With apologies to anyone who might feed me over the next few days, here are my many highlights from 2011 . . .
Many of my favorite dishes of 2011 were served at several different meals I enjoyed at the Publican. Each and every time I ate at the Publican, I was impressed by the skill of the kitchen, the quality of ingredients, and the risks being taken. Combine dishes (eaten over the course of the year) like beef tongue, peas & burrata, steak tartare, fried clams, Livornese fish stew, cucussu, frites & eggs, smoked sablefish, duck hearts and salad of duck prosciutto with shaved asparagus and pea puree, with some of the finest, freshest oysters in the city, a phenomenal beer list, a handful of sensational whiskeys and friendly, knowledgeable, no-nonsense service and it adds up to my favorite Chicago restaurant in 2011.
Pleasant House Bakery
Art and Chelsea Jackson -- and crew -- opened their shop in May and immediately became a fixture in my culinary world. All their savory pies are great but my favorite of them all might be the Mushroom Kale, which simply put, is a stunner. The Pasty, Steak & Ale and Chicken Balti are all terrific, too. And those peas . . . wow! Eating these pies for the first time changed me. Subsequent munchings have been nothing short of delightful.
With great respect to my other favorite cocktail bars in Chicagoland (and there are several ), The Whistler has become my very favorite. Paul McGee's creations speak to me in a way that very few others do and I'm continually impressed by his fluency with spirits and his freakish ability to create perfect balance in the glass. The Whistler's monthly, themed Book Club nights are sensational events, which reveal Paul's passion for -- and dedication to -- advancing the craft of cocktails.
I ate here at least 5 times in 2011 and each meal left me impressed and wanting more. I don't think this place gets nearly the attention it deserves. Chef Jason Vincent is a culinary badass. As I look over my notes from 2011, dishes I enjoyed at Nightwood appear over and over again. Plates like shad roe with lardons & ramps, burrata with veal belly raviolo and spinach puree, roasted purple haze carrots, wood-grilled sturgeon, Indiana duck leg with black beans, Pasta alla Chitarra with lamb Bolognese and English peas, hanger steak, heirloom tomato salad, foie gras & lobster tail, cheeseburger and chocolate pudding are just a few of the sensational dishes turned out at Nightwood in 2011.
2 meals here in 2011 re-invigorated my enthusiasm for fine-dining, which was previously near life-support. At El Ideas, the dining experience is more than fine, it's also a lot of fun. The food is creative, elevated and entirely approachable. Ocean Trout, Corn, Chicken Liver, Foie Gras and Wagyu (at meal #1) and Spanner Crab/Gnocchi/Eggplant, Broccoli, Chicken, Beef Duo and Bourbon (at meal #2) all stand out as 2011 faves.
Owen & Engine
Best burger I ate in Chicago in 2011. Period. There was such great, beefy flavor in these burgers, it was like eating one for the first time. The fries were great too. On a couple of early visits, the wings were very good (later, not so much). The beer list is sensational (taps and engine) and the cocktail list is respectable.
Eye-opening cuisine from Tony Hu. My favorites here include Famous Hunan Chili with Black Bean Sauce, Dry Chili Fish Filet, Chairman Mao's Favorite Pork Belly, Ground Pork with Sour Beans and Twice Cooked Sliced duck, to name just a few. This is compelling cuisine.
Perfectly cooked kabobs (chicken thighs; no dry breast meat here!), sensational dumplings, hearty soups and vegetables bursting with flavor. I love that this superior-quality destination is so close to my office but even if it weren't, I'd happily travel for it.
The tacos I ate here this year completely re-set my baseline for the category. Even my previous local favorites seem almost not worth the bother anymore. If I can't eat tacos from La Chaparrita, I'd almost always rather just eat something else.
Mana Food Bar
The absence of meat here is a mere afterthought. Phenomenal flavors and textures woven from great ingredients by skilled hands. Don't dismiss it simply because it's located on a hip stretch of Division St. This place is the real deal.
Mark and Liz Mendez, formerly of Carnivale, opened this place in October, and it's distinctive and terrific. I've only enjoyed one meal here so far but if the anchovies with Spanish olive oil, pickled garlic & chili flakes, ham & cheese croquettes, octopus with pimenton, duck crackling butter, roasted mushrooms and tripe with chickpeas & blood sausage I enjoyed at that meal are any indication, this place is going to become a fixture.
Next Paris ,Thailand, Childhood
I ate each of the first 3 menus at Next at least twice and came away quite impressed. What this kitchen is doing could not even be attempted by most top kitchens and they pull it off with considerable success. I'm not sure it's even relevant to identify specific dishes that stood out for me (because they're mostly gone) but they include the Oeufs Benedictine and Duck with Gratin Dauphinoise from the Paris menu, the Coconut Dessert from the Thailand menu and Autumn Scene and Cheeseburger courses from the Childhood menu. Still, what makes Next truly special is the overall, thematic dining experiences they provide.
I didn't make it out to Vie as often in 2011 as I have over the past couple of years but the meals I had there still resonated profoundly for me. This is one of the most important and ambitious kitchens in Chicagoland and their charcuterie program still stands out for me as the very best in town. Dishes like 1-yr culatello, chicken liver sausage, green garlic soup, softshell crab and lamb ravioli are just a few stand-outs from 2011. Beyond that, their bar is also a treasure.
For my money, this was the best, most consistent Thai food in Chicago in 2011. I ate here at least 12 times in 2011 and the meals were not only excellent but stunningly consistent. Their tom yam soup with tender and beef ball is the best soup in Chicago. Other offerings like grilled pork neck salad, Thai chicken wings, larb khun, choi-chi ground pork and roasted eggplant salad with shrimp are equally spectacular.
The birria here is flat out one of the greatest dishes in Chicago. The salsa and the tortillas are also phenomenal and made from scratch. Their salsa de molcajete is legendary. How many places in town essentially make one dish? Based on how great Zaragoza is, the answer to that question is "not enough." And by the way, the Zaragozas are just about the friendliest hosts I know.
John Des Rosiers' casual-fine dining enclave in Lake Bluff is so off the radar, I fear that a lot of LTHers are missing something truly special by not checking it out. The 3 meals I had there in 2011 were delicious and memorable. The ingredients, many of which are identfied by their provenance on the menu, sing in creative, edgy combinations that define Des Rosiers' distinctive style. I'm still thinking about many of the dishes I had there, including the American onion soup, rabbit liver mousse, octopus-black truffle-house made giardiniera omelet, suzuki bass, blowfish tail and charred sweet corn soup, to name a few.
This little shop in Glenview served the best bowl of soondubu I ate in 2011, and I had it several times. Their panchan are also excellent and the seafood pajoun is also the best one I can remember having in Chicagoland. Want Korean BBQ? Go somewhere else. But if you want well-made soups and stews, this is the place.
I really enjoy everything here but honestly, the Cemita Atomica will probably make my 'best of' list every single year!
The Butcher & Larder
Aside from the great meat (raw and prepared) that I bought here in 2011, I attended a dinner party at Butcher & Larder that stands out as one of my very favorite meals of 2011. At that meal, dishes like chili-braised pork, fried sweetbread terrine, beef carpaccio and hearty greens salad with lard-roasted root vegetables & thinly-sliced brined beef tongue blew me away.
Maude's Liquor Bar
I wasn't sure what to expect here because of the Randolph Street location, but it turns out that Maude's is entirely the real deal. The pig trotter stuffed with sweetbreads and hen of the woods mushrooms I had at my first visit still stands out as one of the tastiest things I ate this year. And their fries were nothing short of spectacular.
I had a great meal here back in April that reminded me just how delicious the food coming out of this kitchen is. I don't find myself in Evanston very often but I'll happily plan a trip just to eat here again.
I've only been once but the bun mam and hot pot we had at that meal were unbelievably flavorful and satisfying. I'm certainly no expert but this is the best Vietnamese food I've had in Chicago.
I had one very enjoyable meal at Avenues in 2011 and 2 dishes from that meal were among the best things I ate in 2011: SE Asian-style Short Rib and Hamachi with lardo, pigtail, yuzu and purslane. I'm looking forward to Curtis Duffy's Grace, which is scheduled to open this coming summer.
The kimchi fries and umami burger I had at the Evanston location back in May still stand out as some of the best grub I ate in 2011. Subsequent visits weren't quite as successful but I'm hopeful that with the 2nd location now up and running, the food will find consistency again.
This place just doesn't get enough attention. Several of my favorites from 2011 came out of this kitchen, including some decadent bolognese fries, a pizzetta with shaved porchetta, blue cheese, caramelized onion, calabrian chili & fennel pollen and perfectly wrought arancini.