The departure of founding chef Rick Tramonto for New Orleans left a few people wondering if new American restaurant Tru was still relevant to the Chicago dining scene, but Anthony Martin, who took over the helm as executive chef and partner in June 2010, has done a superb job of bringing his own style to the menu. While Tramonto’s dishes were often characterized as "playful," now Martin brings a more refined, technique-driven focus to items, thanks to his training under Joël Robuchon. Current menu items have a distinctive Japanese flair to them, including dishes like day boat scallop with hon shimeji mushrooms; golden tile fish with shiitake, yuzu, and togarashi; and Kobe beef with wasabi mustard.
Only two years after its opening, chef Grant Achatz's groundbreaking restaurant Next seems as if it has always been part of the culinary avant-garde — ironic for a restaurant whose entire prix-fixe concept changes every few months. There's nothing blasé about Next. You never know what's going to be placed before you — it could be chicken liquid croquettes (elBulli menu) or the world’s best mac and cheese (Childhood menu). Well, technically, it will be neither, given that they're from past menus and the menus don't repeat. But you get the idea. Under the helm of chef Dave Beran, Next paid homage to legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier; then it was a futuristic Thai menu; then Childhood; an homage to the now-closed elBulli; explorations of Sicily and Kyoto; and "The Hunt." Next up? The restaurant's first vegan menu, debuting in May, and a menu focusing on the Bocuse d'Or international cooking competition. Whatever it is, the food here is inventive and exciting without being gimmicky and the service flawless without being fawning. But good luck getting in. There's an online reservation system for buying "tickets," but you'll be joining 20,000 (yes, 20,000) other folk just as desperate and committed to scoring a table. If you get into Achatz's next-door cocktail lounge The Aviary (itself no small feat), there's a tiny chance that you might get a late table at Next. Or check Next's Facebook page. Most nights, they hold a table or two and sell them there. The catch? You have to already be in Chicago.
Decades before the likes of Mario Batali and Michael White brought us the most recent wave of fine Italian dining, Tony Mantuano taught Chicagoans how to enjoy refined Italian fare at Spiaggia. Taking a cue from its name, which means "beach" in Italian, the food and décor at the restaurant are inspired by the coast. Mantuano has won countless accolades for his accomplishments here, including a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest in 2005. He and the restaurant’s executive chef, Sarah Grueneberg, continue to delight diners with such fare as Pugliese burrata with golden Osetra caviar and potato crisps, squid ink spaghetti with Maine lobster and toasted breadcrumbs, and wood-roasted steelhead trout with honey mussels, black garlic, butter-roasted turnips, and Meyer lemon.
Click here to watch The Daily Meal’s interview with chef Tony Mantuano on Spiaggia's 30th anniversary and what's next.
Chef-restaurateur Paul Kahan has gotten so much good press for his splendid Publican (number 35 on this list) that his 1997-vintage Blackbird, with its minimalist interior and its highly imaginative menu (executed by chef David Posey), sometimes gets left in the background. Not fair! Where else can your palate be simultaneously surprised and greatly pleased by such fare as toasted brown rice purée with smoked swordfish, radish, black cumin, and whipped schmaltz (chicken fat to you); wood-grilled sturgeon with shiitakes, onion noodles, persimmons, and buttermilk; or clove-rubbed elk loin with job's tears (a tropical grain), sunchokes, sharp Cheddar, and black trumpet mushrooms?
The James Beard design award-winning restaurant The Publican shows you what restaurant design can be: The cavernous, high-ceilinged affair, filled with communal seats and warm hanging globes, simultaneously makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a contemporary fine dining establishment and a restaurant in a Charles Dickens novel. But this self-described beer-focused restaurant in the West Loop, under chefs Paul Kahan and Brian Huston, is much more than ambiance and suds. Yes, there are potted rillettes, aged hams, beef heart tartare, boudin blanc, and porchetta, but there are also fresh oysters, halibut crudo, cured meats, and daily pickles. You sit (preferably at the 100-seat communal table), you drink, you eavesdrop on the people next to you, and on no account do you skip ordering the amazing spicy pork rinds.
There's little question that Grant Achatz (The Daily Meal’s 2011 Chef of the Year for America), whose training includes stints with Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, and Ferran Adrià, deserves the title of America's most creative chef. As soon as you think there’s nowhere else to go,Achatz figures out that place and goes there. The menu at his Alinea can sometimes sound deceptively simple (lobster with carrot and chamomile), but what shows up on the plate is absolutely original and almost always dazzlingly good. Having successfully reinvented the way people look at reservations with their innovative online nonrefundable ticket system at Next (number 50 on this list) and reinterpreted cocktails, bar food, and the bar experience with The Aviary, Achatz and his partner Nick Kokonas have also intensified the attention they pay to Alinea. They installed a Next-style ticketing reservation system there, and continued to push the envelope with how people think about restaurants, by swapping their cooking with that of Daniel Humm and Will Guidara’s Eleven Madison Park (number five on this list) in New York City for a week as part of a project they called 21st Century Limited — after the luxury train, the 20th Century Limited, that used to ply the tracks between New York and Chicago. What to expect next from a chef and restaurateur who serves squab "inspired by Miró," paints your table with dessert, and lists "Lamb……..?????............!!!!!!!!!!!!!" as a menu item? Hard to predict, but you’re going to want to be there when the food is brought out.
Click here to watch The Daily Meal’s video on The Aviary’s cocktail magic.
It’s impossible to step inside Girl & the Goat, Stephanie Izard’s West Loop restaurant, popular with chefs and locals alike, and not feel the joy — the sense of community and comfort are widely apparent, from the soundtrack of pop and rock hits playing in the background to the broad communal bar table. The best part about the restaurant, though, is how well-made every dish is, from locally sourced creations like wood-grilled broccoli with Rogue Creamery Smokey Bleu cheese and "spiced crispies" to such whimsical plates as escargot ravioli with bacon and tamarind-miso sauce. Her formula certainly seems to be working; in December 2012, Little Goat, her tribute to the classic diner, opened right across the street.
Click here to watch the Daily Meal’s interview with chef Stephanie Izard on her new book and cooking tips.