travel: a pigsphyxiating bonfire…

Autumn

Chicago is not only America’s Second City, it’s my second home.

Collectively, I’ve lived and worked in Chicago for over four and a half years. And I’ve visited the city countless times – far more than any other city in the United States.

My last two trips to Chicago were in 2008, and I’ve been long-overdue for a visit. So, I recently popped in for an extended weekend of eating with friends old and new.

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Cloud Gate

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When I last left the city, Chicago’s restaurant scene was beyond burgeoning. It was brimming.

Melman’s shiny new L.2O was hot in the spotlight, boasting a veteran of four 3-Michelin-starred kitchens at its helm (Laurent Gras).

Philadelphia’s darling chef, Jose Garces, had just arrived on Michigan Avenue, bringing his modern-style tapas from Amada to Mercat a la Planxa.  And The Violet Hour held the city’s cocktailians captive in a swanky speakeasy behind a boarded facade on a unassuming stretch of Wicker Park.

On my first trip in 2008, I celebrated my 30th birthday at Avenues, from where then-executive chef Graham Elliot Bowle’s would depart shortly to open his eponymous “bistronomic” restaurant. On that same trip, Bowles gave me a sneak peek of the bones of graham elliot, where I would return a few months later to experience it fully fleshed out.

Charlie Trotter’s alumnus, Giuseppe Tentori, was making waves as the recently installed executive chef of boka, next door to alinea, where I had dinner with Bowles one night.

Recent Top Chef Masters winner, Marcus Samuelsson, opened C-House, a high-end seafood and chophouse, atop the Affinia Hotel.

Billy Lawless had opened The Gage, a populist tavern with a “rustically refined” menu.  Sepia brought a touch of nostalgic elegance to an old print shop in the Market District.  And Takashi Yagihashi had just returned to Chicago, after a circuitous route through Farmington Hills, Michigan (where he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest as executive chef of Tribute, where I ate just before he left in December of 2004), and the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas (where he helped Steve Wynn open Okada in 2005), to open his namesake restaurant, Takashi, in the space formerly occupied by Stephani Izard’s first restaurant, Scylla.

Michael Carlson had regrouped and reopened schwa in May of 2008.  I last dined there in 2006, before his mysterious “hiatus” and the restaurant’s temporary closure.

And rumblings of a gastropub involving Paul Kahan and pig parts, which opened shortly after my last visit, was causing the country’s offalites to start foaming at the mouth.

"What I Saw On The Way To Dinner" or "I Love This City."

Two years later, Chicago’s dining scene has all but burst.

As promised, Kahan delivered The Publican to eager Chicagoans in December of 2008. Together with its forebears, like The Gage, Mado, and The Bristol – collectively, the Mrs. O’Leary’s cow of the pigsphyxiating bonfire that currently consumes the city – The Publican helped ignite a city-wide obsession with gastropubbery.  It has since been joined by newcomers like Longman & Eagle (opened in March of 2010); Izard’s new restaurant, Girl and the Goat (opened in July of 2010); and Spiaggia’s Tony Mantuano’s and Heaven on Seven’s Jimmy Bannos’s snouted lovechild, The Purple Pig (opened in December, 2009).  It’s enough to drive any diner back to fine dining.

schwa remains mysterious, and perhaps even more aloof than before – a harder reservation to get than perhaps momofuku ko and The French Laundry.

Ryan Poli, last seen at the now-closed butter in Chicago, came back to open perennial with Tentori.

Rick Bayless opened xoco (pronounced sho-ko), little sister to his elder restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobompo.  Here, you’ll find Mexican street food in a bright, casual setting.

And Lawless opened the incredibly handsome Henri.

Grant Achatz has pared down his famous “Tour” at alinea to under 20 courses, inserting a classical dish along the way.  More significantly, he is on the cusp of opening Aviary – a molecular gastronomy cocktail bar – and Next Restaurant, a gastro-time machine, whose first-class ticket, reportedly, flies south of the century mark.

Curtis Duffy, formerly of alinea, has moved into Bowles’s former home at Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel.

Speaking of Bowles, the reincarnated “Graham Elliot” is about to open his second restaurant, grahamwich.  Its concept should be pretty self-explanatory.

Rick Tramonto has since pulled out of his flagship restaurant, TRU; he’s abandoned Cenitare Restaurant group in 2009, which included Tramonto’s Steak & Seafood; he started doing commercials for Wendy’s; and is now looking afield for his next projects. He is slated to open four restaurants in three different states in the coming year.

Up-and-comers in the city include Koren Grieveson (avec; 2008) and Mike Sheerin (Blackbird; 2010), who were recently named among Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs.  And Grieveson won the James Beard Award this year (2010) for Best Chef Great Lakes.

And, unexpectedly, just weeks before my latest trip to Chicago, long-time Charlie Trotter’s chef, Matt Merges, announced that he had left that institution to pursue his own project.  Fortuitously for him, the Michelin Man is coming, and I suspect there will be stars in Mr. Merges’s future.

Chicago’s time on the national culinary stage has arrived.

The tabloid of the restaurant industry, Eater.com, set down roots in Chicago earlier this year, to chase the local gossip. And, in two weeks, Chicago joins the Michelin Guide Rouge’s list of cities, as Bibendum arrives to both terrorize and aggrandize the city’s chefs and restaurateurs.

Despite the overwhelming number of options in the city, especially new restaurants that I wanted to visit, I decided to mostly revisit restaurants where I’ve dined before.  I will hyperlink the following to their reviews once I get them posted.

alinea
Avenues
Bari
Lao Shanghai
Nomades, Les
Publican, The
Terzo Piano

For all of those restaurants that I missed, I’ll have to let them be my motivation for returning soon.

~ by ulterior epicure on October 27, 2010.

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