Chicago restaurateurs continue to take pride in showing the rest of the country what they already know: it’s one of America’s best foodie cities. And, despite the normal challenges of running a restaurant combined with the ravages of the pandemic, many restaurants and bars have found success and even innovated in terms of innovative menus, beautifully designed dining rooms and service. first class.
Last year saw the debut of Chinatown’s first cocktail bar, a unique French-American restaurant serving snails alongside foie gras tacos, a mother-daughter team who found healing through cooking, a group of humanitarian leaders helping people around the world and a leader who has reopened the cornerstone of his beloved community after a prolonged closure.
The editorial staff of Eater Chicago, in an effort to celebrate the city’s superb food scene, proudly presents the 2022 Eater Awards.
Best New Restaurant
At one point, before the pandemic, a few observers started throwing a pity party for the city’s French restaurants as other global tastes began to gain attention. Obelix, which opened in May in River North, proves that any goodbye was premature. Obelix’s menu injects excitement into the bistro genre (foie gras tacos are a staple) by creating a restaurant that feels both French and Chicagoan. To confuse Obélix with other modern French restaurants across the country would be a mistake. Any fears that the restaurant world may not make a pandemic recovery dissolves after dining at the elegant but welcoming restaurant of brothers Nicolas and Oliver Poilevey.
Also note the staff. The chef, Nathan Kim, is Korean American. The pastry chef, Antonio Incadella, is Mexican American. The melting pot metaphor, which describes a mix of Pollyanna cultures in America, might be a cliche, but for Obelix, it seems like the comparison works with the end result being a restaurant experience like no other.
Chefs of the year
Click download to save Sarom Sieng – Khmai Fine Dining mp3 youtube com
Midwesterners like to point to Chicago as the most diverse city in the region, but underrepresented groups tend to be politely overlooked. Chicago lacks a large Cambodian population, which is part of what makes Mona Sang and her restaurant so special. Sang, and his mother Sarom Sieng, own Khmai Cambodian Fine Dining in the far north of the city, across from Evanston in Rogers Park. Sang, who worked at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, has taken on the responsibility of introducing traditional Cambodian dishes to a Chicago clientele who, for the most part, have little understanding of the offerings from their homeland. Sieng’s imperial spring rolls offer a trapping, savory morsel that is familiar. Once the customers are trapped, Khmai can opt for the jugular. The dips have a lot in common with Midwestern relish plates, like the catfish-based tuk kreong. Kaw ko is a beef stew perfect for a cold day in Chicago; the weather differs from Cambodia where December temperatures can reach 80 degrees.
The cultural exchange is more poignant knowing the mother and daughter ills encountered in Cambodia. They are refugees who escaped the genocidal regime of Pol Pot. Sang discovered cooking as a way to communicate with her mother who risked her life to find a home for her family in Chicago. Khmai isn’t the only story of refugees in Chicago restaurants, but it’s also important to recognize Sang and Sieng’s story as they enjoy much-deserved success.
bar of the year
Immigrant enclaves come and go as new populations arrive and old ones leave. There is a legitimate fear that Chicago’s Chinatown will fall victim to parents retiring and children not sharing the dream of taking over the family business. Nine Bar is an example of creative thinking in preserving a classic Chinatown restaurant, Moon Palace Express. The prodigal daughter, Lily Wang, returned to her family’s restaurant, after working at bars like Estereo, a popular cocktail bar in Logan Square. Wang and his partner Joe Briglio have taken over the back of the Moon Palace Express to open Chinatown’s first cocktail bar. That’s not to say Chinatown was a dry neighborhood. For decades, restaurants like Won Kow served tiki drinks, as Westerners loved this liquor pairing with Cantonese food.
Nine Bar serves a mai tai, but the cocktail experience is different. The bar is a destination with a unique drink menu (green tea balloon, Good Fortune offers Japanese barley, Medjool dates and “umami” bitters) and is also a place where members of the diaspora Asian can feel at home. Wang found a way to help save his local Chinatown. And judging by the crowd, it looks like it’s working.
Pop-up of the year
The restaurant industry found hope when pharmaceutical companies released COVID vaccines that helped make indoor dining safer. Yet the industry, an industry that is regularly asked to donate meals and time to various charitable causes, has been battered. The pressures of dealing with customers who are unruly, lacking in empathy and common sense to comply with COVID measures – among other challenges – have increased. Restaurants closed. Workers left the industry for other jobs.
Which makes what happened in the spring of 2022 all the more remarkable. A group of Chicago chefs, united by their involvement in the Green City Market, started a movement. It started with Russia invading Ukraine, with leaders wanting to send aid to Ukraine. And so, Chicago Chefs Cook for Ukraine was born with an event at Navy Pier featuring a who’s who of local culinary talent. Other chefs wondered if they could duplicate the effort for causes important to them. During a Zoom call ahead of the Ukraine event, Piccolo Sogno’s Tony Priolo proclaimed, “We haven’t finished, we just started.” Philosophy was no leader, no cause would be left behind. And so they organized other events. One, benefiting Ethiopian war victims, was notable because US headlines often ignore the conflicts dark-skinned people suffer. A third event helped victims of the Puerto Rican hurricane. In total, the effort raised more than $850,000. Others are planned. The consortium of chefs includes Priolo, Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Cafe and Tigist Rega of Demera.
With staffing issues, much of the restaurant industry, especially independent operators, is running on steam. Yet despite all the reason to rest, this group of leaders have found an outlet to support communities around the world.
Return of the year
Bo Fowler, Owen & Engine and Bixi Beer
Bo Folwer sometimes feels like Teflon. The chef behind Owen & Engine has earned a reputation as a hard worker who doesn’t know when to show up. Severed fingers? No problem. Not enough staff in its two restaurants? She’ll just bounce in between and work 90 hours a week.
The latter would catch up with her as O&E remained closed for much of the pandemic, with Fowler’s efforts focusing on Bixi Beer. But the time came when the doctors forced her to take time off. She suffered a heart attack in April 2020 and surgeons performed a quintuple bypass. Those 90-hour weeks? Faded away.
As she healed – not far from restaurants, she would still come, call it active recovery with a reduced workload – Fowler envisioned the future of Owen & Engine, a British pub that serves everything from British Indian korma , bangers and a first class burger. O&E reopened in January 2022. Fowler is not at the restaurant all the time. She slows down. But she is back. And Chicago’s food scene is better for it.
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