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Feature Mon Dec 17 2012
Seeing burrata become one of the new popular menu items on Chicago menus was a huge plus for me this year; more mozzarella is never a bad idea. The historically bloated Taste of Chicago getting smaller had its down sides, but maybe next year it will start to get better. Somehow Malört becomes the fashionable add-in to already complicated cocktails. Why? Cupcake vending machines and the opening of Balena (1633 N. Halsted) rounded out 2012 for me.
Craft brewing was already hot, but 2012 literally overflowed: Oskar Blues started distributing in Chicago. Half Acre opened a tap room. Pipeworks opened a bottle shop. Off Color Brewing is set to open. Oregon-based Deschutes (try the Mirror Pond Pale Ale!) will start distributing to Chicago come mid-December.
Cupcakes were finally dethroned by donuts, a much more worthy champion. I personally favor the Classic Old Fashioned from Glazed and Infused (813 W. Fulton Market).
Chef Iliana Regan's Elizabeth (4835 N. Western) knocked my socks off. I'm still dreaming of beet marshmallows served with a smear of bacon fat, and her herby carrot tea.
Owen & Engine's (2700 N. Western) Tuesday night Bourbon, Beer and Burger for $15 is still the best deal in town.
"Chicken of the Trees" by Mike Sula of the Reader. Squirrel as chow. The high level of writing we've come to expect from Sula, worthy of a Beard nomination. Great graphic as well.
"Is it Hot or is it Spicy?" by Gapers Block's very own Brandy Gonsoulin. Interesting commentary and intriguing perspective that managed to put into words things as a chef I hadn't considered but should have.
Place I wanted to love but it was not to be: Trencherman (2039 W. North). Beautiful steampunk room with well crafted cocktails and two excellent chefs whose food I've enjoyed very much over the years. Surprisingly, it just didn't resonate with me. On every plate sampled, there was something that didn't work for me. Went in assuming I'd love it, and left wondering what happened?
Smoked beef ribs at Barn and Co (950 W. Wrightwood). Yes pitmaster/bbq life coach Gary Wiviott is my friend, but if anything that makes me even more critical. Must say the first few bites off the bone of his Paleo porn -- low and slow smoked beef ribs kissed with proprietary dry rub and glistening fat -- had my sister and I swooning. Served as a special every other Thursday and not on the regular menu.
Tucked into the far left corner of the food court at Mitsuwa Marketplace (100 E. Algonquin, Arlington Heights) you'll find an outlet of Japan's infamous Ramen Santouka. A bowl of their spicy ramen with char-sui style pork belly had me licking my lips for hours afterwards. With winter here, a more satisfying bowl of soup would be hard to find. Avoid weekends when the wait can be over an hour.
This was the Year of the Donut, even if it was the Year of the Dragon elsewhere. I have some shame in admitting that I've eaten most of Glazed and Infused's cake donut selection, with high marks for their lemon and Red Velvet varieties (their apple fritter, while certainly good, will never hold a candle to what Roseland's Old Fashioned Bakery makes). My true love, however, was Do-Rite's (50 W. Randolph) simple vanilla cake donut with a glacier of Valrhona chocolate frosting. I love the explorations that Do-Rite, Glazed and the O.G. of the scene Doughnut Vault (401.5 N. Franklin) are putting out, but Do-Rite's take on a treat that I can get at any grocery store or truck stop took the honors for me.
In the pie world, a lot of people raved about Bang Bang Pie Shop (2051 N. California), but I found their output to be underwhelming (the biscuits being the brightest part of the experience); I found myself sneaking back to my mainstay Hoosier Mama (1618.5 W. Chicago), fingers crossed behind my back as I remarked to the counter clerk how long it had been since I had a slice of the stuff.
In a small takeout space near my bus stop that had housed a shabby hot dog stand opened L'Patron (2815 W. Diversey), serving up delicious tortas, tacos and burritos -- I've already sampled all three in the shop's brief life, and I can't wait to eat more. The Popeye's across the street won't miss me.
Bang Bang Pie Shop was born out of a food truck and a Kickstarter project. It's since received rave reviews for its pies and biscuits and it runs a heckuva fun Instagram feed. I loved their Chocolate Chess Pie.
Shared-use kitchen and event space Logan Square Kitchen closed in June after struggling with the City of Chicago's red tape with business licensing. LSK's closing is just another example of how difficult it can be to open an innovative business under Chicago's burdensome regulations, but hopefully future small businesses won't undergo the same fate now since the City Council passed an ordinance to cut business licenses from 117 to 49.
Best things I ate: grits at Longman and Eagle; Chicken Liver Pate at Maude's (840 W. Randolph); Guacamole at San Luis (2903 W. Diversey); Seared Diver Scallops at Leopold (1450 W. Chicago); Montreal Smoked Pastrami Sandwich at Fumare Deli (131 N. Clinton); Rosemary Caramel at Katherine Anne Confections (2745 W. Armitage); Sweet Potato Roll at S@kura (2507 W. Fullerton); and Carrot Gnocchi at Letizia's Fiore (2456 N. California).
I'll let others weigh in on the food truck laws and kale trends of the year (that was a thing right? Other people noticed that too?), but for me, 2012 was mostly the year of the small plates. It seemed you couldn't find a trendy eatery that didn't invite you to cobble together your own food plate/pyramid with long lists of tantalizing small bites, shareable snacks, and composed entrees with sides blended seamlessly into a total dish. Not that I'm complaining -- I find menu sections titled "Snacks" particularly endearing -- but sometimes you just want to be assured of a starch and vegetable when you order a protein.
And not to say that some deliciousness didn't derive from this year of small shareable portions. The warm cheese gougères from the Bar Snacks (snacks!) menu at Longman and Eagle (2657 N. Kedzie) have evolved from the gruyère donuts on the dessert menu and arrive perfectly plain, pale, and waiting to spill their liquid center as soon as you take a bite.
The Wednesday night fried chicken and bottomless champagne at Chalkboard (4343 N. Lincoln) makes you want to slap Colonel Sanders for lying down on the job -- especially if you get the mac and cheese to share as a side.
I had a meal at Yusho (2853 N. Kedzie) so long ago I can't remember any one item from the experience, but I do remember that it was all strange and delightful. And after wandering back to Navy Pier after declaring it essentially food-dead to me after a horrendous experience at Riva (world's worst service, made all the more awful by the utter blandness of the food), I wandered over to City Porch (600 E. Grand) and had a lobster roll and several Govino glasses of some nameless Prosecco. Buttery, almost custardy roll, sweet lightly dressed meat...my God, I might ride the Ferris Wheel just to have it again. (Also, that lunch for one cost approximately $50. And lord only knows how much the Ferris Wheel costs.)
Several years late to the party (ahem, Tina Fey), I finally made it to the Athenian Room (807 W. Webster) to try the chicken kalamata -- twice. The first time it was perfect, all lemon and salted jus. But the second time was just dry enough to let you know what you were missing. Curses!
Ultimately, some of the best food I had this year came from the kitchens of adventurous friends and family: Anne's perfectly thin breaded chicken cutlets, Thea's parmesan risotto with red wine broth (and cheesy polenta, and lobster mashed potatoes), Alison's DIY dessert pizza, Karl's lemony carrot and mozzarella salad with spicy lamb meatballs. I hope to venture further into the edible world again in 2013, but this year was hardly lacking in flavor.
Picture by Drew Baker.