall experience was a bit bland.

-- Jill Jaracz

Best:I had a fantastic meal at Green Zebra in July. My table of four shared a dozen small plates and two desserts. The most memorable dish was a fried green tomato topped with a dab of creamy goat cheese, thinly sliced pickles, and strawberries. Sounds revolting, tasted amazing!

My husband and I made two important Chicago food discoveries this year: We're in love with the jibarito -- pulled pork between two pieces of fried plantain instead of bread, topped with a ridiculous garlic sauce, available at the Borinquen Lounge. It's not new, but it's new to us. We also have a butcher! Ben at Joseph's Finest Meats gives us the hook up on prime beef at unbeatable prices. He's one of the main reasons our car-free butts decided to sign up for I-GO.

Meh: I had really high hopes for Hopleaf's CB&J sandwich, a grilled number with cashew butter, fig jam and morbier cheese. The rich ingredients did nothing for each other, though; I blame the cashew butter. I would have eaten two of the stilton mac and cheese side dish, though.

-- Mandy Burrell Booth

Best: Discovered goat cheese this year and am completely addicted. Same with Trader Joe's (a little behind the times, I know). Best restaurants: Philly's Best (cheese steak), Cafe Luigi (cheese pizza and rice balls) and Wishbone (biscuits and gravy).

Meh: Potbelly's - I know people rave about this place, but I'm unconvinced.

-- Kaitlin Olson

Best: In January of 2008, I went to a co-worker's home so she could show me how to make tamales. I'd had her tamales before and fell in love with them. I took one bite and it totally reminded me of tying little bits of corn husk into knots while "helping" a neighbor make tamales when I was young. And, while I was standing in her kitchen, and she was walking me through the different steps I would need to take to approximate her delicious tamales, I realized it was the peppers she used to make the sauce for the pork. I took one bite of a finished tamale and I was transported once again to being a child and not having my feet touch the floor. She generously shared a few tricks with me, and I know that all I need is some time to make a few more batches so I can get it down myself. I've been given permission to share the recipe with y'all, so stay tuned.

Meh: Big Jones gets my meh restaraunt vote for the year. I've been twice. I wanted to really like it. I've got a huge place in my heart for cajun, creole, NOLA cooking. And I really truly wanted to like it. Our first dinner began with the realization that the bartender was actually a server who was helping out behind the bar while also serving tables. So we took that into consideration when we judged our traditional cocktails as very unpleasantly strong and unbalanced. But when the food arrived lacking even the shadow of soul and flavor we'd hoped for, we were disappointed. But we decided to try it again, on a night when they weren't so busy, in the hopes that our experience would be better. But sadly, it was only slightly better. All of this is to say that the food wasn't bad. The meat was cooked well, the dishes weren't over or under done. But the flavoring was all, well, too Yankee. Sadly, I'd venture to Dixie Kitchen in Evanston for my fix before I'd go back.

-- Cinnamon Cooper

Best:I visited Smoque for the first time earlier this year (I'm behind the times, I know) and have gone back so often that the counter clerk uncomfortably recognizes me.

Meh: Sun Wah BBQ. For all the hollering about this place, I either visited on an off day or am taking advice from the wrong people; some of the dishes were good but for the most part it was slimy and weakly flavored. I also had a meal at Urban Belly that should have fully hit it out of the ballpark given the heaps of praise it received from local media but instead only had a few strong points.

Also, celery root sucks as an ingredient. I tried to cook with it this year and was downright pissed at the results. Dirt probably tastes better.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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