Hidden in Plain Sight: Italian Village’s Wine Cellar (Chicago)

This year marks my 20th year in Chicago, when I arrived in August, 1995 to begin graduate school. It goes without saying (although I will anyway) that the city has changed a lot since then, but it really has. Although Marche and Vivo were thriving in the mid-90s, Randolph Street as we know it today did not exist. The West Loop was a crime-ridden wasteland of abandoned buildings, many of which were bulldozed or rehabbed into lofts largely in preparation for the 1996 Democratic Convention at the United Center. Wicker Park and Bucktown still retained some of their grunge vibe, and the legendary Busy Bee was still slinging pierogies.

Twenty years later, a lot is gone but some things still exist. One of the first restaurants I went to after moving here was Italian Village. It was only a few blocks from my law school, and was cheap enough for a student’s budget. We cared less about the quality of the food, and more about guzzling cheap chianti by the glass and devouring huge plates of food for about $10 apiece.

It has been easily over a decade since my last visit to Italian Village. At first glance, I was struck by how much it looked the same. The room is still decorated with sculptures of questionable taste and artistry, like the life-size Roman goddess hovering above the diners, and the nude nymph flexing backwards in what I can only assume is ecstasy. There are still blinking lights to mimic stars on the wall. The back of the bar has a four-columned rotunda (this is where the nymph lives) and a trompe d’oeil effect makes it appear twice its size. Far from being sophisticated and classy by 2015 standards, it is strangely awesome in that it is proudly frozen in time. Italian Village seems completely aware that it is out-of-date but doesn’t give a fig, because it knows that everything old becomes new again. And with the opening of Formento’s, which attempts to re-create on a classier level what places like Italian Village have always been, I think they’re right.

What brought me back to Italian Village not as a student on a budget but as a professional with a 401(k) was Italian Village’s 30,000+ bottle wine cellar. Easily one of the largest collections of wine in the city, it seems largely overlooked or even forgotten. There is almost nothing about the wine list or the restaurant that contains the modern indications of culinary legitimacy: there’s no hipster somm, widely-acclaimed chef or the backing of a hip restaurant group. It is old world at its heart and old school in its execution. The list of Barolo and Barbaresco alone, though, should be enough to draw serious oenophiles from far and wide. The bottle prices, while not cheap, are certainly not expensive either given the quality and early vintages of the wine offered. As New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov lamented late last year, Barolo is a cellaring wine, yet so few restaurants are willing to invest in wine that takes twenty years (or more) to mature. Which is why Italian Village, stodgy as it is, is a municipal treasure.

You have to speak a few passwords, though, to find your way to this wine “speakeasy,” if you will. First, you have to know it exists. (Now you know, although the website announces it as well.) And when you arrive, you can’t be deterred by the hordes of tourists and pre-theatergoers who are there for the food, or the loud, after-work crowd sipping Buds from the bottle and munching on free pizza (a happy hour snack). When you sit down, you have to ask for the wine list – the reserve one – not the by-the-glass list that comes with the menu. And once you show that you’re ordering the good stuff, the door figuratively opens. You are visited by the “captain,” who sets down towering Barolo glasses, not the small Libby cups. (Ryan Wichmann is listed as the wine director, but various “captains” do wine service duty.) Your wine is strained and decanted, and carefully poured in small increments into your glass. When we were there, we had a 1999 Ceretto Bricco Rocche “Prapò” Barolo for about $115/bottle. At 26 years old, it could have cellared longer but with decanting, it was hitting its stride with softer tannins, good acidity, minerality, menthol, leather, and most pleasingly, ground hazelnuts at the finish.

Beyond the wine itself, though, what makes this whole experience great — and quintessentially Chicago — is the crush of humanity in this establishment. Restaurants these days seem demarcated down to age, haircuts and political persuasions. Some cocktail bars seem to cater only to young men, and certain Logan Square restaurants seem to require a dress code. But at Italian Village, it’s come one, come all: young, energetic administrative assistants drink Jack-and-cokes after a day at the office; handsome financial traders splurge on $500 bottles of Italian wine while sharing the bar with tourist families in town to see Book of Mormon. I don’t doubt that New York has its own version of a place like this, but everywhere in this country, this sort of a melting-pot restaurant is a dying breed. Go now, splurge on an excellent bottle of Barolo, and take it all in while you can.

Taking the Simple And Complicating It (Formento’s, Chicago)

My server at Formento’s began the night with reciting rapid-fire recommendations for dishes I should order off the menu. Had I listened, it would have resulted in enough food for an Italian-American army. When I asked him for guidance on how I should order off a menu divided into snacks, antipasti, soups and salads, macaroni, fish, meat and contorni, I received two incoherent spiels that devolved into a who’s-on-first back and forth that would have been amusing if Formento’s was going for cinematic comedic value:

Me: Is this to share or for one person?

Server: This is for one person or maybe two people. For two people, you want to order 1-2 appetizers, maybe you want to share a pasta, wait, you can share anything on the menu. I suggest the calamari, it is excellent (kisses his hand).

Me: So all of these plates are meant for sharing then?

Server: No, they’re individual, but I would share the crab dip, and maybe this calamari, but if you want the Caesar salad, which is excellent, that’s okay, it’s not too big, and if you want the Sunday Gravy, that’s okay too.

Me: So the pastas are entree-sized, for one person?

Server: No, if you don’t have an antipasti, then have the pasta and an entree, wait, maybe have a salad too. Yeah, that would be okay.

And on and on. We settled on a starter (eggplant parmagiana) and two pastas that we ended up sharing (the orecchiette and the Sunday gravy) with the caveat that we might order an entree depending on whether these dishes ending up being too big or too small.

Ordering wine proved no less complicated. The wine list is about four inches thick and weighs about ten pounds. The development of this varied, interesting, well-written list is an accomplishment in a city where restaurants seem to have pared down wine service to a minimum. But, I was left alone to navigate this list while the server disappeared and the sommelier breezed by my table three times, even made eye contact with me, but never actually stopped to assist me in making a selection. (Bewilderingly, we were the only table seated in our section at the time.) By the time the server came back, he began anxiously pressuring us for our food order (after spending ten minutes deciding on a wine, I can understand why he started to feel like the restaurant needed to turn our table as quickly as possible). So, I gambled and ordered a less common varietal from lesser known region; I say gamble because it was a bottle that I had never had, a vintage I was skeptical about, and it cost about $90–an expensive mistake if I didn’t love it.

As a side note, indifferent wine service in a restaurant that aspires to provide it can rapidly send a meal in the wrong direction. Terrible wine service at Blue Hill at Stone Barns–in which the sommelier disappeared to schmooze high roller tables and I ate 50% of my tasting menu without any wine–forever colored my experience even though the food was stellar. I can’t tell you how many sommeliers point me immediately to a California Chardonnay regardless of how inappropriate it is with the food, as if we are all Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Getting back to Formento’s, it’s a disservice to wine–which can be very intimidating to begin with– to curate a list the size of a Russian novel, and then not have the proper support to every table that wants to order wine. I hear many wine professionals complain that too many customers order certain rote wines by the glass (California Chardonnays or Cabernet Sauvignons), and do not delve deeper into the more interesting, nuanced bottle lists they worked hard to put together. But if the wine service professionals leave customers to navigate a huge list, then the customers will likely default to ordering cocktails or less interesting wines-by-the-glass (which are accordingly marked up).

My experience with the less-than-welcoming service, unfortunately, didn’t improve with the food. The eggplant parmagiana was bland but was the least offensive dish of the night. The Sunday gravy came with overcooked canestri that was in a pretty-good pork neck “gravy” but served with spongy meatballs and mealy sausages. It seemed like the romance of the idea of Sunday Gravy got in the way of the reality. The orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage was a total misfire–the ears of pasta were gummy and congealed to each other, it was oversauced with a salty, overly acidic liquid that didn’t marry the flavor of the fennel sausage with the bitterness of the rabe. A couple of bites and I was done.

I hesitated to post this because Formento’s opened recently and has had its share of opening hiccups, including a halt in Friday-night service due to a fire suppression system going off. But, on the other hand, since its opening and friends-and-family meals, the accolades have steadily rolled in (especially from people who attended the latter). I wish Formento’s the best, but I think the relatively simple, ubiquitous concept of Italian-American is proving too difficult to grasp. People eat at Italian-American restaurants, even mediocre ones, because they are simple, uncomplicated, warm, and welcoming. At least Carbone’s in New York–which is wildly expensive–understands the underlying nostalgic, comforting aspect of this genre of restaurants. Formento’s, which seems to shoot for the stars but misses the underlying premise, hopefully can settle down and make the necessary improvements to keep this ambitious operation going.

Oak + Char (Chicago)

Oak + Char is one of the few new restaurants that is getting consistent word-of-mouth praise. And after reading the review by Redeye’s Michael Nagrant — with whom I normally agree about restaurants — I knew I had to go. I’ve never had Chef Joseph Heppe’s food at Untitled so I had no preconceived notions walking in Oak + Char other than that the menu on-line looked interesting.

As for the pantaloon lights, aesthetics aside, I suspect they are there for one main reason — to help absorb the deafening noise in the restaurant. I could barely hear my server above the roar of the crowd and the loud club music, who despite telling him  I couldn’t hear him — never bothered to raise his voice. Just one of many service gaffes that took away from what would have been a much better meal.

In a way, my experience at Oak + Char exemplifies what is wrong with a lot of Chicago’s more ambitious restaurants — the front of the house is way out of step with the back. There is some talent here in the kitchen, and I can see why Nagrant classifies this chef as one to watch. I didn’t spring for the $100 32-ounce ribeye, but instead ordered the highly-touted rye-cured duck and cider-brined pork collar from the “large plates” menu. The proteins themselves were perfectly done — the rye flavors complemented an otherwise simply treated, perfectly prepared medium-rare duck with crispy, rendered skin. The cider-brined pork collar, while a tad over-salted, was explosively rich and tender. However, both proteins were marred by several messy garnishes on the plate that were overly sweet and complicated, and further, dated the dishes into the mid-00’s. (In fact, I went back and looked at the picture of Nagrant’s duck in Redeye, and that dish’s accompaniments were significantly simpler, so I don’t know if the kitchen has since changed the dish.) I think some deletions of the garnishes — or maybe reconstructing the plating — would give the well-prepared proteins their due.

We got the spiel in the beginning (or what I could hear of it) about shared plates. Unfortunately, I am so schooled in this spiel, common across Chicago, that I understood exactly was the server was saying about it, even if I could only hear his every third word. It boils down to whatever you order is shareable, and the kitchen will “try” to course it, but really everything comes out at once. And, yes, that’s mostly what happened.

Since the entrees were so generously portioned, we ordered a couple of snacks to complement the meal. (The highly-regarded ravioli was sold out for the night.) Almost as soon as we enunciated the order, they came out to the table, so I can only assume that the snacks are being held, pre-prepared, in the kitchen. The pecorino arancini was structurally unsound and broke apart with the slightest prodding; it was also missing the textural contrast of the chewy rice and soft cheese. The charred burrata was fine, but the portion was too small compared to the abundant portion of thick, toasted naan bread that was served with it. Both appetizers, though, were barely warm, and in the case of the arancini, poorly constructed.

Like a lot of Chicago restaurants, the wine list is an afterthought, and the brief by-the-glass list doesn’t label which wines are red, white, rose or sparkling, and arranges the reds at the top, and the sparkling wines at the bottom. Why confuse diners by setting up the BTG list this way?

The service, though, was indifferent to hostile, rushed and overall inexperienced. They seemed easily confused by questions, and not ready to recommend wines. When the food and wine came out, it was loudly and quickly thrown on the table, haphazardly (a wine glass placed square in front of my chest, another off to the far end of the table).  No matter how good the food may be, this level of service will always delete from the experience. Having said that, I think that Oak + Char is appealing to a younger crowd that is not as concerned with things like wine, plating and service–and I suspect, would be just as happy eating casual food from Hub 51 as they would the more finessed food of Chef Heppe.

Coming Full Circle: TRU

If you ask me to recommend one fine dining meal in Chicago right now, I’d recommend Grace without reservation. At Grace, Chef Curtis Duffy continues to hone his signature style, drawing on his prior experience at Trio, Alinea and Avenues. When you eat at Grace, you’re kind of getting a survey course in the evolution of Chicago fine dining over the last decade.

I’ve only been to Tru once, and that was shortly after it opened when then-married chef-couple (chouple?) Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand were in full control of the kitchen. My visit was so long ago that I had a hard time placing it in time, mentally searching for some clue on when it happened. (Was it when one of my dining companions was pregnant with her first or her second child? Was it post-tech bubble or in midst of real estate boom?). Finally, I found the answer on Rick Tramonto’s wiki page (I bet you didn’t know there was one, did you?) and, the answer to the question of when was the last time I dined at Tru is 1999. Yep, 15 years ago.

A lot has happened in Chicago dining over the last 15 years. I barely need to mention that, since then, we’ve had Trio under Achatz and its subsequent incarnation, Alinea; not to mention the influence of “molecular gastronomy” or “modernist” cuisine or whatever your preferred word is for making food more grounded in science lab techniques, which made fine dining more surprising and theatrical. Previously, the defining characteristic of fine dining was elevated service. Post-Alinea and its progeny, people expect to be wow-ed.

Not that Tru circa 1999 under Tramonto and Gand didn’t have its share of the Wow Factor. Remember the caviar staircase? Or the dish served in a bowl with a live goldfish swimming around in it that they gave to you (fish and all) at the end of the night? The Warhol, the synchronized service, and even the purse stand (which I think Tru pioneered in Chicago). Who could forget Gand’s deliberately playful dessert cart at the end of the meal, where diners could select from a variety of childhood favorites — lollipops, cupcakes, caramel corn, etc. — to take home for the night. It was intended to be grand, and, in my opinion, a distinct departure from the comparatively staid Charlie Trotter’s, Les Nomades and Everest.

Fast forward 15 years: Tramonto and Gand have divorced, and they’ve long departed Tru. Tru is still around but any word-of-mouth about it seems drowned out by complaints about Next’s ticketing system, continued Alinea accolades in the wake of earning three Michelin stars, L2O and its seemingly endless chef changes, and Grace in its steady ascendancy to the top echelon of the Chicago fine dining world. If it seems strange to be comparing Tru to pre-Achatz Trio, recall that Tramonto and Gand were at Trio before him, too.

Heeding some friends’ advice that their late meals at Tru under Chef Anthony Martin have returned it to its initial glory, I headed over there for my birthday this week. The restaurant looks pretty much the same as I remember it. The dining room on this Wednesday was only half-full — not terribly surprising for mid-week — but somewhat indicative of where Tru falls on the fine-dining rungs of the ladder. Unlike other restaurants that have concertedly upped their game, Tru seemed to have made a conscious effort to calm things down a bit from the opening glitz.

Overall, service was still pretty flawless, though the imperialistic flourishes have been toned down quite a bit. They still have the purse stand, and the servers are still dressed in black suits. They still offer a caviar course though the staircase is gone. (This is how it is offered now.) While it was unthinkable 15 years ago for a table to not order the caviar course, now I note that only one table did while I was there — perhaps a function of midweek restraint, or maybe post-recession sensibility — I don’t know. (In fact, it may be so out-of-fashion, that Grub Street asked this question in 2009.)

The food — not surprisingly given Chef Martin’s experience — is firmly grounded in French techniques, ingredients and flavors but strikes a balance between strict French food and sometimes-challenging modernist drama. There are no foams, no obvious over-reliance on anti-griddles, immersion circulators, or other modernist devices, and no plating of fifteen ingredients in a line. (I note there was an exploding truffle that was served in a container of dry ice, seemingly the only nod to modern techniques.) Although the plating is a little unorthodox, it’s hardly innovative. The execution and flavors of the food were adroit without hitting the overly rich point that many French restaurants reach one-third of the way through a tasting menu. Cream and butter were not overwhelmingly used, and every dish wasn’t topped with foie gras. Maybe you could ding Tru for the abundance of French truffles on the menu, but these truffles were pristine. There is also Midwestern seasonality to the menu — as evidenced by the red kuri squash soup dish — that was entirely absent in Tru 1999 if my recollection serves. I appreciated the fine selection of half-bottles — an alternative to wine pairings — which included 2006 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhone that drank spectacularly.

Some people may view all this as a fatal deficiency of excess or even originality — but unlike the hits-and-misses of Next’s menus, there wasn’t a bad dish in the entire repertoire of savory courses. Here’s the caveat, though: I suspect that the subtlety of Tru is likely to go right over the heads of many overstimulated diners who are accustomed to the theatrics of modern fine dining.

The one thing that distinguishes Tru is its easygoing approachability — many of the dishes and flavors will be familiar to most people. In that regard, Tru 2014 is a refreshing departure from a group of restaurants that are constantly trying to reinvent themselves and challenge diners. I overhead a solo diner at a nearby table tell the server how refreshing Tru’s food was after being mired in mediocre conference food all week. I took it to mean that it was just what she needed at that time. Which is kind of what eating at Tru is — a break from what is going on now to step back into what was going on before then, before-Alinea. As strange as it seems to be advocating going back in time, a reminder of pre-theatrics fine dining — when the meal was meant to be relaxed, enjoyable and delicious — may be just what we need now.

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.

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