It’s a question I get a lot: what’s the best meal you’ve ever had? And for 12 years, my answer has been dinner at Alinea. When I dined there in August 2011, I was in my early days of living in Chicago and immersing myself in restaurant culture post-culinary school. Even nabbing a reservation for our group of 4 was next to impossible. Back then, you had to call their reservation line on the first day of the month, over and over, in hopes of getting through. I remember vividly that I was on a CTA bus while calling, and when I finally heard a voice on the other side, I practically leapt off the bus (well before my stop, but I didn’t care). I hadn’t started the blog yet, but reflected a bit on the experience as part of my musings on tasting menus. Each of the 18 courses brought a different kind of surprise and delight, and I remember being enchanted from start to finish.
Alinea is world renowned, and is one of just 14 restaurants in the U.S. to earn 3 Michelin stars. And for my birthday this year, I was fortunate enough to go for a second time. Here are my reflections on the Salon experience.
The meal began with caviar, served with a pearl spoon in an iridescent, bubbled dish whose imprint in your hand mimicked the texture of the caviar. The creamy layer hiding underneath was sweetened with lychee and was a delicious contrast to the salty caviar. A glass of bubbly completed the opulent start.
The vegetable dish, apted named auberdines, starred eggplant that treated to expertly mimic a oil-soaked sardine, then laid atop buttered rye toast with plenty of bright herbs.
In my first visit years ago, the herbal centerpiece was interactive: we were given scissors to cut off sprigs as garnishes for a salad in a later course. So this time, I knew that the golden swan on the table, only holding a dried bouquet at first glance, would probably come into play later on. Sure enough, it was rearranged on its lace doily for a couple of courses before a server reached inside and pulled out a bag of two biscuits, then small jars of foie gras spread and blueberry jam to go with the squab. The agre-doux (sweet and sour sauce) was an excellent accompaniment.
The red meat course was just as impressive this time as last. Wagyu short rib was dusted with jameed, a salty, dried yogurt from Jordan that first appeared on the table as an orb under a glass cloche.
Two of the courses were the same as last time. Both “hot potato” and “truffle explosion” are Alinea classics, so while I knew what to expect from each, it was fun to be reunited.
Two of the desserts were also familiar, not added to the menu until after my first visit, but very much associated with the restaurant in recent years. As soon as the grey silicone cloth was draped over our table, I knew a Jackson Pollock-style, eat-the mess-off-the-table dessert was still in the rotation. This iteration celebrated the flavors of a banana split, with several sauces, cherry fudge, brown butter nougat, waffle cone, pineapple “right-side-up” cake, and liquid nitrogen banana ice cream. It was truly so delightful to eat, with a slightly different bite every time I dragged my spoon across the table.
And the birthday-appropriate green apple balloon, the other now-famous dessert, showed up shortly after. It was meant to be kissed to inhale the helium, and then you could proceed to eat the sticky taffy and string. The whole process really had us laughing. If there was a test for eating it gracefully, I’d say I failed.
For the final birthday touch, the smoke from my birthday candle was captured in a glass, with a cake-and-frosting soda poured in and topped off with rosé. I was impressed by the attention to detail in the service, as the commemorative soda bottle had my correct birthday written on the tag, seemingly from a sly conversation at the host stand before we were seated.
Deep down, I knew it wouldn’t be possible to recapture the unprecedented magic of my visit 12 years ago. This time, it was more the little moments of conceptual creativity and magnificent technique that added up to a very memorable birthday experience.
Heaven on Seven has been one of my Chicago dining blind spots: a classic that I’ve somehow never managed to visit. It’s a boisterous Cajun restaurant tucked away on the seventh floor of a Loop high-rise (you even have to sign-in with a charming doorman before getting on the elevator). We visited the week of Fat Tuesday, so Mardi Gras decorations were in high gear and we were both given a string of beads upon arrival, but I have a feeling it still feels like a party all year around.
One of the many specials was a bayou étoufée with three kinds of seafood: crab, crawfish, and shrimp. The trio was a great sampling of shellfish flavor, stewed together in a rich gravy and served over rice. We also shared the catfish po’boy, a mammoth sandwich loaded with catfish, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and honey-jalapeño dressing. What really made it was the way the bread was toasted with butter and herbs.
All entrees come with gumbo, soup, or salad, but it’s easy to see why pretty much everyone gets the gumbo. Chicken, andouille sausage, and the smoky depth of a black roux came together for a thick and satisfying soup – with a warm jalapeño corn muffin to round it out with sweetness.
Like last 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 2017. View year-end recaps from 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.
Best spin on a egg
We ordered this appetizer almost as an afterthought, but all the textures – tiny pickled mustard seeds, crunchy battered sausage, and a perfectly runny egg – made it memorable. It was even better accompanied by live blues performers on the riverside patio on a warm September day.
Most unique breakfast sandwich
The chorizo verde is now a mainstay of Quiote’s dinner menu, but over the summer it showed up as an egg-topped breakfast sausage. The meat itself was so flavorful that I could have easily eaten it on its own, but having it safely ensconced in a soft lobster roll made it more delicious.
Most indulgent dim sum
At the end of a dim sum feast at Stephanie Izard’s Chinese eatery, we couldn’t help but order this donut-bao hybrid. The crackly, not-too-sweet topping gave way to rich chocolate filling; I did not regret ordering it.
Most nutrient-packed bowl
Left Coast’s menu is brimming with healthy, veggie-centric options, but I’ve stuck with this curry bowl every time. From the green beans and yams all the way to the toasted coconut, every component comes together well.
If anyone mentions Coalfire, ‘nduja (a spicy, spreadable sausage) is the first pizza I recommend (and so does most of the Chicago food media). Sausage comes in two forms: one is sliced thin, and the other is whipped into the ricotta mounds. Fresh from the coal-burning oven, it’s pretty much a foolproof pick.
Most comforting beer pairing
Hopleaf in Andersonville is world-renowned for its encyclopedic beer list, but they definitely don’t cut corners on the food. The CB&J is an especially comprehensive pairing, with three kinds of comfort in one dish: a cross between grilled cheese and PB&J (raclette cheese in addition to cashew butter and fig jam), crunchy chips, and mac & cheese (made cheffier with Stilton). I’d trust it to soak up any brew.
Best fancy burger
You know it’s really spring when ramps start appearing on every menu, and Butcher & the Burger was no exception. I’m usually overwhelmed by all their options, so ordering this special was a no-brainer. It was a winning combination of truffle-pesto-onion goodness.
Best not-so-fancy burger
Small Cheval keeps it simple with a slightly more portable version of the famous Au Cheval burger, complete with griddled patties, American cheese, and house-made pickled. I also added fernet to my chocolate shake for an extra licorice-y kick.
SIDES AND SNACKS:
Summeriest vegetable dish
We snacked at seafood bar Cold Storage as a prelude to dinner at adjacent Swift & Sons, and this dish was a perfect pairing with our oysters. The sweet corn and cool lime granita set off the juicy tomato and soft burrata beautifully.
Best use of goat
My rule when dining at Girl & the Goat is to always order one goat dish (and one bread, and at least one from each of the standard menu sections…but that’s another story). The mousse was almost mesmerizing in its silkiness atop warm crumpets, with a nice variety of pickled vegetables as palate cleansers.
Most addictive snack
Along with the strawberry-and-pistachio-studded burrata dish at the top of this post, this popcorn stole the show at West Town brewery Forbidden Root. Maybe it was the coconut oil, maybe it was the specific type of chiles (the same ones as the Korean hot sauce that’s used in bibimbap and other dishes); either way, this popcorn was outrageously good.
Best hybrid appetizer
The second-floor terrace of Brickhouse Tavern overlooks Park at Wrigley (the new development next to Wrigley Field), so it was the perfect perch after a July Cubs game. This was the most creative (and successful) buffalo chicken format I’ve seen yet.
Concession stand stunner
Most of Chicago’s stadium food has been getting an upgrade in recent years, and I was especially pleased to find a Lillie’s Q outpost at a recent Blackhawks game. The pulled pork nachos put those standard cheese cups to shame, with plenty of pulled pork, sauce, green onions, and even BBQ beans.
Best atmosphere-matching cocktail
Boleo occupies a colorful rooftop space on the 15th floor of the Kimpton Gray hotel. This subtly coconut negroni was an ideal sipper as I gazed at blue sky and tall buildings (and wished I could take home the gorgeous glass).
Closest drink to a vacation
Mahalo is the closest you can come to a Hawaiian escape without leaving Wicker Park. This piña colada was a refreshing treat on the surfboard-adorned rooftop.
Best boozy milkshake
As much as we love the fried chicken at The Roost (a very popular catering pop-up at the office), our group may have come to brunch at the Irving Park Road location primarily for this shake. I’ve had the peach cobbler as a side before, but it really is dreamy when whirled into vanilla ice cream and spiked with rum.
Beatnik was the most Instagrammable restaurant interior of 2017, with its bold fabrics and exquisite chandeliers. Food-wise, while we expected all the globally inspired cocktails and snacks to be on point, this dessert was what shocked our entire party. The cake itself was delicate and citrus-y, and the shredded phyllo worked even better than a crust.
Most nostalgic dessert
Anything PB&J is a winner in my book, so I was thrilled to see this pie special. The potato chips were a nice final touch on an already nostalgic slice.
Most novel treat
River North newcomer Barrio also opened a neighboring upscale bodega that specializes in fancy churros. I chose the red velvet and s’mores varieties, both warmed and drizzled in chocolate, and let’s just say there will be more churro stops in my future.
The $0 three-peat
Talenti ran a free gelato promotion at three movie nights in Millennium Park this summer, and (somewhat coincidentally) those were the three I attended. This flavor ended up in my hands the first time, and I sought it out thereafter because the cinnamon and peach were so perfect for summer. And the price of $0 made it especially satisfying!
Thanks for reading in 2017, and looking forward to another delicious year!
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.
I had the chance to talk to Chef Zoë Schor a few years about a female chef-focused Restaurant Week menu and have always been impressed by her food, so when she left Ada Street to open her own restaurant, I knew it would be one to watch. Split-Rail finally opened in June, putting a fresh spin on nostalgic foods of her childhood.
The loaded baked potato gnocchi was a no-brainer, and my favorite take on baked potato since Parachute’s bing bread. It hits the bacon, cheese, chive, and sour cream notes, but the texture of the gnocchi itself – crispy edges, soft interior – is what makes the dish.
I’m glad my dining companions pushed for the linguine and clams, because it ended up being my other favorite dish. It was briny, spicy, lemony, and buttery (uni butter, no less!), with plenty of clams swirled into the rich, eggy pasta.
And then there were the chicken nuggets. The breading was audibly crunchy and perfectly salted, with a grainy honey mustard sauce that had a heavy hit of citrus for extra brightness.
My cocktail, The Breakers, was also a pleasant surprise. The apricot and basil put it in standard summer territory, but adding in the dill aquavit and black pepper made it exceedingly savory. It worked, though, especially with the mustard and chicken nuggets at the start of the meal.
The details:Split-Rail, 2500 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago.
While I was sad to see the Wicker Park location of Jerry’s close last year (the endless sandwich menu overwhelmed in a delightful way), I was happy to try out its replacement. Rhyme or Reason is a gastropub that draws inspiration from retro ’70s themes, and its sprawling front patio was especially inviting on a sunny Saturday morning.
I decided to try The Hop Mess, brand new to the menu as a month-long collaboration with Revolution Brewing. Both the waffle batter and the maple syrup were (very) heavily infused with Revolution Brewing’s Sun Crusher, a new seasonal wheat ale that was already a favorite of mine from earlier in the summer. Together with blueberries, candied bacon, and whipped cream, the hoppy malted waffles really worked (especially with a cup of coffee for balance).
My friend and I also snacked on these deviled eggs before entrees arrived. A sticky smear of espresso-bacon jam on top of each creamy egg set the sweet-and-savory brunch tone. And while the patio was great, I’d easily return in cooler weather to challenge someone to a game of giant Connect Four in the lounge area next to the colorful bar.
Chef Diana Davila recently took over a prime spot on Logan Boulevard to cook her family’s soulful Mexican recipes. Mi Tocaya Antojería is the kind of cozy-yet-exciting restaurant that everyone should want in their neighborhood, so I feel very lucky to have it in mine. Each dish blended the familiar and the unexpected, starting with a vibrant peach-lime frozen margarita that was on special the night I visited. It was fruity at first, but the garnish packed some intense heat, a slow build with every citrusy sip.
I’ve eaten nopalitos (cactus) a few times, but hadn’t ever found it noteworthy until this dish. It was tender and meaty, with just enough heat from the chiles, and the fried cheese curds were a creative and decadent touch.
The queso fundido was a great example of a familiar appetizer that’s nearly ubiquitous on standard Mexican menus, but is rarely memorable and often a little too greasy. Mi Tocaya’s version wasn’t greasy at all, in large part because the typical chorizo was replaced by longaniza, a sweet Filipino sausage that I’ve sought out ever since a friend introduced me to it right after college. The photo doesn’t do it justice, but the char on the sausage and gooey cheese, mixed together with poblano peppers and spooned onto tortillas, was definitely something special.
The lamb alboniga (meatball) was another dish that benefited from the influence of a separate ethnic cuisine. This time, it was North African-inspired, with the mint, carrot, and hard-boiled egg that are often seen in a tagine (like this one). It all came together well. And I had to try at least one of the tacos, deciding to go vegetarian after reading rave reviews. As with the cactus, I didn’t miss the meat at all, with textural contrast from the squash, the crema, the swipe of black beans, and even the fried pepper in the middle.
I already can’t wait until my next visit; the lengua (tongue) with peanut butter and frothy nitro horchata are at the top of my list, preferably from a seat on the boulevard-facing patio.
Why it’s a Best Bite: I tend to adore Italian-influenced brunch, so this newcomer to the Southport Corridor seemed worthy of a visit. Coda di Volpe excelled equally in the sweet and savory realms, which is not an easy feat. On the sweet side, the focaccia French toast was dense and decadent in the best way. Each substantial slice of focaccia was topped with buffalo’s milk butter and a scoop of Nutella whipped cream, plus candied orange syrup and hazelnuts on the plate as accompaniments. It was a fantastic (and rich) combination of flavors.
On the savory side, the eggs in purgatory were sizzling in both spiciness and temperature. I loved every part of this dish, from the polenta to the sausage to the baked eggs bathed in tomato sauce. To quench the heat, I sipped a refreshing bellini of prosecco and white peach.
Our table also shared an order of bomboloni with three dipping sauces. The dough itself was slightly less sweet, so the orange, grape, and chocolate sauces were more necesssary for balance.
Best Bite: I’d only been to Celeste for drinks in their rooftop garden, but hadn’t yet tried the food. The “Shake & Fries” dessert was probably the most intriguing and bizarre item on any of my destinations’ menus this year, described as a French fry panna cotta with Nutella mousse and fry crumbles. But, surprise! The sweet and salty worked very well, just like dipping fries into a chocolate Frosty. The parfait was a little precarious to eat at first, given the mountain of fry pieces on top, but it was worth it once you were able to dig down for a bite of all three components together.
Other notes: My other favorite dish was the eggplant involtini, mostly because of the garlicky marinara and the three kinds of cheese inside the rolled eggplant slices.The bulgogi lamb chops were also a nice starter, with lots of glazed veggies on the side.
Best Bite: This was my first time back at ZED451 since Restaurant Week 2014. The all-you-can-eat strategy for salads and meats still made it Restaurant Week’s best value, but interestingly, dessert is what stole the show for me on this latest visit. A housemade marshmallow disc was bruléed on top of the butterscotch bread pudding in the most exceptional way, fully melted inside but still holding its crisp exterior.
Other notes: Just as before, the harvest table was overwhelming. I especially enjoyed the veggie salads, from beets to carrots to brussels sprouts, and also the array of cheeses with fig and apricot accompaniments. All three meats served tableside – sirloin steak, glazed salmon, and Moroccan-spiced chicken – were even better than I remembered. My next visit may have to be during brunch, which is also unlimited and around the same Restaurant Week price point.