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.
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.
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.
This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: The timing for this post seemed appropriate, as Chicago magazine announced this week that Momotaro is this year’s Best New Restaurant. Based on my first meal there, I tend to agree. Not only was the three-floor Japanese-styled interior completely stunning, but every dish was beautiful in its composition and purity of flavor. Grilled over hot coals, the skewered wagyu beef tongue was undoubtedly the first preparation of tongue that I’d ever truly enjoyed. The tender, peppery meat was just fatty enough, brightened by dabs of hot mustard and a squeeze of the liberally seasoned yuzu wedge. I’d already heard great things about the momotaro (Japanese sweet tomato) tartare, and was indeed blown away by how texturally interesting and umami-rich it was, especially as a fully vegetarian dish. Even on a dauntingly extensive menu, this tartare cemented its place as a must-order on all future visits.
Momataro flies its fish in from Tokyo, so we couldn’t leave without trying some nigiri. The jack mackerel was dramatically presented, the bowl uncovered to reveal smoking pieces of what the menu claimed was 1,000-year-old cypress bark – really, how often does your meal involve an ingredient that’s a thousand years old? The fish itself was lovely, its smoky flavor gentle and woodsy. The beautifully simplicity extended through to dessert, where tiny green peaches and cooling peach sorbet were buried in a bed of almond crumble. Maybe I just love peach, but there was something about that dessert that kept me raving about it long after the last bite.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I’m happy to finally be writing about The Publican, one of the first restaurants I learned was something special when I started getting into the Chicago food scene. It was where I celebrated with family and friends right after my culinary school graduation, and it also happened to be this month’s pick for the “brunch club” organized among several of my friends. I hadn’t been back for brunch in years, so I was excited to try the Saturday menu.
Whenever I recommend The Publican to anyone, I always add that they have to order the pork rinds. To be honest, I never thought I’d have a favorite pork rind, but anyone who’s tried The Publican’s version knows they’re like none other. The first bite is the loudest, most satisfying snap-crackle-pop you can imagine, and then the spicy, porky flavor just melts away in your mouth. The rinds are dusted with cheddar, malt vinegar, and espelette pepper powder, a bright orange combination that you’d notice was getting all over your hands if you weren’t so absorbed in all the crunching. Chicago magazine made a great step-by-step video of how Chef Brian Huston puts them together.
I’d heard the french toast was not to be missed, and the fact that it involved fleeting summer peaches made it an even easier sell. The custard-soaked bread was creamy on the inside and deeply caramelized on the outside, with more toasty aromas from the grilled peaches (I would have loved even more slices) and an especially nutty, seedy granola. Even after adding syrup, the slathering of mellow ricotta kept the dish from being overly sweet.
The Smokin’ Mary was another hit – I really loved the smoky depth of the stout and chipotle mix, and the white whiskey by Evanston-based Few Spirits is always a no-brainer in cocktails. Simple garnishes and a pilsner sidecar made it a balanced, manageable Mary.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I’ve blogged about my sweet-savory brunch dilemma before, and it remains my most difficult decision on any morning menu. So if there’s a dish that combines both in one, you can bet I’ll be ordering it. Only available on the weekend Farmer’s Breakfast menu, this open-faced burger immediately reminded me of a gourmet, locally sourced, next-level McGriddle (in a good way, of course). It packs three kinds of meat – canadian bacon, applewood bacon, and the grass-fed beef patty – plus cheddar and an chive-flecked egg, all atop a slice of syrup-soaked cinnamon-raisin french toast. While it’s certainly decadent, the portion is still manageable and satisfied every brunch craving at once. The setting is just as pleasant: from the cheery red door flanked by fresh tulips to the farm-themed decor throughout the restaurant, I felt right at home.
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.
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.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: After a decade of being dinner-only, Avec launched brunch service last summer – an announcement that made the Chicago food world collectively squeal with delight. While I’ve already blogged about Avec’s legendary stuffed dates, which we ordered almost reflexively, the other stellar brunch plates merited a post of their own. The day’s special was the wood-fired pancake, a velvety stunner cooked in a cast-iron pan and topped with fragrant apple-rosemary compote and mounds of whipped cream. Its Dutch Baby–style texture was unbelievable. Meanwhile, the baked egg dish showed off Avec’s Mediterranean leanings. Its sauce was layered with surprising flavors: chickpeas, roasted peppers of all kinds, and salty feta, all begging to be sopped up with the bread on the side.
Another favorite was the butcher’s steak, probably the most beautiful steak-and-eggs in history. The fried egg was perfect, and the steak, ultra-tender from the marinade, shone even brighter with bold accompaniments of charred radicchio, squash polenta, pesto, parsley, and crunchy pepitas. As hard as it was to see this meal come to a close, the indulgence of the stuffed dates at the beginning was evenly matched by the petite nutter butter squares at its conclusion. Don’t miss these: the peanut butter-chocolate base, subtle feuilletine crunch, smooth ganache, and a sprinkling of sea salt made it the ultimate last bite.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Whenever I’m at a Randolph Street restaurant and have extra time, especially if I’m with someone who’s new to the area, I’ll wander into nearby Publican Quality Meats, the café and butcher-shop sibling of The Publican across the street. I love browsing all the artisanal pantry items that line the shelves and gazing longingly at the deli case (I have to remind myself every single time that no, I still don’t need to buy four of the ready-to-bake stuffed dates from Avec to eat at home). PQM also makes outstanding sandwiches, and a friend and I decided to finally dine in and savor the last bit of patio weather. The clear favorite was this take on a chicken parmesan sandwich, with richly flavored marinara, melty mozzarella, and crispy sage surrounding the chicken cutlet. And it was a genius move to put it all on the same spongy split-top roll that’s used at gourmet hot dog joint Franks ‘N’ Dawgs – a toasted repackaging of an Italian classic.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Just under three years ago, you would have found me constantly refreshing OpenTable.com, waiting for the restaurant page to first become available so that I could make a reservation for the night of my birthday at Girl & the Goat, the much-anticipated restaurant by Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard (in case she isn’t a household name for you already) that was finally going to open. That dinner remains one of my all-time favorites in Chicago: experiencing all her outlandishly flavorful food for the first time, sipping surprise birthday champagne, and getting to chat with Chef Steph herself at the end of the meal. So could future visits live up to that first one? My answer this weekend was a resounding yes.
You know your meal is off to a great start when you’re spreading coffee butter onto warm bread and drizzling blueberry vinaigrette on top. And then you bite into a squash blossom rangoon, a fleeting seasonal jewel that’s stuffed with creamy crab and fried in airy tempura batter. And then you’re chowing down on what you immediately know are among the best green bean and cauliflower dishes in existence, each with layers of salty and spicy and sweet, and then savory empanadas filled with the tender goat meat that’s incorporated into enough dishes to merit its own menu section. And then the salmon, which you ordered partially because the server told you the fish was flown in from New Zealand and partially because you can’t believe that salmon could really work with strawberry and beef and peanut and yogurt, could it? But of course it does, all of the distinct components tangled together in the best way. And then there’s the chicken. You’ve come to expect at this point that it will be unlike any chicken dish you’ve had before, especially since the server explained it would be brined to order, glazed with maple-y goodness, and baked in the wood-fire oven. And indeed, you can’t stop talking about how good this chicken is, not to mention the soft, buttery naan and remarkable ramp goddess dressing that come with it. You’ll order dessert without question.
I think you get the point here. The service is outstanding, the atmosphere feels special yet free from pretension, and all the little details come together for ultimate consistency. So set a date 6–8 weeks in advance, make a reservation, and get ready for a meal to remember.