Chicago— When lists of the top restaurant cities in America are published, Chicago is usually listed in the top five. My personal list would look something like this: 1.) New York, 2.) New Orleans, 3.) Chicago, 4.) San Francisco, 5.) Houston or Los Angeles.
New York is a no-brainer. So many of the world’s top chefs man the stoves at Manhattan and Brooklyn restaurants, and so many diverse cuisines are available and represented well, that it’s hard for anyone to argue that point.
Though I get as much enjoyment and pleasure— if not more— while dining out in Chicago. The Windy City has talented chefs and culinary diversity like New York, but Chicago is so much more accessible and so much cheaper that it seems it should be in the number one spot— and in my mind it could easily be, with New Orleans falling into a close second, if not in a statistical tie, due to familiarity of the food, flavor profiles, and proximity to my front door.
The National Restaurant Show is held in Chicago every May, and for the past 30 years I have found myself up here more often than not during the show. Sinatra had it right, Chicago is “My kind of town”— plenty of great restaurants, a world-class art museum, sports, and a burgeoning neighborhood culture that rivals anything in the five boroughs, though on a much smaller and manageable scale.
In the late 1980s, the godfather of the Chicago restaurant scene, Richard Melman, owned this town (he still does in many ways), with creative concepts and management culture that heralded the dawning of a new age in the national restaurant world— Melman was/is a creative genius and a master of concept development and refinement.
The new wave started with Paul Kahan when he opened Blackbird in the West Loop neighborhood. Kahan the first to bring a new, less formal fine-dining concept and modern food culture in the new, 21st Century style to— not only Chicago, but— specifically that neighborhood— a dining-out wasteland where no one had dared to tread. Blackbird was followed by Avec, which focused on wine and small plates. Next was Publican, a temple of pork and beer, The Violet Hour which I believe is ground zero and the birthplace of the new cocktail culture, Big Star, a Tex-Mex taco shop and bar in the Wicker Park neighborhood that is so busy that it is rumored a customer finally gave up his patio seat to a waiting guest for $1,500.00. Again, it’s a taco shop. Publican Quality Meats, Nico’s Osteria, and Dove’s Luncheonette round out the list of Kahan’s One Off Hospitalty Group’s concepts.
If Melman was my restaurateur icon and idol in the 1980s and 90s, then Brendan Sodikoff is the guy whose abilities, skills, and taste I most admire today. Sodikoff, a veteran of Thomas Keller’s kitchens, and Melman’s creative think tank, opened his first concept, Gilt Bar just over six years ago. Since then he has been riding a creative culinary winning streak that rivals anything I have ever seen. In six short years he has opened several of my favorite restaurants— not only in Chicago, but— anywhere.
Bavette’s just two doors down from Gilt Bar looks like a New Orleans brothel during prohibition and I say that as a good thing. It is everything I love in a restaurant and the food is spot on. Maude’s Liquor Bar is straight out of central casting for a Left Bank bistro. The Donut Vault was a genius idea attached to Gilt Bar, and the daily lines around the block lay witness to that success. There are several other concepts, but Au Cheval is the most intriguing.
Au Cheval is home to the best burger on the planet. That’s not just my opinion. Bon Apetit and several other national publications agree with me.
Two nights ago my wife and I were put on the waiting list at Au Cheval and were told it would be four hours before we could get a table. That is a personal record in my book. I certainly wasn’t going to wait four hours, but I put my name on the list anyway just to see how accurate the quote was. We ventured across the street to Stepanie Izzards’s The Girl and the Goat and had an excellent round of starters. The iPhone app I downloaded at the behest of Au Cheval let me know that— 30 minutes in— I had 66 parties ahead of me. We walked across the street and had dinner at Izzard’s Little Goat, and around the time Mississippi State— who we were watching on my iphone via the Watch ESPN app— was winning the SEC baseball championship we were in the 36-parites-in-front-of-us range at Au Cheval.
We traveled back to the hotel with full and satiated bellies, and later that night around 11:30 p.m. , approximately four hours after I placed my name on the list, I received a text notifying me that my Au Cheval table would be ready in 10 minutes. From the comfort of my bed I texted back and politely declined.
The next day we Ubered ourselves over to Au Cheval for lunch. It was 11:15a.m. and there was a two-hour wait (they open at 10:00a.m. on Sundays). We tried an early dinner at Au Cheval and they were still on a two-hour wait. After dining at Bavette’s and catching a show at Second City, we knew we would be in good shape around 11:00p.m. Sunday night, but the wait was still 90 minutes. I have eaten at Au Cheval several times, but my wife had never visited, I was on a mission now.
The next day my wife and I arrived at Au Cheval at 10:50 (10 minutes before opening) and were the last table seated. Success! It was her first time and the burger lived up to the billing. Au Cheval is everything I like in a restaurant— the food quality is top notch, the atmosphere is casual, the service is efficient, the attitude is laid back, and the menu is not over-reaching and pretentious. It’s real and it’s good. And it is the reason that some people will wait four hours. It’s the best burger on the planet
Black Strap Molasses Muffins
3/4 cup Hot Water
1/2 cup Molasses
1/4 cup Milk
2 cups Whole Wheat Flour
2 cups All Purpose Flour
3 TBSP Baking Soda
1 1/2 Tbl Salt
3/4 cup Sugar
1 1/2 cups Pecans, roasted, cooled
Preheat oven to 325.
These muffins come out best if the batter is made at least 8 hours in advance.
Combine the molasses with the hot water and stir well. Add milk to the molasses mixture and set aside.
Sift together the two flours, baking soda and salt. Add nuts and sugar to the sifted flours.
Gently fold in the wet ingredients into the flour/nut mixture. It is very important not to over mix this batter (it is fine if there are small clumps of dry mixture still visible). Store batter in refrigerator until ready to bake.
Using a nonstick muffin pan, fill each muffin mold with 1/3 cup of the batter. Bake 15-18 minutes.
Let muffins cool slightly before removing them from the muffin pan. Serve warm.
Yield: 12-16 muffins