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.
I wasn’t able to participate in Chicago Restaurant Week last year (I was still living in Dublin), so I wasn’t sure how involved I’d be in 2017 after a year off. But I looked through the menus, started to plan a few meals – using my trusted spreadsheet, as always – and before I knew it, I was up to nine reservations. Oops. So much for taking it easy!
But, as I’ve mentioned in the past, it’s really about the people. Sharing food with the people I love is one of the greatest joys of my life, so I’m grateful for an annual excuse to do a lot of that in a short amount of time.
Looking forward to sharing highlights from this year’s meals!
Best Bite: I’ve wanted to try the seasonal American cuisine at TWO during Restaurant Week for years now, so it made a beyond pleasant ending to this year’s dining festivities. A seemingly unassuming cheesecake dessert was the meal’s biggest surprise. The graham cracker crust, honeyed filling, and juicy blueberries brought back vivid memories of the cheesecake bars of my childhood – but just more refined and even more delicious. I also appreciated the complexity of the crouton garnish on the cauliflower bisque, a platform for bacon, mushrooms, and ricotta to stay afloat in the silky soup.
Other notes: The diamond-marked pork chop came in two thick, generous slices, and pairing it with roasted potatoes and mustard-pepper sauce felt thoroughly Midwestern (in a good way, of course). We also enjoyed a bottle of wine with our meal, an 2010 Italian white blend from Luna del Feldi that was specially discounted as part of the Restaurant Week menu. There was something about the natural-hued interior that made the room feel warm and familiar.
Best Bite: Between this meal and my previous visit, I’ve really fallen in love with Tanta’s take on Peruvian cuisine. An eclectic set of culinary influences – Japanese, Spanish, Chinese, French – make for an irresistible mix of flavors and ingredients. The classic mahi mahi cebiche was bright and balanced with additional unique texture from the hominy. The alfajor dessert also might have been the best I ate during Restaurant Week this year. I couldn’t get enough of the dulce de leche and hot chocolate sauce together.
Other notes: Many of Tanta’s cocktails involve pisco, the national spirit of Peru, and they are not to be missed. This pisco punch exploded with cinnamon and lime, and I was immediately transported to warmer climates. The basket of plantain chips was also a great bread basket substitute.
Best Bite: I couldn’t pick a favorite between my first and second courses, both seafood-focused. The first was a gorgeous mosaic of thinly sliced octopus and other colorful, zingy accompaniments. The second was a paella del mar that was absolutely packed with oceanic ingredients nestled into creamy saffron rice.
Other notes: Pot de crème is a classic dessert from Fig & Olive – I first had it when I visited the New York location, and it still captures chocolate and vanilla at their finest. The interior was quintessential Gold Coast chic, and our upper-level table overlooked the stately live olive trees sprouting from behind the bar.
Best Bite: I went into this Louisiana Mardi Gras–themed menu knowing I wanted to order the gator tail as my main course, and it exceeded my expectations. Tender pieces of alligator and andouille sausage swam in a fiery red sauce, right at that heat level where you’re acutely aware of the intensity of the spices, but aren’t slowed down or overwhelmed by them.
Other notes: The second-course skillets of golden cornbread were a hit with the whole group, irresistibly augmented by cheddar, scallions, jalapeños, and plenty of butter. It was fun to have a classic Mardi Gras king cake as dessert, too – colored sugar and all. Our party of seven was seated at a table right in the window, which made it feel like an extra-special feast.
The details:Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Best Bite: If there’s burrata on a menu, there’s a very good chance I’ll order it, but the way The Bedford paired the ultra-creamy cheese with squash was especially unique. A swipe of apple butter and crumbles of pumpkin seed granola made it almost like a sweet-leaning breakfast dish, and crispy basil added balance. I actually doubled up on squash with my main course, and am glad I did, because the nutty, cheesy, brown butter-soaked agnolotti was the height of comfort.
Other notes: The other pasta option was also exceptional. A more toothsome noodle matched the hearty ragu, which smartly combined fennel and mint with the lamb. And the atmosphere is certainly worth noting: the restaurant is a converted bank vault, so it was fun to take in all the dramatic details.
The details:The Bedford, 1612 W. Division St., Chicago.
Best Bite: Coppervine’s dessert was the most memorable for me. Asian pears, possibly my favorite fruit, were poached in bourbon to become the focal point of a deconstructed pie. All the flavors worked, from crust to crumb to ice cream – although really, how could you go wrong with bourbon ice cream? And because Coppervine also focuses on beverage pairings for each of its dishes (the Restaurant Week menu was no exception), the dessert was nicely paired with a caramel-toned madeira from Portugal.
Other notes: My favorite pairing of the meal was the cocktail that came with the first course. Citrusy cachaça and spicy ginger were a perfect match for the pineapple, red chiles, and Thai basil oil that accompanied the trout sashimi. The first course also earned points for creativity from the coconut rice pudding underneath the trout, meant as a clever spin on the typical sushi rice used for nigiri. I was surprised by how well its sweetness harmonized with the other flavors. I liked the aesthetic of the dining area, too, especially the literal copper vine of silvery leaves overhead.
Coppervine’s last service is February 14, 2015.
The details:Coppervine, 1962 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
Best Bite: Ever since my first visit a few years ago, Michael Jordan’s has been synonymous with garlic bread for me. Specifically, theirs is the best I’ve ever tasted, and was the subject of one of my very first blog posts (thankfully, I finally have a better photo). The blue cheese fondue poured over the top was just as luscious this time around, and made a wonderful start to our meal. Fittingly, dinner ended with cheese as well: the mascarpone cheesecake had an enchantingly airy texture, with two kinds of sunny orange to cut the sweetness and a little extra punch from the fresh mint.
Other notes: Michael Jordan’s is a steak house, after all, so my sky-high, mid-rare filet was another knockout – though that smoked garlic jus on the plate would even have made a basketball taste good. The salad course was a nice surprise, a healthy wedge of gem lettuce surrounded by heirloom cherry tomatoes, onion straws, and a not-too-thick buttermilk-scallion dressing. The portions were so generous that I took home leftovers, especially because we added sides of parmesan-crusted creamed spinach and fries that were dusted with an addictive sweet BBQ seasoning.
Best Bite: As I mentioned in my Restaurant Week preview, Ada Street’s menu was inspired by the last meal requests of famous criminals. Of all the creative options, my favorite actually ended up being the fourth course, a silky after-dinner drink based on the simple black cup of coffee that was requested by serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The top of the drink was frothy and cocoa-dusted, and it immediately reminded me of a dark, boozy version of Julius Meinl’s iced mélange, an all-time favorite of mine.
Other notes: The pork loin entree had great textural contrast, particularly because of the crunchy pickled onions. This dish was based on the last meal of Rainey Bethea (the last person to be publicly executed in the U.S.), whose request included pork chops, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, and cornbread. I also enjoyed the combination of rustic strawberry jam with juicy fried chicken, meant to resemble the bucket of KFC Original Recipe chicken and pound of strawberries that were both part of John Wayne Gacy’s request. And for dessert, Jeni’s dark chocolate ice cream with a micro mint garnish made a fine approximation of the two pints of Ben & Jerry’s mint chocolate chip that were requested by Tim McVeigh.