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Aug 27, 2007 08:08 AM

Calling Nsxtasy (or someone nearly as good)

Of all the Chicagoans whom I've read here, s/he seems to be closest to my age and perspective.

I've read dozens of names of places, but I just can't bring myself to make a reservation at any of them.

I was considering Topolobampo till I saw the website. Chef to Oprah, books and TV spots with his face on them . . . . I'm just a modest, shy writer of serious nonfiction from little old Brooklyn, NY. I'm looking to eat well, not air kiss celebrities.

Of 160 Blue, Everest, Blackbird, Naha, MK, and Avec . . . is any about the food, the >food<, and nothing but the food? (Oh, if success has gotten to it a little, maybe I can't rule the place out peremptorily.)

My wife and I will be in Chicago for Labor Weekend. She wants to celebrate my imminent signing of a book contract with a fine place on Saturday night; but for Sunday and Monday, less pretention (and expense) will be tolerated.

We like all cuisines. It's quality that doesn't beat its proverbial breast that we seek. Decor and location matter not a jot or tittle.

Thank you in advance, Nsxtasy and any others of her/his level of discernment.

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  1. The food, the food, and nothing but the food is definitely Avec. Many many chefs dine at Avec late night after they leave their own restaurants. This is rustic food at its best...nothing fancy, just good food and wine. Many restaurants have tried to emulate what Avec has done but imho, none compare. Check it out. You'll enjoy great food and the communal seating may allow for some good conversation as well.

    No pretension here. They have a very reasonable menu and also a great wine list with many by the glass (quartino actually so you get about 1.5 glasses per order).

    1 Reply
    1. re: NDJ

      I would agree that Avec is outstanding, all about the food, and I love every bite I have had there, but the atmosphere might not be best for a quiet celebration dinner for two. No reservations accepted, so you could end up standing outside for a while. Long communal tables, so you could easily be sandwiched between several new acquaintances. Sometimes that's fun, but sometimes, like last time I was there, you don't want to hear quite so much conversation between a depressed 50-something divorcee bemoaning the Chicago dating scene to her show-off trophy-wife poser of a friend. Then again, it could lead to some entertaining stories for that first novel, or you could end up next to some new friends. Just saying, you never know what you're going to get. Might be a better fit for your Sunday/Monday meal.

      All the other places you mentioned are excellent, as is Topolobampo, but the one place that comes to mind when I read your description is Northpond. A little outside of the city center, right on Lincoln Park, prairie style decor overlooking a pond, focused on excellent cuisine made from locally sourced food. That would be my choice.

    2. I would say of the list, MK is about the food the most and has the least pretence. I actually sat next to the wife of MK (and co-owner) at a charity function about a month ago, and she was very down to earth and unassuming. I've eaten there several times and its always a mix of business people, young and old. No air kissing here

      I agree with the other poster that Avec is laid back and very friendly; BUT it's filled with hipsters and "cool" people. So depending on whether a lot of hip people intimidate you, you might not feel comfortable there

      Everest is by far of the most snooty place I've ever been to. So that should definitely get crossed off your list

      Some other suggestions you might want to consider that are laid back, great food and fairly inexpensive: West Town Tavern on Chicago or Campagnola in Evanston,

      1. For your fine dining Saturday night, I would consider Les Nomades, Spiaggia, Everest (while stuffy indeed, it IS one of the best meals I've had in Chicago - on that level at least). If you want "casual fine dining" instead - without the pretension - I would definitely recommend Aigre Doux, One SixtyBlue, North Pond, MK (though lower on my list here), and the like. NSXtacy's posts should be all you need to make an informed decision.

        Chicago has so many high-caliber casual fine dining restaurants - I feel you can hardly go wrong.

        There's a new restaurant that's been getting many rave reviews: Sepia. You may want to check that out, too.

        Hope you have a great weekend and congrats on the book deal!

        4 Replies
        1. re: DKS1

          Thanks to all for taking the time to respond. (Nsxtasy, where are you?)

          I have a short list that a colleague has given me:

          Coco Pazzo
          Sichuan Chef (in Chinatown)
          Cuatro (at 21st and Wabash, I think)

          Does anyone second a place from this list for the more modest dinners that I'm planning for Sunday and Monday?

          Everyone responded to the question re: the big-ticket dinner only; without smaller tickets, the big one wouldn't be so special. . . .

          Again, thanks for the help. It's good to know that Chicagoans are so friendly.

          PS: Any non-touristic pizza that's walkable from the dock of the Chi. Architecture Foundation boat tour? Giordano, Gulliver, Bacino, Lou Malnati, Pizano, Pizza Capri?

          1. re: 75 percent cacao

            Re: "Sichuan Chef" -- I think this must be Lao Sze Chuan, which is indeed excellent. The original English name of the restaurant was "Mandarin Chef", but it has gone by its Chinese name for several years now.

            Lao Sze Chuan
            2172 S Archer Ave, Chicago, IL 60616

            1. re: 75 percent cacao

              I'll second Cuatro - they have a modest atmosphere and their food is outstanding. We've eaten there several times and I've never been disappointed. There's a seafood "stew" dish that I think is called Moqueqa del Mar that is out of this world - it has a cocunut broth. Their ceviche is nice too.

              1. re: 75 percent cacao

                Lou Malnatis on Wells St. is not too bad a walk from the Arch. Boat Tour. I'd also second the opinion to avoid Gino's East, although I hesitate to descend into the perennial Chicago Pizza debate since everyone has their own opinion.

                Coco Pazzo is very good. I go there about once a month because it is convenient for me and am rarely disappointed. There is also a more casual Coco Pazzo Cafe on St. Claire in the Gold Coast.

                I went to Cuatro once and found it good. There are a lot of good mid-range mexican/Latin restaraunts in town - Cuatro, Frontera, Salpicon (a little more $$), Zocalo, Carnivale, etc. I would put Cuatro at the bottom of that list, but not by much, and only based on one visit. I don't tend to get to the South Loop too often.

                Recently I have been to Zocalo (on Huron or Ohio?) a few times recently and have been pleasantly suprised. They seem to have reformatted their menu away form tapas style and now have a Sunday special of Appetizer, Entree, and Dessert for $25. House margaritas were $5 last week. I have had the guacamole, trio of tamalitos, Chile Rellenos, and crab cake appetizers; Strip steak, rib eye, shrimp in mojo de ajo, and encihlada entrees, and all of the desserts, of which the tres leches was by far the best. The enchiladas and rib eye were so-so, but everything else quite good. Its only been half full when I am there, but its a very nice space with good food.

                For Chinatown, if you want spicy Szechuanese style, go to Lao Szechuan, although its really best with a big group where you can order ten dishes and sample a little of each. All sorts of odd dishes for the adventurous.

                I'll also throw in, for the absent nsxtasy, Aigre Doux. I'm not really a fan, but I know that he (I think its a he?) loves it. In fact a lot of people do. On Kinzie St. not too far from Coco Pazzo or Lou Malnatis.

            2. > (Nsxtasy, where are you?)

              Thanks for the compliments! (And, to answer your question, I was spending a long weekend in Central Indiana, so my next couple of posts will be over on the Midwest board, about my two excellent dinners in Terre Haute and Indianapolis.) Fortunately, I see a lot of excellent comments from others here. Here are my $.02 as well…

              I understand how you feel about celebrity chefs. Like you, I’m all about the food. The celebrity doesn’t mean anything to me. But the food – oh, the food! The one disclaimer I should make is that I really don’t mind going to a celebrity type restaurant if the food is outstanding. So with places like one sixtyblue or Aigre Doux, both with a pretty good publicity machine and a super nice décor, I don’t care about the buzz, but I’ll recommend them because the food I’ve had at both places is simply divine. So my orientation may be a bit different from yours, where you’re looking for a place that’s *only* about the food – which may exclude a lot of places that have superb food.

              One other thing I’ll mention, just to apply some perspective – my personal criterion for a *great* dinner is one in which *every* dish, from the appetizers, to the entrees, to the desserts – makes you want to scream, “WOW! THAT’S DELICIOUS!” I’ve had many, many excellent meals. But the number of places in the Chicago area that meet that lofty criterion is very small. Off the top of my head, the places that I’ve felt that way about include, in the city, Everest, one sixtyblue, Aigre Doux, and Blackbird, and in the suburbs, Tallgrass (Lockport), Oceanique (Evanston), and Michael (Winnetka). There may be a few others that aren’t coming to mind, but those are the very best of the best IMHO. So if you’re looking for great food, those are my top picks (regardless of celebrity, décor, etc). I don’t mean to disregard our many other fine restaurants by noting these, either; in fact, I often praise other places as well. But these are places where I have had the most memorable meals in recent years.

              A few quick reactions to the places you and others have mentioned, and responses to questions…

              Topolobampo – A celebrity chef, crowded and noisy atmosphere. But the food is very good, with some of the most creative Mexican food in town.

              One sixtyblue – Yes, it has hip décor, with a “see and be seen” attitude. But the food is spectacular (see above).

              Everest – I found the service there to be exquisite, in fact the finest service I have ever seen at a restaurant anywhere (not at all stuffy, either). And the view from the top of the Midwest Stock Exchange Building is thrilling. And yes, the food is spectacular (see above).

              Blackbird – Like one sixtyblue, it’s a hip place, but the food is spectacular (see above).

              Naha – Very good food and atmosphere.

              MK – Very good food, but crowded and noisy, with very rushed service.

              Avec – Yes, it has very good food, and it’s very unpretentious in style (although some people can show a certain pretentiousness in defending it). It’s really not my cup of tea, between the communal tables (wak’s description is great) and inability to take reservations. It’s the perfect place if you’re sitting around hungry and it’s getting late and you just want to walk out and go someplace really good, fairly late at night, without advance planning, and you don’t care who you’re sitting next to. Me? I spend a lot of time planning in advance where I want to go, and I want to be with my companion(s) there, not others. Fortunately, there are lots of options to choose from; I’ll choose Blackbird over Avec every time, while others may choose the reverse. (You’re probably aware that Blackbird and Avec are co-owned, next door to each other.)

              North Pond – wak recommended this and I think it’s an excellent place. They specialize in fresh, local foods. Their décor and location in Lincoln Park (as well as their food) makes this an excellent recommendation for a special occasion.

              Campagnola – It’s a decent place, but not worth traveling to Evanston (I’m assuming you are staying somewhere in the downtown Chicago area). If you want casual Italian, suitable places in and around downtown include Café Spiaggia, Coco Pazzo, and Coco Pazzo Café.

              Les Nomades, Spiaggia – These are among the best places in Chicago. Spiaggia is unique as the only “top table” that specializes in Italian food. However, if I wanted a splurge dinner, I’d be considering Everest, Alinea, Avenues, Tru, or Charlie Trotter’s. All of these are very good indeed. But at this level, you’re not going to find a lack of pretension, unless you can get through on the phone to make a reservation at Schwa.

              Coco Pazzo – It’s an excellent choice if you want Italian. Also consider Café Spiaggia, and the previously-mentioned Coco Pazzo Café.

              Lao Sze Chuan – Excellent choice if you want Chinese. But if I had three days in Chicago, this isn’t a place I would go. Two weeks, then maybe.

              Cuatro – Hmmm… Cuatro is a very good place specializing in pan-Latin food. The food there is very interesting, and much of it is delicious. It’s particularly convenient if you happen to be near McCormick Place. But again, if I had three days in Chicago, this isn’t a place I would go. (I might choose Topolobampo instead.) Two weeks, then maybe.

              Now, for a couple of places that no one has yet mentioned…

              Sweets and Savories – This is a “casual fine dining” place that is an extreme example of lack of pretension. It’s in a modest storefront in the west end of Lincoln Park (i.e. NOT a tourist area), and the food is very good.

              Lula – A similar recommendation, total lack of pretension. Casual fine dining specializing in fresh and local foods, in Logan Square (NOT a tourist area).

              > Any non-touristic pizza that's walkable from the dock of the
              > Chi. Architecture Foundation boat tour?

              The boat tours leave from the Michigan Avenue boat dock. There are several places for great Chicago-style pizza nearby. For double-crust “stuffed” pizza, Bacino’s (at 75 E Wacker Dr) is just a few steps from the dock; Giordano’s is a few blocks south in the Prudential Plaza on Lake Street. For single-crust “pan” pizza, the original locations of Uno’s and Due are a few blocks away, and a bit further are Lou Malnati’s (on N. Wells) and Gino’s East (on E. Superior).


              If I were here for three days, I would probably choose meals from four of the following five categories:

              - Splurge (Everest, Alinea, Avenues, etc)
              - Casual Fine Dining (one sixtyblue, Blackbird, Aigre Doux, etc)
              - Chicago-style pizza
              - Ethnic (Chinese, Mexican, Thai)
              - Breakfast/Brunch (Orange, Bongo Room, Kitsch’n, etc)

              If I were making up an itinerary, I would probably choose something like Everest (or maybe Avenues) on Saturday night (for the splurge), a casual fine dining place for Sunday or Monday (probably Custom House or North Pond, both of which are open on Sundays), and pizza and/or one of the ethnic choices for lunch or the other dinner. Maybe Sunday brunch too, but you always run the risk of filling up so much at Sunday brunch or pizza lunch that you don't have much appetite for dinner that night.

              Hope all this information is helpful; feel free to ask any questions. Sorry for not being more timely!