The Other Critics

Ruby Lauds Elizabeth, Lambastes Neighbors; Nagrant Goes Home To South America With La Sirena Clandestina

“While $205 is a lot to spend for a meal from a chef you’ve never heard of, you don’t eat the chef’s name. What you’re paying for is the discovery of a talent still in its infancy, an artist whose ideas—good and bad—are pouring out at a remarkable rate. People compare Elizabeth to Alinea, but [chef Iliana] Regan is less like Achatz 2013, the impeccable superstar, than Achatz 2001, the ambitious kid whose ability had not been identified beyond his circle at Trio,” Jeff Ruby says of Iliana Regan, Elizabeth’s chef-owner. He clearly relishes an experience where “no other restaurant in Chicago presents a more undistilled vision of its maker.” What he didn’t relish, though, were the foodies he shared the communal table with: “a smug concert pianist, two socially stunted computer geeks, a name-dropping phony, two large Canadians—one making love to his Canon EOS, the other napping between courses—and my wife.” For Ruby, Elizabeth is caught in a tension between Regan’s vision and foodies crossing it off their list for bragging rights: “Some of us take it all too seriously and others not seriously enough. No one can tell the difference anymore because we’re all simultaneously bloviating.” Which as predictions go, is pretty prescient: it only took a couple of days before the reviewer got reviewed himself in the comments below by someone who says they were one of his fellow diners. [Chicago]

We’ve been waiting for someone to eat at the same La Sirena Clandestina we ate at and it sounds like Michael Nagrant finally got there. At least he thinks it’s the perfect restaurant, and John Manion the perfect chef, for its gritty fine-dining-meets-meatpacking neighborhood: “It all starts with Manion, the square-jawed, barrel-chested one. He looks not like a celebrity chef, but a forearm-tattooed, bare-knuckle brawler, a sturdy Hemingwayesque figure manning the kitchen pass… In its entirety, La Sirena feels like a dark, post-colonial South American drinking lair, the kind of place you’d hole up in before or after the revolution.” He praises many of the things others praised (the moqueca, the tangy brussels sprout salad) but even when a dish doesn’t work, he’s rewarded: “I didn’t love a side dish of farofa, a hot sandy mess of grated cassava tossed with raisins, but I loved the fact that it gave me an authentic look in to the comfort food served at the South American family table. Like the Mendezes at Vera, Manion is not following a business partner’s demand, rather, he’s cooking, clandestinely, rewarding diners from his heart and pursuing a creative unique voice that honors his heritage and his passions.” [Sun-Times]

“The first thing to seize your attention is a glass window that takes up nearly the entire opposite wall. Behind it is the brightly lit, spotless kitchen, crowded with busy cooks (on the night I ate they handily outnumbered diners). And among them stalks [chef Curtis] Duffy. The effect is something like staring at a movie screen in a multiplex with the chef, and his chiseled Hollywood hunkiness, in the starring role,” says Mike Sula of Grace. Though he says “not every dish knocks it out of the park, which is especially regrettable when the check comes,” at his best “Duffy manages to coax out flavors of knee-weakening intensity on both menus. But I found myself enjoying more of them on the veggie-dominant “flora” menu. There are orange and purple carrots prepared in several ways—roasted, dehydrated, liquefied—with pureed and braised pistachios and creamy mascarpone. There is a circular arrangement of soft, deep-fried sunchoke nuggets, onion chips, nutty roasted green wheat, and “braised” mustard seeds (aka “mustard”). There are jellylike coconut noodles strewn across a landscape of torn cake nuggets, basil gelato, and pickled huckleberries in a dessert that brought back one of the most memorable things I ever ate at Avenues.” Not to mention, we might add, Duffy’s episode (the second ever) of the Reader’s Key Ingredient series. [Reader]

Also at the Reader blog, Julia Thiel visits Bistro Dre, run by chef Andre Christopher, who opened, and then walked out of when he allegedly wasn’t paid, the late Grocery Bistro a couple of years ago. “Modeled after a Paris bistro, Bistro Dre is warm and charming, with decor that’s probably best described as eclectic: chandeliers decorated with ribbons and dried flowers, one wall covered with ornate mirrors, another wall a chalkboard adorned with empty picture frames. The decorations, though, are the least puzzling part of the place. Other mysteries: Why would a restaurant in this day and age not have a website? Why are the menus confusingly laid out and divided into categories including “vegetables/salads/pastas/flatbreads” (Belgian fries, “beet tartar,” grilled French beans, mac ‘n’ cheese, spinach salad, and two flatbreads), “pork/chicken” (chicken and waffles, bacon-wrapped smoked pork tenderloin, grilled hanger steak, lamb T-bones), and “seafood” (fish & chips)? And why, when the menu advertises that everything is served “shared plate style,” were we not brought any plates?” [Reader]

Kenny Zuckerberg looks at how a once-lauded New York chef, Christian Fantoni, is faring as the chef of “Phil Stefani’s 437 Rush, normally the kind of business lunch, try-to-please-everyone place I avoid…. A delicate bibb lettuce pesto was crisp and bright without overpowering the meticulously-prepared clams and tender cuttlefish that were the stars of the dish… Textures and flavors worked in harmony here, and I started to see why a NYC Michelin reviewer or James Beard House representative might have taken notice. Then I tried the butternut squash soup and imagined a multi-gallon vat of premade glop adorning a Portillo’s quick-service counter. It was thick like spackle and utterly devoid of flavor, but for some crumbled cookies used as garnish. It was a vile bowl of food.” [FOF]

At Serious Eats, Josh Conley finds that the venerable Sheffield’s bar turned into a pretty good barbecue place while no one was much paying attention: “The pulled pork is bolstered with fourteen hours worth of smoky love. It is pulled to order, and it is just beautiful. A deep pink smoke ring is evident, and the meat is tender, not stringy. Boasting a great bark, it is moist and delicious. The beef brisket is smoked for eighteen hours over hickory and apple wood, and also wears a great bark. It is lean, not as fall-apart as Smoque, but I’m okay with a little chew to my brisket. Sliced thin, that great smoke flavor comes through in every bite, as does a bit of heat from the rub.” [SE Chicago]

Ruby Lauds Elizabeth, Lambastes Neighbors; Nagrant Goes Home To South America