CHICAGO tempting culinary dioramas
E THEL HAMMER IS A WRITER, LECTURER AND CARTOONIS T BASED IN CHICAGO.
of operations Gabe Garza and amazing
waitress Prosper. How could we have
been prepared for such hospitality? And
then Wolen’s culinary finesse astounds
us. Never have we felt so relaxed. Two
hours later, the place was jumping with
laughing diners tapping glasses in a
happy buzz as the bluebird of happiness
expanded and morphed with time.
At Somerset, Wolen makes seasonal
American food magical in a retro club
setting of blue and white, inviting you
in with open arms. The guy just can’t do
anything ordinary or expected, but never
throws his talent or invention in your face.
It just sneaks up on you, nothing showy or
boastful. His intoxicating smoky smooth
beet tartare with goat “gouda” goes right
to your head.
Vegetable flatbread with roasted Broc-
colini and caciocavallo cheese, designed
by sous chef Darren Underway, made us
float. And we ate so many parkerhouse rolls
topped with glimmering salt, fashioned
by pastry sous chef Alexander Roman,
we could have turned into giant satisfied
bouncy puffballs cast into the air. And
we’d hardly begun.
Beguiling carrot panzanella salad
with cauliflower hummus, salsa verde
and cow’s milk ubriaco cheese is pure
Wolen at his best, indescribably original
and delicious, the carrot cooked with
caramel infusing the bread. The mushroom
tagliolini with crispy fried garlic crumble
sports smooth as silk mushroom Bolognese
and pecorino cheese.
Renowned for his roasted chicken,
a homey American version soothes with
tasty garlic sausage stuffed under the skin,
super-creamy polenta and delicata squash.
Juicy juniper-rubbed venison with pears
and huckleberry was perfectly cooked.
And a cheeseburger with pickle keeps
the Americana theme bouncing along. To
finish, an ice cream sundae or butterscotch
pudding will take you back to an alternative
version of mid-century innocence.
565 W. RANDOLPH ST.
312.466.1950 // WWW.PROXICHICAGO.COM
Oh, the people you’ll see on the streets and
byways at Proxi, a celebration of international
street food where culinary jet-setters enter
without paying multiple airfares. This is a
see-and-be-seen place, from the two young
men staring dumbfounded at a Thai crêpe with
shrimp and chili jam to a bedazzling blonde-starlet type stepping out of a private curtained
dining room to the woman laughing like a crazed
parrot across the floor. Meanwhile, urgent orders
of Indonesian pork jerky fly by, and corn elotes
are on everyone’s lips.
Celebrated chef Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia
fame and the long-lost super-cool Del Toro
charges up an upscale urban interior without
asking you to move from your seat. You needn’t
pass through customs to savor cobia with
coconut, turmeric and curry leaf, or Burrata.
Forget about an American in Paris. Zimmerman
is aloft in the world, interpreting street food
through an American lens, one eye on tradition,
the other on his own inventiveness.
Corn elotes with corn kernels fried in tempura
batter with Japanese kewpie mayonnaise, lime,
chili and Parmesan cheese belies Zimmerman’s
freedom to meld cultures and experiment at
will. Forget about hunky Mexican corn on the
cob elotes slathered in mayonnaise. These two
teensy palate tempters are way too good to be
this itsy-bitsy. Four tiny Thai-inspired duck
dumplings in a tasty chicken pho with fried
shallots, hoisin and Sriracha sauce made me
want to imitate Oliver Twist and ask for more.
Greek-inspired baby octopus blackened in
skordalia with olive and preserved lemon is a
hunkier choice. Highly spiced Indian Kashmiri
lamb rogan josh is a much bigger dish, ready to
be cut into sandwiches on mini paratha. Some
dishes, such as mild merguez, are initially
restrained, but Zimmerman adds succulent
eggplant aioli, Marcona almonds, grapes and
radish. On the other hand he sky-dives into a
land of lushness with fluffy white “carbonara”
with salty, chewy bacon. And pastry chef Sarah
Mispagel’s Mexican chocolate with horchata,
pepitas, cinnamon sugar and shredded Greek
kataifi is simply delish.
ABOVE: At Proxi, baby octopus with red chermoula
and fava bean hummus.