Chef’s Choice

Illustration: Greg Clarke

r/ChicagoFood on Reddit is one of my favorite places to poke around for ideas. Many of the threads such as “Restaurant Suggestion near Big Mini Putt” are perhaps a little too hyper-specific for my purposes; others engender thoughtful discussions and open a window into what the city’s diners really want to eat. 

Every now and again the conversation turns to the experiential dining and tasting menus for which this city is so famous, but always with a caveat: price. Enthusiastic diners want to sample chef-driven cuisine but they don’t want to drop $250 or more a head (I don’t either). Lately, they’ve been lucky. Some of the most interesting newcomers include Indienne in River North where a six-course menu costs $120 ($110 for vegetarian), Kyōten Next Door in Logan Square which underprices and outperforms most of the city’s omakase sushi meals with its $159 menu, and the delightful Maman Zari in Albany Park, where a nine-course exploration of Persian cooking costs but $85. I can’t wait for the fall menu to debut later this month. 

One of the most interesting newcomers to the tasting menu scene includes Indienne in River North, where a six-course menu costs $120 ($110 for vegetarian). Photograph: Jeff Marini

I wonder if this is all part of a larger paradigm shift in the world of fine dining and if, in fact, we’re going to start seeing more tasting menus with real-people pricing and fewer à la carte menus from up-and-coming chefs. This format is the only one that makes economic sense anymore. Workers want living wages and benefits; premium meat and fish have become crazy expensive. Tasting menus mean that operators can control their waste and inventory and keep food costs in line. If everybody who goes through the door gets a spoonful of caviar, a showy pile of shaved Burgundy truffle, and an ounce portion of Wagyu beef, then they all eat well. The downside to inventory control, I’ve noticed, is that many ambitious restaurants now offer far fewer wines and beverages. 

When I started reviewing restaurants 30 years ago, the contract between guests and fine-dining restaurants was fundamentally different: it was about choosing among temptations. Now, it’s much more like going to a dinner party at someone’s home. You go to eat the food that’s served. In the hands of a masterful chef like Smyth’s John Shields or Oriole’s Noah Sandoval, these meals can feel like memorable life experiences at any cost. But as they become the new normal, they should feel like, you know, dinner. Now, does anyone have any allergies?

Lunch Crawl

I love treating myself to a good lunch out. Here are a few recent forays.

The Oyster Bar at Shaw’s Crab House: Is this the best lunch in Chicago, or what? The chopped seafood salad costs $37, but it does not skimp on shrimp, crab, and lobster. I love its dual dressings (creamy Louis and Italian vinaigrette) and there’s no better bread course than the thick, hand-cut slices of Publican sourdough with soft, whipped unsalted butter. 

Phodega: How nice to see this Wicker Park charmer move into bigger digs along Division Ave., where the patio beckons on a warm afternoon. Gotta say I didn’t love their version of Hainanese chicken rice made with a mixture of fried and poached chicken, mostly because a few of the floury fried bits sprinkled on the rice were rancid and my tongue just went “nope.” Think I’ll try the Viet Dip sandwich — a banh mi meets French Dip — on the next visit. 

BoeufHaus: Actually, let me take my previous statement back. Maybe this is the best lunch in Chicago. This Ukrainian Village spot seems to have cracked an unwritten code that small, ambitious, chef-driven bistros can’t serve lunch. Everyone sitting at the bar with me was ordering “Bouef on Weck,” a version of Buffalo’s favorite sandwich, so I joined the party. Juicy, rosy roast beef, horseradish mayo, and a perfect roll. 

San Soo Gab San: At this Korean barbecue destination just north of Lincoln Square the smell of carbonized meat hangs heavy in the air, and during the day the dim lighting feels a bit gloomy. That shouldn’t stop you from trying the best bi bim bop in the city, particularly if you like vegetable-heavy versions. A silver bowl as big as a satellite receiver dish holds all manner of boiled, marinated, and pickled veggies along with a little bit of beef and a perfectly fried egg. Rice and a squeeze bottle of gochujang come on the side, along with a glorious array of ban chan side dishes. There’s a serious amount of volume to this meal but you leave sated, not stuffed.

Kerala Postcard

Chicago is awakening to the distinctive culinary pleasures of Kerala along India’s Malabar Coast thanks to Avondale’s terrific new Thattu, which The New York Times called one of the 50 most exciting restaurants of the year. If you’ve been and want to explore the cuisine further or if you’re looking to feed a small crowd, then you should check out Royal Malabar Grocery & Catering in Glenview. Poke around the grocery shelves and you’ll stumble on the catering operation, with family-sized containers of dishes typical of the Mayalali kitchen. 

The New York Times called Thattu one of the 50 most exciting restaurants of the year. Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

Look for green bean thoran (a dry curry made with coconut), avial (a vegetable medley in a curry leaf and coconut sauce), payasam (a sweet dessert porridge made here with dal), beef fry, and fish fry. There are some more familiar pan-Indian items like chicken biryani and kathi rolls, as well as a number of fried appetizers. I made the grave mistake of picking at one of the parippu vada lentil fritters I had purchased in the car as I was driving home. These flat and keeeee-runchy lentil cakes are studded with ginger and chile. I had eaten both of them before even making it to the highway. 

“I love that for you.”

I’ve been on the receiving end of this pleasantry twice now from restaurant servers at two different places, once when we ordered an appetizer that apparently matched our personalities and once after explaining we were going for a walk along the river after lunch. Is this the new “excellent choice” and has anyone else heard this?