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The New Chicago Dining Scene

by Jimmy Im
City Mouse

One of my favorite cities to eat, Chicago is thinking outside the box, and these new hot spots push the bar, and expectations.

In one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, the perfect storm of new ideas, progressive techniques, and the desire of chefs to create exceptional meals have fired up the Windy City’s dining scene. Chicago is already top-ranked among the best food capitals of America thanks to reputable fine-dining establishments, but the variety of good dining has significantly grown. In fact, many under-the-radar or unassuming, new restaurants are getting just as much attention as Alinea (www.alinearestaurant.com/chicago). You don’t need to dine in a storied, Michelin-rated restaurant (there are 25) to eat well. Notably inspiring and wonderful (and less formal) new restaurants are proving to excel in design, service, ambience, and, of course, food. Many restaurants are making new marks with a start-from-scratch attitude. As I discovered on my last visit, the restaurant scene has become a wonderland of excellent ethnic, contemporary, and haute cuisine presented by chefs taking their culinary creations to the next level (and there’s something to be said about their visionary execution of restaurant design and atmosphere). One of my favorite cities to eat, Chicago is thinking outside the box, and these new hot spots push the bar, and expectations.

CITY MOUSE

I’ve always been a fan of the band Gomez. When I listen to their music, I inadvertently envision them getting together in a small space and jamming out, creating music they love, and working together to make brilliant songs with an authenticity that doesn’t feel massproduced. There is something genuine about their collaboration, a “we love what we do” vibe over “let’s be the next Blur” situation. This is how I felt about the team at City Mouse. Located inside the new Ace Hotel Chicago, City Mouse is lead by a small team of young industry veterans (behind Giant in Logan Square) who had the vision of a second restaurant, that came to fruition with the opportunity at Ace. City Mouse doesn’t feel forced. It’s a group of chefs and partners who simply love food and dishing out elevated dishes in a contemporary space. The design here is big on geometric patterns; expect trapezoids, curves, linearity, and circle designs integrated with industrial interiors that somewhat felt unfinished—yet it works. It’s a clean, bright space that may be too big to feel cozy, though I sat outside on the intimate terrace complete with fire pits, which add a touch of warmth (literally and figuratively). The boutique menu features globally inspired dishes, including Wagyu beef tartare, Chinese broccoli, and cornbread all on the same menu. The dishes are simple yet smart, including the Country Mouse appetizer, a crunchy, salty, and delicious fried cheddar ball with sweet-corn purée, caramel, and a dab of caviar. The spaghetti, however, was my favorite. It’s spicy, sprinkled with feta and bacon, and the noodles, perfectly firm. 311 North Morgan Street, Tel: 312-7641908. www.citymousechicago.com

PROXI

“Globally inspired” seems to be the dining theme in Chicago these days, proving chefs are ambitiously trekking the world (or, at the very least, eating their way through ethnic restaurants) to be inspired. Proxi is a standout restaurant that served regionspecific plates with Michelin-starred flair. Andrew Zimmerman, executive chef of Sepia, who brought over the majority of his award-winning team to open Proxi last summer, helms it. With this expert staff, there was little room to fail.

There is a trend of notable chefs opening “fast casual” and buttoned-down, second restaurants throughout America, and Andrew has been part of that wave. These restaurants give diners the chance to eat great food by a Michelin chef in a less formal space, and, of course, they go easier on the wallet. Proxi is Sepia’s perfect proxy, so to speak. The massive, industrial-themed space (high, concrete ceilings, open beams, tons of brass, and furnishings like shelves of objects lining entire walls reminiscent of Restoration Hardware) is visually engaging, definitely worth an Instagram. In fact, from the plating of dishes to cute staff, there was a lot of stimulation here (it was also packed the night I went) and, for further excitement, I sat at the chef’s table close to the open kitchen where I watched most dishes blazed up in the woodfire oven. Each dish had a narrative and was big and bold in presentation. I’m not one to take photos of my food, but my camera phone was on fire, like many other diners here. Appetizers were brilliant, including the raw tuna with coconut milk, a Malaysianinspired ceviche. It had a distinct, tropical flavor to it, as you would expect in Southeast Asia, and the dish played with varying degrees of temperature, flavor, and texture (there was a slight crunch with the mixed-in crushed ice, and a sweetness from the coconut). The Southeast Asian minced pork was very nutty from the mixed-in peanuts, served with mint, carrot, and green apple slices (adding a sweetness) to be wrapped in fresh bibb lettuce (again, for texture and crunch). It was one of the most memorable dishes and quite photogenic as it was served with lab-style tubes of Sriracha and hoisin sauce. Dinner here was one of my most adventurous meals in Chicago, with creative dishes that were not only a hit in the restaurant, they were all the rage on my Instagram story. 565 West Randolph Street, Tel: 312466-1950. www.proxichicago.com

Mussels at Publikan Anker

Mussels at Publikan Anker

TORALI

In the mid-2000s, luxury hotel chains like Ritz-Carlton began shedding their “stuffy” reputations, dropped the white gloves, and offered luxury in a modern way as to not alienate millennials, who were changing the way we traveled. Torali, the signature restaurant at Ritz-Carlton Chicago, is a timewarp, and many guests may briefly feel nostalgic here. Torali taps into Ritz-Carlton’s old-fashioned roots when it comes to service, but in no way does the restaurant look the part of pre-2000 Ritz-Carlton restaurants. After an ambitious (and impressive) $100 million renovation in July 2017, Ritz-Carlton Chicago flipped its entire 12th-floor lobby area unveiling the new restaurant. Torali is ultra-modern, pretty swank, and cozy with plush booths, Italian marble and leathers, yet it offers the type of service reminiscent of traditional, oldschool Ritz-Carlton restaurants. Think: army of older waiters in suits, classy ambience, and formal service that seems to borderline magic (For example: when I asked for a juice, the waiter brought it to me in the two seconds it took me to look at my phone—I never saw it happen). Serving up thoughtful Italian, Torali is in no way exclusive, but it has a vague country club vibe to it (the fact the hotel has dedicated residences with people who have lived there for decades may be responsible). Either way, I loved it. Drenched in sunlight from floor-to-ceiling windows, breakfast was pleasantly abundant, and I didn’t hold back with the huge stack of divine and steaming hot, blueberry pancakes as well as smoothies, like Green Goodness (with fresh spinach, kiwi, cucumber, and soy milk). I came back for dinner and tried the fresh cavatelli (with guanciale, tomato, roasted garlic, and basil) that was hearty though surprisingly light. As one would expect, all their pasta is made inhouse. Nothing here was fussy or overhyped, though, to be honest, it’s the clockwork and one-of-a-kind service that stood out. I felt that I was part of a show, which made the experience even more memorable. Dining here isn’t limited to Torali, and I highly recommend checking out the outdoor, rooftop terrace, the open-concept bar, and the gorgeous café all on the 12th floor, bathed in natural light from the glass roof, with all areas embellished with fascinating art installations. Torali is a warm and inviting space, a far departure from the bygone Ritz-Carlton, though still serving stellar, old-school service like it’s 1999. 160 Pearson Street, Tel: 312-573-5160. www.toralichicago.com

PUBLICAN ANKER

You can’t miss Publican Anker. The spinoff of Chicago’s revered The Publican is on the corner of two busy streets in Wicker Park with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows in a trapezoid-shaped building. Opened early last year, Publican Anker’s design is inspired by 1900s-saloon interiors (brick walls, wooden benches and bar stools in long, hallwayshaped dining rooms), though completely reimagined with a modern twist (like oversized light fixtures and indie-rock music piping through the speakers). Come during the day and you have great people watching on the street, while nighttime is a boisterous and fun affair. The restaurant is as casual as they come, so the quality, vision, and execution of the contemporary-America menu was somewhat surprising. Due to the location (Wicker Park is a millennial hot spot), Publican Anker is a magnet to the hipster set, from young couples to young couples toting kids, who love great comfort food and beer (it’s as much a beer hall as it is a restaurant). But don’t think of the menu items as “bar food,” it features only farm-fresh ingredients and, further, each entrée lists the actual farm it hails from (or the server will be happy to tell you). You’ll find everything from oysters and grilled cucumbers to sausage (with kale and creamed corn) and Indiana beets with stracciatella, tahini, cucumber, and mint. Every entrée is remarkably fresh, market-driven and creative, and the chef can take something as common as beets and turn it into a unique, hearty meal. I recommend lunchtime when they serve the popular, moist, and slightly crunchy fried chicken sandwich with spicy honey, methi ranch, and cucumber slaw. For me, mussels are a hit, miss, or meh, and my rare obsession with the excellent mussels served here was very high. The chef dry-roasts the mussels in a coal oven that gives them a distinct smoky flavor. There’s a lot of flavors happening (the pan is deglazed with Calabrian chilies, onions, pork broth, and white wine) with house-made, pork cotechino sausage thrown in to add depth. Everyone was talking about the mussels before I had arrived, and they are getting as much attention as a Chicago hot dog in the 1920s. 1576 North Milwaukee Avenue, Tel: 773-904-1121. www.publikananker.com

The Lobby at The Peninsula Chicago

The Lobby at The Peninsula Chicago

PENINSULA CHICAGO

Shanghai Terrace at Peninsula Chicago is my go-to restaurant in Chicago. I’m a sucker for classy, elevated Cantonese cuisine, where even dumplings are a work of art. After the hotel’s $30 million renovation unveiled last year, the brand-new Lobby restaurant seduced me with its soaring ceilings, stately columns, beautiful marble, and live orchestra quartet playing from the rafters—and I wasn’t the only one who was awestruck. Plenty of guests were dining here for lunch and dinner because the food and service is notably outstanding for a lobby restaurant. I wouldn’t have made this statement five years ago, when I felt the hotel was a little tired and outdated (the recent refresh seemed to have awakened the spirit of the hotel). The Lobby is upscale without feeling over the top, touting an ambitious lunch menu. It’s not a place for power lunchers; you want to relish in the wonderful setting, and there’s nothing quick and fast about the dishes. The contemporary American cuisine was heavy on comfort (salads, sandwiches and pasta), but with gourmet spins. While the world has gone mad over avocado toast, the dish served here was with peaky toe crab, lime dressing for distinct flavor, and pickled mustard seeds that gave it a little kick. I tried the grilled triple cheese and tomato soup as my entrée, which had gooey, rich and delicious aged cheddar, Chandoka cheese and Brie, and the heirloom tomato soup was flavorful, bold and smooth, an adult version of the kids favorite. Because I was feeling indulgent, I ordered the mashed potatoes as a side, whipped with black truffle and thyme. Inside the elegant and timeless lobby, the “grown up” menu was so much fun, and that’s exactly what Peninsula proved: lobby dining doesn’t have to be a mundane. 108 East Superior Street, Tel: 312-337-2888. www.peninsula.com

Big Jones

Big Jones

BIG JONES

Big Jones in Andersonville (one of the gayfriendliest neighborhoods in Chicago) is helmed by Paul Fehribach, a Midwesterner who happens to be obsessed with Southern heirloom-style cooking and has a natural knack for technique (he also grew up on farms and did very Southern things, like hunt and fish). His technique in Southern cuisine (heavily influenced by New Orleans cooking) inspired foodies and gourmands when Big Jones opened in 2008, received many accolades (like Best New Restaurant in Chicago by Chicago magazine) and Paul was nominated as James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2013, 2014, and 2015. Because I set out to dine at restaurants with notable chefs, I had lunch here with a friend. As a Southerner myself, I had high expectations, and I raised an eyebrow at the interiors of the restaurant. It wasn’t impressionable, just one big dining room with blonde wood, old-fashioned chairs, a chandelier, and little ambience. Compared to the other restaurants I had visited, Big Jones proved design wasn’t its forte, but it was the least consequential when the plates started coming out. The entrées were a nod to 20th-century recipes that have stood the test of time. The crawfish-and-cheddar hushpuppies were crisp, dabbled in crawfish cream that was rich and reminded me of New Orleans. If you can believe, the shrimp and grits were refined for shrimp and grits, the fresh shrimp tender and a little sweet while house-made Worcestershire and a mushroom and tasso gravy had intense yet mild flavor. The fried chicken sandwich (which Bon Appetitmagazine claimed was the best fried chicken north of the Maison Dixon Line) did not disappoint. It was crisp, and juicy on an egg bun— uncomplicated and delightful. Of course, the further I ate through these down-south, lowcountry dishes, the more the restaurant space made sense, with its subtle details (fruit motif on the chairs, hand-painted dishes, vintage wallpaper) conjuring a Southern dining room at the turn of the century. 5347 North Clark Street, Tel: 773-275-5725. www.bigjoneschicago.com

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