Best Bite: Appellation is the full-service restaurant attached to Pastoral’s relatively new Andersonville location, and was among those offering brunch this year. I’m usually more of a savory brunch person, so the duck confit hash with delicata squash, carrots, and poached eggs was just what I wanted. The cheesy grits at the bottom of the bowl were also a welcome switch from the typical potato base. However, the dish that left the very best impression on me was actually the pancakes. I’m not sure whether it was the dense texture of the cakes or the orange butter on top, but they were excellent.
Other notes: The baked eggs in squash cream were another creative take on a classic savory dish, especially because you could load up each slice of baguette with a pile of prosciutto, arugula, and the creamy eggs. I was so full at the end of the meal that I didn’t even browse the cheese and artisanal food selection for which Pastoral is most known – that will have to merit its own separate visit.
Best Bite: De Quay’s combination of Dutch and Indonesian cuisines has intrigued me ever since they opened, so Restaurant Week felt like the right time to try it out. Both entrée options had a lot going on – the marinated, lightly charred chicken skewers came with spicy rice, mild pickles, and two sauces; the pan-seared shrimp were joined by mushroom dumplings, green bean-pickled pepper salad, and a rich panang beurre blanc. They both showcased a broad range of influences, but still came together well.
Other notes: The brabant roll was the first-course winner, a decadent appetizer that brought together flaky pastry, smoky pork, dried fruit, and mustard sauce. And while I was jolted at first by the neon green buttercream atop the cocoa cake, it worked nicely with the curried pineapple. We also had the warm housemade stroopwafel with a generous helping of vanilla ice cream on the side, and while humble in appearance, we agreed it was far superior to any stroopwafel we’d ever had.
The details:de Quay, 2470 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Best Bite: Table, Donkey & Stick specializes in alpine cuisine, which seems especially appropriate for winter. The main course was a beautifully cooked duck breast in a bowl full of comforting accompaniments: buttered cabbage, squash, and nutty rice. And how pretty is that ring of sticky-sweet glaze?
Other notes: The green lentils were on point in both seasoning and texture, with major umami from the smoked mushrooms, and the decision to present the latkes as wedges to be dunked in aioli was a seriously genius one. I also swooned over the silky duck liver mousse with chili powder and sweet preserves, spread onto piping-hot baguette for the ultimate appetizer bite. I was very impressed by the whole experience, including attentive service throughout the meal. I’m a little ashamed that it took me so long to visit a restaurant of this caliber in my own neighborhood, but I’ll just chalk it up as another Restaurant Week success story.
Best Bite: It’s hard to outdo the chorizo-stuffed medjool dates: they’re not only Avec’s most popular menu item, but are also among the most iconic dishes in all of Chicago. The sweet-spicy-smoky combination of dates, bacon, chorizo, and tomato sauce is just as unstoppable now as when I wrote about it in this blog’s very first week.
Other notes: The Restaurant Week menu only had one option per course, but because it was a “greatest hits” approach, we weren’t complaining. The second course was an outstandingly balanced salad of shredded brussels sprouts, chiles, salty cheese, and raisins; the third a full pan of paella with head-on shrimp, chicken thigh, and tangerine aioli. Avec’s desserts tend to harness simplicity for maximum impact – these nutter butter squares, for example – and this evening’s creamy chocolate mousse with espresso crumble was no exception.
Best Bite: Bar Siena is the sister restaurant to Siena Tavern, one of my go-to recommendations, so booking their Restaurant Week brunch was a no-brainer. We were originally disappointed that the caramelized waffle was no longer available as a first course, but the remaining option turned out to be the greatest revelation of the day. Cherry almond granola suddenly became much more exciting when layered with chia seed-flecked yogurt and topped with a scoop of cherry gelato. The parfait was a bright and creative start to the meal.
Other notes: The main course had everything you need in a classic breakfast sandwich: fluffy eggs, smoky bacon, spicy sausage, and a melted slice of American cheese, all on a soft bun. And I loved looking up at the tangle of white-lit branches that stretched across the ceiling from the living tree in the middle of the restaurant.
The details:Bar Siena, 832 W. Randolph St., Chicago.
Best Bite: This was my first time dining at Ema, featuring Top Chef alum CJ Jacobson’s Californian take on Mediterranean cuisine. I enjoyed every course, but the standout bite came at dessert. A humble slice of not-too-sweet honey pie came alive with blistered grilled grapes, sesame seeds, and thick whipped cream. I’ll definitely be saving room for a full slice on my next visit.
Other notes: My second-course grain salad won the prize for texture, with crunchy pistachios, cucumbers, and fried shallots swirled into lentils and rice. The menu itself was an excellent value: two generous mezzes (the garlicky spread studded with green olives and toasted almonds was my favorite) plus three smaller course was well worth the four-course price.
To wrap up the 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 2016. View year-end recaps from 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.
Best overall brunch dish
Unsurprisingly, Lula Café is showing up on my year-end list for the fourth year in a row. Of all the brunch specials that I’ve sampled there, this was one of the best, and certainly the heartiest. Earthy mushroom, sweet delicata squash, cheesy noodles, and a lacy-edged fried egg – I could have stayed tucked into that bowl all morning.
Best use of avocado
I’m always looking for great renditions of avocado toast, so I had to try Siena Tavern’s version during a late-summer patio brunch. Shards of prosciutto and thin fans of watermelon radish made it both tasty and beautiful.
Best innovation at a second location
I’d been to the original Bang Bang Pie in Logan Square multiple times, but hadn’t yet tried the slightly different menu in the newer Ravenswood location. The flaky biscuit with butter and jam was just as excellent, and the grits with smoky greens were a nice surprise.
Most surprising favorite at a much-anticipated restaurant
Giant is Jason Vincent’s first project since closing his beloved Nightwood restaurant, so it was met with great anticipation from the Chicago food community. I knew I’d be wowed by some innovative smaller plates, which I was, but didn’t expect my favorite dish to be enormous, gleefully sticky barbecue ribs.
Best (and richest) noodles
Another one of the biggest openings this year was Stephanie Izard’s take on Chinese food, the third in her goat restaurant trilogy (after Girl & the Goat and Little Goat). We tried a lot of things during our (very late) dinner there, but these noodles stood out for their texture and the explosion of flavors that went along with them.
The hulking size of this pork shank at Beatrix in River North belied its gentle fall flavors, with cider glaze, tender apples, and two kinds of potatoes.
Comfort food with the best view
Cindy’s has my favorite view in the city, so it’s an easy pick for friends visiting from out of town (Dublin, in the case of this particular evening). Before heading outside to enjoy the skyline, we shared these satisfying meatballs, served in a rich sauce with generous dollops of ricotta.
Best miniature meal
On my first visit to the new Logan Square location of Furious Spoon, I wasn’t quite hungry enough to commit to a full bowl of their signature ramen (plus, it was pretty warm outside). This poké bowl was just right, in both size and ratio of fish to rice to scallions to sauce.
Purest expression of a single vegetable
My dining companion and I agreed that this roasted, seaweed-dusted pseudo-steak was the broccoliest broccoli we’ve ever eaten. Parachute won me over long ago with its bing bread, so I wasn’t surprised to see such a unique take on an usually humble vegtable.
Most indulgent workplace snack
Whenever The Fat Shallot food truck happens to be outside my workplace (which isn’t often these days), I often can’t resist running outside just for these piping hot fries drenched in creamy, spicy sauce.
I’d been meaning to check out this California-inspired spot in Bucktown since it opened, especially for the drinks. I already loved that it combined three of my favorite cocktail ingredients – amaro, cinnamon, and whiskey – but the wheel of blood orange put it into picturesque territory.
Menu special I most wish was permanent
Parson’s Chicken & Fish is most known for its negroni slushy, but a Dark & Stormy version is offered occasionally, among other rotating specials throughout the summer. The dark rum-ginger-lime concoction is so good that I really wish they’d consider serving it all year long.
As more and more dining destinations open in Logan Square, the hidden back garden patio at El Cid II is still a go-to for a no-frills meal. A friend first recommended this tangy tamarind margarita years ago, and I’ve never strayed since.
Best birthday beverage
Spilt Milk opened on my actual birthday, so it seemed like a sign to check it out for a celebratory cocktail. I was already a julep fan, and the concord grape juice made for a lovely spin on a classic.
Most refreshing summer cocktail
After a long walk on the 606 trail with my friend on a warm evening, we landed on the Osteria Langhe patio, ready for something fizzy and Italian. We got both in this ombré beverage that had the right balance of citrus and bitterness.
Best warm-up on a snowy evening
I ordered this while catching up with a friend during one of this winter’s snowfalls, and it couldn’t have been a better choice. The deep spiced aroma alone was enough to warm me up.
Most beautiful (and tastiest) cake
Anyone who follows Bon Vivant Cakes on Instagram knows how jaw-droppingly gorgeous these cakes are, and I was fortunate enough to see one that a friend ordered for her birthday. It tasted as good as it looked, down to the dripped chocolate ganache and buttercream frosting made from an adored indulgence: cookie butter.
Most memorable frozen treat
Shake Shack is old news for my East Coast friends, but it’s still relatively new for Chicago. Whenever I take visitors to see the many of attractions of the Chicago Athletic Association hotel (see Cindy’s above), Shake Shack is usually the final stop. One of their Chicago-specific concretes has donut and coffee beans whirled into vanilla custard with marshmallow sauce to really tie together the decadence.
Best use of summer fruit
The pies at modern soda fountain Spinning J have been on my list for a while. After much deliberation, I went with a slice of the blueberry, which kept things simple enough to let the fruit really shine.
Most symbolic bite
I bought this cake pop during my lunch break the day of Game 6 of the World Series. I told myself I’d wait to eat it until the Cubs won that night. They won both that night and the next, earning their first championship in 108 years. I’d like to think my cake pop promise gave Chicago a little extra luck.
Thanks for reading in 2016, and looking forward to another delicious year!
Why it’s a Best Bite: It’s no secret that Fat Rice is a favorite of mine for both dinner and brunch, so I was excited to check out their take on a Macanese bakery. In July, the Fat Rice team opened this daytime pastelaria along with an adjacent, red-lit cocktail lounge called The Ladies’ Room that’s reservations-only.
I couldn’t help but love the bakery’s decor. From the pastel-painted storefront to the vibrant birdcage light fixtures, color was everywhere – including the pastries. Cracking open my ube bun revealed a yam filling in an almost shocking shade of royal purple. Its texture contrasted nicely with the crispy coconut that formed a golden crown on top.
Anywhere else in the city, you’d expect that a breakfast pastry modeled after a Chicago-style hot dog would just be an overdone novelty, the stuff of downtown tourist traps. But here, they totally pulled it off. The poppy seeds, onion, celery salt, and bright green relish with chunks of Vienna beef hot dog brought me straight to the ballpark, just with a more elaborate bun.
I added the mochi almost as an afterthought, since I tend to enjoy it in all forms, and am grateful I did. The stretchy rice-flour exterior was flecked with coconut and then stuffed with peanut, black sesame, and other crunchy seeds. Sweet and salty doesn’t even cover it – this was borderline addictive.
The details:The Bakery at Fat Rice, 2951 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago.
Why it’s a Best Bite: I was out of the country when Boka Restaurant Group’s splashy new steakhouse opened in the Google building, so since my return I’d been looking for an occasion to go. Chicago has more than its fair share of steak-leaning restaurants, but this one quickly rose above the rest in recent memory, mostly because of the attention to detail in both food and service.
I began with the Benevolent Philathropist, a pink peppercorn-flecked drink that blended three of my favorite cocktail ingredients: amaro, whiskey, and egg white. It was so good that I broke my usual “try something different” rule and ordered a second one with my steak.
The chilled salmon tartare made a refreshing starter before the heavier dishes to come. It was almost reminiscent of a deconstructed bagel and lox, only with the purest, coolest cucumber liquid at the bottom. And then, the steak. My 8-ounce filet was cooked to a beautiful medium rare, and while it could have stood on its own without any sauces, I’m so glad it didn’t. The steak sauce and bearnaise – both excellent – came standard, and we also added caramelized onion and anchovy garlic butter. That melted butter was basically liquid umami, so it made the meat even more satisfying.
The dessert I liked best surprised me, because key lime pie isn’t something I normally seek out, but we were convinced by our server that it was a version worth trying. Thin layers of lime curd and graham cracker bolstered a luscious, lime zest-spiked white chocolate mousse that just worked so well – and the toasted meringue and gold leaf didn’t hurt either. The Swift & Sons spin on a Cracker Jack was also top-notch, a salty-sweet bomb of peanut butter, popcorn, and caramel.
And lest we forego a more chocolate-focused finish, a charming wooden trolley was wheeled over to our table with all manner of confections: bars, trifles, mousses, tiramisus. We finally decided on a Butterfinger-inspired treat, and it did not disappoint. It also somehow tied together the old-school, wood-and-gold space in the most whimsical way.
I’ve spent the last month catching up on Chicago dining and drinking destinations! These were the standouts for brunch, dinner, and beverages.
3 Arts Club Café
I have to begin with what must be the most breathtaking dining setting I’ve seen in Chicago lately (and from the looks of Instagram, I’m not alone in this assessment). The glitzy Gold Coast café has sweeping windows, brick arches, skylights above towering trees, glittering chandeliers, and a centerpiece fountain that we were more than happy to be seated right alongside. This plate of burrata, tomatoes, and garlic toast was just as elegant as the atmosphere.
Brunch at this newcomer to Logan Boulevard had a decidedly cozier vibe, and these creatively boozy pancakes fit right in. Orange caramel, angostura whipped cream, and bourbon-soaked cherries atop a pile of flapjacks added up to a version of an Old Fashioned almost as good as the cocktail itself.
Latinicity opened on the third floor of the Block 37 complex late last year, and its Sunday brunch is an especially good value: $25 gets you unlimited food from eight different stations, plus two brunch beverages from the bar. Our group divided and conquered, each visiting a different counter and bringing back as many offerings as we could, and our strategy produced a delicious variety of results. A few standouts: oysters on the half shell, tacos al pastor, smoked fish dip, and savory lomo saltado with fried rice.
I’ll admit that I made this March reservation at Monteverde while I was still in Dublin, because I was that excited to try Sarah Grueneberg’s much-anticipated pasta dishes. The cannelloni was exactly the caliber I was expecting: the hardy rolls of pasta stood up to the proscuitto and lamb, enhanced by sage, balsamic, and crunchy romanesco – everyone’s favorite veggie fractal. I was also impressed by the sunchoke crostini, complete with creamy ricotta and lots of black truffle. We also happened to be dining there the same night as Chicago’s mayor (and heard even he had to make a reservation).
Band of Bohemia
A self-described “culinary brewpub,” Band of Bohemia brews food-friendly beers exclusively to pair with its dishes. Our group’s meal here was meant to make up for missing Chicago Restaurant Week, and it was a more than sufficient substitute. These coffee-roasted, coconut-scented heirloom carrots packed explosive flavor, with lots of contrast from chai, licorice, and sesame. The steak and the foie gras were also major hits at our table. Beer-wise, I was particularly a fan of the beet-thyme and apple-tarragon brews.
A few friends graciously threw me a welcome back celebration at this Spanish eatery in the West Loop. Of all the dishes we sampled, these grilled potatoes with heaps of wild mushrooms, toasted grains, and a sunny-side egg were the most savory and satisfying. The baked alaska with “Welcome Home” in script on the plate was also a lovely touch.
I’d heard great things about the drinks at Andersonville’s new upscale Mexican cantina. This was quite possibly the smokiest cocktail I’ve ever had, and I was completely captivated by the cherry and maple notes in every sip. It’s now only available as a large-format shareable drink, so I’d recommend getting a few others on board if you visit.
Mezcaleria Las Flores
This cocktail was in the same smoky family, but served across town at Mezcaleria Las Flores in Logan Square. This new flower-shop-turned-mezcal-bar has gotten a lot of attention for its concept, and I’m glad to see such an oft-overlooked spirit getting some time on the spotlight. This cocktail was balanced and citrusy, with punchy amaro and a colorful sprinkle of hibiscus on top. Bonus: we were also able to order snacks from adjacent Johnny’s Grill – just ask for a menu.
I had to include this beloved Chicago treat, because having one my first week back at work made me truly feel like I was home again. Portillo’s chocolate cake shakes are basically an institution, and are as simple as they sound – chocolate cake whirred into a milkshake, with chunks of icing and cake crumbs hiding at the bottom of the cup. It’s decadent and a little absurd, but it’s also pure Chicago.