A clutch of enterprising places is rewriting the restaurant playbook in Chicago. For some, such as a fine-dining spot in Lincoln Park that serves an elegant take on a school lunch, innovation is about showcasing nostalgia. For a Korean American trailblazer in Avondale, change means transforming the way it hires and retains staff. On the Gold Coast, a library and science lab hybrid (inspired by Albert Einstein himself) stirs up some of the most experimental cocktails in town.
Culinary innovation takes on diverse forms in the Windy City. These are the six restaurants that show what it takes to make real waves.
Eden (Avondale/Irving Park)
This New American spot with a Mediterranean accent, just doubled the size of its onsite greenhouse. The restaurant’s new Avondale home features an eco-friendly urban garden overlooking the Chicago River, fueling the restaurant with much of the herbs and produce featured on its brunch, lunch, and dinner menus. It’s all part of Eden’s commitment to sourcing hyper-locally from its own backyard when it can, and from local farmers when it can’t. Taste the homegrown bounty in the oven-roasted Arctic turbot and wood-grilled chicken paillard, both served with fresh garden herbs. Or sample the greater Midwest in dishes such as pork tagliatelle with blonde bolognese and apples from Nichols Farm in nearby Marengo.
Esmé (Lincoln Park)
The menu at Esmé, an unabashedly artistic restaurant that defies genres, changes every week. The only thing you know you’re going to get is a mind-blowing culinary journey. The playful plates here are imagined by chef Jenner Tomaska, a James Beard Award finalist who combines culinary excellence with a healthy dose of whimsy. Tomaska’s past menu highlights include a “school lunch” of a tomato tart, fruit cup, and a caviar-topped tater tot. Another time, he served fennel curry and cod in a ceramic balloon. Cocktails arrive in glass milk cartons, and recent bar snacks included a three-foot bouquet of house-made Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Tomaska and team are also committed to connecting with their surrounding community, and regularly join forces with local artists and non-profit partners (such as Kitchen Possible) to collaborate on weekly menus.
Parachute (Avondale/Irving Park)
When Korean American icon Parachute, which has both a MICHELIN star and a James Beard Award, reopened in Avondale earlier this year, chefs Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim revealed many transformations. The menu changed, focusing more heavily on traditional Korean dishes and ingredients including gochujang (Korean red chile paste). Plus, banchan, or small plates such as kimchi and seasoned spinach, are now made fresh daily. Parachute’s interiors were also treated to a facelift, with an improved wheelchair ramp and a brand-new sound system. But the most radical shift is its updated service model. Both Parachute and its sister restaurant Wherewithall now tack on a 20 percent service charge to each bill. According to Kim, this charge lets the restaurant create a more sustainable environment for staff by providing them with a living wage. At a time when staff shortages are common (and turnover is high), Parachute’s business model is a brave blueprint for staying afloat.
BOKA (Lincoln Park)
More often than not, today’s diners want their foie gras without a side of pretension. BOKA gets the fine-dining balance just right. This stylish, contemporary American restaurant that’s earned a MICHELIN star every year since 2012, when it also underwent a major renovation. But the transformation from just another fancy dinner destination to one of the most consistently acclaimed restaurants in Chicago wasn’t completed until 2014 when chef Lee Wolen joined the team. Lee brought show-stopping dishes such as the roasted chicken that shot him into stardom at The Four Seasons. BOKA’s current offerings are both avant-garde and approachable, with dishes such as marinated cucumbers with toasted yeast and slow-cooked Tasmanian ocean trout. Enjoy it all in the playful dining room, featuring a living wall that surrounds portraits of birds and beasts in Renaissance garb.
Momotaro (West Loop)
Chicagoans love their sushi, whether it comes in grocery store containers or atop a high-end omakase counter. If you’re searching for the latter, look no further than Momotaro. The West Loop’s modern, seasonal Japanese restaurant relies on selective sourcing and ultra-traditional techniques to set itself apart. Chef Gene Kato transforms simple ingredients, such as whole, sustainable bluefin tuna, into artful nigiri; lesser-known sushi ingredients, such as purple sea urchin, also lend this restaurant its innovative edge. Kato is considered a master when it comes to the robata grill. Case in point: the restaurant’s famous tsukune, or ground chicken meatballs, served with a soft-poached egg. Momotaro’s inventive menu also includes hot and cold sections, where you’ll find more show-stopping dishes such as live spotted prawn with soy milk foam. Bonus points for the sexy izakaya downstairs.
The Albert (Gold Coast/Streeterville)
The Hotel EMC2 is a boutique retreat known for its room service robots. Its restaurant, The Albert, is one of the few restaurants in Chicago that boasts floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. And the only one where physics equations double as art, appearing on a blackboard-inspired mural. Here, the experiments don’t revolve around the relationship between force and mass. Instead, they’re all about the effects of smoke on bourbon—the result is the Vesuvius cocktail. The food menu is equally imaginative, with fresh pasta, an assortment of steaks (such as Albert’s Cut, served with balsamic-rosemary cipollini onions), and 72-hour braised short ribs.
Sarah Freeman is a food and drink writer by day and the host of one of Chicago’s most popular pop-up markets by night.
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