What have you taken comfort in during this terrifying, infuriating, exhausting year? Maybe oblivion in an ocean of whiskey? A relentless, endorphin-pumping intake of pasta and pastry? What about just living like there’s no tomorrow with your best friends and lovers? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve likely been taking regular advantage of the great comforts offered by the Chicago restaurant industry. Whether you go out eating and drinking to exorcise your rage or to forget your fears, 2017 had your back. It was yet another year jam-packed with restaurant openings, and believe it or not, considering how terrible everything else is, things on that front are still pretty good. Sure, there are questions about their sustainability, but how can you worry when there are so many great new places to eat your feelings? And on top of that, we’ve only had one public sexual harassment scandal. (So far.)
So . . . looking good, Chicago restaurants. You really put yourself out there this year.
Here are all the new places that helped make 2017 bearable for me.
- William Samargo
- Balkan Grill Company
OK, it wasn’t new in 2017, but it was new to me: Balkan Grill Company, a semitrailer with a kitchen parked beside a Gary, Indiana, truck stop, cranks out some of the best Serbian food I’ve ever eaten, including the pljeskavica. “Serbia’s gift to the burger arts, it’s usually built with a char-grilled beef patty the size of something you could wind up and throw for Olympic gold and tucked into the pocket of a warm, pillowy flatbread called lepinja, which looks something like a pita on growth hormone. It’s served with a fresh, crunchy coleslaw (kupus salata), a chile-tinged orange goat-cheese spread (urnebes), and a white gob of kajmak, a lighter, buttery white cheese spread. If you’ve any sense at all, you smear the cheeses on your patty, pile it with cabbage and onions, and go to town.” I heard back from more happy people to whom I recommended owner Momo Bogdanovich’s immigrant success story than from visitors anyplace else.
- Anjali Pinto
- City Mouse
I probably complained more about hotel restaurants this year than any other, but there were some good ones, particularly City Mouse, on Randolph Row in the Ace Hotel, from Jason Vincent and Ben Lustbader of Logan Square’s Giant along with chef de cuisine Patrick Sheerin. It’s kind of “a satellite operation, serving the same sort of explosively flavored vegetable compositions; luscious, head-slappingly good pastas; and wacky sweet playthings that they made their name on” farther north.
- Jamie Ramsay
Boka Restaurant Group had a part in two hotel openings. At the Kennison in Lincoln Park’s Hotel Lincoln, Bill Walker has capably “taken on the age-old challenge of creating compelling food that [meets] the very broad needs of hotel travelers—who may or may not care very much about compelling food.” Inspired by “country club culture,” Somerset, in the Gold Coast’s Viceroy Chicago hotel, is another outing for Boka executive chef Lee Wolen, whose “fresh interpretations of classic American seasonal food go a long way to undercut the weird Anglo-establishment concept this restaurant embraces.”
- Danielle A. Scruggs
It’s too soon to review Boka’s third opening this year, Bellemore, also in the Fulton Market District, but not too soon to review Iliana Regan’s midwestern izakaya Kitsune Restaurant and Pub, in North Center, where the chef and “her team make food that fucks with expectations and forces one to expand the idea of the way things are supposed to be” with dishes like ramen in scorched miso broth and a dessert of “satsuma mandarin orange granita sweetened with miso caramel, all concealing chewy nuggets of candied sweet potato.”
- Jamie Ramsay
Regan wasn’t the only chef bringing a midwestern sensibility to a foreign cuisine. At Logan Square’s Daisies, chef Joe Frillman does magical pastas but also tips his hat to dairyland with dishes like “tempura-battered mushrooms and cheese curds with a tangy green goddess dressing.” At Humboldt Park’s Split-Rail, Zoe Schor pays “gently satirical homage to the traditionally beige foodways of the white midwestern casserole belt” with supersize chicken nuggets and baked potato gnocchi.
- Brittany Sowacke
- Selam Ethiopian Cuisine
Opposite sides of Africa were represented: Uptown’s Selam Ethiopian Kitchen got downright medieval, offering tire siga, West African tartare if you will, from which one carves “morsels of raw beef from a fist-size chunk of bottom round, then [swirls] them through a mixture of mitmita, berbere-spiked awaze sauce, and a sinus-scouring mustard called senafitch.” Meanwhile Senegalese Gorée Cuisine, in Kenwood, was “cooking the food of a country whose links to certain foods of the African-American south are so clear and direct you can taste them.”
- Nick Murway
- Mi Tocaya Antojeríja
Logan Square developed into the supermercado for fresh ideas about Mexican food with Diana Dávila’s Mi Tocaya Antojeríja, where she mounted the comeback of the year cooking things like fideos secos and tongue in peanut salsa “from memory, channeling the food of uncles, aunts, childhood snacks, and iconic dishes that speak to the soul of cities, states, and Mexico itself.” Nearby, Quiote established itself as Chicago’s headquarters for the mezcal movement while pushing an irreverent menu with surprises like habanero-compounded butter, green chorizo on smashed potatoes, and a dish of fried cauliflower that wants to be a fish taco.
Why Andrew Zimmerman doesn’t have an empire of interesting restaurants under him by now is a mystery, but the longtime Sepia chef showed off a newborn this year with the Randolph Street addition Proxi, a global survey of street food with many plates that cross “national and cultural lines, often in the same mouthful.”
- Jamie Ramsay
- Mango Pickle
While Zimmerman was braising garam-masala-rubbed lamb ribs in coconut milk and serving them with Kansas City-style barbecue sauce, Marisa Paolillo was pulling her own Iliana Regan at Edgewater’s Mango Pickle, employing local meat and produce in the service of a “brilliant expression of Indian food, neither shackled by tradition nor disrespectful of it.” Logan Square’s the Spice Room takes a more conventional approach to Indian whose “redeeming quality is the consistent freshness and vibrancy of [its] familiar dishes. . . . This is the same Indian menu you’ve seen hundreds of times. And yet its execution is at a level that would indeed stand out on Devon. Every neighborhood deserves an Indian restaurant like this.”
- Danielle A. Scruggs
- Mirabella Italian Cuisine & Bar
I was pleased that 2016’s tide of Italian restaurants subsided, but I was pretty stoked about Mirabella Italian Cuisine & Bar, an Irving Park Italian steak house that offers a menu nearly identical to downtown’s Gene & Georgetti, with nicer prices and nicer servers. “It’s so wonderfully out of step with the prevailing winds of steak-house culture that it almost seems like it’s new.”
- Danielle A. Scruggs
Former One Off Hospitality chefs David and Anna Posey embraced the Danish concept of hygge (HOO-guh), or “coziness,” at Elske, on the lonely end of Randolph, where the “initial menu is very much of the winter, all comforting textures and devoid of sharp spikes in acid or heat. Anna Posey’s desserts are similarly restrained in sweetness but perform memorably out of the box.”
- Caroline Manrique
- Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar
Finally eastern-European food with a few Korean curveballs—and fancy fish eggs—is the MO at Humboldt Park’s Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar, which “deserves its place in the neighborhood” as a “broad, imaginative, largely well-executed and affordable concept that ought to be appreciated by all.” You might imagine I turned into a lump of butter after eating all that. But no. Chopping firewood and digging the underground bunker have kept me in fighting trim. Happy New Year. v