Monday, December 22, 2014

The Best of 2014: Some Most Memorable Meals

Along with much else I enjoyed in 2014 were numerous great meals.

Perhaps too many.

But by way of rationalization that my ever trying (quite correctly) to get me to lose weight doctor will never buy, not only is food the only traditional vice I regularly indulge in, and not only am I acutely happier when I eat good food that's bad for me, but as someone who appreciates creativity and artistry in many realms, I consider well-made meals another art form that I feel compelled to explore.

I don't really consider myself a foodie or gourmand, and while I appreciate the artistry of superstar chefs--and have in years past made a rather pricey point of trying Charlie Trotter's and Alinea, and enjoyed some indulgences this year--I just as much relish savoring and supporting a particularly nifty storefront taco joint or unpretentious local breakfast place that just does everything right. 

Heck, one of my favorite restaurant discoveries of 2014 was Sparky's, a blue-collar diner in my hometown of Skokie, IL that has been in the same place and has remained seemingly unchanged for 30+ years (it looks like it could date back 60)--only I'd never known of it until a few months ago.

So in my book--and probably everyone's--a "great meal" can connotate a variety of things, including of course, but not only, food that is delicious and/or distinctive.

A restaurant's ambiance--whether high-class or homey--can certainly lend itself to a meal feeling fantastic, as can ever attentive and exceptionally friendly & helpful service.

And obviously, one's dining companion(s) can make for a "great meal" almost as much as the food and service and value and atmosphere, etc.

I feel quite fortunate that there are a number people in my life with whom I could share a bag of potato chips at Subway and find it to be a phenomenal dining experience. Though many of my fondest feasts with friends and family also featured fine food elevated by the company I kept.

Unlike most of my other Best of 2014 posts, this won't be a ranking of my favorite restaurants or meals but rather a salute to several that stand out, somewhat by category. 

The food itself will largely be an abiding factor, but not entirely, as per my explication over the last few paragraphs.

But now that I have whet your appetite, here are some of my:

Most Memorable Meals of 2014
(Note: Some restaurants warrant inclusion in multiple categories below, but I will cite each only once. All restaurants in Chicago proper unless otherwise noted.)

A True Masterpiece
Picasso - Las Vegas. I've wanted to eat at this AAA 5-diamond restaurant in the Bellagio for years, mostly so I could see the numerous Picasso paintings hanging within. In January, I decided to go for it, and the splurge was worth every penny. A truly phenomenal setting and likely the best "high-end" food I've ever eaten. You can read more about it and other Vegas dining experiences in this post.

Chops with Chops
I had the pleasure of eating many high quality steaks, plus some Prime Rib, in 2014.

The best steak was at CUT in Las Vegas, which is a Wolfgang Puck joint. My friend Dave and I ordered American Wagyu Ribeyes, and though I would have a hard time telling you why Wagyu matters, the steak was sensational.

Other great steaks or prime rib were enjoyed at (in no specific order): Smith & Wollensky, Michael Jordan's, Sullivan's (Lincolnshire), Jack Binion's (Hammond, IN), Cabana Las Lilas (Buenos Aires), Desnival (Buenos Aires), McCormick & Schmick's (Skokie), Bobby Van's Steakhouse (JFK Airport), Weber Grill and Pete Miller's (Evanston).

In Rio de Janeiro, I ate at a couple churrascarias (Brazilian steakhouses), with Marius Degustare being by far the best.

And the best rack of ribs I had was at Sweet Baby Ray's (Elk Grove Village).

Franks for the Memories 
Perhaps the year's biggest story in Chicago dining was the voluntary closing of Hot Doug's by its proprietor, Doug Sohn. Lines at the gourmet sausage emporium, which could exceed an hour as a matter of routine grew to 8 hours and more near the October 3 end date. I'd agree that's a bit crazy, and made my last visit in mid-August and had--for the first time after several visits over the past 7 years--Doug's signature Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mouse and Fleur de Sel.

Like everything else I ever ate at Hot Doug's, it was sensational (and yes, I am allergic to poultry, but it was worth the risk and I seem to have survived). Some may never believe it, but Hot Doug's merited the hype, fervor, loyalty and chagrin over its closure. Although I was actually happy for Doug to go out on top, as I wrote in this May post shortly after he announced plans to close.

And while Hot Doug's is gone, the somewhat similar Chicago's Doghouse pays tribute to him by recreating his signature foie gras sausage with all the accoutrements. I tried one just the other day and it was terrific.

I've also enjoyed the gourmet sausages I had this fall from the Haute Sausage food truck (they also have a storefront in the South Loop). I rather coincidentally ate at Haute Doggery in Las Vegas, just because I happened to be standing next to it at the perfect moment, and had a rather tasty Kobe beef frank.

And in terms of more straightforward hot dog stands, I still love Char Cheddar Polish from Poochie's in Skokie, and the Whoopskidawg from the legendary Superdawg.

Fancy Thai, Casual Thai
I had long read many superlatives about Arun's, said to be the best Thai restaurant in the country. My
first visit there in March was a real treat, albeit a pricey one, and actually impressed more for the overall experience (and sensational artwork by the brother of the owner/chef) than the prix fixe meal itself--as I wrote about here.

It wouldn't be inaccurate to say that I remain a bigger fan of more standard issue Thai food, such as Pad Thai or Mussaman Curry, and in 2014 my favorite establishment for such was Siam Rice along Wells Street in the Loop.

Local Global Excursions
(a.k.a. Sethnic Dining)
Unlike in 2013, this year I didn't not make a concentrated effort to eat at Chicago area restaurants representing as many different cultures as I could--click the Chicago Dining World Tour link at top for numerous recaps--but still had several excellent meals at establishments of various ethnic origins. Besides those listed elsewhere, some that stood out include:

El Tinajon (Guatemalan), Noon O Kabab (Persian), Cafe Central (Puerto Rican), Siunuk Grill (Armenian, Glenview), Creperie St. Germain (French, Evanston), Roy's (Hawaiian), Taste of Cuba (Lincolnwood), De-Jred (Jamaican, Skokie), Lupita's (Mexican, Evanston) and Psistaria (Greek, Lincolnwood).

Enjoy Every Sandwich, some more than others
Perhaps giving wide berth to what I include here (is a taco a sandwich?), in 2014 I remember having burgers at great Labriola Cafe (Oak Brook), Rudy's, Bat 17 (Evanston) and Farmhouse (Evanston), remarkable Reubens (or just corned beef) at Katzinger's Deli (Columbus, OH), Manny's Deli and Kaufman's (Skokie), outstanding tortilla-encrusted tilapia tacos at Carbon and many other unique and savory tacos at Taco Nano (Northfield) and BIG & Little's.

The Prime Rib sandwich at Eataly is wonderful, but I actually liked the one at the United Center's Bar One food stand even better. Cafecito's Cuban Steak Chimichurri sandwich is delicious, as is La Nuestra, aka The Pabellon Arepa at the Venezuelan Aripo's (Oak Park). My favorite gyros remains at Dengeos (Skokie), while Al's still serves my favorite Italian Beef; for the latter, I also love Johnnie's (Arlington Heights) and the Beef & Cheddar Croissant at Portillo's. I also revisited Real Urban Barbecue's wonderful Burnt Ends BBQ brisket sandwich (in Vernon Hills and Highland Park).

Pizzas with Pizazz
Lou Malnati's for deep dish and Pizano's for thin crust, though their thick is also great. (I also love Gino's East, but think I only had their supermarket rendition in 2014.

Buffets, Breakfasts and Brunches worth getting out of bed for
The Aria Buffet in Las Vegas is probably the best I've ever experienced, though the one at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines was also very good. For quick & cheap eggs 'n bacon, I really like the aforementioned Sparky's on the east end of Oakton in Skokie, while for a bit more robust breakfast selection, Annie's on the west end of Oakton in Skokie remains a perennial favorite.

Fine. And Even Dandy.
They likely won't win awards, but several better-than-basic places I had good meals in 2014 include Firehouse Grill (Evanston), Ridgeview Grill (Wilmette), Glenview House (Glenview), Bluestone (Evanston), the new Ten Mile House (Evanston) and the raised-their-game Ruby Tuesday.

Yes, Sometimes I Eat a Salad
Besides Sweet Tomatoes, where I can make my own, my two favorite salads are the Mixed Baby Green (with apples, raspberries, candied pecans, etc.) at Pizza Capri on Halsted near Steppenwolf Theatre and the Strawberry Poppyseed Salad (sans chicken) at Panera.

Otherwise Unique
Curt's Cafe in Evanston has a tasty selection breakfast & lunch items, and an even better raison d'etre, as it provides training for at-risk youths. Of food trucks in the Loop, my favorite was the Tamale Spaceship, from which excellent tamales were made cooler by being served by guys in Lucha Libre masks. I was surprised at the distinctiveness of the menu at the 3 Floyds Brewpub in Munster, IN, though the Death Metal was pretty hard to take, for me let alone my mom. And having had the pleasure of going to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires this year, I should cite having enjoyed their historic Confeteria Colombo Cafe and Cafe Tortoni, respectively.

Great Taste, in dining companions, too
A wide variety of friends and relatives joined me for many of the meals at places cited above, and I relished all of my shared meals. I don't mean to imply that the places listed here were more special for the company or the food than several of the aforementioned, but a few more of most memorable meals of 2014 were all the better for who joined me. I won't name my companions here, but perhaps they'll see this and also fondly recall eating at Buddy Guy's Legends, Shokran, Libertad (Skokie), Lao Sze Chuan, Las Fuentes (Morton Grove), Rusty Bucket in Dublin, OH, McNally's Irish Pub (St. Charles), Taqueria La Estrella (in Jefferson Park) and the Walnut Room at Macy's.

Just Desserts
I really can't recall all that much in particular--for, of course, I didn't indulge all that much--and in terms of chocolate cake I preferred that at Portillo's to the 23-layer one I had at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse. But I've been on a bit of a crème brûlée kick and remember having some good ones at Pete Miller's, Bonefish Grill in Skokie and Weber Grill. And probably some other places, too.

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