We are a city with an international reputation for award winning restaurants and chefs, consistently taking culinary creativity to the next level. With this in mind, I asked 19 artists to weigh in on their favorite restaurants and chefs who, in their opinions, take food to artistic heights... or just make damn good dishes!
1. "Grandma Rolla, mama, my wife and uncle Joe have throughout my life spoiled me with meatballs and braciola's in a tomato sauce that would make you weep in your finger bowls. Having said that, I like Tuscany in Oak Brook and Topo Gigio in Old Town: great food consistently without the need for the fancy schmancy."
- Dennis de Young, musician, lead singer of the Dennis de Young band and former lead singer Styx.
2. "I don't require my food to look like a Monet or the landscapes painted in the '30s that I love so much. But I would say Chef Bruce Sherman's Apple Braised Wild Pheasant at North Pond is suitable for framing."
- Saturday Night Live Alum, Actress and Author, Nora Dunn
3. "Hard to pick just one, but -- apart from everything Rick Bayless makes -- I'd have to go with Paul Kahan's Spicy Pork Rinds at Publican. The son of a Jewish deli owner in Chicago opens a neo-German brauhaus and makes a Mexican pork snack into something ethereal and crunchy and irresistable, the essence of Chicago in a paper cone."
- Peter Sagal, host of NPR's "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me"
4. "What's that restaurant with Goat in its name with that chef that won Top Chef? Yeah, I went there with some friends and there was some string bean dish that had me almost licking the plate."
- Susan Messing, Improvisor and Actress
5. "Although I love places like Avec, Gilt Bar and I really love the Gage, I have to go with spectacle and simplicity on this one: Big Star in Wicker Park, at the take-out window for some late-night Tacos, preferably the Taco da Panza (Pork Belly), while enjoying the free entertainment of seeing all of the activity and party-popping crowds. At the bar, the daily selection of whiskey shots are always interesting and fun. It's not the refined atmosphere I also enjoy in high-caliber restaurants, but it's definitely always fun if you're in that mood. It doesn't hurt that Violet Hour is across the street and can help end the night with a proper virtuoso cocktail."
- George Lepauw, President and Artistic Director, International Beethoven Project, Chicago Tribune's 'Chicagoan of the Year' (Classical Music)
6. "Often times in the studio you'll hear people whisper, 'I could do that'. It. Drives. You. Crazy.
I admit I think the same sometimes at Jane's where Tony Rocillas is in the kitchen. My tastebuds let me know I'm wrong. Only an artist can elevate a simple dish to such a high level. Some call it magic. I call it art."
- Jeff Zimmermann, artist
7. "Grant Achatz completely changed my perception about what the dining experience could be in the years that I've followed him and his singular artistic pursuit from his earliest days at Trio to the glory days of Alinea. His cooking and his extraordinary presentation of dishes has been a true revelation to me. There's wit, challenge, risk and joy in his work that has inspired me in my theatrical pursuits. The remarkable thing is that instead of resting on his considerable laurels, he created another innovative restaurant, Next with chef Dave Beran, that takes food as theatrical experience to an even greater level."
- Robert Falls, Artistic Director of Goodman Theatre
8. "Some of my most transcendent, artistic culinary experiences were at the Original Trio in Evanston (pioneers), Alinea and Moto in Chicago, and of course, Next. However, I'd like to give a shout-out to something a little different, and that's a Chicago catering company - Pure Kitchen. The cuisine is not only visually creative, but straight from the farm to the kitchen, and the staff is outstanding!"
- Ellen Sandor, artist, director and founder of (art)n
9. "Gilbert Langlois at Chalkboard on Lincoln...delicious, yummy, scrumptious...you should try it out if you haven't been. And his wife, Elizabeth Laidlaw, is a wonderful actress!"
- Melissa Veal, Wig and Make-up Designer, Chicago Shakespeare Theater
10. "As a vegetarian in a town that savors its meat, I'm interested in places the really do real culinary homage to food from the land instead of treating vegetables as an after-thought, a garnish, or a delivery system for bacon. Despite its name and probably because of its Mediterranean roots, The Purple Pig serves amazing seasonal vegetables served with incredible compliments and Acadia, who just received a well-deserved Michelin star, has wildly creative options for vegetarians that go far beyond basic pasta choices."
- Naomi Beckwith, Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator, MCA Chicago
11. "For all his notoriety as a TV chef, Rick Bayless is a restless innovator in the kitchen. At Topolobampo, he invests a long-storied culinary tradition with triumphant experiments."
- Lin Brehmer, 93XRT Chicago, Morning D.J.
12. "Go to Semiramis where Joseph Abraham offers a menu of classic Lebanese dishes. They're all transcendent, so feel free to consider them all, but order the shish taouk entree (renamed chicken kabob for us Anglos). It is dizzyingly scrumptious."
13. Hmmm, truly artistic and truly yummy at the same time? I swoon over the raw quail egg yolk ravioli with truffled brown butter from Schwa.
- Laura Letinsky, Artist and University of Chicago, Professor
14. "Dirk Flanigan at The Gage adds moist earthy Elk meat to his poutine and morphs the late night Canadian gravy, curds and fries starch staple into a decadent delight that clings to the ceiling of my palette like a Michaelangelo. The vindaloo mussels are pretty good too."
15. "Hands down, my choice would be Chef Kevin Hickey at the Allium Restaurant at the Four Seasons. His dishes feature down home comfort food dressed up for the city. Every bite is heaven, with no attitude and so creatively displayed. I don't normally like "creative" food; but, for him, I make an exception!"
16. "Without question Giuseppe Tentori at GT Fish & Oyster qualifies as one of Chicago's best chefs. As someone who loves both seafood and Korean cuisine, his Oyster Po-Boy with Kimchi is more than just creative, but a truly inspired combination. Featuring clean, fresh and insanely delicious dishes across a wide spectrum of styles, GT is my go-to restaurant for business and personal meals."
17. "Sorry to have my nose pointed toward the past, but Charlie Trotter remains my answer. Charlie truly was one of the principal creators of the new American haute cuisine and remained a leader here, training chefs -- and eaters for a quarter of a century."
Scott Turow, Author of Presumed Innocent and a new novel next October
18. "There are so many great chefs in Chicago. However, for consistency and craft Michael Kornick (MK, Ada Street et al) and his team remain at the top. There is both a sophistication and casual comfort in his food and his passion for art infuses everything he does."
- Tony Karman, Founding Director of Expo Chicago, Chicago Tribune's 'Chicagoan of the Year' ( Visual Arts)
19. "I have been playing percussion at Mastro's Steakhouse for several months. This place is classy and exciting with live music seven nights a week. The steaks are first class, but also amazing sides, seafood, and even a creative sushi selection."
And one more for fun:
20. "Anthony Martin of Tru does a salmon dish that is so incredibly beautiful that you think you are on a riverbed, salmon fishing yourself. It transports you. Literally. But for consistent, non-stop, never-a-dull-moment creativity, I would have to say Homaro Cantu of Moto fame hits it out of the park. Never mind that things are often on fire and the menu is edible. You will never see food the same way again."