It might seem out of place to talk about the coziness of hearth cooking during the winter that wasn’t (apparently our winter was reserved for Halloween and early November this year). But my fingers are crossed that the seasons will return to their rightful place, and we can hunker down for the winter as Chicagoans were intended to do — it’s our birthright to freeze outside then seek shelter around a warm and welcoming table. Where to? At these seven hearth-based Chicago restaurants, top chefs are literally playing with fire. What’s not to love about a menu built around the elemental lure of a wood hearth? I am drawn to these restaurants like a moth to flame and you will be too.
845 W. Washington Blvd., Chicago, 312-265-1130
No need to fly to Argentina to experience the glories of food cooked over an open flame when Chef John Manion commands the massive 12-foot open hearth of this West Loop favorite. You’ll be mesmerized by the sight of the dancing flames as chefs perform a barbecue ballet every night, moving foodstuffs around to grill to perfection. Go with a crowd and indulge in ALL the proteins by starting with “La Boca,” a grilled shellfish platter ($105), followed by the Parrillada ($90), the meatiest of Argentine meat offerings with juicy grilled short ribs, morcilla and chorizo sausages, sweetbreads, bife angosto, and marrow bones, accompanied by salsa criolla and Manion’s insanely good chimichurri (a traditional Argentine condiment made with parsley, oregano, garlic, olive oil, and vinegar), which I would happily spread on my shoe before eating. Vegetarians, have no fear. The charred Broccoli a la chapa ($13) and Baked Sweet Potato ($13), oozing with taleggio fondue, will call you with their siren song.
1350 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-733-1314
You can’t possibly get much more hygge (Danish for cozy or comfortable) than David and Anna Posey’s Michelin-starred West Loop hideaway. There will, of course, be Gløgg ($13), steaming cups of mulled red wine, gilded with brandy and served with a thin and crispy gingersnap. Enjoy it by the outdoor fireplace, grabbing an afghan (didn’t I tell you it was cozy?) to wrap around you for added warmth. Nearly everything served at Elske is kissed by the flame of their wood-fired hearth, from the tasting menu’s “tea” made from smoked fruit and veggie scraps to the Hearth-Roasted Apple with Koji Butter ($12) on the a la carte menu. The Roasted Turkey ($22) with Brussels sprouts and skordalia (a garlicky Greek potato concoction) is a fine seasonal choice, especially amped up by the sweet-sour punch of pickled figs. “When I started cooking over the hearth, it was a game changer. The hearth gives everything, from meat to vegetables to fruit, so much more flavor,” says chef David Posey. You can taste the commitment to flavor in every bite.
1840 W. North Ave., Chicago, 312-757-4444
This is a neighborhood restaurant of the highest order, filled with a convivial spirit and warmth, not surprising when the focal point of the kitchen is the huge wood-burning oven, the source of all this goodness. “I wanted to create a menu that reflected all the dishes that I grew up cooking with my family and had a special place in my heart,” says Chef/Partner Danny Grant (Maple & Ash). “Live wood fire enhances that product and gives it a level of complexity without adding a lot of ingredients and, honestly, it’s just more fun.” Grant gets the party started immediately with the perfectly charred Fire-Baked Focaccia ($10) topped with ricotta-honey and truffle, Rack-Roasted Oysters ($12) with smoked tomato butter, and a cast-iron skillet of Spicy Meatballs ($14) in tomato-based “Sunday sauce” with triangles of hearth-baked bread. The wood-fired Winter Squash Pizza ($16) is a particular delight, glazed with hot chile honey and dotted with pomegranate. If you’re visiting with the whole crew, you can make a good dent in the Pig Picnic ($56), fire-roasted, juicy-and-crispy-in-all-the-right-places pork served with tons of fixings, from condiments (chimichurri and yogurt sauces) to “refreshingly spicy things” and chopped cucumbers.
1631 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 847-868-8945
When Found turned 5 last year, owner Amy Morton decided to change up the décor to provide new inspiration. One thing that didn’t change? The big wood-burning oven that has become its own brand of dinner theater. People clamor to sit in the cozy bar seats that surround it to watch hot-as-blazes platters of meat and veggies make their way out of the oven directly to the table. Thai Chicken Flatbread ($15) topped with coconut-braised chicken in green curry shares space with Spicy Harissa-Roasted Vegetables ($10), a seasonal mix that’s been on the menu since the very beginning. Make way for the Oven-Roasted Rushing Waters Trout ($22) served with fire-roasted shishitos and topped with a sprightly kohlrabi, fresh herbs, and preserved lemon salad, or for their hearth-roasted Berkshire pork chop whenever it appears as a special.
900 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-733-1975
There is no stovetop at Rick Bayless’ Leña Brava (Spanish for “ferocious fire”), because whether you’re melting butter or boiling stock, it’s happening over an open flame, either grill or wood-fired oven. You’ll want to taste everything here, be it the Arroz Con Verduras ($21), a baked rice with wild mushrooms and roasted winter squash, or one of the four preparations of Striped Bass (market price) — my money is on the vibrantly marigold-yellow Yucatecan-style tikin xik with plenty of achiote and pickled red onions. I also crave the Chicken a la Leña ($23 half/$40 whole), which I drench in creamy jalapeño-garlic salsa. Finish with a Free-Form Wood-Oven Tart ($17) for the table, the tender, flaky crust encasing local apples and roasted tomatillos, an inspired and unexpected pairing. It’s topped with salted-maple ice cream and maple caramel and you will lick the plate clean. As with all of the Bayless restaurants, the food is all responsibly and sustainably sourced from Midwestern family farms, which makes it all taste that much better, doesn’t it?
141 W. Erie St., Chicago, 312-736-1778
Chef Erling Wu-Bower and Pastry Chef Natalie Saben make good use of the restaurant’s two wood-burning ovens, dedicating one to the roasting of veggies and proteins, and the other to baking pizzas, the puffy fresh pitas, and assorted baked goods, all in the service of bringing a West Coast vibe to River North. About that pita: it must be ordered, and I love both the Roasted Eggplant with feta and charred red onion version ($14) and the Braised Octopus with hummus and vadouvan curry ($19). You’ll revel in the smoky flavor the wood fire imparts to the Heritage Berkshire Pork Chop ($32), served with Three Sisters Farm black beans and grilled onion, getting a fruity assist from persimmon. Opt for the Wood-Roasted Sweet Potato ($15), which gets a decidedly savory presentation drizzled with yogurt and spicy Middle Eastern zhoug and an added zing from pickled dates and jalapeño. The sun-filled room is comfort personified.
5311 S. Lake Park Ave. West, Chicago, 312-801-2100
This South Side resto was designed around its brick hearth, a tribute to the fire pits that once dotted the nearby Promontory Point overlooking Lake Michigan. Executive Chef Carlos Cruz is roasting Brussels Sprouts ($9) and tossing them with Hook’s cheddar, currants, and a sunflower seed vinaigrette, an homage of sorts to the classic broccoli salad, only infinitely better. He’s blackening delicate squash and combining it in a Market Salad ($13) with firm grilled haloumi, pickled pears, and herby green goddess dressing, and vegetarians will be quite pleased with that turn of events. Meat lovers get their due with offerings like the wood-roasted Sirloin ($28) topped with ramp butter and served with hearth-roasted broccolini and potatoes. At brunch, the classic Shrimp & Grits ($15) dish gets an update with hearth-grilled shrimp and fried pickled onions. Be sure to check out who is appearing at the upstairs music venue while you’re there.
Julie Chernoff, Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night.