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Our favorite restaurants of 2011

From three iterations of Next to the humble pies of Bridgeport

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No, I'm not writing subjectively when I apply the word "best" to the following list of new restaurants. That's so 2010.

This year, in the service of indisputably factual year-in-review content, the Reader sprang for expensive state-of-the-art software that mathematically calculates excellence and originality in restaurants. CriticKiller2012 (TM) plugs variables as wide-ranging as cuisine, location, price point, chef pedigree and culinary school transcripts, pending litigation, vendor lines of credit, health department inspections, ambient temperature and decibel level, median diner income, location, design down to the tablecloth fabric, and front-of-the-house sex appeal into a secret algorithm that precisely determines the very best in contemporary dining. As a signing bonus, it also spat out a second tier of honorable mentions.

You're certainly free to disagree with my opinions—but not CriticKiller2012's. It's programmed to assassinate dissenters (which is why you won't be hearing much from Yelp in the future.)

Over on the Bleader I've compiled my own list of memorable bites and sips ingested in the last year, but now that my job's obsolete I can get on with my real life's work: penning a series of romantic adventure novels for teenage girls that chart the star-crossed romance between a moody cheerleader and a smoking-hot triceratops. —Mike Sula

El Ideas This year Phillip Foss shelved his Meatyballs Mobile to get back to conceiving and executing the wildly creative and intricately presented dishes he'd served at Lockwood. At El Ideas, he and Andrew Brochu—the Alinea vet who came aboard after his last gig, Kith & Kin, closed—serve multicourse prix fixe menus in the space's snug dining room. Brochu's involuted take on frozen broccoli and cauliflower with cheddar sauce is one of the more luxuriously rich and satisfying things I've scraped up in many months. Foss, too, is back in rare form. His "eggs" dish was another of the best I've eaten all year, a cool disk of uni flan perched on nuggets of sweet rock shrimp with custardy soft French-style scrambled eggs and arctic char roe, its layered richness slashed with a smear of acidic yuzu and a dollop of finger-lime pulp. An ever evolving foie gras course—ours with chestnut puree, apple-Calvados foam, and five-spiced chestnut granola—is served without utensils so guests, who by now might be well into their cups, can lick it right from the plate. By the time you read this, most of these courses are likely to have been altered or completely replaced—the pair is constantly conceiving new ones while making sure their ingredients don't overlap. For the $135 price tag, diners are eating the work of two chefs for the price of one. —Mike Sula » 2419 W. 14th, 312-226-8144, elideas.com.

GT Fish & Oyster A smart abstraction of the panregional seafood shack, GT is candlelit and carefully appointed with wood paneling hung with shark's teeth and framed oil paintings of tall ships in distress, and though it's perpetually mobbed by a spirited crowd taking its time at having a good time, there's plenty of room to breathe. For former Trotter's chef de cuisine and current Boka exec Giuseppe Tentori—who supplies the G and the T—it's a significant step away from fine dining, but not an overstep. The complex, even challenging dishes familiar to his fans are balanced by smart updates of domestic and international classics, ranging from clam chowder and crab cakes to squid paella and miso-glazed cod.

He doesn't mess so much with the most hallowed of these—a modestly sized $22 lobster roll, which abounds with sweet chunks of shellfish in a buttery roll next to buttermilk-battered frazzled onion, nested like a disassembled Awesome Blossom. But even most of the familiar dishes have tactical improvements. Terrifically fresh and skillfully shucked raw oysters in three varieties from each coast come with cocktail sauce emulsified with sweet apple; steamed Alaskan crab legs are perfumed with lemongrass, oranges, and lemons. For the most part the more ambitious dishes are every bit as appealing as the simpler ones.

Head mixologist Benjamin Schiller's cocktail program ranges from old favorites like the spicy bourbon-based Old Money to the fruity, boozy Italian Ice, apricot eau de vie, Bols Genever, and fresh mint layered in a tall collins glass like the Italian flag. —Mike Sula » 531 N. Wells, 312-929-3501, gtfishandoyster.wordpress.com.

Lao Hunan Tony Hu, as you might know, is the chef-entrepreneur behind Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing, and Lao Shanghai, and the city's most prolific and passionate proponent of Chinese regional cuisine. Here he successfully exploits Mao's lifelong devotion to the simple peasant food of his southern home province. It has its own name—mao jia cai, "Mao's home-style cooking"—and is characterized by a liberal use of pickled vegetables, salty smoked meats, and lots of garlic, shallots, and chiles. To pull it off, Hu's recruited chef Jin Chang from New York City, a veteran of Hunanese hotel kitchens. The menu's filled with powerfully seasoned dishes you won't find anywhere else in town, beginning with a small selection of cold appetizers. Many are loaded with a gradually ascending heat that may bring you to the edge of agony, but never so much that it imbalances the other flavors. The shining example of this is Famous Hunan Chile in Black Bean Sauce, a deceptively simple plate of two imported green chile varieties whose mounting intensity never obliterates the earthiness of the fermented beans. It's one of the most irresistible things I've eaten all year. —Mike Sula » 2230 S. Wentworth, 312-842-7888, tonygourmetgroup.com.

Maude's Liquor Bar The new project from Brendan Sodikoff (Gilt Bar) and executive chef Jeff Pikus (Gilt Bar, Alinea) feels more like a New York brasserie than anything else—I was constantly reminded of Balthazar. Drawing its influence in part from the bistro, in part from the brasserie, the menu features charcuterie, braises, and classics like French onion fondue. All of the dishes are plated for sharing, and while there's more than one way to build a meal from the list of offerings, every evening at Maude's should start with raw oysters from le bar a huitres. The festive Grand Plateaux seafood platter includes a dozen each of the Kumamoto and Conway Royal oysters, as well as ample portions of bay scallops, mussels, clams, and shrimp cocktail—a steal at $70. Fans of Gilt Bar will recognize the roasted marrow bones with red-onion jam and grilled bread, the bones cleaved lengthwise to afford uniform roasting and easy access. Other carryovers are cones of exemplary pomme frites made from Kennebec potatoes fried in lard and an excellent steak tartare topped with a slow-cooked egg yolk. Daily specials in broad categories like cheese, fish, and sausage round out the brief menu, along with some hearty stews and a limited number of steaks. —Kristina Meyer » 840 W. Randolph, 312-243-9712, maudesliquorbar.com.

Next Turtle soup, or tortue claire, appears on at least 20 set menus in Georges Auguste Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire, usually as a second or third course. Le Guide—as you know if you've read just a few of the thousands of stories written about Next in the year before it opened—is the culinary equivalent of the Ten Commandments. And Escoffier is the turn-of-the-century chef who modernized French cooking to the extent that it's recognized as the academic foundation of Western fine dining. What Grant Achatz, partner Nick Kokonas, and executive chef Dave Beran aimed for with the first menu at Next is an interpretation of a meal as it might have been eaten in the dining room of the Paris Ritz, where Escoffier reigned during La Belle Epoch. Sensorily, it was a merciless succession of rich dishes progressing from the platter of hors d'oeuvres, each one a tiny, meticulously constructed, powerfully flavorful bite—say, mushroom duxelles-stuffed leek or an anchovy-and-lemon-topped soft-boiled quail egg filled with liquid yolk.

From there it was on to a Tour of Thailand, Next's second incarnation, which began with a selection of dainty street food bites constructed and garnished with Alinea-like precision but served on newsprint, with plastic utensils and pink paper napkins: a slice of fermented Issan-style sausage topped with galangal, chile, and peanut relish; a crispy, salty prawn cracker; a sugar-glazed roasted banana; a bite of sweet raw shrimp with garlic. Then the street food conceit was swept away, replaced by a cloth table setting colored to correspond with deities and planets associated with whatever day of the week you happen to be touring. What followed was a series of surprisingly straightforward renditions of familiar dishes. Liberties were taken for sure, the presentations from the easygoing servers were always playful and entertaining, the ingredients were top tier, and the flavors were mostly as balanced as Beran's som tam.

In its third incarnation, Childhood, Achatz and Beran presented the most personal of their menus so far. Most people in this country have no idea what real Thai food is. Likewise, no one who ate at Paris 1906 ever ate in Paris in 1906. But everybody has definite, individual ideas of what a proper PB&J is. Beran addresses that sort of challenge with the first course, which arrives as a small wrapped present: a toasty Super Ball-size orb containing a molten squirt of peanut butter and pomegranate pâte de fruit. It's an auspiciously tasty bite, and the same sort of recontextualized mechanization of surprise that has by now become familiar from this team. Probably the most delicious thing on this menu was the Autumn Scene, an evolving salad of roasted mushrooms and fried carrot (log), fried Swiss chard (leaves) and leeks (hay), and creamy polenta boulders rolled in powdered puffed black rice and mushroom powder (dirt) and fattened by mushroom-butter puree, all garnished with nasturtium, sorrel, sage, and thyme. That this crew continues to turn on a dime every three months and execute on this level demonstrates a kind of consistency that the doddering fools who failed to award it a Michelin star are too old and hidebound to understand. —Mike Sula » 953 W. Fulton, 312-226-0858, nextrestaurant.com.

Perennial Virant Under the management of the Boka Restaurant Group (Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster), the reinvented Perennial is intended as a central-city showcase for the farm-to-table philosophy chef Paul Virant pioneered at his award-winning Vie, in Western Springs. And, true to that discipline, the creative menu changes daily; between my first visit and a second two days later, fully a third of the dishes had been swapped out. But while the details of the menu vary, the principles remain the same: clean, (mostly) unadulterated fresh vegetables, seafood, and meats paired—or triangulated—with the house pickles and preserves that are Virant's culinary calling card. In many cases this kitchen math adds up to much more than the sum of component parts, as in a rich rabbit confit served over slightly bitter braised Swiss chard with accents of pickled beet and rhubarb, each forkful producing a perfect chord of flavor. Intended as the casual sibling to dressier Vie, Perennial Virant is comfortable and welcoming—at least until you get the bill. Because while it's one thing to honor the true costs of sustainable farming in theory, it's quite another when staring down a $17 plate of scallops. Nicely seared and paired with a vibrant carrot puree and a tangle of fresh watercress, they were delicious. Both of them. —Martha Bayne 1800 N. Lincoln, 312-981-7070, perennialchicago.com.

Pleasant House Bakery Art Jackson could stuff his savory English-style royal pies with victims of the Demon Barber of 31st Street and I wouldn't care. That's because the buttery crusts have a flaky, shattery exterior that yields to a thin, delicate doughy chew. This long-awaited pie shop from the former Bijan's Bistro chef, his wife, Chelsea, and brother-in-law Morgan, kills all the cliches of this humble British grub, from the chicken balti, its surface dusted with black nigella seeds and its interior braised in light curry and wine, to the almost meaty kale and mushroom pie loaded with creamy, cheesy greens and assorted fungi. Apart from these exclusively butter-based crusts Jackson plans to incorporate duck, goose, and pork fat into crusts for occasional specials. Friday-night fish fries, chips (the British kind), house-made sodas, and desserts from Chelsea fill out the relatively limited menu, all supplied by the bakery's own city garden plots. And don't skip the Scotch egg, a miraculously fluffy hard-boiled yolk and tender white enrobed in a batter-fried pork sausage jacket. —Mike Sula » 964 W. 31st, 773-523-7437, thepleasanthouse.com.

Vera Even before leaving Jerry Kleiner's Carnivale, Mark Mendez made much of his desire to cook simply, from scratch, with premium, local-if-possible products. Now, in an environment with a radically decreased volume in both production and decibels, that approach bears out consistently across a mutating menu, on which prices are low and a great many of the small plates prove to be truly shareable. A whole meal could be made simply from a few glasses of leathery Black Slate garnacha and the chef's tripe, morcilla, and garbanzos, an offal plate so textured and soulful I had to order it on two separate visits. It's also possible to gorge on substantially meaty plates at astonishing value—a crispy baseball-size beef-stuffed potato croquette in a puddle of gazpacho-like salmorejo sauce is a mere $4. But I'm most excited to see what Mendez does with vegetables as the seasons change. Right now he's roasting: turnips softened and buttery, electrified by a sprinkling of espelette pepper, mushrooms scattered over smooth fungal puree, beets tossed in a blue cheese and pistachio "butter"—winter vegetables in their proper context. Fish dishes are some of the most vivid, almost springlike in their buoyancy: a formation of cured anchovies dressed minimally with pickled garlic and vegetal celery leaves; black cod fillet topped with green olive tapenade spiked with lemon zest; a tangle of grilled octopus inflamed with smoky pimentón; a crock of light, fluffy bacalao. Elizabeth Mendez's affordable, unusual wine list—which includes an impressive range of sherries by the glass—is reason enough to venture to this West Loop corner in the shadow of the Green Line. It's going to be thrilling to watch her and her husband fully express themselves. —Mike Sula » 1023 W. Lake, 312-243-9770.

Honorable mentions

Al Dente
Autre Monde
The Black Sheep [RIP]
The Florentine
Frontier
La Taberna Tapas
Lure Izakaya Pub
Roots Handmade Pizza
Snack Planet
Telegraph Wine Bar

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