Sean Sanders found the inspiration for his casual, yet refined New American eatery in a cottage beside New Zealand's Lake Wanaka. While honeymooning with his wife, Nadia, the newlyweds hooked a brown trout from the lake's waters and transformed the fish into a meal by scrounging for nearby ingredients: picking verdant English peas, plucking walnuts right off the trees, and uprooting shallots and potatoes from the ground. The meal blossomed into a concept when Sean and Nadia realized that they could base an entire restaurant around local, ethically sourced ingredients after they returned home to Chicago.
Organic and sustainable aren't just buzzwords at Browntrout. All of the seafood comes from natural waters or sustainable farms, local farmers grow almost all produce, meats come from grass-fed, pasture-raised animals, and the restaurant even grows its own herbs in the building's rooftop garden. For Chef Sanders, seeking out ingredients from local farmers means investing in the health of the regional economy and creating a sustainable culinary community.
With so many sources and farms to choose from, Sanders’s menu evolves constantly, incorporating the freshest catches and arrivals into every dish. Refined touches such as horseradish crème fraîche and black garlic vinaigrette help elevate a grilled cut of hanger steak, though the chefs aim to spotlight the simplicity of quality ingredients and mindful preparation whenever possible. David Tamarkin from Time Out Chicago heaped praise on one particular dish of cured trout, calling it, "as delicious as any cured fish I’ve ever had."
The dining room's warm earth tones and leafy ferns complement the menu's unwavering commitment to the land while still creating a casual ambiance. Dark wooden tables border the mocha-brown and rose-red walls and a long, blond wooden table occupies the center of the room, lending a communal spirit to the space. Chicago magazine lauded the home-style environment, saying that, "a meal at this cozy spot is as relaxing as dinner at a friend’s house."
The transformation of a 16-year-old cook in the American Red Cross cafeteria into a sophisticated French chef and restaurant owner doesn’t happen overnight. Urged into a culinary career by his cafeteria coworkers, Joe Doppes graduated from the Culinary Institute of America before apprenticing under the greats at Le Pavillon and Le Cygne in New York, as well as the five-star Le Francais. This last position drew him to Chicago, where he set his sights on launching his own restaurant. After triumphing over cancer and rebounding from his first restaurant attempt, Doppes realized his dream in Old Town in 1999 with Bistrot Margot—which he named for his daughter rather than ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn, who could whisk eggs with her feet.
Upon the bistro’s opening, it drew praise from Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune for its “excellent” and “classic” French cuisine. Doppes dives headfirst into French culinary traditions with gourmet meats such as parmesan-encrusted veal, center-cut filet mignon, and roasted duck, and fresh seafood such as roasted tilapia and pan-seared whitefish. The chef and his team augment these foundations with capered citrus butter and dijon beurre blanc before pairing them with lavish sides such as saffron-and-asparagus risotto. At midday, entrees join a roster of upscale sandwiches piled with grilled sirloin and gouda, and the weekend brunch features decadent benedicts and crepes stuffed with gruyère and pesto.
To set the stage for these feasts, interior designer Vicky Tessmer drew inspiration from turn-of-the-century Paris. She paired tapestries, dark wood trim, and wall sconces with art-nouveau touches such as a stained-glass window over french doors, which lead to an outdoor patio. A roaring fireplace and walls done in cheery yellows and reds keep guests feeling cozy, and a marble-topped bar and leather stools accommodate tipplers who order one of the many French vintages from the wine list.
At Deleece Restaurant, fillets of caramelized salmon and cuts of Duroc pork don?t just sit on plates?they transform into edible works of art. The chef drizzles dishes with swirls of pear-ginger sauce, sprinkles microgreens over geometric plates, and coaxes tuna tartar into gravity-defying towers. The mastermind behind these globally influenced creations is Chef Ernesto Palaia, who also works to fill meals with organic produce and heirloom varieties. The menu brims with upscale meats, from Indiana duck breast and Amish chicken to the applewood smoked bacon that crowns a club sandwich. Palaia also plumbs the ocean for fresh seafood, such as Cape Cod mussels, and fashions an array of creative seafood features, which he prepared for Ben Hollis when the television host visited Deleece for a W.I.L.D. Lakeview feature. Palaia?s contemporary seasonings for these dishes range from lemongrass-chili aioli and lime-agave-nectar yogurt to fig-mostarda sauce. Burgers might brim with everything from house-made bacon jam to Wisconsin aged white cheddar.
Despite the sophisticated nature of its culinary offerings, Deleece maintains a down-to-earth atmosphere in its new location next to the Mercury Theater. Owners Lynne Wallack and John Handler preserve the warm, neighborhood feel of their previous location?where they resided for 16 years?with the help of staff members such as Anthony, their expert bartender. He and his staff craft specialty drinks ranging from a summery lemon-basil manhattan to a wintery smoldering hot toddy, which can soothe throats raw from shouting advice at movie characters at the Music Box Theatre a few doors down. Tipplers can also sip more than three dozen wines and beers from Belgium and Ireland or brewed right at home in Illinois and other Midwestern states.
It’s a wonder the staffers at Protein Bar have time to do anything but smile for the camera amid the maelstrom of media attention the eatery has received in recent years. The man at the center of the storm is founder Matt Matros, dubbed one of Crain’s Chicago Business’s most successful 40 Under 40 in 2012. Matros spend his youth struggling with his weight, and lost his father to a heart attack before his 22nd birthday. The shock sparked a renewed hunger for life in the young executive, who went on to shed 50 pounds through exercise and healthy eating. Along the way, Matt noticed a gaping hole in the world of fast food—where were the healthy options? He decided to throw his corporate career to the wind and pour his entire life savings into opening the first Protein Bar, a welcoming haven for the health-conscious eater. Matros’ business soon flourished into eight Chicago locations, with three more in D.C. His aim was to cut out the junk that pervades fast-food chains—refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, empty calories, and unsettling cartoon characters—and replace it with lean protein, heart-healthy fiber, and satisfying flavor. The menu accomplishes just that. At breakfast, bowls are filled with oatmeal deemed some of the finest in the city by CBS Chicago. As the hours wear on, a special mix of six types of veggies builds each salad into a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Bar-ritos swap out calorie-heavy rice for quinoa and flour tortillas for hearty whole-wheat wraps. Signature blended drinks omit sugary additives for protein mixes and fruit, each named for a Chicago neighborhood, and bowls of warm, organic quinoa come topped with protein and fresh produce.
"Did I like it? Do you want to get slapped? I loved it."
That was one diner's response to Ted Brunson, the host of America's Best Bites, when asked about whether or not he enjoyed Las Tablas Colombian Steakhouse's signature dish, the Entrana. This South American take on skirt steak is downright beloved by some Chicagoans. One such guest admitted to living above one of the city's most iconic steakhouses, only to find himself trekking over to Las Tablas whenever he gets a craving for steak. The thinnish strip is scored along its generous length, allowing it to absorb the super-secret eight-spice blend that's rubbed into it?only two people know the recipe. It is then served on a warmed metal plate that rests upon a wooden slab (a "tablas"), as are many of the restaurant's other dishes.
Considering how much they've been through to get to this point?including an uprooting from Colombia in the 1980s and a fire?it's probably a relief for the Suarez family that their recipes are so revered. It also helps that their menu is refreshingly simple, yet flexible. There are a few beef dishes, a few chicken dishes, a few pork dishes, and so on, but guests can also order a combinaciones, which allows them to pair two proteins of their choice. The Entrana and shrimp make a classic match, though options such as baby octopus and pork loin lend themselves to more creative pairings. Vegetarians need not feel left out, either, as there's a veggie platter, 100% meatless napkins, and a paella that blends spiced rice, beans, yuca, plaintains, and potatoes. Those starches reappear throughout the menu, and are served with most entrees.
If you're inspired by the Suarez family's cooking, you can try to recreate the recipes at home with their new product line of sauces and seasonings.
“Japonais is a culinary experience that blends immense enjoyment with sturdy savoir faire,” declared former Chicago Sun-Times food critic Pat Bruno, writing of the sleek Asian eatery near the edge of the Chicago River. While one coexecutive chef, Jun Ichikawa, lends his expertise to the sushi side of the restaurant’s menu, the other, Gene Kato, designs its selection of hot plates. Together, they churn out traditional and modern dishes—such as the house-specialty Kobe prime rib and Le Quack Japonais, a house-smoked duck slathered in hoisin sauce and mango chutney—whose appeal led Condé Nast to name their establishment one of the top 66 restaurants in the world. Ingredients from both surf and turf star at the sushi bar, which serves options such as spicy king-crab nigiri and a Crazy Veggie roll that insists on wearing its lab coat and goggles at all times. As selections emerge from the kitchen, says Bruno, “the presentations … are elegant … the shapes and swoops of the plates are a feast for the eyes.” The two dining rooms at Japonais meld industrial Japanese design with a touch of European richness. Squares of gold velvet frame an oversize mirror that hangs over the Red Room, the restaurant’s more formal dining space. Across the hall, the Green Room’s slate-and-brick fireplace and whimsical tree centerpieces that occasionally don sweatpants add to its more relaxed atmosphere. Wavy ceiling panels and Lucite chandeliers accentuate the high ceilings that unite the two spaces, hanging over a staircase that leads downstairs to the riverwalk café. There, sheer drapery panels frame views of the Chicago River for those seated on pillow-laden couches and chairs. As they lounge, guests can sip specialty cocktails or enlist the top-shelf liquors to help them win gargling contests against the river.