Jeff Ruby’s Picks
Chicago’s critic names his best bites from the past year of dining out.
Caramel Pie at Beatrix
“It almost tastes like a craft caramel,” says chef-partner John Chiakulas, who would divulge no more about Beatrix’s irresistible Oh My! Caramel Pie. The plush and silky filling, made with egg, butter, sugar, and a shadowy secret ingredient, gets baked right into a shell of gluten-free shortbread until it sets, like a tart. One bite, and familiar flavors hit a spot on the tongue—and brain—that recalls forgotten childhood pleasures. You won’t even notice the cloud of homemade vanilla bean whipped cream on the side until the slice is gone.
Salt-Crusted Branzino at Nico Osteria
During my first visit to the new Italian seafood stunner from One Off Hospitality Group (and restaurant mastermind Paul Kahan), the waiter boasted that Nico would soon be famous for its whole fish for two. Wrong. I ate the whole thing myself. Chef Erling Wu-Bower’s kitchen crew crusted a delicate branzino in salt and served it with Zante currants (tart dried grapes similar to raisins), chanterelles, and Lord knows how much butter. It was light and flaky, yet rich as a fish can be. Always believe your waiter.
The Roost Carolina Kitchen
Chicago may have finally reached Peak Chicken. So many fried-fowl places opened in the past year, each vying for the summit, that no one noticed when Joe Scroggs’s modest Lake View spot unleashed the bird to top all birds once and for all. Scroggs brines his bone-in chicken for at least 20 hours in buttermilk spiked with Louisiana hot sauce, sugar, and other delights, then dredges it with cayenne-fortified flour. The result: a brawny, spicy skin harboring impossibly moist and supple meat.
Pork Milanese at Johnny Brown Bag
It’s easy to miss the pork milanese sandwich among the various pizzas, pastas, panini, and salads at this unpretentious Italian spot in Andersonville. But the menu has changed three times, and this beast always makes the cut. A slab of juicy pork, hugged by homemade breadcrumbs, gets slathered with a chipotle mayo and topped with moist mozzarella and caramelized onions. And the crisp French roll, delivered earlier in the day by Turano, is dynamic enough to pillow it all without faltering.
Longaniza at La Chaparrita
Cesar Castillo, the taquero at this friendly Little Village gem, never stops smiling, and neither do his customers. Especially giddy are those who order the Mexico City–style tacos piled with longaniza, a glorious homemade dried sausage similar to chorizo, which Castillo crisps on a scorching-hot charola pan. He layers it into steamy doubled-up corn tortillas, sprinkles on finely chopped onions and cilantro, and watches you take your first bite. He rarely watches your second. Your ecstasy will be obvious.