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Grace on a plate: Curtis Duffy's caviar amuse bouche with Meyer lemon, kumquat jam, and chives.
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Chicago High & Low

Barbara Revsine / May 2013

The city loves its top-notch chefs, but that doesn’t mean there’s no place in its heart for cheeseburgers, cheese curds, chopstick cuisines, charcuterie, and craft cocktails—and that’s only the beginning of the alphabet. Barbara Revsine checks out the countless additions to a vibrant dining scene.

“It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago. She outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them.” —Mark Twain, 1883

In no part of Chicago does this observation ring truer than in the restaurant industry. From top to bottom, the city’s restaurants are constantly reinventing themselves, heaping accolades on innovative chefs and trying out new twists and turns on the map of world cuisines.

This year’s chef of the moment is Curtis Duffy, a veteran of Avenues at the The Peninsula Chicago, Charlie Trotter’s, and Alinea, whose Grace heads up the list of hot openings. Grace was highly anticipated and has already received numerous accolades, both from Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel and satisfied customers. Although Duffy’s reputation from Avenues preceded him, he was hardly a household name. That all changed in February when Duffy became the subject of a sensational profile in the Chicago Tribune, which detailed his troubled youth, the 1994 murder-suicide of his parents, and his salvation in the kitchen as the result of a prescient home ec teacher recognizing his talent. Guests have a choice of two $185 prix-fixe tasting menus, one largely vegetarian, the other meat-based, both elegant, refined, and imaginative. Whatever the choice, diners can expect a four-star experience from a chef known for his expertise, creativity, and meticulous attention to detail. So hold your tears for fine dining.

The Boarding House, Master Sommelier Alpana Singh’s first independent venture, is snagging headlines for its craft cocktails, 450-bottle wine list, and progressive American cuisine, a category that covers everything from grass-fed beef tartare to fried chicken and hazelnut-crusted short ribs.

With the opening of his third restaurant, Graham Elliot Bistro, chef Graham Elliot Bowles joins the increasingly impressive lineup on West Randolph Street, a veritable restaurant row. This time ’round, Bowles is doing dishes like pork schnitzel with rye spaetzle and diver scallops with sweet potato dumplings.

Same category, same street…Stephanie Izard’s much anticipated Little Goat Diner serves fanciful dishes like Fat Elvis waffles with banana, peanut butter, and bacon maple syrup. At the adjacent Little Goat Bread, the house-made bagels are schmeared with green bean/cashew cream cheese. [Read more about Izard and her Goat empire.]

Tony Priolo and Ciro Longobardo’s River North hot spot Piccolo Sogno begat Piccolo Sogno Due, where the menu includes whole roasted fish with a Sicilian sea salt crust, squid ink spaghetti with shellfish, and pasta with sea urchins and crab.

“Detailed, sexy, Parisian-inspired” are the adjectives Carrie and Michael Nahabedian use to describe the food at Brindille, their new 50 seat restaurant just a few doors north of the mothership Naha. Heading the list of “musts” is a whole out-of-the-shell lobster scented with fragrant herbs and flowers.

Still more…John Manion’s La Sirena Clandestina on Fulton Market explores South American cuisine; Dominique Tougne’s Chez Moi offers a taste of France on Halsted Street; Brendan Sodikoff serves dry-aged beef and more at Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf in River North; and top chef Fabio Viviani gives Chicagoans another reason to love Italian cuisine at Siena Tavern.

And more…Iliana Regan does haute at Elizabeth, Andrew Brochu tweaks contemporary American cooking at The Monarch; and modern American cuisine gets a playful twist at Baume & Brix, courtesy of chefs Thomas Elliott Bowman, Ben Roche, and Nate Park. And just north of Millenium Park in Lakeshore East, Chicago’s newest must-see neighborhood, the list of newcomers includes Maison Brasserie and Mezcalina Mexican restaurant.

When an ingredient or dish suddenly pops up everywhere, it can trump the chefs’ bid for attention. Who knew that poutine, the French-Canadian mix of fresh cheese curds, fries, and gravy, could generate so much enthusiasm, both at the poutine-focused BadHappy Poutine Shop and at more eclectic restaurants like Local Root, a casual spot in Streeterville just east of Michigan Avenue.

Potatoes in other forms are also making news. At Wood, the Belgian fries are so popular that the restaurant opened Backwoods, a pick-up window that dishes out fries and dipping sauces into the wee hours. And from the minute imaginative chef/partners Michael and Patrick Sheerin opened Trenchermen, their pickle tots (the brothers’ witty variation on tater tots) are a “must.” Eggs, with or without runny yolks, are one of the year’s hottest add-ons. Tortoise Club serves a sophisticated club sandwich made with a sliced boiled egg, chicken, bacon, and avocado, while at Dale Levitski’s Frog N Snail, poached eggs are the finishing touch for the kitchen sink cassoulet made with duck confit, bacon, sausage, chicken, white beans, and cabbage. At Little Market Brasserie, chef/partner Ryan Poli layers his all-day grilled cheese sandwich with avocado, bacon, and a fried egg, and at The Glunz Tavern, the brunch menu features chicken hash finished with a poached egg and creamy grits topped with a sunny-side up egg.

Burgers are still top dog, either layered or not. Newcomers, both long-anticipated sequels, include Edzo’s Burger Shop, where the griddled burgers are washed down with shakes, and Kuma’s Too, where the burgers are named for heavy metal bands, just like their flagship, Kuma’s Corner.

Asian restaurants made a strong showing this year, with more to come. The street level Sumi Robata Bar does grilling Japanese-style, with Charcoal, a Japanese-style bar, one level down. At the west end of Randolph Street, Belly Q, the long-awaited collaboration between Bill Kim and Michael Jordan’s Cornerstone Group, found a ready audience for its Korean pancakes, tea-smoked duck, and grilled beef, while further east, Angela Hepler-Lee and Susan Thompson opened Sushi Dokku.

Fat Rice gets a thumbs-up for its arroz gordo, made with Chinese sausage, sofrito-scented rice, Portuguese chicken, roasted pork, and clams, much as Oiistar, a Japanese noodle shop, does for its ramen.

Embeya, a contemporary Asian restaurant, uses beef jerky in its papaya salad and couples tamarind with hoisin sauce to glaze its ribs. A variety of papaya salads are among the specialties at Andy’s Thai Kitchen, a Thai restaurant in Lakeview. Pecking Order spotlights grilled, roasted, and fried Filipino-style chicken, and Tokyo 21 Asian Pub in Old Town does Asian-style tapas.

Jellyfish combines a serene ambience with premium sushi and a great Gold Coast view. Serenity gets kicked up another notch at Masaki, where the meticulously plated food is on par with the beautifully appointed setting.

Already a major player, with multiple venues in Chinatown serving a variety of regional Chinese cuisines, chef/restaurateur Tony Hu headed north to Uptown to open Lao Sze Chuan and then to River North to open Lao 18, with additional spots already in the planning stages.

Billy Dec and partners straddled categories by opening both Dragon Ranch Moonshine & BBQ, a restaurant specializing in Asian influenced barbecue, and ¡Ay Chiwowa!, a Mexican-influenced tavern.

Deep-dish has its fans, but thin crust is “in.” Expect Roman-style pizza at Coco Pazzo–offshoot Tre Soldi; crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside Brooklyn-style pizza at Flour & Stone; and a mix of mainstream (fennel sausage) and not-so-mainstream (kimchi, shaved beets) toppings at Reno.

Bel 50 turns out waffle sandwiches, Covo Gyro Market adds pork and chicken versions to the usual mix of beef and lamb, Bub City does ribs every which way, and Da Lobsta does everything from lobster rolls to lobster mac and cheese. Lobster rolls are also on the menu at The Local Chicago, along with a good selection of upscale comfort food.

One-of-a-kind spots also made news. Carriage House focuses on Lowcountry cooking; Tesori pairs Italian food with a Symphony Center and an only-in-Chicago view; and Table, Donkey and Stick serves foods from the Alps. And when it comes to truly unique, there’s Untitled, a restaurant with unmarked doors, a speakeasy vibe, live entertainment, and a dining room lined with curtained booths. It’s a stay-all-night kind of place in a city that’s forever new.

And to wash down all that food? Craft cocktails play a starring role at Drumbar atop the Raffaello Hotel; J.Parker, the rooftop lounge at the Hotel Lincoln across from Lincoln Park; and Trotter-alum Matthias Merges’ Billy Sunday in restaurant-friendly Logan Square. Cocktails aside, Revolution Brewing is both a brewery and a restaurant, while City Winery combines a winery with both a restaurant and a venue for live entertainment. And in the category of “sports bars with food as interesting as the bar menu,” add Municipal Bar + Dining Co, Stout Barrel House and Galley, and Weather Mark Tavern. The first two are in River North, the third in South Loop.

In the coming months, even more places will join the fray. Just as Mark Twain said, it’s hard to keep up.