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The Food Issue: The Best New Restaurants of 2009

From Browntrout to Zebda

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I hate the casual arrogance implied by those two words—the best—particularly when they're applied to the infinite universe of food, but really when they're applied to anything at all. You could spend a lifetime reading, listening, watching, eating, and chances are you still wouldn't have read, heard, seen, or eaten nearly enough to know what's "the best." And in a year when the relentless tide of new restaurant openings barely slows despite the crappy economy, it only becomes more improbable that anyone could definitively identify some platonic ideal of Best New Restaurant.

On the other hand, you don't need to spend too much time on Yelp to figure out that mediocrity loves a mob. There's something to be said for informed consensus. So, in consultation with the Reader's regular restaurant contributors, we've compiled a list of our favorite—the best, if you will—new restaurants . . . of the year . . . so far.

We've also come up with a list of places we really like but for various reasons not enough to call "the best." Second best, maybe. Better yet, honorable mention. —Mike Sula

Browntrout The unfortunate name (see in fact commemorates a simply prepared rod-and-reel-caught fish that sustained chef Sean Sanders and his wife while they honeymooned in remote New Zealand. Sanders, a Bin 36 vet, doesn't have that particular species on his menu, but his signature golden trout is done "New Zealand style": a crispy crushed-walnut armor protects the luscious fillet, which is pan seared in brown butter and served with fresh peas and mint. It's an incredibly satisfying piece of fish, and emblematic of nearly everything I've sampled on Sanders's simple and easily navigable menu, which you can expect to change with some frequency.

A seemingly bottomless ramekin of light and fluffy brandade studded with sweet corn could have used a bit of salt, but for $5 it's hard to complain. Simple salads, like one of superfresh pea shoots and pea leaves gilded with an outstanding house-made ricotta, were as refreshing as morels and ramps with French breakfast cheese and potato gaufrettes were rich and intense. And Sanders's preference for simplicity doesn't rule out unorthodox presentations. The menu features a "pasta of the moment," which on one visit was a light, feathery pappardelle rolled upon itself with meatballs made of beef and pork and served with wild mushrooms—more like a messy dumpling than a plate of noodles, but very tasty. Silky sliced Amish chicken thigh with smoked pistachio mousse on polenta was among the most memorable poultry dishes I've tried recently, and grilled lamb sirloin sat atop an unforgettable celery root risotto, a saucy mound of starch also available as a $5 side.

Sanders has set grand goals for going green; to that end the restaurant features house-filtered tap and sparkling water, battery-powered votives, a rooftop garden, and a logo in which three leaping trout form a recycling symbol. We're at a point in time where these notions, like claims about the locality and seasonality of one's menu, are so common among new restaurants that a place like Browntrout runs the risk of getting lost in the stream. But it would be a shame to let that happen.  4111 N. Lincoln, 773-472-4111, $$$ —Mike Sula

Chilam Balam Twenty-three-year-old Chuy Valencia is only the latest—but possibly the youngest—graduate of the School of Bayless to come out of the Frontera/Topolobampo kitchens and stake his own claim. After a pit stop as chef de cuisine at Adobo Grill, in late August he opened Chilam Balam, a cramped but not claustrophobic subterranean spot offering a small-plates menu along with a list of monthly seasonal specials—mostly more antojitos plus a few larger plates.

It was a dish from the latter list that would crush my heart: a plate of roasted scallops in sweet corn chilatole, garnished with the year's last cherry tomatoes and wax beans. It disappeared from the menu the day after I ate it, as did a salad of the freshest, most vibrant tomatoes of the summer—with queso fresco, sunflower greens, and a chile-avocado dressing—and a mulatto chile-and-chocolate mole, so multidimensional with its shifting notes of bitter and sweet that I barely noticed the slices of lamb leg it was meant to accent.

Happily, not all the good stuff is so ephemeral. The braised mushroom-and-cheese empanadas remain, pockets so light and flaky I'm at a loss to explain how they can contain the earthy fungus, braised with pipian verde and epazote. Even something as mundane as a grilled hanger steak transcends itself, plated on a lava field of guajillo sauce. Solid but not quite so mind-blowing efforts include a cross-stacked plate of pasilla-glazed pork ribs accented with radish and queso fresco and a chocolate mousse with a tangy goat cheese core. But I'm scratching my head over the dessert empanadas stuffed with peanut butter and figs, as tough and leaden as the savory ones were miraculous. Still, in a crowded field of new upscale-Mexican, small-plate, and farm-to-table menus, Valencia's managed to distinguish himself in combining all three.  3023 N. Broadway, 773-296-6901, $$$ —Mike Sula

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