January 3, 2013
If only it were so easy to pithily proclaim 2012 as the Year of the (fill-in-the-blank). But there's really no one thread that neatly ties together the Chicago restaurant scene these last 12 months. A restaurant that put Chicago on the culinary map 25 years ago closed its doors. Doughnuts became "a thing." Digging up mushrooms from the forest preserve took on high status.
Food truck culture inched forward. Chinatown consigliere Tony Hu opened his, oh, gazillionth restaurant in town. Chicago chefs found glory on both a cable cooking competition and a theater stage. Like every potluck, there were good, bad and surprising dishes to be found on the 2012 table. And yet we still slink away, stuffed by the collective experience. —Kevin Pang
Few chefs are able to orchestrate their final bow as did Charlie Trotter in 2012. First came Trotter's announcement, moments after ringing in the New Year and in front of stunned celebrants, that he would close his eponymous restaurant after its 25th anniversary. Then followed a "victory lap" of special dinners and events, culminated by a final party at the end of August. Trotter's wine collection fetched more than $1.1 million at auction, but a subsequent auction of the restaurant's equipment, tables and chairs attracted meager sales and was cut short by Trotter himself. The Tribune's coverage of the event was also cut short, when Trotter ordered reporter Mark Caro — author of a three-part profile of the chef — out of the building during the auction preview.
Chef du Soleil
That other chef marking his 25th anniversary, the one not closing his restaurant, found a more interesting way to celebrate. Rick Bayless, whose Frontera Grill turned 25 this year, added another line to his glittering resume when he teamed with Lookingglass Theatre Company to star in "Cascabel," a dinner-theater show Bayless co-created with Tony Hernandez and Heidi Stillman. It wasn't the biggest stretch by Bayless — he played a chef who cooks really, really well — but it turned out that Bayless can act a little, and he can dance a little. And the guy sure can sell tickets; virtually every seat of "Cascabel's" too-short run was snapped up.
The Wheel-of-Food-Fads spun, slowed down and stopped at doughnuts. It was deemed official, notarized by food writers, a trend! It was bolstered by Michelin-starred chefs, who approached fried dough with the same standards as an artichoke veloute — names like Do-Rite Donut's Francis Brennan (formerly of L2O) or Glazed and Infused's Christine McCabe (of Charlie Trotter's). The lines stayed long outside 4011/2 N. Franklin St., where The Doughnut Vault fries its cinnamon-sugared pillows, while food truck Beaver's Donuts parked permanently inside the Chicago French Market. Here's hoping doughnuts won't head toward that dreaded category of trends: passing. The outlook, though, is bright.
Top of the pots
Bravo's "Top Chef" is such a weird reality competition: It's one of the few in the genre where viewers can't gauge the contestant's output. We're left to place faith in head judge Tom Colicchio and believe that, indeed, the tuna tartare was oversalted. We know they can all cook — making it to one of the 16 finalist spots requires chops. So "Top Chef" becomes, then, what every reality show from "Survivor" on forward is really about: A competition of personalities, of who can outshout and out-snark and out-histrionics the best on camera. Chicago paid close attention to "Top Chef's" Season 9, which ended Feb. 29, because six of the 16 contestants cook in town (Moto's Richie Farina and Chris Jones, Sable's Heather Terhune, Chilam Balam's Chuy Valencia, Aria's Beverly Kim and Spiaggia's Sarah Grueneberg — Jones, Valencia and Kim have since left those restaurants.) As always with "Top Chef," the food was the least interesting part of the show. Even though Grueneberg came in second place, the tears, infighting, bullying, knife injuries and bro-hugs (with an assist from the show's editing crew) still made for a season of compelling television.
Ask a food truck operator in Chicago what he or she thought about 2012, and the response will be along the lines of "one step forward, one step back." Yes, Chicago aldermen finally passed legislation in July allowing food to be cooked on board vehicles, instead of prepackaging beforehand in a kitchen. Operating times were expanded from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. But the food truck vendors still feel the ordinance's restrictions — such as not parking 200 feet from an existing food establishment or installing a mandatory GPS tracking device in their vehicles — inhibits business rather than nurtures it, not to mention prevents a thriving mobile food culture, such as those in Portland, Ore., or Austin, Texas. Even as Chicago established 23 "stands" around town where food trucks can park for two hours, some businesses are fighting back. In November, two trucks — Schnitzel King and Cupcakes for Courage — filed a lawsuit in the Cook County Circuit Court that aims to strike down restrictions in the city ordinance.
Foraging, particularly in the city, became a restaurant trend with the opening of Iliana Regan's Elizabeth, which bills itself as "new gatherer cuisine" and serves dishes like wild-rice-crispy treats with cured deer. City Winery, Blackbird, Longman & Eagle and many restaurants along Randolph Street also used foraged food in their kitchens. And although foraging is an ancient practice, the trend may have been influenced by Noma, the famed restaurant that has based its philosophy around foraged food.
Noma set off a literal land grab among chefs. Of course, foraging for ingredients isn't especially practical for a Chicago restaurant. This is not the Pacific Northwest, where the climate is more agreeable to foraging and woods more plentiful. The commercial scene here in the city remains small but thriving.
Charlie Trotter's wasn't the only restaurant to call it a career in 2012. We also said reluctant farewells to BLT American Brasserie, Bonsoiree, Crofton on Wells, Custom House Tavern, Duchamp, Erwin, Il Mulino, Le Titi de Paris, Moderno, one sixtyblue, Pane Caldo, Sushi Wabi and Zealous, among too many others.
On the plus side, some terrific new places debuted this year: Au Cheval, Balena, Bavette's Bar & Boeuf, Baume & Brix, BellyQ, Carriage House, Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, Elizabeth, Frog N Snail, g.e.b., La Sirena Clandestina, Nellcote, RPM Italian, Tavernita and The Trenchermen. In just under the 2012 wire: The Boarding House, Bub City, Grace, Found, Little Goat and Little Market Brasserie. And let's include late-2011 arrivals Acadia, Bar Toma, Goosefoot and Slurping Turtle. That's a hell of a rookie class.
Awards and honors
Restaurant Magazine's "World's 50 Best Restaurants" included Alinea at No. 7; Elite Traveler magazine had Alinea at No. 1 on its list. Michelin Guide affirmed Alinea's three-star (top) rating, and elevated Graham Elliot and L2O to two-star status. Bon Appetit magazine included Balena and Yusho in its list of the country's best new restaurants. Food & Wine's 2012 best new chefs list included Danny Grant, of now-shuttered Ria. AAA awarded its top rating of five diamonds to Alinea, Arun's, Everest, Tru and — one last time — Charlie Trotter's.
A lot of 2012's new restaurants were high-end operations, among them Baume & Brix, Del Frisco's, Elizabeth, Goosefoot and Grace. L2O made a significant investment in its operation, creating special water tanks to ensure the freshest possible seafood for its customers. And though The Peninsula, Four Seasons and Waldorf Astoria hotels cut back on luxury dining, Trump Hotel went the opposite direction, recruiting top talent to elevate the experience at Sixteen. And rumors persist that a certain unnamed chef is planning to purchase Charlie Trotter's. I can probably get him a good deal on some tables.
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