Letter from the Editor: Chicago Then and Now Vol: 71

February 25, 2011

Chicago cooks are a passionate and ambitious breed: they aim for the stars and focus on deepening and broadening the roots of American culinary culture, and they’re amazing at both.

So what currents are blowing through the Windy City? Musing over a cup of Chef Jared Wentworth’s Savory Foie Gras Hot Chocolate at chefs-off-the-clock favorite Longman & Eagle, our friend Heather Sperling—a StarChefs.com alum and editor of Chicago’s Tasting Table—called it "gutsy comfort food." And we think she’s got it right. Chicago’s chefs these days are all about home-style cooking with pluck and verve. And what would you expect from the City of Big Shoulders, but a commitment to quality molded by a hearty Midwestern work ethic?
There’s no shortage of new comfort zones where chefs with mettle serve homey, rustic dishes with bold touches. In Lincoln Park, Chef Andrew Brochu puts a twist on country twang with a pinch of cinnamon, cayenne, and cumin in his Blackened Tiger Shrimp, Anson Mills Grits, and Smoked Cheddar at Kith and Kin. At River North’s Gilt Bar, Chef Jason Vaughan’s hefty Roasted Bone Marrow and House-made Steak Salt adds a traditional touch of acidity, in the form of red onion jam, to a plate heaped high with marrow-filled bones, whose unconventional length conjures up visions of Wilma Flintstone whipping up a romantic meal for Fred.

The concept of chef-tailored coziness is successful enough to warrant expansion—even if it means jumping through Cook County’s tricky bureaucratic hoops. Chicago’s down-home fix has now expanded to include Chef Jeffrey Mauro’s ode to breakfast at his second Jam, slated for opening in May. And Chef Cary Taylor’s Southern Mac & Cheese Truck, his mobile version of The Southern, is now revving its social media engine @thesouthernmac on Twitter and the streets of Chi-town; Taylor’s already looking at a second truck. Graham Elliot Bowles’s Grahamwich is now open, and his Grilled Cheese Sandwich—with Wisconsin cheddar, shaved prosciutto, tomato marmalade, and cheese curds on Pullman loaf slices—has already been dubbed a triumph of comfort food by bloggers; Grahamburger is now in the works.

But even with all this comfort food, haute cuisine is still at home here in America’s crossroads of expense accounts, even if the playing field is a bit narrower post-recession. Grant Achatz’s three Michelin stars (and growing empire) top a pyramid of haute cuisine in Chicago made up of places like L20, Sixteen, RIA, Tru, Bonsoirée, and Henri—Chef Dirk Flanigan’s first fine-dining venture after the popular success of The Gage. And though the dining room at Henri may be plush, Flanigan’s dishes are all about haute-comfort, with terrines, consommés, and a Dover Sole Meunière that transforms this classic crowd pleaser into a dish of simplicity and unobtrusive elegance.

In the city the poet Carl Saunders called “Hog Butcher to the World", pig is always big. We saw a plethora of world-class, in-house charcuterie programs producing grunt-provoking smorgasbords. Chef Brian Huston’s charcuterie plate at The Publican features head cheese, pancetta and cashew terrine, lonzino, salt-packed pork loin with celery root pickles, and house-made mustards. At The Purple Pig, Chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. rounds out his Mediterranean-inspired menu, celebrating pork wtih pigs’ ears and tails, as well as Morcilla with Apples, Watercress, and Apple Saba.

The house-made trend extends beyond pork. We were wowed by the technical expertise of Chicago chefs going the DIY route. We tasted house-cured sardines, phyllo pastry, and mint yogurt from Chef David Schneider of Taxim.  Be it house-made ricotta (set with agar and fluffed into a sponge-like consistency with the help of an iSi whipper) from Chef de Cuisine Merlin Verrier at Graham Elliot or Chef Harold Jurado’s puckery house-cured umeboshi, Chicago’s going gaga over anything and everything made from scratch.

Craft doesn’t stop with chefs in Chicago; the city’s cocktail culture is thriving and diversifying.  Back in the middle of the last decade we tried in vain to locate a viable cocktail culture in the Windy City, and found only a smattering of night clubs, many of them now defunct, featuring jugs of mass-produced Sweet and Sour and Bloody Mary mix, Japanese-inspired tapioca pearls, and a surprising number of blue drinks (check out our slideshow!).

Chicago might be going through a culinary and cocktail “then and now,” but Chicago wine is happily straddling Old and New. We were inspired by the thoughtful, crescendo-building performance by second generation wine professional Sheb Ince of The Gage and Henri, and by Jeff Donahue of Province’s preference for funky (and economical) pairings that highlight varietals from Spain and Greece. And we were swept away by tales of high-flying adventure along with the superb local Michigan wines, paired with skill and a sense of humor by Blackbird sommelier and licensed pilot Eduard Seitan.

Across the board, Chicago’s sommeliers demonstrated an incredible breadth of knowledge, and the passion and showmanship it takes to build top wine programs. We met young sommeliers like Dan Pilkey, who counts 2009 Napa Sonoma Rising Star Geoff Kruthand 2010 Los Angeles-San Diego Rising Star Jesse Rodriguez as mentors. Pilkey now runs the wine programs at RIA and Balsan at the Elysian Hotel, where he pairs unconventional Swiss wine with foie gras (check out more Chicago foie pairings). Rachael Lowe of Sixteen cut her teeth at The French Laundry before hitting Chicago with an infectious crush on collectors like Richard Betts and producers of Rhone Valley vintages. And Stephen Alexander of Spiaggia stood out for his extensive knowledge of young producers and passion for up-and-coming Italian wines.

With Chicago’s F&B professionals so fired up, it’s no wonder Chicago’s 4th Annual Restaurant Week (through February 27) has quadrupled both in participating restaurants and attendance since its first year. You’ve come a long way, baby!

We’re salivating over the thought that in a few short months we’ll have our chance to honor and celebrate Chicago’s Rising Stars! We’re hosting the 2011 StarChefs.com Chicago Rising Stars Gala in May over NRA weekend. Get your tickets now!

And meanwhile, we’re counting down to Houston Rising Stars on March 17, our first-ever Houston Rising Stars gala!

As always, we love hearing from you! Be sure to become a fan of StarChefs.com on Facebook and follow us on Twitter to stay posted on where we’re going and what we’re eating.

We’re headed to New Orleans, Atlanta, Portland, Oregon, and Chile next, and we’re always tasting in New York, so reach out and give us your give us your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists we should check out.

Antoinette Bruno