You never forget the ones that got away.
And while, as Tribune critics, we are constantly delving into dining for their weekly reviews, there are only so many weeks in a year, and so many restaurants to cover. It’s a good problem to have as we approach the third year beyond that first pandemic shutdown; the Chicagoland food scene continues to finds new, innovative ways to flourish and evolve.
So in our traditional catchall catch-up as the new year kicks off, we put together five restaurant mini reviews, listed alphabetically. We visited each of them once, rather than the typical two-visit reviews, and we did not award stars in light of that.
We’re always on the hunt for the most exciting elements of Chicago’s vibrant food scene. Know of something? Email Food editor Ariel Cheung at [email protected].
José Andrés, the chef and humanitarian, cooked in Ukraine among many other countries this past year. World Central Kitchen, his aid organization, still serves millions of meals worldwide, in partnership with local chefs. They’ve become global first responders amid the rise of constant crises.
The Spanish American restaurateur also opened a trio of new restaurants in Chicago, largely due to his partnership with the Gibsons Restaurant Group. You’ll find them across three levels at the relatively new 110 North Wacker building. The glass tower looms over the Chicago River, one block north of the Civic Opera House in the Loop, just downstream from Beatnik on the River.
Bar Mar, opened as a celebration of the sea in December 2021, anchors the airy ground floor space. A giant sculptural octopus floating above an island bar establishes an elegant yet whimsical statement on what’s to come. It’s not so much an escape, but a glass-walled refuge from the world we’re in now.
You might start with a Salt Air Margarita. The classic Andrés cocktail swaps the salted rim for a delicately salty foam. He originally created the drink for Oyamel, his Mexican-inspired restaurant in Washington, D.C., opened in 2004. The Sober Salt Air that I tasted substitutes tequila with Seedlip brand Grove 42, a citrus botanical nonalcoholic spirit. It is stunning, with sea foam breaking into a complex sweet-yet-tart finish, capturing the best beachfront memories in a sip.
Most of the menu, if not all, remixes greatest hits from other Andrés restaurants. I highly recommend ordering the Snack Like José seven-course tasting menu. It eats like a feast and may be the best deal at a celebrity chef restaurant anywhere in town …
… Not that you could tell from the first tiny but beautiful bites. A hamachi cone, a variation of what’s become a fine-dining staple everywhere, disappears in one fragile flash. Neptune’s Pillows, a signature dish from Bazaar Mar in Miami, tops puny air bread puffs with silky slices of tuna, electrified by rocoto pepper mayo and fresh wasabi, for a more satisfying crunch.
You might be skeptical about potatoes served twice in a tasting menu, until they proved their worth as extraordinary expressions on opposite ends of the spud spectrum. Crisp chips ring a cloud of creamy dip swirled with Espinaler, the Spanish hot sauce that’s not so spicy, but as iconic as bottles of Tabasco or Cholula. The patatas bravas, however, redefines the tapa as precise thick-cut fries, grounded on an artful smear of smoky brava sauce, accented with poufs of garlicky aioli.
The lobster roll, though, she’s the star of the show, with more perfectly shelled butter-poached pieces than seems physically possible to stuff into the tender little bun.
Chef Daniela Romero, in charge of Bar Mar, runs a tight ship, evident in impeccable execution, delivered with flawless service. The restaurant remains dine-in only with an expansive patio when weather permits. Meanwhile, you can heed the siren song under the octopus. — Louisa Chu
120 N. Wacker Drive, 312-820-6602, thebazaar.com/location/bar-mar-chicago
One floor above Bar Mar, you’ll find Bazaar Meat, which opened simultaneously a year ago. Ostensibly a steakhouse, it’s the third location of the theatrical restaurant brand with half-siblings in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. In Chicago, chef José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup partnered with the restaurant group perhaps best known for Gibsons, the steakhouse in the Gold Coast neighborhood.
Dark and moody, the dining room gives nods to 1970s-era glam hotel casino meets first-class lounge. Settled into a velvet banquette, under modern crimson chandeliers meant to mimic the flames of a volcano, you might notice red and black clothbound legs of jamon. They’re absurdly ominous in a room that hints at sacrificial ceremony.
If only I had understood the foreshadowing.
Not that the menu wasn’t explicit. You can order real Kobe beef for $65 an ounce — yes, per ounce. One caviar starts at $130 for a 10-ounce order, and you can add more for $13 a gram. There’s also a whole suckling pig for $540, but do note that it requires 24 hours’ notice.
Rather than blow the budget on a single bite, I decided to order a la carte instead.
Most of the dishes can again be found at other Andrés restaurants. After an exhausting upsell, repeated nearly verbatim to the tables of name-dropping tech bro tourists around me, I finally received my first taste.
The cotton candy foie gras dates back to the chef’s modernist minibar in Washington, D.C., highly creative circa 2003. Instead of the original crushed corn nuts, now there’s crispy amaranth. Or at least there was supposed to be. It was desperately missed, because it might have added some interest to the single note of sweetness surrounding a cold cube of bland fat.
When I cooked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, I made foie gras terrines infused with subtle flavor. I also happened to handle caviar every day at cold stations.
José tacos have nothing to do with tortillas, but top jamon iberico de bellota with Osetra caviar and gold leaf. It was sadly some of the worst caviar I’ve ever seen served in a restaurant. Either it came that way from the supplier, and should have been refused, or was mishandled to a slimy puddle. It should never have been sold, especially not at $16 for two paper-thin sheets of garnished seaweed.
The Philly cheesesteak was upsold as a must-taste experience. A hollow air bread roll, filled with warm cheddar espuma, gets draped with whispers of Kobe beef. It’s too big for one bite and nearly shatters to the floor, along with any hopes for an emotional connection to the iconic Philadelphia sandwich.
A coffee-rubbed wagyu skirt steak, finished with coffee air, seems like a steal, but was strangely stolen away when my server saw the brown bubbles had deflated. He returned the plate after an awkward pause, filled with foam that was not worth the wait.
A new Friends of Bazaar tasting menu was not available when I visited, and seems like a deal at $75, but perhaps too high a price after a night of bizarre bazaar experiences. — L.C.
120 N. Wacker Drive, 312-820-6601, thebazaar.com/location/bazaar-meat-chicago
Big Star was a hit essentially from the moment it opened in 2009. The tacos might not have been the absolute best in the city, but they were way above average and built on freshly made corn tortillas. Add to that a rollicking honky-tonk theme, a huge whiskey list and an enormous outdoor patio right by the Blue Line, and it’s easy to understand why the concept is still immensely popular now.
I wouldn’t have blamed the owners for recognizing a winning idea and opening multiple locations around the country. To its credit, the One Off Hospitality restaurant group hasn’t. It took years for it to open a second location across the street from Wrigley Field, which has a much bigger indoor dining space but is otherwise the same.
But now comes Big Star Mariscos in West Town, which hopes to expand the Big Star universe by focusing on Mexican-style seafood. Considering Sueños, a Mexican seafood-focused pop-up, was my favorite restaurant of 2022, I couldn’t wait to visit. So why does Big Star Mariscos feel like such a misstep?
The prices don’t help. Quality seafood certainly costs money. But when a single tostada goes for $20, it better be flawless, or at least served with a modicum of care. Sadly, while I’m sure the tostada de atun features a lovely piece of tuna, it’s completely coated in a salsa seca that steamrolls over the fish’s subtle flavor. One wonders why the kitchen needed to use such an expensive piece of fish in the first place.
Speaking of spice, the second time I dined there, a manager roamed the dining room to ask guests if they thought the food was too spicy. He has every right to be concerned. Call me a spice wimp if you’d like, but for someone who regularly makes habanero salsa at home, I struggled with a number of these dishes.
The worst offender is the scallop and surf clam coctel, which borders on the obnoxious. I genuinely love arbol chiles, but this particular salsa does nothing to enhance the nutty and smoky flavor of the dried red chiles. Instead, the salsa just relentlessly attacks your tongue, obliterating the flavor of the seafood and reducing the scallops and clams to mere textures. That’s not great when the dish costs $17. While I’ve had some legitimately spicy cocteles in Mexico, I’ve also never had to give up eating one halfway through.
Even a dish like the pescado tostada, which features a fillet of achiote-marinated tilapia, arrives with an unexpectedly spicy salsa that mostly just distracts from the fish.
There’s enough of the old Big Star around here to satisfy most people. The pescado taco, which you can find at the original location, is still a satisfying fried fish taco. You’ll also find carnitas and carne asada tacos if you’re not in the seafood mood. The enormous space also features loads of natural light, and the drinks do the trick.
Part of me thinks the problem is that Big Star Mariscos simply forgot what it was. My favorite dish is one of the humblest. The camarones dorados, two tacos stuffed with shrimp and Jack cheese and then fried until crispy, are the kind of fun and satisfying dishes you’d expect at a place when you’re listening to ’70s rock on vinyl with a salt-crusted margarita in hand. — Nick Kindelsperger
Big Star Mariscos, 551 N. Ogden Ave.; 312-521-5169; bigstarmariscos.com
Hidden away on the lower level, under Bar Mar on the ground floor, and Bazaar Meat on the upper level above, you might find Café by the River. It’s the least known of the three restaurants by chef José Andrés and Gibsons Restaurant Group in the Loop. The counter-service breakfast and lunch cafe opened in the summer of 2021 to primarily serve office workers in the tower, who were mostly working from home back then.
An unassuming door, which appears to lead to yet another dingy downtown desk lunch deli, instead opens to a breathtaking view barely above the water on the river, with a tiny terrace open in any weather. With a foosball table in back, the space feels like the rec room of your own private houseboat, but with far better food and a friendly staff.
Plus its steak sandwich can’t be found at any other Andrés restaurants at the moment. Its secret ingredient? A housemade giardiniera. Medium seared slices of filet mignon, melted Los Cameros cheese, caramelized onions and a lovely mild giardiniera layer within a bun reminiscent to a lighter cousin to the Kaiser roll formerly around Billy Goat’s “cheezborgers.”
The fried chicken sandwich is a fine variation of Andrés food truck offering from Pepe in Washington, D.C. In Chicago it’s made with deep-fried thigh, brava sauce, garlic mayo and pickled piparra peppers on po’boy-style bread.
The superb flauta sandwich also came by way of the food truck, not the Mexican dish. Do note that the sandwich also takes its name from flutelike bread, long and skinny, not like a baguette. Every inch gets packed with flavor, though, from nutty jamon iberico de bellota, manchego cheese and the same tomato fresco and olive oil that transforms bread to pa amb tomàquet.
You can probably skip the xuixo, a deep-fried, sugarcoated pastry filled with crema catalana, unless you’re truly homesick for Girona.
Get the tarta de Santiago instead. Each slice of fragrant, golden almond cake bears the traditional cross of the Order of Santiago rendered in powdered sugar. It’s so simple yet rich, you’ll make a pilgrimage for more. — L.C.
120 N. Wacker Drive, 312-820-6604, cafebytheriver.com
When Lardon opened in Logan Square back in 2021, owner Steve Lewis teased that he would also open a “craft beer bar” in the neighboring storefront. True to his word, Union opened in early 2022, featuring an extensive beer list and a hearty menu perfect for soaking it all up.
Like its predecessor, it also features the cooking of chef Chris Thompson. But where Lardon focused on Thompson’s indelible charcuterie skills, Union’s website describes the menu as “new American.” This purposefully vague descriptor means Thompson can basically serve whatever he wants, which mostly works out in the diner’s favor.
As one would expect from a beer-focused concept, there’s a burger. But where most of the trendy burgers these days feature thin griddled patties, like Au Cheval’s double cheeseburger, Union’s burger hearkens back to Chicago’s big burger craze of the early 2010s. The 8-ounce patty is made with ground brisket topped with salty two-year-aged Wisconsin cheddar, crunchy fried onions, creamy bone marrow aioli and a buttery brioche bun. While I was one of the proponents of the thinner smashed burger style, there is something deeply comforting about this larger style done right, and the quality of beef here can’t be denied.
But there are also real surprises. The confusingly titled Burrata + Cranberry pairs the gooey cheese with an honest-to-God funnel cake, albeit one that’s savory thanks to a beer batter and sage. This really shouldn’t work. Yet, there was something so tantalizing about how the crispy and hot funnel cake played off the cool creaminess of the cheese. It won me over.
This kind of wild creativity also occasionally works against Union. Though recommended by our server, the swordfish spiedini seemed to feature an array of intriguing components that didn’t seem to have anything to do with each other.
Like at Lardon, don’t skip the vegetables. The spicy baby gem salad features crisp lettuce leaves coated so exactly with a spicy tarragon dressing that every bite has exactly precisely as much dressing as it needs with nothing left over.
Unlike most restaurants with so many beers on tap (24), Union’s tap list only includes options from the Midwest, with the majority from within Chicago city limits. Keeping the list local might disappoint some, but it just showcases how we have one of the best beer scenes in the country. Plus, there are so many different styles of beer here, you’ll never run out of new things to try. If you’re looking for something else, there are over 200 bottles of whiskey, along with a short cocktail list, including an excellent old fashioned livened with some house-made smoked orange bitters.
Of the two projects owned by Lewis, Lardon remains the one that I’d recommend trying first. But Union is far more than just a place to grab a pint. — N.K.
Union, 2202 N. California Ave.; 773-697-7788; unionlogansquare.com
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