Top Ten For 2007
Another year expires, and so begins the annual ritual of the ten best list. Note that mine is generally restricted to things I had for the first time this year, and to single items, not entire meals or restaurants, though as you'll see, I break this rule when I feel like it. Still, it's very much about foods, not places or experiences, that wowed me.
Two years ago
at this time I made a resolution:
Eat at more two and three star-type restaurants. Not that there's anything wrong with how 2005 worked out (a couple of four-star excursions and a lot of cheap eats), or why (gotta feed the kids, too). But I started out the year sort of down on the idea of prefab upscaleness, and I don't think that's wrong-- De Cero still seems a fundamentally misconceived restaurant in a city of great Mexican, for instance. Yet the upper-middle-scale meals I did have (Volo, Sweets and Savories, Thyme Cafe, Scylla, etc.) were generally impressive (even if I sometimes gagged on the 'tude, as at Scylla).
I have to say that my interest in checking off the new hotspots really sagged in the last year. Partly it's that it's a hassle with kids (or rather, to find a way to be without kids), but there's also just the fact that most of the meals I had like this-- Scylla again, Sola, The Gage, Hot Chocolate, Anteprima, Azucar!, Trattoria Trullo, Bonsoiree, Powerhouse-- didn't make me dance in my seat. (Admittedly, not a list of the very most admired new places, but a reasonable cross-section of the midrange-- and plenty of them turn up on Time Out's end of the year list
, for one.) My attitude on semi-fine dining now is better summed up by this passage
in our discussion of the interview with chefs in Chicago mag:
To me, the least interesting possible restaurant in the world is a two-star restaurant. One star is Kuma's, you walk into a bar and are quite happily surprised by the quality of the food. Four stars is Alinea, genuine greatness, three stars is Follia, a place that has some definite spots of excellence. But what's two stars? A place that aims to be top drawer, charges the same prices as three stars, but then fails to deliver, fails to satisfy. It's the middle of the traditional scale but for me it's rock bottom, a place that charged me enough that I'm going to grumble about it, without exciting me. So give me low-rent discoveries, give me high-rent marvels, but spare me the mediocre middle of quality food done passably well but no better-- for too much money.
Instead, a lot of my energy that might have been spent making sure I got out to Brasserie Ruhlmann or Aigre Doux or Sepia or Holy Shit Oprah's Chef Opened a Restaurant Let's Line Up Like the Lemmings We Are And Obey Her Every Command was instead spent cooking at home. My success in making my own bacon got me motivated enough to try to master fried chicken,
to follow Jamieson22 and Bill/SFNM and especially Extramsg's lead in making pastrami,
in making such exotica
as guanciale from hog jowls and lardo from backfat, in baking bread
. Not to mention all manner of pies
, ice cream, Spanish food, latkes
and who knows what all. So where my list has gone down in overall number of restaurant standouts, it's gone up in things I crafted myself (or someone else did) and which satisfied far beyond the latest heirloom miso-wrapped Atlantic cod in a heritage banana-mungbean infusion with aboriginal rosemary-prune gelee.
And so with no further self-indulgent rambling, on to the list:10. Brined pork chop at Gioco.
One of the upscalish meals I had the most modest expectations for turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises. And while we're eating meat on the near South Side, let's give a shout to Manny's Roumanian Skirt Steak.9. Off-menu chartreuse-gin-and-tonic drink invented by bartender Kyle at The Violet Hour.8. Home-cured pastrami.
On the left, Extramsg's
extremely refined and well-balanced exemplar, on the right, my own
first try which, if not so perfect, had all the pleasing qualities of a homemade product that turned out well and was eaten the instant it was ready. 7. Pot roast sandwich, among many other delicious old school things, at Depot Diner. 6. Chicken crack at Lao Sze Chuan.
It's taken me years to finally be won over to LSC, but the 3-chili chicken, aka chicken crack, did it.Photo: G Wiv5. Pasticceria Natalina.
Thank you for just being. 4. Chipotle sausage at Louie Mueller's in Taylor, Texas:
here at last was a beef sausage which justified the species, a little more finely ground than the hamburger tubes I'd had elsewhere, yet still ground beefy, but with a buttery mouthfeel at the same time, the regular was very good, the chipotle was sublime, piquantly spicy, robustly meaty, bursting in the mouth with luminous heat. I knew at last why Louie Mueller's made beef sausage, although I still didn't know why anyone else bothered.
3. Cauliflower soup with guanciale at Timo, and more generally, Timo and Baccala
Lamb tongue at Baccala, photo by G Wiv
In a city of restaurant concepts, most of which are more flash than pan, there was one concept this year which stood out-- so far out, in fact, that it was probably doomed from the start. The concept was Baccala, John Bubala's restaurant devoted to an earthier, non-sanitized-and-yuppified cuisine along the lines of Fergus Henderson's great book The Whole Beast.
Forget anonymous chicken breastlets and farm-raised styrofish, here was a restaurant returning to old European traditions of finding the extraordinary (and often strong and strange) flavor in cast-off parts. Not everything I had at Baccala was wonderful, in fact no dish beat the best thing I had at its sibling Timo a few weeks ago, which is why it's listed above-- but all of it was new in a way that the novel combinations at hotspots rarely are, and I would have really enjoyed returning a few times a year to see where this devotion to the old made new again would have led.
Alas, Baccala not only didn't make it in Hipper Park, but Timo is closing its doors tonight as well. So the least I can do is salute them both on their way out, for having pursued an honestly high-quality and authentic cuisine on a restaurant scene full of flash and filigree.
2. Spanish party at my house
, which was the scene of many marvelous things, nearly all better and more authentic than any food I've had in Spanish restaurants here. But pride of place went to Pigmon and Trixie-Pea's squid ink black rice:
Complex, briny, nutty, squiddy, one of the best cooked-at-home things I've ever had. Oh, and if I do say so myself, my desserts were pretty fantastic too:
Peach-mint sorbet, chocolate with salt and olive oil, rosemary saffron-cream tart. And then there was Gypsy Boy's PX 1971 sherry, and the roasted pimentons, and...
1. Cal Pep, Barcelona.
I had a couple of very good meals in Madrid-- a top-five-steaks-of-my-life at Julian de Tolosa, tapas from Txakoli, etc.-- but my great
meal in Spain was my one meal in Barcelona, at the famous, but believe the hype, lunch counter extraordinaire Cal Pep. In a bustling, Billy Goatesque atmosphere, plate after plate of seafood fresh from the sea, cooked simply but with an unerring sense of the absolute best thing you could do to a particular item to make it sing, wowed me with things you'll never ever see here, no matter how hip and happenin' Spanish food becomes in the US.
When the founders of LTHForum were asked by Mike Nagrant in the Hungry Magazine podcast
if we believed it was possible to recreate any
cuisine in a city like Chicago, my answer was that it was nearly possible-- but at the same time I actually thought it was a good thing that it wasn't 100%
possible, because then what would be the point of travel? A meal like Cal Pep reminds you just how different other cultures' approach to food can be, and how wonderful that can be when it comes organically out of a region's natural bounty, and how there are just certain ways of eating that will never make commercial sense in a completely different culture-- so you'll just have to go there to know.
So that's my ten best list. Year's end being a time for taking stock, looking forward and all that, it's the appropriate time to say that my involvement with LTHForum is being reduced as the site evolves. I expect to still post and to participate in the social life of the community which is, I think, by far the greatest benefit of LTHForum's existence, but for various reasons I will no longer devote the enormous amount of volunteer time I have put into the site in return for nothing more than the pleasure of your company-- and my own delight in having built this site and this community as much as anyone here, I think I can say fairly (and without false modesty). Though I may well be visible in other ways on the Chicago food (and communicating about food) scene in the months and years to come. Thank you all for a wonderful three and a half years, especially my fellow founders and moderators Aaron, Cathy, Dave, Gary, and Michael, and I will be interested to see where it goes from here.
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LTHers' ten best lists: 2006 2005 2004