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By Lisa Shames | Photo: El Che Bar, Roister and LeÑa Brava photos by Anthony Tahlier; Honey’s photo courtesy of Galdones Photogrpahy; Maple & Ash photo by Derek Richmond; Elske photo courtesy of Galdones Photography | February 22, 2017
Things are heating up in Chicago restaurants—literally.
This isn’t the first hot moment for wood-burning hearths and grills in restaurants, and it won’t be the last. But the newest fire-breathing contraptions elevate the concept to a whole new level, with chefs taking the simplest form of cooking known to man and creating dishes that are anything but simple. Arm hair is so overrated.
El Che Bar
When chef John Manion went looking for someone to bring to life his napkin drawings of the wood-burning cooking system of his dreams, he knew just the person to call: a motorcycle builder. “I went to a bunch of different steel guys,” he says, “but no one was as into it as I wanted them to be.” From the looks of the beautiful open hearth at the far end of this Argentine-American West Loop restaurant, which includes two grills and three separate chapas (flat-top grills)—one each for vegetables, seafood and meat—Manion made the right choice. More proof can be found in the delicious grilled oysters with celery root cream and fried leeks ($16)—“We drop them on the coals and they cook in a minute,” says Manion—and smoked chorizo with charred tomato and salsa criolla ($15). Better yet, make a reservation for El Che’s new counter spots, which give two lucky diners per night a front row seat to all the fire-breathing action along with their five-course tasting menu ($85). Added bonus: Odds are Manion will be your server. “It brings the idea of hospitality into the kitchen,” he says. And there’s more yet to come. “It is, has been and will continue to be a work in progress,” says Manion. “We are just getting started.” 845 W. Washington Blvd., 312.265.1130
For chef Charles Welch, there’s more to a wood-burning system than just the food that comes off of it. “It lends a great smoky note to the whole dining room,” he says of the intimate contemporary American restaurant’s wood-burning grill and rotisserie. “It’s one of those smells that gets people hungry and ready to eat.” And once they’re seated, Welch has plenty of delicious dishes with which to tempt them, including spit-roasted cauliflower with smoked giardiniera ($13). “We sell about 200 of those a week,” he says. Honey’s roasted pork chop ($34) and grilled striploin ($39) are popular too, but, for us, it’s the Caesar salad ($12), which gets its subtle smokiness via quickly grilled romaine leaves, that we crave on a regular basis. Desserts get in on the fire action too—smoked pineapple ice cream, anyone?—as do cocktails, which Welch also oversees. (If his smoked cherry Manhattan from last year is any indication, we’re as excited as he is for spring’s stone fruits to arrive.) “It costs a certain amount of money to keep it going during the day,” he says, “so we like to use it as much as possible.” Good idea. 1111 W. Lake St., 312.877.5929
When chefs Grant Achatz and Andrew Brochu were discussing ideas for new restaurant Roister, they asked themselves a question: “We use all these modernist and classic techniques, but what’s the one thing we haven’t attacked or gone after?” says Brochu. The answer: wood-burning cooking. “We thought: Why not bring that nostalgia and emotion into the restaurant?” Since this is the same group behind cutting-edge Alinea and Next, any old system wouldn’t do. At the West Loop’s Roister, you’ll find a 6-by-5-foot wood-burning grill—“It’s basically a fireplace,” says Brochu—made of moveable parts, which means it can adapt to new dishes with minor adjustments. If you’re lucky, the whole roast duck with citrus chips dried in the hearth ($73) will be available, or the giant rib-eye ($95), which is cooked directly in the coals. Beef fat is rendered down in the hearth and mixed with shallots, which is then painted on the steak for added flavor. The restaurant’s signature amuse-bouche alcohol-based shot often has an ingredient or two that’s spent some time near those flames too. “We’re always questioning what we can put in there,” says Brochu, “and what we can do next with it.” 951 W. Fulton Market
Maple & Ash
With a name like Maple & Ash, it comes as no surprise that this Gold Coast steakhouse is big on wood-burning cooking. “For us, it’s simple,” says chef Danny Grant on why they use it. “It makes stuff taste better.” Utilizing several different cooking treatments, including one that can run at a low temp for smoking and another that’s great for searing and roasting the variety of steaks the restaurant offers, Grant and his team have quickly adapted to fire’s fickle nature. “It’s slightly more difficult in that you are controlling something that is alive—or trying to, anyways—but the end results are so worth it.” Case in point: M&A’s twist on the classic seafood tower ($42 per person), which does away with the bed of ice, and instead, delicacies such as oysters, scallops and Alaskan king crab are hearth-roasted and finished with garlic butter and chili oil. To make sure guests get all the smoky seafood juices left over, servers come by with butter-slicked housemade pasta shells and dump it in the roasting pan along with lemon juice and chives. “It’s the right thing to do,” says Grant. 8 W. Maple St., 312.944.8888
It’s normal to be anxious prior to opening your first restaurant, but husband-and-wife chefs David and Anna Posey had an added stress-inducer. “I was nervous because we built the whole kitchen around this thing I had never worked on before,” says David, who handles the savory part of Elske’s menu, while Anna’s in charge of the sweet. That “thing” was the West Loop restaurant’s custom-built wood-burning hearth designed with six shelves spaced 3 inches apart to allow for a variety of cooking areas and temperatures. It didn’t take long, though, for David and his cooks to tame the new piece of equipment, turning out dishes such as grilled leg of lamb with smoked onion ($22) and an exotic tea of lightly smoked fruits and vegetables (part of the eight-course tasting menu, $80). One of David’s favorite techniques involves cooking vegetables in butter and then slowly roasting them over the fire so they get chewy; almost jerky-like. “I try to incorporate it into most dishes, even if it’s just a sauce that we reduce over the fire so it gets a little bit of smoky flavor,” says David. “At least one thing every day I try to do over the wood-burning hearth.” 1350 W. Randolph St., 312.733.1314
If anyone knows a thing or two about cooking with live fire, it’s chef Rick Bayless, who has been doing just that for years at Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco. “I have wood fire in every one of our restaurants, whether it’s a wood-burning oven or grill,” he says. “That’s a hallmark of my style of cooking and what I love most.” At his newest restaurant, Leña Brava, he ups the ante, using only a 600-degree wood-fired hearth to cook the dishes of Baja California for which the 78-seat West Loop restaurant has become known. (Its name, after all, means “ferocious wood” in Spanish.) Husband-and-wife chefs Fred and Lisa Despres and the rest of the kitchen team have earned a loyal following for dishes such as octopus “carnitas” ($25)—slow-cooked and then char-seared on the grill in a hot pan—whole grilled butterflied striped bass ($43) and butter-roasted plantains with housemade fresh cheese ($8). “It’s way harder but much more satisfying in the long run,” says Bayless. “You get a chance to connect with your source of cooking in a very intimate way.” 900 W. Randolph St., 312.733.1975