It may not be New York or Los Angeles, but between its premier restaurants, the annual National Restaurant Association trade show and the recent James Beard Foundation Awards, Chicago is proving to be a tough food-and-beverage contender to keep up with these days. And while out-of-town talent and ideas are always welcome in these parts — this is the home of Midwest hospitality, after all — the Windy City has no qualms about laying claim to its own happenings. Here are five of the biggest trends in Chicago right now, along with some honorable mentions.
1. Spiked desserts
Pastry chefs are all about kicking off the nightcap early these days, and they aren’t partial to any one spirit — or medium — in particular. NoMi’s Greg Mosko accompanies a chocolate budino with Campari gelée, a move that adds as much bitter complexity to the plate as it does color contrast. It’s a whiskey-orange foam that finds its way into Genie Kwon’s Chichory Custard at Oriole, rum that rounds out Chantilly cream in Maple & Ash’s coconut cream pie, and St. Germain that heightens the mango-calamansi curd at GreenRiver. Some savory dishes are indicative of the application, too: The Oeuf Outhier, a caviar scrambled-egg favorite at the Blanchard, features vodka-spiked crème fraîche.
2. High- and lowbrow hybrids
Chicharrones priced at $200 may seem a little ludicrous — until you realize they’re laced with Royal Osetra Caviar from Israel. It’s what Aaron Cuschieri is trying out at the Dearborn, and just one example of how chefs around town are elevating lowbrow dishes for sit-down restaurant consideration (and price points). Meanwhile, Moneygun’s Jared Wentworth has created a foie gras grand slam (a playful take on Denny’s downmarket diner staple), fall-off-the-bone duck wings with spicy harissa sub in for chicken wings at Old Town Social, and Jimmy Bannos Jr. is cranking out salt and vinegar beef tendon chips at the Purple Pig.
3. Bar carts
Cheese and bread carts are nothing new to fine dining, but recently restaurants have been using them for an entirely different kind of meal accompaniment: booze. Diners at Sixteen are welcomed by a roving buffet offering five different kinds of champagne, a Grappamobile swings through the service lanes at Osteria Langhe, and soon enough Rebar will be rolling around a rosé cart with a handful of international pours, ranging from Contadi Costaldi Franciacorta to Van Duzer. Cocktails get their playtime, too: A custom-built cocktail cart at Swift & Sons features premium spirits, house-made bitters and high-end vermouth, and a vintage bar cart at Cherry Circle Room features tableside takes on martinis, Manhattans and old-fashioneds. It’s all about the agave at Bar Toma, where tableside margaritas are crafted to order from a wide array of fruits, garnishes and tequilas.
4. Retail products
What happens after you open a restaurant, headline dozens of culinary events and write a cookbook? Merchandising, of course. Some of the city’s biggest chefs and restaurants are continuing to debut retail offerings, from the sweet (old-school candy from Saint Lou’s Assembly, hot chocolate mixes at Hot Chocolate) to the savory (fried-chicken flour at Honey Butter Fried Chicken, chipotle peanuts from Mama’s Nuts/Fat Rice). You’ll never have another bland dish thanks to an extensive sauce inventory that covers all of the bottled-up bases, including BBQ (County Barbeque and Lillie’s Q), spice (hot sauces from Giuseppe Tentori and Fat Rice), and marinara (Nonna’s Sundries).
5. Chef collaborations
Compared to some other big cities, Chicago and its chef population rely frequently on a community-serving mantra: We’re better together. The city has surely seen its fair share of chefs collaborating in the past, but they seem to be getting even chummier lately — both locally and nationally. White Oak Tavern & Inn teams up with restaurants across the country for its monthly Chef in Residence series. Meanwhile, visiting chefs to Arami have a go at a noodle dish on the last Monday of each month, and Osteria Langhe’s Cameron Grant is going head to head with Eataly’s Rob Wing for this month’s edition of Ramen Battle, Yusho’s slurp-worthy survival of the fittest.
Chicago has always been a cocktail-loving city that prides itself on its neighborhoods. Lately, bartenders have been combining the two, calling upon the town’s best areas for drams like the Logan Square Cooler and Boystown Royale at Presidio, the Lincoln Park After Dark at Big Bar and the Avondale Ginger Mule at Honey Butter Fried Chicken.
All of the big restaurant groups are now doing the food-hall thing: Hogsalt has 3 Greens, Lettuce Entertain You has the Market @ Beatrix and, coming soon, 16” On Center will open Revival, providing a central spot in the Loop for flavors from across the whole city.