The Other Critics

Four Stars Again for Next From Vettel; Nagrant Goes Doughnut-Hunting

Swordfish at Next Sicily.
Swordfish at Next Sicily. Photo: courtesy Charles Hetzel

We didn’t entirely feel like Phil Vettel got the El Bulli menu at Next; at least he never came to any grand sweeping conclusion about how Ferran Adria’s cuisine had helped shape, but was still different from, Grant Achatz’s, and what that means in terms of a future for molecular cuisine as it gazed back at its own past. He seems on much surer ground rhapsodizing about this old school Sicilian from a modernist restaurant: “There is sticky-sweet octopus in agrodolce (this dish is one Szechwan peppercorn away from kung pao octopus); paper-thin flakes of air-dried tuna loin, which have the unctuous mouth feel of fine prosciutto; wood-grilled mussels paired with smoky red pepper; clams, whose chewy texture is offset by crunchy raw fennel; and sweet shrimp crudo with spicy basil, citrus, sharp raw garlic and tiny cubes of watermelon, as close to a Sicilian ceviche as you’re likely to get.” Those are all immediately vivid descriptions of food you can almost taste, that justify his final claim: “Of all of Next’s menus to date, ‘Sicily’ is not my favorite. But it’s the one I’d most like to repeat.” [Tribune]

In the same edition Kevin Pang visited a different sort of Sicilian restaurant— Sauganash’s long-running Monastero’s, which Pang seems to feel the need to paint as the anti-Next: “They are the diners for which humility is as integral an ingredient as blood orange and swordfish, and ‘fancy’ is a pejorative. No matter how reverential Dave Beran and Co. honors Sicily, some will view the price of admission and offer a dismissive hand gesture. Peasant food shouldn’t cost $200 a person, they’d say.”

Well, sometimes they’re also the diners for whom the taste of a vegetable fresh has long since been replaced by the taste of it canned or frozen, but there is evidence that Monastero’s is on the same side as Next in some departments: “Eighty-one-year-old Joe Monastero Sr., the lone surviving sibling from the La Canopy days, remains the restaurant’s face. Before the pizzeria, Joe Sr. ran a produce truck — to this day he handpicks fruits and vegetables at the restaurant… It’s a balancing act, Joe Jr. said, so he reserved the back page of his menu to satisfy old timers, with classic preparations from parmigiana and fiorentina to saltimbocca. What excites him is unearthing dishes from his family’s youth. His grandmother Maria’s go-to Sunday dish was a meat ragu rigatoni with currants and almonds, cooked with an unapologetic amount of butter. (I can tell you Mezzi Rigatoni Mamma Maria is a killer dish.)” [Tribune]

Michael Nagrant takes a stroll through the doughnut groves. He admires Glazed & Infused because they understand “that there’s a direct relationship between the freshness of a doughnut and the quality of a doughnut, and so they bake their selection up hourly,” and has praise for another newbie, Do Rite Donuts, saying “Though it sounds like a “Star Wars” villain, their banoffee, a toffee-crusted plank stuffed with vanilla bean-studded, banana-flavored cream should not be missed.” But his highest praise goes to old school donutmeisters for specialty items, the apple fritter at the far south side’s Old Fashion Donuts (“the best apple fritter on the planet, and certainly the largest”) and the eclairs at Pan-Hellenic Pastry in Greektown (“a bordering-on-savory pate a choux crust and a thick, piped, glistening lacquer of chocolate ganache”). [Sun-Times]

“Is Wicker Park big enough for two great taco joints? Yes, it is,” says David Tamarkin in Time Out Chicago, by which of course he means Big Star and Antique Taco. Which ignores all, oh, actual taco joints run by actual Mexicans, like this place and these three places and who knows what all. But within the realm of more upscale and/or hipsterish taco places, Antique Taco comes in for praise for “tacos, more composed than most, feel like meals in miniature: Light and crispy battered fish is topped with smoky cabbage; sumptuous carnitas carry a considerable kick from an adobo rub. A corn salad is a decadent mixture of kernels, onions, beans and mayonnaise—it is probably one of the only mayo-based salads you’ll eat and yet still find sophisticated. And the hefty meatball slider is given a proper sauce: a smooth mole poblano.” [TOC]

Julia Kramer somehow says “I kind of love” Maison despite a litany of executional and service errors: “bistro steak, on-the-mark medium rare but in need of salt, a rare occurrence in the Maison kitchen, whose liberal application of the mineral borders on egregious: The duck rillettes tasted like nothing besides the seasoning, and the skin of the chicken seemed to have been assaulted by it… Service, though friendly, is surprisingly unpolished, even for a restaurant scarcely a month old: Multiple times per meal, the food runner had to fetch silverware after setting the dishes down on the table.” So what did she love? “I love that it serves a large selection of its wine by the quarter, half and full liter, and I like how that wine comes to the table in an understated glass pitcher. I’m charmed by the bread service, which is accompanied by a sweet little plate of radishes with a smear of butter and a spoonful of coarse gray salt. I am very easily smitten by any meal that can begin with a seafood tower in which the oysters are expertly shucked, the shrimp gently poached and the lobster fresh and sweet. And I find the “snacks” section of the menu, especially the puffy, rich Gruyère gougères and the soft-cooked eggs draped in bright mayonnaise, simply delightful.” [TOC]

Four Stars Again for Next From Vettel; Nagrant Goes Doughnut-Hunting