By Hand and By Heart

Jeffrey Steen |
Food And Dining

Among the sea of food blogs that have flooded the Internet over the past two decades, only a few have floated to the surface. Most conjure repurposed recipes and grammatically-embarrassing retrospectives on how not to use goat meat in spaghetti sauce or why you should really peel your bananas before making banana bread. But there are the exceptions. One of the few that's caught our eye lately is one that lovingly paints a picture of cooking from scratch: Dinner: A Love Story (dinneralovestory.com). Its celebrated author, Jenny Rosenstrach, has been so successful at stealing hearts and appetites with her handmade mantra, that she now boasts a book on Amazon—and a forever-busy dining room.

We're proud to say that Rosenstrach's nostalgic paean to food rings true in Chicago's colorful culinary scene, as well. Sure, many a restaurant boasts its from-scratch approach to cooking, but how devoted are they? Do they know the names of the farmers who grow their vegetables? Do they call on ethnic and cultural traditions when they craft their menus? And, perhaps most important: How connected are they to their food?

At several of the city's Asian haunts, making dishes and ingredients from scratch is a given. Enso Sushi & Bar {1613 North Damen Avenue; 773.878.8998}, a Wicker Park/Bucktown staple, is a venue that pays homage to Japanese cuisine outside of the Americanized visions of sushi and with a huge investment in “cooking in the raw.” Here, ramen noodles and broths are made in-house, as are the steamed buns which are likened to the traditional bao. At Enso, however, they're treated to a bit of Americana and dished up like sliders instead of the traditional preparation. And whether guests are familiar with Japanese cuisine or not, Enso is keen on the experience: “It’s about satisfying hearts through the palate,” they say, “and bringing together good food and good company.”

Another chef-driven taste of Southeast Asia is dished up by Chef Noy and Anna Makmok at Anna's Bistro {813 West Lake Street; 312.733.8095} and Anna's Asian Grill & Sushi Bar {1806 West Irving Park Road; 773.975.3404}. Aromas of Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean delicacies—among others—float through the dining room, much as you'd experience in a home kitchen in the East. Two of the most popular menu items are ones that court memories of their native countries: Fried Tilapia Fillet with homemade tamarind sauce and chile vinaigrette over rice, and Stuffed Avocado made with spicy tuna, spicy mayo, unagi sauce, and scallions. And while each ingredient is fresh, so are the sauces that make each dish sing. As Anna herself testifies, “We make every single sauce and broth in house—whether it be for soup, for dipping, for stir-frying, or for sushi.” Among these are the indescribable ponzu, and the roasted sweet chile sauce like none you've ever tasted—and certainly unlike anything you buy commerically.

While most Asian cuisines are well represented in the Windy City, some have only recently come to our front door—including Indonesian cuisine. A mystery to many, Rickshaw Republic {2312 North Lincoln Avenue; 773.697.4750} is bringing a little-known tradition to the city's culinary scene with the likes of homemade Fish Cakes—made with fish paste and tapioca flour, then stuffed with egg—and a remarkably unique vinegar sauce called Cuka. Co-Owner Oscar Setiawan talks about how the chef—his mother—makes it all in house as though from-scratch cooking were to be expected: “My mom is very particular with her sauces. Though we make Indonesian street food—which sounds very casual—all our sauces are made very carefully in-house, including the sambal and the peanut sauce. We're even hoping to bottle some of the sauces and sell them.”

Rickshaw Republic is a product of the Setiawan family's own experiences in Indonesia, serving rickshaw drivers a bite or two when they came to rest on the family's front lawn. While Chicago's iteration of this tradition doesn't exactly involve rickshaw rest stops, it does call on a culinary world where food was intimately tied to friends and family.

That link to the nuclear family—and to the livelihood that they work to sustain—is part of what marks several Mexican outposts in the city as unique. At sister restaurants Zocalo {358 West Ontario Street; 312.302.9977} and Taco Joint {1969 North Halsted Street; 312.951.2457 and 158 West Ontario Street; 312.337.8226}, for example, the long-loved family tradition of tortilla-making comes alive with fresh corn and flour tortillas, ripe for fillings showcasing regional ingredients like Chihuahua cheese and housemade pico de gallo. Beyond tortillas, these two Mexican landmarks are known for their wealth of hand-crafted salsas, and a soon-to-be list of tamales imagined by Chef Florencia Nava. There's a drunken pasilla salsa that makes its way into one these newly-minted tamales—a combination of creamy masa and piquant pasilla only rivaled by the ancho-guajillo pulled chicken variety with fresh, roasted vegetables. It's a culinary experience enriched by the fact that local is both restaurants' mantra. As a matter of fact, neither one claims a freezer in the recesses of their kitchens—that's just how fresh everything is.

Another of Chicago's well-sung Mexican stops is de cero. HELLOTACOS! {814 West Randolph Street; 312.455.8114}. A self-dubbed modern-day taqueria, de cero takes its from-scratch commitment very seriously, hand-pressing tacos daily and filling them with locally-bought, seasonal ingredients. This may seem like an impressive thing in a Chicago restaurant—and it is—but that's simply the way it's done in Mexico. You eat what you can source in your backyard.

To that end, de cero gets its masa from Chicago's own Pilsen neighborhood, and uses a wooden hand-press to create the tacos we know and love. Fifteen varieties dot the menu, chock full of ingredients like house jalapeño-marinated skirt steak, grilled portobello mushrooms, and quesco fresco—even a touch of housemade crema, which is fresh cream mixed with lime.

As part of the Mexican taco tradition—and expected in American Mexican restaurants—margaritas are a given in the de cero experience. It's all handmade, though—freshly-puréed fruit and lime make up the “sour,” while carefully-sourced herbs and tequila make each variety unique. Among de cero's favorites: Jicama Margarita, Pineapple-Jalapeño Margarita, and Kiwi Margarita. Seasonally-available fruits dictate which flavors are offered, however, so the list is forever changing.

At Nando Milano {2114 West Division Street; 773.486.2636}, a Wicker Park Italian staple—drinks are front and center, too. But one of the spirited liqueurs stands out above the rest: Chef Alessio Vulo's Rhubarbcello. “It's kind of like a lemoncello,” Owner Dario Vullo describes. “And my goodness, it's to-die-for!”

Nando Milano's unofficial tagline, “Eat well to live well,” is girded by Chef Vulo's impressive culinary past—rooted, of course, in the traditions of family. “He learned how to cook in my family's kitchen,” Dario remembers. “We are a family of restaurateurs, you see. My grandpa opened our first restaurant in Sicily in 1932 and he was so successful that he opened other ones in Milan, Turin, Bologna—all over Italy.”

Chef Vulo is clearly a product of that success. And much like his grandfather was almost 100 years ago, Alessio is keen on all thing fresh, local, and homemade.

“He goes to local markets daily to buy ingredients and makes everything from scratch,” Dario gushes. “We have fresh bread, focaccia, all the pasta that we serve, desserts, liquors—you name it.” Alessio even offers gluten-free items on the menu—perhaps not native to his Italian homeland, but nonetheless, a testament to his ability to craft anything from scratch. Our pick among the crowd of favorites: the impossibly tender Gnocchi al Rosso di Bietole allo Zafferano (beet-infused gnocchi with a saffron sauce).

But as we all know, the manifestation of handmade meals need not come from a specific ethnic enclave. All you really need is culinary know-how, the best local ingredients you can find, and people to share it with.

Grange Hall Burger Bar {844 West Randolph Street; 312.491.0844} is a particularly good example of this—how a local mindset pairs well with from-scratch concepts. Grange Hall is actually a fraternal organization founded in the 1800s designed to bring farmers together to discuss their concerns—touching on everything from farming techniques to dealing with new technologies. The extension of that farm-centric philosophy that is the Burger Bar, a farm-to-table burger restaurant where 100-percent grass-fed beef dons every bun, and pies are made with local fruit. To boot, the kitchen team spins their own ice cream in flavors reminiscent of decades past: Apple Cinnamon, Rosemary-Pecan, and Peanut Butter and Jelly.

From the burgers to dessert, there's nothing on Grange Hall Burger Bar's menu that isn't deftly crafted by hand or carefully-sourced. Owner Angela Lee is insistent on this kind of production, having spent her childhood in a farming community with an eye toward care of the environment, responsible sourcing, and investment in the food we, as a community, make and eat. “It seems natural that farming, food quality, and feeding the public has stuck with me for all these years,” she says.

Natural, too, for the culinary team leading the flavor-making way at Quince at the Homestead Inn {1625 Hinman Avenue; 847.570.8400}. Local is as local does here, with a rooftop garden flush with tomatoes, lettuces, radishes, beets—whatever the seasons dictates. Sous Chef Bryan Klau explains the concept as American fusion, melding all kinds of traditional flavor into a proverbial melting pot. “We're a white-tablecloth restaurant with a menu that pulls on the kitchen staff's diverse backgrounds—Asian, Caribbean, East Coast American. We're a colorful group, and we all have something to share.”

Inspired by both ingredients and these regional flavors, the Quince team has created inventive New Age dishes like Buckwheat Ravioli, made with Anson Mills grits and buckwheat flour. It's tossed with summer squash from the garden, housemade succotash, and pesto. Klau himself is the resident Italian expert, so you can expect his hands in all the housemade pastas. Much of what lands with the pasta, however—and in all the rest of the menu's seasonal dishes—is gathered from the rooftop garden or farmers' markets. An especially big treat for diners this season has been the Fried Squash Blossoms, stuffed with homemade ricotta and battered in light-as-air tempura. “It's not really on the menu,” Klau admits. “When we have it available, the staff will let diners know. But they sell out very quickly.”

And if local carries the day at a fusion concept like Quince, it's the feather in the cap of Owner/Chef Isaac Welivér of Local Root {601 North McClurg Court; 312.643.1145}. For Welivér, organic cooking is nothing new. Making dishes from scratch is nothing new. But doing both for a hungry public at a reasonable price is everything new.

“I lived in Costa Rica for two years, which got me on the path of local and organic and making everything from scratch,” Welivér says. “There was no other option there. When I moved back to the city, I wanted to bring that back and do it right in Chicago. Every restaurant has a few things that are local, but we try to do everything local.”

When asked why the local, organic, and handmade mantra was so important to Welivér, he called on a shift in American consumer dining. “We're doing this because the 100-year-old fad of industrialized food is coming to an end. We want to get people back to eating like they're supposed to—eating food made from scratch.”

By making conscious choices about where to source their ingredients and what they cook with, Welivér's team is part of the community push to move food company behemoths like Sysco to change their portfolios. “They're actually incorporating local foods into their offerings now,” Welivér says. “So is TestaFoods, one of our main suppliers. That's huge.”

From those local ingredients comes Local Roots' handmade menu. Because it is, as Welivér attests, entirely homemade, calling out specific from-scratch items is a bit difficult. It's worth nothing, however, that Local Root does all their own butchering in-house, as well as all their pickling—pickled cucumbers, fennel slaw, giardiniera, pickled green beans. And all of the sauces are not only made from scratch, but made to order.

In all of this handmade/housemade craze, however, one wonders if there's anything almost too big to tackle. Welivér says there is something that's been a tremendous challenge: ketchup. “It takes about 16 hours,” he says with a sigh. “That's humongous for a condiment.”

Humongous? Yes. But that commitment is exactly what makes from-scratch restaurants the pride and joy of Chicago. It's that same mission that drives ever-popular Hannah's Bretzel {multiple locations; hannahsbretzel.com}, as a matter of fact. Hannah's, honing in on “über” sandwiches galore, is an example of how dedication to all things homemade can find incredible success—in the form of five bustling locations within a single city. Organic is the way they walk and talk here, starting with their breads and finishing (of course) with dessert. “95-percent or more of the ingredients used in our breads and desserts are organic,” Owner Florian Pfahler explains. “Since our stores are in the Midwest, we're fortunate enough to source many of our organic dairy items from local farms—including organic butter.”

Imagine what that means for dessert. Or just indulge in a standby and let your taste buds do the work: Organic Blondies, carefully crafted with quinoa (yes, quinoa), organic whole grain and all-purpose flours, organic sugar, and organic unsalted butter. And that's only a taste of their offerings, of course. Just step in one quiet afternoon and try not to get one of everything—muffins, brownies, cookies, and bars. And as a testament to how committed Hannah's is to the organic oath, drop by their website to see just what percentage of each sweet is made with organic ingredients.

As the commitment to local, fresh, handmade, and organic grows, it's almost a given that Hannah's—along with the wealth of other handmade Chicago restaurants—will turn our culinary world into one that leans heavily on seasons, on caring farmers, and on ingredients that are responsibly grown. This leaves only one part of the dining experience to us: the part that, as Rosenstrach heralds, is incomplete without friends, family, and memories. Wherever restaurant kitchens trend, these are the things we will always make from scratch.