One of our favorite things about being back in the Midwest is our close proximity to one of America’s greatest cities. Arguably, it’s the second most urban, vibrant, and food centric-although I’m sure some West Coasters would disagree and I’d probably just simply say it is in the top 5. In any case, we have been to Chicago twice in 2011, once in the frigid temperatures of January, and just recently over the long labor day weekend. This post will by no means cover all the places we visited, nor all the discoveries we’ve made on these two visits. To set our Chicago agenda, we compiled huge lists from friends and websites like Eater and Serious Eats that report recent happenings in the food world.
I’ll begin with two places which are probably on the top of the list for any serious, adventurous, intellectual “foodie” traveling to the windy city. Grant Achatz’s highly acclaimed Alinea and his new cocktail lounge, The Aviary. (We didn’t get into NEXT, so if you were hoping to read about that, you can stop here.) We were actually lucky to get into Alinea (getting called on the drive up after being on the wait list) on our January trip. After learning about his new cocktail lounge, it was a major priority on our recent visit.
Walking into the restaurant, for someone who appreciates style, is in itself rewarding: subtle, crisp lighting, steely colors, and crisp accents. Contemporary, and in every sense-beautiful. We didn’t have our Canon EOS Rebel T3i camera at the time, so I’ll apologize for the somewhat uninteresting photos. There is really too much to say, and write about in such a large post. It almost deserves its own complete blog post, although in some ways reading too much about this experience would in my view partially spoil the fun for someone planning to go…so, I will be brief. It is probably one of my top 3 meals of all time. The combination of artistic presentation and complex flavors is essentially unmatched to anything we’ve had in a US restaurant to date. I think one of our favorite things about Alinea was the interactive nature of the service and the playfulness of each dish. They challenge you, yet, your mouth is always happy at the end.
A few of the highlights below: On the left the second level of an “Orb” that contained Rabbit parfait, rillette (in picture), and consomme. On the right, the final dish, when Grant himself came to a table prepped with cups and bowls, and painted this wonderful mixture of liquid nitrogen frozen chocolate, nougats, and chewy morsels of caramel and malted balls.
Wine pairings are a challenge for a Sommelier at a restaurant like this. In some cases too many complex flavors and unique textures can make pairings difficult. We had some really outstanding glasses of wine with our meal. The highlight being the Sherry we had with the dessert: Toto Albala Don PX Convento, Montilla-Morilles-Spain-1959. It is always humbling to drink something made well before your birth. This glass of sherry was fascinating in itself, surprisingly smoky and tart, and really needed no accompaniment. We are both excited about Grant Achatz’s new restaurant called NEXT, where one needs tickets and each meal is themed on a different time period or culture.
1723 North Halsted
Chicago, Illinois 60614
The Aviary is one of the most remarkable cocktail lounges we’ve ever been in, and probably now is considered Chicago’s and perhaps even America’s best. [Although we also loved Violet Hour which we attended on our first trip, and I’ll mention more about that below]. The way Aviary works is that you either need a reservation, which you obtain by emailing prior to the day and randomly get selected into time slots, or you show up at opening and hope you get in, on a first come first serve basis. We showed up at 5:45 pm on a Sat night, eager and ready, and we were in by 6:30. Again, Grant knows design, and it is no different at The Aviary. Excellent lighting, minimalist lines, and no distractions. The Aviary has no bar, so to speak, just a caged in kitchen that you can peer into and watch the drinks parade by as they are each carefully constructed.
Robin ordered the Prix Fix menu which comes with 3 drinks from a large selection of choices, I ordered al a carte. I started with a Hurricane: which came non-traditionally in a carafe beautiful layered into 7 distinct colors. Robin began with the Margarita: agave, fesno chili, tequila. The chili was frozen into the ice cubes.
Top: Aviary’s kitchen. Bottom Left: Small bites available as trios.
Bottom Right: Peach: maple syrup, angostura, white port, wheat whiskey
Our next cocktails were the Peach (above) and the In the Rocks. The “In the Rocks” includes demerara, angostura, and bourbon, but trapped into an ice sphere that you break- tableside in the glass to release the cocktail. While this was certainly fun, the cocktail itself wasn’t much more interesting on the palette than a many other whiskey drinks I’ve had in other places. The final round consisted of myself having a ”Truffle”: compari, sweet vermouth, gin, infused w/ truffle, (Below right) and Robin drinking a Cold Chocolate: ecuadorian chocolate, fernet, and wheat bourbon. The Cold Chocolate was kept chilled with solid, yet creamy ice cream cubes. We spent a total of 3.5 hours in The Aviary, enjoying each sip, people watching, chatting with our servers. We didn’t even touch the menu…there are vast selections of cocktails to chose from, and part of the fun was watching to see what your neighbor is opening or interacting with. The small bites are just as delectable and carefully planned as the food at Alinea. Any trips to Chicago in our near future will certainly include The Aviary.
953-955 W Fulton St
Chicago, IL 60607
Brunch spots in Chicago
When out of town, one of our favorite things to do is to sleep in and then head to a long brunch. Chicago continues to impress us in this area, with new brunch spots opening each time we visit. On our first trip we tried Longman and Eagle. A modernest inn-like atmosphere with a wide array of brunch options and interesting alcohol options for those looking to get an early kick to their day. The menu makes it hard to decide with options like: Sunny Side Duck Egg Hash with Duck Confit, Nichols Farm Spring Onions, Yukon Gold Potato, Black Truffle Vinaigrette…or the Tete de Cochon, Brioche, Arugula, Pickled Red Onion, Sunny Side Duck Egg, 5 Spice Mustard Sauce. The bloody mary’s come with a shot of PBR, and are really nice and spicy like they should be!
2657 N. Kedzie Ave.
Chicago IL, 60647
Jam: A definite highlight on our recent trip was this newer spot, highlighted by Food&Wine and Eater, called Jam. Jam is the creation of Jeffrey Mauro, formerly of Charlie Trotter’s and brings another exciting brunch menu to Chicago. We were in awe at the choices, and were disappointed that we couldn’t try everything. We started with the Malted Custard French Toast with macerated rhubarb, lime leaf cream, and pink peppercorn (below). The bites of french toast are gooey and melt in mouth, and have a wonderful softness. The pink peppercorn adds a complexity with the lime leaf cream that I certainly never would have paired with my french toast, but it works very well. Robin ordered the Savory Buckwheat Crepes with braised lamb, Asian pear, hazelnut-sage glaze and I the Steak & Eggs with pan roasted skirt steak, poached eggs, rice grits, smoked tomato sauce, truffled pecorino. The crepes were rich and yet maintained a simple rustic quality. The highlight of my steak dish was the rice grits which came silky and cheesy, and the smoked tomato sauce. They change the menu often, so it will be fun to visit Jam again on our next trip.
937 N. Damen Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
We also visited Morso in Lincoln park and had a biscuits and gravy dish with quail and a dish that included carrot cake French toast. We both gobbled up our breakfast, and were tempted to order the “Scotch Egg” but with a full day of meals ahead we opted out, which ended up being a wise decision.
Of course by now, most everyone knows about the legendary Hot Doug’s, hot dog shop in Chicago. A ridiculously rich, over-the-top foodie destination for any visitor. The line is long, wrapping around the red brick building, and when we went in frigid January, I was barely able to stand and wait…being that it was my second time and the line seems to never cease. It totally worth the chilly feet, nose, and core. The menu at Hot Doug’s is massive, and no matter what you’ll want more than 2 dogs between a couple. They are so rich and well adorned, it makes it difficult to narrow down a choice. We chose the “Mountain Man” with a sausage made from elk, antelope, venison, and buffalo topped with blackberry mustard and goat cheese (right below), and a special of the day, which was a curry pork sausage, w/ madras curry mayo, and cranberry cinnamon chevre. We could have pushed ourselves to have a third dog, but we felt quite satisfied and happy after these treats.
3324 North California,
Chicago, IL 60618
On our second trip up we told ourselves that we were going to try to hit a few of the cheaper Asian restaurants because we’d been craving good fresh korean, japanese, and vietnemese food. There are a few places in St. Louis, but the selection in Chicago is outstanding. One of the best we visited on our recent trip was a place called Belly Shack, from the Chef/Owner Bill Kim of Urban Belly, another highly touted Chicago restaurant. Belly Shack is tucked back and buried below an L-stop. It only serves a few simple items, and then some daily specials. Belly Shack is sort of a “fast food” Asian mix. We had the Korean tacos, the “Belly Dog” with kimchi salsa and egg noodles (below left), and the watermelon salad (below right). The hot dog reminded me of those delicious Vancouver Japadog creations, although not quite at that level. Both of us agreed that the watermelon salad was incredible, with 2 types of watermelon, vermicelli noodles, lime, cilantro, crispy bits of fried tempura batter, cherry tomatoes, and sesame seeds. We hope to visit Kim’s Urban Belly on the next trip.
1912 N. Western Ave.
Chicago, IL 60647
Del Seoul, in Lincoln Park, was another Asian spot on our list, featuring Korean tacos, and korean street food. We went for a “pre-dinner” snack before a later visit to try Avec. Robin ordered 3 different types of tacos including the kalbi (beef), shrimp, and fish. I ordered my all time favorite, the Bibimbap, which was served in a scorching hot stone bowl. The sambal fish taco was the highlight: tempura fish, pickled red onions, napa slaw, and sambal aioli. My bimbimbap was refreshing and had a quite spicy kochujiang sauce-like I enjoy.
2568 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60614
A visit to Chicago is never complete without a slice of deep dish pizza, a visit to some local coffee shops, and a taste from their growing list of brew pubs. Here are a few of those which we visited, some of them are so great we stopped by on both trips to Chicago. After attending a Neuroscience meeting in Chicago in 2008, and being instructed by Janis Martin of Tanuki in Portland to go to Pequods and “nowhere else” for deep dish, I have learned that it is truly the best and most unique of the deep dish pizza available in Chicago. The outside crust is hardened caramelized cheese, and the crust below, while thick, isn’t as dense as its counterparts across town. To compare the different types of deep dish in Chicago might be unfair, but I’m onboard with the “Pequods being the best” mantra.
A trip to Cafe Intellegenisa is a must for any trip to Chicago, especially for any coffee lover. The roasted beans themselves are among the greatest in the United States, and the shear variety of styles of coffee makes for a fun visit. For example, they pour Chemex and the traditional pour over, have cuppings events, use siphon brewing (VacPot), french press, and serve awesome espresso drinks. They also sell a wonderful selection of single origin beans and late harvest varieties. My personal favorite being the Late Harvest Finca Matalapa, Los Immortales, El Salvador.
I promised I’d mention our other favorite cocktail lounge in Chicago. We don’t have a pictures, because they don’t let you take any (see above right). Violet Hour can be difficult to find because there is no signage, and the door is camouflaged by a graffiti wall. The inside is dimly lit with only candles, and the light from the bar. You are seated in leathery blue chairs with 6 foot high backs, and the cocktails list is extensive. The bourbon/rye section was our favorite, but they will stir or shake anything to your taste.
On the local beer scene we continue to love the beer coming our of Goose Island. Even though their recent sale to In-Bev has us and the Chicago locales worried, we hear that they will retain creative autonomy at the local pubs in Chicago, which is great news because the list they offer continues to shine. On this last trip we had the “Honest Sour Stout” beer with a complexity of tart smoky chocolate flavors that we both wish they bottled. Robin brought back a few bottles of other sours to cellar which we hope to open in a year or so.
On Saturday during the day we looked for a place where I could watch my team lose, and yet we could enjoy some good pub grub, and local brew. The brewery called Revolution brewery has a distinct fist logo, and serves up about 15 draughts. I was particularly impressed with their IPA, as it was very sessionable, yet loaded with a citrus hoppiness I love. We also visited the Fountainhead with our cousin-a local, and while not a brew pub they carry an impressive brew list. On this night we were generously treated to a bottle of De Cam Oude Lambiek ‘10 by my cousin Patrick, definitely one of the better lambics we’ve had in recent memory.
We still have barely cracked the surface of what Chicago’s food, drink, and art scene has to offer. For those wondering, yes we have checked out Publican and Avec, both were good, but we didn’t have full meals there, and would like to try them again before we do any online commentary about them. The next time, we hope to have NEXT tickets in hand, and we will be certain to head to “Ruxbin” which has nearly everyone in buzzing.