Food & Drink » Food & Drink Feature

My favorite restaurants of 2012

Philly cheese steaks, foraged fairy tales, former Portuguese colonies, and more from a not-so-calamitous year



Giant meteor. Alien invasion. Nukes. World economic collapse. Zombie plague. Famine. Melting of the ice caps. Rapidly mutating airborne virus.

Of all the ways things could've turned out last week if every illiterate reading of the Mayan calendar were accurate, nowhere did it say we would all die from lack of doughnuts. And since none of the cataclysms came to pass, here we are again, meticulously scrutinizing the alkalinity of each tangle of ramen, the provenance of each curl of parsley, and the anatomical correctness of the next hot chef's pig tattoo, as if the answers hold the secret to immortality.

As always, in 2012 I strove not to contribute too much to the more puerile or pedantic topics of conversation in the city's food scene. But occasionally you find yourself insulting whole cities for their sandwiches, as I did earlier this year when I wrote a review of Lincoln Square's Monti's. A specialist in Philly cheese steaks, this little spot also did surprisingly good pizza, and for both of those reasons—and a few others that brought me back through the doors even when I didn't have to go—it's one of the places that immediately comes to mind when I think of my favorite new restaurants of the year. "There's a delicacy to these sandwiches that refutes their nature," I wrote. "Measured in eight-inch and footlong lengths, they offer mouthfuls of lacy, griddle-crisped meat, an alchemy that issues an involuntary command to the somatic nervous system: stuff this in your hole as fast as possible."

What follows is a bunch of places that, like Monti's, I would return to without hesitation after writing about them. To me, they're the most important new restaurants of the year.

I kept going back to Avondale's Yusho for completely different reasons. Monti's is a terrific place to eat but a terrible place to drink. Yusho, the best in a recent rash of izakaya-ish spots, is both a great place to eat and a great place to drink. It's also a terrific place to hang out, due in part to the congeniality of the staff. As I observed in my review: "It's impossible to overstate how the primal act of applying direct flame to all manner of foods caused the human brain to grow, but here the skewers are garnished and accented with a mostly Japanese palette of interesting exotica that recalls the same precise and audacious flavoring schemes that Trotter's became known for decades ago."

Premise (closed) in Andersonville had that congeniality too. But I was one of the few who thought chef Brian Runge's "concise, modernist, fine dining menu" and "one of the city's best cocktail lounges" was all that. Premise died a quick death, and my praise—"If all this fails to attract the kind of repeat business that a restaurant needs to survive, then I'm sorry for Andersonville"—managed to piss off half of the neighborhood.

One reader accused me of blowing Jared Van Camp because he didn't agree with my review of Nellcote, which forgave the sceney elements of this big, bustling, Mediterranean homage to the Exile-era Rolling Stones for its excellent pizzas and pastas born of Van Camp's "ambitious grain-to-table program." Similarly, Balena, a joint project from the Boka and Bristol folks, was the more easygoing answer to Nellcote in a crowded field of Italian restaurants: "the idealized rural Italia where stout peasants feed on their own noodles, wine, and animals that happily fattened themselves for the task."

Marty Fosse, owner of Bar Ombra wouldn't let our photographer in because he was still sore about my 2010 review of Acre—which, much like Bar Ombra's, was a positive review. At the Venetian-style cicchetti bar, even more casual than Balena, "you could survive for days holed up in a booth with a laptop exploring offerings extending to salumi and cheese, panini and bruschetta, fried smelts and cheese croquettes, and raw and cured bits." And then there was the return of Neapolitan pizzaiola Nella Grassano at Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana, the most regionally uncompromising of the lot: "Her crusts, unlike our homegrown cracker variety, accept heat like an embrace while maintaining their elasticity, resulting in a raised hill of fire-licked crust that surrounds the circular plain of sauce. Scattered with bubbling pools of milky cheese and strewn with imported toppings, it's something at once deeply satisfying and ephemeral."

There was an equally robust Japanese invasion as well (see Yusho), even though one of the city's premier spots, Arami, lost some of its shine with the departure of chef B.K. Park and then, later, Scott Malloy. Fortunately two sushi spots of similar square footage but radically opposite price points stepped into the void. The Gold Coast's low-profile Masaki is shooting for Michelin stars with its highly refined and diverse omakase menus: "It may not yet be Chicago's answer to Sukiyabashi Jiro, but there's really nothing like it in Streeterville, or anywhere else in town." On the other hand the tiny BYOB Kai Zan in Humboldt Park, from twin brothers Melvin and Carlo Vizconde, is "putting together some really nice stuff, including a modest and thoughtful selection of specialty sushi with none of the cream cheese and Krab-stuffed hoo-ha that passes for makimono on nearly every block these days."

Unlike good Japanese, we're used to uncompromising Thai food in Chicago but it was still a relief when Andy Aroonrasameruang decamped from TAC Quick to open his own Andy's Thai Kitchen and didn't change a thing about his "explosively flavorful cooking" that has always been the easiest for non-Thais to navigate.

And it was a great surprise when the Bedford's Mark Steuer played around with the Low Country cuisine of his South Carolina childhood at Carriage House, cooking a menu with faith and innovation. His Carolina rice balls are emblematic of his menu, a "thrilling collection of textures and flavors—sweet, sour, and savory; soft and crunchy—that hits all the pleasure centers."

In terms of sheer excess no one bested Brendan Sodikoff, who hit two out of the park this year, continuing to implement "powerfully sinful, powerfully restorative food" to different restaurant archetypes. At the so-called "diner" Au Cheval, "There's no chance someone on a restricted caloric intake can leave such a place without assuming a significant burden of guilt," and at the Francophilic steakhouse Bavette's Bar & Boeuf, the beef played second string to pretty much everything else: "Many of his appetizers, salads, entrees, and sides are such well-executed improvements of typical steak-house archetypes it seems a waste to give away any digestive real estate to relatively mundane slabs of beef."

Among the handful of restaurants that defied easy categorization, the long-awaited launch of Trenchermen from brothers Pat and Mike Sheerin, whose studies in conceptual contrasts like "aged duck breast with kimchi and mortadella fried rice, pork belly and plums with bubble gum, and panna cotta made with bitter pale wheat ale" place it among the few new restaurants responsible for "the salvation and reinvention of fine dining in Chicago" this year. The others include Ryan McCaskey's New Englandish Acadia, in the once-desolate South Loop, which doesn't so "much conjure up a Maine summer as a sleek intergalactic cruise ship docked on an alien landscape." The food itself is thankfully absent of "gratuitous expressions of technique for its own sake—foams and emulsions, powders, and smears of puree coalesce and harmonize with the whole."

That distinction also applies to Iliana Regan's Elizabeth, a Carrollian prix fixe restaurant that, like Masaki, is among the most expensive in town. Regan's unique, modernist, fairy-tale vision might in future years be described as, well, Elizabethan: "The employment of these techniques rarely overshadows the sense that these strikingly pretty dishes have clear connections to the earth. This is unmistakably real food." Finally, I'm not going to write too much about Fat Rice—you can read my full review next week. But this Portuguese-Chinese hybrid via Macau, from the principals behind the pop up X-Marx, is proof that, like Elizabeth, great things can be born from underground kitchens.

Over on the Bleader, read my expressions of love for the dozens and dozens of great things I ate all year long.

Add a comment