Chicago So Far
Thanks to those of you who gave me suggestions for dining in Chicago during my visit from Beijing. In thanks, I thought I'd offer a mini-review of what we've enjoyed so far.
I have to start by saying, first of all, that none of the meals we've had so far has disappointed, and the friendliness of the wait staff has been incredible--though being a New Yorker living in Beijing, my expectations are kind of low in that regard.
Cafe Spiaggia was our selection for our first night in town, and was outstanding. We sat at the bar when we first arrived, and enjoyed an excellent bottle of Amarone while we waited for it to be time to be seated. The meal itself was also excellent; I had a half-order of the potato gnocchi with ricotta sauce with Umbrian black truffles as a starter, followed by a stupendous roasted pork shoulder that was among the most succulent and flavorful things I have had in a while.
The next day, after a hot dog at Portillo's, we had dinner at North Pond, which, as promised, was in a beautiful setting, though we were a bit disappointed at how cold the place was (especially considering that it's in a building designed as a place for skaters to warm up in). But the food more than made up for it--a Soft-Boiled Duck Egg with Warm Seafood-Raisin Brandade, Spinach Coulis, Parmesan Emulsion for a starter, followed by Slow-Roasted Venison Loin, Maple Butternut Squash, Spinach, Red Wine Cipollinis, Coffee Glace and for dessert a Chocolate Mousse Cake, Hazelnut Crisp, Blood Orange Preserve, Granita (I'm cutting-and-pasting from the website; it's not like I remembered the names of these dishes). All this was washed down with an outstanding Hegarty '03 Minervois that was truly delicious despite being one of the less expensive bottles on the list (and the sommelier recommended it over a more expensive bottle by the same vineyard, so kudos to her!).
The third night we went to Trattoria No. 10 as a sort of last-minute thought, and it was very good, too, though not nearly as good as Spiaggia. I started with the octopus carpaccio with watercress, blood oranges, caper berries and Sicilian olive oil (I have a weakness for blood oranges, you may have noticed), and for a main course I chose the farfalle pasta with duck confit, asparagus, mushrooms, pearl onions and pine nuts. Both were very good, but just not as spectacular as Spiaggia. For dessert I really wanted an affogato, but the waitress (who by the way thought a "classic martini" was made with vodka rather than gin...) had no idea what it was, so I just ordered the gelato and the coffee as separate items, though I specified that I wanted them delivered together. This she could not accomplish, so the coffee came first (which I hate anyway--I prefer coffee after dessert, which is very unusual in the US, it seems) and was cool by the time the gelato arrived.
Over all, though, the meals have really be incredible, and I look forward to two more nights, with Frontera Grill tonight and possibly Topolobampo or maybe Vermillion tomorrow.
Incidentally, did you go to Spiaggia, or to Cafe Spiaggia? These two sister restaurants, next door to each other, both serve Italian cuisine, but Spiaggia is a super-expensive dressy (jacket-and-tie) restaurant, whereas Cafe Spiaggia is mid-priced and casual.
Also, if you go to Frontera Grill one night, Topolobampo (speaking of sister restaurants) is so similar that I would suggest doing something different instead.
As requested, here's my review of my last few meals in Chicago:
Frontera Grill: I had an excellent meal at FG with two Chicagoan friends, who apparently know the place very well. The only disappointment for me was my decision to have a blood orange margarita instead of the Topolo one, demonstrating that blind adherence to a bias for something is bound to trip you up eventually. But the food was great, starting with the Trio, Trio, Trio combination of seviches, and having an amazingly rich and complex Pato en Mole de Chabacano (red chile-rubbed wood-grilled Gunthorp duck breast in savory red chile-apricot mole with chipotle mashed potatoes and Three Sisters Garden "shoots" salad). Excellent!
Aigre Doux: the friends who took me to FG recommended AD instead of going to Topolobampo, so I made a lunch reservation there, taking one of my Chinese colleagues along for the experience. I had the celery root and chanterelle raviolis to start, followed by the pan-seared halibut with fingerling potatoes, swiss chard and roasted tomato vinaigrette. We were told not to miss the sticky toffee pudding dessert, so we ordered one of these to share, too. I liked the food very much, though the raviolis were served under-heated (they replaced the dish readily) and the dessert I found very disappointing--nothing like the sticky toffee pudding that I am used to in the UK.
Finally, a solo dinner at Vermilion. The menu was a bit hard to navigate, but a waitress helped me out--in the end we chose a starter of duck vindaloo arepa brushed pomegranate molasses and a main of pistachio crusted veal chop roasted in mexican classic hierbos de olor, on channa saag with chaat onion rings. The former was a bit of an anti-climax, but the latter was fantastic. Truly deserves having been named one of Chicago's top dishes by Chicago Magazine.
Thanks for your tips!!
re: James G
I've found Vermilion to be an odd mixture of highs and lows too. Their very simple spicy lamb dish was excellent, but their more complicated veal chop was bland. Our appetizers ranged from the very good, to the really weird, which was (this might not be on the menu anymore) puff pastry filled with cold potatoes to be dipped in this dishwatery looking (and tasting) mint water. I'm not sure I would go back for such an uneven experience.