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Redux Reduction

Looking back at culinary favorites

By AMELIA LEVIN
    This is a special issue. In honor of Chicago Life’s 25th anniversary issue, we’ve scoured the past few years to compile the ones that still stick out. These are the ones that really tickled our taste buds and enticed our feasting fancies. 

Best Mole: Maria’s
“An awful lot of things go into the pot,” Maria Concannon, owner of Don Juan Restaurante in Elmwood Park, said about her famous mole in the February 2006 issue. From mild peppers like anchos and mulatos, to hotter pasilla peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onion, sesame seeds, spices like cloves and cinnamon, a ripe banana for good measure and Mexican chocolate—these are the base of the rich dark heaven that comes out of Don Juan’s kitchen. 

Best Philanthropist: Stephanie Izard 
Winning $100,000 after earning the Top Chef title and scoring a shiny GE Monogram kitchen from one challenge, you’d think Stephanie Izard would pocket the cash and immediately open some elaborate restaurant. Instead, she first gave back to one of her biggest passions, Common Threads, a nutritional cooking-class series and educational program for children, which we spoke with her about in the December 2008 issue. Izard’s now due to open Drunken Goat near Randolph Street’s restaurant row.

Best Sustainable Spirit: Death’s Door Vodka 
Brian Ellison’s come a long way indeed. In the February 2008 issue, he had just hit his year anniversary of the launch of Death’s Door Vodka, made from wheat grown by sustainable farmers on Washington Island, at the tip of Door County, Wisconsin. Since then, he’s since introduced both a gin, using juniper berries from the island, and a light un-aged whiskey that’s, in some cases, scored even bigger hits. 

Best Sustainability Leader: Abby Mandel
Seeing the explosion of farmers and followers at the Green City Market and other farmer’s markets during the warmer weather months, it’s easy to forget the fact that just a few years ago, only five to 10 farmers brought their goods to the park. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what life was like before most of the top chefs in the city used those farm-fresh vegetables, seasonal fruits and naturally raised meats in their dishes. But this was precisely founder Abby Mandel’s dream. Sadly Mandel, who we profiled in the April 2007 issue, passed away in 2008. Her legacy lives on in the Green City Market’s unparalleled popularity, now held year-round (hosted by the Peggy Notebaert Nature Center when it’s cold). 

Best BBQ: Smoque
Barry Sorkin quit his job in the corporate world to open a barbecue restaurant. A risky move, but it’s proven to be a smart one. Smoque, is years old and still smoking. Every barbecue master has his or her own style, and “they’ll fight tooth and nail” about it, he said in the May 2007 issue. Sorkin serves his famous brisket, pulled pork sandwiches and ribs on waxed sheet pans. 

Best Rising Star: Michael Sheerin, Blackbird
This label sort of is a misnomer: Michael Sheerin, chef de cuisine at Blackbird certainly isn’t a rising star anymore—he is a star. We profiled him in the October 2008 issue, and Paul Kahan has spent time much away opening Publican and Big Star, a taqueria and dive bar in the former Pontiac space. As a result, Sheerin has really taken the helm, bringing his creativity to the table, like with a foie gras dish he once served with preserved grapefruit, sherry-braised radishes and sea beans and grilled Wagyu flat iron steak with green grapes. 

Best Outdoor Dining: Bistro Margot 
The sidewalk patio feels like you’re sitting in a Paris café—the people-watching on Wells Street can go on for hours. Classic French escargot reigns on the appetizer list, and the croque monsieur is still one of the best in the city. 

Best Kept Secret: Sweets and Savories
This cozy, BYOB spot in Lincoln Park seems to remain a sleeper, even after so many years in the biz. Chef David Richards lives up to the restaurant’s name with his innovative dishes that combine both flavor profiles: a fig “ketchup” accompanies duck fat fries and the indulgent lobster mashed potatoes breathe new life into vanilla bean.

Best Butcher: Rob Levitt, Mado
Just as the sustainability movement was really picking up a year ago, husband-wife team Rob and Allison Levitt opened Mado, a modest neighborhood restaurant in Wicker Park (we got them on their one-year anniversary in April 2009), with each and every dish dedicated to that movement. Part of that means using all that the farmers and producers supply. From headcheese to liver patés to thick-cut, house-cured bacon, Rob learned his craft at a young age and honed his skills at the CIA. 

Best Neighborhood Restaurant: Socca
Socca in Lakeview has stood the test of time, even weathering the worst of the economic recession when so many restaurants in the city closed or reconcepted. We give props to Chef Roger Herring for this, along with his dedicated, friendly staff. At the restaurant, regulars return to the Italian-French-inspired bistro for the crispy flatbreads, the rabbit risotto, braised short ribs and fresh fish.

Best Food Scientist: Grant Achatz
What’s not to say about Grant Achatz? A household name since we chatted with him in the August 2007 issue, Achatz stared tongue cancer in the face, only to beat it outright and go on to win the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. Yes, we admit, the Chicago Tribune shunned molecular gastronomy as one of the worst food trends last year, but Achatz is no weird scientist. He’s a flavor chemist, a thrill- seeker and inventive engineer, a source of inspiration in the kitchen who has joined, or some say exceeded, the ranks of his mentors. 

Best Flavorist: Jim Javenkowski
In the October 2007 issue, we met Jim Javenkoski, a food scientist specializing in flavor profiles, who explained to us the difference between those. Sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (or savory) Javenkoski outlined the five tastes we all experience. Since then, Javenkoski’s been all over Chicago, representing the Canadian brewery Unibrou, holding beer pairing dinners and events, including a successful beer and chocolate pairing at the Hopleaf. 

Best Wine Director: Greg Sorrell,
D.O.C. Soft-spoken, kind, patient and extremely knowledgeable, Greg Sorrell is the go-to guy for beginning wine enthusiasts, intermediate drinkers and knowledgeable winos. He’s been a solid resource for years now for learning about wine (we profiled him in November 2006), always willing to answer questions. 

Best Pizza: Piece
For rustic, wood-fired pizza we go with Piece, our pick from the December 2007 issue and a mainstay in the Wicker Park neighborhood, thanks to the genius idea of Bill Jacobs to bring New Haven-style pizza to Chicago. Its house-brewed beers created by Jonathan Cutler have won numerous awards. 

Best Sustainable Kitchen: Carnivale
In terms of energy-efficient equipment and water-saving devices, it’s hard to say who’s won that prize in Chicago. But Chef Mark Mendez at Carnivale (April 2008) has taken strides to maximize efficiencies in his kitchen, including putting a rooftop garden on the restaurant to preserve building heat, increase green space and grow seasonal vegetables. 

Best Sushi: Mirai Sushi
Good sushi restaurants are not hard to come by in Chicago, but Mirai stands above so many others, maybe because of Master Chef Jun Ichikawa’s rigorous fish selection and his strictness about sourcing only sustainable fish that aren’t endangered or close to that point in any way. 

Best Breakfast: Ina’s
Ina Pinkney makes us feel like true hospitality isn’t dead just yet. Service is excellent, and so is the food—things haven’t changed much since that October 2005 issue. Her Heavenly Hots—light and fluffy thin pancakes with peach and berry compote—still incite heart-fluttering memories of a great breakfast past.

Best Desserts: Mindy’s Hot Chocolate
ep, last we checked they’re still to die for (covered December 2006). Mindy Segal reigns as queen among dessert-makers and sweet-seekers in Chicago. Try Chocolate  #1: warm Colombian chocolate ganache and muscavado sugar meringue tart stuffed with chocolate soufflé, salted caramel ice cream and house-made pretzels. 

Best Ceviche: de cero
Some restaurants we covered in our Fall 2006 ceviche article have closed. De cero has remained, along with its winning ceviche. To recap: perfectly not-overcooked Rock shrimp and supple bay scallops bathe in limejuice with touches of jalapeno, tomatoes and cilantro.


Published: December 09, 2009
Issue: Winter 2009 - Annual Philanthropy Guide