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North Pond, Naha, or Michael?

I'm trying to plan dinner for 2 beginning of January and am thinking about North Pond, Naha, or Michael (Winnetka), but can't seem to decide. Location isn't an issue. We're pretty much just looking for best quality and consistency for that value.

I've been to Blackbird (and Avec) before and absolutely LOVED it, so in terms of contemporary American in Chicago, this is what I know.

If anyone can suggest which of those 3 places may be best, it'd be appreciated!

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  1. I've not been to Naha or Michael, but Naha is outstanding. Easily equal to Blackbird in my book, although not quite as tightly packed which I like. I'd be hard pressed to say which I more enjoyed from a food standpoint. The Pork Belly appetizer was perhaps the best thing I've eaten this year. Really at the top of their game these days.

    Some good Naha photos here: http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic....

    1. They are all excellent places. If I were judging them ONLY by food, though, I would pick Michael. It has become my go-to place, where I know that everything on the menu just screams "WOW! This is delicious!!!" At the other two, there are some things that are that good, but not an entire meal, one dish after another after another, the way I've had at Michael on several occasions. So for quality and consistency, that would be my pick - in fact, an easy one.

      I think the setting of North Pond (in the middle of the park) is very special and unique, and that contributes to the overall experience. That being said, January might not be the best time to go there. The view is still sublime, but walking through the park to get there could be quite frigid. Also, although I haven't been there that time of year, I've heard that it's not the best insulated building either.

      You've stated that location isn't an issue. However, if you're staying in downtown Chicago, it's a bit of a trek to Michael. You can figure 35-45 minutes driving in non-rush periods. If you take the Metra commuter train ( www.metrarail.com ) to the Indian Hill station on the Union Pacific North Line, it's maybe a two-minute walk between the station and the restaurant, it's a 35-minute ride on the train making all stops between downtown Chicago and Indian Hill, and whatever time it takes you to get to the Ogilvie Center and wait for the train. So if you happen to be staying around the Mag Mile hotel district in downtown Chicago, you're probably looking at a couple hours of travel time round trip. That's compared with a 5-10 minute walk to or from Naha. Just FWIW.

      I've also found that Michael is a bit less expensive than the other two; my bottom line for dinner (including moderate alcohol, tax, and tip) usually ends up around $70-85/person there, and $95-105 at North Pond and Naha. Even when I order the phenomenal foie gras over foie gras strudel at Michael.

      It's also worth noting that Naha is open for lunch daily, Michael is open for lunch on Fridays only, and North Pond is open for Sunday brunch, all of which are significantly less expensive than dinner. The menus for all three places (including the lunch/brunch menus) are shown on their websites, including prices. Of the three, the lunch menu at Michael is most similar to the dinner menu. Perhaps your trip may allow you to have dinner at one place, along with lunch and/or brunch at another.

      But, to answer your question - best quality, best consistency, best value - I vote for Michael.

      3 Replies
      1. re: nsxtasy

        thanks for the replies. i'm actually from lake county but intend on being around the city a lot when i'm home for the holidays.

        it's still a tough decision! North Pond was my original spot for this dinner...then thought about Naha. my dad has been to both North Pond and Michael for business dinners and seems to like both equally. Never thought about Michael until he mentioned it a couple days ago. I'll have to think about this.

        How's the atmosphere at Michael? Is there a dress code? Service?

        1. re: phr208

          I really enjoy the loose, casual atmosphere at Michael. The dining room decor style is traditional, like a somewhat formal restaurant, but the attitude of the staff is exactly the opposite. One of the servers was a long-time fixture at Le Francais for many years, and well-known for his great sense of humor - the supreme "approachable professional" among servers. Michael himself has been in the restaurant on each occasion I've been there, splitting his time between the kitchen and the dining room; he's also extremely approachable, loves to talk about the food and his restaurant and eager for feedback. His ample presence adds to his charm. I don't think there's a formal dress code; "business casual" is the norm, but with a bit more flexibility on both ends than some places. More specifically, most gentlemen do not wear jackets, although doing so would not be out of place; nice jeans would be okay too.

          Nothing against North Pond or Naha, though - these are three excellent choices, and you can't really go wrong with any of them.

          I don't recall anything specifically (good or bad) about the wine list - sorry!

          1. re: nsxtasy

            thanks! i'll still have to think about it for this one particular dinner, but i'll definitely make it out to Michael at some point.

      2. oh also...any comments on the wine list?

        1. Turns out BOTH Naha and North Pond are closed the first weekend of January, when my visitor is coming.

          Now I'm thinking about Graham Elliot, Sepia, Custom House, and Otom. Graham Elliot gets a lot of mixed reviews though, so I'm not sure. Overall, I think Sepia is catching my attention the most at the moment but have not heard too much about it. Opinions? What's the atmosphere like there?

          (Still considering Michael as an option, though I'd rather dine in the city)

          9 Replies
          1. re: phr208

            Sepia's my favorite of the options you mentioned. The atmosphere is - well, sepia. Practically everything in the place is sepia-colored, and the decor is like your great-grandparent's living room, but in a nice, retro but not overly so, way. The food is fantastic. It's been a while since I was there, but I can still picture the homemade pasta with beef cheeks that I had, and the wonderful bruschetta. I don't think you could go wrong there.

            That being said, I am a big fan of Custom House as well - their short ribs are great - and Otom is good, too (though I expected to like it more than I did, since I adore Moto) - the food is good and the atmosphere is more mod. Haven't been to Graham Elliot but, like you, have heard mixed reviews.

            1. re: phr208

              Of those choices and based on my experience, I would narrow it down to between Sepia and Custom House. Anyway, I just read the the Obamas like Sepia a lot and it's one of their haunts so if you're into celebrity sitings, you might enjoy it.

              Been to Graham Elliot and liked it, but didn't l-o-v-e it. The much-vaunted pork belly was dry, but the service was excellent. I've never been to Otom so I can't speak to it one way or the other.

              1. re: phr208

                Aside from Michael, the only one of this new group of four places that I've been to is Custom House (although I had Chef Graham Elliott Bowles's cuisine when he was still at Avenues). My meal at Custom House consisted of an outstanding sweetbread appetizer, an outstanding entree of the previously-mentioned short ribs, and a disappointing dessert. FWIW, not all of my three dining companions were as thrilled with their first two courses as I was with mine. If you absolutely love sweetbreads and/or short ribs, or meat dishes in general, or something catches your eye on their website menu, then I think it's a great choice. They also do a pretty good job on their various vegetarian items and sides (not surprisingly, given Chef McClain's Green Zebra vegetarian showcase). If you like other things or if you're a dessert connoisseur, you might be disappointed.

                All of these restaurants offer contemporary American cuisine in a casual fine dining atmosphere. If I wanted to suggest any restaurant within the city (not suburbs) in this category, and I could choose one you haven't mentioned, it would be Aigre Doux. You can read my report at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/365436 Just to further complicate your decision. :)

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  thanks everyone. well, it turns out that Graham Elliot's is also closed the first 2 weeks of January. anyone know what the deal is with all these popular restaurants being closed that time of year? is that just when restaurants take vacation? kind of upset about that, but hopefully Custom House or Sepia will be just as good. we have reservations for Blackbird for New Year's Day, so at least there's that.

                  we're huge fans of sweetbreads, but i'm big on dessert as well. i've pretty much narrowed it down to Custom House and Sepia at this point and will make sure they're open during the first weekend of January haha.

                  1. re: phr208

                    January tends to be the least busy time of year for many restaurants in Chicago with the greatest risk of reservation cancellations due to bad weather. Therefore, the opportunity cost (lost business) of going on vacation then is less than at other times of the year.

                    1. re: phr208

                      i think its fairly common in fine dining, along with the monday (or sunday & monday) closure and sometimes with a week off in july. would imagine that for luxury customers it is sort of the same reason fashion houses put out lines of cruise-apparel in the middle of the winter. this is 'vacation season'.
                      eldon's explanation makes quite a bit of sense too....further, the holidays are frantic for servers so one way to keep good staff happy is to give them a break after the 1.5 month sh*tshow from thanksgiving to nyeve.

                      1. re: kathleen rose

                        had no idea that was common practice. note: aigre doux is closed the first week of january as well

                        1. re: phr208

                          ps: all of these meals are fabulous. If Sepia is open, I highly recommend it. Really enjoy the atmosphere there. Sadly I moved from Chicago to Philly so my recommendations won't be too current anymore, but I recommend that if you get down to the wire you call one of the finer hotels in the city and ask the operator for the concierge.

                          As long as people called at off times (on a weekday---after 10 and before 11:30, or between 2-3ish) concierges are usually happy to help, and they keep lists of places still open during the first week in jan.

                          Speaking of hotels, have you looked at Avenues with Curtis Duffy? Might be closed as well, but I'd bet you'll get your socks knocked off if you did a shorter multicourse menu there---and would likely pay roughly (give or take 50) there as north pond. sorry, kinda out there suggestion.

                          1. re: kathleen rose

                            Avenues is substantially more expensive than North Pond, and it's not hard to pay double or more at Avenues, even without running up the wine/alcohol tab.

                            At North Pond, starters are $12-18, mains are $32-39, and desserts are $9. At Avenues, the 4-, 8-, and 15-course menus are $75, $115, and $145, respectively. So even the smallest menu at Avenues costs more than the highest-priced items at North Pond, and that's not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. (It's also worth mentioning that most of the dishes at North Pond consist of 3-5 items plated together, whereas at Avenues, a course is often a single item.)

                            I've eaten at both restaurants fairly recently. At North Pond, the bottom line including moderate alcohol and tax/tip was around $95/person; at Avenues, with the largest menu, it was $250/person.

                            Nothing against Avenues; it's an outstanding restaurant, one of Chicago's finest in every way. But it is also priced like one of Chicago's finest.

                            Naha is priced similar to North Pond, and Michael is slightly less (entrees in the high twenties).