100 best things we ate (and drank) in 2011 | Appetizers, small plates and sides
Pork loin tartine at Telegraph
Realtors, rejoice! Yet another sign Logan Square is the hottest ’hood in the city: Now it has a wine bar—one with an easygoing feel, an esoteric list and an Avec vet who’s turning out glammed-up bruschetta piled with pickled pork loin, whipped feta, Bosc pears and juniper vinaigrette.
Calamari at Ruxbin
Ruxbin has always been good. But at some point this year, the restaurant flipped the maturity switch and the food became more sophisticated, more nuanced and yet no less approachable. Put this calamari stuffed with chicken and pork forcemeat and flavored with Korean chilies and peanuts squarely in that camp.
Motawma at Al Bawadi Grill
You’ve had baba ghanoush countless times. You’re over hummus, in all its flavored forms. You’ve even exhausted the pureed favas called foul. Move on to motawma, the ethereal whipped collision of garlic and potatoes that makes the trek to Bridgeview well worth it.
Sturgeon “caviar” at Tru
Rick Tramonto invented the famed crystal “staircase” presentation, but Anthony Martin, the new sheriff in Tru town, created his own take on caviar: smoked sturgeon turned into a mousse and then, with the aid of gelatin, dropped into cold oil to form silvery-white pearls. Layered in a tin over buttery avocado puree, it’s ingenuity that elegantly brings this aging standard-bearer into the present day.
Garlic bread at Michael Jordan’s Steak House
It was a close call between this side dish and pastry chef Hillary Rikower’s goat-cheese cheesecake. But it doesn’t matter what you pit it against—garlic-schmeared bread smothered in blue-cheese sauce wins every time.
French fries at Pork Shoppe
We’re not debating with the regulars who swear by the pork-belly pastrami at this Avondale barbecue joint; the stuff is delicious. But it’s the fries that stick with us: skin on, hand cut, deep brown, liberally salted and pretty much perfect.
Spicy ginger-soy beef jerky from Jerky Queen
It looks like dog food. It tastes like drugs. Spicy, chewy, umami-laced drugs.
Salad with buttermilk dressing at Great Lake
It takes a lot for a salad to merit a spot on the 100 Best list. It takes an obsession with detail, an amount of scrutiny seldom applied to lettuce. It takes a superlative, creamy dressing. It takes Great Lake owners Lydia and Nick Esparza.
Mozzarella sticks at Roots Handmade Pizza
You’ve got to give props to a mozzarella stick whose mozz is made in-house.
Onion rings at Toon’s Bar & Grill
What’s the big deal about onion rings? Like every aspect of Danny Beck’s beloved neighborhood bar, they’re executed with attention to detail—thick-cut rings dipped in beer batter, fried golden and sprinkled with salt. Simple but standout.
Kimchi bacon cheese fries at bopNgrill
We never really understood the fuss over cheese fries…until we had these.
Pommes Anna at Rustic House
New chefs get all the attention. But when you eat something like this unassuming potato side dish—crispy and golden on top, tender and gratinlike underneath—you remember why you love seasoned chefs like Jason Paskewitz: because they know what they’re doing.
Fava-bean crostini at Avec
When you taste something as simple and as perfect as these slices of toast generously slathered with pureed fava beans at the peak of their season, you realize why everyone wants to imitate Avec. And just how inimitable Avec is.
Naem khao thawt at Dharma Garden
Vegetarians have long been hip to the gems lurking at this unassuming Thai joint on Irving Park, but dig a little deeper (i.e., ask for the translated Thai menu) and you’ll find Northern specialties like this crispy rice salad with ham, a textbook example of Thai food’s ability to hit sweet, sour, salty and spicy all at once.
Uni avocado toast at NoMI Kitchen
Chef Ryan LaRoche’s unlikely combination of briny sea urchin, smooth avocado, impeccable Mangalica ham and bright capers exhibits a keen understanding of flavor.
Fried onions with lemon and jalapeño at Fish Bar
This is what happens when a chef opens a fish shack—you don’t get just fried onions, but rather an onion-lemon-jalapeño combo, a medley that balances the sweetness of the onions with acidity (the lemon), heat (the jalapeño) and lots of flavor (both).
Goat arancini at Ceres’ Table
Fried rice balls often lend themselves to being hockey pucks. But in Giuseppe Scurato’s hands they are crisp and ethereal, qualities that are a foil for the meaty goat ragù inside.
Bhel puri at Kamdar Plaza
For those unfamiliar with the world of chaat—India’s genre of salty, sweet, sour and savory street snacks—consider this dish your rabbit hole. This heaping pile of puffed rice, chickpeas, onions and cilantro, drowned in a rainbow of chutneys, is dubbed “Indian nachos” by many, but it puts the Mexican version to shame.
Blue-cheese-and-mushroom beignets at the Barrelhouse Flat
We went for the cocktails. We came back for these meltingly rich puffs.
Roast carrot and avocado salad at the Pump Room
Crunchy with seeds, redolent with spices and enhanced with crème fraîche, this is proof there is such a thing as salad evolution.
Autumn Scene at
This stunning, intriguing, arresting, intricate, beguiling array of shoots and leaves is like a salad we want to live in.
Forest mushrooms at L2O
Founding chef Laurent Gras left. Michelin took away two of its stars. When we ate this wild and brooding mushroom dish at L2O, we couldn’t have possibly cared less.
Steak tartare at Maude’s Liquor Bar
If you can find a better steak tartare anywhere in town, we’re buying.
Ricotta and honeycomb at DiSotto Enoteca
Just when we thought we knew what to expect with ricotta, we encounter this version—richer and smoother than we could have imagined (it’s whipped with olive oil), paired with a hunk of sweet honeycomb and grilled bread.
Ham and cheese fondue at Gilt Bar
Take a croque-madame. Now increase the cheese tenfold and melt it in a crock. Now fold in the ham, put the egg on top and relegate the bread to the side, for dipping. Now call your cardiologist.
Baked creamy egg yolk buns at Cai
The chef of Chinatown’s newest dim-sum contender claims 30 years of experience in the two cities most known for this traditional weekend brunch service: Hong Kong and Toronto. Xi Xin Lin has a way with most everything on his massive checklist, but these pillowy-soft buns are the standout, pulling open to reveal a warm, sugary, creamy core.