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Critics Praise Giant and Honey's As Two of the Year's Best; More Reviews

Plus, Rick Bayless delivers but Ema misses the mark and Steadfast is elevating the Loop

A narrow dining space with exposed brick walls and grey banquette seating
Giant
Marc Much

Giant is hands down one of the best Chicago openings this year according to Michael Nagrant. The signature uni shooter is a deep fried ball that "explodes in your mouth like a water balloon teeming with funky candied custard" while a dish of charred carrots is "so savory and mouth-coating you'd swear it was doused in MSG" (in a good way). Similarly, udon-like noodles tossed with bacon and buttery fat have a "very satisfying bite" and pecan-smoked ribs are a "meaty plank with a firm chew covered in a sticky-sweet sauce that Vincent "should consider bottling." All-in-all the food is the "most satisfying, well-executed non-fussy stuff around" and "rates better than any of the places" that Nagrant has reviewed in 2016. [RedEye]

Phil Vettel thinks you should become a regular at Honey's because Charles Welch is delivering "Mediterranean flavor in ways that are bold and balanced." A spit-roasted cauliflower appetizer "tastes of smoke and fire" while "earthy flavors" are aplenty in the "rich and gamy" lamb tartare. Among entrees, chermoula-marinated sturgeon is a "star performer" that's "fragrant and flavorful," and pork chops with guanciale over white beans is "certainly the best pork-and-beans" Vettel can remember. "Seamlessly" matching desserts include curry-infused spongecake with Turkish-coffee mouse, cajeta caramel and Egyptian-dukkah-spiced toffee shards. [Tribune]

Leña Brava is Rick Bayless' finest restaurant in decades, writes Jeff Ruby. Drawing on the cuisine of Baja California, the menu features "outstanding" hiramasa yellowtail—a parade of "buttery hunks" with a bracing sauce of guajillo chilies and hibiscus flowers. "Spectacular" octopus "carnitas" are seared and wrapped in steamy tortillas while the caramelized cauliflower steak is Ruby's best vegetarian dish of 2016. The highlight, though, is a whole butterflied striped bass that's "charred and meaty and selectively tender" and can be prepared in any of four ways. And to finish, butter-roasted plantains is a "crispy, smoky, smooth, and original" take on a banana split.

Next door at Cruz Blanca, the experience is decidedly more casual but still a winner. Everything Ruby tries is "tender and rustic, though the wood smoke flattened, rather than amplified, some flavors."  While the difference between the pork loin and garlic chicken is "negligible," the garlic-agave Portobello tacos retain the "most character." Sides include an "irresistible" nopal salad full of "perfectly charred" cactus, studded with red onion slices. The brewery also produces stellar brews like the Smoke Alley, a wheat ale that shines the "brightest, brilliantly echoing the smoky tacos but still cooling the heat." [Chicago]

Steadfast is "elevating the fine dining scene" in the loop with dishes that are "unapologetically fancy, complicated and, it turns out, pretty darn delicious." Anthony Todd calls the "freaking ridiculous" bread service the "best thing on the menu." It includes a wide range of offerings, from a "surprisingly" floral lavender pretzel to the "greatest, most addictive garlic cracker ever made by man." Roasted suckling pig served with giardiniera and bitter frisee is "easily the best thing on the small plates list" while a "beautiful, delicious" chicken stuffed with spicy chorizo and topped with black truffle and braised carrots is the standout among entrees. A few misfires include a little gem salad that "tastes like absolutely nothing at all" and "undercooked" fideo "swimming in a sauce that taste[s] like savory barbecue sauce from a bottle." Those mistakes aside, Todd says Steadfast is still "definitely worth the trip." [Chicagoist]

Ema is chock-full of disappointments for Tal Rosenberg. As is common with a Lettuce Entertain You concept, he says "any sense of exoticism or ethnic variety is downplayed to near nonexistence." The spreads are the "most consistently pleasurable," with standouts being a spring-onion tzatziki that tastes like "French onion dip" and Ethiopian htipiti. Lighter dishes fare better as mussels and charred octopus with crispy potatoes and kale are "superb," but the "outright duds" are huge letdowns. An avocado and sweet peas spread has the "texture of baby food;" fried eggplant is "soggy and bland;" salmon kebabs are "underseasoned and undercooked;" and braised lamb shoulder is "sweet to the point of being inedible, as if baked under a layer of grape Fruit Roll-Ups." Desserts are the "most interesting and adventurous items" and include a Greek frozen yogurt topped with olive oil that Rosenberg would "gladly eat every morning." [Reader]

Ema

74 West Illinois Street, , IL 60654 (312) 527-5586 Visit Website

Cruz Blanca

904 West Randolph Street, , IL 60607 (312) 733-1975 Visit Website

Steadfast

120 W Monroe St, Chicago, IL 60603 (773) 489-5050 Visit Website

Lena Brava

900 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60607

Honey's

1100 West Lake, Chicago, IL

Giant

3209 West Armitage Avenue, , IL 60647 (773) 252-0997 Visit Website

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