A's List: Get a Taste of Chicago’s 2018 James Beard Nominees

Chef Lee Wolen of Boka restaurant (Photo: Eric Kleinberg)

By Audarshia Townsend

Another year, another class of James Beard nominees from Chicago. Some names you’ll recognize as previous nominees, while others are new in the game. Nevertheless, if you haven’t checked them out by now, it’s time to make a reservation. Here’s our cheat sheet on what to eat and drink at each sweet spot.


Why we love it. A world-class restaurant on its own, Boka is situated next door to Alinea in the heart of Lincoln Park’s theater district. Since Lee Wolen’s arrival as executive chef in 2014, the new American-styled eatery’s garnered all sorts of prestigious accolades from the likes of Michelin, Food & Wine and others. For 2018, they’re up for four Beard awards: Chef Wolen for “Best Chef: Great Lakes" category; Meg Galus for “outstanding pastry chef”; “outstanding restaurateurs” for BOKA partners Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm; and “outstanding service” for Boka. The last one is particularly notable as a recent diner to the restaurant was so impressed with the food and service that he tipped staffers $2,000 in cash on a more than $700 meal. He tipped $300 to the waitstaff and then handed each kitchen staff member a crisp $100 bill.

What to eat. Boka is best experienced by ordering its nine-course tasting menu. It’s seasonal, at the chefs’ discretion and always full of surprises. Not in the mood for such a fancy feast and over-the-top production? Another top recommendation is the whole-roasted, dry-aged duck for two. It’s dry aged for 21 days, which brings out the best possible flavors, and when it arrives to your table hand carved, it’s accompanied by grilled foie gras sausage, sweet creamed corn, a fresh salad and house-made bread.


Why We Love It. The Poseys are the epitome of a culinary power couple--without the pretension. Though they separately boast a host of high-profile awards (Anna was StarChefs' Rising Pastry Star for 2015 and David was part of the Blackbird team when the restaurant won a Michelin star in 2014), they couldn't be humbler. They allow their food to speak for them. The Poseys are up for the "Best Chef: Great Lakes" category at Beard.

What to eat. Elske offers two menus, tasting and a la carte, and both switch up regularly. Some staples: sweet potato dumplings with braised kale, dill and crispy shallots; lightly grilled lobster terrine with fennel, blood orange and rye bread; and crispy veal sweetbreads.

Elske offers tasting and a la carte menus. (Photo: Elske)

Fat Rice

Why We Love It. Abraham Conlon and his business partner Adrienne Lo have created a tiny culinary empire at the corner of Diversey and Sacramento, in Logan Square. Fat Rice, The Bakery at Fat Rice and The Ladies' Room flow seamlessly into one another. Fat Rice, of course, is the flagship of the three. Its culinary influences range from Portugal to the island nation of Macau. Conlon draws upon his Portuguese heritage and travels to many exotic nations for inspiration. Conlon competes against fellow Chicagoans in the "Best Chef: Great Lakes" category at Beard.

What to eat. One of Fat Rice's specialties is arroz gordo, which literally means "fat rice" in Macanese. Their version features jasmine rice laced with sofrito, chorizo and salted duck. It is then topped with curried thighs, char siu pork, linguiça sausage, prawns, steamed clams, tea eggs, chicken-fat-fried croutons, olives and pickled chillies.


Why We Love It. Lula Cafe chef/owner Jason Hammel takes the reins at Marisol, located in the space formerly occupied by Wolfgang Puck's restaurant. Situated on the first level of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago, it’s surrounded by an immersive art environment by artist Chris Ofili. The menu is hyper-seasonal, filled with bright flavors that match perfectly with the artwork. That’s due in part to the talents of Sarah Rinkavage, a James Beard Award “rising star chef of the year” finalist.

What to eat. Dishes that caught our eye this season? White sesame risotto with white asparagus, spring onion and stracchino cheese; shaved Brussels sprouts topped with smoked whitefish; and fried quail with cashew butter and smoked date honey.

Marisol is surrounded by Chris Ofili's artwork. (Photo: Marisol)


Why We Love It. The tiny, award-winning 40-seat restaurant serves globally inspired, Korean American fare in Avondale. Parachute's menu is designed to be shared, and dishes are proportionate to ordering a variety of items for the table. They’re so serious about seasonality that the menu sometimes changes nightly. Wife-and-husband team Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark compete against fellow Chicagoans in the "Best Chef: Great Lakes" category at Beard.

What to eat. Always start a meal with the baked potato bing bread that’s been fried in a cast-iron skillet. The Korean specialty snack is always on the menu and arrives to the table pipping hot and filled with scallions and cheddar bacon. But don’t fill up on it because you’ll want to save room for dessert: sourdough beignets stuffed with peanuts and fresh huckleberry jam.  


Why We Love It. This is the more price-conscientious effort of culinary kings Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, as it serves casual fare in a far less intimidating setting than their crown jewel Alinea restaurant. Roister is where guests get to sample their versions of fried chicken sandwiches, steak and eggs, and shrimp 'n' grits as alt rock and old-school hip-hop pound the speakers.

What to eat. During dinner is where Roister truly shines as Executive Chef Andrew Brochu—a two-time Beard nominee including this year for the "Best Chef: Great Lakes" category—cranks out a global menu of universal favorites taken to the next level. The highlighted dishes are recommended to be shared between two to six people: the 32-ounce, 30-day, dry-aged Porterhouse; a whole braised, poached and fried chicken; and Rohan duck served with Carolina Gold rice.

See previous A's List columns right here.