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My recent trip to Chicago

Just got back from my first trip to Chicago. What a lovely city! Now to the important stuff – the food. I won’t go into a dish-by-dish account of our trip but I’ll touch on the highlights.

Day 1: Dinner at Topolobampo

We had the tasting menus – I had the Celebration Menu and my friend had the Adventurer’s Menu. I loved my first experience of serious Mexican flavours. We don’t have anything like it in Toronto. Our Mexican food is your standard taco/burrito scene. I always thought highly of Rick Bayless (even before he won Top Chef Masters) but my desire to try his food was further intensified by watching him on TCM. And I wasn’t disappointed. Everything was a wonderful revelation, especially the sauces. After the raves for the black mole on TCM, I was determined to try it if possible and lucky me, it was on the menu during my visit. It was served with lamb and it was a perfect pairing. The mole and lamb seemed a natural fit – each enhancing the other. Also, the broth with the seafood - so deeply flavoured and briny. My friend was swooning over her pork cheek and we were both so excited by the cocoa fruit espuma which was part of her dessert. We had never eaten the inside of the cocoa bean before and it was great. Overall, a fantastic meal and we loved trying the new flavours. I did feel that perhaps in his excitement over the liquid nitrogen avocado ice cream on TCM, that Chef Bayless has been trying some new techniques which have not been particularly successful. There was a mousse-like, foamy thing made of hibiscus that did not work with the lamb at all. There was also some tasteless foam on my dessert, which was otherwise delicious. That stuff aside, excellent meal.

Day 2: Breakfast at Sable (Hotel Palomar)/Lunch at the French Market/Dinner at Green Zebra

Best breakfast of the trip. We both had brioche French Toast stuffed with mascarpone and topped with strawberries. Perfect. Rich yet light textured and crispy too.
On our travels, we made our way to the French Market, where we had a salad at Raw, which was amazing and had these great crispy garlicky crunchy bits on top. I finished lunch with some treats from Vanille Patisserie. Had a slice of salted caramel cake (for lack of a better description) and a carrot cake entremet – both excellent.
Green Zebra was interesting. It seemed very modern and a bit cold for a vegetarian place. And noisy. Somehow I expected a vegetarian place to be a bit warmer and artsy-crafty. Food-wise, I think I made better choices than my friend. I had a cauliflower pot de crème which was ok but an unexpected vinegary flavour masked the cauliflower flavour. I had delicious raviolo with the egg yolk inside that oozes out when you cut it – yum! I followed with a poached duck egg with smoked potato – also delicious. I had an egg thing going that night. My friend had the grilled mu shu which turned out to be a bunch of pickled vegetables and a grilled pancake that was hard to use as a wrapper because it was too crispy and crumbly. Also had heart of palm salad and lemon spatzle. Ok but nothing terribly exciting. Desserts – so-so. I do however have to say, excellent coffee!

Day 3: Breakfast at Orange/Dinner at Alinea

Hooray! The long anticipated dinner at Alinea! But first, we had breakfast at Orange. Made my own juice blend – pear, lime and mango. My friend had some Frushi (fruit sushi) and we followed that with a bacon, leek, brie omelet with avocado mousse and some cinnamon roll pancakes. Nothing terribly exciting. My omelet was a bit bland and oily but decent. The pancakes were ok but we couldn’t finish them.
Alinea definitely lived up to my almost unreasonable expectations. From the dramatic entrance to the impeccable service, Alinea was as wonderful an experience as I had hoped. The food was fun, but more importantly, delicious. A lot of the molecular places have dishes which are interesting but feel a bit forced – like dishes set up to illustrate a technique but that is definitely not the case at Alinea. I think it was the effortlessness of the whimsy and the fact that flavour was as important as the show that most impressed me. I won't go into a dish-by-dish replay but I loved the intensity of the crab flavours in the 3-way dish and the sip of soup with potato and truffle. And the coconut pork belly rice paper roll and the shad roe and so on. I could go on and on but suffice it to say: next time, I’ll find room for the 24-course menu.

Day 4: Breakfast at the Conrad Hotel/Dinner at North Pond

My friend had French toast with Georgia peaches and pecans. I had waffles. The French toast was better at Sable. My waffles were really good – light and crispy. The coffee was weak and forgettable.
North Pond was good but Alinea was a tough act to follow. The setting was lovely but I was sitting by a window and a chilly draft kept blowing through. I mentioned it to the server but they seemed lost as to how to fix it. No pashminas offered here when you get chilly. I started with the foie gras with apricots and my friend had the soft-boiled egg with caviar. Both very good. I had the orange-saffron bouillabaisse and my friend had the pork and beans. Again, both pretty good but no wow factor. Maybe it was too much to expect any wow after Alinea.

I am lucky to have had the opportunity to eat at some spectacular restaurants and I feel a little jaded in saying this but I think that after so many delicious meals, I’m looking for something more. I need the newness of the flavours I tried at Topolobampo or the challenge of familiar flavours presented in new ways, such as my experience at Alinea.

Thanks for a delectable time, Chicago! And a special thanks to all the Chicago hounds for their helpful suggestions.

1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

Green Zebra
1460 W Chicago, Chicago, IL 60622

North Pond
2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614

445 N Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610

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  1. *takes notes* *is jealous that you got both Topo and Alinea resos*

    1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

    12 Replies
    1. re: jlunar

      It's all about the planning. Made reservations almost 3 months in advance!

      1. re: chefhound

        yes, sadly this was an impromptu trip (decided to avoid any G20 issues!) and so... no Alinea.

        1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

        1. re: jlunar

          There aren't very many places in Chicago that you have to reserve more than a few weeks in advance, at least not for weeknights. The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are Alinea, Topolobampo, and Park 52, although I'm sure there are others, particularly for a Saturday night (maybe Gibson's and Blackbird).

          1. re: nsxtasy

            Just for kicks, I went into Opentable.com to see which of the 316 participating restaurants - Alinea is one of the few nice ones that don't - do not show availability within two hours of 7 pm for a table for two on Thursday June 24. These are the 13 restaurants that do not show availability:

            Bin 36
            Bistro Campagne
            Drake Bros' at The Drake Hotel
            Kendall College Dining Room
            The Palm Court at The Drake Hotel
            Rise Sushi & Sake Lounge
            Ristorante Al Teatro
            Sikia Restaurant - Washburne Culinary Institute

            For Saturday June 26, the number without availability increases to 21; additional restaurants consist of:

            Alhambra Palace Restaurant
            Chez Joel
            C-House Restaurant
            East Bank Club- Maxwell's at the Club
            Piccolo Sogno
            Shanghai Terrace
            Terzo Piano (which isn't open for dinner on Saturdays)

            There are several reasons why a restaurant may show no availability. Obviously one is that they may be fully booked with individual reservations, which is undoubtedly the case with Topolobampo. A restaurant may rent out the entire place for a private party. A new restaurant may be set up on Opentable to take reservations before it has actually opened. A restaurant may be closing (as is the case with Marche). In any case, though, as you can see, there aren't a whole lot of places that are fully booked more than a few weeks out for a weeknight.

            1. re: nsxtasy

              On occasion I have gotten a reservation by calling the restaurant, even when opentable said there was nothing available.

              1. re: chicgail

                Agreed. My point was that there only very few restaurants in Chicago where you can't get a reservation a few weeks in advance. But you're right - even among the few that look like you can't, there are some where you probably can, over the phone.

                1. re: chicgail

                  thats because opentable never has all of the tables available to them, the restaurant retains control of a few tables, especially during prime time

                2. re: nsxtasy

                  Lloyd's is normally closed on Saturdays outside the opera season, so the situation there is similar to Terzo Piano.

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    what are the chances of getting a weeknight reservation for Alinea for 2 in the end of june? should I even try???

                    1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

                    1. re: Asumnuthin

                      Call them now! Maybe they'll have an opening, and the worst that can happen from calling is they tell you they're full.

                      I believe they also maintain a waiting list, so get on that if they can't give you a reservation.

                    1. re: delk

                      With Schwa, it sometimes takes 3 weeks just to get through to them to make the reservation!