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Chicago Trip 2.0

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Hey there guys and gals. Last summer, my dad and I ventured to Chicago to sample some of its finest culinary experiences. During that trip, we hit Perenial, Urban Belly, Avec, Hot Dougs, Alinea, Kuma's Corner, Topolobampo, DB Primehouse brunch, and Cafe Spiaggia (phew!). We are heading back again for round 2 in mid-July, and would like to consult the fellow chowhounds once again. Here's the breakdown with applicable questions:
Thursday dinner: Great Lake Pizza. Will get there at 5:30. Although we really have nothing going on that night, we are crossing our fingers the line isn't THAT long, seeing as it's a Thursday night.
Friday Lunch: Was thinking Blackbird. We both really want to go there, but don't want to spend the dinner prices. Is lunch just as good as I've heard their dinner to be?
Friday Dinner: Mado
Saturday Lunch: Xoco
Saturday Dinner: L20 (was thinking about the Tatami room, but will opt instead for the luxury tasting menu)
Sunday Lunch/Brunch: Not sure quite what to put here. I was thinking about going to Lula or Nightwood. I know they are owned by the same people, thus their menus seem extremely similar. What do you guys think about which serves the better brunch? Just a side note, I was also considering Publican for Sunday's brunch.

Thanks a bunch! You all helped tremendously last time, and I knew just where to turn to for help.

-----
Alinea
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

Hot Doug's
3324 N California Ave, Chicago, IL 60618

Avec Restaurant
615 W Randolph St Ste A, Chicago, IL 60661

Cafe Spiaggia
980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

Topolobampo
445 N Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610

Mado Restaurant
1647 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

Kuma's Corner
2900 W Belmont Ave, Chicago, IL 60618

Great Lake
1477 W Balmoral Ave, Chicago, IL 60640

Urbanbelly
3053 N California Ave, Chicago, IL 60618

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  1. I have a couple of general reactions to your itinerary.

    First, for Saturday lunchtime, I would consider Frontera Grill's brunch rather than Xoco's lunch menu. Frontera is just more creative and unusual compared with what you find in most other cities. Incidentally, you don't have to make this decision ahead of time, since Xoco and FG don't accept reservations* and they're right around the corner from each other; simply go there, look at the menus, find out how long the wait is, and decide at that time which appeals to you more.

    My other reaction is that this itinerary has less diversity than your previous itinerary; this time you have almost entirely contemporary American-ish restaurants. I don't see much ethnic food, etc. Maybe you're not looking to make this trip as diverse as your previous one? If so, that's fine! But if you'd like to throw in a few different kinds of food, some of the cuisines I would consider substituting for one or more of your current choices would include tapas (e.g. Mercat a la Planxa, Cafe Iberico), Latin fusion (Carnivale, Nacional 27), pan-Asian (Sunda, Red Light, Opera, Aria), Chinese (Double Li), Thai (TAC Quick), Greek (Santorini, Venus), Turkish (Turquoise Cafe), French bistro (La Sardine), Jewish deli (Steve's, Manny's), etc.

    I'm not a fan of L2O. I've found the prices high, the food good but not outstanding, and the service erratic. For the same money, you can do SO much better - Charlie Trotter's, Everest, TRU, etc.

    Oh, and from what I've heard about Great Lake Pizza (which I haven't been to), the day of the week doesn't matter; they're slammed every day.

    *EDIT - as uhockey's reply reminds me, Frontera Grill does accept a handful of reservations over the phone, while keeping most of the dining room available for walk-in customers. If you can get a reservation for brunch on your Saturday, you won't have to worry about waiting times to be seated.

    3 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      I somehow knew you would be the first to reply, nsxtasy :). Thank you for all the suggestions! Looking back at my tentative schedule, Blackbird followed by Mado does sound a bit of the same (I'm in no way saying the restaurants are similar, only that they share a certain contemporary American style). I'm definitely thinking of adding a tapas style place for Friday lunch (thinking Cafe Iberico). What about traditional dim sum for Sunday? What would you recommend?

      -----
      Mado Restaurant
      1647 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

      Cafe Iberico
      N Lasalle St Chicago IL, N Lasalle St Chicago, IL

      1. re: pastry634

        >> I'm definitely thinking of adding a tapas style place for Friday lunch (thinking Cafe Iberico).

        I haven't been to either at lunchtime, but someone else remarked that lunch at Mercat a la Planxa does not reflect their cuisine or capabilities as well as dinner does. So for lunch, I think Cafe Iberico is probably the better way to go.

        >> What about traditional dim sum for Sunday? What would you recommend?

        I'm not really the person to ask, as my Chinese cuisine preference runs towards Szechuan, whereas the dim sum places are primarily Cantonese. But I can direct you to these discussions:

        Chicago Dim Sum - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/619335
        Looking for (dim) sum ideas? - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/510060

        One other dim sum possibility is Shanghai Terrace, in the Peninsula Hotel. I've only eaten there for dinner, but it's an excellent upscale restaurant that reflects many of the cuisines of China, and they do a Sunday dim sum brunch.

        Note that I edited my previous post to add a comment at the end about reservations at Frontera Grill (thanks to uhockey's mention).

        1. re: nsxtasy

          I'd also consider substituting lunch at North Pond instead of at Blackbird. Both have great food, but the setting of North Pond in the middle of the park in the summer is just so delightful. (FWIW North Pond is also open for Sunday brunch.)

          Incidentally, not many of the places we're discussing would make you want to consider reservations this far in advance, but Frontera Grill, Blackbird, and North Pond are in that category.

    2. Haven't had the opportunity for the luxury menu at L20, but it is #2 on my list for a return visit to Chicago (Alinea being #1 after the menu format change.)

      Lunch at Blackbird was excellent.

      Lula's breakfast was okay - the outdoor seating was nice, the food excellent, the service not so much.

      Agree w/ nx that Frontera's Brunch is solid - but not worth a 2 hour wait, so make reservations.

      http://uhockey.blogspot.com

      1. Thursday Dinner: If Great Lake is slammed - and it seems like it will be - I'd check out Hopleaf. The food there is excellent and there is a beautiful outdoor patio (inside the restaurant so you aren't facing the street). The beer list is outstanding as well. Hopleaf is less than 4 blocks away from Great Lake too so you don't have to chose until you get there. Also if you are going to be in Andersonville area, check out Simon's which was an alleged Capone's hangout back in the day.

        -----
        Hopleaf Bar
        5148 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60640

        Great Lake
        1477 W Balmoral Ave, Chicago, IL 60640

        1. Thanks for all the replies, everyone! I changed things around a bit, and I think I've ended up with a good weekend! For Friday, we are doing Shui Wah for our very first dim sum experience ever. I've heard that they don't do carts, so it's not 100% authentic, but it sounds delicious. We snagged reservations at Frontera for brunch on that Saturday (only had the noon slot left). For Sunday brunch, we decided on Publican. Since we tried Avec in our previous trip, we wanted to hit one of Kahan's other spots.
          I really only have one more question (for now, that is :P). I've heard that Mado is BYOB. Does that mean that they have no beverages and you must provide your own? Or, does that mean that you have the option to BYOB without a corkage fee?

          -----
          Avec Restaurant
          615 W Randolph St Ste A, Chicago, IL 60661

          Mado Restaurant
          1647 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

          2 Replies
          1. re: pastry634

            Sounds like a great plan now!

            Usually, when a place is described as BYOB, it means they don't sell alcohol (and usually don't charge corkage fees, although sometimes there's a nominal one). Although I haven't been to Mado, this appears to be the case there, based on their Metromix listing.

            1. re: pastry634

              Mado does not serve any alcoholic beverages. If you want beer, wine or something else, you have to bring it. I can't remember if they have a corkage fee or not, but if they do it's nominal. I'm pretty sure they serve non-alcoholic beverages.

            2. Thanks for the reply's, everyone. We called an audible after discussing the restaurants. One of the places we've always wanted to hit was Blackbird, so we're doing that for dinner on Friday (can't say I disagreed much!). For Friday lunch we are going to do DB Primehouse for the burger. Not wanting to overdose on Kahan, we substituted Sunda for Publican on Sunday for brunch. Overall, I'm definitely excited for the trip!
              I did have one question, however. We were looking over the 2 tasting menus offered (Regular and luxury). I've read a lot of reports on the 12 course regular menu, but has anyone tried the 10-course luxury? There is an $80 upcharge for the luxury menu, which is $245. For those that have had it, was it worth the price? We are not price shy in the least, but we don't want to be spending money where we don't have to in order to and always strive to get the best experience from any restaurant.

              6 Replies
              1. re: pastry634

                We had the standard menu - it was amazing.

                From what I've heard, the luxury menu is an expansion of his "head-to-head" menu where Gras uses two haute-ingredients paired and matched simply to perfectly compliment their flavors.

                When I go back I'll surely give it a whirl, but I find it hard to believe it is "better" than the standard tasting.

                http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                1. re: uhockey

                  Wow, thanks for the quick reply! I've actually read your write up on L20 many times (big fan of the blog, by the way)! I think we will just play it by ear and see what the night's offerings are. I can't see us choosing wrong no matter what we get, though.

                  1. re: pastry634

                    Yes, the luxury menu is more "luxury" in the sense of more expensive ingredients, not that it is necessarily more elaborate. You'll get an L2O experience either way.

                    See what's on the menu, and your server will (hopefully) help with recommendations. When I was there, I found the a la carte selections more appealing than the tasting menus, so that's the way I went. (A la carte was also less expensive... and the items were all pretty good, although I wasn't blown away by anything except the complimentary canele at the end.)

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      Perhaps you need to go back and try the tasting menu - while there is no excuse for average/sub-par items on the a la carte the tasting menu is clearly where Gras places his nightly focus - and only ~33% of the items on the tasting are on the a la carte.

                      http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                      1. re: uhockey

                        Chicago is full of places that I've tried and loved, and places I have yet to visit. I'm not going back to a place I thought was WAY overpriced, with spotty service and only "fairly good but certainly not great" food.

                        1. re: nsxtasy

                          Fair point - at least they didn't talk down to you for not ordering wine and then elbow you in the head without apology. :-)

                          http://uhockey.blogspot.com

              2. Thanks for all the great responses! I completely forgot that we had put Schwa in on Friday, but I haven't received any word back yet (not that I'm surprised). I've searched the boards for answers, but was unable to find out whether or not they call to tell me that my reservation did not go through. If not, is it worth it to leave another message asking for Thursday night? I'm not so much asking in the dining choices sense, but more in the "will they even consider me if I already asked for one date" sense. I don't really want to start another complaint topic on their reservation policy, but a few answers will be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

                2 Replies
                1. re: pastry634

                  I believe that Schwa is currently closed for renovations, and therefore may be even more haphazard than usual in responding to phone messages. Not sure when they are reopening and how that fits into when you will be in Chicago. I don't think they'll take it amiss if you leave a second message for a different date (but I've got no inside info., just a gut sense).

                  1. re: masha

                    Thanks for the input. I actually was able to get through to Schwa and tried to make a reservation for either the 15th or 16th of July, but apparently they are closed for an event :(. No worries, because that just gives us another reason to have a culinary adventure in the future. Besides, Blackbird isn't a bad substitute. Will report back!