We asked some of our most active critics to list their "best bites" of the past year--the truly outstanding dishes they'd encountered in the course of exploring what has become one of the premier American restaurant scenes. For more of their picks, see our blog the Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Raw Deer Creek oyster at Fulton's on the River After some schooling on the various flavor profiles of different oysters, this gnarly little bivalve from the Puget Sound brought me to Jesus. Plump, pristine, and powerfully evocative of honeydew melon. That's right, melon.
Jeuk suk yum so bok um (goat stew) at Chun Ju Restaurant Among a raft of positive health effects, this superrich and earthy stew is said to have virility-enhancing qualities and is a more socially acceptable delivery system for them than dog meat. After the solids are consumed, a second course of rice and kimchi is dumped in the pot and cooked until crispy. Make man strong.
Green tea cheesecake with wasabi syrup and warm panko-rolled bananas at Mulan Ironically, this complex, subtle, and imaginative dessert arrived at the end of one of the worst meals I ate all year.
Kaji (eggplant) kimchi at Lincoln Restaurant This tiny lunch counter serves basic, home-style Korean eats, but I'd never seen this wonderful kimchi before, and I haven't since been able to find a recipe that duplicates it: tender lengths of sliced eggplant that hold their integrity in a peppery, oily mix.
Ankimo (monkfish liver) at Chiyo. The kaiseki restaurant Matsumoto molted into the less exciting Chiyo but still has some rare and unusual winners, like this dense, buttery treat, otherwise known as the foie gras of the sea.
Nine-course tasting menu at Schwa It's like playing rock-paper-scissors to try to single out the best bite from the staggering meal I had at Schwa last January. The explosive quail egg ravioli may trump the succulent, smoky pork belly, and the pork in turn beats the butter-poached lobster with lavender and gooseberries, but then lobster turns around and beats ravioli with its audacious yet delicate mix of flavors.
Bruschetta at Mundial Cocina Mestiza A light and bright trio of bruschetta--topped with earthy mushrooms and shallots, savory caponata with raisins and fennel, and zucchini with squash blossoms and ricotta--was the highlight of this memorable summer dinner.
Empanadas at Buenos Aires Forever Baked rather than fried and filled with everything from creamed corn to ground beef spiked with raisins and green olives. Simple and immensely satisfying.
Hamachi (yellowtail) at Agami The aquarium-on-acid interior design of this late-night sushi spot belies the serious chops behind the sushi bar. I've had a bunch of knock-your-socks-off fish there this year, but the hamachi--shockingly fresh and ever-so-slightly sweet--has never been anything short of perfection.
French cheese flight at Fiddlehead Cafe A nutty, sheeps-milk Ossau-Iraty from the Basque region; a rich, creamy Edel de Cleron by Perrin Vermot; and a devastating co-op-produced bleu d'Auvergne that combined a sweet creaminess with some powerfully earthy, moldy scunge. This new restaurant may still be stretching its wings, but its cheese plates soar.
Pork ribs at TAC Quick From TAC's blessed blackboard of specials: bone-in, bite-size pork ribs that are spicy, sour, and a seriously budget-priced plane fare. Save the bones for use as talismans.
Venison tartare with parsley panna cotta, dried fruit compote, and juniper ice cream at Avenues Delicious, and so conceptually satisfying it feels like you just ate a novel.
Chocolate ice cream at Bittersweet In my gastrocosmology, this is the ice cream that immediately precedes the rapture. From Chicago's best ice cream shop, which isn't even an ice cream shop.
Maytag blue cheesecake at May Street Market Pecan crusted and served this summer with a rhubarb chutney and rhubarb sorbet (it's now a red wine-Bosc pear chutney and a Bartlett pear sorbet), this clever, beautiful appetizer is so fresh you'd swear everything was gathered out back.
Lemon bar at First Slice Pie Cafe Plainly put, the most happiness $2 can buy. Not made with margarine.
Green mole at Sol de Mexico I have a crazy aunt who used to eat ketchup sandwiches, and I think of her every time I eat Senora Clementina's pumpkin seed-based sauce straight up, on tortillas. I've had it on shrimp, chicken, and tamales as well, but I think I prefer it commando style, the better to savor the dimensions of this complex, elusively flavored mole.
Anything fried at Habana Libre The croquettes are turned out with thin, crisp shells, the chicken looks to be coated with gold leaf, empanadas are flaky with an almost imperceptible crunch, and plantains are done hard and chewy. Fried stuff usually just tastes like other fried stuff; here there's an artist at the fryer.
Oysters Rockefeller at Sabatino's You can count on an old-school place to have a deft hand with a paradigmatically old-school app, and Sabatino's does: pristine oysters, finely chopped spinach, with just a splash of lightly creamy white sauce. $7.95 for a half dozen is a pittance for an American classic.
Ghormeh sabzi at Shiraz It's no beauty, but this glistening reddish-brown glop has great personality. A Persian stew of beef chunks, kidney beans, dried lime, citrus, and stewed herbs, it was an extraordinary balance of rich and light, meat and vegetable, with a dusky, provocative intensity.
Brika at Carthage Cafe Comfort food common to North Africa as well as eastern Europe and the Middle East, brika--a phyllo triangle enclosing parsley, potato, and an egg that's cooked when the whole thing is quickly immersed in hot oil--is clearly too good an idea to be confined to one continent.
Elizabeth M. Tamny
A la carte at Tru Classic Tru peaks seen through five hazy hours of pleasure: piping hot lobster-saffron risotto, equal parts creamy comfort and textural tooth; cannele, deeply simple yet masterfully crisp, chewy little cakes; a chocolate semifreddo with chocolated Rice Krispies (oh my sweet lord); and an extraordinary prime beef rib eye that made me feel it was just me and the meat, an ancient tale in a civilized place.
Fish tacos at Fonda del Mar Flaky fresh fried tilapia, creamy avocado mayo, shredded cabbage, limp delicious corn tortillas, and pico de gallo--it's not just the flavors but the textures that make me love them so.
Hamburgers at Top-Notch Beefburger After finishing the first hamburger I sighed, gave the plate to the waitress, then ordered another. She didn't look surprised.
Grilled off-the-bone-ham sandwich at A & T Restaurant Mustard melting on piles of sweet, tangy meat, lovely big sesame-seeded Greek toast underneath, furiously hot fries beside, one's belly already warmed by the homemade chicken soup. If this place ever closes I'm leaving town.
Tie: goat cheese-Yukon Gold hors d'oeuvre at onesixtyblue--fantastic and nibbly; silver-dollar pancakes at the Cambridge House. RIP.