Last week I was in Chicago for some training for work. My wife was able to come along for a few days, and we were really lucky to have nice warm weather and the chance to eat some great food:
Nellcote – The dining room is heavily stylized in a borderline gaudy French/New Orleans/flamboyant kind of way. Think plenty of chandeliers, elaborate wallpapers, and French bistro chairs, mixed with glossy white/orange bar stools, pop artwork, and maybe a sofa or two. You wouldn’t expect them to have a mill in the basement that’s used to grind their own flour, but they do. A plate of tiny accoutrements came out first (included with the prix fixe deal). It included some breads (ok), cheeses (fine), poached figs (good), prosciutto (good, obviously). House-made apple jam and butter were fine, but the lemon curd dip was excellent. I ordered the pain perdu and my wife got the quiche lorraine. Again, the plates were highly stylized. My dish was three parallel rectangular blocks of fried bread, each with a hefty dollop of creme chantilly on top, plus a bunch of diced apples and some maple syrup. There wasn’t enough syrup and the whole thing was actually rather bland. I used the remnants of the lemon curd to liven up the dish. My wife’s quiche was a super-thick individual pie, but it too was nothing to get excited about. Overall: neat space, mediocre food.
Giordano’s – “Chicago Classic” stuffed pizza, with pepperoni, green peppers, onions, and mushrooms. Ridiculously thick and cheesy, decadent and delicious.
Vanille Patisserie (French Market) – Two stuffed croissants: spinach/ricotta and sweet cream. The latter was the clear winner here, but both were good thanks to the excellent flaky pastry.
Wishbone – Our training course instructor took us to this Southern soul food joint. The cornbread to start off with had good flavor, but was a bit dense. The beef brisket in my sandwich was superbly tender, but I kept having to add more and more of their dark red bbq sauce. I didn’t care much for the vinegary coleslaw.
Avec - A small precious wooden cube of a restaurant. Yes, the stools were uncomfortable and it was crowded and loud, but the food was top-notch. Of course I had to get their signature dish – chorizo-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates with roasted piquillo pepper-tomato sauce. These were incredible, with an impeccable balance of flavors. The sausage stuffing was amazing. We also got the “deluxe” focaccia, another of their standard items. This was a large flatbread, kind of smoky and charred, filled with a soft creamy mixture of cheeses (taleggio, ricotta), plus truffle oil and herbs. It was excellent. Next, marinated chicken thighs, with rice, squash, and apples. Again, very good, if not quite as exciting, but by this point we were getting a little full. And finally, warm burrata with grilled eggplant, smoked salt, and lobster mushrooms. This was not the way we would have chosen to end the meal, and we were really too full to eat much of it. It was very good, but I wouldn’t order it again. Still, overall it was an excellent dinner.
Frontera Grill – This topped Avec. It was really stellar. The chips and guacamole were simply exquisite. My wife and I both thought that the chips were the best we’d had, and the two small accompanying salsas were also nice. This appetizer is expensive at almost $10, but it was a lot of food for just the two of us. The menu at Frontera is large and it was very very difficult for me to make a selection. I went with the “street food trio”, which included potosinas, tlacoyos, and sopes. The dish came out as three very artfully plated appetizer-sized portions. I can’t recall all of the details, but they were all delicious. My wife ordered the pork tacos al carbon. This came with some outstanding tortillas. The meat was bathed in a rich sauce that kept me coming back for more. We also shared a side order of the stewed mushrooms, which come served in a tiny cast iron skillet. These were creamy, spicy, and delicious. Wow! – a great meal.
Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba – not my choice, but it was good. I went with a large group from my training course, so we ordered a lot (!) of tapas. Some of them were very good, like the steak with bleu cheese and homemade potato chips, the bacon-wrapped dates (again!!) with apples, the empanadas, the grilled octopus with roasted tomatoes, the tomato sauce/goat cheese dip (served with good crusty bread). Others were not amazing but competently prepared: a potato/onion omelette/quiche-like thing, fried calamari, shrimp with lemon and garlic, short ribs and mashed potatoes. The croquetas were too cheesy; they reminded me of a fried mozzarella stick.
Glazed and Infused – some of the best donuts I’ve ever had. The maple-bacon long john (seemingly a new standard in the world of gourmet donuts) was great. It was rivalled by a perfect old-fashioned pumpkin spice donut. Finally, the salted caramel was also very good, but was covered in an overwhelming amount of chopped peanuts.
Au Cheval – Another small, crowded restaurant, but with a very different feel than Avec. This place was super dark and richly appointed – sort of a decadent swanky diner that features an unapologetically hedonistic menu. It almost felt like a bar first, restaurant second, but the quality of the meal left little doubt that this place takes food preparation seriously. I went with the fried bologna sandwich (pictured above, and which I had seen gloriously depicted on a magazine cover as the “best sandwich in Chicago”). Did I want a fried egg piled on there too? I demurred. Nonetheless, the sandwich was huge – of course – and awesome. Salty, fatty, cheesy, messy. It was a very memorable sandwich, and one I’d like to eat often if it could be made about 1000 times healthier. I also got to try the fried chicken, which incorporated honey to achieve a sesame-chicken kind of effect, and some grilled tomatoes, which had a nice sprinkling of coarse salt on top.
Grange Hall Burger Bar – Whereas Au Cheval captured the current fad for rich heavy food, Grange Hall aimed squarely for the bearded hipster vibe. This place was all about vintage finds, rustic wooden tables, heavily tarnished silverware, flannel plaid shirts, cool music, and “down home, old fashioned” food and friendliness. I mean, they’ve got hay bales out front to cordon off the small outdoor dining area. Both restaurants had a studied and deliberate aesthetic, to be sure, but, thankfully, in both cases the food really worked. I ordered a burger with white cheddar and caramelized onions. Oddly, it came piled high with plenty of raw red onion as well (easily removed). While not over-the-top great, it was spot on – juicy and very satisfying. The fries were awesome – super extra crispy thin wedges of russet potatoes. I also tried the onion rings, which were astonishingly light and feathery. The desserts were certainly tempting (homemade pies and ice cream), but not so good. The pie crusts were way too thick. My slice of pumpkin pie was slightly chunky – clearly not made from canned pumpkin. That’s a nice touch, but it didn’t make for a better pie.
I feel so fortunate to have experienced an awesome week of eating like a king in Chicago, both with my wife and with the nice folks I met in my training course. I did a lot of research on the culinary scene of the city before I went, and my high hopes were fully realized. Whatever pounds I packed on during the week were definitely worth it!