Tim Flores and Genie Kwon had no plans to open a fine dining restaurant when they launched Kasama in July 2020. Their brainchild was a cafe with morning pastries baked by Kwon and a casual menu with sandwiches and lumpia from Flores in the afternoon. Now, nearly two years later, the couple own the only Michelin Star Filipino Restaurant in America and Kasama’s 13-course tasting menu – which includes lumpia – has brought joy to diners, especially within the Filipino community. It was not Flores’ intention, but he will agree.
“So many people cried at dinner,” Flores says. “That was never my goal, the goal was just to make great food that I grew up eating, not to help Filipino Americans get in touch with their roots.”
Before Michelin broke the news to him on Tuesday, Flores was resigned to the idea that Kasama and his $185 tasting menu would be the “most expensive gourmet bib” in the country. The Bib Gourmand list is mostly reserved for restaurants offering good value for money, but also sometimes serves as a consolation prize for those deemed unworthy of a star. But Kasama was acclaimed. It is one of Eater’s Best New Restaurants in America. And when Grandstand review Louisa Chu rated Kasama in December, she hailed it as one of the best restaurants in the world. Michelin apparently agrees.
Kasama began serving its tasting menu five months ago to support the restaurant through the difficulties of the COVID pandemic. Flores and Kwon felt they could serve fewer guests more expensive meals with fewer servers in order to combat the labor situation in the restaurant industry.
“It’s a bit bittersweet,” Kwon says. “It was something that came out of our response to the COVID outbreak, but at the same time we wanted to provide the best experience possible, and it was a deliberate choice that we made.”
Beyond Kasama, the Tire Guide added three Chicago restaurants, including Esme and Galit, both in Lincoln Park. Claudia in Bucktown also joins the one-star club.
Michelin hosted a celebratory party later Tuesday at Oriole, the Michelin-starred restaurant where Flores and Kwon worked before opening Kasama.
“I had never been to a Michelin event,” says Flores. “I was always the person left in the restaurant.”
Esme’s Jenner Tomaska and Katrina Bravo got the news from Michelin while tending to their crying baby. “It kind of keeps you humble,” Bravo says.
Esme opened as a restaurant with an ambitious tasting menu that sought to blend art and food. But the delta variant that hit in late summer posed a new challenge that hurt staff morale. The award could help restore that and give workers something tangible to put on their CV: the experience of working in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
For years, Tomaska worked hard at Next Restaurant, where the menu and decor rotated with the seasons. This confused Michelin inspectors, who didn’t know how to assess a restaurant that presented a totally different experience every few months. Michelin therefore ignored Next until 2019, when it became a one-star fixture.
“Everyone likes to be rewarded for their hard work,” says Tomaska. “If it generates income, that’s fantastic, and I’m grateful for that. But you know, I spent almost a decade at Next and every year we were like the Cubs, what is that? ‘We will have them next year?’
Bravo congratulated Galit and Claudia, the other first-time winners. The two chefs, Zach Engel and Trevor Teich, provided Bravo and Tomaska with support and hospitality during the opening of Esme. The couple recall a memorable Galit meal during a particularly difficult time when Engel sent the check with the words “no bill, suckas”. Tomaska was so moved that he kept the bill in his wallet as a reminder of Engel’s kindness and determination to eventually return the favor.
Engel discovered the Galit star via a phone call while interviewing a potential employee. The news left him less focused for the rest of the interview: “I wasn’t really expecting that phone call,” says Engel. “Everyone is a little in disbelief, we’re really happy…it feels good.”
For Teich, the star proves right. He hosted pop-ups for years while waiting for a chance to open a restaurant. When plans got bogged down, he moved to Las Vegas but returned more determined to find a home for Claudia’s playful tasting menu, based on his memories of growing up on the North Shore.
While the winners rejoiced, there were a few omissions from the star and Bib Gourmand lists. Here is a breakdown of some other restaurants that deserved recognition.
This Ravenswood spot is not a fusion restaurant. Instead, it draws inspiration from Filipino and Cuban dishes to offer a unique menu that satisfies every visit. Selections include Cuban sandwiches, adobo chicken wings, and delicious pancit. There really is no other place like Bayan Ko in America, and the small dining room is regularly crowded, so the owners wish they had more space to serve their loyal customers. Bayan Ko deserves to be put on the Bib Gourmand list.
Michelin continues to award Schwa, West Town’s experimental tasting menu restaurant, which currently has one star. One of its alumni, Norman Fenton, moved to Uptown where he runs the kitchen of Brass Heart, an intimate tasting menu restaurant that continues to innovate. The dishes are magnificent and the meals, described as “post-modern American”, are exciting. Brass Heart is worthy of a star.
The same way Kasama showcased Filipino cuisine in a sleek, modern setting, Dave Park and Jennifer Tran changed perceptions surrounding Korean cuisine with Jeong at West Town. But Michelin continues to ignore this power. Of course, the Bib Gourmand Perilla and Mott St selections represent different kinds of Korean flavor in their own way, but Jeong’s precision and creativity would make him stand out in any city and worthy of a star.
Otto Phan may have alienated some locals before opening his omakase sushi restaurant in Logan Square by criticizing the Midwestern sushi scene, but was he wrong? Phan didn’t open Chicago’s first sushi restaurant, but four years later, Kyoten’s approach is unmatched. Phan channels most of its resources into obtaining Japan’s finest fish, wonderful grains of rice, and other premium ingredients. The dining room may be spartan compared to other chic spaces in town, but Phan’s Fish stands out. Kyoten is worthy of a star.
Fried Chicken Pizza Ice Cream and Kimski
The name Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream is silly, but there’s something refreshing about knowing exactly what to expect. Too few people outside of Chicago have heard of the city’s typical thin crust pizza. And lately, no pizzeria has consistently cooked quality pie after pie like PFIC in Bridgeport. Add Chef Won Kim’s fried chicken and Dana Saller Cree’s ice cream bars, and it’s a Chicago classic.
An argument could be made for Chief Kim in his other project, Kimski. Beyond the Michelin-starred bait of gourmet breweries Band of Bohemia and Moody Tongue, inspectors don’t quite understand how Chicago’s breweries fit into its foodie scene. Kimski’s Polish-Korean cuisine is not only a love letter to two of Chicago’s proudest immigrant groups, but the food is also a great example of how pub fare can excel, in especially with a quality beer from Maria’s Community Bar selection list. PFIC and Kimski are worthy of the Bib Gourmand selections.
While the Bib Gourmand list features 10 of Chicago’s 55 Mexican restaurants, taquerias don’t get as much attention. Taqueria Chingon is one of the few dignified places that inspectors have snubbed. Chefs Sotero Gallegos, Oliver Poilevey and Marcos Ascencio show wonderful discipline with staples like pork al pastor. But they also display a willingness to try new things with rotating specialties like a Greek taco with merguez sausages and a shrimp tempura version. Michelin missed the mark here.