For our Year in Review issue, food writer Mike Sula compiled a list of 2011's best restaurants, along with the help of his state-of-the-art, myriad-data-crunching software program CriticKiller2012. They also threw in an impressively wide-ranging list of 133 tasty things the human half of the duo had eaten and drunk over the year. I don't get around as much—I'm just the restaurants editor—but I did have some notable potables and bites. Here's a modest list of them, in chronological order.
(1) In the cold of January I schlepped out to John Des Rosiers' Lake Bluff restaurant Inovasi, where among the highlights were steamed Manila clams and a salad of arugula and red oak lettuce with house-made bacon.Yet the tastiest, most memorable thing I had there was the "inovaccia", cappuccino capped with thick goat's milk froth. And that's not a diss.
(2) In April at Antico, the Bucktown restaurant A Tavola vet Brad Schlieder opened in the spring, I liked just about everything, but the standout—as might be expected—was the house-made gnocchi with brown butter and crispy fried sage leaves that gave the melt-in-your-mouth pasta some crunch.
(3) Also in spring, on a still-chilly day, I had a bowl of drop-dead delicious corn chowder with Gorgonzola at Matt Maroni's Gaztro-Wagon, tangy, rich, and warming.
(4) Royal Coffee, up in Rogers Park on Sheridan, is one of few places in town to offer Ethiopian breakfast. It's another warmer, whether you go for eggs scrambled with tomato, green pepper, onion, chile powder, and injera or a combo of traditional dishes: fava beans, injera in beef stew, and chechebsa, shredded injera coated with spiced butter and berbere.
(5) At last, summer—and a new seasonal cocktail list from Mike Ryan, head mixologist at Sable. I fell hard for the Ice and Fire, so hard that I can't remember all of the ingredients, though I do seem to recall tequila being involved, that and sriracha in this lovely pink-tinged drink, served on the rocks in a Collins glass.
(6) At the Glenwood Sunday Market, up in Rogers Park, there are some delicious baked goods on offer, like Bennison Bakery's olive bread. But I'd give best in show to the scones from Sweet Attila's, particularly the bacon and cheddar. Baker Laura Soncraft has since opened the Growling Rabbit, a BYO cafe where you can get her scones, muffins, cookies, and other sweets year round.
(7) The autumn night I went to MorSo there was a raging gale, so I was all the more grateful to "libations wizard" Choo, who presides over the second-floor lounge, for his Monkshood cocktail, made of bourbon, walnut, and molasses and garnished with a slice of apple. (Pick your poison, indeed—a number of the drinks on his autumn list were named after poisonous plants.) Downstairs, we assembled a feast of a tasting menu from Matt Maroni's a la carte list. His antelope "tonnato"—lemony antelope carpacchio with tonnato sauce, focaccia toasts, caperberries, and fresh dandelions—was a stunner. I also loved the bread service, a canning jar filled with jalapeño corn bread, buttery miniature Parker House rolls, and cinnamon-raisin crisps, served with a triangle of truffle-honey butter in the tipped-back lid.
(8) On a much nicer fall day, I left work a bit early in hopes of getting a seat at GT Fish & Oyster. Mixologist Ben Schiller is one of the bartenders who's participated in our Cocktail Challenge, and his kombu cocktail, which used seaweed three ways, was so pretty and refreshing I was really looking forward to trying another of his drinks.
I wasn't disappointed. His GT manhattan, made with GT’s own single-barrel bourbon, just about knocked me off my stool at the boomerang-shaped table. The oysters, served with ponzu vinaigrette and the house cocktail sauce, were the best I, for one, have had in town.
I started with a glass of Grant La Garrocha palomino fino, a recommendation by the server (it turned out to be only $5, bless her—how nice is it when places don't try to upsell?). Pale and on the dry side, it was perfect—as she'd also suggested—with ham. To go with that we tried the marinated olives, the best I've had in recent memory, and the bread and butter, a warm round of crusty bread served with extra-virgin olive oil and a trio of flavored butters: garlic, duck crackling, and sea urchin.
That sounds a bit pretentious, doesn't it? At worst, Yelpy. And that's why the KillerCritic2012 may be stalking me. Well, I try.
(10) But you know my favorite restaurant of 2011? Barbari, where everything was wholesome and delicious, the sausage-and-mushroom thin-crust pizza—the sausage is from Bari—particularly so. My friend Izidora got a second one to take home to her husband and daughter, but later confessed that she'd gobbled it down most of it that same night. (Yes, she's the lovely woman eating for two.)