WINTER DINING in CHICAGO
Article & Photos by Virginia Mille
My second return to Chicago in 6 months (and 4th trip overall) was a freezing journey, warmed by fantastic friends and family, food and drink. Here are more Chicago standouts and newcomers from late February.
OWEN & ENGINE, Logan Square
Perhaps my favorite find this visit is Owen and Engine, a gastropub-esque restaurant/bar marked by Old World British elegance (black leather seating, 18-19th century paintings). Cicerone Elliot Beier (who is working on his master cicerone certification) was one the early cicerones in the world so his beer knowledge and selection (on tap, bottled and hand-pulled – “Real ales on the engine”) is impeccable.
But he’s also handy with the cocktails ($9-10), serving refreshers like Sage Advice (St. George Terroir Gin, lemon, ginger sage syrup, orange flower water, and a couple variations on a classic Pimm’s Cup (a lively one with Pimm’s No.1 Cup, Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade, lemon, pink peppercorn tincture, cucumber, mint, rose water). I was drawn most to the deeply spiced smokiness of The Shrubbery: Monkey Shoulder Scotch, five spice shrub, lemon, Old Fashioned Bitters; and fascinated with the bitter, bright layers of Wounded Swede: Bols Genever, Bonal Quina, Malort (which some call the “most disgusting liquor of all time“), Cherry Heering (cherry liqueur), orange bitters.
While I’d return for a full meal, bar food is above-average, whether crispy mole pork rinds ($5) or Virginia peanuts ($3) tossed in Sriracha, Worcestershire and brown sugar. Fondness for the UK treat, Welsh rarebit means whenever I see it on a menu, I order it. Plus it’s divine with beer. O&E’s Welsh rarebit is rich blend of aged cheddar, Worcestershire, horseradish, and Young’s Chocolate Stout. There’s a soft pretzel glazed in mustard and Young’s Chocolate Stout ($6) to dip. I’d be hard pressed not to order this fantastic bar dish every visit. Desserts intrigue with savory notes, like parsnip pot de creme ($8), accented by blood orange sorbet, pistachio financier and parsnip chips.
TABLE, DONKEY & STICK, Logan Square
Understated and minimalist, Table, Donkey & Stick was brand new in my February visit, a modern Germanic-influenced restaurant. The name is derived from a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, emphasized by Grimm’s books, vintage hatchet, and bottles of eaux de vie lining the entrance behind a tree stump host stand. The space is intimate, with a glass-walled, back room illuminated by fireplace and a back garden for warm weather dining.
Service is sincere and thorough, while food encapsulates rustic elegance, still establishing its identity. House buckwheat bread arrives with a mound of whipped, soft pork butter, while a charcuterie spread, wanderteller ($6 each, 3/$15) offers intriguing bites of schweinekopf (pheasant galantine thinly sliced and smoked with coffee and hazelnut), a savory/sweet bowl of caramel corn chicarrons tossed with sunflower seed oatmeal, and a lovely rabbit terrine accented by caraway and nutmeg with celery seed marmalade.
House pork sausage ($13), served with pork fat pretzel and mustard butter, was a tad dry, but a
celery root salad ($7) made of sunflower and mustard granola in celery mustard vinaigrette, is lively and refreshing. A cheese platter ($5 each, 3/$12) comes with sunflower-oat bread, local honey, candied walnuts, and cheeses like Swiss Heublumen (semi-firm, raw cow with an herb-covered rind), French Tomme de Savoie (cow semi-soft in an aged natural rind, which I’ve often ordered in SF at The Alembic), and a German Chiriboga (raw cow blue, creamy, intense).
Pan-roasted salmon ($21) over brussels sprouts and turnips may not enthrall but is well-prepared, enlivened by one-year preserved grapefruit and lomo (thinly sliced beef tenderloin). Chocolate pave ($7), cacao nib brittle and tarragon pudding exceeds expectations with tart/sweet cherry preserve ice cream. Finish with a pour of eaux de vie, by the glass or flight, like a Golles flight ($18) of apricot, aged plum, and aged apple brandies. There’s also a solid list of Germanic wines and beers.
Consider Table, Donkey & Stick one to watch.
FRANKS ‘N DAWGS, Lincoln Park
One wouldn’t expect the justifiably revered Hot Doug’s to have competition, but they just might in Franks ‘N Dawgs. A similar ethos exists here as at Doug’s: quality sausages and hot dogs ($5.45-11.50) in wacky, decadent combos. Franks ‘N Dawgs walks its own path, serving sausages in buttery, Maine lobster roll-style buns.
My initial favorite is the playfully named Tur-Doggin. Inspired by turducken, it’s a plump turkey date sausage topped with crispy duck confit, slathered in herb garlic aioli, pickled carrots and onion relish. Perfection. Slammin’ Salmon looks better than it tasted. It’s a genius idea though in execution was a bit dry and didn’t pop: a citrus cured salmon dog streaked with herb cream cheese, bagel crisps, fried capers, dill and plump salmon roe. Nonetheless, mouthwatering combos line the menu, like holiday tribute, Pork of July: pork loin-caramelized onion sausage under a mound of house-smoked pulled pork, slaw and cherry bourbon BBQ sauce.
CEMITAS PUEBLA, Humboldt Park
Trekking to Mexican neighborhood, Humboldt Park, on a bone-chilling, windy day was quite the effort, but thankfully the end result was authentically gratifying.
Raved about hole-in-the-wall, Cemitas Puebla, serves famed cemitas: sandwiches originating from Puebla, Mexico, akin to but different than a torta, served in a hefty wheel of brioche-like, sesame seed covered bread. Arabe cemitas ($6.50) is filled with spit-roasted pork, avocado, adobo chipotle peppers, chipotle sauce and Oaxacan cheese. But I gravitated toward their corn tortilla tacos ($2.15-2.75), especially carne asada (skirt steak) and arabes (spit-roasted pork).
MANA FOOD BAR, Wicker Park
Meat eater that I am, I highly value well done vegetarian food. Though intimate, relaxed Mana Food Bar was heavier on starches than the greens I was hoping for, dishes were well-executed with just enough of a twist to avoid tedium.
There’s sake cocktails, a thoughtful beer list, fresh-squeezed juices ($5) like celery, collard greens, apple, and also smoothies ($8-9), like a thick avocado and pineapple with coconut water. Shaved Brussels sprouts ($4) are perked up in miso mustard, while sharp cheddar mac & cheese ($6/11) is best when one can taste added horseradish and black pepper. Butternut squash ravioli ($8/15) in garlic, arugula, walnuts and Asiago cheese was typical, but a sweet and white potato pancake ($7.25/13.25) comforts doused in apple cranberry chutney and sour cream. Cauliflower and kale in yellow curry ($7.25/13.25) rests over black pepper lentils, brightened by pickled apple, and I always enjoy a classic panzanella/Italian bread salad ($6/11), here it’s cubes of ciabatta tossed with shallots, cherry tomato, cucumber and basil in a red wine garlic vinaigrette.
MITAD DEL MUNDO, Logan Square
Old school and dated in look, it’s the warm welcome of servers and manager Fermin Romero, a historic figure in Chicago’s Mexican nightlife and karaoke scene, that draws you in to Mitad Del Mundo. Decent margaritas ($8 top shelf) are shaken tableside while queso flameado ($7.50), a mound of panela cheese flamed dramatically table side in a splash of alcohol, scooped up with fresh corn tortillas.
Chef Geno Bahena, who worked with Rick Bayless for years, is known for mole, one of my great loves. Though I’ve had better in LA and Oaxaca, dishes like enchiladas de mole rojo ($13.95), a Oaxacan red mole over chicken, or maple leaf duck breast ($14.25) marinated in red-chile adobo mole, are heartwarming.
BUTCHER & THE BURGER, Lincoln Park
With vintage butcher theme in a smoky, narrow space, Butcher & the Burger’s burger ($9.50) sounded divine, wisely made of Q7 Farms grass-fed beef cooked in “umami spice” (garlic, ginger, scallions, sweet soy glaze). Though smothered in wasabi mayo, cheddar and topped with Benton’s Tennessee Mountain smoked bacon on a butter egg bun, the end result was suprisingly bland – and the medium rare I requested was overcooked at medium well. Thereal hit was a shrimp burger ($11), a juicy shrimp patty in black sesame seeds on a pretzel bun, vivid with coconut curry and wasabi mayo. Finish with beignets ($1 each) and Cafe Du Monde chicory coffee.
RoSAL’S, University Village
After extensive research narrowing down old school “red sauce”/American Italian joints to assuage my NJ/NY homesickness, the biggest letdown of this visit was RoSal’s. Entering this neighborhood joint strewn with white lights, ‘80’s artwork and a soundtrack of Martin, Sinatra and Prima, I was ecstatic in its glow. But excitement quickly turned to disappointment with mediocre dishes and sloppy service (case in point: our server sloshed a bunch of sauce on our table when setting down a pasta dish but never cleaned it up).
Their “famous fried ravioli” ($10.95) didn’t seem fried at all, merely boiled and bland. Beloved classics like lasagne al forno tasted as if made with grocery store pasta, not fresh. Only an overpriced $25 “special” of spaghetti with shrimp exhibited qualities of freshly made noodles. Another one of my American-Italian favorites, veal saltimbocca ($22), layered in prosciutto, melted provolone cheese and marinara sauce, was dry and diminshed. I’m shocked RoSal’s gets a 29 rating for food in Zagat. I’ve certainly had far better in hole-in-the-walls from NJ to SF. With Chicago’s long-standing Italian community, I know they do “red sauce” Italian well. I just hope I find it next time.
EDZO’s BURGER SHOP, Evanston
When in Evanston, where I went to visit Chicago’s best craft distillery, Few Spirits, one should hit the town’s classic burger joint, Edzo’s. My then boyfriend, now husband, briefly lived in Evanston over a decade ago, and I noticed many of the places we dined are still there. But Edzo’s came along in recent years, fast becoming an institution. I may have had better old school burgers around the country, but theirs is pleasingly straightforward: a 4 oz. griddled burger ($4.75 single, $7 double, $9.75 triple, $3 upgrade to Q7 grass-fed beef) in ketchup, mustard, pickle and onion with cheddar cheese an extra .50 cents. Fries ($5-6) are doused in crave-worthy local nods like Taylor Street fries doused in Italian beef gravy, sweet peppers, and giardiniera (a common Chi-town condiment of vegetables in vinegar), or Buffalo fries smothered in buffalo sauce and blue cheese with celery.
The highlight, however, was an off menu milkshake savvy locals know about (thanks to a tip from Master Distiller Paul Hletko at Few Spirits): a speculoos milkshake, that buttery, graham cracker-like European shortcrust biscuit swirled in vanilla ice cream. Sheer goodness.
GULLIVER’S, West Rogers Park
The best part about local deep dish classic, Gulliver’s, is its gaudy interior, a multi-roomed lair of dark woods, excessive lamps and booths, with a 1980’s rustic-flashy glow. The pizza itself nearly dissolves – I went the stuffed route vs. deep dish for even more decadent, cheesy gratification (small – 9″ $11.95; medium – 12″ $15.95; large – 14″ $18.25 plus $1.50-2 for additional toppings). The crust and cheese don’t taste of high quality, preparation is decidedly old school rather than gourmet, but compared to the awful deep dish disappointments I’ve had at legendary pizza joints around Chicago, this was superior aided by atmosphere.
LULA CAFE, Logan Square
The best breakfast/brunch I’ve ever had in Chicago is easily Lula Café. Though it is certainly hipster, service is not aloof. Despite crowds and long waits, impeccable coffee, brunch cocktails and unique dishes make it a blessedly atypical breakfast. House pastries ($4 each or $10 for all) are mouthwatering. In my recent visit, the trio was Meyer lemon upside-down cake, smoked pecan sticky bun, and a chestnut Mast Bros. chocolate scone.
Savory cravings are satiated with hot dish of white beans and Toulouse sausage ($12), braised bacon, roasted garlic, and a soft boiled egg, brightened by mustard vinaigrette and bacon fat bread crumbs. Though $9 is a crazy price for 1/2 a grapefruit, I’ve not yet seen one served like this: under a bruleed crust of candied seeds, fennel and spices, accompanied by a mini-cup of buttermilk panna cotta and paper thin rye crisps.
The winning dish was dreamy almond poppy seed griddle cakes ($10), lush with almond liqueur contrasted by tart lemon curd, fresh pear and pomegranate seeds, and an almond crumble. I’d go back just for those pancakes alone.
LITTLE GOAT, West Loop
Former Top Chef star Stephanie Izard’s newcomer accompanying her still-hot Girl and the Goat restaurant, Little Goat plays the role of all-day diner. A spacious dining room is lined with hefty booths, décor is modern-retro, a tasteful mashup of mid-century lamps and vintage wallpaper.
Our server was hilarious, providing jokes and entertainment while bringing out our Stumptown Coffee. Prices are reasonable considering the massive size of many dishes. Most fell a little short of description, reading more exciting than they tasted, but all was good, whether a giant “ooey gooey Cinnabun” or hash browns in goat cheese. In keeping with the adorable, goat logo, goat cheese and goat milk pop up in numerous dishes.
One of my greatest combo cravings (“Elvis” banana, peanut butter, bacon) shows up in Fat Elvis Waffles, which were ruined drowning in bacon maple syrup. Banana and a dreamy whipped peanut butter-butter would have been enough to make it special. Likewise, a parathas burrito of Indian flatbread exploding with sunny side eggs, avocado-bean salad and chili pepper sauce lacked the oomph it should have had from Indian spices.
Being a Reuben fanatic, how could I not order one filled with smoked corned beef, kimchi, sauerkraut, and cheese on a pretzel rye bun? Similar to the kimchi Reuben I had at Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room in Honolulu, it’s apparent kimchi won’t send a Reuben over the top if the pastrami/corned beef and other elements aren’t perfect to begin with. It’s tough to do pastrami right, as countless mediocre versions around the country attest.
Despite imperfections, the whole package is delightful enough that I’d be tempted to return to Little Goat for breakfast or lunch. Simple joys of coffee and bagels with special schmear (like peanut butter), are available in the adjoining takeout café.
FRITZ PASTRY, Lakeview
Funky, charming Fritz Pastry’s gluten free baked goods are almost as tasty as those with gluten. Records play as you down donuts with the donut hole stuck into the hole, or non-traditional macarons that are much larger and less vibrantly flavored than the best in France, but in pleasing flavors like passion fruit or whiskey. Or just make a beeline for banapple bread: banana bread dotted with Granny Smith apple chunks.