Fresh Meat Awards for the Best Chicago Chefs

Chicago's Best New Restaurants of 2009
...our picks of Chicago's Best New Restaurants

In the middle of a recession, Chicago restaurants experienced an astonishing upswing. The Trib called Chicago in 2008 a “chef magnet.” Travel + Leisure listed L2O, Perennial, The Publican and Urban Belly in their 50 Best New American Restaurants.

Does this make up for Blagojevich’s shamefaced media stint? All told, not a bad year. Here is a shortlist of Chicago restaurant debuts that everyone should visit before New Year’s Eve.



33 Club – Contemporary American
Chef: Daniel Kelly
1419 N. Wells St.

Jerry Kleiner brings Upper East Side sophistication to Old Town with his latest greatest, Club 33. “There is an elegance here,” says Kleiner. It isn’t easy to juxtapose elegance with quarter-pound hot dogs and $10 burgers but Kleiner pulls it off with ironic ease.

Chef Daniel Kelly (Tramanto's) designed a classic American menu with a contemporary lift. Truffle oil deviled-eggs, bacon popcorn and sandwiches like the whitefish hoagie, are modestly priced exquisitely spiced fare. Grand entrees such as veal ragout and lobster-stuffed chicken breast lift the bar for the American food tradition.

Bright modern paintings and the seductive high-end fashion photography of Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada from Kleiner's personal collection dress up the walls at 33 Club. But, the air has the refined savoir-faire from previous eras. Prohibition-circa hotels and clubs inspired Kleiner when he had 33 Club in mind.

Past the front lounge and bar wide central steps partition the intimate dining rooms and escalate to the balcony - a platform to see and be seen. In speakeasy style, the parquet floored lower level with it's bright green walls is a hybrid style of 1920 and right about now and of course is available for private soirees. In these times of new-age digital awkwardness 33 Club just may restore the social arts of Chicago.



C-House – Contemporary Seafood
Chef: Seth Siegel-Gardner
166 E. Superior Street


C-House is a triple-tribute to chops, sea food, and Chicago. I'm glad they did not go for a homerun by adding in a 'Cubs' reference. Go Sox.

Marcus Samuelsson, a James Beard awarded chef with projects such as Aquavit in New York, Stockholm and Tokyo has named long-time colleague, Seth Siegel-Gardner, executive chef. Siegel-Gardner invents sauces such as coconut tartar mignonette and honeydew granite that accent surf n’ turf in a delightfully new way.

Just as delightful is their weekend bossa nova brunch featuring a muddled fruit sangria list and hearty Latin entrees such as churassco (or as my Dad would simply call ‘grilled steak’) with farm fresh eggs.

At the top of Affinia Hotel, C-House has a stunning Streeterville view from a lounge with the kind of leather chairs that you would actually want in your own living room. The entire venue is sleek and sophisticated. Sample the C-bar (raw oyster bar) or fabulous entrees like yellowtail tacos, or salmon belly with cilantro, or laughing bird shrimp with black garlic cake and sour cream.

cibo matto - Italian
Chef: Todd Stein
201 N. State Street


This new downtown hotspot (2nd floor of the Wit Hotel) has a lowercase name and upper class dining. cibo matto means “crazy Italian” but was actually more like straightforward, artful Italian. Everything seemed pretty sane and orderly. Not a cart crash all night.

Follow the pre-meal teasers of herb-cured ricotta and mint Saba crostini with grilled octopus, crispy potatoes, rapine lemon, chilies, celery, pearled onions and salsa verde that has a laconic, citrus flavor. For primi, meet the perfect odd couple: sips of Tammelini's soave and a forkful of corzetti. The corn-y corzetti is the wild joker at the party and the crisp soave laughs all the way home, but remembers to pay the mortgage on time. For secondi, go for the braised short ribs with ricotta creamed spinach.

Chef Todd Stein, 38, has his own table in the kitchen, but private dining is available for the rest of us at the fringe of the central dining area. Two private dining rooms open up behind French doors with spectacular views of State Street. Adjacent to the east room is a tremendous 2,000-count wine vault pillar that appears to run through to the 1st floor - the lobby of the Wit Hotel.

cibo matto’s other live-in lover, of course, is the hyper-chic Roof, that draws a line of socialites around the corner of State and Lake, waiting for an elevator. Maybe it is pretty pazzo.


Fred’s at Barneys New York – Italian
Chef: Jean Tippenhauer
15 E. Oak Street


Chicago is often thought, mistakenly, to be Second City as it was once just behind New York in population (and arguably in stature). The rest of us know this as a reference to the Great Chicago Fire and the fabulously modern city built afterward. There really is no need to rank Chicago and New York against each other. They are independently unique and extraordinary cities. However, if this was a competition, we certainly take them with their own namesake Barneys bistro.

The menu has more proteins and the venue certainly has more style. The sexy, modern, triangular setup skipped the stuffy, blue-blooded style of the NYC lady-cafe and went for sleek, fireside Italian bistro with gargantuan windows, and an edged rooftop with a triangle of tables bordered by a high view of State Street.

With designer bags on the first floor and designer Sunday brunch on the sixth - yes, Fred’s at Barneys is still a famous oasis for shopping ladies who lunch. This Gold Coast top-level restaurant nails it with their weekend brunch, which is not cheap, but neither is anything else in the building.


Gemini Bistro – American
Chef: Jason Paskewitz
2075 N. Lincoln Avenue


Two things made the end of 2009’s Labor Day weekend a little better: duck confit nachos and the ‘Squirtsky’ (see bartender).

Gemini Bistro is home to plenty of my weaknesses - and I'm definitely not talking about the ornate African sconces, kitschy Chicago artwork and obscure illumination design.

Other than the sidewalk tables with a three-corner view, most if it is on the menu: weekend brunch, prosecco, crab cakes, beef carpaccio with parmigiano and lemon vinaigrette, handmade oxtail ravioli with parmesan crisps, key lime pie, creamy mashed potatoes AND… pb & j (as in peanut butter and... I’m serious, they serve this kid classic). The list continues with newcomers the ‘Squirtsky’ and duck nachos with manchego and mango. My knees just went weak again.

Gemini Bistro, the youngest member of this restaurant debut list had a much-anticipated opening initially targeted for the end of summer. However, we all had to wait one extra week, so partner/owner Ryan O’Donnell could marry his fiancé.

Pair eternal commitment with duck nachos, manchego and mango - not a bad way to start the rest of your lives together.

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