Chicago's restaurant scene boosted by Trotter, Alinea

How did Chicago go from the stockyard for the country, known for steaks, hot dogs and pizza, to a hotbed of cutting-edge “molecular cuisine”?

A surge in creative upscale restaurants was probably inevitable for the nation’s third-largest city, but the scene was fairly sleepy until about 20 years ago, when chef Charlie Trotter came on the scene. More recently, the city has become known for high-end experimental tasting menus at Alinea, the Asian-flavored Moto and Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel.

It’s just coincidental that these restaurants converged in Chicago, say local observers, but since the days of the stockyards, plenty of deep-pocketed business and convention travelers have helped support the eatery scene.

Alinea chef Graham Achatz, who started out at Napa Valley’s the French Laundry, experiments with tastes, smells and textures in ways that sometimes yields a finished product that doesn’t even resemble food.

“They’re trying to redefine the way people eat,” says Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel, describing a dish where a bowl of peas sits on a linen pillow filled with lavender-scented air so the weight of the bowl sends the aroma of lavender to the diner, along with the taste of the peas. “The process is as much of the show as the end product,” Vettel says.

Whatever the reason, there’s never been a better time to eat in Chicago. Generations of immigrants have given the area a rich concentration of ethnic influences, starting with Greeks and Poles and extending to the Germans, who helped launch the hot dog craze, and the Italians, who brought deep-dish and stuffed pizza.

The meatpacking industry ushered in famous steakhouses like Morton’s, and later the city saw a huge migration of Latinos and Asians.

When Trotter opened his eponymous restaurant 18 years ago in Lincoln Park, lavender-cured pork belly and lamb with black cardamom mole were probably a stretch for the steak-sated masses, but Trotter went on to become a star of the food world, and Chicago was forced into the modern age of dining.

Spurred by the Latino influence, Rick Bayless soon followed, opening Topolobampo, a fine-dining Mexican restaurant. “I loved the availability of ingredients to do the traditional Mexican food that inspires me,” says Oklahoma native Bayless.

The new focus in town is on fresh local ingredients — as long as it’s not foie gras, which was banned this month. In a quest to seemingly micromanage the city’s stomachs, Chicago’s City Council is now mulling a ban on trans fats as well.

“Everyone’s looking at seasonal, local products, artisan products and local producers,” Vettel says. Bayless is at the forefront of the movement and recently launched the Frontera Farmer Foundation, which gives grants to help develop local growers.

“You can’t have great cuisine unless you’ve got great local agriculture,” says Bayless. “When I moved 25 years ago, there were hardly any farmer’s markets, nothing but corn and soybeans.”

The two Bayless restaurants, Topolobampo and the more casual Frontera Grill, launched a wave of restaurants often called Nuevo Latino that continues to energize the scene.

The “locavore” trend (eating locally produced food when available) has spread throughout the Midwest. Owner-chef Tami Lax of Madison, Wis.’ Harvest was recently featured in Bon Appetit magazine. Heartland ingredients like elk, Lake Superior whitefish and chanterelle mushrooms are found on the menu of off-the-beaten-path finds like Superior, Wis.’ Boathouse or Waconia, Minn.’s the Green Room.

Richard Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You tests restaurant trends for the rest of the country from its Chicago headquarters. One concept he’s working on now is “Mexican — very simple, but very hip, not typical,” he says, while Asian and organic/sustainable food are the other big trends he sees happening in Chicago and across the country. Another recent launch is Wow Bao, a quick-serve dumpling stand targeting the fast-growing Asian food influx.

Vettel confirms: “There’s a lot of action with south of the border, Nuevo Latino flavors. There’s a market for it and an increased familiarity and enjoyment for spicy food.” He mentions the pan-Latin Carnivale with dishes like hamachi ceviche with red grapefruit and soon-to-open De La Costa, where dishes will include a hearts of palm salad with coconut foam.

Chicago food lovers congregate on their very own message board lthforum.com (the LTH standing for Little Three Happiness, a Chinese restaurant). One of the forum’s co-founders, blogger Rob Gardner, says: “The most interesting cuisine in Chicago right now is Mexican, but there are also Thai restaurants in Chicago that are as good as any in the country. The newer ethnic restaurants tend to be more authentic than their predecessors.”

In fact, Bayless says that contrary to Midwesterners’ bland meat-and-potatoes reputation, “You have to spice it up for them. The Chicago urban diners are interested in full-flavored food. If you don’t give it to them, they’ll be disappointed.”

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