Sated: The Year in Food and Drink

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Dec 26, 2008 4:00PM

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“The Year in Review” is an apt, if overused, phrase this time of year. Coupled with what turned out to be a busy and eventful 2K8, and we’re hard pressed to distill what we found most newsworthy into a limited number of words. We can’t whittle it down to just our favorite dishes, restaurants, chefs or events. Frankly, those types of stand-alone year-end recaps bore us.

When we look at local food and drink, we also see a rising awareness of sustainability and slow food; writers putting out some of the best work of their careers; grass roots advocacy geared toward things like urban farming and the access to fresh healthy produce in neighborhoods served mainly by fast food chains; critics, chefs and diners having dialogues with each other to further these causes; and entrepreneurs still aiming high in a tough economic climate. It’s the breadth of stories happening around us that we feel fortunate to view and cover.

For our year end recap, we’ve decided to take a “something old, something new” approach to what we think were the most fascinating stories of the year. We’ll even list some of our favorite dishes, for those of you who need it.

  • Chicago: Rock Star Chef City – In a year that saw our city place three entries on Esquire’s list of the ten best new restaurants in America, the chefs themselves were also garnering headlines. We had prodigal sons returning home (Takashi Yagihashi, Jose Garces, Ryan Poli), superstar chefs looking to stake their claim in a crowded field with varying degrees of success (Marcus Samuelsson, Laurent Gras), and new entries by established locals (Graham Elliot Bowles, Randy Zweibel). The chefs making the biggest headlines did so for their personal struggles (Grant Achatz’s cancer battle) and...
  • Stephanie Izard Wins "Top Chef Chicago" - Proof that nice people do finish first. From the elimination challenge in the season premiere forward, the competition was Izard's to lose, even as the unlikable Lisa sneered and sulked her way into spoiler contention in the season finale. Izard's showing on the show also set the foundation for her budding brand name.
  • A Boom Year for Restaurant Openings – With L2O leading the way, new restaurants opened with stunning frequency in 2008. You’d be hard-pressed to find a critic who didn’t like L2O. Garces’ Mercat a la Planxa and Yagihashi’s eponymous Bucktown outpost also made the Esquire list. There were also new openings by Poli (Perennial), Zweiban (Province), Bowles (graham elliot), Samuelsson (C-House) and, of course, The Publican, where Brian Huston is doing Paul Kahan, Donny Madia and company proud. Also opening were the Bristol, Mado, Mixteco Grill, Urban Belly and Eve.
  • The Reader’s Whole Hog Project – The Old Gray Doorstop isn’t what she used to be, but their food coverage has only gotten leaner and more focused as the paper’s future becomes shakier. If you haven’t been reading Mike Sula’s ongoing series following the journey of an endangered breed of pig from farm to table, you’re missing out on James Beard award-quality writing. The Reader’s dinner of the same name at Blackbird in October easily was our favorite event of the year and gave us one of our favorite dishes, as well.
  • Chicago Gourmet Underwhelms – We’re being generous here. The event that His Elective Majesty billed as “a gourmet Taste of Chicago” turned out to be a neighborhood wine festival with good stemware. If the mayor and Illinois Restaurant Association were using this to showcase the city to the International Olympic Committee, then their plan to bring the 2016 Games to Chicago must include getting the IOC blind stinking drunk on an abundance of wine.
  • The Alinea Cookbook – As a coffee table book, Lara Kaster’s photos are gorgeous. As a cookbook, we’ve had varying success re-creating some of Achatz’s recipes (although Alinea partner Nick Kokonas’ sons made a lot of wannabe chefs look bad). As a whole, we were slightly disappointed by the book. At root in our feeling is the quality of the essays, none of which gave the reader a glimpse into Grant Achatz, the man. We certainly didn't expect Michael Ruhlman to re-hash Achatz's evolution as a chef as similar to Kane walking the earth in "Kung-Fu."
  • Eater Chicago, DOA – We found the announcement of former UR Chicago Editor-in-Chief Ari Bendersky to be a slightly left-field choice, but were looking forward to what he would bring to Eater Chicago. Turned out he didn’t get the chance, as our increasing banana republic economy forced publishers Lockhart Steele and Ben Leventhal to table Eater Chicago’s launch indefinitely.
  • Bell’s Formally Returns to Illinois – Fans of Larry Bell’s brews were already supportive of his wink-and-a-nod return to bars, restaurants and liquor store shelves with the Kalamazoo line of beers. But distributor Judge & Dolph’s purchase of National Wine & Spirits/Union Beverage cleared the final obstacle keeping us from enjoying Oberon on tap without a trip across state lines. It was a welcome return.
  • Economic Effects on the Local Restaurant Industry – Even with all these new restaurants opening this year, others were cutting back hours, setting check minimums and putting together fixed price specials in an effort to increase profit margins, even as diners tighten their disposable income. Like the economy in general, it’s gonna get worse before it gets better.
  • Pork – It wasn’t just the other white meat, it was the meat. From the aforementioned mulefoot pig dinner at blackbird and most of the Publican’s menu, to seeing pork belly dishes practically everywhere and the award-winning pork shoulder at Honky Tonk BBQ, to country-fried bacon, pork was the hot ingredient this year. No longer can it be merely dismissed as “swine flesh.”
  • Blogging Chefs – Laurent Gras’ blog for L2O was always a good read, although Stolpman would love to give the chef some photography pointers. The blog of Lockwood chef Phillip Foss made headlines for its frat house take on mussels and mimicking other chef’s signature dishes. Peruse the Alinea Mosaic for any length of time and you might be able to strike up correspondence with Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas, or Achatz's lieutenants, giving you a direct sounding board for recreating the recipes.
  • Ten Memorable Dishes – Let’s start with Paul Virant’s roasted crepinette with Tuscan kale sauerkraut, plum and pinot noir jam, pickled onions, country bacon and pork jus from the Reader’s mulefoot dinner. Sula and others were ga-ga over Justin Large’s head cheese ravioli. And it was an amazing dish. But we were bowled over by the exquisite balance of sweet and sour, soft and crunchy, and flavors sneaking up on us from this dish by Vie's Executive Chef. Our other favorites were the charcuterie plate at the Publican; graham elliot’s ahi tuna carpaccio; sauteéd Maine scallops and soba gnocchi with Trumpet Royale mushrooms and celery root-parmesan foam at Takashi; skate wing with bordelaise and asparagus at L2O; rabbit stew with cavatelli and winter vegetables at Custom House’s Unibroue charcuterie dinner; bread pudding with strawberry compote served with warm Unibroue Queleque Chose at Sheffield’s Unibroue Dinner; chocolate cake with Cascabel chile and raspberry-basil sorbet at the July Clandestino dinner; toasted ravioli at Bertucci’s Corner; and Sushi X’s “Five-O” roll.
  • Favorite New Restaurants – 1) L2O, 2) Mercat a la Planxa, 3) The Publican/Mixteco Grill (tie), 4) Takashi, 5) Veersaway/Province (tie).
  • Underwhelming Restaurants – Urban Belly, graham elliot
  • What to Look Out For in 2K9 – 1) The opening of Lula Café’s new Pilsen outpost, 2) Charlie Trotter’s new restaurant in the Elysian Chicago, 3) Dale Levitski’s Town & Country opening in the West Loop, 4) Stephanie Izard’s Drunken Goat in Wicker Park, 5) Chicago Gourmet’s second go-round.