- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
The biggest names in the nation’s culinary world descended on Chicago in May for the prestigious James Beard Awards, and a homegrown talent took home one of the night’s biggest prizes.
Chicago native Donnie Madia, co-owner of One Off Hospitality Group, was named restaurateur of the year at the awards, which were held outside of New York City for the first time in their 25-year history.
The night was a coup for Chicago, which confirmed its place as one of the country’s elite dining destinations — and a crowning achievement for the man who earned the culinary equivalent of the Most Valuable Player award at the all-star game held on his home turf.
The modest Madia acknowledges the award was a team effort, the result of a collection of collaborators at every level in his mini-empire, which includes seven restaurants, a bakery and a cocktail bar, the Violet Hour, which also nabbed a Beard award in May.
Madia and his partners built the company on the idea of collaboration, giving equal importance to front of house, back of house, aesthetics and service. Each partner at One Off brings individual character and strengths to the various aspects of the operation.
Madia and executive chef-partner Paul Kahan’s first restaurant, Blackbird, helped reframe the fine dining style and narrative in a city long associated with steakhouses. The two men eschewed the tropes of traditional Chicago fine dining and turned to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, as inspiration.
They focused on simple, fresh, ingredient-driven food with a continually evolving menu — a trend Madia says had not yet taken hold in Chicago.
Kahan created seasonal dishes that were served in a futuristic space designed by the duo’s longtime collaborator, designer Thomas Schlesser. Madia focused on the front-of-house operations, and the two learned how to give equal weight to both sides of the dining experience.
“We had every area covered, and we were there every day, seven days a week,” Madia said.
Blackbird was, and remains, a white gypsum box with hard lines and minimalist design. Madia and Kahan opened the restaurant east of Interstate 94 in a neighborhood populated with abandoned storefronts. From the front, the spare but intriguing space looks more like an art gallery than a restaurant. That was their intention.
“Blackbird attracted people who wanted to dress up and look good in a white box,” Madia said. It was hot from the day it opened and continues packing them in today.
Like all of One Off’s spaces, the visual style of Blackbird feels classic and also ahead of its time, the definition of timeless.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and his wife, Sheri Kersch Schultz, dined at the trendsetting and award-winning Blackbird on the restaurant’s 15th anniversary, unaware of the occasion. Sheri Schultz, an interior designer, was taken by the space and couldn’t believe the sleek restaurant had been in business and remained unchanged since the late ’90s.
“That’s the most important compliment we can receive,” said Madia, crediting Blackbird’s cooking, hospitality and design in keeping the restaurant relevant. “I think it’s a beautiful expression of what we’ve been able to keep and nurture and uphold over the course of 18 years.”
One Off’s restaurants have little in common except the fact they’re all clearly defined concepts with clean aesthetics, thoughtful design and a strong commitment to personalized service.
“We make a conscious effort to do exactly that,” Madia said. “Hence the reason for the name of our company.”
I recently spent an afternoon and evening bouncing between three restaurants for lunch, snacks and dinner. Publican Quality Meats features a butcher shop, retail operation and deli, serving sandwiches like a lush Italian grinder on housemade bread.
The deli, enlivened with a crisp white and seaside blue color scheme, also put its spin on a classic, serving a mild and plump adobo sausage dog with a cool sting of avocado-chimichurri and the floral tang of cilantro-pickled cucumber on a crusty lobster roll. The dog was complemented by the gentle blueberry notes of a Jungle Boogie Pale Wheat Ale from Chicago’s Marz Community Brewing, a company introduced to us by our knowledgeable server.
I walked right by Avec without even realizing it. I’d heard of the Mediterranean inspired wine bar and restaurant for more than a decade, but didn’t think the elegant and simple wood-walled shotgun building we passed could be 12 years old. Another testament to One Off and Madia’s vision. The varied shades of brown on the walls, ceiling and floor give the space a sense of movement, like you’re making the jump to warp speed.
Other restaurants around the country have referenced Avec’s design and communal seating, as well as the restaurant’s sharable plates. Avec builds a symphony of flavors with little fuss, relying on fresh ingredients to sing in dishes like radiant strawberries with firm fava beans, clarifying mint, milky stracciatella cheese and the tingle of rose vinegar and Aleppo pepper. Spain’s influence was found in a cast-iron presentation of citrus-splashed charred octopus, and Serrano ham with manchego cheese, Marcona almonds and mojo rojo.
Flavors drifted east from there with a gyro sausage served with surprising charred squash baba ghanoush, and an earthy charred beet tabbouleh popped with the brine and nuttiness of smoked almond and tahini.
One of the most recent additions to the One Off family, Nico Osteria, opened at the end of 2013 in the Thompson Hotel in Chicago’s Gold Coast. Chef de cuisine and James Beard nominee Erling Wu-Bower, a longtime Kahan protégé and example of One Off’s cultivation of talent, heads the kitchen at the restaurant with a giant open kitchen with ringside seating that allows customers to interact with chefs.
Floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on Chicago’s derisively named Viagra Triangle offer diners a chance to see and be seen at the dazzling restaurant that feels like an updated mob boss haunt. But the spectacle at Nico Osteria is the fish, not the people. The restaurant focuses on Italian seafood and pasta, like lobster lasagnette with the vegetal brace of Swiss chard, crunchy soft-shell crab with ricotta and strawberries, and Friulian ravioli stuffed with smoked Arctic char. Steak lovers can be sated by a massive and juicy dry-aged strip loin brushed with the sumptuous bite of Calabrian chili.
The main draw at Nico is the diverse selection of elegant crudo dishes. The kitchen makes delicate use of complementary ingredients to highlight the fishes’ natural flavors on dishes, like yellowtail brightened and warmed by tangerine and habanero, and silky madai snapper that stood up to the iron and earth of kohlrabi salsa and sorrel mushrooms.
Austinites will soon get a taste of the dessert creations of former Nico pastry chef Amanda Rockman. The chef, who on our visit had prepared a heavenly crumble-topped butterscotch pudding with candied dates, recently left Nico and will oversee the pastry operations of the restaurants at the soon-to-open South Congress Hotel.
Though the One Off restaurants we visited varied from casual to sophisticated, each of the restaurants felt equally muscular and refined at the same time. They also shared another trait visible throughout the Chicago dining scene and the city at large: friendliness.
“When we hosted the James Beard Awards, a lot of people were calling Chicago ‘the happy New York,’” Madia said. “People are welcoming, gracious, humble and their hospitality is overwhelming. That’s something we really can be proud of: We work harder and we consistently don’t rest on our laurels.”
The ascendancy of food fetishism has affected all levels of cuisine. Haute ingredients have transformed and elevated even modest staples like the hamburger. Exotic cuts of grass-fed beef, funky European cheeses, brioche buns and artisanal condiments have rendered the everyday burger almost unrecognizable to the populist.
This evolution makes returning to the basics all the more enjoyable. Chef-owner Brendan Sodikoff has elevated the burger while simplifying it at his refined West Loop diner Au Cheval, which makes one of the best burgers you’ll find beyond the memories of your childhood.
The beef comes not from a farmers-market stand but delivered on a standard-issue corporate food-service truck. And there’s a lot of it. The double — which I recommend — is actually a three-patty beauty that clocks in at 3/4 of a pound.
Yellow slices of melting American cheese, like those you used to peel from their plastic envelopes as a child, drape the sides of the burger, the charred black edges of beef poking through the glowing ooze.
A tangy housemade Dijonnaise blended with chopped dill pickles and red onions dresses the puffy egg-washed bun, giving the burger creaminess and crunch. The bun is toasted on both sides, providing the burger structure and texture.
The juicy, meaty towering ode to nostalgia, along with dishes like the sweet, hot and floral honey-fried chicken with chili, sesame seeds and cilantro, have created three-hour waits at the dimly lit and boisterous brick-walled restaurant. You can give your name and number to the host — who will text you when your table is almost ready — and head to one of the neighboring bars for a drink. Or try and find a dark corner at Au Cheval and sip their intoxicating mixture of Evan Williams bourbon, Averna, allspice dram and Regan’s Bitters. The cocktail’s name? The Boo Radley.
2. Nostalgia at Superdawg
When you visit Chicago, it’s a mandate that you eat a hot dog. Everyone has a favorite. The recently closed Hot Doug’s drew raves for haute toppings like the discs of foie gras that layered the duck sausage dog. Wiener Circle on Clark Street entertains with a side of jovial antagonism to go with their char-cheddar dogs.
After my recent visit to Superdawg on the western side of town, I don’t believe any future trip to Chicago will be complete without a stop at this restaurant where time seemingly stopped 67 years ago. Red neon lettering and royal blue and white glass diamonds, like the design of a 1950s bowling shirt, color the squat black building that high school sweethearts Maurie and Flaurie Berman opened in 1948. The founding couple are immortalized as flirtatious hot dog characters that stand on the drive-in restaurant’s roof.
Maurie Berman died earlier this year, but his spirit of service and commitment to making excellent versions of American classics endures at the family-owned and -operated restaurant.
The eponymous Superdawg, named as a playful nod to the country’s affinity for superheroes in post-war times, remains the main draw. Like any classic Chicago dog, you’ll find yellow mustard, neon green relish, a dill pickle and spicy sport peppers atop the dog, but Superdawg puts a spin on the tomato offerings. Instead of the classic red wedge, they top their dogs with a tart and crunchy pickled yellow tomato, which delivers brighter flavor and more substantial texture. And, you won’t find Vienna Beef links at Superdawg. The classic Chicago restaurant has an outside vendor create a proprietary blend, the ingredients of which are kept a close family secret — and you can taste the difference. The plump all-beef dogs have a nice fat balance, smoky finish, and the vibrant buzz of garlic, making for a juicy and fragrant hot dog with a crisp snap.
Superdawg packs the dogs in cool, pop-art boxes designed by Maurie Berman and buries them beneath a rippled tumult of crunchy and smooth accordion-like crinkle-cut Superfries cooked in beef fat.
Over the years the restaurant, which opened a second location in nearby Wheeling in 2010, has added menu items like the Whoopskidawg (a Polish sausage served with grilled onions) and the Supershrimp; but any trip to the iconic building must include a Superdawg.
3. World-class pastrami at Fumare Meats
Local knowledge can make the difference between discovering one of the best sandwiches you’ve ever eaten and a solemn walk back to your hotel spent talking yourself into the idea that maybe your bad planning wasn’t so disastrous.
When we approached Fumare Meats at 2 p.m. on a July weekday, there was still meat left for sandwiches, but the pastrami was gone. We had come for the pastrami. Adding insult and temptation to our failed attempt: We saw a beautiful brisket being prepped for the next day.
The deli counter owned by Dick and Joan McCracken inside the French Market serves Montreal-style smoked pastrami. The brisket is brined, roasted and smoked to a tender and fragrant violet. A friendly employee told us they opened at 10 a.m. the next morning. We already had lunch plans the next day, but blessed with the chance to take a second stab at the pastrami raved about by Chicago food writer Steve Dolinsky, we weren’t going to miss our opportunity. Pastrami for breakfast it was.
A brilliant call. A ridge of cracked black peppercorn encrusted the thick slabs of floral meat infused with allspice and coriander. Balls of spice washed in school-bus-yellow mustard spilled out from between the soft rye bread like pearls set loose from a broken necklace. The meat was supple with fat but held together in thick strands. The smoke, the seasoning, the texture, the simplicity — a sandwich worthy of a wake-up call.
When visiting Chicago, the famed Magnificent Mile will beckon. Some of the city’s best high-end shopping and most famous buildings (Tribune Tower, John Hancock Center) line the stretch of Michigan Avenue. The downtown street is also home to one of the city’s best casual dining options.
Set back from the bustle of Michigan Avenue, the Purple Pig teems with its own unique energy. The always busy restaurant, which is open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining, buzzes with the familial energy of a diner, fitting for the restaurant co-owned by Jimmy Bannos and his son, Jimmy Bannos Jr. The father-son team opened the restaurant in 2010 with successful Chicago restaurateurs Scott Harris (Mia Francesca) and Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia).
As the name suggests, the restaurant displays a love for wine and swine. Start with the velvety Atlantis red from Estate Argyros in Santorini and drink it with crispy pig ears — served with kale and pickled cherry peppers — and a Purple Pig platter with a selection of about 20 cured meats, such as hot soppressata, Spanish chorizo and duck prosciutto, many of which are made in-house.
The high communal tables make for easy sharing of a roster of small plates from Bannos Jr., the 2014 James Beard Rising Star winner. The young chef worked under celebrity chef Mario Batali in New York City, and his wide-ranging menu spans the Mediterranean, from poached lobster tail with morcilla sausage to olive-oil-poached cubes of tuna served in a collage of tomatoes, quail eggs and roasted peppers sheening with a bright Greek-lemon vinaigrette.
Drink a dessert affogato for a caffeine kick to energize your shopping spree. Or savor a Sicilian Iris (brioche stuffed with ricotta and chocolate chips) while you sip from one of a dozen grappas.