Great Food, Great City

| by Kyle Whitecotton |

The Innkeeper in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle offers deliciously fresh oysters.
Chef Jeff Harris thinks that San Sebastián, Spain, offers some of the most exciting places to eat in the world.
Au Cheval in Chicago’s booming Randolf Street area.

Ask a chef his/her favorite dish, and you’re likely to end up drooling your way through a selectively seasoned response. Ask a chef his/her favorite city, and you’re likely to end up packing your bags for the next flight out of town. Ask a chef both questions at once and, well, you get the idea. It seems obvious, then, that good food and good travel go hand in hand, so this month we are asking some local chefs for their favorite food cities and the dishes that make them so great.

Chef Blaine Staniford While Chef Blaine Staniford appreciates a wide range of food cities, he favors the simplicity in all of them. Take, for example, $1 kumamoto oysters at a dive bar called The Innkeeper in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle. Even the seasonal dishes found at San Francisco’s A16 head-to-tail-themed Italian restaurant are simple perfection. “No fuss and unneeded garnishes, just great, approachable food,” Staniford said. “The house-made burrata and grilled rustic bread and the house-cured charcuterie is to die for.”
     “When I’m in New York,” Staniford said, adding yet another food city to his list, “I always go to Gramercy Tavern. I’ve been probably 10 times, and everything on the menu is fantastic. It’s always a slam-dunk for great American food.” Staniford favors the simple perfection of the house-made kielbasa with mustard spatzle and braised cabbage. “The sausage has the perfect snap when you bite into it, and the spatzle and cabbage complement without overpowering.”
     Staying with the theme of simplicity, Staniford included Grand Junction, Colorado’s Bin 707 Food Bar on his list for its fried chicken and grits. It’s a simple dish, he said, prepared with anything but simplicity. “The legs and thighs are first poached in duck fat and then breaded in gluten-free flour and deep-fried. The grits are just OK, but the house-made hot sauce is fantastic, kind of a mixture between Crystal Hot Sauce and Tabasco with a lot of butter.”

Chef Donatella Trotti In Northern Italy, about 30 miles north of Milan, lies the city of Varese, where a patchwork of mountains, valleys, rivers and forests makes up Chef Donatella Trotti’s home and favorite food city.
     “I grew up in Varese,” Trotti said, “and it is the home of two things that set it apart from any place else: my mother and my favorite pizza. My mother cooks in a kitchen that is smaller than most American pantries, and yet, from that kitchen comes the foundation for almost every dish in my restaurant. The delicate pastas that find their way to Nonna Tata started in that small kitchen. Mom taught me that in cooking, less is more. Her recipes are simple, yet elegant.
     “Only a few blocks down from Mom’s home is La Speranza. I could say that La Speranza is a typical Italian pizzeria, but it is not. The pizzaiolo there makes a thin crust pizza in a wood-fired oven. When it comes out, it is crispy all around, and every ingredient is in the right proportion. Not too much sauce, not too much cheese, just the right amount of everything.
     “In the U.S., people order one or two pizzas and share. That is not the custom in Italy. You order your own pizza, and it is your pizza. You might share a bite with a good friend who wants to try it, but that is it. The rest is yours.”

Chef Jon Bonnell When word spread of the closing of the world-famous Trotter’s in Chicago in 2011, Chef Jon Bonnell and his wife, Melinda, set out on a culinary pilgrimage through their favorite food city.
     The food tour included lunch at Topalobampo for Mexican cuisine. “It was the perfect start to an outstanding weekend,” Bonnell said. “Margarita martinis shaken tableside and Mexican food strong enough to impress a chef from Texas.”
     Bonnell also enjoyed the lively atmosphere and fresh oysters at Shaw’s Crab House. Later, appetizers at The Girl and the Goat made for an entertaining night in what Bonnell describes as “one happenin’ kind of night spot,” offering “very creative, fresh and adventurous menu items, as well as some killer specialty cocktails.”
The cheese, wine and swine at The Purple Pig made standing in line with the locals well worth the wait, Bonnell said. “This was a small-plate restaurant, almost tapas-style where my wife and I were able to share about five different offerings from beets and goat cheese with pistachios to milk-braised pork shoulder.”
     Bonnell said the highlight of the trip was dinner at Alinea. “Our evening at Alinea was simply the best dining experience I’ve ever had. The food selections were extremely diverse, playful, scientifically challenging and artistic all at once. I highly recommend it, despite the pricy nature of the place; just splurge once and consider it dinner and a show, all in one.”

Chef Jeff Harris Two years ago, Chef Jeff Harris and his wife spent half of their honeymoon in what he considers one of the most exciting places to eat in the world—San Sebastián, Spain. “Besides being the most beautiful place I have ever visited,” Harris said, “I have never been to a city that takes so much pride in their cuisine and culture. It seems to be coded in their DNA.”
Harris said that San Sebastián, particularly the Old Quarter of town, has some of the best tapas (pinxtos) bars in the country. “We spent a lot of our nights just walking around and “pinxtos crawling” as the locals do on a daily basis. Socializing with friends and family while enjoying the local wine and amazing product available there is a way of life.”
     Harris recommends seafood served “a la placha” and staples like marinated anchovies with Spanish olives and pickled peppers, braised veal cheeks, and piquillo peppers stuffed with salt cod. But the one item he said he could not forget was the ham. “Ask for ‘jamon iberico de bellota.’ It is a cured ham made from Iberian pigs that are pasture-raised in one specific region and graze on acorns. The ham is served thinly sliced and usually served with some fresh baked bread. It is so good you don’t need anything else – he best singular product I have ever eaten in my life.”

Chef Eric Hunter For Chef Eric Hunter to even consider the food of one particular place great, it must be the culinary consequence of a rich culture. That explains why Hunter chose New Orleans as the best food city. “Just the way people dine there is more a part of the culture,” he said. And who would know New Orleans culture better than someone like Hunter, whose family moved there when he was just 10 years old. And while he now makes North Texas his home, Hunter makes the time for frequent trips back to Louisiana to renew his sense of New Orleans’ European culture and the cuisine that makes it great.
For lunch it doesn’t get any better than Donald Link’s restaurant, Cochon Butcher, Hunter said. “It’s a counter-service, deli-style eatery that makes all of their charcuterie in house, head cheese, rilletes and dry-cured meats.” For local meat, seafood, and produce, few places beat the samplings of Chef Kristen Essig and Meauxbar. “My favorite dish there is seared sweetbreads with pickled Ponchatoula strawberries and demi-glace.” Chef John Besh, an influential aspect of the Louisiana food scene, is a family friend of Hunter, and when it comes to the coastal food served up at Borgne, Hunter said he recommends the grilled octopus dish with berber hummus garlic and caper confit.

Chef Michael Thomson Chef Michael Thomson may have put it best when he said, “Every city in our great land has a great restaurant.” It’s this belief that led Thomson to consider towns like Toledo, Ohio; Tucson, Arizona; and Buffalo Gap, Texas, alongside better-known food cities like San Francisco, New York City and Atlanta. But Thomson ultimately chose Chicago to be that of food city royalty.
In fact, Thomson’s long list of great Chicago eateries makes one wonder if there is really anything else to do in Chicago but eat. For the best Cajun food west of the Mississippi, Thomson suggests Heaven on Seven; for the master of neighborhood Italian, it’s Mia Francesca; and for the freshest seafood and great shellfish, there’s no place as meticulous as Publicans.
     Thomson also noted Au Cheval in Chicago’s booming Randolf Street area. “This is a fast-moving, energetic, fun spot to enjoy outstanding food while watching the buzz of a cranking open kitchen,” he said. “The Bloody Mary, with a garden in a glass, has me craving their thin-sliced bread and butter pickles.”
When it comes to steak, Thomson favors Rosebud Steakhouse across from the Drake Hotel. “Chicago is full of great steakhouses,” he explained, “but this one is a go-to every time and delivers a classic, unpretentious dining experience with top-quality products all across the menu.”
But in the end, you don’t need to travel great distances to enjoy great cuisine; you have plenty in your very own backyard. As Chef Trotti reminds us: “We are lucky to live in a time when good food is available almost anywhere for people who are willing to make some effort to find it.” So before you buy your plane ticket, make an effort to explore your own food cities right here at home.