Sneak Peek

Last Friday afternoon, a trusted FOD got tipped off that Graham Elliot (217 W. Huron St.; 312-624-9975)—still awaiting its liquor license at the time—was opening quietly that evening, and he had no trouble scoring a table. Considering the high profile Graham Elliot Bowles cuts on the dining scene, the début of the chef’s eagerly anticipated spot was relentlessly low profile. Then again, plenty of foodies must have heard the same tip, because the place was nearly full.

The menu, where down-home-by-way-of-trailer-park staples collide with molecular gastronomy, reads like a Hollywood lunchbox: caesar salad with a brioche “Twinkie” oozing Parmesan cream cheese; Buffalo chicken with celery slaw, hot sauce, blue cheese, and Budweiser froth; a Cheddar-apple risotto accompanied by Cheez-Its; and a “spice krispie” treat with rhubarb syrup. Our FOD loved his cubed beef tartare topped with hickory smoke ice cream; and his friend, who’s no fan of pork, declared a perfectly crusted, flavor-bursting double-cut Berkshire pork chop (served with collard greens, artisan grits, watermelon chutney, and barbecue sauce) the best she’d ever had. We can’t wait to go, though a last-minute reservation may never be possible again.


“If I sing when I cook, the food is going to be happy.”  –Pasquale Carpino (1936-2005), Italian Canadian chef

Four Courses, Four Thoughts

Add Pollack to the legions who are already blown away by the three-weeks-old L2O (2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-868-0002), Richard Melman’s and Laurent Gras’s vision of the most upscale seafood restaurant Chicago has ever seen. Her four main thoughts:

  1. Now I believe that Ambria is gone. Never has a space been so totally transformed: Dark woods and art nouveau richness out; Zenlike serenity, see-through cable-wire walls in.
  2. The menu is confusing. Between the price options ($110 for four courses, $165 for 12, possible swap outs, and upgrades) and the endless exotica (kinmedai, bergamot, ainame), it helps if you’re dining with an interpreter.
  3. Although it borders on hovercraft, service is spectacular. Expert waitstaff, charming and knowledgeable sommelier. Bathroom escorts are a bit much.
  4. Loads of fabulous flavors and gorgeous presentations. Right down to the freebie bordelaise custard cake, Pollack’s dinner was wonderful. But the best dish in this painstakingly crafted homage to the sea was a perfect—and stunningly accessorized—lamb loin. Oh, the irony.

Ja Breaker

You like chicken? Ja’s Jerk Chicken (2806 W. Lake St.; 773-533-5375), a two-month-old takeout Jamaican and soul food spot, offers a “$5 holla”: four slow-cooked jerk chicken wings or a leg and a thigh, with rice and beans, Jamaican bread, and canned soda. Have a hankering for curried goat? (Who doesn’t?) Ja has it. Side dishes? Ja’s got 19 of them—everything from succotash to callaloo, a Jamaican green that tastes like spinach. And Johnetta Martin-Smith, the chef/owner, has enlisted her mom to make the desserts: sweet potato pie, banana pudding, peach cobbler. “I’m not Jamaican,” Martin-Smith says. “I was born here in Chicago. But my son’s father is Jamaican, and I want to combine cultures. That’s what they taught us in culinary college [the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago]. You want to serve everybody.”

Where Is He Now?

John Bubala, who estimates he worked 80 to 100 hours a week for 15 years before closing his restaurants Timo and Baccala last year, has been enjoying his time off. “I’m teaching breakfast at Kendall College,” he says. “My 17 students learn how to cook a perfect over-easy egg, how to poach eggs, how to make a hollandaise, fix a broken hollandaise, pancakes, smoothie—all the things you would need to do if you were opening a breakfast restaurant. I’m also cooking a lot of private dinners.” Anything else? “I’ve become a good astronomer,” Bubala says. “I go to bed when it’s dark and I get up when it’s dark.”

One More Dance

“We create this name because it means fine movements of a flamenco dancer,” says Mariena Briceno, a partner at the two-month-old Bull-eh-dia’s Tapas Bar (3651 N. Southport Ave.; 773-404-2855). The onomatopoeic 49-seat spot (plus a handful of tables on Southport’s highly prized sidewalk) stocks its menu with the traditional tapas standards ($4 to $12)—think pulpo a la plancha and queso de cabra with marinara and crostini—plus Spanish wines, sangría, and massive paellas. “We have the dates stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in bacon [datiles rellenos de queso con tocino],” says Briceno. “Oh, my God. Everybody orders them.” Not us. Yet.

Second Life

Maybe you’ve noticed Foodlife (835 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-335-3663), Water Tower Place’s onetime cutting-edge eatery, is undergoing a major face-lift. “We brought more modern looks to the space and we wanted to go back to Foodlife’s roots, which is to make it the town square of Michigan Avenue,” says Marc Jacobs, a Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises managing partner. All 13 food kiosks are being redone, menus and ambiance alike, including the new Chinese by Big Bowl. (Sacred Grounds Bakery and Café, a new stand-alone treat shop, has its own space.) “It’s going to be hipper and more user-friendly,”says Jacobs, and for what it’s worth, those users have recently included all kinds of celebs, including Robin Williams, Jennifer Hudson, and Jermaine Dye.

Things to Do

  1. Help Firkin (515 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville; 847-367-6168) celebrate ten years of business on June 5th by drinking $3.75 pints of Lagunitas, and listening to a brewmaster named Tom play his banjo.
  2. Help Rockit Bar & Grill (22 W. Hubbard St.; 312-645-6000) celebrate “Burgerfest” this week by trying one of its inventive daily specials. Today’s is a maple barbecue–glazed pork burger with applewood-smoked bacon and Granny Smith apple coleslaw.
  3. Help celebrate the irresistible innocence of a commercial from the past.

Dot Dot Dot . . .

Freshii (311 S. Wacker Dr.; 312-435-0311), a healthful salad, soup, and snack spot from Canada’s Lettuce Eatery chain, opens on June 16th. . . . To celebrate its tenth anniversary, Chicago Bagel Authority (953 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-248-9606) plans to run over its toasters with a steamroller on June 15th for some reason. Steamed sandwiches: Get it? Nope, neither did we. . . . Chicago’s own Stephanie Izard, regardless of how she finished on Top Chef, told Chicagoist she is scouting locations for a new restaurant. . . . Speaking of Top Chef, here is Rick Tramonto’s explanation of the FrozenScallopGate scandal during last week’s Top Chef episode. . . . After 31 years in Lincoln Park, My Pie (2417 N. Clark St.) has lost its lease. The pizza legend’s Bucktown location (2010 N. Damen Ave.; 773-394-6900) is still open, and the owners are in search of another spot. We hadn’t been there in years, but this news still bums us out. . . . The folks behind Black Beetle and Northside, two way-above-average bar/grills, plan to unveil Logan Bar & Grill (2230 N. California Ave.; 773-252-1110) in Logan Square this month.