A Star Is Born

Dennis Ray Wheaton, Chicago magazine’s chief dining critic, is set to add a new name to the league of extraordinary chefs in Chicago: Curtis Duffy. Duffy, 32, recently stepped into the huge void left at Avenues (The Peninsula Chicago, 108 E. Superior St.; 312-573-6754) by the departure of Graham Elliot Bowles—a daunting task, even for a veteran of Alinea and Charlie Trotter’s. But it appears Duffy is up to the task. “The meal I had was in the league of [Grant] Achatz and Bowles, and beyond [Homaro] Cantu in brilliance of flavors and old-fashioned refinement,” Wheaton says. “Duffy uses a lot of grains, foams, berries, and you get the true essence of the food. Every dish is intricate, with a stunning exactness of how ingredients are placed and paired.”

For example: a pan-seared scallop with a sheet of amaranth laid across the top, granular amaranth puffs on one side, and dried brown butter and huckleberry purée with a brown butter emulsion on the other. Even the herb garnish—tiny pieces of quail grass—was impeccable, Wheaton reports. “The whole thing was beautifully composed, and every bite tastes different as different accompaniments come into play,” he says. “This was stunning.” For Wheaton’s complete update and rating, you’ll have to wait for the July issue of Chicago magazine, in the mail June 13th and on newsstands June 19th, when his review appears in the recommended guide to restaurants.  


“The ambition of every good cook must be to make something very good with the fewest possible ingredients.” –Urbain Dubois (1818-1901), French cookbook author

NoMI, More Homey
We heard the winds of change were blowing through NoMI (Park Hyatt Chicago, 800 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-239-4030), so we gave chef Christophe David a call. “Next year the hotel plans a renovation in the rooms,” David says. “Then the dining room and kitchen of NoMI will follow.” David expects the patio/terrace to be enlarged and given covered seating, and the kitchen opened up considerably. And the food? “We are getting a beautiful handmade stove from France and a plancha [think Japanese teppanyaki], so we will bring some new things to the menu,” he says. “The pastry area will look like a pastry shop with a display for the petits fours, and bread will be baked in front of everybody and kept warm.”

This Man Is an Island

John Q. Cancel, the Chicago-born Filipino owner of the new Big Ka Hoo Na Hawaiian BBQ (822 Clark St., Evanston; 847-475-1234), knows his barbecue. “When I lived in L.A., I met Hawaiians and Samoans and we would do these barbecues of island food every weekend,” he says. So he corralled Michael Morales, the sous-chef at Parkers’ Ocean Grill in Downers Grove, and opened a 32-seat fast-food spot full of the “island food” he loves: pineapple-smoked Kalua pork; Hawaiian sliders (burgers with Hawaiian bread, Kewpie mayo, and banana ketchup); and “loco moco” (two egg-topped hamburger patties on gravy and rice). It may be a harder sell for mainlanders, but Cancel also touts the Spam musubi—a square block of rice with teriyaki-glazed Spam on top and a nori wrapper.   

Speaking of Hawaii . . .

There’s also Skewerz, a new fast-food Hawaiian spot in Wicker Park (1560 N. Damen Ave.; 773-276-9805), which specializes in—yep—skewered meat. It also has this unfortunate slogan: “Get stuck on the stick.”

He Said It

“I’m doing a warm walnut brownie with coffee ice cream and orange ‘caviar.’ It’s a style of taking orange juice or orange-flavored liquid and gelatinizing it so it looks like large salmon roe. When you bite into it, orange will burst into your mouth.” –Chris Curren, chef/partner of Blue 13 (416 W. Ontario St.; 312-787-1400), a contemporary American spot with “a rock-and-roll-chic kind of aesthetic.” Curren (Zealous’s former sous-chef) says the restaurant will open in the old Tony Rocco’s space, complete with classic tattoo artwork on the walls, in mid-July.

Father of Reinvention

Eric Possa was charged with creating an upscale menu for the recently opened Tree Top Room (1141 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-327-8000—upstairs from P.J. Clarke’s) that would cover the entire Eastern seaboard. “I came up with [the concept] ‘America reinvented,’” says Possa, who also has put in time at Avenues, Tru, and Spiaggia. “I reinvented dishes and products used in an NYC-style restaurant of the thirties and forties, refined them using today’s techniques.” For example, he cites his beef tenderloin with a reduction (instead of sauce thickened with flour), or his whole lobster—steamed and butter-poached—which comes with vanilla bean orzo pasta, grilled pineapple, and grilled spring onions. Possa describes the white-tablecloth ambiance as reminiscent of a  “classic low-key 1930s-style hotel.”  

Texas de Brazil’s Weird Wine Show

“There’s a big glassed-in wine case that holds about 1,500 bottles, and there will be a ‘wine artist’ who goes inside the case. She’s hooked to some sort of apparatus that’ll allow her to fly around and do acrobatics in between fetching bottles. Inside a glass enclosure. It’s like a bug trapped in a jar. At some point she’s going to tire out like a dying bug. People need more than just air holes.” –Trusty intern Sarah Desprat, describing the surreal scene during a pre-opening tour at River North’s newest churrascuría, Texas de Brazil (51 E. Ohio St.; 312-670-1006)  

Things to Do

  1. Go to Landmark (1633 N. Halsted St.; 312-587-1600) on a Wednesday night. All wine bottles under $50 are 50 percent off, Skyy martinis cost $5, and pizzas are free from 7 to 8 p.m.
  2. Join Rick Tramonto at Tramonto’s Steak & Seafood (601 N. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling; 847-777-6575) on May 28th, to watch Bravo’s “Top Chef,” which this week features Chef Rick on location at his restaurant. Free hors d’oeuvres will be served, and your attendance will enter you in a drawing for a free dinner at Tramonto’s.  
  3. Witness Christopher Hitchens climbing down from his ivory tower to deliver a haughty, anachronistic rant on how waiters serve wine.