Brunch in Chicago 12-5-14

Love it or malign it, brunch is not going anywhere. Unlike fleeting trends like Cronuts and ramen burgers, brunch is an indelible pastime firmly entrenched in urban living. It's as much a part of Chicago culture as scoffing at the Cubs and gawking at the Bean. Chicago is filled with brunch options throughout every corner of its confines, and while this is good for the diner concerned about options, it's also overwhelming and dizzying. That's where I come in, to help whittle it down to the best of the brunch bunch. Presenting the best brunch spots in Chicago for 2014: 

(Coddled eggs at avec)

avec: The One Off Hospitality contingent boasts a strong brunch game, repping some of the best in the local biz from The Publican to newly opened Dove's Luncheonette. But my favorite is brunch at avec, a curious and intriguing brunch approach from a place more commonly frequented for its Mediterranean small plates and wines. But come Sunday, the West Loop wine bar turns out some of the craftiest, most inventive brunch dishes in town, like Moroccan pancakes with fried chicken wings (eat your heart out, waffles), breakfast paella, and an addictive combo of coddled eggs with roasted mushrooms, fonduta, and garlic crostini. 

Dusek's: Another restaurant collective high up the brunch totem pole is the family tree behind Longman & Eagle. Various partners from that Logan Square forebear have branched off with other brunch heavy-hitters like The Promontory and Parson's Chicken & Fish, but the best of the bunch is Dusek's Board & Beer, a Pilsen haunt  with a penchant for contemporary American cookery. Expect Dutch baby pancakes flecked with orange sugar, oyster hash with porter béarnaise, Scotch eggs enrobed in lamb merguez, pie-spiced beignets, and plenty more. It's made all the more delicious by the fact that plates are adjoined by bracing boozy beverages and the restaurant is situated in historic Thalia Hall. 

Eleven City Diner: Amidst a frenzy of new-school brunch nooks in Chicago, one old-school inspired eatery holds its own. Eleven City Diner deftly borrows a page from bygone Jewish diners of yore, resulting in a slick classic-meets-contemporary diner rife with homey comforts and the soothing aroma of matzo ball soup. The South Loop original is the best, bursting with nostalgia and decadent dishes such as salami scrambled eggs, fried matzo, smoked fish platters, fried kreplach, cheese fries, piled high pastrami sandwiches, and more. Wash it all down with a Green River float or a Brooklyn egg cream and drift off into a blissful food coma. 

Hash: Unlike large, overwrought brunch menus that tend to absorb much of the brunch scene, there's one tiny counter service spot slinging some of the best humble hash in Chicago. That place is aptly dubbed Hash, and true to its name, you can expect heartwarming dishes resplendent with spuds, eggs, sausage, beans, and other energy-boosting, soul-soothing nourishments. The cute corner restaurant is casual and hip, with diners placing their order at the counter before filling their coffee and sitting at a table. Along with a few other options like breakfast tacos and French toast, hash comes in vigorous flavors like the Ukie with pork sausage, smoked mushrooms, and kraut; or the Humboldt with chorizo, hominy, black beans, and Chihuahua cheese; or the chickpea hash with yogurt, crispy kale, paneer cheese, and of course chickpeas. 

(Doughnuts at HotChocolate)

HotChocolate: If sweets are paramount at brunch, get to HotChocolate to visit the Mecca of wholesome, refined brunch pastry. Heck, even if sweets aren't important to you, you'll still want to visit this Bucktown brunch bastion for all its rich, salacious wares. Along with the namesake hot chocolate, available in flavors like dark chocolate and egg nog, you'll want to partake in the doughnuts before bingeing on all the unique savory options. Dishes change almost weekly, but you can rest assured knowing your meal will be memorable and delicious — be it ricotta-filled quiche or brunch fried rice — in Mindy Segal's hands. 

Jam: Who says tasting menus and contemporary cookery should be reserved for dinner hours? Not the folks at Jam, where the order of the day makes way for brunch dishes as elegant and dexterous as the finest dinner degustations in Chicago. It's all courtesy of chef/owner Jeff Mauro, a proven culinarian with a knack for reinventing timeworn wheels. In this case, that means brunch dishes like waffles, French toast, and Benedicts. And the results are glorious. All means start with a dainty brunch amuse bouche, followed by fancied dishes like silken poached eggs over pillowy English muffins with sweet potato hollandaise; sous vide French toast splashed with rhubarb preserves and pink peppercorns; and omelets brimming with melted onions, chorizo, and cornbread. Even oatmeal gets the gourmet treatment at Jam, re-interpreted with components like ale gastrique and salted bananas. 

Lula Cafe: When people talk of brunch in Chicago, there is one essential that inevitably always comes to mind: Lula Cafe. The veritable godfather of Chicago's brunch scene, not to mention the modern dining boom in Logan Square, Lula Cafe has remained requisite brunch dining for years. It still packs in diners and amasses hours-long wait times every weekend, as patrons come from near and far to fawn over Lula's esteemed menus. Along with a staple cafe menu that runs on the daily, Lula features an ever-changing seasonal specials list for brunch, and this is what people salivate over. Start with pastries like smoked pecan sticky buns or raspberry bostock, followed by items like vanilla bread pudding French toast with cider curd, cornmeal-crusted green tomatoes with sweet potato polenta, and chile-laden pozolo lush with pork shoulder, egg, and black bean crema. The "Royale" breakfast sandwich series is not to be missed either, raising the bar on breakfast sandwiches with filler like capicola, mustard aioli, and Brussels sprouts slaw. 

Milk & Honey: Another mainstay in Chicago's brunch gamut is Milk & Honey, a Wicker Park destination that has been peddling counter service eats for years. After building an empire on its famed granola, Milk & Honey has solidified itself as a deserving brunch go-to for its consistent array of modest dishes — casserole-style chilaquiles, egg-packed breakfast panini, and enormous orange brioche French toast are all fan favorites, and rightfully so. Don't overlook the seasonal latte specials or the pastry case either, erupting with unique provisions from sandwich cookies to coffee cake. 

Nana: Nothing like a little Latin zest to invigorate the brunch routine. Down in Bridgeport, Nana is seamlessly fusing Latin inspirations with organic, locally sourced ingredients. The results? Epically delicious and wholly unique. Try the Nanadict, the best example of offbeat eggs Benedict in town, made with doughy pupusas in lieu of English muffins, and poblano cream in place of hollandaise. The kitchen also makes mean interpretations of other Latin staples like chilaquiles and huevos rancheros. 

(French toast at Nana)

The Winchester: Simplicity and ingredient-driven cookery wins the day at The Winchester, a Ukrainian Village destination if there ever was one. This cottage-like restaurant holds a firm grip on my heart for its honest assemblage of dishes that handily toe the line between classic and innovative. The resulting dishes are impressive for the way they push the bounds while honoring tradition. I'm talking about dishes like ancient grains cereal with seasonal fruit, heady smoked trout Caesars, fried black rice with butternut squash and coconut curry, and waffle-adorned eggs Benedict with creamed kale. 

- Matt Kirouac