“The South Side is hurting for restaurants,” says Dan McGee, a Chicago native who has worked in kitchens from Peru to Switzerland (and Charlie Trotter’s in between). So McGee repurposed his former Whittingham’s Gourmet Market as a 44-seat American restaurant called Dan McGee (330 W. Lincoln Hwy., Frankfort; 815-469-7750). The polished room is by Tom Nahabedian (who designed Naha for his cousin Carrie Nahabedian), and McGee’s menu has some interesting twists, like grilled halibut served on Asiago mashed potatoes with mushroom-shrimp compote. And that window that looks into the kitchen? “I wanted to see what was going on in the dining room, but the kitchen is so bright and the dining room is dark—I’m looking at a black screen,” McGee says. “I’m not rude if I don’t wave back. I just can’t see you.”
“Gentlemen, in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of Champagne.” –Paul Claudel (1868-1955), French writer
7 Questions for Gail Simmons, Top Chef judge and Food & Wine special projects editor
D: Why are we all obsessed with Top Chef ?
GS: It’s like candy. You have one piece and you need more. And what Bravo has done is so clever: It’s taken regular people and given them a chance to do something they never could have done. Same with Project Runway.
D: Do you find yourself rooting for various chefs?
GS: We don’t know anything about the contestants except for the food on our plates. You can’t help but want certain people to do well, especially when their food is interesting and delicious. But we judge as fairly as possible.
D: How much do you film for each episode?
GS: We have up to eight cameras on us at all times. Ten to 20 hours of footage. The judges’ deliberation process takes five or six hours sometimes, and it’s edited down to five or six minutes.
D: Do viewers understand that?
GS: Viewers get upset with us. They think we make these decisions flippantly. But the decision is painstakingly slow and contemplative. We’re ultimately carrying a lot of weight—making or breaking people’s lives.
D: What’s the worst dish you’ve eaten on the show?
GS: Chocolate with chopped liver. And peanut butter and processed cheese. Watermelon gnocchi with melted Gorgonzola. Snails and processed cheese. It was just appalling. We’ve made them do absurd things to test their skills.
D: But didn’t you give them disgusting products?
GS: Yes, but the winner put just a tiny bit of the cheese in and broiled the snails with bread crumbs. It ended up being really nice.
D: What are you looking forward to next season?
GS: The fourth season is being filmed in Chicago, so there will be a lot of local restaurants involved.
We Don’t Quite Get the Epiphany Part, But It Still Sounds Good
Bill Kim, the executive chef at Le Lan, plans to open Soul (1 Walker Ave., Clarendon Hills), a 275-seat regional American restaurant with an art deco feel, some time around January. “We had an epiphany when we were in Vietnam, eating street food,” says Kim of a 14-day trip with two Le Lan partners, Howard Davis and Arun Sampanthavivat: “Wouldn’t it be nice to do something soulful, from the heart? We want to do a restaurant of people’s childhood memories.” Soul’s chef, Karen Nicolas, a veteran of New York’s Gramercy Tavern and Aureole in Las Vegas, plans to use a massive rotisserie for rack of pork, organic poussin, and spit-roasted suckling pig. Not sure whose childhood this was, but it sounds better than ours.
4 Promising New Books That Appeared Recently on Our Desks
1. Fantastico!, by Rick Tramonto and Mary Goodbody (Broadway, November), the Tru guru’s mouthwatering recipe collection of 100-plus small Italian plates.
2. 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life, by David Grotto (Bantam, December), an informative, no-nonsense guide to eating healthy by a member of the American Dietetic Association.
3. Desserts by the Yard, by Sherry Yard (Houghton Mifflin, November), a cookbook full of insidery stuff and accessible kitchen tips, by the executive pastry chef for Wolfgang Puck’s empire.
4. No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach, by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury, November). Because it’s Anthony Bourdain.
Ai or Oy?
An early visit to Ai Japanese Restaurant (358 W. Ontario St.; 312-335-9888) left Pollack in a quandary. A couple of dishes were fantastic: superfresh whitefish carpaccio with tempura crumbles (fun and crispy) and jalapeño slices (daring and spicy), and rainbow spicy pine nut tuna maki constructed so every bite brings a different fish combo into play. But there was no understanding the salt-covered shrimp: shell-on crustaceans under a mound of baked salt—a ton of work to score a few tasty shrimp ruined by salt detritus everywhere. And the goma-ae was oddly wet and chewy.
Things to Do
1. Try a pumpkin pie milk shake at R J Grunts (2056 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-929-5363).
2. Quibble with Esquire’s list of “The Six Best Food Movies Ever”. We certainly did; then again, we usually disagree with John Mariani.
3. Watch this surreal video of a prison-food convention (“You don’t want to have a lot of open fryers in a correctional market and have somebody potentially stick an arm, or somebody else, into a fryer”).
Dot Dot Dot . . .
Due to recent water damage, Wishbone (1001 W. Washington St.; 312-850-2663) will be closed until at least the beginning of December. . . . Ina’s (1235 W. Randolph St.; 312-226-8227) appeared in an October 20th Wall Street Journal story about America’s “best power breakfasts.” . . . Sepia (123 N. Jefferson St.; 312-441-1920) appeared in Gourmet’s coveted “Restaurant Roundup” in the November issue of the magazine. . . . Marion Street Cheese Market (101 N. Marion St., Oak Park; 708-848-2088) got a nice plug in the November issue of Food & Wine. . . . Anyone been to Bulldog Bakery (3207 N. Elston Ave.; 773-539-9781), a certified kosher bakery in the no-man’s land between Roscoe Village and Avondale? . . . Pastoral’s Loop-area specialty food store (53 E. Lake St.; 312-658-1250) opened on October 23rd. . . . Pizzeria Via Stato (620 N. State St.; 312-337-6634), formerly Pizzeria Mo.Di, opened today (October 24th).