For two months, Chad Starling, previously of the bygone Saltaus and Le Lan, has helmed the kitchen at Aria (Fairmont Chicago, 200 N. Columbus Dr.; 312-444-9494), and now the menu belongs entirely to him. Emerging favorites include a rock shrimp tempura appetizer with pickled mango, miso blue cheese, and micro celery, and a scallop entrée with curried cauliflower, cauliflower falafel, and carrot-foie gras purée. “I’m rooted in French techniques. I take all of my travels and meld them altogether,” Starling says. The old menu was described as “global”; the new as “new world Asian.” And starting today, the restaurant will place iPads at tables with an app installed that explains ingredients, identifies farmers who supply the restaurant, and suggests wine pairings. For the sake of the iPad screens, we hope they designed the new menu to avoid finger food.
“Not on Morality, but on Cookery, let us build our stronghold. There brandishing our frying-pan, as censer, let us offer sweet incense to the Devil, and live at ease on the fat things he has provided for his elect.” –Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), British writer
Where There’s Smoke, Prevent Forest Fires
Smokey Bear’s BBQ House (3314 W. Foster Ave.; 773-583-2327), a new barbecue counter-service spot in North Park, arose serendipitously. Anthony Bosko, a chef who had dabbled in dry rubs on his days off, was hired by his brother, Charlie, who wanted a barbecue place in a building he owns. After consultation with a friend from culinary school and a few test runs, Anthony Bosko opened Smokey Bear’s on June 17th, serving 12-hour hickory-smoked brisket and pork butt and three-hour hickory-smoked baby back ribs. A full slab of ribs with coleslaw and two sides costs $16.75. And as the restaurant’s eponymous public-service animal advises, they keep their smoker away from dry piles of pine needles.
Ah, I Remember April . . .
A mere three months after closing, the restaurant formerly known as Va Pensiero will morph into Pensiero Ristorante (1566 Oak Ave., Evanston; 847-475-7779). Michael Pure, who owns the Margarita European Inn, which houses the restaurant, took over the space after the April shutdown and hopes to reopen July 9th, with Alan Lake as the chef. Lake was a sous-chef at the East Bank Club in the early 1980s, and then he did stints as a percussionist in Los Angeles and again as a chef in south Florida before returning to Chicago in 2005. “The [Pensiero] menu is a little more regional and more approachable. Still solid Italian, but not completely based on Northern Italian cuisine,” Lake says. “We are trying to make it a place where you would dine six times a year instead of twice.” Ironic that we barely had time to get nostalgic about the closing of a restaurant named after a nostalgic opera chorus.
On the occasion of the June 23rd publication of the 2010 Zagat guide to Chicago dining, we talked with Tim Zagat, the co-founder of Zagat Survey with his wife, Nina, and gleaned a few tidbits from him:
• When he visits Chicago, the first places he likes to go are Frontera Grill and Gibsons.
• Although he eats out eight or nine times a week, he doesn’t participate in the diner reviews that inform the restaurant ratings in his ubiquitous guides. “Never have,” he told us. We asked whether any of this year’s results surprised him. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m surprised or not,” he replied.
• He’s very impressed by Taste of Chicago. “I used to be head of tourism in New York,” he says. It’s no more than an inkling now, but he has floated the idea of a Taste of New York similar to Taste of Chicago. “[Taste of Chicago is] on a scale that probably no other city in the U.S. has done.”
• Phil Vettel, the Chicago Tribune’s dining critic, was once Zagat’s Chicago editor.
Yams with Mini Marshmallows Not Available
“We have a special kind of Jell-O that we do with flowers in them,” says Sara Redwell, a co-owner of Panaderia Azucar (3415 W. Belmont Ave.; 773-588-5780), a Mexican bakery near the Belmont stop on the Blue Line. The bakery also stocks 60 kinds of pastries and eight specialty cakes such as tres leches cappuccino and chocoflan (a.k.a. impossible cake, an interwoven chocolate cake and flan). Redwell keeps the operation in the family: The other owner is Redwell’s husband, Steven, and her two kids and their spouses work in the kitchen. Even her 76-year-old mom is in on it. “She’s, like, the greeter. She’s like the little grandma of everyone who comes here,” Sara Redwell says. Grandma and Jell-O—sounds like Thanksgiving 1978, as we remember it.
Things to Do
1. Sign up for free classes on how to eat locally and sustainably at Markethouse (611 N. Fairbanks Ct.; 312-224-2200). Classes run from 6 to 7 p.m. on July 13th, 20th, and 27th and include wine and beer tastings. E-mail the general manager, Steve Farrahi, at firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a spot.
2. Taste beer made from popcorn at Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery (28256 Diehl Rd., Warrenville; 630-836-1380). The beer is called POP! Popcorn Malt Liquor, which confuses the Microsoft Word grammar checker. It debuts at an event July 10th and will be available until the batch runs out.
3. Try the everyday prix fixe at Cafe Matou (1846 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-384-8911). Appetizer, entrée, and dessert cost $29 from Sunday to Thursday and $32 on Friday and Saturday. Cafe Matou also offers a four-course special menu for $48 on Bastille Day, July 14th.
4. Watch the video Jeff Ruby put together about pizza in Chicago, after spending months eating it for the July cover story.
Dot Dot Dot . . .
Congratulations to DMK Burger Bar (2954 N. Sheffield Ave.; 773-360-8686) for making Bon Appétit’s list of the top ten best new burger spots in the United States. . . . Steve Dolinsky reported that Lula Café (2537 N. Kedzie Blvd.; 773-489-9554) has hired Kate Neumann, the pastry chef with Boka and MK on her resumé. Lula also will expand the pastry kitchen into the space next door. . . . Sweet Sensations Pastry (1918 W. Montrose Ave.; 773-275-0697) will open early next week, and its wares will be available at the Southport Green Market on Saturday. . . . The Boiler Room (2210 N. California Ave.; 773-276-5625), a pizza, craft beer, and cocktails spot in Logan Square, holds its grand-opening event July 7th. Before The Boiler Room, the project was called, in reverse chronological order, NiceSlice PizzaBar, Pizzeria Forte, and Sofia’s. “That’s what happens when it takes a year to open,” says Russ Grant, a co-owner. . . . Dish is taking a week off to celebrate Independence Day. We’ll be back with the next newsletter on July 14th.