Editor’s Note: We’re introducing Kessler on Dining, a new web-only column from dining critic John Kessler. The monthly series will consider the city’s dining trends, revisit established haunts, and otherwise explore Chicago’s ever-evolving food scene.
This may be an unpopular opinion in a city built on meatpacking, but I like to eat a little lower on the food chain, particularly during the week. So I’ve long been interested in Daisies — the Logan Square spot that offers a fully omnivorous menu yet specializes in vegetables and pasta. This restaurant, which expanded and moved a couple of blocks south last March, is now twice its former size, trading cramped bistro digs for a spacious dining room that sparkles with sleek glam. (It joins Andros Taverna, The Whale, the new La Victoria Barra + Cocina Mexicana, and the upcoming Federales in Milwaukee Avenue’s transition from Hipster Highway to Barbieland.) I’ve been to the new location three times to see if, as a neighbor, it would be a restaurant I could fit into the rotation, a place where I could be a regular — not for a blowout Saturday meal but for a reasonable Wednesday one. I’m still thinking about it.
Owner/chef Joe Frillman stands alone in this city for his deft use of animal products as seasoning. I love the way a cap of soft duck fat renders his potted carrots so lush, and I’m forever obsessed with the seasonal dish he calls “The Overpriced Tomato” — an open-faced tartine of summer tomatoes seasoned with “cheap balsamic” and molten bone marrow. These ingredients lift the sweet-tart tang and mouthwatering umami of sliced heirloom fruit at its peak. (Much of the produce comes from Frillman Farms, owned by Joe’s brother.) This dish is one of the glories of Chicago dining and, FYI, available through mid-October.
The distinctive handmade pastas, however, don’t hit the spot as much as I’d like. Strozzapreti with lemon, Swiss chard, and Rancho Gordo beans suggests a smart update on pasta fazool, while chitarra spaghetti in Sungold sugo sounded amazing to my ears: those little yellow tomatoes have the most distinctive sweetness in all of Tomatodom. Yet both generously portioned pastas swam about in rich sauces, nice enough if sloppy. I was hoping for more sharply defined flavors and less fat. I also tried a roast chicken entree that was tender and juicy but flabby skinned and meekly seasoned. Fine.
I can’t weigh in on partner Leigh Omilinsky’s pastries and desserts, but I’m sure I will one day as I continue exploring this menu. I hope my budding appreciation for this one-of-a-kind restaurant blossoms into real affection.
New Kids on the Block
It’s been a hot minute since I’ve wandered around Chinatown Square, so I was surprised to see how thoroughly it has changed. For starters, it has turned into boba central. I counted nine (!) purveyors of bubble tea drinks in the mall proper and a good half-dozen around its periphery. On the sunny afternoon I visited, the central walkway swarmed with teenagers who wandered about with their colorful drinks, including two quinceañera parties with celebrants in full dress.
If you’re looking for something more substantial and want to check out a new restaurant, you may notice something unusual: almost none of the newcomers are Chinese. This center now has more of a pan-Asian personality. Japanese dining options include Mira Sushi, DaiFuku Ramen, and Kajiken, an international chain famous for its brothless mazesoba noodle bowls. (If you ever want to do a mazesoba compare-and-contrast, try the versions at TenGoku Aburiya and Tokyo Shokudo.)
Speaking of chains, the Korean fried chicken behemoth Bonchon has been there since 2017, and SGD Dubu, another Korean concept specializing in barbecue, dosirak (bentos), bi bim bap (rice bowls), and soon dubu (bubbling tofu stew) has also moved in. This complex, built in 1993 on land reclaimed from a railroad yard, is starting to look more like a strip mall in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley and less like the retail and cultural center envisioned by Chicago’s Chinese-American business community 30 years ago.
The Avondale restaurant Warlord has been the sensation of the summer. Many reviewers have enthused and, as Warlord takes no reservations, guests line outside for a spot during its attenuated four-day week (Friday-Monday). But this is a love it or hate experience, and this restaurant has divided diners like none I’ve seen before in this city. Which is okay! Nothing like a good Socratic dialogue to push the conversation and make us all say out loud what we want. That makes Chicago a better dining city.
Count me among the acolytes. I admired the flavor-forward and technically assured hearth cooking, loved spending time in that darkly lit room with its live fire and proscenium counter, and rocked out to the loud Gen X music. (Flaming Lips, The Stooges, Rage Against the Machine, The Cramps.) After my review ran, I heard from folks saying it was the best new Chicago restaurant in years, while others complained of aural assault and boring, overpriced food. Perhaps the most nuanced critique I’ve seen came from Time Out reviewer Maggie Hennessy, who found the food often “transcendent” but the experience an ordeal.
Alas, widespread enthusiasm for a restaurant can coarsen into hype, and hype is bound to result in unmet expectations — particularly when the kitchen’s style is so pared down. Still, I have two theories about why Warlord comes off as brilliant to some and just bland to others. First, it’s a restaurant for cooks: If you work on your own craft in the kitchen, you are likely to marvel at the techniques of aging, grilling, and preserving on display. (Talk about transcendent: the pickled beets here can blow minds.) Second, I think it’s a restaurant for stoners. Folks who like to use THC before eating often are those who approach a meal with a fresh palate, open to the elemental seduction of a ripe peach or bowl of chocolate ice cream that’s just starting to melt. Or, perhaps, slivers of dry-aged kampachi with fruity olive oil and sweet-hot cherry bomb pepper relish — the standout of a recent meal at Warlord. Maybe also, these are the same people who will wait an hour or two for dinner, happy for the candlelight and the tunes.