Report: Avenues, Green Zebra, 11 City Diner, Orange
Thanks to all the 'hounds for answers to my <A href = "http://www.chowhound.com/topics/34179...> about Chicago dining. Brief report follows:
11 CITY DINER -- we arrived late and walked down to 11 City Diner for a late dinner. Attractive, high-ceilinged room, lots of activity but not overly loud. Menu a strange hybrid of NY deli menu and NJ diner menu, but much shorter than either. Mother-in-law had a matzah ball soup with a matzah ball so large it was a bit ridiculous and unseemly. But she said it tasted good. My patty melt acquitted itself well. The best thing I ate here was actually a corned beef and pastrami hash I got for breakfast takeout right before leaving Chicago. Overall: not a destination but certainly a good place to stop in for a casual meal at around $15 per.
GREEN ZEBRA -- a suprisingly long taxi ride into a part of town that was semi-deserted at 9pm. Absolutely worth the trip. Three of the four of us ordered Chef Kim's tasting menu ($55); note that the dishes on the tasting menu aren't listed, and if multiple people order it, they will get different selections! This is great if you like sharing. They were also very receptive to the several and various food constraints of our party.
I'm a meat-eater, but this is vegetarian food that doesn't taste like a consolation prize to me. Subtle and creative use of the vegetable flavors themselves -- not heavy spicing or condiments -- drives this menu, and it never stopped surprising. Some highlights: the parsnip soup with parsnip-vanilla panna cotta, black rice and chestnut cake, the roasted chard and polenta which underlay, and nearly upstaged, a scallop... I had the non-alcoholic beverage pairing -- an amusing home-made soft drink with each course. Fun, but not essential.
AVENUES -- Our meal at Green Zebra was such a success that we were worried our splurge night out would be an anticlimax. Happily, we were wrong. We sat at the Kitchen Bar, which is not as intimate as a table, but which has the advantage that a) you are about two feet from the chef and his crew, and can watch the whole restaurant's orders being made; and b) it's not as popular, so you can get a reservation at a normal time without too much advance notice.
The restaurant was busy, and when we asked if I could have the ten-plate chef's tasting and Mrs. Machaca not, our waiter reported that the chef would really rather not do it that way -- but by way of making it up to us they offered that we could both order the three-course meal ($90) and let us pick a couple of extra dishes each at no extra charge. Graceful and fair. And this was what allowed me to get the highlight of the night (and of the trip), the crisped veal sweetbreads with herbed spaetzle, apples, and chestnuts. This dish was like a love letter to the concept of frying -- crispy, harmonious, autumnal, holy howah it was good. Other standouts -- the deconstructed caesar salad (lettuce on top of a giant mascarpone crouton), the amuse bouche of leek soup with birch essence, and the salmon with pumpernickel crust; this was almost the only thing served to us that wasn't <i>visually</i> appealing, but it works.
The menu here isn't very descriptive; reading it online, I underestimated how inventive and exciting this dinner would be.
ORANGE: Went here for a very pleasant brunch -- the place is packed, and people who came on the late side had to wait a while. Pretentious in a good way ("If you want to build your own omelet, have breakfast in a place with 'International' in the name," and a "pancake flight" of small pancakes served four different ways.) My eggs Benedict was admirable and they were very friendly to Baby Machaca, who had his first pancake. Recommended.