One Great Meal
Coming in for one night
Money is no object.
Eating out with two other neurosurgeons (both in their 30's, both live in town (Wicker Park and Lincoln Park))
I am from NY, went to med school in Chicago in the 80's, and currently live in New Orleans. Last time I was in town, tried and loved Topo. Have been to Everest, and thought it was gorgeous, but too stuffy. My favorite New Orleans place is Stella!, and my all-time most extraordinary meal is a tie between Bouley and Daniel in Manhattan.
Those being my bona fides, I am looking for inventive, extraordinary, exotic, creative, eclectic inspired food first, second, and third. The setting and ambience count, but they can in no way make up for a mediocre meal.
Have been told I have to try Arun before I die. Is it the best place in town?
Other possibilities that have been mentioned by the group include:
I did scan the board before writing, but didn't see much on these specific choices.
If you think there are others that MUST be added to consideration, please don't hesitate to let me know.
Quick picks: Alinea or Avenues for splurge dining, one sixtyblue for casual contemporary American.
If you're looking for a creative, "money no object" place, comparable to New York's best (e.g. Per Se, Jean-Georges, Daniel, Le Bernardin), then you're really talking about a small group that includes Alinea, Avenues, Everest, Charlie Trotter's, Tru, NoMi, Moto, and Spiaggia. You can find additional discussion about this group in the topic at www.chowhound.com/topics/368683 I agree with the others that you really should concentrate on Alinea and Avenues, which are our "best of the best". Either is superb. Alinea was recently designated best restaurant in the country by a major magazine (Gourmet, I think) but both are just fine in every way. I assume it doesn't scare you to hear that the typical prices are $250-400/person at Alinea, $200-300 at Avenues, including alcohol and tax/tip (you can also end up outside that range depending on food and especially alcohol). Also I believe Avenues will be closed during the month of January; the Lobby, another restaurant in the same hotel (the Peninsula) will be using the Avenues space while its own space is renovated.
Forget Arun's. Not worth it, not that great. And while we have some excellent Thai restaurants, they are your typical ethnic storefronts, not what you're looking for, not in any way comparable to the places you're talking about.
A notch below the first group in creativity and price are our "casual fine dining" restaurants. These are places where most gentlemen don't wear jackets and ties (unlike the above group), where you're not going to find an umpteen-course tasting menu, but where the food is excellent, and at some, spectacularly so. Typical prices at these wind up in the $80-120/person range including alcohol/tax/tip. IMHO the very best of all of these in the city is one sixtyblue. I am continually impressed and amazed by how good their food is every time I go there. www.onesixtyblue.com Blackbird is excellent too, but I still like one sixtyblue much, MUCH better. We have a whole bunch more such places, too, if you're interested; the list of excellent ones includes North Pond (notable for its excellent food as well as its exquisite setting in the park), Spring (which you mentioned - Shawn McClain's restaurant emphasizing seafood), Custom House (his restaurant emphasizing meats), Aigre Doux, Naha, and many others. You'll get an excellent meal at any of these, albeit not on the level of ultra-creativity of the first group.
Many, but not all, of our finest restaurants accept reservations on opentable.com Of the ones I've mentioned, I think the only ones that aren't on opentable.com are Alinea and Blackbird.
Arun's isn't even the best Thai restaurant in town. In my opinion, that honor belongs to Spoon Thai, where I can have an amazing feast for about $25. Arun's is very good, but nothing more and I can't justify paying that kind of money considering that the decor, atmosphere, food and service do not justify the hefty price tag. Spoon Thai is not the place to go for a fancy night out (although the decor is nice enough, the service is casual), but if you are in town long enough to also enjoy a lunch, definitely visit, go armed with the translated Thai language menu (see link just below), and enjoy Thai food much better than you will find at Arun's: http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?t=7364
On the other hand, you cannot beat Alinea for fine dining. Just be prepared to spend. It's not stuffy in any way, the food is fantastic, and most of the menu items are ones you cannot experience at any other restaurant. It's one of what I consider to be the three ultra-inventive dining experiences in Chicago along with Avenues and Moto (Schwa is now closed, otherwise it would be in the mix too). And of those three, I prefer Alinea the most, hands down. If you cannot get in, you might also like to try Moto or Avenues given your desire for exotic, creative and excellent food in a contemporary setting. All of these restaurants offer very creative food (i.e., powders, vapors, etc.), with Moto being probably the most creative and Alinea offering the best food. Check out Alinea's website: http://www.alinearestaurant.com/
If you found Everest stuffy, I would not recommend Trotters which you might find "stuffier" than Everest. As for Tru, very good but I prefer Alinea, Avenues and Moto.
Agami - no way! It is one of the most average restaurants in Chicago. Stay away.
Mirai - very good food, but for some reason the staff believe they are doing you a favor serving you. I'm tired of thinking that that my experience at Mirai will change, as they have disappointed me with service on multiple occasions. If you want creative Japanese, I would suggest Meiji on Randolph St., west of downtown (near Blackbird).
Blackbird - of the less formal restaurants in Chicago (mainly, the ones discussed above), I think Blackbird is by far the best. They are outstanding when it comes to seasonal and local ingredients, American but with French influences, and just great food. They always have one or two pork presentations on the menu, and the pork belly is always memorable. On the other hand, at a Food & Wine Magazine event the other evening, they served a homemade sauerkraut bagel topped with smoked eel and mustard cream cheese that was fantastic.
Spring - It's excellent for upscale, Asian-influenced seafood dishes, and in terms of quality, I would say it's close to being on par with Blackbird.
Hope that helps.
I would narrow it down to Alinea or Avenues. Alinea takes the prize from a pure creativity standpoint, but the food is quite esoteric. More than just a great meal, it offers an almost surrealistic dining experience. Each dish is presented in a custom made serving vessel almost like a piece of artwork to be contemplated before you eat it. You will often find yourself wondering just how you could create such a thing out of food, or how such an unusual food preparation could taste so good.
Avenues is more of a mainstream dining experience, but with outstanding food across the board. In fact, this was my favorite meal in Chicgao when I purely consider my enjoyment of the food itself. I had several dishes that rank among the most delicious I have ever had. Although not quite as esoteric as Alinea, the dishes can be quite whimsical and creative in their presentation. I don't think it gets quite as much exposure as other top restaurants because it is located in a hotel (The Penninsula). If you do go, I would recommend the Chef's tasting menu. You might also consider eating at the kitchen bar that over looks the kitchen. It would mean that the three of you would sit in a row, not around a table, but it might be an interesting experience if the preparation of the meal interests you.
The other places you mentioned, with the exception of Trotters (which was quite formal) and maybe Tru (I have not been there), are not quite at the same level.
At any rate, I'd make a reservation soon, expecially for Alinea. I will be going there on Dec 29th and when I called several weeks ago there were already some restrictions on what time I could get in.
Finally, for comparison's sake:
Here are photos from a meal at Avenues: http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?t=2983
And here is Alinea: