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Critic’s Choice Dining Awards: A salute to the chefs who made 2016 so special

You guys had your fun. Now it’s our turn.

For the past few weeks, you’ve voted to select the Readers’ Choice Dining Awards, which we’re announcing today. At the same time, we’re announcing the critic’s picks: 13 winners in nine categories for outstanding work in 2016.

VOTES ARE IN: See who won the Readers’ Choice division of our Dining Awards.

This year’s honorees represent innovation and continuity, occasionally at the same time. We have a young couple with a fledgling restaurant, and a chef whose career can be measured in decades. We applaud one chef’s triumphant return from self-imposed exile, and two chefs who left town as supporting players and came back as stars. We salute two chefs of restaurants that focused on open flames, and one restaurant owner who succeeded despite them.

Together, they helped make 2016 an exceptional year in dining. Congratulations, all, and thanks for feeding us so extraordinarily well.

CHEF OF THE YEAR

Noah Sandoval, Oriole

2016 was a remarkable year for new restaurants in Chicago, and yet Noah Sandoval’s Oriole, a hidden charmer with a check-that-map-again location, stood out, and most of the credit belongs to chef/owner Sandoval himself. Loosening the reins ever so slightly on the gluten-free restrictions he imposed on his food at Senza (which earned a Michelin star in its short life), Sandoval created masterful, 15-plus course menus that offered boundless color, complexity and creativity. He’d dazzle you with oysters in jamon iberico consomme, and inject textural surprise into sea urchin nigiri. He replaced and re-formatted dishes so frequently that one could dine twice in the same month and experience substantially different menus. Now that it’s spring, can we hope for the return of last year’s lardo-wrapped langoustine with white asparagus? We’ll see.

PASTRY CHEF OF THE YEAR

Jennifer Jones Enyart, Dos Urban Cantina

The level of talent among Chicago’s pastry chefs is astonishing; there may not be a better city for dessert in the country. In a field brimming with worthy candidates, our nod goes to Jennifer Jones Enyart and her marvelous, Mexican-inspired desserts. Her coconut tres leches cake, studded with meringue shards, has become a signature sweet (along with her insanely rich chocolate cake), but don’t overlook newer efforts, including carrot flan (with ginger-citrus cream and candied pecans), a fascinating banana-leaf sundae and a spring-has-sprung composition of rhubarb, angel food cake and anise-flavored bizcochito. Fun fact: Jones Enyart won this award five years ago for her exemplary work at Topolobampo. Ordinarily we don’t like repeating ourselves, but her knockout desserts are hard to resist.

2829 W. Armitage Ave., 773-661-6452, www.dosurbancantina.com

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT

Jean Joho, Everest

Jean Joho has been running the kitchen at Everest for 30 years, which, not coincidentally, is how long this Loop restaurant has existed. That’s a remarkable tenure under any circumstances, but Joho has kept his restaurant at or near the top of Chicago’s fine-dining world the entire time, offering cuisine as lofty as Everest’s 40th-floor setting. He has never been one for two-bite courses, arguing that true appreciation of any dish requires time. Though his food is generally considered French, Joho prefers "Alsatian-influenced," and he embraced Midwest products like no chef before him, developing relationships with area producers and suppliers before "farm to table" was a phrase. His legacy extends beyond Everest; Joho was one of the creative minds behind Corner Bakery and has his hand in a number of other Lettuce Entertain You concepts, including Intro and M Burger (and we’re still nostalgic for the late, great Brasserie Jo). A 65-year-old chef who never stops looking for ways to improve, Joho talks as though he’s ready for another 30 years. Which is just fine with us.

440 S. LaSalle St., 40th Floor, 312-663-8920, www.everestrestaurant.com

HOMECOMING QUEEN AND KING

Karen Urie Shields and John B. Shields, Smyth and The Loyalist

John B. Shields was sous-chef under Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz; Karen Urie Shields was pastry sous-chef under Gale Gand and pastry sous and pastry chef under Charlie Trotter. Given the chance to open Trotter’s new restaurant in Las Vegas, the pair instead headed east, opened a restaurant in Chilhowie, Va., and garnered more accolades than they knew what to do with. And then they returned to Chicago, opened Smyth (which earned four stars right out of the gate) and The Loyalist (funky and casual, home to one of Chicago’s best double-patty burgers) and basically confirmed every nice thing that ever had been said about them. Chicago’s dining scene is much better for their presence.

177 N. Ada St., Smyth 773-913-3773, The Loyalist: 773-913-3774, www.smythandtheloyalist.com

MASTERS OF THE FLAME

John Manion, El Che Bar, and Andrew Brochu, Roister

One of the things that made Chicago dining hot in 2016 was the rise of open-hearth cooking; flames were dancing everywhere, from Lena Brava (West Town) to The Promontory (Hyde Park) to Maple & Ash (Gold Coast). We give special note to Andrew Brochu of Roister, and John Manion of El Che Bar. At Roister, Brochu deftly combines flavors you wouldn’t expect to see together (pickled cabbage and roasted pineapple, for instance), as well as a more-expected Japanese wagyu steak (albeit slathered in togarashi-dusted sea urchin butter — hardly your dad’s porterhouse). Manion’s take is more Argentine-accented and protein-forward, offering several steaks, grilled short ribs with chimichurri and sensational coal-roasted oysters. Their approaches differ, but the results are equally sensational, establishing Brochu and Manion among Chicago’s least-extinguished (sorry) chefs.

Roister, 951 W. Fulton Market, www.roisterrestaurant.com

El Che Bar, 845 W. Washington Blvd., 312-265-1130, www.elchebarchicago.com

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