These Chicago Hotspots Are Using Fire in Exciting and Delicious Ways

By Elaine Glusac | December 5, 2018 | Food & Drink

From flaming cocktails to hearth-fired food, these must-try spots are upping the ante with red-hot offerings.

The blazing oven at Bucktown newcomer Etta. (Photo: Rachel Bires)

Temperatures might be dipping, but Chicagoans aren’t hibernating. On the contrary, revelers are warming up with fiery food and drink, ranging from scorching sips at cocktail champion Arbella (112 W. Grand Ave.)—where mixologists toss flaming elixirs from shaker to shaker—to charismatic chow at Bucktown newcomer Etta (1840 W. North Ave.), where fire in every form marks dishes from char-crusted branzino to smoky eggplant.

“Cooking with fire makes everything taste better,” says Etta chef Danny Grant. “It adds a layer of complexity to something simple like roast chicken.”

Margherita pizza at Pacific Standard Time (Photo: Brian Willette)

A mercurial element, fire both compels and challenges pyro chefs. At Pacific Standard Time (141 W. Erie St.), executive chef/co-owner Erling Wu-Bower calls the attraction “carnal” while wood-firing pitas, meats and even broccoli. John Manion developed a love of fired foods in Brazil as a child, a devotion rekindled in his South American asado-style steakhouse El Che Bar (845 W. Washington Blvd.). “Cooking over live fire is very much like sailing,” he says. “You may feel as though you are totally in control, but really you’re at the whim of nature.”

Chef Rick Bayless cooks with fire at all of his restaurants, but exclusively with fire at his Baja-channeling Leña Brava (900 W. Randolph St.), featuring a 22-foot hearth with up to seven fires next to a wood-burning oven where chefs have even perfected tart-baking.

“We’re so committed to the idea of an all live-fire kitchen that if we have to do something rote like boiling a pot of water,” Bayless says, “we first have to build a fire.”

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