Chicago! City of beef! City of pork! City of sea urchin crème brûlée! Chicago! Capital of the Midwest, buckle on the farm belt, marketplace for lean Piedmontese beef raised on the Illinois plains and fat heirloom tomatoes grown in vacant lots on a bombed-out stretch of the South Side! Chicago! Home of Charlie Trotter College and Rick Bayless University, whose brightest pupils no longer peel out of town on graduation day but stay put, to cook! And hey, can they cook! Chicago! Crucible of ambition, laboratory of invention, proving ground for a crop of fresh-faced chefs forging the second most exciting restaurant city in the country!
That "second most exciting" is no backhanded compliment. New York is still New York, with more top-drawer restaurants, more world-class chefs and a long head start. But after half a dozen trips to Chicago over the past three years, the most recent a highly gratifying weeklong blitz, I'm convinced that the city has overtaken all other contenders.
For instance, if I could eat dinner tonight anywhere in the country, I'd go to Blackbird. I had my first meal in this spare, modernist dining room shortly after it opened, four years ago, and at the time, Paul Kahan's cooking seemed essentially French contemporary. Now other roots are showing. For three years Kahan led the kitchen at Rick Bayless's Mexican-accented Topolobampo, and some of what he did there is now resurfacing. The relish of roasted tomatoes and candied kumquats Kahan dabs on seared scallops has its origins in Mexico, where tomatoes and oranges are frequent companions. So does the toasted-garlic sauce served with soft-shell crabs--Mexicans would call it mojo de ajo. No matter where he gets his ideas, though, the hallmark of Kahan's cooking is a rigorous effort to focus flavors by keeping the plate clear of anything superfluous.
Kahan builds his menus on a foundation of Midwestern ingredients: He serves ruby red Wisconsin trout with applewood-smoked bacon, and cured, spiced foie gras with sweet onions and Michigan cherries. He buys a great deal from the Green City Market, a small weekly greenmarket that he helped organize; Rushing Waters Fisheries, his source for trout, sells there, as does the 70th Street Farm, a remarkable operation that has converted two of the many vacant lots on the South Side into biointensive gardens. One day while I was admiring its ghetto-grown brandywine tomatoes and giant beets, I turned to see Kelly Courtney eyeing a sheaf of purple onions. Courtney trained at San Francisco's estimable Stars and Square One, and was visiting Chicago when she had an epiphany that changed the direction of her career. "You can't tell me this part of the country doesn't have as much to offer as northern California," she says. "I knew the Midwest was a big farming hub, but I didn't see anybody emphasizing the land around us. And then all at once it just came together."
Half the fun of Mod, Courtney's year-old restaurant in buzzing Wicker Park, is watching her transplant the farm-to-table philosophy she studied on the West Coast. Take her signature dish, a pork chop with corn kernels and macaroni and cheese, familiar from countless church suppers and family dinners. To bring out the pork's corn-fed goodness, she brines it with herbs and oranges, then grills it. She spiffs up the corn with a few drops of locally made truffle oil, and mascarpone imparts a debonair richness to the mac and cheese. The overall effect is of homespun flavors cleaned up but with a bit of the earth still clinging to them. That Mod's interior is built largely out of synthetic materials--recycled-rubber floors, glowing sheets of tangerine plastic--just adds a bit of creative tension.
Like Courtney, Carrie Nahabedian spent time out west imbibing the fresh-produce ethos, and she's brought it to Naha, her year-old downtown restaurant, along with a brand of cooking that feels deeply personal. I was halfway through an engrossing fillet of king salmon, lightly smoked and glazed with a balsamic-vinegar syrup that made me think (happily) of teriyaki sauce, when my lunch companion, a friend from Chicago, said, "What's great about Carrie's food is that you can tell she really likes to eat." It's true. I could imagine working at Naha every day without ever wanting to go somewhere else after my shift. At the end of our meal, we found Nahabedian in the bar, slicing into a grilled flank steak, her favorite item on the menu. "I love to eat at the bar," she said, explaining that the bar menu is stocked with some of her most heartfelt dishes, including flaky cheese triangles and other Armenian snacks that she learned from her mother and her grandmother.
Another student of California is Grant Achatz, who was schooled at Thomas Keller's West Coast think tank, the French Laundry, and migrated to Chicago this year; now he cooks at Trio, in the northern suburb of Evanston, and it's one of the most avant-garde restaurants in the country. Just when I thought time had run out for the heirloom-tomato salad, Achatz has started the clock again. He peels and nearly freezes three tomatoes, which does something interesting to their sugars, then sets them on a raft made of a kind of cracker that also carries scoops of dreamy olive-oil ice cream and tart, red tomato sorbet, one bunked directly above the other. Basil, the last component of this salad's classic prototype, crops up in a green tile of gelée. Culinary cubism of this sort can wear thin quickly, but I sat rapt before each 21st-century assemblage, from the anemone-shaped ravioli that burst with black-truffle broth to the coconut soup with tapioca pearls and lychee sorbet.
Achatz's predecessor at Trio was another inventive cook, Shawn McClain. To draw city people up to Evanston, McClain had to wow them with luxury--and offer them meat, although his heart is in fish cookery. Now that he's both chef and owner of Spring, a former bathhouse in Wicker Park, he's finally realizing his vision of light, purposeful, streamlined seafood. McClain grew up in Ohio, but somewhere along the line he got a taste for Asian cuisine. His cooking isn't the dreaded brand of fusion that throws lemongrass over everything; it's an almost seamless blend of East and West that betrays a solid grasp of both, as with his hamachi tartare with pickled plums and green papaya, or his lobster spring roll in its spicy passion fruit sauce.
Sandro Gamba, a former Alain Ducasse protégé, was lured away from the top post at Lespinasse in Washington, D.C., to head the kitchen at the Park Hyatt Chicago. Now, at NoMI, where a wall of glass looks out on Chicago's Water Tower, he commands a platoon of cooks who turn out foie gras tarts, frog leg risotto and other free-spirited and mildly whimsical French-derived dishes.
That chefs who were groomed by the likes of Keller and Ducasse now come to Chicago to make names for themselves has pretty much demolished the myth of Chicago as a meat-and-potatoes town--or as a one-man show, that man being Charlie Trotter. Granted, Trotter, a perfectionist with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, had set impossibly lofty standards of labor-intensive cooking and microscopically attentive service. (He once threatened to make waiters wear two-sided tape on the soles of their shoes to lift stray lint from the carpet.) But three years ago, Gale Gand and Rick Tramonto, two alumni of Trio, opened Tru, and from the moment a squadron of waiters marches to your table and fills each goblet with mineral water in a synchronized choreography Busby Berkeley might envy, you know Tramonto and Gand want to out-Trotter Trotter. Yet where their rival's establishment is stately and serene, Tru is a show-off, serving up a big helping of razzle-dazzle with each course. A delicious truffle soup comes cappuccino-style in a gold-handled Versace coffee cup; the salmon tartare rests above a fishbowl that holds a swimming koi. It may be unfair to expect any dish to live up to such vivid first impressions, but I came away from Tru--$400 lighter--thinking that much of the food simply didn't.
Tru's flashy, more-is-more attitude embodies an aspect of the local dining scene I've come to think of as Chicago Rococo. You see it at Nine, a modern steak house where the creative side dishes are nearly upstaged by the glow-in-the-dark martinis and the two-story circular caviar-and-Champagne bar tiled with tiny mirror shards, like a huge disco ball. You see it in Michael Taus's menu at Zealous, where North African, Middle Eastern and Indian elements battle for control in every dish. You see it in the exhibitionistic wine cellars visible from the dining rooms at Zealous and NoMI. It's as if these restaurants are too excited about creating the city's new culinary style to hold their enthusiasm back.
For now, the chefs are helping one another along. Every other month, Martial Noguier invites a bunch of his peers to dinner at his restaurant, One Sixty Blue, where they share everything from recipe ideas to gossip to the phone number of a prized mushroom forager. When Chicago gets more crowded with chefs, this backscratching may give way to backstabbing, but today a supportive, collegial openness is the rule. And it's tough to harbor petty emotions inside One Sixty's sprawling, swaggering dining room, which has not only a glassed-in wall of wine but also a walk-in humidor. (Michael Jordan, a partner, has a thing for cigars.) Noguier's cooking is accessible enough to please the lanky basketball players loping around the floor and sophisticated enough to keep his chef buddies coming back. For instance, his heirloom-tomato salad rivals Achatz's in smartness. Noguier drops poached tomatoes into a baba, the French dessert cake (but with less sugar), because tomatoes, as he explains, are a fruit; at the same time the spongy cake soaked with olive oil plays the role of the bread in an Italian panzanella.
Shortly after I got back from Chicago, Regina Schrambling declared on the front page of the New York Times' food section that Chicago's cooking--which she loves, too--isn't French or Italian or Asian but all-American. It struck me that using "all-American" to describe One Sixty's baba panzanella, Blackbird's mojo de ajo soft-shells, Trio's coconut tapioca soup and Naha's phyllo triangles was like dressing an elephant in a bikini. It stretches the fabric, and it doesn't do the elephant any favors either.
If Chicago's latest restaurants aren't all-American, then what are they? Modern. Energetic. Wide open to new ideas. Beyond that, it's impossible to say. The city's chefs are still working it out for themselves.