Restaurant Week 2014: Ada Street

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2014, held January 24–February 6. Check out the 2013 recap, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage.

Dinner at Ada Street

Spicy Moroccan carrot salad with Greek yogurt, ginger, lime, and grilled scallions, inspired by Alice Waters
Spicy Moroccan carrot salad with Greek yogurt, ginger, lime, and grilled scallions, inspired by Alice Waters

Best Bite: Executive chef Zoë Schor designed Ada Street’s Restaurant Week menu around a unique theme: each option for the three courses paid tribute to a different female chef. As impressed as I was with all the concepts, I was the most wowed by a seemingly simple carrot salad based on an Alice Waters recipe. The flash-blanched carrot slices and grilled scallions were fresh and aromatic, with a cool yogurt sauce that tempered the pleasant heat from chiles and spices. Everyone at our table agreed they couldn’t get enough. See full menu.

Scrumpets with crispy fried lamb shoulder and minted malt vinegar, inspired by April Bloomfield
Scrumpets with crispy fried lamb shoulder and minted malt vinegar, inspired by April Bloomfield

Other notes: I also loved the crispy lamb scrumpets, the only dish that’s also offered on Ada Street’s regular menu. For entrees, the smoked carrot puree that accompanied the pork loin was a brilliant addition, and the classic bouillabaisse did Julia Child justice, down to the last briny, saffron-scented drop. Don’t be swayed by the off-the-beaten-path location: finding this cozy, dimly lit hideaway is totally worth it.

Bouillabaisse with Bangs Island mussels, manila clams, gulf shrimp, cobia, saffron-infused broth, and toasted baguette, inspired by Julia Child
Bouillabaisse with Bangs Island mussels, manila clams, gulf shrimp, cobia, saffron-infused broth, and toasted baguette, inspired by Julia Child

The details: Ada Street, 1664 N. Ada St., Chicago.

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Restaurant Week 2014: Graham Elliot Bistro

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2014, held January 24–February 6. Check out the 2013 recap, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage.

Dinner at Graham Elliot Bistro

Beef stroganoff with mustard spaetzle, mushroom, and peppered cream
Beef stroganoff with mustard spaetzle, mushroom, and peppered cream

Best Bite: The signature beef short rib stroganoff was an ideal winter entree, with a substantial portion of tender meat flanked by hearty mushrooms and dabs of peppery cream sauce. And if a dish comes with spaetzle, I will mostly likely order it, so I was especially impressed by this spot-on mustard variety. The soup course came in a close second-favorite, a chestnut bisque with a surprising combination of sweetness and complexity from allspice, sage, and rosemary marshmallow. See full menu.

Banana split with vanilla bean, candied hazelnut, and pretzel crumb
Banana split with vanilla bean, candied hazelnut, and pretzel crumb

Other notes: I loved the dessert presentation of a layered banana split in a mason jar. I’m also pretty sure our table was the best in the house: a private, high-backed booth with room to spare for our four-person party and a brightly colored stained glass window enclosing one end.

Stained glass window enclosing our table
Stained glass window enclosing our table

The details: Graham Elliot Bistro, 841 W. Randolph St., Chicago.

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Recap: Restaurant Week 2013

After 10 days of indulgent dining, Chicago Restaurant Week 2013 came to an end on Sunday. While I’m a little forlorn that the week is over, I’m also very grateful for seven excellent meals, and the chance to share them with you here.

My Instagram photo recaps of each meal are shown in the gallery; follow the links below to read more:

Part 1: Blackbird and Carriage House
Part 2: Vermilion and Cafe Spiaggia
Part 3: Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, Sunda, and Frontier
View all coverage.

If you participated in Restaurant Week, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments!

Restaurant Week 2013: Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, Sunda, and Frontier

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week, held February 1–10, 2013.

Lunch at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba

Endive salad with blue cheese and almonds, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba
Endive and blue cheese salad with almonds and membrillo, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba

Best Bite: The generously portioned endive salad was a unique start to our lively meal. Amid the tang of blue cheese and vinaigrette, I especially appreciated the membrillo (sweet quince paste) and marcona almonds. Colorful, too – especially with my pomegranate mimosa as a backdrop. See full menu.

Other notes: Definitely the best value of the week, with soup, bread, cold tapas, warm tapas, and dessert for the $22 lunch price – it was the first time I took home leftovers! Speaking of the soup, it was creamy, comforting mushroom, with a manchego toast that made it feel almost like a Spanish version of french onion soup. Also enjoyed my petite caramelized banana dessert, with lots of crushed pistachios. Cheerful, bustling atmosphere as always.

Mushroom soup with manchego toast, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba
Mushroom soup with manchego toast, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba

The details: Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, 2024 N Halsted St., Chicago.

Dinner at Sunda

Miso-bronzed black cod with red curry and glazed eggplant, Sunda
Miso-bronzed black cod with red curry and glazed eggplant, Sunda

Best Bite: So many fun courses at Sunda, but I couldn’t get enough of this miso-bronzed black cod. Don’t let its plain appearance fool you: the buttery fish was ultra-flavorful from the miso and red curry, and the glazed eggplant underneath was a revelation for this eggplant skeptic. It also served as a nice contrast to pork belly sticks in the previous course, and left enough room for me to enjoy my chocolate mousse for dessert. See full menu.

Other notes: Besides the great food, our group of 8 also thoroughly relished Sunda’s exotic cocktails. Of all the varieties, the Grass Tiger (below) was the clear winner for me. I adored the heat of jalapeño-infused gin with cool ginger beer, mint, lemongrass, and more citrus. You can even check out the restaurant’s Vine video of a bartender mixing this delicious drink.

Grass Tiger cocktail, Sunda
Grass Tiger cocktail with jalapeño-infused gin and ginger beer, Sunda

The details: Sunda, 110 W Illinois St., Chicago.

Dinner at Frontier

Wild boar chop with sweet potato puree, Frontier
Wild boar chop with sweet potato puree, Frontier

Best Bite: When I saw all the game meat featured on Frontier’s gastropub-y menu, I knew I’d go straight for the wild boar chop. I loved the flavors of the meat and sauce, and with the sweet potato puree, toasted marshmallow, and crispy kale, it was basically a hunter’s Thanksgiving. See full menu.

Other notes: Duck tacos and antelope meatballs with gnocchi were both tasty starters, and Frontier pulled off its s’more dessert with just the right level of char and melty chocolate. Great beers and cozy fireplace too.

S'more, Frontier
S’more, Frontier

The details: Frontier, 1072 N Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

Restaurant Week 2013: Vermilion and Cafe Spiaggia

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week, held February 1–10, 2013.

Dinner at Vermilion

Mango-cardamom flan, Vermilion
Mango-cardamom flan, Vermilion

Best Bite: I was partial to dessert, a mango-cardamom flan that made for a creamy, aromatic finish to our Latin-Indian fusion meal. The lychee and tart cranberry garnishes set off the flan nicely, though I wish there had been more than one piece of lychee. See full menu.

Other notes: Also enjoyed the caldeirada de peixe (Brazilian seafood stew), loaded with seafood and the right amount of heat, and artichoke pakoras made a nice, street food-inspired starter. Service was a little off, though, and the setup of the menu itself wasn’t the best value – an $11 upgrade to normal entree portions made the tasting almost cost more than the sum of the courses. Liked the lighting and red decor.

Brazilian seafood stew with tomato rice, Vermilion
Brazilian seafood stew with tomato rice, Vermilion

The details: Vermilion, 10 W Hubbard St., Chicago.

Lunch at Cafe Spiaggia

Gnocchi with pork and beef ragu, Cafe Spiaggia
Gnocchi with pork and beef ragu, Cafe Spiaggia

Best Bite: This one was a tie. My entree’s gnocchi were impossibly fluffy, perhaps the best texture of any gnocchi I’ve tasted, with a meaty ragu that wasn’t too thick. And then there were the bomboloni, a heavenly trio of Italian doughnuts for dessert. Again, I was impressed by the airy texture (they weren’t greasy at all!) and the apple-cinnamon compote and poppyseed sugar recalled all the comfort of cider doughnuts from my local orchard growing up – just in a more refined package. See full menu.

Other notes: Lovely first-course ribollita soup, with tomatoes, kale, and cannellini beans. Excellent service and pleasant view of Michigan Avenue and the lake, even on a gray, slushy day.

Bomboloni with apple-cinnamon compote, Cafe Spiaggia
Bomboloni with apple-cinnamon compote, Cafe Spiaggia

The details: Cafe Spiaggia, 980 N Michigan Ave., Chicago.

Restaurant Week 2013: Blackbird and Carriage House

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week, held February 1–10, 2013.

Lunch at Blackbird

Smoked Arctic char appetizer, Blackbird
Smoked Arctic char appetizer, Blackbird

Best Bite: While no dish was less than excellent, I was most wowed by the starter, a superbly delicate piece of smoked Arctic char. I loved the crunch from cauliflower and pear, and just enough meatiness from the tiny dollop of ‘nduja, a type of spreadable salami. It set the tone for the other unique flavor combinations to follow. See full menu.

Other notes: Gorgeous plating, quiet space, surprising main course accompaniments (onion noodles and buttermilk sauce to go with grilled sturgeon), and decadent dessert (an elegant Nutella-banana mash-up) with coffee service.

Chocolate hazelnut bread pudding dessert, Blackbird
Chocolate hazelnut bread pudding dessert, Blackbird

The details: Blackbird, 619 W Randolph St., Chicago.

Dinner at Carriage House

Crispy braised pork shoulder
Crispy braised pork shoulder entree, Carriage House

Best Bite: The entree best showed off the restaurant’s upscale take on low-country cuisine. The melt-in-your-mouth pork shoulder came with a host of balanced companions: smoked plums, pickled peppers, and celery hearts, atop grits and pork jus. With prevalent vinegar to cut through the richness, it was a pleasantly refined Southern dish. See full menu.

Other notes: Outstanding side of skillet cornbread, divine coffee-fudge dipping sauce for the beignets at dessert, tasty (and strong) rum punch, colorful ceramic dishware, and a table in the cozy porch area, with plaid flannel blankets over the chairs and plenty of candles.

Skillet cornbread, Carriage House
Skillet cornbread, Carriage House

The details: Carriage House, 1700 W Division St., Chicago.

Restaurant Week 2013: Ready, set…

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week, which takes place February 1–10, 2013.

Apple pie, lunch at Sable during last year's Restaurant Week
Apple pie at Sable, Restaurant Week 2012

It’s finally here! Restaurant Week technically began on Friday, but my first reservation is for lunch tomorrow at a high-profile place that I first tried three years ago, and can’t wait to revisit. Bracing my stomach and wallet, I’ve planned the whole week out – four dinners, three lunches, and a lot more Zumba than usual – and am ready for the delicious onslaught.

But as excited as I am for the food itself, I’m just as eager to share each meal with a different person or group of people, for the second year in a row. This year, I’m proud to say that nearly 20 of my nearest and dearest are participating at least once, many of whom wouldn’t call themselves particularly “into food”. Looking back on last year, the most memorable moments were how my friends engaged with each dish, and collectively delighting in (or, in a few cases, critiquing) our food. In fact, I think you can learn a lot about someone that way.

So, let’s raise a glass to chefs not only showing off their skills, but bringing people together at tables all over the city this week.

I’ll be posting throughout the week (every two meals or so), and would love to hear about your RW experiences too!

Restaurant Week 2013: The planning ritual

This is the first in a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week, which takes place February 1–10, 2013.

Banana wonton, my first dessert at last year's Restaurant Week
Banana wonton, my first dessert at last year’s Restaurant Week

As a foodie in Chicago, one of the best moments of every year is the day that Restaurant Week reservations open, usually in early January. Much like a first look at the NCAA bracket or the Lollapalooza lineup, it brings a serious rush of possibility and excitement for how this year’s event could unfold.

For the uninitiated, Restaurant Week is a dining event in which participating restaurants offer special prix-fixe menus for a set price of $22 at lunch and $33 or $44 at dinner, regardless of their normal pricing. At many of the city’s best restaurants, this is not only a great deal, but a fun way to get a more complete taste of what the restaurant offers. It’s also a great excuse to go to new or unfamiliar places and plan food-centric outings with friends. And this isn’t unique to Chicago – New York, Boston, DC, and other major cities also hold their own Restaurant Week once or twice a year.

Anyway, once I see Restaurant Week announcements take over my Twitter feed, it’s go time. In urgent research mode, I first pour over which new restaurants are participating from a lengthy, unfiltered list of more than 250, and then size up their menus one-by-one, strategizing which would be best for lunch and for dinner, and which reservations will fill up the fastest. I also start recruiting dining companions and laying out a potential schedule.

The best way to keep track of all this information? A Google spreadsheet, of course! (Full disclosure: this is coming from the same girl who, as a child, made a Excel file with a full inventory of her Halloween candy; and as a teen, documented online quiz results in PowerPoint for a presentation that would never actually occur.) Call me neurotic, but I’ve found it’s the best way to reference everything at once. Hopefully the Restaurant Week site will build out more customization for individual users in coming years – as in, logging in and creating your own favorites list and schedule, with built-in OpenTable reservation links – but for now, I’m happy to copy and paste.

Last year, I visited five restaurants for Restaurant Week. I’ve made three reservations so far, but am tempted to break my record and go for six. And don’t worry, I’ll be documenting my meals with Evernote Food, one of my favorite iPhone apps, and sharing the highlights here on hillaryproctor.com.

Have you ever participated in Restaurant Week? Have you made any reservations yet for this year?