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There has been so much sorrow in the food industry over the past two years. And yet, hope persists.
Hope that customers will adapt to takeout when they can’t dine in. Hope that mandating vaccinations will slow the spread of omicron and keep restaurants and bars open.
And hope that new restaurants, even in such challenging times, can thrive.
Since resuming weekly food critiques in May, the Tribune has chronicled the journeys of such optimists, from caterers who launched one of the best barbecue joints in the city to a Filipino neighborhood cafe whose star seemingly can’t ascend high enough.
But, alas, there are so few hours in a day, and not enough time to fully examine every new restaurant worthy of it. As we kick off 2022, here are four restaurants that opened in 2021, reviewed in brief, listed alphabetically. Keep in mind that we only visited each restaurant once, compared to full reviews that typically require at least two visits, and are not starring these reviews in light of that.
We’re always on the hunt for the most exciting elements of Chicago’s vibrant food scene. Know of something? Email Food editor Ariel Cheung at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When chef and humanitarian José Andrés came to Chicago in May 2020, it wasn’t to hype his first restaurants in the city. He helped open a COVID-19 testing site, then spent the rest of his day delivering meals to a South Side school and a West Side hospital. He hyped local chefs and his World Central Kitchen crew instead.
With all his good works, I remained skeptical about the fourth location of Jaleo in the world, opened in the River North neighborhood July 15. The original, an ode to modern Spanish tapas, opened 28 years ago in Washington, D.C., where Andrés still earns critical acclaim. Then came Las Vegas, and then Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, for crying out loud.
In Chicago, a display case of branded merch stands right inside the entrance of the former Naha space. You’ll find the foosball table turned into a dining table to your right. Oh look, there’s the bull’s head hanging on the wall, too.
We do have the only Jaleo with a tapas bar, not that there was anyone pulled up to it the night I visited in mid-December, early in the omicron era. We also claim the only Pigtail, a basement bar offering creative drinks and bites, which I’ll visit another time.
Upstairs, the arroz rabo de toro ($80, for two to four people, only available for dine-in) is the only dish exclusive to Chicago on the extensive menu. It’s a saucy Meloso-style rice dish with braised oxtail — it’s not a paella, so you trade a socarrat crunch for heaping spoonfuls of silken rice. The meat and vegetables have mostly melted together, except for a few slender parsnips, pearl onions and green beans. Every grain of rice of the intensely rich dish seems superbly cooked, but I’m not quite convinced it’s worth nearly twice the price of a mushroom and seasonal vegetable paella.
On the other hand, the pescado con pisto ($18) could be worth double. The market fish of the day comes perched on the traditional Spanish stew, similar to ratatouille. When I say the big, fat, crispy-skinned trout fillet can easily serve two, that’s only if you’re willing to share the dish that evokes summer warmth and winter comfort simultaneously.
I might pay just about any price for the ensalada de hinojo y manzanas con queso manchego y Nueces ($12). The tissue-thin shaved fennel and green apple salad with nutty manchego and crisp walnuts has become a signature item at Jaleo. How could a salad you could theoretically make at home be so special? I’m still not quite sure. Perhaps because it’s an impeccably prepared blast of fresh textures that stands alone and complements just about everything else on the menu, from the funky seleccion de Ibericos ($34), an artful mosaic of the famous acorn-fed cured meats served with picos, little mini breadsticks; to the ensalada rusa ($14), a velvety potato spread enriched with bonito conserva; to croquetas de pollo ($12), the fanciest feather-light chicken fingers you’ll ever taste; and even the tarta de queso ($16, for two), the intentionally burnt-top, Basque-style goat’s milk cheesecake.
Chef Justin DePhillips oversees the Chicago location. Every single staff person I encountered (from the host to my server to the employee who brought out my perfectly timed takeout order) should be commended for flawless personal attention that made me forget there’s any other Jaleo in the world.
500 N. Clark St., 312-820-7771, jaleo.com/location/chicago
— Louisa Chu
Kitchen & Kocktails
If you’ve been wondering about Kitchen + Kocktails, the Chicago location of the Black-owned restaurant in River North that transformed the old Benny’s Chop House, you’re not alone. They post photos frequently on Instagram, but mostly ignore the many comments from unrequited fans. “Hi, can you respond to my DM please,” asks one. “IKR right?” empathizes another.
That’s the way it’s gone since the restaurant’s grand opening Oct. 1. Opening weekend, however, played out on social media like a disastrous group date.
The TRiiBE reported shortly after that Dallas-based owner and attorney Kevin Kelley said he’s making changes to address complaints. One table waited four hours, only to receive the wrong order. Another table had one of their party escorted out, because their shoes violated the dress code policy, according to The TRiiBE.
If you try to make a reservation, you’ll see that lengthy and controversial dress code policy, which disallows some bodysuits. I’m not sure how they check if one’s top is actually a onesie.
After I failed to find a reservation, and since Kitchen + Kocktails started taking walk-ins until 8 p.m., I took my chances one day for lunch, properly attired.
When I arrived at 1 p.m., which showed no availability online, I expected a packed house. I was the only customer — rarely a good sign.
To my thoroughly unexpected relief and delight, the experience was fantastic.
The Dream Eggs with blackened shrimp ($13), the restaurant’s play on deviled eggs, come topped with pristine Cajun seasoned crustaceans. The Key Lime Pie Kocktail ($15), with a graham cracker-dusted rim, sipped with a beautifully balanced and bracing citrus flavor profile.
I asked my server about the most popular dish so far, and she answered catfish, without hesitation. When she asked if I wanted it grilled or fried, I paused for a moment, before we declared in unison: “Fried.”
That fried catfish ($21) included huge yet impeccably tender cornmeal-breaded fillets with deliriously delicious creamy grits that stole the show.
An order of Southern fried chicken and butter pecan waffles ($21) could have easily served two. The hard fried crust held a nice spiced kick, while the pecan-loaded waffles offered a lovely caramel complement.
A seafood gumbo ($13), though, seemed promising with crab legs in the shell, but felt thin overall.
With the waffles being as good as they are, you might pass on the peach cobbler ($7) and banana pudding ($7), but I recommend ordering them for takeout so you can better appreciate the delicate hand used to prepare the traditional Southern comfort food desserts.
After the opening pains, Kelley brought chef Vannessa Brown up from Dallas to oversee the Chicago location too. She and her team show they can more than meet the challenge when everything goes right.
There are clear signs that it’s still a work in progress. Those sporadically answered messages on social media remain a red flag. No one has ever answered the phone the many times I’ve called. The online ordering system has never been available. Someone did call back last time, and you can theoretically reserve by text or online.
Do note a 20% gratuity is included, well worth it the one time I visited. Just leave those bodysuits at home.
444 N. Wabash Ave., 312-659-1951, kitchenkocktailschi.com
How much should we care about Nobu Chicago, the 40th or so location of a restaurant that first opened in New York back in 1994? As the story has been told (many times), that’s when Robert De Niro and Meir Teper teamed up with chef Nobu Matsuhisa, whose Los Angeles restaurant had started to explore the fusion of traditional Japanese cuisine with spicy and sour Peruvian accents.
Some menu items haven’t changed since Bill Clinton’s first presidential term. Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a Nobu, you’ve likely heard of black cod with miso ($42), a dish Nobu didn’t invent but certainly made obscenely popular. It arrives looking exactly like you’ve seen online, complete with a colorful pickled ginger sprout resting delicately on the fillet. Though I’ve tried many variations of the dish over the years, the Nobu original is meltingly tender and deeply savory, with a slight sweetness that kept tempting me on. Another early Nobu standard, the yellowtail jalapeño ($30) features six slices of the pink-hued fish topped with thin rounds of green chile, set in a bright yuzu-soy sauce. It’s hard to imagine the combination of buttery fish with spicy and acidic notes will ever go out of fashion.
While it was fun to finally try dishes I’d read about for years, Nobu isn’t completely stuck in the past. In the “Nobu Cold Dishes Now” section, you’ll find tai agave ($36), a stunning plate featuring raw slices of the seabream fish paired with a dressing made of aji amarillo (a yellow Peruvian chile) and agave. Move on to the “Nobu Hot Dishes Now,” and you can find the umami chicken ($39), which was as juicy as any I’ve tried this year.
It’s at this exact point, before the sushi course even arrived, when I began totaling up the cost of all these dishes in my head and marveled at how easy it was to drop so much money so quickly. No one has ever accused Nobu of being affordable, but it’s striking to experience it in person. That’s especially true if you order a cocktail, the cheapest of which is $18. I certainly enjoyed the barrel-aged Old Fashioned, featuring Kikori Whiskey and served in a glass with hand-carved ice — even if it was $20.
Nobu’s location smack dab in the middle of the West Loop explains some of the cost. But this kind of luxury experience also requires an enormous crew to run so smoothly. I was transfixed by the number of chefs in the massive, open kitchen, all laser-focused on slicing, rolling and precisely executing their tasks.
In other words, you get what you pay for at Nobu. Just know you’ll pay a lot.
854 W. Randolph St., 312-779-8800, noburestaurants.com/chicago
— Nick Kindelsperger
Don’t be like me and try to stroll into Provaré in West Town on a Friday night without a reservation. While greeted warmly by the host, she was clear that my wife and I didn’t stand a chance. “Maybe try to make a reservation for early on a Tuesday?” she suggested, before glancing around the completely packed room full of people smiling and looking like they had no intention of leaving soon.
“Sometimes we have slow moments between 3 and 5:30 p.m.,” chef and co-owner Jourdan Higgs said later.
Success like this is impressive for any three-month-old restaurant, let alone one created by two people without any industry experience. Higgs and his business partner, Michael Williams, first met in college, but it wasn’t until 10 years after graduating that they teamed up to create a restaurant that mixed Italian and Creole cuisines. “I love going to New Orleans, and I’m always trying different dishes,” Higgs said. “There were just certain flavors that we wanted to bring to Chicago.”
The pasta is just as important. While many Italian restaurants make fresh pasta every day, far fewer take the time to make dried pasta from scratch. “We had a pasta extruder flown in from Italy,” Higgs said. “That was a game changer.” Currently the kitchen makes their own bucatini, fettuccine, rotini and mafaldine. The latter ribbon-shaped pasta with ruffled edges shows up in the shrimp Hennessy scampi ($26) a heaping dish featuring a creamy and complex sauce that’s topped with plump shrimp and brightened with sweet red cherry tomatoes and spicy Fresno chiles. It’s clear after a bite why this is the restaurant’s most popular dish.
The condensed menu features only one entree without pasta, but don’t get upset if you’re lured in by the four lamb chops ($36), cooked exactly to my requested medium-rare. They rest on a huge scoop of the house special corn, a moderately spicy take on the Creole classic, maque choux.
But you can have a grand time at Provaré with nothing more than a couple of appetizers and a round of drinks. Start with the chef’s special calamari ($16) that includes loads of crunchy, tender pieces of squid mixed with fried pieces of banana peppers, jalapeños and red onions. Or try the salmon egg rolls ($14), one of those dishes that’s becoming increasingly popular at Black-owned restaurants around Chicago.
The cocktails, named for locations around Chicago, skew fruity, though are fortunately more refreshing than sweet. That’s true of the Madison & Pulaski ($14), a tequila-based drink where bracing ginger beer helps cut through the muddled strawberries. You’ll also find a few wines by the glass, and Higgs is looking forward to eventually offering beer selections from Funkytown Brewing, a new Black-owned brewery.
Along with a fascinating menu, it’s easy to simply fall for Provare’s welcoming vibe. I can’t remember a restaurant where so many people looked so happy to be there. “We want people to enjoy themselves,” says Higgs. “We live in hectic times, but we want to make sure everyone has a great experience.”
1421 W. Chicago Ave., 312-988-0943, provarechicago.com
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