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Feb 12, 2008 02:25 PM

Carlos' in Highland Park

Hey all,

Just wanted to know your thoughts on this restaurant... I went there last night and had the fish and shellfish degustation (my mom had the meat and game degustation), and it was really excellent. Among those of you who have been, do you know how often they change the degustation and/or ala carte menus? Also, have you found it to be consistently great? Specifically, what did you think of the wine pairings if you chose to do it, and the degustation dessert? For the most part, I was extremely pleased with the wine pairing, but would have changed a few things. As for dessert, I was a little disappointed by the trio, and would have much preferred the fromage plate. For those of you curious about the menus, here they are (I can only comment on the fish, as I don't eat meat, but my mom thoroughly enjoyed hers):

Chef's Selection
Meat and Game Degustation Menu

Amuse Buche: Cappuccino soup of asparagus and wild mushrooms with fried vegetables and basil oil

Grilled California Squab Breast with Tart of Spinach, and Mushrooms
with a Natural Jus
2001 Vosne-Romanée Domaine Gros Frére et Soeur Burgundy

Pan Seared Duck and Duck Confit with Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Baby Carrots and a Grape Reduction
2006 Greg Norman Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir

Grilled Lamb Chop with Ox-Tail Ravioli,
Baby Spinach and a Caramelized Shallot and Sherry Gastrique
2004 Joseph Carr Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Cocoa Crusted New Zealand Venison with Caramelized Fennel, Root Vegetables and a Cherry Reduction
2003 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Domaine de Saint Siffrein Rhone Valley

Grilled Ribeye with Butter Poached Fingerling Potatoes, Roasted Cauliflower and a Cabernet-Rosemary Reduction
2003 Fagus de Coto de Hayas Garnacha CXampo de Borja Spain

Symphony of Dessert
NV Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne

Petits Four

Chef's Selection
Shell Fish and Fish Degustation Menu

Amuse Buche: Cappuccino soup of asparagus and wild mushrooms with fried vegetables and basil oil
This was a great way to start, and certainly had me wanting more! I tend to steer away from mushroom soups, as they often overwhelm or are too rich. The asparagus gave this the perfect balance and just the hint of mushroom, and the fried vegetables with the basil oil were a great addition.

Scottish Smoked Salmon and Butter Poached Fingerling Potato Terrine
with a Caviar and Vodka Cream Reduction
2005 Balthazar Ress Riësling-Kabinett Rheingau Germany
This was my least favorite. I was excited about this dish, especially the vodka cream reduction, but it was a little bland for my palate. Perhaps this was not to overload the taste buds and start light, but I have to say my mom enjoyed hers much more than she enjoyed mine. The Reisling, however, was outstanding.

Jumbo Lump Crab Meat with Kiwi, Mango and a Sunchoke Puree
2006 Torresella Veneto, Italy Pinot Grigio
Incredible. I was worried this would be overly sweet, but the flavors were perfectly balanced. The Pinot Grigio also had just the right amount of acidity to cut through the sauce, and wasn't overly fruity at all. Perfect marriage of food and wine.

Chervil and Black Truffle Crusted Ahi Tuna
with Roasted Kobacha Squash and a Truffle-Thyme Reduction
2005 Kathy Lynskey Wines Marlborough, New Zealand Pinot Gris
I didn't really get the Black Truffle flavor at all, but in general this, too, was really great. Perfectly cooked, and just enough sweetness in the reduction. The squash was really small and so didn't overwhelm the dish, perfect amount of balance of sweet and tang. I wasn't expecting to love this Pinot Gris since I tend to prefer those not from New Zealand, but this couldn't have been a better choice. I really enjoyed it; light and fruity, yet had the acidity and crispness that you want from a Pinot.

Pan Seared Jumbo Prawn
with Parsnip Custard and a Caramelized Popcorn Reduction
2006 Jean-Marc Brocard "Dom. Saint Clarie" Chablis
This was divine. The prawn was the exact temperature I wanted, the parsnip custard was a great texture and went very well with the rest of the dish. The flavor combinations were just right on. The Chablis was good, but I might have made a different choice. Though I did appreciate that there was a high acidity to it, which cut through the sweetness of the parsnip and the caramelization.

Red Snapper with Braised Kale, Salsify Puree
and a Stone Ground Mustard Beurre Blanc
2005 Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay Alexander Valley
WOW. There was not one flaw to this dish, and I could eat it every day for dinner and be perfectly content. I was surprised by the sweetness of the dish, which was offset nicely with the mustard beurre blanc. I also tend to enjoy savory rather than sweet, so I was surprised by how much I loved these dishes, but I think it was because there was also a nice savory flavor, or tang or acid, to counterbalance. Again, I appreciated the acidity in the Chardonnay to cut through the sauce and the sweetness, but it was a little bit more oaky than I prefer.

Symphony of Dessert
NV Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne
I was disappointed by the trio of desserts. They were just very standard and safe, something I could find at any bistro for a degustation that didn't cost as much as this one. I guess I was expecting too much after the main courses. I also appreciate when restaurants make the extra effort to pair a really great dessert wine, instead of the typical Brut to end a meal. And in this case, the Brut seemed to just be their default wine pairing with any dessert, rather than a thoughtful choice... it didn't stand against the dessert, but certainly didn't add anything.

Petits Four

Sorry for the lengthy report, hopefully you all stuck around to read it :) After such a wonderful experience, I just wanted to know your thoughts on it, and wondering if I should make this my go-to place :) And for those of you who also love this restaurant, which are some comparable restaurants in Chicago?


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  1. It's been quite a few years since I dined at Carlos. At the time, I thought it was very good, but it did not blow me away the way some other restaurants have done. I'm sure it has changed since then, so I don't consider my opinion a current one.

    As for comparable restaurants, I don't know if you're asking specifically about suburban restaurants or also considering ones in the city. I think the very best restaurants I've been to in the Chicago suburbs, serving contemporary cuisine with French and other European influences, are, in order:

    1. Michael (Winnetka) -
    2. Tallgrass (Lockport) -
    3. Vie (Western Springs) -
    4. Oceanique (Evanston) -
    5. Chef's Station (Evanston) -
    6. Le Titi de Paris (Arlington Heights) -
    7. Gabriel's (Highwood) -

    In the city, other than for attire (jackets required at Carlos), I think Carlos has more in common (in terms of pricing, menu, etc) with casual fine dining restaurants like one sixtyblue, Blackbird, and Aigre Doux than with the super-expensive splurge places like Alinea, Avenues, and Everest.

    1. I'll be dining at Carlos in a few days, and we'll be doing the degustation. I'm thinking one of us will do the meat/game and one do the seafood/shellfish. Would it be appropriate to try a bit of each other's food or even to mix/match? Also, did they allow substitutions (i.e. replace one dish from the degustation with something from a la carte)?

      7 Replies
      1. re: phr208

        The last time I was there they were very accommodating with substitutions. In fact, we were able to pretty much design our own custom tasting menu from everything that was listed. I wish more restaurants would be this flexible.

        1. re: jesteinf

          Thanks for the reply. Everything on the degustation menus sound so good, but since the OP didn't care too much for the salmon, we might like to substitute that with something else. My parents have been there several times, and my mom always gets the sea bass.

          My dad said he never even wears a tie or jacket there, so I'm guessing they're not strict on the "jacket required" policy either?

          1. re: phr208

            That's news to me; it's been a while since I've been there, but my understanding is quite the contrary, even now. I don't know whether they would actually refuse to seat you, or if they offer "loaner jackets" (some places do), but at a minimum, I'm pretty sure he would be the only person in the restaurant not wearing a jacket. ShikaSfrn or anyone else who has been there recently, please correct me if I'm wrong about this.

            AFAIK they are the only restaurant in the Chicago suburbs with a jackets required policy.

            1. re: phr208

              I've always worn a jacket. I don't know what their actual policy is. Probably best to call and ask.

              1. re: jesteinf

                thanks. i'll probably just call and ask. we're coming from out of town and would rather not bring a jacket just for this meal. however, i would consider it bad service if they actually refused to seat someone just because he didn't have a jacket.

                1. re: phr208

                  If it turns out that the jacket is a problem and you would prefer to go somewhere else, I can suggest two other excellent upscale French restaurants in nearby suburbs where jackets are not required:

                  Michael (Winnetka) -
                  Le Titi de Paris (Arlington Heights) -

                  The owners of Carlos also own/manage an excellent casual French bistro:

                  Cafe Central (Highland Park) -

                  Another excellent casual French bistro nearby is:

                  Miramar (Highwood) -

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    Thanks for the recs. Actually, he can always borrow a jacket if anything. We'll be staying with my family. I'll keep those recs in mind though. I'll be moving back from NY to Chicago for a couple of months before I head off for grad school. I definitely wanna take advantage of what great restaurants and cheap eats Chicago has to offer because I haven't really gotten a chance to do that much ever since I became a foodie.

        2. So, tonight we ate at Carlos as part of Opentable's "Appetite Stimulus Plan" promotion (as mentioned in ). It was excellent!

          In case you haven't heard about the Appetite Stimulus promotion, this week (Monday through Friday) over 75 restaurants in the Chicago area are offering a 3-course lunch for $24 and/or a 3-course dinner for $35. We decided to go to Carlos as part of the promotion. I had not been there in years, and my dining companion had never been there. So away we went.

          Don't forget, Carlos is still one of the very few restaurants in the Chicago area (eight, by my count), and the only one in the suburbs, for which jackets are required for gentlemen.

          We entered the dining room and were greeted and led to our table. The dining room is a lovely blend of the classic and modern, with a traditional room décor of dark wood and velvet, with various contemporary accents such as the lighting fixtures (one of which looked like a Dale Chihuly work). Very classy.

          Even before we ordered, we were served an amuse bouche consisting of several stalks of miniature asparagus wrapped with some sort of cheese layer, topped with various bits that I could not identify, and on top was a thin layer of fried lotus root (which I call a "lotus chip"). Very good indeed.

          We looked at the special Appetite Stimulus Menu as well as their regular menu. The Appetite Stimulus is the best deal, but they have another promotion running through the end of this month that offers value almost as good, so if you don't make it there by this Friday, you still have time to eat at Carlos for a fraction of the price. More on that in a moment. First, the Appetite Stimulus Menu:

          1. Choice of (a) Lobster Bisque, or (b) Mixed Green Salad with Goat Cheese and Balsamic Vinaigrette

          2. Choice of (a) Wild King Salmon Papillote with Julienne Vegetables, Fine Herbs and Sauce Americana, or (b) Sliced Beef Tenderloin with Grilled Vegetables, Shallot-Roquefort Whipped Potatoes and a Cabernet-Rosemary Reduction

          3. Symphony of Desserts

          The Appetite Stimulus Menu also has promotional prices on two wines for $8.50 for a 5-ounce glass and $32 a bottle, which is WAY below their normal prices on the wine list. One was a 2006 Hacienda Chardonnay, the other a 2005 Hacienda Merlot. My companion had a glass of the latter.

          The other promotion they're running this month is a celebration of their 27th anniversary. For each course, in addition to the usual items at their customary 2008 prices, they are also offering one or two items from their original menu when they opened in 1981, at their prices at that time. That's the other promotion that offers value that's almost as good, since the starters and salad are around $8, and mains around $24. (By comparison, the normal 2008 prices are roughly $15-20 for appetizers and $40-50 for entrees.) All of the items on the Appetite Stimulus Menu are also part of their 1981 promotional items. You can see the regular menu (including the 1981 promotion) on their website at They also had several specials of the day not shown on either menu.

          Two of the appetizers on the regular menu caught our eye, so we decided to have a four-course dinner (not counting the amuse bouche), starting with those two appetizers ordered a la carte, and then the Appetite Stimulus Menu, with one of each of the choices on that menu.

          One of the appetizers we ordered was part of the 1981 promotion, the Wild Burgundy Escargots in Brioche á Téte with a Roquefort Pernod Cream Sauce for $9.50. It was excellent! It's worth noting that the sauce didn't really look or taste all that much like Roquefort, Pernod, or cream; it was more like a very rich brown reduction, very tasty but without those distinguishing flavors. The other appetizer we ordered was the only item we ordered at 2008 prices, the “Hot and Cold Foie Gras”, which is Pan-Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras, along with a Medallion of La Belle Farms Cold Foie Gras for $23.50. These were served very cleverly, with the hot foie gras on top of a thick cube-shaped glass platform, under which sat the cold foie gras. I think the additional ingredients served with the foie gras are different from those specified on the website menu, but I do not remember exactly what they were (sorry!). There was a thin layer of something breadlike slightly sweet below the hot foie gras, and there were red shreds of some kind of sweet fruit, and a dab of a slightly sweet sauce. The cold foie gras was served with a gelee of some sort and frisee greens. They were both superb, my personal award winner for "best in show".

          Next up were the soup and salad from the Appetite Stimulus Menu. A really great lobster bisque is made by boiling and reducing lobster shells, and it turns brown in cooking. That's what this was. Great lobster flavor, very rich, topped with a few shreds of toasted (?) veggies and a few dots of herb oil. The salad was good too (although perhaps the least unusual dish of the meal); I like the way they used strips of cucumber to form a cylinder in which the greens were presented.

          The mains were excellent also. The beef was cooked perfectly to the requested medium-rare, and tender as could be. The salmon was also excellent. The real attraction of the salmon was the sauce, which turned out to be a rich lobster sauce, a reduction similar to the bisque but this time with nice little chunks of lobster in it.

          We did ask them to show us the selection of desserts in case we wanted anything other than what came on the Appetite Stimulus Menu, and they brought over the two dessert trays displaying the selection. We each had the dessert that came on the AS Menu. It was a plate with three VERY small desserts on it: a raspberry-chocolate marquis in the shape of a pyramid, which was like a chocolate truffle topped with a raspberry; a layered chocolate-banana mousse cake; and a chocolate cup with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in it. All of these were very good, and although they were small, they were just the right touch at the end of a relatively rich meal. The presentation was also very nice; they drizzled chocolate onto the plate to form the outline of a branch with four leaves on it, and they filled each leaf with a tiny bit of a different kind of sauce: crème anglaise (vanilla), mango, apple, and raspberry.

          The service was exactly what you expect at a top-notch restaurant. The main server, a young fellow (I don't think he mentioned his name, and the receipt says "1 Carlos" but I can assure you he was not old enough to be Carlos Nieto) was friendly and humorous, always outgoing, and made sure to check with us shortly after the runners brought each course. Before taking our drink order, he was quick to mention the wine special on the AS Menu so that we were aware of it. Other servers and staff were all friendly and efficient, staying on top of things flawlessly so that you never even think about any service issues.

          With all of the above-mentioned items (including the glass of wine), a $4 iced tea, and $10 sales tax, the bill came to $126 before tip, which is quite the bargain for a four-course meal at Carlos. I did give a very generous tip, under the assumption that an appropriate tip would be one based on what the meal might normally cost, not what it actually cost with the AS Menu promotion.

          The Appetite Stimulus Menu promotion runs through this Friday, and the 1981 items run through the end of the month. They have various other promotions too, including BYO Mondays. They are open for lunch Monday through Friday December 10-24.

          After 27 years, Carlos remains one of the best restaurants in the Chicago area, and this dinner was an excellent example.

          1. Quoting from the new Dish column in Chicago Magazine ( ):

            "Live it up at Carlos’, where every night is now prix fixe night: three courses, $40. (Closed Tuesdays)"

            What a deal!!!

            1. Carlos will serve its last meal this coming New Year's Eve. :(