Places I like in West Michigan 2014 (Saugatuck-Douglas-Fennville edition)

I have been a part-time resident of this area for 8 years, mostly during the summer and fall months. Saugatuck, Douglas and Fennville is the tri-town resort area located on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Saugatuck, with its New England-esque seaside town architecture, attracts the most tourists and has the worst restaurants of the three towns. Adjacent Douglas looks like a Midwestern Americana movie set,  and it’s less congested and has better food and drink options.

Fennville (where my house is) is the rural component of the three — its long agricultural history is apparent with miles of rolling farmland, orchards and vineyards. “Main Street” has become an ubiquitous cliché, but here, the main street literally bisects the sleepy downtown and a working freight train route cross-cuts it perpendicularly. It has only one restaurant of note — and a damn good one at that. When you approach downtown Fennville and see the cars lining the streets — they’re there for one thing and one thing only — Salt of the Earth, the farm-to-table restaurant that spawned from its brilliant progenitor, Journeyman Café, itself a farm-to-table restaurant (along the lines of Blue Hill in Westchester County, New York), the vision of Chef Matt Millar that served fine, ambitious food, but was too ahead of its time to make a go of it. Its replacement is more casual and serves food that is more budget-friendly, standard-portioned, and the omnipresent pizza on the menu ensures that kids will do fine there, too. Voilà, it just celebrated its 5th birthday.

Some things to keep in mind when you visit the area:

  • You will not find Chicago-caliber restaurants here. Just as you wouldn’t expect to find great Southern BBQ in Thailand, why would you expect the same caliber of trend-setting, high-level dining in an area with a population of less than 10,000? In other words, it’s best to leave the city mindset at home.
  • Having said that, there are a lot of restaurants that are unspeakably — unnecessarily — bad. As in, you could make a better sandwich at home than the one they’re selling on their menu. Or the quality of ingredients is barely human-grade due to sourcing the cheapest stuff from Big Food Supplier. Some small improvements by lots of these restaurants would go a long way toward improving the food offerings.
  • If you like wine, there are several places that have excellent bottles on their wine lists without the mark-up of Chicago restaurants. Drink up.

where to go in Saugatuck

Phil’s Bar & Grille – the locals’ bar is still solid, especially if you stick with their broasted chicken. The secret here is the above-average wine list, which is reasonably-priced, and doesn’t gouge you on the by-the-glass prices.

Uncommon Grounds — go here for coffee and breakfast. They roast their own coffee, do a mean pourover, and their baked goods are fresh and genuinely homemade.

Marro’s *pizza only* Marro’s pizza is in style of Chicago Italian tavern, and it’s quite good. Italian entrees are hit and miss. It closes off-season, so go soon.

Clearbrook Grill *wine only* Go here only to have a good bottle or three from their respectable wine cellar and skip eating. The restaurant with its Colonial-inspired decor might invoke nostalgia in a good sense, and the view out to the golf course is beautiful on a nice day. Clearbrook once had a formal dining space with decent food along with a Wine Spectator-blessed wine cellar, but they were understandably the victims of economic-downturn retrenching. Clearbrook needs to overhaul its menu and charge more for its food and source better ingredients. (If you must eat, order a steak.) The wine cellar remains, the wine is still reasonably priced, and it’s a civilized place to watch a game on TV.

Where to go in Douglas

Everyday People Cafe  — Though the menu hasn’t changed much over the years, I still think this is the place to go for a “night out” in the area. The menu mostly plays it safe, but the food is generally well-executed by Chef Michael Bild, who oversees a kitchen that often puts out banquet-level covers on summer weekends. More than that, the vibe is fun, there is a verdant outdoor patio in the back, and it’s always crowded, so be prepared to wait for a table. Their burger is fantastic – intensely beefy and appropriately juicy, served simply with pickles and frizzled onions — it’s one of my favorites anywhere. On weekend afternoons, their Bubbles & Bites lunch — including champagne, raw bar and build-your-own-bloody marys —  is one of your best options for a leisurely lunch.

Pizza Mambo — The best pizza in the area — thin-ish crust, tavern cut, and high-quality ingredients. The antipasto salad is an embarrassment of riches with salami, prosciutto, grilled sausage, hunks of parmigiano-reggiano and provolone cheese, giardiniera and a variety of olives.

Farmhouse Deli — Caterer/chef Christine Ferris’ deli is doing a lot of great things in-house, including roasting meats, making soups and carry-out salads, and creating a global assortment of refined sandwiches. This is the area’s more modern version of the Hampton’s infamous Barefoot Contessa. Farmhouse Deli also stocks epicurean groceries, cheeses, and charcuterie. It’s great for lunch or for supplementing dinner. Also, it’s one of two places for decent coffee in Douglas (Equal Exchange). (Don’t say I didn’t warn you not to go to Respite, where the default coffee is “flavored.” Last I checked “Cookies on Call” in Douglas was serving Intelligentsia, if you consider that to be decent.)

WayPoint Restaurant — located behind M&M Blue Star cafe, it is a decent option for a classic, diner-style fry-up breakfast in Douglas. Order carefully (don’t do eggs benedict or anything that strays too far from short-order diner fare), and you’ll do fine. I would get coffee elsewhere first and bring it with you to the restaurant lest you’d prefer to drink Gordon Food Service’s finest. No ambiance to speak of, unless you think eating in the waiting room of your dentist in the 1980s counts as adequate restaurant ambiance.

Petter Wine Gallery — go here to drink wine. Unlike most places that reserve their best bottles for their bottle lists, PWG opens bottles that retail between $18- $50 to taste or drink by the glass. The wine bar is located in an interesting art gallery–a unique setting for a glass of wine or two. The wine shop also offers some of the best retail bottles in the area — including a great selection of European and California bottles — if you want to splurge for a barbeque or picnic.

Where to go in Fennville

Salt of the Earth — pretty much the only game in town. Committed to responsible, quality, and local sourcing. Chef Matthew Pietsch — who has comparatively elevated kitchen experience for the area — is genuinely talented. Unfortunately, the pizza, which was once stellar years ago, has undergone so many changes that the most recent incarnation is not worth ordering (the crust is now too doughy). Lately, the best thing Salt of the Earth is doing is brunch — housemade sausage, farm-fresh eggs, and house-baked bread and jam made from local fruit ensure that breakfast will be a winner. Again, bring coffee with you — or better yet — have a breakfast cocktail, as the coffee served here by Contreras Coffee is bitter beyond drinkability. (The terrible coffee here is a serious deficiency that I wish the restaurant would correct.) Concerts on Tuesdays in summer and Sundays in the off-season attract some of the area’s best folk, country and bluegrass acts, and are well-worth attending even if you’re not sold on that type of music. Don’t forget to visit the garden off of Main Street that supplies the restaurant with some of their food.

Crane’s Pie Pantry & Bakery– Skip the restaurant in Crane’s Orchards and head straight for the adjacent bakery. Go here for their homey, decidedly non-fussy pie and ice cream (the apple butter version is particularly good), and freshly made and ridiculously cheap apple cider donuts (sixty cents apiece). I also recommend their Apple Butter bread (do you sense a theme here?). The orchards or Gary Crane’s farm across the street are both great places to pick tree fruits like peaches and more apples varieties than you can imagine.

Earl’s Farm Market — go here for U-pick or We-pick berries and South Haven’s popular Sherman’s ice cream. The on-site bakery carries good, unpretentious pies and cookies. These are the type of baked goods your grandmother would make (assuming your grandmother doesn’t give a hoot about the fat content of the butter and likes the flakiness given of shortening to a crust).

The Tasting Room at Evergreen Lane Farm & Creamery — La Mancha, Nubian and Saanen goats are raised here, milked at nearby Windshadow Farm, and between the two farms, they create some of the most fantastic goat cheese you’ll taste. Sample the varieties here on the farm.

Local Products Worth Picking Up

Palazzolo’s Gelato — once served in one form or another at the ultra-snooty former bakery Pasticceria Natalina in Chicago. The gelato is made in Fennville and can be found in grocery stores in the area, including Fernwood 1891, a general store/art studio in downtown Fennville that carries the most varieties. (You can also buy Evergreen Lane cheese here too.)

SeedySalt bread — One of the farmers/bakers at Kismet Bakery was purportedly the inventor of local cult favorite bread, SeedySalt, back when it was served at the Journeyman Café. It’s a sourdough bread topped with, as the name suggests, a variety of seeds and coarse French sea salt and baked in a wood-fired oven. It’s really good. Available at Kismet Farm or Summertime Market on Blue Star Highway in Douglas. You can find the facsimile of SeedySalt made by Salt of the Earth at various grocery stores in the area or at the restaurant. The two are virtually indistinguishable, flavor-wise, but I think the superior bread-making skills at Kismet give it the edge.

Earl’s Farm Market 5-pepper hot sauce — Available at Summertime Market in Douglas and Earl’s Farm Market in Fennville. Medium-hot and a little sweet, the variety of peppers suggest a Hungarian-style hot sauce rather than a Southern barrel-aged Tabasco.

Evergreen Lane Creamery cheese — Available retail throughout the area, including Farmhouse Deli, Fernwood 1891 and Summertime Market.

American Spoon Foods — Available lots of places, I know, but the shop in downtown Saugatuck carries some staples that should make it to your cottage or on to your picnic table: Whole-Seed Mustard is made with Michigan Sparkling wine, which sweetens the intense bite of the mustard seeds and causes them to burst on your tongue as you eat it; the concentrated, complex Dried Chile Salsa is a great accompaniment to eggs, meat and almost anything savory; and the Leelanau Apricot Preserves, made with Leelanau Peninsula apricots (the best I’ve ever had in Michigan) is more pleasantly tart than the cloying apricot jam made with California apricots.

BBQ wines at Fenn Valley Winery — It seems strange recommending reds from a Michigan winery, but a consistently reliable, non-vintage fruity red called “Capriccio” made by Fenn Valley (it is even sold by the liter box, it’s so unpretentious) will be a thousand times more enjoyable with your smoked barbeque meats than the high-alcohol, raisin-y, oft-recommended California Zinfandels. For something more substantial, I like the Meritage, a dry red blend of locally-grown Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

 

 

If you ever find yourself in Columbus…

…as I did for several months, you’re going to want to know where to eat. For much of the end of 2013 into the first half of 2014, I essentially relocated to Columbus due to an on-going/never-ending work project. You know you’ve departed your dear Chicago for a long while when Foursquare (now Swarm) welcomes you home when you check in at Port Columbus Airport (and generates a report of the places you visited during your “trip” to Chicago).

Adjusting to Columbus had its ups and downs. One thing is for sure, the people who live here are very sure that Columbus is the best place to live, work, eat and drink. (They’re also quick to tell you how “clean” it is. It’s true; Columbus is very clean.) I can’t be so enthusiastic — in order to find a restaurant in Columbus that I’d gladly go back to, I had to make my way through many mediocre, overrated local favorites: Barcelona Tapas, Mitchell’s Steakhouse, De Novo, Elevator Brewery, etc. When I travel for business, I’m a firm believer that there must be diamonds in the rough–even in the greater downtown areas–that are perhaps not perfect, but perfectly good.

Two initial notes: One, stay at the Hilton. Two, many Columbus restaurants appear to be clones from other cities. The Pearl Restaurant, Tavern and Oyster Bar riffs on NYC’s The Dutch, and Marcella’s seems like a near-duplicate of Chicago’s Quartino down to the font on the menu. The infamous NoMAD chicken made an appearance on my room service menu at the Hilton. There’s even a taco joint called “Bakersfield” that seems to directly conjure up Big Star (minus the humongous patio and scene).

Another somewhat-interesting factoid is that Columbus is an incubator of sorts for chain lunch concepts. Based on what I’ve seen, I’d expect a lot of Chipotle clones coming soon to you — concepts where you choose your appropriately-ethnicized version of chicken and its scarfing-vehicle (tortilla, lavash, etc.), then you run down the line stuffing it with an abundance of culturally out-of-context and culinarily-discordant toppings.

I thanked the Gods every day for the downtown location of Café Brioso, which roasts its beans on site, pours over, and has richest latte I’ve ever had due to, I think, their sourcing of what they proclaim to be the “best milk in Ohio.”

One strong positive about eating lunch downtown in Columbus is that small-city economics preserves some truly great places that would have been snuffed out in larger cities by high rents or the slim profit margins that result from serving a lunch-only crowd. One such place is El Arepazo, a Venezuelan/pan-Latin eat-in/take-out restaurant that churns out delicious, carefully-prepared dishes to hundreds of office workers daily. It’s hard to beat paying $7 for an excellent arepa with assertively-seasoned braised pork or $10 for carne asada with excellent-quality, again, well-seasoned skirt steak. The real star at El Arepazo, though, is their house-made “cilantro” sauce, a bit of a misnomer, because it is a spicy blend of many ingredients beyond cilantro that I’d drink by the glass if offered. I miss this place every day now that I’m back in Chicago.

Sí Señor, another pan-Latin place but with a Peruvian focus, offers large, baked empanadas with the traditional filling of ground beef, eggs, and raisins, and South American-inspired sandwiches — the best in my opinion is the “Jumping Beef”, which is like a Peruvian version of Chicago’s Italian Beef. Consider the genuinely homemade desserts like a rich, Peruvian-style lime pie, a daringly tall trés leches cake, and a deeply-caramelized flan that is offered by the slice. Sí Señor successfully hits many high notes of the iconic Route 66 diner (meat, sandwiches, desserts) but with a distinct Latin focus.

Dinner presents more of a challenge. Every menu reserves real estate for a boring filet-and-mashed potatoes plate among other snoozer dishes that offer little in the way of conception, finesse or seasoning. Short North, the major restaurant area in Columbus, turns into a veritable club scene on the weekend. Walking up High Street, it’s hard not to feel like you’re on a smaller, less developed version of the Vegas Strip, between the gaggles of scantily-clad clubgoers and roving packs of bros. It’s hard to get much worse than the Arena District and the block-long Venetian-esque arcade that houses the Hyde Park Steakhouse, Bar 23 and Eleven. There’s even a Ted’s Montana Grill in the area. If you have to be in Short North on the weekend, get in a cab and eat at the comparatively mature, low-key German Village neighborhood a few short miles away.

There, you should eat at Harvest, an artisanal pizza place located adjacent to Curio, a craft cocktail bar. The cocktails skew a tad too sweet, but you won’t regret spending a little time in the vintage, low-slung brick house that has as much precious charm as, say, a curio cabinet. The pizza part of the business spills out onto a tranquil patio where the brick-oven pies may be a tad too creatively-topped, but the carefully-prepared crust make up for any shortcomings that offering a Hawaiian pizza may imply (by the way, it’s seemingly ubiquitous in Ohio).

Another worthy patio in German Village is Lindey’s, which has an enclosed garden with a back bar under the trees and among the fountains. Lindey’s food is executed as well as you’d expect an above-average hotel to make food, meaning that they can properly cook and plate a protein, pair it with an appropriate sauce and garnish, and select a filling starch. Lindey’s isn’t worth going to unless you sit outside — that is, if you don’t want to be reminded of 1980s banquet halls, as the tired inside decor suggests.

When the weekdays roll around again and it’s safe to go back to Short North, Rigsby’s Kitchen and The Pearl are favorites, although I feel like they both execute just short of the mark. Rigsby’s gets points for quality meat sourcing (such as beef from Pat La Frieda and some local whole hog butchering). It also has some well-executed, creative starters, and a good wine list. The bar area is a great place to have a solo weekday dinner. The Pearl gets credit for just attempting to be something more conceptual than most Columbus restaurants.

The place that most impressed me is somewhere in between Short North and downtown in a desolate stretch of road: Wolf’s Ridge Brewery. They’ve yet to distribute, so this is the only place in the world to try their impressive, house-brewed beer. The food is executed with polish and finesse, and hopefully, is a harbinger of a new style of modern American restaurants in Columbus. Patronize this diamond-in-the-rough before you succumb to another mediocre meal in Columbus.*

*Yes, I know about Jeni’s. Very good ice cream. Also: ubiquitous.

A Random Hospitality Story

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the limits and expectations of hospitality in the restaurant industry today.

When I think of hospitality, this comes to mind.

A couple of years ago, I went to Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain to celebrate a friend’s important birthday. There was a small group of us, and due to, ahem, over-indulgence the prior night, one person in our party had an unsettled stomach. She wasn’t really that hungry, but wanted to join in the birthday dinner anyway.

In case anyone is wondering, the food at Arzak was incredible, although the service was a little odd. The sommelier deferred to the men in the group even though they expressed that they weren’t interested in choosing the wine. The servers had a mittel-European sternness that seemed more stereotypically German than Spanish. The thin-mustachioed, black-haired captain, in particular, was a caricature of the European waiter with his vague, unidentifiable Roman-language accent, and condescending, snooty tone of voice.

So, when my overindulgent friend ordered the vegetarian course instead of fish for the second course, the captain, with his nose firmly pointed upward, sneered, “You came all the way from the United States to eat veggetabulls?” Feeling the weight of the rebuke, my friend acceded to his wish, and ordered the tuna.

Unfortunately, when the tuna came, it was more raw than she felt like she could digest at the moment, and after two bites, she was finished. Meanwhile, the iconic Spanish chef, Juan Mari Arzak, and his daughter, chef Elena Arzak, who are joint head chefs of Arzak, were making the rounds in the dining room. The aging Chef Juan’s reputation precedes him, and next-generation Elena herself has earned her share of international accolades. I was pleased to see them both at the restaurant, and so seemingly engaged with everything. When Chef came to our table and engaged us in pleasantries, I noticed that he briefly glanced down at my friend’s mostly uneaten tuna.

A few minutes later, after Chef Arzak moved on, the maitre d’ came to our table, approached my friend, and said that Chef noticed that she did not enjoy the tuna. “Was there anything wrong with the dish? Chef would like to know, and offer you someone else,” he said. My friend gracefully assured him that the tuna was perfect, but she did not feel well (even gesturing to her stomach), and saying that the problem was hers. He seemed to understand and walked away.

Deep into the next course, Chef Arzak came back. “Madame,” he said, “I feel you are being too nice. If I did not make a dish that you liked, please, allow me to make you anything else.” Again, she assured him that all was well, and he moved on. At the moment, it seemed incredible to me that the great, pioneering Basque chef, Juan Mari Arzak, would think for one moment that it was the fault of his kitchen — and not the inferior palate of the patron — in serving a dish that was less than stellar.

As we wrapped up dinner and moved out of the restaurant, we ran into Juan and Elena again. Elena sweetly approached my friend — the birthday girl — and said that she heard she had an important birthday (it was her 40th). In wishing her a happy birthday, she joked, “Don’t worry. I am 43, it only gets better from here!” Juan walked our party outside, and chatted with us while we waited a few minutes for our car to come around to pick us up. Once again, as he loaded us into the car, he apologized to my friend for his dish. As we drove away, my last recollection of Arzak was the vision of Juan Arzak standing out on the sidewalk in front of his restaurant in his chef whites, waving to us as we drove away, as if we were longtime friends.

Extraordinary.

Next: Chicago Steak — Where’s the Beef?

Sometimes, the concepts behind Next’s incarnations are not apparent from their names. Bocuse referred to the competition, but gave little inkling of the food that would be served; The Hunt was even more ambiguous. If there was one theme to date that should have been conceptually and universally clear, it should be Next: Chicago Steak.

During the course of my dinner there, it became abundantly clear that Next’s conception for Chicago Steak lacked confidence and certainty. Was it an homage to the (Chicago?) steakhouses of the ’40s and ’50s? A modern, Next-ified version of steakhouse food? It seems like the restaurant rode the middle line instead of choosing a side, to the theme’s detriment.

It may come as a surprise that Chicago Steak included only one steak course, a beautiful, 30-day dry-aged ribeye imported from  Flannery Beef in San Francisco. The steak, which appears about 1.5 hours into the meal, was the table’s favorite course of the night, an achievement of sorts given the stated steak theme. The remainder of the menu was either ill-conceived or oddly executed.

There’s quite a bit of seafood at Chicago Steak. Shrimp cocktail, salmon, and lobster are served, and even frog’s legs garnished a salad. For the second course, in a “nod to a la carte ordering” at steakhouses, each person at the table was served either shrimp cocktail, oysters or sweetbreads, two pieces on each plate, which made splitting next to impossible. (Unlike real a la carte ordering, diners weren’t given a choice as to which dishes they’d prefer.) Though the shrimp cocktail was executed just like your Dad’s on New Years’ Eve (although with better-quality shrimp), the oysters were plated with abundant garniture like smokey, roasted broccoli. The latter was one of the best bites of the night, but the aggressive garnishes obliterated the decadent, visceral effect of pristine, glistening oysters. More strange was the explanation given at the table that the different a la carte dishes were linked by smokey, earthy flavors. If sharing is not really an option (who wants 2/3 a shrimp?), how will diners experience that link? A total misfire, conceptually.

The nod to a tableside caesar was another misfire, and was explicitly off-theme, as we were told that this was a nod to Chef Beran’s summers in northern Michigan. The salad was overdressed (though the pine nut vinaigrette was wonderful), and the twig-like pieces of greens were texturally unpleasant. Nobody who had this rather austere salad wouldn’t immediately yearn for a badda-bing of a real tableside caesar.

As crudites go, they were a disappointment. Too many unflavored leaves in the mix, which were too cold, no doubt due to the oversized bowl of ice they were served in. The “sides” that came with the steak were just okay; the “onion paysan” tasted mostly of panko breadcrumbs, and the two-jacket potatoes were odd to eat with little gustatory payoff. The spinach and brussels sprouts salad evoked Food 52 rather than Next or any Chicago steakhouse I’ve been to. The steak sauces were a highlight: a black-pepper sauce capucine edged out the bearnaise-y “Sauce Kokonas,” and even their version of A1 was delicious.

Desserts again were a luck-of-the-draw, as two different types of desserts were randomly doled out to diners. I was lucky with the Baked Alaska, which was good, but mostly forgettable, if only for the unenthusiastic tableside preparation. At one point, I was served two pours of two wonderful chardonnays: 2012 Kistler from Napa, and 2005 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru Burgundy. I vastly enjoyed these wines more than many bites of food at Next.

Conceptually, it seemed like Next steered shy of full commitment to the theme of mid-century Chicago Steakhouses. Given the multiple comparisons made to the theater as justification for Next’s novel ticket system, there lacked any real theatrics in the dining room. Sure, the table lamp and low-playing period music mildly evinced the theme, but the food on the plate bore little resemblance to a classic steakhouse meal of any type, be it Chicago, 1940s-era, or off-Jersey turnpike. I would have preferred them to just play it straight but execute the hell out of it — how many people would have licked the potato shell clean of a well-executed twice-baked potato (not to mention introducing this out-of-style, mid-century dish to some diners for the first time?).  I also would have appreciated more beef  to create a build-up to the ribeye course (such as tableside-prepped tartare, or a garnish of short rib on something). As it is, by the time the beef course arrived, the air was out of the balloon.

But there is a bigger issue that precludes full, successful execution. It’s that Next didn’t capture any of the sexiness of a full-blown night at a steakhouse. (Even their promotional video had girls on one side, the men on the other.) Especially given the price, I don’t think many will leave Next feeling like it exceeds Chicago steakhouses circa 2014.

2013 in Review

My Most Impressionable 2013 Eating and Drinking Experiences

The whole point of blogging is to create a written record of what you did/didn’t do and liked/didn’t like, because as you age, it’s tough to remember anything without writing it down. To that end, here’s my year-end wrap-up of dining and traveling in 2013, the places that made the strongest impression on me, for good or for bad:

The Good

Cinco Jotas at EL Ideas, Chicago

During the NRA show, exhibitor Cinco Jotas teamed up with EL Ideas for an entirely Iberico ham-themed dinner. It was a wild orgy of culinary excess that involved an entire leg and a professional carver from Spain at our disposal, several ham-focused courses by Phillip Foss and his team, and lots of BYO wine. You haven’t seen people go crazy unless you’ve seen them with unfettered access to a leg of Cinco Jotas jamón. Seriously, though, eating (and eating) a heritage product like acorn-fed Iberico ham never gets old, even if you’re sweating ham the next day.

Tanta Chicago

I wrote about my experience at Tanta during previews. At the time, I wasn’t sure how Tanta would fit in to the patchwork of tourist-centric restaurants in River North. Judging by the crowds, it seems like it’s a hit. Although the food certainly is delicious and the menu approachable, I still find Tanta’s popularity intriguing. Maybe Tanta’s success is a commentary on the type of food, price point and atmosphere that is in demand in River North more than anything else, but its success might have the extra effect of opening up Chicago to other similar imports or attention by international chefs. I think that would be a good thing.

Pujol and Quintonil, Mexico City

These restaurants are the real deal. As Mexico City dining continues to gain greater attention, these two restaurants stand above a very dense pack of excellent chef-driven restaurants.

Raku, Las Vegas

I finally made it to this beloved Japanese restaurant in Chinatown after hearing, again and again, how great it is. It is. I still dream of the sweet smoke that emanated from everything they grilled. The housemade tofu with the texture of fresh ricotta. The green tea salt. The pork rib. Food that was bold–and confident–with great service to boot.

Gramercy Tavern, NYC

I’ve been going here for years. Maybe it was the multiple visits on my last trip (I stayed only a few blocks from there), but, boy, I’ve been really missing this place lately. I visited during early September, when seasonal produce was at its height. A simple crudité plate was a study in vegetables — 3 types of beautifully executed, intensely-flavored sauces were paired with raw, tempura, blanched or roasted vegetables. A place that well understands seasonality and its ingredients, and is uniquely warm and comfortable as well, never goes out of style.

Yakitori Totto, NYC

I finally–and I mean, finally!–made it to Yakitori Totto, a popular mid-town restaurant located on the second floor of a non-descript building. It was about 85 degrees outside that late June night, and about 99 degrees inside Yakitori Totto, but somehow, that made it more appropriate. Not a dud here, food-wise. Pork neck was, by far, the standout, but egg dishes, rice dishes, they were all solid as well. At the end of the dinner, after ordering what seemed like enough dishes for an army, it was pleasant to see a relatively reasonable price charged for a meal in Midtown Manhattan.

Bemelman’s, NYC

A Bourdain favorite, I visited for the first time this past June. A New York must. It’s not just that Bemelman’s seems to represent so perfectly the Upper East side given that it’s part of a luxury art deco historic hotel, which is ornate and well-appointed beyond your wildest dreams. It’s that, to reach Bemelman’s, you have to go through the lobby and down a far remote corridor to a windowless, back room bar, itself a window into another time. Where else has murals by a famous artist (painted in exchange for room and board), or a truly talented piano player who plays compellingly during the afternoon, as if anyone could possibly have anything else to do during the afternoon than while away at Bemelman’s? Although the drinks are definitely reflective of the atmosphere (and clientele), the bartenders know somehow, magically, to make a proper classic cocktail even though they don’t have handlebar mustaches, speakeasy garb, or ironic facial hair.

Bar Ingles, Lima Peru

The Peruvian version of Bemelman’s (kind of) is Bar Ingles, in the Country Club Hotel in Lima. There’s something about this hotel–perhaps it’s the obvious colonial theme–that embodies South American dictator culture at its finest. Though I jest, the traditional European decor and finely-trained servers may simply be the hallmarks of high-end hospitality the world over, but, let’s get down to business, make a mean Pisco Sour. The meanest. This is a plush safe haven to kill time when, say, you’re waiting for your 2 am flight back to the States.

New York City, generally

Everyone who is interested in food and eating should go to NYC at least once a year, if they can. I love Chicago, but there is too much going on here to miss.

Husk Bar, Charleston, S.C.

Even more so than Husk The Restaurant, I cherished my time at Husk Bar. An adjacent building (I’m guessing it was the old kitchen and slaves’ quarters for the great house now occupied by Husk The Restaurant), this is the place to cool your heels and drink bourbon. If you’re hungry, have some country ham.

McCrady’s, Charleston, S.C.

I thought McCrady’s really showed off Sean Brock’s culinary chops. The high-end versions of Southern classics were serious, intellectual, inspired and truly delicious. One of the most refined tasting menus I had this year, and at a fraction of the price. I have to admit that I enjoyed my meal here far more than the bland one I had at Husk.

The 2013 Chicago Standbys

Vera

I need to have a small plates and wine-focused place to go to when I don’t know where else I’d want to go. Vera is my go-to place to relax, stop by to kill time on my way somewhere else, or to just “eat.” Meaning, I just want a delicious, satisfying plate of food and good wine. Vera answers that call every time and has solidified its place as the “go-to” in my life.

Telegraph

I have long followed Sommelier Jeremy Quinn’s unusual wine selections for years (too many to admit) at Webster’s Wine Bar. I’m thrilled that his wine selections are now seriously paired with seriously good food. The monthly wine tastings curated by Quinn that are paired with wine-appropriate food by Chef Anderes is one of the best bargains in town.

Rootstock

Rootstock hasn’t budged from prior years as my late night, early evening, whenever-I-just-want-to-drink-and-have-a-bite, or when I just want one-more-drink-before-going-home place. It’s about as perfect a wine bar as you can get. The food is good, too.

Davanti Enoteca (Taylor St.)/Three Aces

I go to the movies a lot during the winter. Before or after, and sometimes both, you can find me at either of these two fine places. Davanti is a really solid restaurant that, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to be taken as seriously as it should. The pastas are almost always beautifully done and the wine is wonderful. What more do you need?

People complain about the service at Three Aces, but I always sit at the bar, and I’ve always had great service. Though the Italian food here is more creative and loosely translated than at Davanti, it seems to be the only bar food I actually crave, even if their bolognese is a tad salty at times. The pizza isn’t my favorite, but is $5 at times, which makes it a great bargain. I tend to stick with entrees (like the buckwheat gnocchi) or their delicious burger and bolognese fries and I’m happy.

Grace

I don’t eat top tier meals in Chicago all that often (who does, really?). I don’t subscribe to Next, so I’m not committed to any one place for high-end meals. For me, the place to have a splurge meal is Grace. In just one year, Chef Duffy has honed his food into something distinct, fresh, innovative, seasonal, bright, unique, and challenging in a way that doesn’t scare diners or shackle them to their chair for six hours. The pacing is perfect; my last meal lasted no more than three hours, and I left feeling full without hating myself. The service is personable, knowledgeable and confident. The room is pleasantly buzzing. This is what all splurge meals should be like.

Fat Rice

After going to Fat Rice on opening night, I was scared off by later talk of lines and crowds. Chef/owners Abe and Adrienne have responded to the waits with a customer-friendly option: the next-door salon, where you can comfortably wait with a drink and order snacks. During recent visit there, I waited 10 minutes for my table, but would have been comfortable waiting there for twice that time. As for the food, the explosive, dynamic flavors of their version of Portuguese-Macanese food is worth every national accolade they got. I’ll be back more during 2014.

The Disappointments

Show over Substance (Central, Lima, Peru; é by José Andrés, Las Vegas; Cook It Raw, Charleston)

Lima is more than willing to set its cuisine on a world stage. The problem is that, what happens when the world comes to judge? Central, the flagship restaurant by Virgilio Martinez, is second only to Gaston Acurio’s Astrid y Gaston in Lima. Judging it by international standards, the service is amaterish, and the plating is at once highly stylized (two swaths of food down plates) and terribly ugly (brown food sauced by brown food). There appears to be a lot of intellect behind the food that doesn’t really translate coherently on the plate.

é by José Andrés is an 8-seat restaurant behind Jaleo in The Cosmopolitan that stages two, very expensive culinary shows every night. It’s a Vegas-style schtick that takes the poof and magic of modernist cuisine, and puts it front and center. I’ll accept that I’m jaded, but this is a show for people who are totally unfamiliar with this style of cuisine. If you are familiar with this food, you’d expect the food on the plate to taste better. The culmination of the magic tricks were wan, tasteless, science experiments. Skip the Vegas show, and eat this style of food in more serious venues.

Cook It Raw! is an unfortunately named, week-long seminar of sorts for some of the world’s elite chefs (not all are world-class) that culminated, for the first time, with a BBQ that was open to the public. This made sense given the theme (Southern foodways). However, several chefs who were represented to be in attendance (Andre Chiang, Dan Barber, Ben Shewry, among others) were no-shows at the BBQ. The theme was loosely interpreted (tacos by “The Mexicans”, i.e., Javier Tellez, Enrique Olvera, and Alex Stupak), ignored entirely (Canadian food) or just badly executed (Albert Adrià’s dish was one but not the only one). A disappointment on the whole, but an excuse to go to Charleston and eat well elsewhere.

Las Vegas Strip in General

This is hardly a revelation, but I can’t seem to get my mind around how, for all the investment per square foot in restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip, the food only seems to be getting worse. Even finding a solid drink is tough, too, among all the Blue Hawaiians and faux-tinis. A strange place, culinarily, that seems to have perfected the synthesis of suburban chain restaurants and urban celebrity chefs.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

I saved this for last, as it was the biggest heartbreaker. I’ve long been a fan of Dan Barber, his seasonal philosophy and his fearlessness in serving food that he raises or grows. The food was knock-your-socks-off delicious. The wine service was among the worst I’ve ever experienced, and tempered the rest of the meal. It was a terrible service experience that I don’t intend to repeat anytime soon, food notwithstanding.

Mexico City At Its Finest (Quintonil and Pujol)

Myth: Culinary travelers should only eat “street” food when they travel to Mexico City.

Reality: There is more to Mexico City than tacos, flautas, and pozoles, delicious though they may be. Mexico City is, without question, one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities. Like all cosmopolitan cities, it has world-class museums, a thriving business center, trendy boutique hotels, and, naturally, some of the world’s best restaurants. A short stroll around tonier neighborhoods like Condesa and Polanco reveal restaurant after restaurant upon wine and cocktail bars. To eat only street food in Mexico City is like visiting Chicago without going to a Paul Kahan restaurant. 

You should eat street food. (For that, I highly recommend Nicholas Gilman’s book, “Good Food in Mexico City: Food Stalls, Fondas & Fine Dining,” or the Culinary Backstreets blog.) The cultural benefit to eating street food in a city like Mexico City is not that it’s necessarily so unique that it’s worth seeking out for itself, but that it puts the food in context. Pozoles are commonly eaten at markets, and tacos al pastor are usually eaten off-the-street, perhaps after late afternoon drinks in Condesa.  If you have tacos on a Sunday afternoon or as a mid-afternoon snack at a market, you’re eating like a native; tacos all the time — well, you’re eating like a tourist backpacker.

I’ll rephrase: You should eat street food, but not exclusivelyMexico City is regularly placed in the upper echelon of global dining due to a group of extremely talented Mexican chefs that are worth seeking out. Based on my visit there, there is abundant local pride for these chefs, and the broad attention they’ve brought to the vast traditions and varied pantry of Mexican cuisine.

“From cab drivers to bus boys, they asked me, ‘Are you going to Pujol?'”

In particular, Enrique Olvera of Pujol and Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil are two Mexico City chefs that should not be missed. For those keeping count, Pujol ranked No. 17 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (2 places behind Alinea), and Quintonil is No. 22 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Pujol aspires to demand the world’s attention with its stark dining room and somewhat somber service that mimics the polished four-star service in Europe and the United States. The night I was there, half the dining room was filled with Americans. (In fairness, it was Thanksgiving weekend, essentially vacation time for Americans.) Quintonil, on the other hand, feels like an undiscovered neighborhood restaurant.

Pujol

Olvera, who opened Pujol 14 or so years ago, is somewhat of a wunderkind. His menu is a journey through many of the building blocks of Mexican cuisine. It is cerebral, mature, and extremely refined. It refers to family recipes, such as the Mole Madre, and an amped-up version of an elote, utilizing (or paying homage to) an aunt’s recipe, which is served in a pumpkin filled with the smell of sweet smoke that wafts across the dining room every time it is served.

That Mole Madre is a signature savory dish at Pujol is evident by its placement on the tasting menu before the palate cleanser. I’ve had a lot of bad moles in Chicago that were two-note or off-balance. Few are transcendent. Olvera’s mole is “aged,” and “fed” over time like a bread starter. I tasted it on the 237th day of its existence. (For those wondering how long Pujol will keep a mole, the restaurant plans to toss it on Day 365 and start over.) It was rich and savory with developed dark bittersweet chocolate and dried-fruit notes–not unlike an aged Zinfandel–but with a subtle heat from chili pepper as opposed to alcohol. It was only served with a tortilla. It didn’t need anything more.

A huitlacoche dish was gorgeously delicate, balancing its earthy flavor against sweet pureed tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes appeared again along with chiles in a chilacayota squash dish. The squash was prepared filet-style as you might with a piece of fish, and distilled in one dish why Mexicans  have such a love affair with all types of squash. The rest of the tasting menu combined diverse ingredients in single plates but never strayed too far from authentic Mexican flavors and traditions — for example, in an homage to raspado, the classic summer refresher similar to a snow cone, chico zapote (similar to mamey) acted as a palate cleanser; tonka beans came together with ground cherries as a tart-savory dessert. Olvera is not trying to be the modernist Mexican version of Grant Achatz. He’s uniquely connected to and understands his culture’s cuisine, but he’s unafraid of letting it express itself as a more sophisticated version of itself.

Quintonil

The other side of the coin is the more casual Quintonil, which walks a line between heartier, more homespun food and refinement. Behind Quintonil are two young people, chef Jorge Vallejo, and his wife, Alejandra Flores, who runs the front of the house. (I have encountered few front of the house people who are as gracious, precise and warmly sophisticated as Flores.) Though deliberately more approachable, this food is no less delicious or modern in refining traditional food, and there is a special emphasis (at least when I was there) on blending the cuisine of the various regions. Although I had often encountered diced panela cheese in soups in Mexico City, I wasn’t quite prepared for how refined simple Oaxacan string-cheese can be in a soup. This soup was smooth and creamy, and made richer by chunks of crispy pork belly, and rounder by sweet plaintain. If comfort food is soulfully satisfying, then I guess this is Mexican comfort food at its best.

One of the more interesting dishes was ‘huauzontles,’ which is an oblique reference to the name of the restaurant (Spanish for amaranth). The slightly bitter huauzontles (a member of the goosefoot family) were boiled, minced fine, and served with a sweet tomato sauce and cheese from Chiapas. Mexico benefits from year-round production of crops like tomatoes and peaches that are highly seasonal in the Midwest. Thus, Quintonil and Pujol had the luxury of using tomatoes in November in pleasing ways to offset either the richness or bitterness of certain dishes, and Quintonil’s naturally sweet tomato puree was a welcome foil to greens that are not themselves a major culinary draw. Chilacoyota squash made an encore appearance at Quintonil, where it was treated quite differently than at Pujol, and served with a strong, savory mole, showing how versatile an ingredient pumpkin is. In a city filled with craft cocktail bars, Quintonil’s cocktails, made with a panoply of indigenous Mexican ingredients and Mezcals, were especially well-crafted.

Mexico City is a relatively cheap, three-and-a-half hour flight from Chicago. Rather than devote money to doing another season at Next, why not fly down to Mexico City to experience their gustatory coming out party?

Dissecting the Michelin Hype & Is There A Bias Against Chicago?

I read this tweet by Grant Achatz yesterday and thought, here we go again, like it or not, it’s Michelin time:

Michelin less then a month away. How many three stars in Chicago this year? And any for Next? @curtisduffy @dcberan @MichelinGuideCH

Unlike Mr. Achatz, though, I’m less interested in predicting the restaurants that will win (or lose) stars than in the one part of his tweet about Next, which I think refers to the fact that Next has been shut out of the awards in any regard despite ceaseless national hype, the unquestionable top-tier talent of Chef Dave Beran, and the receipt of four stars for each incarnation by Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune.

Michelin as a gauge of restaurant quality is increasingly questionable. Its vague standards seem to be applied in a patchwork fashion from city-to-city. I’ve heard Hong Kong decried as the place with the most unworthy Michelin-starred restaurants. On the other end of the spectrum, I think, is Chicago, which seems to have had an unusually difficult time getting its restaurants awarded stars. So much that Michelin may be on the brink of losing any local credibility whatsoever.

The onset of the yearly Michelin announcement seems to have divided Chicago into two camps. One camp dismisses Michelin as an archaic novelty from the pre-internet days, and complain if it is given any attention (I’ll call them the “Emotional Distancers”). The other camp believes deep-down that Michelin is elite and influential, and mainly wants to see their city’s beloved restaurants afforded the prestige of Michelin star-designation (these are the “True Believers”).

If there’s one thing both camps seem to agree on is that there is a Michelin bias against Chicago. According to them, this is evidenced by the irrational omission of Next, and the inclusion of very traditional, predictable restaurants that aren’t highly regarded or talked about (remember one-star Crofton on Wells?). Other beloved restaurants (i.e., Ruxbin and Vera) have been lauded nationally but omitted from either the Stars or Bibs, causing more speculation and head-scratching. (That Chicago has endured being cast as such fairly recently only contributes to Second City angst.)

But could there really be an institutional bias against Chicago like people say? As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. A grand total of 19 Michelin-starred restaurants seems like a small number. But why would Michelin have it out for Chicago?  After all, isn’t it in their best interests to give out more stars, which would generate more hype and ostensibly sell more guides?

As with a lukewarm performance review, maybe your boss is a self-absorbed egomaniac, but there are probably some things you could do to improve your work performance before quitting in protest. Before anyone can dismiss the famously anonymous Michelin inspecteurs as unadventurous, staid, French food fuddy-duddies, is it certain that Chicago restaurants are satisfying the one criterion Michelin focuses on — service?  Food is subjective, but good service is easier to universally pinpoint. And if nothing else, Michelin sets a threshold for service that all starred restaurants consciously or unconsciously must meet. Unfortunately, as much as I love Chicago restaurants, a good number of them disqualify themselves from Michelin star status right out of the gate with sub-par service in three respects:

Overbearing Bussers. The bussers in Chicago insert themselves into the dining experience like no other city I’ve known. They regularly interrupt the dinner by slamming down plates or silverware, or by reaching through numerous times to refill an eighth-inch depletion of a water glass. Especially bothersome is when they take, without asking first, used silverware and place it on the bare tabletop for re-use with the next course (even though the tabletop has seen countless fingers and elbows that no amount of quick wipes of a much-used rag can truly cleanse). Often, they must be stopped from whisking away a plate with food left on it in what is an obvious effort to rush dinner and turn the table. By giving the bussers such a prominent role, restaurants are layering in another potential for discontent. If a diner had a good experience with a server, and a bad one with the busser, what do you think they’ll remember? It’s like why cheftestants shouldn’t prepare duos on Top Chef. Prominent bussing service increases the likelihood that people will leave the restaurant feeling short-changed of good service.

Over-Extended Servers. It seems like the servers at some of Chicago’s most chef-driven restaurants are harried and under-trained. They don’t take ownership of their tables, resulting in either the kitchen (see below) or the bussers (see above) taking control of the meal, and leaving the diners caught in the middle without an advocate. I don’t mean to harp on hardworking people, but better training and more veteran, polished service might be an improvement. And I’m not necessarily blaming the servers themselves; I think their employers — some of which are serving Chicago’s very best food — are doing everyone a disservice by not providing them with appropriate support.

Small Plate Frenzy. Small plates (and by that I mean, dishes that are meant to be shared, consisting of only a few bites, and requiring patrons to order at least 4 per meal) create a service minefield that can easily trip up a meal. With few exceptions, dining with small plates means, “whatever dishes the kitchen finishes first.” No order, no planning. So, the salad may come out after the meat dishes, or the table may end up stacked with several plates that came out at once. Sometimes, when the table is already filled with small plates, runners arrive with their hands full of more small plates (the actual plates being not so small), holding them aloft, looking expectantly at the diners to solve the problem of the lack of room on the table. In cases such as this, I’ve seen diners take on the task of rearranging plates, stacking them or even scarfing down what’s left on the plates a la Lucy at the chocolate factory. If a Michelin inspecteur has to rearrange his or her table to make room for more plates, poof! there goes your Michelin star (and probably also your Bib).

So maybe it’s true that Michelin is too traditional or hates the casual dining mish-mosh triggered by small plates and there’s nothing to be done, but I think it’s hard to write off Michelin as biased until the service improves. And just as I write that, I think back to the recent meal I had at New York City’s Danny Brown Wine Bar, a Michelin one-star…

NEXT: Danny Brown Wine Bar, or the Best Case of Anti-Chicago Bias by Michelin

DANNY BROWN WINE BAR, OR THE BEST CASE OF ANTI-CHICAGO BIAS BY MICHELIN

On a recent business trip, I detoured from LaGuardia to Danny Brown Wine Bar & Kitchen in New York City, which has the distinction of being the borough of Queens’ only Michelin-starred restaurant. It also happened to be the day that Michelin announced its star designations for NYC restaurants, so they had received the good news (that they retained their star), and many regulars came in to congratulate them.

I liked Danny Brown Wine Bar, more for the vibe than the food or wine. For a place that calls itself a wine bar the wine list was ho-hum. The food, while a dated parade of mid-90s standards (duck confit, roasted chicken with rosemary potatoes, hangar steak), was satisfying in a comforting weekday sort of a way. As I enjoyed my well-paced meal (service was great), I settled in, sipped a middling glass of red wine as dusk descended, and watched as more patrons arrived in casual, post-work dress. They were greeting Danny and the staff with cheek-kisses and chit-chat, inquiring after family, and contributing to a mellow, friendly vibe, helped along by the soft-jazz playing, I thought, oh, this is such a classic New York neighborhood restaurant, exactly what you’d expect –

RECORD SCRATCHED.

No, it wasn’t. Or maybe it was, but that was not what formed my frame of reference. DBWB reminded me of CHICAGO neighborhood restaurants. West Town Tavern (RIP) was the first, most prominent comparison that came to mind. Not to sound boosterish, but Chicago — the city of neighborhoods — has perfected the neighborhood restaurant. What is more, there are many versions of DBWB in Chicago, except that I can name several off of the top of my head that have more ambitious menus and better executed food, cocktails, and wine programs than that at DBWB. Yet, few of them are Bib Gourmands, let alone Michelin stars.

How can Michelin possibly explain this disparity? Maybe Michelin isn’t going deep into Chicago’s restaurant landscape, but that’s inconsistent with its awarding Bib Gourmands to little-discussed restaurants like Yolo or De Colores. Frankly, I don’t think there is an explanation, except that Michelin wanted to reward the borough of Queens with a Michelin-starred restaurant. But this sort of relaxing of standards for NYC and not Chicago would indicate a bias, because Michelin doesn’t seem so concerned with equitably distributing its stars throughout Chicago neighborhoods. The popular, dining-rich neighborhoods of Andersonville and Wicker Park, for instance, have zero Michelin-starred restaurants.

So, to prove my point (if only to myself), here are 10 great neighborhood restaurants in Chicago that are similar to but better than Danny Brown Wine Bar:

Restaurants that do not have a Michelin star but are Bib Gourmands:

1)  Balena

2)  Avec

3)  The Bristol

4)  Nightwood

5)  The Storefront Company

(Note that I could have also included places like Maude’s, Ada Street, Gilt Bar, Au Cheval, Spacca Napoli, etc., but in fairness, I think they’re going for something different than DBWB.)

Restaurants that do not have a Michelin star or a Bib Gourmand:

1)  Vera

2)  Telegraph

3)  Yusho

4)  Ruxbin

5)  A Tavola

Any of these restaurants are easily more worthy of accolades than DBWB, either because their food is more finessed, their wine and beverage programs are more honed (or ambitious), or they exceed DBWB’s idea of an exceptional neighborhood restaurant.

Depending on the next announcement, Michelin is teetering on a genuine perception problem in Chicago. Talk to any frequent Chicago diner, and they’ll most likely grumble about Michelin. (In contrast, here is one example of how Michelin is viewed differently in NYC.) DBWB is just one argument (in my opinion) for a colorable claim of bias. If Chicago restaurants are subjected to the yearly dog-and-pony announcement show put on by Michelin only to feel shorted by the process, well, the major accomplishment by Michelin will be to create a large group of Michelin Nihilists in the country’s third-largest city. Does Michelin’s US arm benefit from having a holdout city that loudly discredits the guide as a joke? Depending upon what happens in November, we’ll see.

ISO Thoughtful, Interesting Mid-Priced Wine Lists In Chicago

I feel like wine lists have taken a hit lately as many restaurants shift their focus to cocktails and craft beer. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but after many years of drinking and eating, I firmly believe that (some foods excepted) nothing pairs with food as well as wine does. There. I’ve said it.

Now that I’ve either dated myself, made myself seem like a fancy-pants dilettante, or enraged a whole class of ardent beer and cocktail drinkers, hear me out. High-end tasting menus still seem to keep wine in good stead, but even that’s diminishing, as beer and cocktails are creeping into beverage pairings at restaurants like Next. Wine bars like Bar Pastoral, Rootstock and Webster’s certainly have interesting wine lists but they’re wine bars — they should.

In a mid-range context, wine lists at many restaurants that have opened in the past five years or so read like afterthoughts — a repetition of common or uninteresting bottles that appear almost everywhere else including on drugstore shelves and in grocery stores. I’m sure there are other factors that play into this phenomenon, but I can’t help believing that those concerns would be minimized if more diners appreciated a variety of wines as enjoyable, interesting beverage pairings or restaurateurs viewed wine lists as less a potential profit center and more of a unique expression of the soul of the restaurant. (A separate discussion: Wine lists that appear to be written for a narrow, dwindling sector of the population. I digress.)

Some restaurants seem to have broken with the trend, and that seems to be the result of the individual will of certain people involved in the restaurants — not to mention perhaps their deeply personal connection with wine.

6 Restaurant Wine Lists I’m Enjoying Right Now

(Omitting wine bars, and in no particular order):

  1. Telegraph. This almost goes without saying. Jeremy Quinn (sommelier at Webster’s Wine Bar) created this eclectic list. (He also offers his own private-label selections distributed by Cream Wine Company.) It’s interesting and fun, even if your palate is stretched to the bounds by some of the wines. Telegraph occasionally offers half-carafes of older vintage wines for the people who aren’t so committed to springing for a bottle. Also, their selection of beautiful and sexy stemware from Schott Zweisel shows a certain love of the drink.
  2. Vera.  Sommelier Liz Mendez is so enthusiastic about wine that the offerings are always changing. Although there is a distinct emphasis on Spanish wines, Liz ultimately goes with what she likes, so an offered rosé might be a beloved Peuch-Haut from France. Casual wine drinking is acknowledged in the form of on-tap bulk wines. Vera is a favorite place for a good wine-by-the-glass although every time I peruse the bottle list, there’s almost always something tempting that doesn’t approximate a mortgage payment.
  3. Nightwood. Go and check out their rosé-by-the-glass list right now before it leaves for the summer. Enough said.
  4. Fat Rice. The stemware might be too deliberately casual for my tastes, but I can’t think of another casual Asian restaurant at this price point that even comes close to their wine offerings. This is due at least in part to the input of Craig Perman who owns Perman Wine Selections in the West Loop. For many years, Perman collaborated with Fat Rice owners, Adrienne & Abe, on food-and-wine events when they were doing their underground dinners as X-Marx.
  5. Balena. Although aperitivos and bitter drinks are (rightfully) front-and-center on Balena’s menu, the Italian-focused wine list doesn’t read — like you’d expect — as a roll-call of nebbiolo and sangiovese. Instead, it travels to the far corners of Italy, and even includes brethren from Slovenia and distant cousins in other Mediterranean ports-of-call. Through their extensive by-the-glass list, I’ve been enjoying the overlooked refoscos and underappreciated nerello mascaleses. It’s a list that invites you to taste around.
  6. Farmhouse. It’s not the wine list per se, but Farmhouse’s approach to wine that I appreciate. Farmhouse is one of the few restaurants that approaches the “farm-to-table” trend by giving it more than lip service, and applying it in almost every available format beyond just sourcing from local farmers — they have a rooftop garden, they serve a panoply of local microbeers, and in a bold step, their wine offering is mostly fulfilled by tapping kegs of local wine from Domaine Berrien in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Is it the best wine you’ll have? Should you be comparing the style to the French masters? Probably not, but it is perfectly enjoyable and more interesting than the ubiquitous bottles of New Zealand sauvignon blanc served elsewhere. By turning wine back into the casual format it is enjoyed in many countrysides across the world, Farmhouse seems to understand the spiritual need to sip a locally produced table wine with locally produced food.

Lists are meant to be debated, and I’m sure I’ve omitted some very worthy contenders. If you like wine, though, these places deserve your support.

Lima in Chicago (Tanta)

It was only a matter of time before a Peruvian chef concept landed on our doorstep. Earlier, I blogged about the seemingly endless attention on Peruvian food and Limeño chefs. It’s probably premature to declare Peruvian food as the next it cuisine without also considering how vigorously the Peruvian culinary community has promoted it. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing going on. Probably no one has spread the gospel of Peruvian cuisine more visibly than Gastón Acurio, the chef behind Lima’s premier fine dining restaurant, Astrid y Gastón, which was recently ranked No. 14 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (surpassing Chicago’s pride, Alinea). Acurio is also behind several other restaurants in Lima, ranging from the sexy cebichería, La Mar, to the more casual, Tanta. Astutely, Acurio didn’t wait to be discovered, but replicated his flagship, Astrid y Gastón, in several other international cities, including Madrid, where European-centric “list-makers” would be more likely to discover it. (Lima chef Virgilio Martinez is even more flagrant in this regard, opening Lima London right at the home base of the announcement of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.)

Acurio has developed chains for his other Lima restaurants, La Mar and Tanta. There are two versions of La Mar in the U.S. in San Francisco and New York City. Acurio announced last year that Chicago would be his target for his third U.S. restaurant, but it wouldn’t be another La Mar (too inland? too carniverous?), but Tanta. I ate at two different Tantas in Lima, which is itself a chain there. Tanta was the sort of place where you seated yourself, the tables were bespecked with flecks of sugar and crumbs from previous diners, and you had to flag your tuxedoed waiter for service. When I heard that Tanta Chicago was opening, I was puzzled that anyone would take the trouble to open a U.S. version of these fairly indistinct cafes.

Tanta Chicago soft-opened last week, and it turns out that, aesthetically, Tanta Chicago is quite different from its Lima cousins, but very similar to most mid-priced River North restaurants. Tanta Chicago seems more Nellcôte than Lima. In all respects, Tanta seems like it’s running through the mid-scale, River North playbook with the obligatory bar, cocktail menu, dark lighting, and throbbing music.

But I wouldn’t discount Tanta Chicago as just another trendy restaurant or bar meant to appeal to the Eisenhower/Edens daytrippers or tourists (go to Siena Tavern for that). I also wouldn’t discount it as another half-baked celeb-chef import. I was surprised at how smoothly this operation was running only a few days in. Putting Jesus Delgado from La Mar San Francisco in charge as chef de cuisine removed any illusion that Acurio would be in the kitchen; also, there aren’t enough significant differences between Tanta and La Mar that the kitchen is testing and rolling out brand new dishes. It feels more authentic, permanent and earnest than other recent openings.

The menu at Tanta is a primer of sorts as to Peruvian cuisine minus any extensive exploration of the sub-cuisines (though Japanese Nikkei and Chinese Chifa are represented briefly). Also absent is the use of the exotic Peruvian pantry, such as Andean fruits like lucuma or seafood like Amazonian snails (no doubt due to their unavailability here). Quinoa figures prominently on the menu, but is trendy almost to the point of obliterating the crop entirely, so diners won’t necessarily connect the existence of quinoa on Tanta’s menu with its history as an essential Peruvian peasant food. Paiche, though, will likely not be familiar to many diners.

I don’t think anyone at the table who went to Lima detected any marked flavor disparity between the ceviches at Tanta Chicago and those served in cebicherias in Lima (except the superior seafood quality there, no doubt), and the leche de tigre (or tiger’s milk, the classic Peruvian marinating liquid of fish juice, lime, onion and aji) is proudly used. Compared to the hilariously awful, MSG-laden Chifa we had in Lima at Acurio’s Chifa restaurant, Madam Tusan’s, the chaufa (Peruvian-Chinese fried rice) at Tanta was better conceived and carefully executed — the rice was served in a sizzling stone bowl, and a shrimp omelet on top denoted a playful fusion with other cuisines, as well as added a more chef-inspired component to traditional fried rice.

A “street food feast” included the ubiquitous Peruvian purple potatoes with boiled quail eggs in a straightforward tasting version of hauncaina, the cheese and aji amarillo sauce served over potatoes. Antichuchos were much better than those I’ve had stateside. Empanadas won’t convert you from those served elsewhere, but the classic Peruvian pollo a la brasa will.

I was skeptical about this dish — priced at $19 for a half chicken/$32 for a whole — knowing that D’Candela does such a great job with this dish at half the price. Also, brined chicken cooked on a rotisserie over charcoal is inherently a very homestyle dish that doesn’t easily lend itself to chef-tweaking. In fact, the D’Candela version seems downright fancy compared to those in Peru, where the dish’s formulaic aspects has made it a fast food chain staple. But my doubts were assuaged — Tanta’s version was meant to honor the simplicity of this dish with flawless execution. The accompanying ajis and rice and beans could easily serve six with some other shared dishes — at $32, this might be one of the least expensive and most filling dishes in River North. Same with the monstrous lamb shank for $28, which could readily feed four.

Other dishes, such as the lomo saltado, were good representations to the breadth of this cuisine, but not likely to convert anyone into a Peruvian food addict. It bears noting that, although you’re likely to get the most authentic Pisco Sour in town at Tanta, theirs were notably more acidic than the, ahem, many I drank in Lima. (I find that the extra acidity masks the flavor of the Pisco.) That’s an execution misstep I hope they correct.

I imagine that anyone who eats downtown or likes to try new restaurants will not be disappointed by Tanta Chicago. At this point, the reasonable prices and approachable environment, as well as the broad, appeals-to-everyone menu, will likely make a lot of people happy. I think the harshest criticisms of this place will come from the people who see Tanta Chicago as a price-inflated version of neighborhood joints that offer many of the exact same dishes.  I raised this issue with the general manager (another Acurio vet) and he downplayed such concerns, citing how the neighborhood places were doing something different in serving homestyle versions of Peruvian food, and that Tanta was putting some twists on classic Peruvian dishes, and executing them at a different level. It’s true that they’re setting the bar higher. I think there’s always room for both. As with any imported chef restaurant concept (be it domestic or foreign), Chicago is more hesitant than other cities to embrace concepts that are not homegrown. But I think Acurio’s concept with Tanta is flexible and, dare I say it, humble enough, not to offend most Chicago skeptics.