Blackbird? Aubriot? Harvest?
Am spending one night in Chicago next week and looking for one good dinner that doesn't fall into the lengthy multi-coursed or pretentious categories. Would like lively but not cramped. The above were some suggestions made to me. Any thoughts?
All three are good recommendations. But given the specific factors you mention--non-pretentious, lively, not cramped--I'd recommend Harvest on Huron.
When they're at the top of their form, Blackbird and Aubriot both can produce better food. But Blackbird can be a mob scene: very crowded, closely spaced tables, and a noisy and crowded bar scene just across from the tables. It's certainly "lively," but in a trendy, hyped-up, "look-at-me-aren't-I-cool" sort way that I don't find appealing. Its the most pretentious of the three places.
Aubriot, on the other hand, is relatively sedate, not in the sense of being "stiff" or "formal," but in the sense of being relatively quiet and serene. Not exactly what you'd call "lively." I don't find it pretentious, though some might based solely on the fact that the owner/chef, Eric Aubriot, is certainly serious about his food. The tables are well enough spaced at Aubriot that one doesn't feel crowded or cramped. I really like this place.
Even though the food at Blackbird and Aubriot may be marginally better, the food at Harvest on Huron is both interesting and pretty damn good (e.g., shrimp in vanilla sauce), as is the wine list. The restaurant has a casual feel, with bold, bright colors, and is lively without being a mob scene. It's informal and relaxed, not pretentious. Harvest on Huron is one of my regular stops when I'm in Chicago. It's "fun" to eat there, in the best sense of that word.
re: Tom Armitage
Tom, thank you for your thoughtful responses. After perusing some on-line reviews and menus my friend and I have made a decision. Contrary to previous requisites we're going to slap on our best poseur faces and go for Blackbird. Hopefully there won't be much of a scene early in the evening mid-week.
We were there on Thursday last week, 8 pm (April 5) and didn't have a reservation but also had no wait, and there wasn't a scene at all. No crowd at the bar, just one guy who got up from his table to smoke there.
I would say that people were dressed "hip casual" as opposed to "business casual."
Excellent food, I had the squab which was yummy. It may have been less crowded due to Passover and Palm Sunday coming up over that weekend, but maybe not.
re: Andyh Lynes
I think Paul Kahans wood-grilled sturgeon is wonderful but, to make things interesting, there are others, notably including Jonathan Gold, who do not have as exalted a view of it as I do. (See the series of posts on the string Chicago Ideas, beginning with the link below.)
Here is how I remember the dish: Perfectly cooked sturgeon rests on a mound of Yukon gold potatoes and caramelized celery root. Bits and shreds of rich braised oxtail are tossed into the mix. Curry oil is drizzled around the fish. A light garnish of apple and red onion sits atop the fish.
In discussing this dish with Chef Kahan, he credits the idea of mixing sturgeon and oxtail to Jean-Louis Palladin, who mixed oxtail with scallops much to Kahans liking.
By the way, if you use the link below to access the previous posts on this subject, you will see that I incorrectly referred to the chef at Blackbird as Rick Diarmit, rather than Paul Kahan. Diarmit is a co-owner, but Kahan rules the kitchen.