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Our favorite restaurants of 2011

From three iterations of Next to the humble pies of Bridgeport

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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,

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,

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,

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
La Taberna Tapas
Lure Izakaya Pub
Roots Handmade Pizza
Snack Planet
Telegraph Wine Bar

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