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foreigner looking for recommendations...

  • m

Hi:

I am coming to Chicago at the end of June and plan to dine out as much as I can afford. I like to think I am not a foodie (hate them actually) but am pretty passionate about flawlessly executed food and consider myself knowledgable. I toyed with the idea of a career change and, to that end, staged in a top French place here for some time before other obligations shot that dream down for the time being. Heck, maybe I am a foodie after all

My tastes tend toward the French (especially Alsatian). I would like recommendations or your thoughts on the following restaurants. Hopefully I'll get to at least 2 or 3. I'd also like to know who's being sensible about wine (offering for instance, decent and appropriate racks/half bottles for the tasting menu instead of hoping you'll mortgage your house):

1. Le Francais: Has Banchet actually packed it in? I was hoping to sample and to get him to autograph a book in which he appears. If he has, I'll pass.

2. Charlie Trotter's: Been there before and am amazed by what he can do. He's one of only two chefs I've ever encountered who makes me say "how does he do that?" This is coming from someone who would NEVER order a staircase of fish eggs, by the way.

3. Arun's: I like Thai and French. Is it really as good as they say it is?

4. Ambria: No comments on this place but the menu looks really good.

5. Everest: I can't find any online menu but Joho is Alsatian, do they take special dish requests in advance?

6. Tru: I liked them in Evanston at Trio and think they can cook up a storm. The menu looks great if you ignore the nonsense and get down to the actual food but is Tru THAT weird? That staircase of caviar is absurd in my opinion but some of the more traditional dishes sound wonderful.

Anyway, these are my first choices. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Thanks,
Mike

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  1. Oh dear. Now I'll have to put my money where my mouth is. Here's hoping that the chicago board lives up to the defense I put up for it over on the canada board.

    Of the restaurants you listed, I've been to two, Charlie Trotters and Arun's. I think that my take on these two may differ from others on this board, ie. a little less glowing.

    I went to Arun's a couple of years ago with my parents (before they instituted the prix-fixe only policy that I understand they require diners to take advantage of). We had heard incredible reviews, and my parents, who were in the peace corps in thailand in the sixties, and had never found thai food in america that came close to the quality they had eaten in thailand, had high hopes that Arun's would live up to their standards. The food was very good, but not as good as we had hoped. The larb (beef salad with lime and chilis) was great, but the other dishes were not fabulous. That being said, Arun's is clearly several notches better than the vast majority of thai restaurants in chicago, if not as celestially good as we had been led to believe.

    As for Charlie Trotters, I had the same sense of incredulity that you describe. We didn't enjoy the experience all that much, unfortunately -- we found the service a little too precious, and the attitude towards the food a little too fawning. It's hard to express what turned me off. However, since my last visit, I have learned some things about the way the Trotter kitchen operates that makes me think we did it wrong. If I were to return I think that #1 I would be more inclined to let the kitchen do more with wine matchings -- We stuck with one wine all night, but after having seen on his TV show the degree to which trotter is willing to customize and tweak a dish to accentuate the qualities of specific wines, I think it must add a massive amount of pleasure to the experience to really take advantage of a fuller range of wines/course pairings. #2 We somehow missed our cues to really respond to the courses. The maitre'd would come by after every course to gauge our reactions, and then (apparently) go back to the kitchen to report verbatim what the diners have said to the chef, who tweaks the offerings to more aptly satisfy the diners' desires. We didn't know that. So our responses tended to be along the lines of "Yeah, it was delicious!", when a more thoughtful response might have given the kitchen a chance to more carefully hone the menu to meet our tastes.

    As for the others...I don't know. Zim, Bryan, Erik, Cliff, the reputation of the Chicago board is at stake! Le Bouchon has gotten some nice mentions on this board recently -- I don't know if the focus is on Alsatian food specifically. You might also peruse the threads on Blackbird, Echo, Mod, Absinthe and some of the other newer nouveau-american places that have opened in the last couple of years. As far as thoughtful wine service, Bin 36 springs to mind -- I'd love to hear some of the other Chicagoans feelings on it and other wine bar type places.

    7 Replies
    1. re: Seth

      Right behind you on Trotters. Only went once, but it was quite enough thank you. "Too precious." Yes indeedy. And although I don't blanch at spending copious amounts of dough on a good meal, I was really stunned by the prices. Some of the wine markups were just criminal. And Charlie was there that night, and quite present. The man who was buying dinner offered him a glass of wine and he drank it in the kitchen and had the server thank us.
      Now Seth - about Aruns. I really think you should give it another try. I've been going for years and think the prix fixe actually improved the cooking level. It's still the best Thai in town - at the price. Then again I haven't been to Thailand. But it certainly raises the bar for the other Chicago area Thai places.
      It's been a long time since we've been to Ambria but it was always excellent.
      I think he can find a menu for Everest on the LYE site. And as far as special requests I believe if you call in advance he's very accomodating.
      Other than that - no info as of yet. Trying for Le Bouchon this wknd.

      1. re: bryan

        Wow! Thanks for the information. The Trotter comments are interesting. I assume if enough people tell you you are god, well, you start to believe it. Too bad though. Last time I was there, I simply got them to set up a rack of 7/8 half glasses to match the meal and saved a bundle. I was there for the food after all.

        After deciphering LYE (got it in 2 tries) and finding the website, I looked at the menu and it answered almost all my questions. I think I'll try Everest, making sure Joho is there first -- there were a goodly number of Alsatian dishes there all of which sounded great.

        Is Le Bouchon that tiny little place on the west side of Damen (bar on the right as you walk in, very crowded)? If it is it's a wonderful place that I'd forgotten about.

        I've been to Topolobompo and really liked it. Arun's should be be interesting (we have an awful lot of Thai places here but the Thai/French combo will be interesting -- there's a chef in Toronto named Susur Lee who does much the same with Chinese and French ingredients and techniques).

        Thanks again! I'll probably be back asking questions again before I visit.

        1. re: mike

          That's Le Bouchon. On Damen and (i think) Armitage.

          As far as Arun's is concerned, I am due for a nother visit. And yes, it not being like thailand is not germane--you're absolutely right. I mention that only as context for the high expectations that we went in with on my prior visit. I will, I guess, need to start saving up for a visit there--I remember it being very expensive. Am I wrong about that? That may have been another element that contributed to my less than stellar reaction to the place: I felt like the difference in quality was not commensurate with the difference in price between Arun's and other thai places in the city. But, I give in, I will revisit, and reappraise my feelings about the food.

          On the subject of asian/french fusion-- has anyone been to Pasteur? Does this place fit the bill for our Canadian visitor? I've never been, but have heard pretty positive things. Lastly I would second the recommendation of A Tavola, which I really like.

          Whatever you end up choosing, please do report back.

          1. re: Seth

            Hey, Seth.

            You're right, Bouchon is at Damen/Armitage.

            My "Thailand" comment was not intended as a crack. Bryan had said something about not having been.

            Pasteur is really good. The closest comparison I can make is Le Colonial, but that's not fair to Pasteur. [NB Much like Arun's, there's a premium placed on presentation.] In addition to great food, the atmosphere is very pleasant. There's outdoor seating, curbside, in the warmer months.
            The last time that I was there, I got the impression that they were trying to get more serious about their wine offerings. I was underwhelmed on that front...

            1. re: Erik M.

              Im away, so this will be brief. (loved all the Trotter stories. Avoid him and all other places where the pretension overtakes the food). Try The Blue Stem on Irving Park. Good food moderately priced in a quiet, kind of New York-style setting. Friendly staff and the owner is not only present, he's in back cooking. Kiki's Bistro has great French. Chefs really do eat there on their day off.

            2. re: Seth

              Pasteur is a little expensive (though not nearly as much as Arun's) but very nice. Unlike Arun's the fusion didn't not mean more delicate/less robust/aggressive spicing (this in my opinion is a good thing) Particular favorites were the crab special (I do not remember the exact name but there was only one crab entree) and the homemade pinapple ice cream. Both times I have been there the atmosphere was lively and when there with a group of 6 or more conversation can be hard to hear. Definitely a place to check out though I am not sure it would be on my short list

        2. re: Seth

          Re: Matching food at Charlie Trotter's to wine

          My dear son Seth may well be correct that our not choosing to have the approriate wine flights with our meal detracted from our experience at Charlie Trotter's. However, he may not be aware that the "approved" wine flights would have added $75 per person to the tab--which, at $100 each two years ago, led to an almost $800 tab for the five of us--including two bottles of white wine, tax and tip. If we had indulged in the wine, the tab would have soared to $1,000 for the evening.

          Of course, by showing our cheapness, I believe we were written off by the wait-staff as hopeless hicks--which didn't help the experience.

          However, never again.....

          Jim Zurer
          Washington DC

        3. well,

          most of these places are not my cup of tea - I tend to go more "low rent". But I have to been to Arun's 5 or 6 times and would definitely recommend it. My opinions differ somewhat from Seth on this issue. Of the times I have been there, only once was I disappointed. Of course my favorite time was in its old location with four tables and a more normal menu, but even since the prix-fixe option has sprung up, the food has been fairly consistently great. It is not Home-style Thai cooking, and because of that is fairly unique. The larb is indeed excellent, most of the other menu options change according to seasonality so I will not list favorites, but I will say that you can mention preferences when calling in a reservation that will be accomodated, for example vegetarian options or in the case of my family, that spicy is good. In fact I have an aunt who insists that my father take her to Arun's every time she visits Chicago (from Houston).

          As for the others I did notice a link on the main link page that documents visits to a number of these restaurants (with photos of food)so...

          Another place i would probably add to your list, though not French is one Bayless's places: Topolopbampo or Frontera Grill, they are among the most acclaimed of Chicago restaurants and pretty excellent.

          1. Maybe I spoke too soon over on the Canadian board. I hadn't seen your list. LOL!

            Le Francais: I ate there ages ago. I can hardly remember the experience. I know that I didn't really enjoy it, as I found it stodgy/hidebound.

            Trotter's: I loved it. I had the occasion to celebrate a birthday in the kitchen. Alas, no one seems to ride the fence on the subject of CT.

            Arun's: I've been to Thailand. Who cares. Its not particularly germane to the subject. I certainly never had anything like this in Thailand. That being said, I liked Arun's alot.

            Ambria: I enjoyed Ambria. I wish that I could say something more worthwhile.

            Everest: N/A

            Tru: I couldn't say it any better than Pepper.

            I'd think that given your interests, you really need to get some better opinions on Ambria and Everest. They are held in very high regard, hereabouts.

            Some thoughts...
            Aubriot: I've not been, but Tom Armitage's comments have kept me curious.

            NoMI: I went shortly after it opened. I really enjoyed it. Most notably, I remember some exceptional wines by the glass. [The bar and outdoor patio are great for drinks in the summer, BTW.]

            MK: A favourite.
            Blackbird: A favourite.

            In the past year I've had very pleasureable meals at Vong, A Tavola, Frontera, KiKi's, and Spiaggia.

            I haven't been to Les Nomades is awhile, but I've heard that it is still exceptional.

            Chicago is a steakhouse town. I really like Gene and Georgetti, but I can almost assure you of disappointment with the service. [This place is for regulars.] The Chop House probably has the best steaks and wine list.

            Naha: I haven't been, nor do I know anyone who has. Its been getting alot of press...

            Good luck.
            Erik M.

            1. One of the great things about Chowhound is the diversity of views you get in reponse to a question. Of course, it helps if people explain their views. Otherwise it's hard to know how to react to one person who says, "It's great," and another person who says, "It sucks." I've posted quite a bit on the Chicago board (even though I live in Los Angeles), so much of the following is repetitious of my previous posts. That said, here's my run down of your list.

              1. Le Francais. Haven't heard anything about Banchet packing it in, but I don't keep real up to the minute on recent developments in the Chicago food scene. Jeez, it was only 1999 when Banchet resumed control of the restaurant from Roland and Mary Beth Liccioni. I personally don't think it's worth the drive to Wheeling, given your other choices in Chicago, including the Liccionis' restaurant in Chicago, Les Nomades. I had a very good meal at Les Nomades not long ago.

              2. Charlie Trotter's. I haven't been all that many times, and not recently, but I think C.T. is great. I like his inventiveness and the high quality of his ingredients. Some find his food "sterile." But it sure tasted good to me.

              3. Arun's. Thumbs down. Dumbed down, overly sweet versions of Thai dishes. Misses the intensity and complex spiciness of truly good Thai cooking.

              4. Ambria. Thumbs up. Yeah, the atmosphere is kinda stuffy and formal, but I like the romantic look and feel of the place and have had some very good food here. Again, though, my caveat is that it's been a while since I've eaten here.

              5. Everest. I know that this place is on most lists of top restaurants in Chicago, but the meals I've had here lacked any imagination or "soul." Pretty boring, in my minority opinion.

              6. Tru. Better to give the enormous wad of money you'd spend on a meal here to a deserving charity.

              In addition to Les Nomades, which didn't make your list, I'd suggest considering Blackbird (skillfully prepared food with creative combinations of flavors and textures); Aubriot (Eric Aubriot also produces skillfully prepared and innovative food. I still dream about his chicken livers with grapes and grape juice); Topolobampo (wonderful and interesting "haute cuisine" Mexican cooking); a tavola (not as upscale as the other places on your list, or as expensive for that matter. Uncomplicated, but perfectly executed, Italian food. Don't miss the gnocchi or the apple dessert). Le Bouchon, which was mentioned in some of the other posts, is a completely different sort of animal from the other places on your list. Not at all upscale, it's a noisy, sorta funky, neighborhood bistro, but with very good French bistro fare. Don't miss the onion tart. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. I also like Harvest on Huron a lot. Again, not as upscale as the other places on your list, but interesting food in a nicely decorated space.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Tom Armitage

                Hey Tom. Banchet retired two months ago. I'm having trouble remembering to whom he handed the reigns. Anyone?

                1. re: bryan

                  According to Metromix:

                  Chef/founder Jean Banchet has turned over the reins of his illustious 4-star restaurant to Don Yamauchi, formerly of Carlos'.

                  1. re: Seth

                    Bummer. One of my hobbies is bringing cookbooks to restaurnts and getting the chefs to sign them. He had an amazing venison roast recipe in "French Chefs Cooking."