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Chicago:

 

Chef Jimmy Bannos, Jr. of The Purple Pig

 

Chef Shin Thompson of Bonsoiree

 

Chef Troy Graves of Eve

  Chef Joshua Linton of Aja
  Chef Joe Doren and Owner Alexander Brunacci of Franks 'N' Dawgs
  The StarChefs.com 15th Anniversary Afterparty Hosted by Dirk Flanigan and The Gage
 

 

Letter From the Editor Vol.62

Chicago 2010 NRA and San Francisco Bay Area Rising Stars

June 4, 2010

Another year, another NRA Show, another weekend of some of the best dining Chicago has to offer. We were back at McCormick Place, the home of the NRA’s annual exhibition, where good vibes and an optimistic outlook spurred lots of happy networking and even a “Foodie Flash Mob,” not surprisingly the NRA’s first ever. Among some of the standout products we saw were Baxter Bakery’s hybrid convection oven, featuring baking performance previously only found in large rotating ovens, and the Irinox Blast Chiller, the 2010 Kitchen Innovations Award Recipient, which adjusts temperature, humidity, and air speed for each product.

But a lot of the most important NRA networking happens within the classic business context of “wining and dining,” and this year Chicago restaurants proved yet again that they can handle even the most professionally over-stimulated guest (i.e. your typical NRA diner). For business, pleasure, and our own culinary education, we dined on everything from progressive American to imaginative fusion cuisine to some seriously sophisticated hot dogs.

The Purple Pig is a fun and comfortable restaurant—any place with a motto like “Cheese, Swine, and Wine” with a selection of tasty “Smears,” is a place you’d feel at home. But the food is more than comforting, it’s soulful: small plates, with a focus on individual ingredients, showcase Chef Jimmy Benno Jr.’s six months in Italy, not to mention his years working under Mario Batali at Del Posto, Lupa, and Esca.

The Italian trend stayed strong at Spiaggia, where Sarah Grueneberg carries on the tradition of Missy Robins in the house that Tony Mantuano built—delicious food, well-informed by Chef Grueneberg’s passion for Italian cuisine. Balsamic pairings were a standout, with balsamics varying in development, age, and fermentation accompanying each course. And not to be outmatched in the fermented grape category, sommelier Steve Alexander’s wine pairings were incredible, showcasing a creative and confident style that emphasizes hard to discover selections.

If Sarah Grueneberg is doing well with her adopted Italian cuisine at Spiaggia, Shin Thompson is inventing something almost entirely new at Bonsoiree. With a Japanese mother and an American father, Chef Thompson’s cuisine is a one-of-a-kind hybrid of traditions that the chef—with dishes like the sumptuous and wildly popular “Duck, Duck, Goose”—makes both playful and sophisticated. And because he’s always on the lookout for new ingredients, and new ways to manipulate them, with creative use of Asian influences, Chef Thompson is likely to keep challenging the definitions of category-cuisine.

Pastry Chef Jimmy McMillan took us to the city’s own version of haute-comfort cuisine, Franks n’ Dawgs, where guest chef Curtis Duffy (they have rotating guest chefs) cooked up a luxurious duck sausage hot dog, affectionately called the “Duffy Duck,” that transcended the concept of a dog in a bun. And when he wasn’t working the frank station here, Duffy proved as sophisticated as ever at Avenues, with dishes like a chilled English pea soup with a touch of tropical fruit and lightly poached Alaskan King Crab with a bright kalamansi puree.

At Aja at the Dana Hotel and Spa, Chef Joshua Linton incorporates an intuitive touch with spices—the result of working in a variety of cuisine types under some top chefs—and it shows on the restaurant’s Asian-influenced menu. But Chef Linton served us straight from the heart, not the menu, with classically simple dishes like hummus, lamb, taboulleh, and baba ganoush that were so well seasoned and soulfully prepared, we can only hope these dishes make an appearance on the menu, even as specials, someday soon. For now, of course, we’re happy to sample his spice blends under the recently launched Joshua Tree Spice Studio.

Chef Brian Huston served robust, satisfying, but still conceptually clean dishes at The Publican—including a spectacular local pork belly with artichokes and Manila clams—with beer pairings from Sommelier Michael McAvena that were as good as we remember. And their new EFX table, with its refrigerated base and refrigerated top, promises an even stronger in-house charcuterie program for Publican in the weeks and months to come. Meat lovers stay tuned.

Sepia blends old-school Chicago with the best of what’s new: an 1890s printing house done up in restrained mod-décor (think hushed earth tones and chrome) with a menu from Chef Andrew Zimmerman that combines classical European traditions with the bold, locavore rusticity of American seasonal cuisine. From sweet, perfectly cooked scallops with tangerine and blood pudding to the velvety, luxuriously earthy duck gizzards, Zimmerman’s dishes were comforting and sublime. We polished it off with delicious wine pairings and cocktails like Odin’s Smoke, which combined mezcal, St. Germain, and celery bitters or the Sepia Mule, with the sweet, hot bite of ginger-infused vodka, lime, and ginger beer.

And anyone who hasn’t tasted the “Oysters and Waffles” by Chef Troy Graves at Eve missed out on one of the most unlikely successes of the weekend. The meaty, briny oysters in a bacon-flecked, light, crunchy batter gave stylish new meaning to the term “finger-lickin’ good.”

At The Gage, the scene of the StarChefs.com 15th Anniversary Party—that’s right, it’s been 15 years!—Chef Dirk Flanigan put together a fresh, complex frisee salad, with octopus and halibut crudo with a brightly acidic dressing and spicy cherry peppers that were a party in your mouth. The beauty of The Gage is Flanigan’s ability to straddle the bold flavors of a classic gastropub and the conceptual sophistication of progressive American cuisine. Diners can go either route, with well-executed satisfying pub fare anchoring a menu that reaches well beyond the typical gastropub horizons.

In addition to our Monday night wrap-up party, we took in the city skyline at the Vita-Mix party on the 99th floor of the Willis Tower, the Bravo party at the French Pastry School, and one more sexy rooftop party hosted by Cardinal at the top of the Dana Hotel, where the beauty of Chicago was on full, sparkling display.

But Chicago isn’t the only city on our minds. They may be 2000 miles away, but our next batch of Rising Stars are even now changing the culinary landscape of an already advanced food city—the ingredient purist’s mecca of the San Francisco Bay Area. We’ve scouted out and crowned the next generation of that fair, foggy city’s top chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers, and we’re proud to share them, especially as further proof that all that NRA optimism is well-founded.
But we’re not done scouting for New York and Washington, DC Rising Stars—there’s still time to submit your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists. Houston, Chicago, and Portland are on the horizon for 2011, so get your nominations in for those cities, too!

As always, we love hearing from you! Be sure to become a fan of StarChefs.com on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, and keep up with me on Foursquare to stay posted on where I’m going and what I’m eating.

 

Cheers!
Antoinette Bruno
Editor-in-Chief

 


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