Best New Restaurant: Sumi
Don't feel the least bit bad for me, but one of the regrets of my job is that I rarely get to return a restaurant. But sometimes the attraction of a place is too strong for me to resist, and no new restaurant tempted me as strongly as Sumi. Where other izakayas are boisterous and crowded, Sumi is serene and calm. Sure, the focal point is the robata grill, but chef Gene Kato cooks the skewered meats and vegetables carefully and exactly. The result of all this attention has been, oddly, some of the most unhinged dishes I tried this year, including crispy chicken thigh, tender beef tongue, and fatty beef tsukune slider. But Sumi has a subtler side, too, which is best represented by a miso soup that contains silky cubes of housemade tofu. Even as I write this, I'm already plotting my next visit.
Chicago was chock full of taquerias grilling up sheets of carne asada before L'Patron opened up, but I cared about most of them a little bit less this year, because few lavished such attention on a seemingly simple dish. The beef is grilled to order and sliced into sizable hunks, which are tender and juicy. The carne asada alone makes it worth visiting, but what makes L'Patron a truly great taqueria, and one that I'd put up against the top in the city, is that other dishes are just as well made, from the gringo to the rice and beans. Most surprising, all of this is served in a barebones joint that is currently still cash-only.
It's hard to remember, but when Fat Rice opened (officially in late 2012), success was not guaranteed. After all, this was a restaurant specializing in Macanese food, a cuisine that most people probably didn't know a thing about. Fortunately, it takes no time to appreciate fat swirled noodles that have been charred in a wok and tossed with funky and spicy XO sauce or crisp potstickers connected with a crackly webbing. I could spend a whole meal here sorting through the appetizers—the pickle portion of the menu is particularly appealing—but then I'd have to go without a chance to sample the spicy piri piri chicken or any of the other enticing entrees.
The last place I'm looking for great Korean food is in Bucktown, especially at place so, um... cute. But En Hakkore proved to be this year's Antique Taco—a casual restaurant where everything nonetheless is cared for. Never have I encountered bibimbap so colorful and vibrant; it's almost too beautiful to mess up, until you realize how tasty it is. I also loved the playful paratha tacos, which swapped in Indian flatbread for corn tortillas, and the spicy grilled cheese panini.
Mott St. was one of those restaurants I didn't get a chance to check out until months after it opened, which was probably for the best, because I completely avoided all the discussion about whether it was too timid, and instead got to feast without a care. This was honestly surprising, because I found most of the dishes at Edward Kim's first restaurant, Ruxbin, a tad too fussy and overthought. Mott St.'s menu, on the other hand, reads like my ultimate drunk food menu: crab brain fried rice, kimchi and Oaxaca spring rolls, and whiskey marinated pork neck. Plus, it's all moderately priced.
I knew from the moment the thinly sliced and beautifully marbled short rib was unfurled onto the charcoal grill that Gogi put just a bit more effort into everything it served than the average Korean barbecue restaurant. The care extended to all parts of the meal, including the varied collection of banchan brought out at the beginning of the meal.
I didn't think Wicker Park needed another fussy chef-driven taco joint, but what do I know? Takito proved that there is always room for more, just so long as the handmade tortillas are soft and pliant, and the untraditional fillings are as tasty as the classics.
"We are not traditionalists" reads the top of Smalls menu, and it's the truth. Where other joints aim for replicating barbecue found elsewhere in the country, Smalls brings in a lot of Asian influences, from the "Filipino street bbq style" glaze to the brisket bibimbap. But the real key to its success is that all the meat is slowly and carefully smoked.
Honey Butter Fried Chicken
I loved drinking at Parson's, but if it's fried chicken I'm lusting for, Honey Butter Fried Chicken is the place. Each piece gets an extra crunchy coating, which lovingly adheres to the juicy brined chicken, even after you slather it with the complimentary honey butter or douse it with hot sauce. (As for the bones vs. no bones debate, I could really care less.) And that's to mention nothing of the sides, which as others have rightly noted, are nothing short of extraordinary. Who knew sweet potatoes hunks were so good cold, or that creamed corn and Thai green curry played so well together?
I need more time to examine all of Nico's charms, but my one meal was more than enough to convince that something truly unique has popped up in the Gold Coast. Sure, Paul Kahan and his restaurant group (One Off Hospitality) are behind it, but you don't need to know any of that to appreciate the clean and elegant food being served up. You can build a light meal around the restaurant's fresh seafood and many fettunta, which are kind of like bruschetta. Or you can dig deeper and try some handmade pasta or whole roasted fish.
Best New Bar: Three Dots and a Dash
Think all tiki drinks are cloyingly sweet and weak? Follow me through a random alley in River North and down a flight of stairs to Three Dots and a Dash, where Paul McGee is shaking up Tiki drinks that are complex, beguiling, and, more than anything else, very strong. There's a reason why some of the particularly potent options are marked with a skull. Sure, it gets a bit crowded on the weekends, but how you can blame anyone for wanting to spend their time in such a gorgeous space with such incredible drinks?