Best Bites and Sips of Summer 2016
Between the rapid-fire openings of bars and restaurants in Chicago and the classic standbys constantly reminding us why they’re so great, summer 2016 was a great time to eat and drink in our fair city. These are the best bites and sips I had this season:
Tomato pie at Dixie:
There’s a lot to love about Dixie, the new Southern charmer in Bucktown. Chief among them is the masterful tomato pie, which toes the line between sweet and savory by showcasing heirloom summer fruits in a bold new way. Slivers of succulent tomatoes are layered delicately with goat cheese and tomato jam in an aromatic, salty Parmesan crust, and with one strategic forkful you’ve got a mouthful of balanced sweetness, tartness, tang, and a bit of cheesy funk. It’s wonderful.
Crunchy octopus taco and prickly pear margarita slushy at Antique Taco Bridgeport:
One of the funnest openings of the year is the Antique Taco expansion to Bridgeport, which saw the revival of a defunct gas station into the hottest new hangout on the near south side. The whole space, inside and out, feels like an Americana throwback, complete with crunchy tacos, picnic tables aplenty, and slushy margaritas. Of course, knowing Antique Taco, the crunchy tacos and margs are highly elevated, making for a truly memorable al fresco experience. The “super crunchy” is the sole hard-shell taco on the menu, stuffed with a surf ’n’ turf mix of grilled octopus, chorizo, aji mayo, cabbage, and mint. It pairs perfectly with the bright-pink prickly pear slushy margarita.
Fennel cake at Sink|Swim:
It’s all too easy to fill up on oysters, scallops, bluefish sandwiches, and BBQ fish collards at this impeccable seafood restaurant from the Scofflaw Group. But you’d be seriously remiss if you didn’t save a little room for dessert. The menu is short and sweet (pun intended), featuring modest-sounding items like popcorn custard and sorbet. But the real stunner of the bunch is the fennel cake, which showcases the pungent perennial herb in an exciting new way by baking it into dime-sized cakes that get smattered around a plate with yogurt, peaches, honey, and blueberries.
Egg with caviar at The Blanchard:
It’s a matter of quality over quantity with the tiny-but-mighty oeuf outhier at The Blanchard, an egg dish appetizer that is all too easy to inhale in a matter of seconds. Don’t bother attempting to share this with someone; it’s too precious and delicious. An ideal way to kick off a menu of fine French fare at this Lincoln Park gem is with a round up creamy scrambled eggs layered inside an egg shell with vodka-spiked creme fraiche and a tiny dollop of Osetra caviar.
Oyster-tomato slushy at Smyth:
2016 has seen a welcome resurgence of exciting, refreshing fine dining experiences. Chief among them is Smyth, the tasting menu-focused portion of Smyth + The Loyalist from husband-wife duo John Shields and Karen Urie Shields. Dish after dish is a knockout at this West Loop oasis, from a salad of duck tongue in roasted squid jus to a dessert of mushroom-dusted milk chocolate and huckleberries. One of the biggest standouts, though, is a bracing dish of tomato ice with trout roe, an oyster, and kasu cream, made from the lees left over from sake production. Basically, it’s like a tomato-oyster slushy, and it’s one of the most original and incredible things I’ve ever experienced; deeply refreshing, salty, and mildly sweet all at once.
Watermelon salad at LUXBAR:
Clinging to summer has never been more flavorful than the late-season watermelon salad being served at LUXBAR. Texturally and visually, it’s a home-run of a dish, chock full of vibrant fruits, vegetables, chilies, and cheese. Juicy melon morsels are rounded out by slivers of cucumber and jalapeño, plus a generous portion of feta cheese and a drizzle of sherry vinaigrette for good measure.
Pasta a la chitarra at Honey’s:
Another one of the best openings of the season, Honey’s sports a menu loaded with sensational plates, from a luscious lamb tartare with black garlic mustard to the chermoula-roasted sturgeon with summer vegetable panzanella and charred tomato vinaigrette. Then there’s the pasta. Honey’s only serves two types of pasta , but they’re both exemplary. This is particularly true of the habit-forming buckwheat pasta a la chitarra, which finds a toothsome bed of noodles swirled with chanterelle mushrooms, thyme butter, pecorino, and breadcrumbs. It packs the perfect punch of umami, and while it’s quite filling, you’ll have no trouble polishing off right out of the to-go box as soon as you get home. Trust me.
Coffee cocktail at Estereo:
The latest bar from Heisler Hospitality is a breath of fresh air. Literally, the garage-style doors open up on all sides of the triangular bar, mixing the indoor with the outdoor and hitting home the Latin American vibe of the convivial nook. The drink list is equally transportive, thanks to beverages made up of mezcal, pisco, rum, and falernum. The coffee cocktail is a standout as well, since it perfectly bridges the gap bewteen Estereo’s evening service and their daytime hours focused on Dark Matter coffee and pastries. This heady cocktail features some of Dark Matter’s iced Chocolate City coffee combined with Arrack, Averna, and an insane coconut-date horchata.
Ham and cantaloupe at The Publican:
Inspired by the classic melon and prosciutto plate so popular at Italian restaurants, The Publican gave the iconic summer staple a Midwestern spin with its hyper-local presentation perfect for the end of summer. Featuring cantaloupe from Three Sisters Garden in Kankakee, Illinois, the dish adds ricotta, country ham, charred onion, and habanero for a hit of heat.
Mezcal cocktail at Longman & Eagle:
One of the funnest cocktails I tasted this summer was courtesy of Longman & Eagle, in large part because the drink fused two of my all-time favorite things: tequila and bubble tea. The spicy libation contains Publo Viejo Blanco, Peychaud’s Aperitivo, grapefruit, lime, and Ballast Point Mango Even Keel. The best part? The Old Bay-spiced jellies nestled at the bottom of the glass. The drink even comes with a big straw so you can slurp up the jellies as you sip.
- Matt Kirouac