2011 was a good year for me in dining so I thought I would do a sort of year in review. As January is the start of award season, I will do this in the manner of an award show. Admittedly, as I will be the only judge, it will be decidedly slanted and just because I label something as the best of 2011 does not imply that it is the best. It is simply the best I had last year.Best Burger - Kuma's Corner- While I had several good burgers last year, there is a reason that after 6 years, Kuma's still has a line out the door at all hours. The combination of good meat and some highly creative combinations still make this the best burger in town.Best Hot Dog - While the same things could be said for Hot Doug's in regard to hot dogs that are said for Kuma's in regard to burgers, I didn't go to Hot Doug's last year so the winner is a place that has very good service, does a very good Chicago Style Dog, and has been doing it for many years, Superdawg.
Best French Fries - While there are several places that do some very good sauces in which to dip your fries, or put some sort of flavoring on the fries themselves, the best fries are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. They should hold their shape instead of flopping over when you pick on up. Skin-on is a plus but is not absolutely necessary. They should be seasoned well and they should taste good without having to douse them in ketchup, truffle oil, or any other side that you may want to put on them. Meeting all of these criteria and meeting them well is the Butcher & the Burger.Best Pizza - I will admit that while all pizza is good, I have a definite preference for Neapolitan-style pizza and the best Neapolitan-style pizza I had in 2011 was at Spacca Napoli. The pizzas are thin, individual sized, and flame-roasted with just the right amount of char.
Best Sandwich Shop - The Brown Sack - While you can get some really good stuff with creative ingredient combinations, sometimes it's best if things are left simple and The Brown Sack does simple food very well.
Best Barbecue - While I had assumed that Smoque was the best simply from their brisket and pulled pork and from their reputation, I discovered that different places do some things better than others, and while Smoque makes some great brisket and pulled pork, I like Fat Willy's ribs better.
Best Cocktail - Boka has a "drink" called the dealer's choice that after you indicate to the bartender a base alcohol and a flavor (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, neutral), he would create a drink for you. I went with Vodka and sour which could have been done pretty easily but the bartender was much more creative than he needed to be and I really appreciated it.
Best Gastropub - Owen and Engine - It looks as if you have been transported to Victorian England. All of the male wait staff had at least some facial hair, and dress with suspenders and sock garters. All of the food is locally sourced if not made in-house outright. They have a very good charcuterie program and a great beer list.
Best Lounge - While it's a little hard to find and it looks like your Grandma's basement (it is in a basement), the Watershed is a very welcoming and relaxing place with a good soundtrack (that you can play DJ with if you have an iPhone), and an interesting local bar and food menu.
Best Neighborhood Restaurant - A good neighborhood restaurant occupies the space between diner/cafe and fine dining restaurant. While some do one side better than the other, few do both well. Lula Cafe does and has for 13 years. They serve brunch and dinner and carry items on the menu at a variety of price points. You cannot however, really prjudge how good something might be just looking at the price. It's all good. They also like to have a little fun at Halloween and dress up as another restaurant.
Most Unusual Meal - There is no question in my mind that the Miracle Berry Dinner at Ing was the most unusual. Combine the adventurousness from the guys from Moto and Ing with the Miracle Berry and the meal became a very tasty if unusual, mind trip. The things that stick in my mind are the dry white wine that tasted like Port after the Miracle Berry and the very tasty pumpkin tart and lemon fluff that was made without sugar.
Best Fine Dining Experience - Vie - While it is out in Western Springs, it's just off the train line and is well worth the trip. The food on the frequently changing menu is local, seasonal, and organic, the service is excellent, and the restaurant is divided into several rooms which keeps the noise level down. I had a 5 course meal with wine pairings which spanned vegetable, fish, beef, and dairy. It was an excellent meal and would definitely travel there again for another meal.
I was also glad to have dined at one sixtyblue multiple times this year. It was announced at the beginning of the year that it would be "changing concept" and while management has been mum on the cooking staff, in an interview, Chef Michael McDonald said that he would not be a good fit for the new concept and would be leaving. While I am sad that it is closing and I am worried about the new concept because I really liked the old concept, I wish Chef Michael much luck in his future endeavors.