Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: Gumbo, étoufée, and po’boy, Heaven on Seven

Bayou etoufee, Heaven on Seven

Bayou étoufee (special) with crawfish, crab, and shrimp

Heaven on Seven has been one of my Chicago dining blind spots: a classic that I’ve somehow never managed to visit. It’s a boisterous Cajun restaurant tucked away on the seventh floor of a Loop high-rise (you even have to sign-in with a charming doorman before getting on the elevator). We visited the week of Fat Tuesday, so Mardi Gras decorations were in high gear and we were both given a string of beads upon arrival, but I have a feeling it still feels like a party all year around.

Heaven on Seven interior

Restaurant interior, with Mardi Gras decorations covering a wall of hot sauces

One of the many specials was a bayou étoufée with three kinds of seafood: crab, crawfish, and shrimp. The trio was a great sampling of shellfish flavor, stewed together in a rich gravy and served over rice. We also shared the catfish po’boy, a mammoth sandwich loaded with catfish, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and honey-jalapeño dressing. What really made it was the way the bread was toasted with butter and herbs.

Fried catfish po'boy, Heaven on Seven

Fried catfish po’boy with coleslaw

All entrees come with gumbo, soup, or salad, but it’s easy to see why pretty much everyone gets the gumbo. Chicken, andouille sausage, and the smoky depth of a black roux came together for a thick and satisfying soup – with a warm jalapeño corn muffin to round it out with sweetness.

Gumbo, Heaven on Seven

Gumbo with a jalapeño-cheddar corn muffin

The details: Heaven on Seven, 111 N. Wabash, Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

2017 in Review: 20 more of Chicago’s Best Bites

Like last year, I’ve chosen 20 more Chicago dishes and drinks – some old favorites, some new discoveries – that I didn’t have the chance to blog about in 2017. View year-end recaps from 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Burrata, Forbidden Root

Burrata with strawberries, malt crumble, pink peppercorns, mint, basil, and toast, Forbidden Root

BRUNCH:

Best spin on a egg

Scotch egg, River Roast

Scotch egg with pickled mustard seed, River Roast

We ordered this appetizer almost as an afterthought, but all the textures – tiny pickled mustard seeds, crunchy battered sausage, and a perfectly runny egg – made it memorable. It was even better accompanied by live blues performers on the riverside patio on a warm September day.

Most unique breakfast sandwich

Torta with chorizo verde, Quiote

Torta with chorizo verde, green chile aioli, and xni pek on a lobster roll, Quiote

The chorizo verde is now a mainstay of Quiote’s dinner menu, but over the summer it showed up as an egg-topped breakfast sausage. The meat itself was so flavorful that I could have easily eaten it on its own, but having it safely ensconced in a soft lobster roll made it more delicious.

Most indulgent dim sum

Baonuts with chocolate, Duck Duck Goat

Baonuts, Duck Duck Goat

At the end of a dim sum feast at Stephanie Izard’s Chinese eatery, we couldn’t help but order this donut-bao hybrid. The crackly, not-too-sweet topping gave way to rich chocolate filling; I did not regret ordering it.

MAINS:

Most nutrient-packed bowl

Cadillac curry bowl, Left Coast

Cadillac curry bowl with brown rice, garnet yams, green beans, madras curry sauce, pickled sultanas, green onion, basil, mint, and toasted coconut, Left Coast

Left Coast’s menu is brimming with healthy, veggie-centric options, but I’ve stuck with this curry bowl every time. From the green beans and yams all the way to the toasted coconut, every component comes together well.

Tried-and-true pizza

'Nduja pizza, Coalfire

‘Nduja pizza with mozzarella, ​sauce, ​berkshire ​sausage, ​‘nduja-infused ​whipped ​ricotta, ​cherry ​bomb ​pepper, Coalfire

If anyone mentions Coalfire, ‘nduja (a spicy, spreadable sausage) is the first pizza I recommend (and so does most of the Chicago food media). Sausage comes in two forms: one is sliced thin, and the other is whipped into the ricotta mounds. Fresh from the coal-burning oven, it’s pretty much a foolproof pick.

Most comforting beer pairing

CB&J, Hopleaf

CB&J with house-made cashew butter, fig jam, and raclette cheese on sourdough, pan-fried, with Stilton mac-&-cheese and house-made potato chips, Hopleaf

Hopleaf in Andersonville is world-renowned for its encyclopedic beer list, but they definitely don’t cut corners on the food. The CB&J is an especially comprehensive pairing, with three kinds of comfort in one dish: a cross between grilled cheese and PB&J (raclette cheese in addition to cashew butter and fig jam), crunchy chips, and mac & cheese (made cheffier with Stilton). I’d trust it to soak up any brew.

Best fancy burger

Appalachian Spring burger, Butcher & the Burger

Appalachian Spring burger with pesto, caramelized ramps, tomato, mushroom, and truffle Swiss, Butcher & the Burger

You know it’s really spring when ramps start appearing on every menu, and Butcher & the Burger was no exception. I’m usually overwhelmed by all their options, so ordering this special was a no-brainer. It was a winning combination of truffle-pesto-onion goodness.

Best not-so-fancy burger

Cheeseburger and chocolate shake, Small Cheval

Cheeseburger and chocolate shake with Fernet, Small Cheval

Small Cheval keeps it simple with a slightly more portable version of the famous Au Cheval burger, complete with griddled patties, American cheese, and house-made pickled. I also added fernet to my chocolate shake for an extra licorice-y kick.

SIDES AND SNACKS:

Summeriest vegetable dish

Heirloom tomato with burrata and lime granita, Cold Storage

Heirloom tomato with burrata and lime granita, Cold Storage

We snacked at seafood bar Cold Storage as a prelude to dinner at adjacent Swift & Sons, and this dish was a perfect pairing with our oysters. The sweet corn and cool lime granita set off the juicy tomato and soft burrata beautifully.

Best use of goat

Goat liver mousse, Girl & the Goat

Goat liver mousse with picked veggies and crumpets, Girl & the Goat

My rule when dining at Girl & the Goat is to always order one goat dish (and one bread, and at least one from each of the standard menu sections…but that’s another story). The mousse was almost mesmerizing in its silkiness atop warm crumpets, with a nice variety of pickled vegetables as palate cleansers.

Most addictive snack

Gochugaru chile popcorn, Forbidden Root

Gochugaru chile popcorn with coconut oil, Forbidden Root

Along with the strawberry-and-pistachio-studded burrata dish at the top of this post, this popcorn stole the show at West Town brewery Forbidden Root. Maybe it was the coconut oil, maybe it was the specific type of chiles (the same ones as the Korean hot sauce that’s used in bibimbap and other dishes); either way, this popcorn was outrageously good.

Best hybrid appetizer

Buffalo chicken waffle cone, Brickhouse Tavern

Buffalo chicken waffle cone with buffalo chicken bites, bleu cheese crumbles, chives, and ranch dip, Brickhouse Tavern

The second-floor terrace of Brickhouse Tavern overlooks Park at Wrigley (the new development next to Wrigley Field), so it was the perfect perch after a July Cubs game. This was the most creative (and successful) buffalo chicken format I’ve seen yet.

Concession stand stunner

Pulled pork nachos, Lillie's Q at United Center

Pulled pork nachos topped with house made beans, pulled pork, smoky BBQ sauce, pickled jalapenos, sour cream, and chopped green onions, Lillie’s Q at United Center (Sections 206 and 330)

Most of Chicago’s stadium food has been getting an upgrade in recent years, and I was especially pleased to find a Lillie’s Q outpost at a recent Blackhawks game. The pulled pork nachos put those standard cheese cups to shame, with plenty of pulled pork, sauce, green onions, and even BBQ beans.

DRINKS:

Best atmosphere-matching cocktail

Coconut negroni, Boleo

Coconut negroni with coconut-washed kappa pisco, campari, and sweet vermouth, Boleo

Boleo occupies a colorful rooftop space on the 15th floor of the Kimpton Gray hotel. This subtly coconut negroni was an ideal sipper as I gazed at blue sky and tall buildings (and wished I could take home the gorgeous glass).

Closest drink to a vacation

Pina colada, Mahalo

Pina colada, Mahalo

Mahalo is the closest you can come to a Hawaiian escape without leaving Wicker Park. This piña colada was a refreshing treat on the surfboard-adorned rooftop.

Best boozy milkshake

Peach cobbler shake with rum, The Roost

Peach Dreams shake with vanilla milkshake, homemade peach cobbler, and white rum, The Roost

As much as we love the fried chicken at The Roost (a very popular catering pop-up at the office), our group may have come to brunch at the Irving Park Road location primarily for this shake. I’ve had the peach cobbler as a side before, but it really is dreamy when whirled into vanilla ice cream and spiked with rum.

SWEETS:

Sweetest surprise

Orange blossom cheesecake, Beatnik

Orange blossom cheesecake with candied pistachios, shredded phyllo dough, honey syrup, blackberries, and dried apricots, Beatnik

Beatnik was the most Instagrammable restaurant interior of 2017, with its bold fabrics and exquisite chandeliers. Food-wise, while we expected all the globally inspired cocktails and snacks to be on point, this dessert was what shocked our entire party. The cake itself was delicate and citrus-y, and the shredded phyllo worked even better than a crust.

Most nostalgic dessert

Lunchbox pie, Bang Bang Pie Shop

Lunchbox pie with peanut butter pastry cream, strawberry-blueberry jam, candied peanuts, and potato chips, Bang Bang Pie Shop

Anything PB&J is a winner in my book, so I was thrilled to see this pie special. The potato chips were a nice final touch on an already nostalgic slice.

Most novel treat

S'mores and red velvet churros, Bodega

S’mores and red velvet churros, La Bodega at Barrio

River North newcomer Barrio also opened a neighboring upscale bodega that specializes in fancy churros. I chose the red velvet and s’mores varieties, both warmed and drizzled in chocolate, and let’s just say there will be more churro stops in my future.

The $0 three-peat

Talenti cinnamon peach biscuit gelato, free in Millennium Park

Talenti cinnamon peach biscuit gelato, free in Millennium Park

Talenti ran a free gelato promotion at three movie nights in Millennium Park this summer, and (somewhat coincidentally) those were the three I attended. This flavor ended up in my hands the first time, and I sought it out thereafter because the cinnamon and peach were so perfect for summer. And the price of $0 made it especially satisfying!

Thanks for reading in 2017, and looking forward to another delicious year!

The details: River Roast, 315 N. LaSalle St.; Quiote, 2456 N. California Ave.; Duck Duck Goat, 857 W. Fulton Market; Left Coast, 717 N. Wells; Coalfire, 3707 N. Southport Ave.; Butcher & the Burger, 1021 W. Armitage Ave.; Hopleaf, 5148 N. Clark St.; Small Cheval, 1732 N. Milwaukee Ave.; Girl & the Goat, 809 W. Randolph St.; Cold Storage, 1000 W. Fulton Market; Forbidden Root, 1746 W. Chicago Ave.; Brickhouse Tavern, 3647 N. Clark St.; Lillie’s Q (300-Level) at United Center (Sections 206 and 330), 1901 W. Madison St.; Boleo, 122 W. Monroe St.; Mahalo, 1501 N. Milwaukee Ave.; The Roost, 1467 W. Irving Park Rd.; Beatnik, 1604 W. Chicago Ave.; Bang Bang Pie Shop, 2051 N. California Ave.; La Bodega at Barrio, 65 W. Kinzie St.; all Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: Chocolate cinnamon roll & gas station sandwich, City Mouse

Chocolate cinnamon roll with espresso and marshmallow

Chocolate cinnamon roll with espresso and marshmallow

City Mouse is the all-day eatery inside the West Loop’s still-new Ace Hotel. It’s helmed by Jason Vincent, currently of Giant and formerly of Nightwood. I’ve missed Nightwood’s brunch since they closed 2 years ago, so I was hoping City Mouse would be somewhat of a reincarnation.

We had to start with this cinnamon roll, which combined all the best dessert flavors (espresso, chocolate, caramel, and marshmallow) into a caramelized morning masterpiece. I would easily go back for that alone.

Gas station sandwich with hashbrown, egg, cheese, grape jelly, and sausage, served with Michigan-grown fruit

Gas station sandwich with hashbrown, egg, cheese, grape jelly, and sausage, served with Michigan-grown fruit

I already knew the gas station breakfast sandwich was emerging as an early favorite from the brunch menu, so I had to try it for myself. And sure enough, I was delighted to find that the hashbrowns bore a striking resemblance to the ones served with Nightwood’s legendary bagel sandwich – just in a flatter form. The humble grape jelly did its job in pulling the meat, egg, and cheese together, and even the fruit on the side was an especially pleasant mix of apricots, strawberries, and blueberries. We sat on the sprawling glass-walled patio, whose fire pits will surely make it a hit into the cooler months as well.

Glass-walled patio, with a view of Google across the street

Glass-walled patio, with a view of Google across the street

The details: City Mouse at Ace Hotel Chicago, 311 N. Morgan St., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: Loaded baked potato gnocchi, chicken nuggets & more, Split-Rail

Loaded baked potato gnocchi with bacon, sour cream, Hook's 5-year cheddar, and crispy potato skin

Loaded baked potato gnocchi with bacon, sour cream, Hook’s 5-year cheddar, and crispy potato skin

I had the chance to talk to Chef Zoë Schor a few years about a female chef-focused Restaurant Week menu and have always been impressed by her food, so when she left Ada Street to open her own restaurant, I knew it would be one to watch. Split-Rail finally opened in June, putting a fresh spin on nostalgic foods of her childhood.

The loaded baked potato gnocchi was a no-brainer, and my favorite take on baked potato since Parachute’s bing bread. It hits the bacon, cheese, chive, and sour cream notes, but the texture of the gnocchi itself – crispy edges, soft interior – is what makes the dish.

Linguine and clams with egg yolk linguine, briny clams, charred leek, and uni butter

Linguine and clams with egg yolk linguine, briny clams, charred leek, and uni butter

I’m glad my dining companions pushed for the linguine and clams, because it ended up being my other favorite dish. It was briny, spicy, lemony, and buttery (uni butter, no less!), with plenty of clams swirled into the rich, eggy pasta.

And then there were the chicken nuggets. The breading was audibly crunchy and perfectly salted, with a grainy honey mustard sauce that had a heavy hit of citrus for extra brightness.

Chicken nuggets with honey-mustard

Chicken nuggets with honey-mustard

The Breakers cocktail with Gamle Ode Dill aquavit, apricot shrub, black pepper, mace, and basil

The Breakers cocktail with Gamle Ode Dill aquavit, apricot shrub, black pepper, mace, and basil

My cocktail, The Breakers, was also a pleasant surprise. The apricot and basil put it in standard summer territory, but adding in the dill aquavit and black pepper made it exceedingly savory. It worked, though, especially with the mustard and chicken nuggets at the start of the meal.

The details: Split-Rail, 2500 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: The Hop Mess waffles & deviled eggs, Rhyme or Reason

The Hop Mess waffles, Rhyme or Reason

The Hop Mess with Revolution Sun Crusher wheat ale-infused waffles, brown sugar-candied bacon, Sun Crusher-infused maple syrup, and fresh berries

While I was sad to see the Wicker Park location of Jerry’s close last year (the endless sandwich menu overwhelmed in a delightful way), I was happy to try out its replacement. Rhyme or Reason is a gastropub that draws inspiration from retro ’70s themes, and its sprawling front patio was especially inviting on a sunny Saturday morning.

I decided to try The Hop Mess, brand new to the menu as a month-long collaboration with Revolution Brewing. Both the waffle batter and the maple syrup were (very) heavily infused with Revolution Brewing’s Sun Crusher, a new seasonal wheat ale that was already a favorite of mine from earlier in the summer. Together with blueberries, candied bacon, and whipped cream, the hoppy malted waffles really worked (especially with a cup of coffee for balance).

Deviled eggs with espresso-bacon jam, Rhyme or Reason

Deviled eggs with espresso-bacon jam

My friend and I also snacked on these deviled eggs before entrees arrived. A sticky smear of espresso-bacon jam on top of each creamy egg set the sweet-and-savory brunch tone. And while the patio was great, I’d easily return in cooler weather to challenge someone to a game of giant Connect Four in the lounge area next to the colorful bar.

Colorful bar, Rhyme or Reason

Colorful bar with hand-shaped light fixtures

The details: Rhyme or Reason, 1938 W. Division St., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: Queso fundido with longaniza, lamb albondiga & more, Mi Tocaya Antojería

Spicy peach-lime frozen margarita, Mi Tocaya

Spicy peach-lime frozen margarita

Chef Diana Davila recently took over a prime spot on Logan Boulevard to cook her family’s soulful Mexican recipes. Mi Tocaya Antojería is the kind of cozy-yet-exciting restaurant that everyone should want in their neighborhood, so I feel very lucky to have it in mine. Each dish blended the familiar and the unexpected, starting with a vibrant peach-lime frozen margarita that was on special the night I visited. It was fruity at first, but the garnish packed some intense heat, a slow build with every citrusy sip.

Guisado de nopalitos, Mi Tocaya

Guisado de nopalitos with fried cheese curds

I’ve eaten nopalitos (cactus) a few times, but hadn’t ever found it noteworthy until this dish. It was tender and meaty, with just enough heat from the chiles, and the fried cheese curds were a creative and decadent touch.

The queso fundido was a great example of a familiar appetizer that’s nearly ubiquitous on standard Mexican menus, but is rarely memorable and often a little too greasy. Mi Tocaya’s version wasn’t greasy at all, in large part because the typical chorizo was replaced by longaniza, a sweet Filipino sausage that I’ve sought out ever since a friend introduced me to it right after college. The photo doesn’t do it justice, but the char on the sausage and gooey cheese, mixed together with poblano peppers and spooned onto tortillas, was definitely something special.

Longaniza, rajas, and queso fundido, Mi Tocaya

Longaniza, rajas, and queso fundido

Lamb albondiga, Mi Tocaya

Lamb albondiga with mint, carrot, and egg

The lamb alboniga (meatball) was another dish that benefited from the influence of a separate ethnic cuisine. This time, it was North African-inspired, with the mint, carrot, and hard-boiled egg that are often seen in a tagine (like this one). It all came together well. And I had to try at least one of the tacos, deciding to go vegetarian after reading rave reviews. As with the cactus, I didn’t miss the meat at all, with textural contrast from the squash, the crema, the swipe of black beans, and even the fried pepper in the middle.

I already can’t wait until my next visit; the lengua (tongue) with peanut butter and frothy nitro horchata are at the top of my list, preferably from a seat on the boulevard-facing patio.

Milpa taco, Mi Tocaya

Milpa taco with charred butternut squash and chile, beans, and corn crema

The details: Mi Tocaya Antojeria, 2800 W. Logan Blvd., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: Focaccia French toast & eggs in purgatory, Coda di Volpe

Focaccia french toast, Coda di Volpe

Focaccia french toast with Nutella whipped cream, candied orange syrup, and buffalo butter

Why it’s a Best Bite: I tend to adore Italian-influenced brunch, so this newcomer to the Southport Corridor seemed worthy of a visit. Coda di Volpe excelled equally in the sweet and savory realms, which is not an easy feat. On the sweet side, the focaccia French toast was dense and decadent in the best way. Each substantial slice of focaccia was topped with buffalo’s milk butter and a scoop of Nutella whipped cream, plus candied orange syrup and hazelnuts on the plate as accompaniments. It was a fantastic (and rich) combination of flavors.

Eggs in purgatory and classic bellini, Coda di Volpe

Eggs in Purgatory with baked eggs, spicy tomato, provola, polenta cake, and fennel sausage; and classic bellini with white peach and prosecco

On the savory side, the eggs in purgatory were sizzling in both spiciness and temperature. I loved every part of this dish, from the polenta to the sausage to the baked eggs bathed in tomato sauce. To quench the heat, I sipped a refreshing bellini of prosecco and white peach.

Our table also shared an order of bomboloni with three dipping sauces. The dough itself was slightly less sweet, so the orange, grape, and chocolate sauces were more necesssary for balance.

Bomboloni, Coda di Volpe

Bomboloni with candied orange syrup, chocolate sauce, and concord grape jam

The details: Coda di Volpe, 3335 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.

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Chicago, Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Dinner at Celeste

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Shake & Fries, Celeste

Shake & Fries with french fry panna cotta, nutella mousse, and fry crumbles

Best Bite: I’d only been to Celeste for drinks in their rooftop garden, but hadn’t yet tried the food. The “Shake & Fries” dessert was probably the most intriguing and bizarre item on any of my destinations’ menus this year, described as a French fry panna cotta with Nutella mousse and fry crumbles. But, surprise! The sweet and salty worked very well, just like dipping fries into a chocolate Frosty. The parfait was a little precarious to eat at first, given the mountain of fry pieces on top, but it was worth it once you were able to dig down for a bite of all three components together.

Eggplant involtini, Celeste

Eggplant involtini with eggplant, ricotta, goat, & pecorino cheese, seasonal veggies, tomato sauce, and crostini

Other notes: My other favorite dish was the eggplant involtini, mostly because of the garlicky marinara and the three kinds of cheese inside the rolled eggplant slices.The bulgogi lamb chops were also a nice starter, with lots of glazed veggies on the side.

Bulgogi lamb chops, Celeste

Bulgogi lamb chops with honey glazed romanesco and baby carrots

The details: Celeste, 111 W. Hubbard St., Chicago.

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Chicago, Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Dinner at ZED451

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Butterscotch bread pudding, ZED451

Butterscotch bread pudding with housemade marshmallow

Best Bite: This was my first time back at ZED451 since Restaurant Week 2014. The all-you-can-eat strategy for salads and meats still made it Restaurant Week’s best value, but interestingly, dessert is what stole the show for me on this latest visit. A housemade marshmallow disc was bruléed on top of the butterscotch bread pudding in the most exceptional way, fully melted inside but still holding its crisp exterior.

Harvest table, ZED451

Salads, cheeses, charcuterie, and more from the harvest table

Other notes: Just as before, the harvest table was overwhelming. I especially enjoyed the veggie salads, from beets to carrots to brussels sprouts, and also the array of cheeses with fig and apricot accompaniments. All three meats served tableside – sirloin steak, glazed salmon, and Moroccan-spiced chicken – were even better than I remembered. My next visit may have to be during brunch, which is also unlimited and around the same Restaurant Week price point.

Char-grilled sirloin, ZED451

Char-grilled sirloin, served tableside with Moroccan chicken and Szechuan-glazed salmon

The details: ZED451, 739 N. Clark St., Chicago.

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Chicago, Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Dinner at Gene & Georgetti

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Broiled filet mignon, Gene & Georgetti

Broiled filet mignon with sautéed spinach

Best Bite: Gene & Georgetti proudly boasts the title of Chicago’s oldest steakhouse. It’s the kind of place that doesn’t seem to have changed very much from when it opened in 1941. Not surprisingly, the steak was the star of the meal. The filet had the right amount of well-seasoned crust, and the garlicky spinach on the side kept with the no-frills theme.

Crab cake, Gene & Georgetti

Housemade crab cake with remoulade

Other notes: The crab cake was classically prepared, with zesty remoulade and old-school garnishes. And as our group wrapped up the meal with tiramisu and coffee, you could almost hear the decades of Chicago business conversations echoing off the dark wood paneling.

Tiramisu and coffee, Gene & Georgetti

Tiramisu and coffee

The details: Gene & Georgetti, 500 N. Franklin St., Chicago.

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