Creativity in Chicago
With an incredible number of modern, forward-thinking chefs relative to its size, good restaurant economics, and diners that not only enjoy experimental cuisine, but seem to encourage it, Chicago’s culinary scene is flourishing. Across the city we found chefs taking a modern approach to their craft, whether that means updating classic French and Asian dishes, crafting an innovative, international small plates menu for a hotel setting, or using hydrocolloids to make creamy parmesan 'gnocchi' that pop in your mouth. In our six visits to Chicago in preparation for our 2008 Chicago Rising Stars awards, we've seen a proliferation of chef-driven restaurants, experimental and otherwise.
Chefs Tim Graham and Chris Nugent are reinvigorating “the establishment.” Graham and his young, dynamic team at Tru (Pastry Chef Meg Galus and superstar wine director Chad Ellegood) are bringing new life to an old standby: “less smoke and mirrors,” says Graham, and more exciting, playful dishes, pairings, and pairing dinners. Nugent’s cuisine at Les Nomades, a former private dining club that opened in 1978, is technically flawless, and with ingredients like red and white quinoa and chorizo incorporated into the dishes, it’s an exciting example of modern French-American cuisine.
Adam Schop is fusing classical and avant garde techniques and French and Latin flavors at the lively De La Costa. Bill Kim is presenting exciting, modern Asian at Le Lan, and Giuseppe Tentori, a Trotter alum, is taking an innovative approach to neighborhood dining at Boka, bringing complex flavor pairings and techniques to his hip, casual tables. Pastry Chef Elizabeth Dahl completes the experience with complex and fun sweet-savory desserts, like a barely sweetened oatmeal stout panna cotta and rich, delicious crepes with ricotta, brown butter, pear and sage.
Another pedigreed chef, John Peters, formerly of Trio, Alinea and Naha, has recently opened Powerhouse, where his most notable dish introduces the lowly chicken thigh to upscale dining. He uses a clever technical trick: the slow-roasted thigh is boned and pressed to form a flat, compact, filet-shaped cut – it’s easy to eat and absolutely delicious (and when was the last time you got to eat dark, juicy thigh meat in a fancy setting?).
Chef de Cuisine Ray Villalobos is serving pure Southern comfort at Table 52, where tomato-y shrimp rest on perfectly creamy grits, and mac n’ cheese emerges from the wood burning oven bubbling and browned. Chef Kendal Duque’s food at Sepia could be called “comfort food” as well, but with endless creative twists: roasted rabbit, for one, comes with fluffy ricotta dumplings and a surprisingly tangy Riesling and ginger sauce. The combination of flavors and textures sings on the palate.
At Uncommon Ground, hearty dishes and cleverly named cocktails are being integrated into the coffee shop-cum-music space-cum-gathering place for the environmentally conscious. Chef Brian Millman’s kitchen is eco-friendly with a focus on local foods (the second Uncommon Ground location has a roof garden in the works), and Nick Luedde’s cocktails use house-infused organic spirits. At OneSixty Blue, Martial Noguier and Suzanne Imaz’s dishes are fun: Walleye pike rests on moist pulled sucking pig, and Imaz’s shiny “chocolate dome” holds a pistachio mousse center, surrounded by addictively sweet-tart Morello cherry foam.
At Bin 36, we had big-flavored, distinctly American desserts from Pastry Chef Matt Kelley. When we first met Matt in late 2006, we recommended that he spend a few days staging in New York to strengthen his already inherent sense of flavor and technique (he visited Pichet Ong, among others); he certainly picked up a few tips, as evident in his elegant textures and flavor combinations. His rich, dense coffee-chocolate napoleon incorporates caramelized filo dough, perfectly salted caramel ice cream, and crunchy coffee soil (that acts as a wonderful compliment to the rich smoothness of the napoleon). His cheesecake references a cheese board, combining Robiola cheese, aged balsamic vinegar and pine nuts – it’s funky, with a great mix of sweet and savory elements.
These chefs, and so many more, are making Chicago an increasingly exciting place to cook – and to dine. It seems like we hear of an exciting new opening every few weeks, not to mention the invasion of several big-name chefs anticipated this year (Marcus Samuelsson, Laurent Gras, Terrance Brennan, to name a few). Which leads us to wonder: what impact will this growth have on the smaller, innovative, independent market? We hope that it will just add fuel to those creative fires.
Take a good look at the photo galleries to the left to see what’s really happening on the plate, and stay tuned for more from Chicago – including the announcement of our 2008 Chicago Rising Stars.
One last note: our next editorial trips are focused on Las Vegas and New Orleans, with jaunts to Brazil, Argentina, and London in between. Are you (or do you know) a chef, pastry chef, mixologist or sommelier we should be sure to check out? Tell us who, and why, here.