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.
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: 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: 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.
Best Bite: I’m happy to report that my first-ever Restaurant Week brunch was a major success. Knife & Tine’s menu price included an entree, two sides, and a drink, so our group of six ordered strategically in an effort to taste as many different things as possible. I was floored by the sheer variety of rich, creative dishes that eventually hit our table: cheesy grits, smoky pork sausage patties, buttery fingerling potatoes, nutty pumpkin bread, fluffy biscuits with cardamom-scented cara cara orange jam – and those were just the sides! My breakfast sandwich combined many of the best flavors on the table, especially the mingling of fried egg with bacon cured in brown sugar, coffee, and cinnamon.
Other notes: They weren’t technically on the Restaurant Week menu, but the salted butterscotch croissant-style donuts were fantastic (and helped me understand the cronut craze a little bit better). I also loved the cinnamon biscuit beignets, a plateful of sugary, bite-size rounds with a vanilla bean dipping sauce. As a bonus, our group was fortunate enough to sit at the chef’s table, enclosed by silver-toned wallpaper and a crystal chandelier overhead.