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The annual Jean Banchet Awards, which honor the best in fine dining in Chicago at a benefit for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in January, announced nominees this morning after soliciting diner opinions for the past few weeks. Last year the list was dominated by a single restaurant—Grace, which won five awards, including Restaurant and Chef of the Year—but this year the list is pretty strong evidence of a diverse scene in which excellence is sprouting all over town, in genres from charcuterie to artful Asian food. It comes just a day after an announcement of a closing—L2O, one of Lettuce Entertain You's high-end spots and a recipient of two Michelin stars—which led some out-of-towners to offer sympathy to Chicago for its sparse fine-dining scene. I beg to differ, and the nominee list is as good an argument for my case as any.
The one dominant name on the list is Boka in its new incarnation under chef Lee Wolen, which is nominated for both restaurant and chef of the year as well as best service, design, and rising pastry chef (Genie Kwon); Boka Group also picked up a design nomination for Momotaro, which is presumably too new to judge anything beyond the look (which is really sharp, no question). In any case, Boka 2.0 is far less a fine-dining temple than Grace is, but in its postfacelift form it seems to have been embraced by a Lincoln Park dining crowd, so this does seem to be its year.
The Restaurant of the Year nominations are usually at a similarly elevated price level, and this year is no exception, with Boka joined by L2O (which will be closed by the time the awards are given out), Moto, and El Ideas. Beyond that, though, the list seems to be aiming for a real recognition that much of the most exciting creativity in food in Chicago is happening at fairly reasonable prices and at non-white-tablecloth establishments. Chris Pandel (the Bristol, Balena) and Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice are among the nominees for Chef of the Year, and Best New Restaurant and Rising Chef of the Year acknowledge fairly informal newcomers like Parachute, Tête Charcuterie, the Radler, and Salero.
A lot of categories cross lines between high and medium with no contradiction; Best Sommelier includes a classic-style sommelier like Arthur Hon of Sepia, but also Liz Mendez for her great sherry list at Vera; Best Service calls out the Donald-level service at Sixteen at Trump, but also the warm neighborhood service at gluten-free Senza; and Best Rising Pastry Chef includes two terrific bakers at neighborhood bakeries, Jonathan Ory of Bad Wolf Coffee and Megan Miller at Baker Miller. And speaking of neighborhoods, the Best Neighborhood Restaurant award, which existed in 2010 and 2011 but not the last two years, is back, with four strong nominees for places that may not be Grace, but that their neighborhoods are certainly grateful for—Owen & Engine, Dusek's, A10, and La Sirena Clandestina. (Note that two out of four are on the south side, something you couldn't have imagined even two or three years ago.)
So back to this issue of the closing of L2O. Eater Chicago ran a piece on it yesterday which quickly drew comment from the site's New York-based critic Ryan Sutton, who can't help condescending to Chicago—"No, Chicago doesn't have the same breadth & depth at the ultra-high end as San Francisco or New York, but these tasting menu joints in the Windy City are really nothing to scoff at!"
Alinea is relieved to hear that, I'm sure, but forget going mano a menu to decide the best dining burg, because Chicago's very strength is that it's not about places only venture capital barons (San Francisco) or wolves of Wall Street (New York) or Russian oligarchs (London) can afford. All dining out is elitist to somebody, but Chicago, for all Illinois' financial gloom, is still a place where the scene is about where the middle to upper-middle class eats, where a couple who do not own oilfields in Saudi Arabia could splurge to the tune of a couple of hundred bucks for their anniversary—and dine with three of the four Chefs of the Year, three of the four Best New Restaurants, and all of the Best Design nominees. That looks like a healthy scene for real people to me.
The Jean Banchet Awards—named for the late chef of Le Français—will be awarded on January 30.
2014 Jean Banchet Nominees:
Chef of the Year:
Abraham Conlon (Fat Rice), Thomas Lents (Sixteen at Trump), Chris Pandel (The Bristol/Balena), Lee Wolen (Boka)
Pastry Chef of the Year:
Dana Cree (Blackbird), Claire Crenshaw (moto), Meg Galus (NoMI), Greg Mosko (North Pond)
Chris Marchino (Spiaggia), Ali Ratcliffe-Bauer (Brindille), John Vermiglio (A10), Erling Wu-Bower (Nico Osteria),
Rising Chef of the Year:
Ashlee Aubin (Salero), Jake Bickelhaupt (42 Grams), Noah Sandoval (Senza), Nathan Sears (The Radler)
Rising Pastry Chef of the Year:
Sarah Koechling (The Bristol/Balena), Genie Kwon (Boka/GT Fish and Oyster), Megan Miller (Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse), Jonathan Ory (Bad Wolf Coffee)
Charles Ford (The Bristol), Arthur Hon (Sepia), Elizabeth Mendez (Vera), Dan Pilkey (Sixteen at Trump)
Alex Bachman (Billy Sunday), Bradley Bolt (Bar Deville), Mike Ryan (Sable Kitchen & Bar), Krissy Schutte (CH Distillery)
Best Restaurant Design:
Boka, Celeste, Momotaro, the Radler
Best Restaurant Service:
Boka, Embeya, Senza, Sixteen at Trump
Best New Restaurant:
42 Grams, Parachute, Tête Charcuterie, Salero
Best Neighborhood Restaurant:
A10, Dusek's, Owen & Engine, La Sirena Clandestina
Restaurant of the Year:
L2O, Boka, El Ideas, moto