Chicago is one of those cities that takes their food seriously. From their bar-food favorites (deep dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches, Chicago-style hot dogs) to their high-end chefs (Charlie Trotter, Grant Achatz, Rick Bayless), you can rest assured that you will eat well in the city by the lake. For our anniversary, we decided to head there for a long weekend. Sure, we took in the sights…but we also took in plenty of good food. In this post we’re focusing on our high-end highlights.
We’d been planning our trip to Chicago long before Top Chef Masters hit the air, but we found ourselves drawn in by Rick Bayless as he made his way through the competition. How could you not be? The guy’s culinary skills are only matched by his Midwestern nice-guy demeanor. We decided we wanted to try his cooking for ourselves, but we had been warned that waits of an hour or more are not unusual at Frontera Grill and the newly-opened Xoco. So we played it safe and made a reservation for lunch at Topolobampo, Bayless’s more upscale dining room that sits between the other two and is the only one of the three that isn’t first-come, first-served.
The lobby shared by Topolo and Frontera is colorful and full of energy, but we soon found ourselves being ushered back into a more sedate space. Darker walls are decorated with colorful Mexican paintings and dia de los muertos dolls line shelves between two rooms. Tablecloths and candles in glass molcajetes say ‘fine dining’ – but not too loudly. So does the complimentary serving of guacamole and housemade tortilla chips that puts the usual chips and salsa to shame. We celebrated the fact that we were on vacation with a pair of cocktails, one of which blended Ayinger Ur-Weisse with passion fruit, fresh lime and a flower tea. For our meal we started with a shared plate of the tart and silky Fronteriza ceviche before moving onto entrees of cochinita pibil (similar to one of the dishes from Bayless’ Top Chef Masters win) and duck in mole de olla. The suckling pig was savory and crisp, but Elizabeth’s duck dish blew us away and left us scraping the plate with our complimentary tortillas. What impressed us most about the experience was the fact that each of the dishes we enjoyed was so much more than the sum of its parts…you really had to get a bit of everything onto your fork for the full experience. And we were happy to have the chance to do just that.
Some restaurants run like a family reunion. Blackbird glides along on rails, as stark white and calmly efficient as a Scandinavian surgical team. Looking over the menu in the bustling, modern space we realized ordering the tasting menu was our best path. The creativity of dishes jumped off the page, each competing for our attention. We took the pressure off ourselvs and let the kitchen decide for us.
Soon a parade of flavors descended from the kitchen, starting with a light taste of sturgeon belly with trout roe, chioggia beets, and crunchy marcona almonds. All the flavors scooped into one delicate forkful set the tone for the rest of the meal: exquisite ingredients with a studied contrast in flavors, textures and balance. One of my most anticipated dishes – the pistachio gazpacho with ahi, watermelon, sea beans and cocoa – packed a double surprise punch. Precisely diced pink watermelon and tuna intermingled as twins in appearance and contrasts in flavors while a strategic pinch of quality cocoa powder gave the cool soup an earthy gut. Chef Sheerin (who has spent time in the kitchens of both wd~50 and Jean Georges – this guy does not F around) even made foie gras, a dish that has grown commonplace on upscale menus, taste exciting and surprising. I was dubious when I first saw the preparation on the menu. Served alongside peaches, sweet corn, and sliced crispy okra? Was this an overwonked study in irony that the high end dish can slum it on a plate with lowly okra and fruit? How naive of me. The preparation was nothing short of a revelation: the decadent silky foie gras (served torchon) sang while the acidity of soft peach, the crunch of scattered corn, and crisp, almost bitter okra played Supremes to the foie gras’ Diana Ross. It was utter rapture in one bite.
Craft cocktails (if you can find them) and classic Italian after the jump.
The Violet Hour
The Violet Hour, in keeping with the grand trend in tipsy cities across the nation, is a hidden gem that prides itself on hand-crafted cocktails and an adult atmosphere. The Violet Hour does not take reservations but rather than shoving everyone into line, not chic at all, they will take your cell number and call when space is available. Hidden behind a wall of slick graffiti, I would not have expected to enter the world of Alice in Wonderland’s cocktail party. The space is soaring and deep, made more intimate with draping velvet curtains, the highest back chairs I’ve ever seen and a cozy violet hue lit by candles and a dimmer switch.
Once inside, we slid onto barstools and let BartenderMike, our magician for the evening, cast his spell. While Bailey and Mike selected from the lounge’s extensive drink menu, I opted to go omakase and hopped down a rabbit hole featuring mescal, a smoky smooth tequila cousin. Mike especially enjoyed his New Carre’ with Death’s Door White Whiskey, vermouth, pisco biondi Italia and bitters. Bailey’s springlike Dogwood Manhattan, starring Woodford reserve, white peach bitters, amaro nonino and vermouth was a hit all around as we passed glasses like a shell game. Round after round called our name – who but Odysseus could resist this menu? – and ditched our original plans to go to a blues club in favor of holding on to our bar seats for the rest of the night. Despite valiant efforts to stay afloat – including an order of fried peanut butter and banana bites topped with honey and bacon – our thinned blood won out. We crawled out of the rabbit hole and stumbled home for the night.
“Simple food, prepared by hand with local ingredients and served with local wines.” That’s the motto of chef Tony Priolo and owner Ciro Longobardo at Piccolo Sogno, a year-old restaurant focusing on regional and seasonal Italian cooking. Our host for the weekend, Bailey, had been eager to check out “Little Dream” for a while and she knew that we would be only too happy to join her in trying their pastas and other specialties. From the beginning, we were impressed by the warm and luxurious decor. The stage was set for a memorable meal.
We started with a plate of prosciutto di Parma and figs – and that’s it. The two rich tastes were allowed to complement each other without any interference, and the result was an appetizer that was at once spare in its presentation and decadent in its flavors. Elizabeth was drawn to the “straw and hay” pasta, but first she put her education from Outstanding in the Field to use and asked if the veal in the ragu was humanely raised. The question caught our server off guard, but she returned from the kitchen with an assurance that it was. The rich, meaty flavor of the veal in the ragu suggested that the answer was no mere blow-off…this wasn’t your typically pale and fork-tender CAFO-calf meat. The evening’s risotto special wasn’t quite as impressive, but we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re overly critical of restaurant risottos because we’re so accustomed to our own preparation at home. We closed out dinner with a perfectly-prepared espresso, our senses and our stomachs sated by the experience.