Best New Restaurants in Chicago 2011 (2024)

Best New Restaurants in Chicago 2011 (1)
Stephanie Izard at Girl & the Goat

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When Martial Noguier told us that he was opening Bistronomic—which tops our list of 2011’s best new restaurants—he described it as a modern bistro. “You know, good food but not that complicated on the plate,” he said back in January. That breezy description could apply to any of the places on this year’s list: From Portage Park to St. Charles, everyone is doing more with less and trying awfully hard to make it look like they’re not trying. Don’t be fooled. Our story is dedicated to smart people making smart food—showstoppers like Sable Kitchen & Bar’s root-beer-glazed braised bison short-rib sliders and Davanti Enoteca’s baked focaccia filled with melty Crescenza cheese. Here, our 22 favorite new restaurants in Chicago and the suburbs. (Launch the gallery).

PRICE KEY: ¢ $10 to $19$ $20 to $29 $$ $30 to $39$$$ $40 to $49 $$$$ $50-plus
[Cost per person for dinner, excluding wine, tax, or tip]

ARAMI (Japanese)
[$$]
Chicago has never had a clear sushi king, à la Masa in Manhattan or Matsuhisa in Los Angeles. West Town’s warm and woody Arami is not in that league, but with time it could sit on the empty throne. I wouldn’t raise a fuss, not after experiencing Byung Kyu Park’s impeccable offerings, from the katsuo tataki sashimi—a superfresh seared bonito topped with a black fig—to a stunning crunchy hamachi maguro ebi (yellowtail, tuna, shrimp) wrapped in rice paper. Park puts care into nonraw items, too, like a tremendous kimchi ramen bursting with pork belly hunks and a rich short-rib donburi with pickled Asian pear. People always call good sushi “pristine,” like it’s a freshly scrubbed kitchen, but Arami embodies the philosophy, urging diners not to blight fish with soy sauce. Finally, we have reason not to. 1829 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-243-1535

[BEST NEW RESTAURANT]
BISTRONOMIC (French)
[$$]
A nip here (white walls out, taupe in), a tuck there (tablecloths out, Plynyl in), and—voilà!—Eve is out and Bistronomic is in. Matt Fisher is still the owner, but he has a new chef/partner, Paris native Martial Noguier, and together they pulled off what must be one of the quickest redos in restaurant history—to impressive effect. But for the wraparound bar in the back (an intimate spot for charcuterie and wine), the room doesn’t look terribly different from before, yet the cozy boîte is more subtle—soothing, even. It’s a lovely place to kick back with velvety smooth cauliflower velouté or ahi tuna tartare in a clever baby Mason jar presentation or, best of all, the house-made pâté, from Noguier’s mother’s repertoire. The glazed short ribs are fall-apart fab, and the whole organic chicken for two is the juiciest bird in the most decadent sauce ever. Even an old chestnut like baked Alaska seems oh-so-right on this uncompromising bistro menu. From the Pump Room to One Sixtyblue to Café des Architectes, Martial Noguier has long been a local hero, but Bistronomic is surely his raison d’être. 840 N. Wabash Ave.; 312-944-8400

[BEST NEW DISH]
BISTRO ONE WEST (American)
[$$]
A one-page menu with three categories: appetizers, entrées, and desserts. Inconceivable. Who dares to be so straightforward in the age of cross-cultural shared plates designed to fit every possible dining permutation? The folks behind the utterly charming Bistro One West, George Guggeis (Mango) and Doug D’Avico (Trattoria No. 10), that’s who. And, by George, it works. Guggeis runs a friendly, relaxed dining room, and D’Avico runs a creative kitchen unburdened by excessive ingredients. Take the jumbo prawns with garlic, chili threads, and shallots, for instance, or the perfectly seared swordfish in a puddle of green-onion sauce—both juicy, delectable, and deceptively simple. The mainstream wine list holds no surprises, but if you dine on the veranda along the Fox River, you really won’t care. 1 W. Illinois St., St. Charles; 630-444-0600

CHICAGO CUT STEAKHOUSE (American, Steaks)
[$$$$]
Chicago Cut is one of those déjà-vuish places that feel like they’ve always existed. When it comes to steak houses, that’s a good sign: We don’t like surprises with our red meat, unless they involve a porterhouse the size of a Frisbee. Everything is in order in the bouncing space—plush crimson booths, towering riverside views, overflowing co*cktails, scantily clad hostesses—and the leather-bound menu effectively covers familiar ground. I was thrilled with the Dover sole meunière and Amish brick chicken, but both took a back seat to a stunningly juicy prime bone-in rib eye with a sustaining outer layer of caramelized fat. That and a side of crusty truffled scalloped potatoes hiding a layer of crisp lardons are pure gold, and all this was before Jackie Shen (Red Light), a rare talent, took over the kitchen. Things are looking up at CCS. 300 N. LaSalle St.; 312-329-1800

PRICE KEY: ¢ $10 to $19$ $20 to $29 $$ $30 to $39$$$ $40 to $49 $$$$ $50-plus
[Cost per person for dinner, excluding wine, tax, or tip]

CUMIN (Indian)
[$]
If you want to be enlightened on the authentic Nepalese and rich Indian spices used at Cumin, take a knowledgeable friend with you. Chef Min Thapa’s tomelike menu in this red-toned Wicker Park spot covers a zillion bases—tandooris, masalas, biryanis, rotis—but not even the lengthy descriptions and friendly staff manage to unpack the mysterious spice combinations that color most every dish. Aloo gobhi, a potato-onion-cauliflower sauté coated with the restaurant’s ubiquitous “spice mix,” makes a distinctive impression; dainty chicken momos (dumplings) seasoned with Nepalese spices explode with flavor; and juicy-as-can-be curried catfish holds its own in a saucy sea of Indian spices. The restaurant could just as easily have been named Coriander or Cardamom. 1414 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-342-1414

[BEST NEW CHEF]
DAVANTI ENOTECA (Italian)
[$]
In the past six months, I’ve recommended Davanti more than any other restaurant in Chicago. To my friends and colleagues, my aunt in Toronto, a dude at a bus stop on North Clark Street. I can’t imagine anyone not falling for a carefree wine bar with creative, rustic Italian dishes like a buttery Ligurian-style baked focaccia stuffed with velvety melted Crescenza cheese. Or ricotta and honeycomb with thick slices of grilled Tuscan toast (best $4 I’ve spent in years). Jonathan Beatty’s menu overflows with cheese, salumi, and pizze, but it’s the potential throwaways that never fail to shock me: a creamy ceci bean spread, hearts of palm salad with pink peppercorns, a spinach raviolo packet oozing a farm egg. Funny that Davanti calls them shareable dishes; no one seems particularly interested in sharing. 1359 W. Taylor St.; 312-226-5550

DUE LIRE (Italian)
[$]
“The place will have that kind of cozy, warm feeling of going to someone’s house in Italy,” said Massimo Di Vuolo a few months before he opened Due Lire, his very personal trattoria in Lincoln Square. Di Vuolo wears jeans on the job and loves to schmooze about the food. He’s constantly heaping praise on the chef, Kevin Abshire (Riccardo Trattoria), who turns out classic arancine, a delightful salumi formaggi plate, and dead-on spaghetti with tuna ragù. Affogato with a shot of espresso is a perfecto finish. If the owner and the food fail to make you feel at home, perhaps the busboy will: Ours asked us to help clear the table. Somehow, we didn’t mind. 4520 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-275-7878

THE FLORENTINE (Italian)
[$$$$]
If you can get past The Florentine’s schizo décor, which looks like a library that got in a fight with T.G.I. Friday’s and lost, you’ll find Todd Stein’s soulful food. It’s similar to what he did so well at Cibo Matto, and he hasn’t missed a beat, with smart, upscale Italian dishes like seared scallops with fregola sarda, butternut squash, and black truffle or the thick caramelle pasta, oozing butternut squash with candied walnuts, brown butter, and almond amaretti. The masterpiece is a lamb shank with farro risotto, peperonata, and mint gremolata: dramatic, tender, and unforgettable. Don’t overlook the caramelized roasted cauliflower side with Calabrian chili relish or the excellent desserts, including tiramisù that reimagines the oft-botched classic as a mascarpone mousse with buttery ladyfingers for dipping. If only the room were as well conceived. JW Marriott, 151 W. Adams St.; 312-660-8866

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PRICE KEY: ¢ $10 to $19$ $20 to $29 $$ $30 to $39$$$ $40 to $49 $$$$ $50-plus
[Cost per person for dinner, excluding wine, tax, or tip]

GIRL & THE GOAT (American)
[$$]
The passage of time has neutralized our desperate crush on Stephanie Izard enough that we can finally assess her exhilarating restaurant with a clear eye. And you know what? If the kitchen were run by the goat rather than the girl, we’d still be into it. Whether carnivorous (silken pork liver mousseline with tangy cherry mustarda and pickled cauliflower), vegetarian (pan-fried green beans with cashews and Dijon-garlic-soy aïoli), or sweet (frozen corn nougat with plum, apricot, and bacon nubs), the food is luscious across the board. Even breads, such as a focaccia-like homemade stecca brushed with anchovy oil, ignite fireworks of flavor. Izard keeps changing up the menu, dabbling here and there with ingredients, but most anything that comes from her open kitchen and lands on your chunky wood table is a declaration: The girl’s still got it. 809 W. Randolph St.; 312-492-6262

HENRI (French)
[$$$$]
With all the time and capital poured into Henri, the place ought to be great. Instead, it’s merely good, which makes Billy Lawless’s companion to The Gage next door a sort of tragic hero. The “vintage salon” looks terrific, like an elegant shindig thick with crystal and silk, and the food, while never quite living up to the promise or the prices, gets plenty right. Lobster Wellington with foie gras, escargots Bourgogne, whole roasted loup de mer stuffed with fennel and arugula—all gorgeous, filling, and first-rate. A Hawaiian tuna crudo in a creamy salted-pineapple vinaigrette proves the kitchen can do modern, too. Apart from the clever elixir co*cktails and biodynamic wines, Henri is not especially trendy nor does it aim to be. In 2011, that in itself is kind of cool. 18 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-578-0763

LEOPOLD (Belgian-inspired Gastropub)
[$]
Trends are tricky. A new one seems like such a good idea—for about a minute and a half. Next thing you know, there’s a gastropub on every corner, and you’re bored out of your gourd with small plates, charcuterie, and craft beers. But the folks behind Leopold—Christy and Don Agee (Witts)—had already immersed themselves in Belgian beers, so a hop over the English Channel for a matching menu seemed in order. The result: plenty of fresh moules and frites, zingy steak tartare, and savory smoked rabbit to go with the happy sound of clinking glasses topped off with Belgian-style Ommegang, plus fun and crispy mini Belgian waffles for dessert. Don’t quite know where the poutine fits in, unless the Agees’ next project is going to be called Trudeau. 1450 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-348-1028

LILLIE'S Q (Barbecue)
[$]
Someone once told me that the best barbecue joints burn down every few years. If that’s true, someone better get Engine 35 on speed dial, because Lillie’s, the best in show from Chicago’s barbecuepalooza of 2010, is bound to go up in flames sooner or later. Wonderful down-home bites like fried pickles and bacon-studded stone-ground grits are great foreplay (and sideplay) for the kind of smoky baby backs of which legends are made. Charcoal and peachwood from Charlie McKenna’s custom-built D.W.’s Kountry Cookers soak into beautifully crusted pork, just as they do the impeccable pulled chicken and limber tri-tip. Now that it has survived its frenzied opening and every knotty pine table is still piled high with ribs and drowning in craft beers, Lillie’s is ready to take its place among Chicago’s barbecue greats. 1856 W. North Ave.; 773-772-5500

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THE AWARDS »
Best new chef, dish, dessert, bartender, and more

BEST NEW RESTAURANTS 2010 »
Last year's picks

PRICE KEY: ¢ $10 to $19$ $20 to $29 $$ $30 to $39$$$ $40 to $49 $$$$ $50-plus
[Cost per person for dinner, excluding wine, tax, or tip]

MASTRO'S STEAKHOUSE (American, Steaks)
[$$$$]
At this dark multistory beef orgy, you can hear Tom Linsk’s ivory-tinkling everywhere from the martini-drenched piano bar to the bathrooms. Regardless of what song is playing, the message is clear: The good times roll at Mastro’s. I have my issues with the willfully hedonistic slant. (Live six-pound Maine lobsters? Bathroom attendant? Shoestring-fry mountain overflowing all the way to the next table? Check, check, and check, please.) But there’s a lot to recommend here, like a surprisingly good tuna tartare drizzled with togarashi sauce on crushed won ton crisps, a damn fine rack of lamb, and an absurdly large “chef cut” rib-eye chop sporting a respectable char on a 400-degree plate sizzling with clarified butter. One bite of wonderful, crumbly homemade pecan pie and Linsk’s version of “New York State of Mind” starts to sound pretty good. 520 N. Dearborn St.; 312-521-5100

MAUDE'S LIQUOR BAR (French)
[$$]
“We are not looking to reinvent the wheel,” Jeff Pikus, the chef at Maude’s, told the blog Eater Chicago before the place opened. “What we are concerned with is how to make a really good wheel.” The wheel in question—the French bistro—has plenty of miles on it, and Maude’s appears to stick to the formula with its subway tiles and weathered farmhouse tables. But Pikus (Alinea) does fresh, affordable takes on bouchot mussels, buttery escargot, and pommes frites cooked in pork fat, and he knows how to deliver a knockout steak, as in the charred-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside boneless rib eye sprinkled with garlic salt. This being 2011, the proceedings include promising craft beers and throwback co*cktails, but also surprises, like a victorious table-size crème brûlée done the traditional way, using a hot iron rather than a blowtorch. The wheel keeps rolling. 840 W. Randolph St.; 312-243-9712

THE PORTAGE (American)
[$]
If I were a member of that curious breed masoch*stic enough to open a restaurant right now, I’d follow The Portage’s formula. Pick a neighborhood yearning for good food. Find a space with a back patio and make it beautiful. Inside, build a granite-topped bar, put a flat-screen behind it, and serve fine microbrews from Dogfish Head and North Coast. Add endearing touches like a take-one, leave-one library. Get a smart, energetic chef like Jeff Brantley (Tizi Melloul), who knows his way around crowd pleasers like boneless fried chicken, juicy Kobe burgers, and exceptional duck-fat french fries with multiple dipping sauces. Don’t overthink the menu: nothing more upscale than beer-braised short ribs and warm homemade apple pie. Be nice and learn the names of your customers, because they’ll be back—with their friends. 3938 N. Central Ave.; 773-853-0779

REDD HERRING (American)
[$]
In this era of specialization, there’s something daring about Redd Herring’s democratic attitude. The décor tilts urban (but not urbane)—brick walls, subway tiles, low acoustic-tiled ceiling—and Roger Herring (Socca) and David Gollan (Spiaggia) have loaded their menu with straight-up comfort food without any twists, thank you. As such, the simple-pleasure seekers among us can enjoy a scallop wrapped in crisp pork belly, ale-steamed mussels, and an Allen Brothers filet while our kids devour Niman Ranch hot dogs. Meanwhile, expertly grilled wild salmon with a yummy hash of onions, potatoes, and bacon could hold its own in any la-di-da downtown spot. During dessert, a funny thing happened at my table: All the adults stole tufts of cotton candy off the kids’ giant pastel puffs. Such are the joys of a family restaurant that’s actually good. 31 S. Prospect Ave., Clarendon Hills; 630-908-7295

Related:

PHOTO GALLERY »

THE AWARDS »
Best new chef, dish, dessert, bartender, and more

BEST NEW RESTAURANTS 2010 »
Last year's picks

PRICE KEY: ¢ $10 to $19$ $20 to $29 $$ $30 to $39$$$ $40 to $49 $$$$ $50-plus
[Cost per person for dinner, excluding wine, tax, or tip]

RUXBIN KITCHEN (American)
[$$]
Apart from the awkward name, there’s not much to criticize about this little Noble Square BYO. The space, which cleverly repurposes old church pews, leather jackets, and seat belts, has so much going for it, it can barely contain all the good vibes that emanate within. First there’s that magnificent aroma, which turns out to be terrific house-cut garlic french fries with chipotle aïoli. Then there are the imaginative dishes, like a delicate dill-toned eggplant with an irresistible medley of roasted beets, chunky cucumber strips, and a honey-cardamom yogurt. Heck, customers went so nuts last fall for Edward Kim’s roasted chicken and cumin-Cheddar waffles that the entire staff got sick of poultry and 86ed it from the menu forever. I hope the dazzling panna cotta with litchi, lime zest, and toasted coconut doesn’t suffer the same fate. 851 N. Ashland Ave.; 312-624-8509

[BEST NEW BARTENDER]
SABLE KITCHEN & BAR (American)
[$]
“We think you should have a shareable plate in one hand and a co*cktail in the other,” gushes our waiter at Sable. Yeah, you and every other joint in town, pal. Sable may not look special, but it is, partially because Heather Terhune (Atwood Cafe) understands American comfort food enough to experiment without ruining the classics. She enlivens her braised bison short-rib sliders with a root-beer glaze and tops each deviled egg with a black trumpet mushroom crisp. The menu is packed with accessible, affordable little treats, such as nibbles of corned beef Reuben strudel with homemade Thousand Island dressing—you get the familiar flavor without gorging yourself on a whole Reuben. Sable’s space is a mysterious cross between cozy-hearthy and hotel-corporate, but one Sazerac, custom-made with rare skill by Mike Ryan, and you’re a lot more forgiving. Hotel Palomar, 505 N. State St.; 312-755-9704

[BEST NEW DESSERT]
SAIGON SISTERS (Vietnamese)
[$]
“We grew up watching my mom,” says Mary Nguyen Aregoni, one of the Saigon sisters. “She was an entrepreneur back in Vietnam. She and my grandmother were always selling in the market. They were food distributors. They were bankers. They were fishmongers.” Perhaps that explains how Aregoni and her sister, Theresa Nguyen, had the smarts and the moxie to leave corporate America, hire Matt Eversman (May Street Market, Charlie Trotter’s) as their chef, and launch a funky urban café under the el tracks on Lake Street. From the perky banh bao (steamed buns) to the chichi sashimi-style Arctic char, Saigon Sisters has it down. Red quinoa on caramelized fennel is a revelation, and che—a warm custard made with butternut squash and coconut milk—is the year’s best new dessert. It all costs a bit more than you might expect, but we doubt you’ll mind. 567 W. Lake St.; 312-496-0090

SILOM12 (Thai)
[$$]
Beyond Arun’s, not many Thai restaurants in Chicago exhibit much ambition beyond replicating the noodles their owners recall from the streets of Bangkok. Silom12, the sharp BYO (for now) in the longtime Cafe Matou space, has bigger ideas. (Just try to find another osso buco with green curry and young chili peppers in this town.) Changing up the typical som tam papaya salad, Silom deep-fries papaya threads and serves them over blanched green beans, dried shrimp, and other fun stuff. Addictive. The goofily named Thai-Coon is a Technicolor coup of cooked shrimp, soft crabmeat, and fried eggplant on jasmine rice, with an outstanding spicy garlic-basil sauce. The kitchen knows when to leave well enough alone, as with the ideal tom kar gai broth swimming with chicken and fresh lemongrass slivers. Even desserts, Thai food’s usual Achilles’ heel, are pretty good. 1846–48 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-489-1212

Related:

PHOTO GALLERY »

THE AWARDS »
Best new chef, dish, dessert, bartender, and more

BEST NEW RESTAURANTS 2010 »
Last year's picks

PRICE KEY: ¢ $10 to $19$ $20 to $29 $$ $30 to $39$$$ $40 to $49 $$$$ $50-plus
[Cost per person for dinner, excluding wine, tax, or tip]

TOTOPO MEXICAN GRILL (Mexican)
[$]
“The concept is to have different flavors of guacamole,” explains Dudley Nieto, a consulting chef at Totopo. “Different flavors of salsas. Different flavors of tortilla chips.” Warning bells. Sounds like a Mexican chip-dip stand (wrong), and Nieto never stays anywhere for long (immaterial). Totopo is a spiffy, if generic-looking, Mexican grill owned by Ray Maldonado, Nieto’s old friend. Yes, there is the tortilla chip/salsa/guac conceit, and service is fast-casual, but behind the business plan lurks serious talent in the cocina. The black bean soup tastes like soul food, the double-tortilla-wrapped pescado tacos under roasted tomatillo salsa burst with freshness, and the carne Oaxaca—grilled hanger steak with smoky morita salsa—is shockingly juicy and tender. As for Nieto, Shakespeare was right: Don’t shoot the messenger. Oakbrook Promenade, 3041 Butterfield Rd., Oak Brook; 630-573-8686

VINCENT (Dutch Bistro)
[$$$]
In my travels, I recently came across a real live Dutchman and told him that I had just sampled beer-battered haddock on snert (split pea soup) in Chicago. He nodded in that amused way that only someone who speaks four languages can nod. I suspect he would approve of Vincent, the pleasant Andersonville bistro where his countryman, Joncarl Lachman, schools Chicagoans on the joys of a cuisine to which most have never had reason to give the time of day. Around the cozy room, patrons dig into pork bitterballen (fried meatballs), gamely attempt to order zaansemosterdsoep (mustard soup with crab salad, a cheese called smeerkaas, and tarragon pesto), and chase maatjesharing (pickled herring) with shots of juniper-kissed jenever gin. Lachman hedges his bets with familiar bistro stuff like warm baguettes, onion soup, and five different kinds of moules frites. All well and good, Joncarl, but you had us at snert. 1475 W. Balmoral Ave.; 773-334-7168

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