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How are my choices - Chicago next weekend?

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Hi Chicago Chowhounders,

We are heading to Chicago from Montreal Thurs-Sun next this coming week and we have chosen BBQ, Thai, Mexican and once fancy night out. Please let us know if our choices are ok. We are staying in the loop and we have no car, so we will be relying on the El and our own two feet.

BBQ: Honey 1
Thai: TAC quick
Mexican Nuevo Leon (though I would love a high end Mexican suggestion - is Bayless our only option?)
fancy: Blackbird or Avec (same owners right?)

Lunch: Bombon bakery, Pastoral, Fox and Obel.

Sound ok?

Thanks

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  1. Looks good. For high-end mexican, you could maybe try Fonda Del Mar in logan square, or Salpicon in Old Town. My personal absolute favorite of the genre is Sol de Mexico, but it'd require a cab ride or a few buses, so I don't think I'd recommend it for your situation.

    1 Reply
    1. re: gleam

      Re: Sol De Mexico - It was number one with a bullet, but it is just too difficult to get to.... Glad to hear the choices are good. We're really looking forward to visiting such a great eating town!

    2. No problem with most of your plans.

      For Mexican, another higher-end place convenient to downtown is Adobo Grill, either location. But gleam's recommendation of Salpicon is a good one, and probably my next choice after Bayless for a place convenient to public transportation from the Loop. (My personal favorite is Flamingo's Seafood in Mount Prospect, near O'Hare, but like Sol de Mexico, it too is not at all convenient to get to without a car.)

      For high-end, Avec and Blackbird are very different places, despite the common chef and ownership. Avec is casual, does not accept reservations (not a problem for weekdays and off-hours, can be horrible on weekend evenings), it's VERY LOUD, the wooden seating is uncomfortable IMHO and I've not always been pleased at some experiences sitting with people I don't know. But that's all part of the Avec experience. The food is excellent; I just find that it tries my patience, considering how good the food is (and I usually cut a place a lot of slack when the food is good). For these reasons, it wouldn't be my choice for "one nice meal while in town", but it's a good place for something more casual during the week, such as if you feel like going out for a light meal later in the evening. Blackbird, OTOH, is excellent, and more conventional - they take reservations, loud but not excessively so, and just a nicer all-around experience. Also, if you decide to go to Blackbird, particularly for a weekend, make reservations well in advance. I was thinking of going there last weekend, so I called on the previous Wednesday, and they had nothing between 5:30 and 9:30; I then called one sixtyblue and got the time I wanted, and had a spectacular dinner there. Personally, for contemporary American food, and for a nice evening out, I strongly recommend one sixtyblue even more than Blackbird, although both are excellent in every way and they are my top two picks. Other places for excellent contemporary American food, convenient to the Loop and to public transportation and suitable for "one nice dinner while in town", include Custom House, North Pond, and Aigre Doux. All of these, including Blackbird and one sixtyblue, are excellent choices and you'll enjoy any of them.

      One more note - I don't mean to quibble with your use of the word "fancy", but just so you know, none of these are "dress up" places (i.e. business casual attire is fine, no jacket required for gentlemen, etc).

      4 Replies
      1. re: nsxtasy

        Please note that onesixtyblue was featured on Check Please on 9/9/2007 with pretty favorable reviews. Because of that the Check Please effect may be in full force and reservations might be harder to come by.

        1. re: lbs

          My experience, less than two weeks ago, says that reservations at one sixtyblue aren't particularly difficult to come by. I was making a reservation on Wednesday for four for the following Saturday evening and they were wide open on opentable.com Right now, I see on opentable.com that availability is pretty easy for this Saturday night; even the coveted 7:30 pm two-top is available (although nothing for two between 6:00 and 7:30).

          Of course, any time you're planning to go to a particular restaurant, it's wise to make reservations in advance if you can. And never rule a place out without actually *trying* to make a reservation, either by phone or over the internet. opentable.com makes it especially easy to check availability for many restaurants at a time, for those restaurants listed. (And even if a place appears booked on opentable.com, sometimes you can find availability by phoning them.)

          1. re: lbs

            onesixtyblue was featured on Check Please on November 9, not September 9.

            1. re: Eldon Kreider

              Whoops! I knew that too. I'm still stuck in September I guess. I

              11/9/2007 - Check Please on onesixtyblue

        2. Take me with you! haha -- that's a great list. Honey 1, TAC Quick (I prefer Spoon Thai, but TAC is excellent) and your lunch spots sound great. Make sure to bring along your own translated menu to TAC Quick because it offers the real gems.

          I love Blackbird -- make sure to get a reservation. Avec is more casual and very different . . . leaning toward small Mediterranean bites, whereas I think Blackbird leans toward local and seasonal American presentations (if you like pork, especially pork belly, don't miss out on those dishes from Blackbird). You'll find Blackbird more mature and a little more relaxed.

          Nuevo Leon - You know, I like it . . . I don't love it. I think Salpicon is excellent and you can take the Brown Line El to the Sedgwick stop, and walk 15 minutes through Old Town to Salpicon (or take the Red Line to Clark/Division) or take a cab -- it's easy to get a cab in Old Town. Check out their website: salpicon.com.

          If you don't want your Mexican meal to be as upscale, take the Congress branch of the Blue Line (now called the Pink Line) to the California/Cermak stop, walk about 5 minutes to La Casa de Samuel (on the north side of Cermak, just west of California). The food is outstanding, particularly the venison and the goat if you choose to be so adventurous (those are my two favorites, but everything is excellent), and the service could not be any more friendly. Here's some more info on LCdS: http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic....

          Fonda del Mar is very good, but it will put you in a similar bind to Sol de Mexico. It's not real close to the El and a cab ride will be pricier.

          Ultimately, for Mexican, I think Salpicon would be very convenient and the food is excellent.

          Have a great trip!

          1. Since you are leaving on Sunday, consider Salpicon for brunch. they really do a fabulous job and it's an excuse to have a morning bloody mary or Bellini.

            For dinner, we loved Adobo grill, but I think that Bayless is in another league from the rest of the field. It's probably too late to make reservations to Topo, but if you get to Frontera after 9 PM you can just walk in without waiting on a weeknight.

            Bayless is in another league than.

            2 Replies
            1. re: atievsky

              I believe that many of the Mexican chefs in Chicago are in the same league as Bayless when it comes to Mexican food. I think Bayless brought a lot of attention to the cuisine and does it so well, but there are some who do it as well as or better than him. I like what Freddy Sanchez has done at Adobo, but I can't help but feel that someone forced him to dumb down his menu a bit. I have always thoroughly enjoyed Salpicon, probably more than Frontera/Topo.

              1. re: atievsky

                > It's probably too late to make reservations to Topo

                If that's where you want to go, don't assume you can't get reservations without at least trying (which applies to any place, not just Topolobampo). And for places that accept reservations on opentable.com - (including Topolobampo and Salpicon) - it's easy to look up availability for a whole lot of places at a time with just a few clicks on your keyboard.

              2. Well - I have reservations for Blackbird on Friday night. I let my partner choose the fancy place since it is his birthday. We'll divide up the other places over the other nights.

                1. Honey1 is about a 10-15 minute walk from the nearest El stop. (Western on the Blue Line) Keep in mind that you can transfer to buses which run along most of the major north-south and east-west streets and avenues.

                  Also, at $2/person, sometimes it will be worth the extra $5-10 or so to take a taxi to some places to save time. Our city's transit system has the benefit of running 24 hours but isn't always as efficient as your Montreal system is.

                  Enjoy your trip!

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: tex888

                    Close, but Honey 1 is really only a 5-10 minute walk from the Western Ave. Blue Line station -- less than a 1/2 mile.

                    1. re: tex888

                      > Keep in mind that you can transfer to buses
                      > which run along most of the major north-south
                      > and east-west streets and avenues.

                      Also keep in mind that low-cost transfers are only available when paying fares using a transit card, not when paying cash.

                    2. Try Shikago for lunch. It is owned by Alan and Kevin Shikami the food is Fusion Pan Asian and it is OUT OF THIS WORLD. 190 S LaSalle is the address, but you actually enter on Adams. They also own the restaurant Kevin. Another place you might concider is Opera in the south loop. Great food great price fun and FUNKY. Take the Red line bus # 12 Roosevelt ,29 state or greenline train Roosevelt/wabash stop.

                      10 Replies
                      1. re: Kathfootball

                        A good friend of mine just had her anniversary dinner at Avec and loved it. The menu is small and medium sized plates and very reasonable. Four people, with a bottle of $40 wine, got away for $120.

                        If you want a very centrally located Thai restaurant, try VTK. It's just west of Michigan Avenue on the near north side, behind Nordstrom. Perfect for a lunch while you're shopping or out looking around. Part of the Lettuce Entertain You empire, but I love the salmon and the service is always friendly.

                        1. re: brendastarlet

                          While I would agree with you that Avec is excellent, I have to say that I just can't stand VTK. I liked it when it was in its original format (I believe just "Vong's?"), but then when Lettuce converted it to VTK they destroyed the restaurant. The conversion involved reducing the restaurant from a fine dining establishment to an Asian-like cafe with less expensive prices and poor food (akin to Big Bowl). The highlight to me was the waitress explaining a dessert and telling me that it included "MARCUS-PONE" cheese, as opposed to mascarpone. Right then, I knew all that I needed to know about VTK . . . I'm just wondering when they'll start serving baby back, baby back, baby back ribs.

                          1. re: BRB

                            Wasn't Vong an entirely different restaurant in a different location over in Streeterville - somewhere East of Michigan Ave. It was a Chicago outpost of Jean Georges Vongerichten's Vong in NYC. VTK was conceived separately as more basic Thai restaurant and Vongerichten is still officially a partner in VTK as far as I know. So its not that Lettuce took over some high end restaurant and destroyed it, its just never been that great. If I recall correctly, Lettuce was a partner in Vong as well. For more examples of celebrity chef's overextending themselves through restaurant empires, visit any place with either "Wolfgang" or "Puck" in the name.

                            1. re: wak

                              You're correct that the Chicago Vong's was an outpost of the NY Vong's (and opened in Chicago in 1999), but VTK is in the old Vong's spot and opened shortly after Vong's closed in 2001. They made the dining room less formal and changed the menu to a much more casual approach. Vongerichten is still connected and played a role in developing the menu for VTK.

                              1. re: BRB

                                That could be. My memory is a little foggy on where Vong was.

                                My main point though was that Lettuce did not take over a four star restaurant and destroy it. They co-founded the original with Jean Georges Vongerichten, and after several years when it failed for whatever reason, they re-formatted it along with the original chef , no slouch he, to be a mid-range casual Thai restaurant. I'm no huge fan, but it certainly is quite busy, so it has its audience and is quite successful on its own terms.

                                That said, the OP is in much better hands sticking with TAC Quick or Spoon Thai if they want the real thing.

                                1. re: BRB

                                  Hi Chicago!

                                  I believe JG changed the menu to include some of his dishes from the Spice Market place in NYC. (Malaysian street food) And also from the now closed 66. (Dim Sum and the like)

                                  I'm sorry to hear that some don't like it. I'm a big fan of his cuisine and live for some of his creations. Maybe he needs to change the menu again.

                                  1. re: ny.foodie

                                    I'm a huge fan of Jean Georges too . . . trust me . . . Vong's Thai Kitchen has nothing to do with JG's food . . . NOTHING!

                                    1. re: BRB

                                      I'm sorry BRB, I don't understand. If Mr. Vongerichten is still involved in the menu developement at VTK, how does it not have anything to do with his food? Are the chefs there screwing things up?

                                      1. re: ny.foodie

                                        I can't speak to what input JG has into VTK, but the restaurant offers an uninspired, Americanized selection of Thai food. It is to Thai food what PF Chang's is to Chinese food. The food isn't horrible, but there is really not much going on. Its a restaurant made to appeal to the lowest common denominator so that the tour groups from Omaha have somewhere intersting to eat after shopping at Nordstroms on their Chicago trip.

                                        Now maybe this was JG's goal for VTK - an accessible, non-challenging, version of Thai food. Nothing wrong with that really. We all need to pay the bills. But my interpretation of BRB's comment is that the food here has little relation to the much more accomplished cuisine he has developed at his other restaurants. If you expect Jean Georges, Vong, Jojo, etc, you will be quite disappointed. VTK has no resemblence to these places.

                                        1. re: wak

                                          I could not have said it better myself. :)

                        2. Geeze I almost forgot a couple of our other favorites....Naha 500 N Clark is awsome and Joes Steak and Stone Crab is a favorite too.

                          1. Execellent call on Blackbird. Its one of my favorite spots in the city.

                            For Thai food, I'm a fan of all the super casual/almost dive-y spots in the Lincoln Square area. My favorite is Opaart Thai on Western Ave, but right around the corner is Spoon Thai and Rosebud. My pals swear by Spoon being the most authentic, but I'm just a loyal Opaart gal. All three are super cheap and BYOB. Very easy walk from the Western el stop on the Brown Line.

                            Fox and Obel does a decent and tasty quick lunch, but its not the most comfortable place to linger. However, if you're planning a visit to Navy Pier - its very convenient.

                            12 Replies
                            1. re: chicagowinediva

                              Well - we went to Blackbird last night and it was nothing short of AWFUL. I have this sinking feeling that because we live in Montreal we are really spoiled for highly stylized, well-executed food. Bb gets an A for effort (I mean, bacon ice cream!) but the execution was just not up to New York, and certainly not Montreal standards. I will write up a longer post later. So far we have hit:

                              BomBon - great lunch spot - I loved their flavoured waters
                              Fox and Obel (breakfast, fine, but nothing mind-blowing)
                              Blackbird - ugh. I am planning on writing a letter to them.
                              Honey 1 - GREAT sauce. We had the ribs and the tips/links - no atmosphere, and I thought the sides were disappointing, but good, honest food. I think I ate the equivalent of 3 portions of sauce. At first I thought the ribs were dry, I think because we ordered sauce on the side (as was recommended). Once I started dipping it all came together!

                              Tonight it is a toss up between Thai and Mexican. I was originally committed to Thai, but we are looking for a mind-blowingly good meal. Adobe Grill? Salpicon? Nuevo Leon? We would also happily go to a real hole in the wall Mexican taco joint, but we never know which one is good. On our way to Honey 1 along Western Ave there looked to be a few places, ( and a great Mexican grocery store - Dannys?)

                              So, Thai or Mexican?

                              1. re: chemfemme

                                "I have this sinking feeling that because we live in Montreal we are really spoiled for highly stylized, well-executed food. Bb gets an A for effort (I mean, bacon ice cream!) but the execution was just not up to New York, and certainly not Montreal standards."

                                Perhaps you should re-read your post and see if this is really how you intended it to read. It sounds to me like you're saying that the real problem here is that people from Chicago who recommended Blackbird just don't understand how stylish and how well-executed food can be, and that if they knew how good food could be, they would not have recommended Blackbird to someone who lives in Montreal and has traveled to New York.

                                I'm guessing that those here who recommended Blackbird -- including myself -- travel a fair amount and have actually eaten at restaurants in other cities (including New York and Montreal) and are not so clueless as to the quality of dining in other cities. Maybe you had a bad meal . . . I don't know. In any event, I'll simply maintain my naive appreciation of Chicago's dining scene. :)

                                1. re: BRB

                                  Where to begin:

                                  Amuse bouche - flavourless "crab salad" with toasted wild rice and pistachios. I mean really flavourless. If you are planning on making your own house mayonnaise for a meat "salad" please make sure it is good

                                  Bread: clearly not made with a sourdough starter (like the very tasty baguette I had today at Pastoral - great place by the way). Tasted very commercial.

                                  Appetizer: Scallops - well-cooked - firm but not rock hard. The mixture of other flavours on the plate were, frankly, not tasty together.

                                  Main: Cobia with celery spaetzle. The spaetzle were disgusting - and I mean this in a very objective way. They were day-glo green and tasted nothing like celery (which would have to be radioactive to be that green). My partner had the guinea hen which was OK, not great, OK.

                                  Dessert: mine was the highlight. I had the chestnut financier with medjool dates (spelled incorrectly on the menu - madjool). Very banana-y ice cream. Dates tasted as though they had been pickled, which was weird, but the financier was nice. My partner had the fig beignet that was surrounded by several very unripe figs. Beignets were very tasty, unripe figs were not. Bacon ice cream tasted like it was made with liquid smoke, a big no no.

                                  Post-coffee cookies/treats: A lemongrass and something macaroon - macaroon was executed well, but the flavour was off and, the low point of the meal, a kalamata olive and pistachio nougat. It was AWFUL. Sadly, I nearly spit it out into the only piece of paper that I had in my purse, a dollar bill. My partner looked at me and asked if he had to swallow it. There are things that taste good in nougat at the end of a meal, mild things, and they don't even have to be your standard nuts or honey. I could have dealt with parsley, or rosemary. After a meal, dessert, and a mint tea the last thing I want in my mouth is a kalamata olive.

                                  I respect the fact that I may have ordered wrong. It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last, but I was really very disappointed. Clearly there is a very creative person at the helm, but I am really questioning whether they are being creative for the sake of being creative, or if they have the patron's tastebuds in mind. I can think of many restaurants where the chefs "play" with the classics, and even mix flavours (Susur Lee in Toronto, Laurent Godbout in Montreal, Wylie Dufresne in NYC) but they have to execute well - in that category Bb disappointed.

                                  1. re: chemfemme

                                    Interestingly, Mike Sheerin recently took over as Chef de Cuisine at Blackbird after several years as Sous Chef at WD50. So if you were there over the past couiple years you probably sampled Sheerin's handiwork there as well. Paul Kahan and Wylie Dufresne are apparently good friends. In fact, Wylie was spotted at Blackbird a couple weeks ago.

                                    1. re: wak

                                      Hmm - interesting. Listen, I wish them the best of luck - we just wouldn't recommend them after our experience. We ended up going to Salpicon last night and had another ok meal. Everything tasted the same. Sigh. We'll have to come back and try Alinea, Adobe Grill and a few others...thanks for all of your tips.

                                      1. re: chemfemme

                                        It's Adobo Grill. And if you didn't like Blackbird or Salpicon, you certainly won't like Adobo Grill.

                                        Good luck.

                                        1. re: jesteinf

                                          No need to get touchy. Listen, if you think a meal at Blackbird is worth $250, by all means, chow down. However, I can get you much better and more original food in Montreal, for less than half the price and pretension.

                                          1. re: chemfemme

                                            You went somewhere once and had a bad meal. Blackbird happens to be a fantastic restaurant, maybe you just hit it on a bad night. I'm sorry it wasn't up to your standards. I'm sure Montreal is a wonderful place.

                                            1. re: jesteinf

                                              Chicago is too. We had a great time, wonderful, warm people, great architecture and super museums. I am sure we just had bad luck.

                                            2. re: chemfemme

                                              I don't think jesteinf's comments should be interpreted as "touchy." It's just that most Chicagoans don't believe Adobo measures up to Salpicon, so if you didn't like Salpicon, you certainly aren't going to like Adobo.

                                              That being said, when you complain about Blackbird and Salpicon, and then explain that the real problem is that you're used to "Montreal standards," and that these standards are far above "Chicago standards," I hope you can appreciate how some might be put off by these comments (including myself) and view them as arrogant.

                                              And I've been to Montreal several times, and enjoyed a number of excellent meals, including a couple in the last year at Chez L'Épicier, which I regard as somewhat similar to Blackbird, but not quite as good.

                                  2. re: chemfemme

                                    I am interested in hearing of what happened at Blackbird. I have never had a bad meal there, and in all my time on this and other food boards, I don't think I can recall anyone else having such a negative reaction. The food and service have always been excellent for me. And, to corroborate Brad's comments in his reply, I have dined extensively in many other cities, including San Francisco and New York, at some of the very top "splurge" places as well as places for "casual fine dining" similar to Blackbird, and I can assure you that in both categories, Chicago compares favorably (I find it substantially better, in terms of quality and variety, than San Francisco, and very similar to New York). So please do not conclude, based on one bad experience, that Chicago is a second rate city for dining, as your post implies. It's not.

                                    As for a "mind-blowingly good meal", ... I'll tell you, first, that I love Mexican food and Thai food. These are my two favorite ethnic cuisines and I enjoy them often. But the real question for you is not just which cuisine, but which place. And I can't point you to one particular place that everyone raves about. I mentioned that Flamingo's is my favorite, and I know you can get that "mind-blowingly good meal" there, but it simply is not an option without a car. I really like the Bayless places, and Salpicon, and Adobo Grill, but for every three people who go there and come back raving, there is someone else who returns disappointed. Of the group, I've heard fewer complaints about Salpicon, but it's possible not as many people go there as the others. If I had to choose one place to recommend, it would probably be Salpicon. But I would also suggest that you check out the menus on their websites and see if one sounds better to you than the others. Here are their websites:
                                    Topolobampo/Frontera Grill - www.rickbayless.com/restaurants
                                    Salpicon - www.salpicon.com
                                    Adobo Grill - www.adobogrill.com

                                    Also, make reservations! All of these except Frontera Grill accept reservations on opentable.com so your choices may be limited because some of these places may be booked; Saturday night is the busiest time of the week. For example, checking opentable.com right now for a table for two for 7:30 tonight (usually the most popular time), here's what's available:

                                    Topolobampo - nothing within 2 hours of 7:30
                                    Salpicon - 6:00 or 8:30
                                    Adobo Grill (Old Town) - 9:15
                                    Adobo Grill (Wicker Park) - 7:30 and other times

                                    Sometimes you can get a reservation by calling a restaurant when opentable says it's booked, but sometimes you can't.

                                    As for Thai, I know many folks rave over certain Thai restaurants in the city (Spoon Thai, TAC Quick, Sticky Rice). These are authentic places and have more uncommon, authentic dishes, including on their alternative Thai-language menus. I've been to all of them. I've found this group to be reasonably good, with TAC Quick perhaps the best of them, but frankly, I haven't been overwhelmed. I realize that mine is a minority viewpoint, and perhaps that is because I prefer the more popular Thai dishes (chicken satay, tom kha gai soup, panang curry) rather than the more exotic ones, but I've had those at these places too. FWIW, the Thai place that I really love is Thai Sookdee in Evanston, but that is a bit of a hike from downtown Chicago (although it is convenient to public transportation). That's my opinion, and I know that others here disagree.

                                    So what would I do in your situation? First choice: I would make a reservation for Salpicon. RIGHT NOW. Otherwise, I would make a reservation for Adobo Grill in Wicker Park. Or, if the timing works for you, I would arrive at Frontera Grill 15-30 minutes before they open at 5:00 (remember, Frontera doesn't accept reservations).

                                    1. re: nsxtasy

                                      Frontera does accept reservations if you call that morning. I believe the phone opens at 8:30 or so. You can call to check but you can get a reservation that way.