This is part three in a series on Chicago
CHICAGO— Two or three emails land in my inbox each week that solicit opinions about places to eat in a certain city here, or in a European country. The most frequent solicitations come from people who are travelling to New Orleans, New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. I also field queries for people who want to know where to eat in Rome, Florence, Venice, Bologna, Milan, and Paris and I am always happy to give my recommendations.
Lately I’ve been replying to emails from friends and column readers who are headed to Chicago. Based on this recent visit it seems appropriate to put together a top-10 list of my favorite restaurants in Chicago.
10.) Gene and Georgetti’s— There are better steakhouses in Chicago. Morton’s was founded here by Arnie Morton (father of Peter Morton who created The Hard Rock Café concept in London in the early 1970s), but none will give you that 1940s-1950s old-school steakhouse like Gene and Georgetti’s located in an old building under the El that looks straight out of central casting as a hideout for Frank Nitti. The steaks are good, but all you need to know is three words: Sinatra ate here. It still looks and feels as if he might walk through the door, and the servers are old enough to have been the ones who served his steaks and whiskey.
9.) Lou Mitchell’s— When I travel I always search out the local breakfast joint. I want to know where the old guys are drinking coffee and talking sports and politics over a plate of fried eggs and bacon. Lou Mitchell’s feels like that place, and it has felt that way since 1923.
8.) The Purple Pig— Just off of Michigan Avenue near the river and a perfect getaway if your spouse is power shopping. The menu is meatcentric and reminds me of many of the restaurants I’ve visited in Spain with fine versions of jamon Serrano and mortadella. Just order a lot of small plates to share.
7.) The Girl & the Goat— The West Loop, specifically the Randolph Corridor, is home to the hottest restaurants in town these days. Blackbird was the first to make the move that started it all. Stepanie Izard, winner of the first season of Top Chef, opened The Girl and the Goat soon after her victory and it has been packed from day one. The atmosphere is comfortable and the food is first rate. It’s another meatcentric menu (including goat) but her “touch” with seafood is spot on, and her palate— with all of her offerings— is perfect. The Little Goat (across the street) is worthy of a visit as well.
6.) Donut Vault— Brendan Sodikoff shows up three times on this list. He’s the star that’s burning the brightest these days and seems to have a Midas touch and keen sense of what diners want in the Windy City. The Donut Vault is located next to his flagship concept, Gilt Bar, and might be responsible for this city’s resurgence in upscale, fried morning breads.
5.) Big Star— This Tex-Mex themed Logan Square stalwart is known for it’s patio and once the weather begins to warm the wait is long. This South Mississippi kid gets enough warm weather throughout the year and is never bothered by sitting inside. I come for the queso fundido and tacos anyway. I was told someone once paid a guest seated at one of the outdoor tables $1,500.00 to get up. It’s Paul Kahan’s— the man who brought you Avec, Blackbird, Publican, and The Violet Hour (all worthy of a visit)— concept and it’s fun, casual, hip, and good.
4.) Bavette’s Bar & Boeuff— Again, this is a Brendan Sdoikoff concept, the Chicago restaurant wunderkind who also brought you the aforementioned Donut Vault, Gilt Bar, and also has Maude’s Liquor Bar and several other hot concepts that I have yet to visit. Bavette’s is spot on— a seafood-centric French bistro with the feel of a 19th Century New Orleans brothel (in a good way). This is my wife’s favorite room in the city. It’s also home to the best service on this list and a helluva seafood tower.
3.) Au Cheval— Hipsters will wait four hours to eat an Au Cheval burger. I just get there 15 minutes before opening. I have been eating at this Sodikoff spot for a few years and it gets busier every time I return. It is truly home to the best burger in the country. It doesn’t hurt that it’s got a killer vibe and great energy. Sit at the bar.
2.) Frontera Grill/Toplobombo— Rick Bayless has forgotten more about authentic Mexican food than most of the chefs who live and work in Mexico. If a burgeoning cook South of the border wants to know how the food in his country is “supposed” to taste, he/she better get up here before Trump builds that wall and eat at Frontera Grill. I’ve been doing it for almost 30 years and I have never been disappointed.
1.) Longman & Eagle— This Northwest Side star also has a small, hip eight-room hotel attached to it. It’s a dive bar with a Michelin star (you’ll find the award tucked away on a top shelf behind the bar next to a couple of old bowling trophies). The food is creative, uncomplicated, and inventive. It’s casual and loud, and perfect. One gets the feeling that chef/owner Jarred Wentworth dreamed of his “perfect place” while slaving in other kitchens. He eventually got his chance and he nailed it. Great food, great vibe, and worthy of a short Uber drive if you are staying in the tourist areas (or better yet grab one of the rooms at L&E and stay all night).
Tobacco Onion Caesar Salad
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 Tbl fresh garlic, minced
2 Tbl red wine vinegar
1 Tbl Worcestershire Sauce
2 Tbl Dijon mustard
1 cup light olive oil
Combine the yolks, lemon juice, garlic, anchovies, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and Dijon mustard in a blender or small food processor. Puree for 1-2 minutes and then slowly begin drizzling in the olive oil while the blender is still running. If the mixture becomes too thick, you may add a 1-2 Tbl of warm water, then continue to add the oil.
Store refrigerated until ready to use.
2 cups French bread, cut into 1/2” cubes
3 Tbl olive oil
2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
Preheat oven to 275
Place the cubed bread into a mixing bowl and drizzle the olive oil over the bread. Sprinkle the garlic powder over the bread, and toss the uncooked croutons well, evenly distributing the oil and garlic. Place the cubed bread on a baking sheet and toast for 8-12 minutes, stirring them every 3 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle them with the kosher salt. Allow croutons to cool completely, then store in an airtight container until needed.
1 large red onion, shaved into VERY thin circles ( about 1 1/4 cups)
2 Tbl white vinegar
1/2 Tbl kosher salt
1/8 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup milk
1 whole egg
1 1/2 cups seasoned flour
1 quart vegetable oil for frying
Combine the onions, vinegar, salt and pepper in a medium sized mixing blow and let marinate for 30 minutes.
Heat the oil to 350 degrees in a 6-quart heavy duty sauce pot, or a large cast iron skillet.
Whisk together the milk and egg in a mixing bowl.
Place the onions in the milk mixture then drain them well.
Place the seasoned flour in another mixing bowl, and toss the onions in the flour, making sure the onions are all coated with flour. Remover the onions from the bowl and shave off any excess flour.
Place the coated onions in the hot oil, and using a slotted spoon, gently turn them 2-3 times. Fry for 3-4 minutes. Remove the onions and place them on a paper towel lined baking sheet to drain.
For the Salad
3 romaine hearts or 1 large head of romaine (outer leaves discarded)
2 cups garlic croutons
1 1/2 cups Caesar Salad dressing
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Place the clean lettuce in a large mixing bowl. Add in the croutons and dressing and mix well, making sure the lettuce is well coated. Gently fold in half of the tobacco onions. Divide the salad onto serving plates. Use the remaining tobacco onions to top each salad. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and serve immediately.