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Jun 21, 2010 10:10 PM

Trip Report: Xoco, Publican, Bongo Room, Intelligentsia, Violet Hour, Alinea, Hot Doug's

Xoco: The line wasn't too bad for a late lunch around 1:30pm on a Wednesday, and this spot was right by our hotel. A tad big overpriced but we did spot Rick Bayless in the house. Met a nice woman in line who turned out to be a culinary student who also confirmed my suspicions on what the best dishes were.

Had the ahogada torta which was very good but I'm not sure I understand the whole sandwich in soup thing. Tasty, messy, filling. The pork belly torta was out of sight delicious, though. Nice balance of bacon to belly meat, with good crusty bread, and some bitter greens, and a fantastic dipping sauce. Ended it with some fried to order churros and Barcelona hot chocolate. The hot chocolate is NOT like what I had in Spain: too thin by a lot. But the churros were excellent texture-wise, just overly topped with sugar and cinnamon. But overall a thumbs up.

We were very tempted by the pastry display and the ice cream sundaes they had on offer that day (maple-pecan-bacon struesel and salted caramel sauce). Next time?

Publican: Had a reservation for 8pm but unfortunately, our table wasn't ready yet. We stood in the bar area at a circular table studying the beer list among the din. Our server recommended the Goose Island "Matilda" and it really hit the spot, especially given the warm weather. We were seated shortly thereafter (it seemed like the wall against the street may have been the quieter area to dine) and they kindly sent us some pickles for our trouble.

Our meal was excellent. Slow start: 1/2 dozen oysters and pickle plate. Liked the hard boiled egg pickle and the bread and butter ones but had no idea what to do with the red onion pickles which were a little too pungent to eat on their own.

The meal picked up with the next dish: hamachi crudo with pistachios, english peas, and mint. The combination of peas and mint was pretty familiar to me but not in the context of a crudo; the dish didn't really come together for me until I added on the pistachios. Tasty, just wish there had been more nuts on the plate.

Our charcuterie plate consisted of coppa (perfectly thin and fatty), the pork pie (oh my god! you people are so lucky!), duck preserved lemon gallantine (saved this one for last and it was the BEST), head cheese, morteau sausage (spicy and had a really nice texture), plus cornichons, two kinds of mustard, and pickled chard. Damn! I wondered aloud if it were possible to purchase just a single pork pie for my next BBQ or picnic.

We also really enjoyed an endive salad with sugar snap peas, strawberries, walnuts, and grilled ricotta salata. Well seasoned. Perfectly sweet snap peas and strawberries. Dressed with just enough balsalmic vinegar to match up with the ricotta salata. It tasted like summer in a single bite. I'm stealing this for my next cocktail party, I swear.

We were rapidly becoming very full but then the last dish arrived: spectacularly cooked sweetbreads with a near perfect char on them, with a fava bean vignole, ham, and aioli on top. What the menu didn't mention was the addition of shaved fennel and English peas, to boot. Creamy aioli, sweet peas, luscious fava beans, and those magnificently crusted sweetbreads. It was almost too delicious to finish. Almost.

We were stuffed (no room for dessert) sadly and needed to rest but I would come back and eat here on a weekly basis if i lived in the city. Chicagoans, you are quite lucky to have Publican available to you year-round!

A note about the noise: it's loud due to people talking loudly and lots of hard surfaces, which to me is worse than if the music's just cranked up.

Bongo Room: this was a BUST. Pretzel pancakes were wet and doughy, possibly undercooked. Like a dense circular brick, with no nice little crisp edge that you want in a good pancake. The pretzel bits in the pancake batter were soft and soggy, but what the pancakes were in need of was textural contrast. I ordered a single pancake, it came drowned in a too thick and too sweet chocolate and caramel sauce, and I could choke down only half of it. Ugh. I want my pancakes to be light and springy, please.

The four berry brioche french toast was definitely better, after I scraped off a lot of the sauce (again, too much sauce). I love brioche as a whole but I felt that the toast itself was probably not soaked long enough since the center was a little bit dry. Came with the same thick white sauce as the pancakes did, and berries. Couldn't figure out where the ginger cookie part went -- if it was there, it was unnoticeable. This was also a single piece order.

Side of bacon was OK. I realized too late that the Bongo Room robs you of the pleasure of dragging your bacon through maple syrup because everything comes with its own special sauce. The thai chicken sausage, though, we got as a side was excellently flavored and I appreciated that they cut it lengthwise and cooked it that way. Overall, though, I was really disappointed since I felt it had been hyped up significantly online. Not sure I would return.

Intelligentsia: went to the location in the Loop. Overall, great service, love watching them brew coffee in those Chemex cups. Delicious black pepper cookie; my husband's peanut butter cookie was nice too (with whole peanuts inside). I'd definitely stop by if it were in my neighborhood in in NYC.

VIolet Hour: Our second time here. The Juliet & Romeo was possibly better than I remember is being. Really also loved my Miraflores and my husband's Daisy 17. The hand carved ice blocks for the rocks drinks were also a nice touch, as were the "sidecar"s for cocktail overflow (you don't see that quite as much in New York City). Palate-wise I think the menu reads a little like Pegu Club but with a twist of Death & Co. if you've been to those cocktail bars in NYC.

Alinea: best restaurant I've been to in the USA and quite possibly my entire life. My second time there. Ranks up with Extebarri and Arzak in Spain as the best meal I've ever had. Perfect, perfect, perfect, from the Silpat plating of the chocolate and menthol dessert course by Chef Achatz to the warm and friendly service to the ingenius dishes. Clam chowder served in a clam shell with a little beach of crumbled saltines, and a brunoise of potato and bacon? The best lamb loin I've had in my life, sliced thin and skewered on a rosemary sprig, sitting in a pool of popcorn soup? It doesn't get much better than this! Not sure what we're going to do for our NEXT wedding anniversary, you know?

PHOTOS here:

Hot Doug's: met up with a large group of friends at 10:30am and waited outside in the heat. Surprisingly, I was actually hungry by the time we got to the front of the line! A bit of sensory overload when I first walked in and I was momentarily blinded by all the options on the wall (you can get any of them deep fried as well?!).

Ordered far too much food:
- Duck Fat fries ... we didn't realize how HUGE this was going to be
- Chicago-Style Hot Dog with all the trimmings
- Spicy Thai Chicken Sausage with Sriracha Mustard and Sesame-Seaweed Salad
- Calvados Duck Sausage with Morello Cherry Mustard and Goat Cheese
- Smoked Crayfish and Pork Sausage with Spicy Cajun Remoulade and Hickory-Smoked Sweet Swiss Cheese

I thought the crayfish and pork sausage was really nice, very high quality and you can tell all the care that goes into making it. My husband's spicy thai chicken sausage was amazingly flavorful, especially with the sriracha mustard and seaweed salad.

Doug was his usual charming self. Might have helped that we had a few young ones with us, though. :) Overall, I found Hot Doug's to be quirky, fun, and delicious. Worth the wait.

Thanks Chicago! Until we eat again.

1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

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

Bongo Room
1152 S Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60605

Violet Hour
1247 N Damen Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

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  1. Really nice report, thanks. What an anniversary trip!

    1. Thanks (as always) Kathryn! My sister and I are heading to Chicago this weekend, and we had planned to have breakfast at the Bongo Room. I think we'll skip it since I had wanted to have the pretzel pancakes. They sound dreadful.

      I'm joining my sister on her business trip, so we didn't have enough time to reserve for Alinea (I was "wait listed" for both days, but removed myself from the list yesterday). We're returning to TRU (which we loved seven years ago). We'll probably go to Cheesecake Factory (wish we had a branch in Manhattan) for our second night since it's near our hotel and my sister said she wanted only one fine dining restaurant this trip. Neither of us are fans of Mexican cuisine so we'll definitely skip the Rick Bayliss restaurants. She also doesn't want pizza or hot dogs.

      Any other places we should try for breakfast that you enjoyed? Last time we were in Chicago, we had breakfast at Lou Mitchell's.

      20 Replies
      1. re: ellenost

        Maybe your experience will be better with one of the other pancake varieties on offer at the Bongo Room.

        On previous trips to Chicago, I've had good brunches at the Gage (nice brie potatoes & conveniently located to a lot of tourist attractions) as well as Sepia (oddly brunch is missing in action from their web site's hours) and Frontera Grill (just note that there aren't a lot of sweet & carb-y options).

        Publican's brunch menu also looks fantastic. I was actually also eyeing Xoco's breakfast menu in addition to the pastries they had available.

        Xoco, oddly enough, doesn't read very Mexican to me. If you look for photos online, you'll see that the torta's are really just sandwiches on European style bread.

        Bongo Room
        1152 S Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60605

        Frontera Grill
        445 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

        1. re: kathryn

          Just note that the places mentioned in this post (other than XOCO) are ones that offer brunch only on Sundays (or, in the case of Frontera Grill, only on Saturdays). As distinguished from Bongo Room and other places that serve breakfast seven days a week.

          If you're interested in Sunday brunches, I keep updating the discussion at each time I try another one.

        2. re: ellenost

          Hi ellenost,

          If I might make a couple of suggestions...

          >> We'll probably go to Cheesecake Factory (wish we had a branch in Manhattan) for our second night since it's near our hotel and my sister said she wanted only one fine dining restaurant this trip.

          If I were visiting Chicago from New York, knowing what I know about dining options here and elsewhere, I would not go to Cheesecake Factory. Before I continue, I should mention that I don't share the visceral hatred of chains that some people harbor, and I like the Cheesecake Factory and consider it one of the best chains around. HOWEVER Chicago has so many great restaurants that you can't find anywhere else, that it would be a shame to waste a meal on a restaurant that is a national chain you can try elsewhere. Think of it this way - if someone said they were visiting Manhattan and wanted to eat dinner one night at California Pizza Kitchen, what would you advise them? ;)

          There are plenty of non-chain restaurants in downtown Chicago that are not terribly expensive (if that's your concern - although Cheesecake Factory isn't THAT cheap, either). If I were in River North and wanted to have dinner at a moderately-priced restaurant nearby, I would be considering places like Café des Architectes for contemporary American, Café Spiaggia (or, cheaper still, Coco Pazzo Café) for Italian, Emilio's Sol y Nieve for tapas, Sayat Nova for Armenian, or Uno or Due for deep-dish pizza.

          >> Any other places we should try for breakfast that you enjoyed? Last time we were in Chicago, we had breakfast at Lou Mitchell's.

          There are a lot of places where you can get perfectly adequate but unremarkable breakfast dishes, seven days a week, and Lou Mitchell's is one of them. (There's a discussion listing a bunch in River North at ). As noted below, my experience at Bongo Room has been great, and very different from Kathryn's report above. In River North, I would be considering Orange, which has pancake "flights" (they're good but honestly they don't blow me away) and customize-your-own fresh fruit juice blends (a nice idea). The Original Pancake House has a location on East Bellevue Place where you can get their yummy puffed-up cinnamony apple pancake. And they do a great breakfast at Atwood Café in the Loop. But some of our best breakfast places are not near River North - places like Jam in West Town, Toast in Lincoln Park and Bucktown, and M. Henry, way up on the north side in Andersonville.

          If you'd like to mention which hotel you're staying at, I can be more specific with recommendations nearby for a moderately-priced dinner and for breakfast.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            What nsxtasy said. Ditto. Couldn't have said it better.

            Don't break a CH's heart and come to Chicago to eat at the Cheesecake Factory or Lou MItchells.

            Plus I love the pretzel pancakes at Bongo as well. Never had soggy or soft ones. In fact, I always order just one so I don't OD on them. Then it's just a taste along with a "healtier" omlette.

            1. re: nsxtasy

              Thanks nsxtasy (you are the "kathryn" of the Chicago board--always with great advice!). For some (bizarre) reason, my sister loves Cheesecake Factory (I like it only for the cheescake varieties). Even when we travel to Las Vegas, we always stop to have a meal at The Cheesecake Factory at the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace--call us crazy.

              I have been collecting the posts about breakfast/brunch from this board. We're staying at the Talbott Hotel (I hope it's nice; it received raves from Trip Advisor). If you have any suggestions for breakfast/brunch or casual dinner (no reservations since we still haven't firmed up our plans for Saturday because of the weather), I would greatly appreciate your advice. We won't have a car, but don't mind taking taxis. (We arrive Friday afternoon (dinner reservation at TRU) and leave Sunday mid-afternoon. I know this is way too short a visit to Chicago, but I'm meeting my sister after she finishes her business meetings on Friday). Thanks again for the advice!

              1. re: ellenost

                >> If you have any suggestions for breakfast/brunch or casual dinner (no reservations since we still haven't firmed up our plans for Saturday because of the weather), I would greatly appreciate your advice.

                The Talbott is near the Hancock, and a couple blocks from the north end of the "Mag Mile".

                For breakfast, you're actually very close to the Original Pancake House, which I mentioned above. I enjoy it not only for their puffy apple pancake and German pancake, but they do great omelets too. If you're just looking for standard breakfast fare (that won't necessarily amaze, but is conveniently close), Tempo is a diner-type place nearby (and open 24 hours). And Oak Tree, in the 900 North Michigan (Bloomingdale's) Building, is another option close by.

                For brunch on Sunday, there are lots and lots of places. But if I had to make one recommendation above all others, there are openings right now on for North Pond, and if I were you, I would make a reservation there. North Pond is a very special place in Chicago, combining excellent contemporary American cuisine from James Beard Award-nominated Chef Bruce Sherman with an exquisite setting. It's in the middle of Lincoln Park (the park itself, not the adjacent neighborhood of the same name), facing its namesake pond with the city skyline looming over the opposite shore of the pond. (In terms of setting, think of the late (?) Tavern in the Green, but actually in the middle of the park, not just at the entrance.) It's about two miles north of the hotel, 5-10 minutes by cab.

                If you want to keep Sunday brunch close to the hotel, Bistro 110 is a French bistro that does a lovely brunch. Despite the location in a downtown high-rise, it's very intimate, laid out in a series of small rooms. Here are two more places that may not amaze with the food, but have other attributes that you may find appealing. The Signature Room is on the 95th Floor of the Hancock; even if the food isn't always the best, the view on a clear day is awesome. If you would prefer an elaborate, very upscale (and pricey) buffet, Seasons in the Four Seasons may fit the bill.

                For the dinner on Saturday, I strongly recommend making reservations, even if it's as late as that day, rather than just walking in some where only to find a long wait or they're full. If you have internet access while here, is always a good way to spot availability for a last-minute reservation. Also the Talbott has a concierge who, I'm sure, can be very helpful with advice and reservations, and may be able to get you into a place that tells you they're full in Opentable or over the phone.

                Here are some of the best places within a 3-minute walk of the Talbott:

                Cafe des Architectes (contemporary American) -
                Cafe Spiaggia (Italian) -
                Le Colonial (Vietnamese) -
                Hugo's (seafood and steaks) -
                Pizano's (deep-dish pizza) -

                Make it a 10-minute walk and you can consider:

                Kiki's (French bistro) -
                Brasserie Jo (French bistro) -
                Salpicon (Mexican) -
                Naha (contemporary American) -
                Vermilion (Indian-Latin) -
                Graham Elliot (contemporary American) -
                David Burke's (steakhouse) -
                Shaw's Crab House (seafood) -
                Heaven on Seven (cajun-creole) -
                Sunda (pan-Asian) -

                I realize that some of these are types of food you have plenty of in New York - and in the case of Vermilion and Burke's, you have their restaurants there - but they're worth mentioning, just in case.

                All of the above, with the exception of the breakfast and pizza places, are on Opentable.

                HTH - feel free to ask more questions!

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  Thanks very much nsxtasy for the very comprehensive list (and websites). We won't have internet access while we're in Chicago, but as you suggest, we can always ask the concierge at the hotel for assistance. (Maybe I can convince my sister to choose one of the restaurants from your list for Saturday night; we can always go to Cheesecake Factory for dessert).

                2. re: ellenost

                  Ellenost, might I suggest the Purple Pig instead of CF? It is relatviely inexpensive and delicious - you could then take a nice stroll back up Michigan Ave to have dessert at CF. The Purple Pig is located at 500 N Michigan Ave and is a Mediterranean wine bar with outstanding small plates. Great outdoor area as well.

                  1. re: vrollings

                    Just be aware, the Purple Pig does not accept reservations and has gotten a lot of favorable press since its recent opening, so you may be in for a wait.

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      Thanks for the suggestion (and the warning). The menu looks good, and I checked their website for their hours, and we might be okay if we go early or mid-afternoon.

                      1. re: ellenost

                        Yes, that's usually a good strategy.

                        Chicago dining hours are typically a bit earlier than New York City's. The peak reservation time here is 7:30, and the places in high demand can start getting busy at 6:00, sometimes even a bit earlier (especially on Fridays at places downtown). The reservation times that stay available the longest (at places that accept them) are 5:30 or earlier, or 9:00 or later. If I'm not mistaken, people tend to eat later than this in New York; maybe it's that whole Eastern Time vs Central Time thing.

                        1. re: nsxtasy

                          Thank you nsxtasy (and your wonderful list of restaurants). My sister and I just sat (in our respective apartments on our respective computers) and reviewed the list. We've deleted Cheesecake Factory and have added Brasserie Jo (already made a reservation). We also want to go to the Original Pancake House for Sunday breakfast. Which location would be closest to The Talbott Hotel? We may also check out The Taste of Chicago. Thanks again for your help.

                          1. re: ellenost

                            The Original Pancake House at 22 East Bellevue Place is three blocks north of the Talbott. They may have long-ish waits for a table on a Sunday morning unless you go on the early side. (At most of the popular breakfast restaurants on Sundays, there's immediate seating before 9:00 a.m., and waits start to develop some time between 9:30 and 10:00.)

                  2. re: ellenost

                    sorry to be a downer, but tru has fallen off quite a bit in the last few years...

                    1. re: ephemeral8

                      It was amazing seven years ago. My sister and I classed it as better than Charlie Trotter and Everest when we were last in Chicago Thanks for the warning; I won't expect much so maybe I'll report back that it was better than expected.

                      1. re: ellenost

                        Most people I know who have gone to TRU in the past couple of years have reported that it's outstanding, and as good as ever.

                        1. re: nsxtasy

                          We're looking forward to our return visit to TRU. It was after we had dined at TRU that we classed Chicago dining as more creative than NYC dining. Next time we return to Chicago we hope to dine at Alinea. Even one of the chefs at Momofuku Ko thought Alinea's food was superb.

                          1. re: ellenost

                            my info on tru's decline isn't exactly firsthand; i've only eaten there once, about 2 years ago, and it was great. friends of mine worked at tru for a number of years and said that there was a lot of focus lost during the expansion (read: selling out) with all the hotel stuff a few years ago, and then that burger window, which was seen as more of a marketing ploy for tru than a genuine endeavor. from what i've heard, everything is still great, just not amazing like it may have been before.

                            1. re: ephemeral8

                              That sounds a little different from saying that it has fallen off quite a bit.

                  3. re: nsxtasy

                    Thanks nsxtasy. My sister and I enjoyed our breakfast at The Original Pancake House. The wait on Saturday morning (9:00 ish) was about 15 minutes. This gave us plenty of time to study the menu and change what to order. We didn't order the apple pancake--it looked like something to share with 4 people. My sister did order the Dutch Baby and I ordered the eggs with chicken sausages and 3 pancakes. We shared. Everything was delicious!

                3. Love all your reports, Kathryn (especially your NYC coverage). Last summer, I checked out Alinea, and suffice to say, it was the best meal of my life. Though I desperately wanted to go back this summer, we decided to check out how L20 is faring. Reading your menu description is making me jealous :(. Just out of curiosity, did Chef Achatz or any of the servers speak to you about taking pictures during the meal? I've read that he has been banning some photography to take place out of a fear of letting the food get too warm or cool.

                  1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: pastry634

                    Not sure where the "no photos at all" thing is coming from. Chef Achatz has flat out said:

                    "At times we have guests that are a little bit rude or presumptuous about it and that kind of offends me a little bit. Even then WE LET THEM DO THEIR THING." (emphasis mine)

                    I took photos during the meal. I saw others doing the same. I did not use a flash, a tripod, or any external equipment.

                    Another party had the flash turned on their point and shoot camera, and were asked to please turn the flash off. That's about it.

                    I believe he's said really taking pictures or making recordings of Chef Achatz or his staff is where he draws the line:

                    "I am fine with the documentation, maybe I wasn't clear. What I am not ok with is the documentation of me and the staff without asking, and people ruining the experience for other diners."


                    1. re: pastry634

                      Some of the food should be eaten in a timely fashion, mostly the encapsulations so I guess if you're taking photos you should be quick on the trigger. Other than that feel free to snap away. When I was there every single table in the room had at least one person taking pictures of the meal. When I walked to the bathroom I noticed cameras on almost every single table.

                      Chef Achatz came to our table to do the Chocolate/Coconut/Menthol/Hyssop dessert and I politely asked if I could take a photo of him and document their process and he was totally fine with it.

                      I think the key as in most situations like this, is to be discreet and respectful.

                      1. re: pastry634

                        L2O isn't Alinea, but it is superb. Do go.


                        1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

                        2300 Lincoln Park West, Chicago, IL 60614

                      2. Thanks for the report!

                        FWIW, your description of Bongo Room is not at all consistent with my own experience. I've had their pretzel pancakes, and they were delicious. The pretzel pieces were properly dry and crunchy, and the pancakes themselves were properly cooked, too. Yes, they do use a lot of sauce on their pancakes; I like them that way! However, if you think that might be a problem, you can always ask them to serve the sauce on the side.

                        As for Publican, you didn't miss anything by skipping dessert there. ;)

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: nsxtasy

                          I've never really understood the popularity of the brunch specialist places - bongo room, yolk, meli, orange etc. The food is fine, but nothing special. I think Yolk and Meli are the best of them.

                          I think the best brunches in town are at chef-driven restaurants - The Publican and Mexique probably being my 2 favorite.

                          1529 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

                          1. re: bobdobilina

                            >> I've never really understood the popularity of the brunch specialist places - bongo room, yolk, meli, orange etc. The food is fine, but nothing special.

                            Wow, I totally disagree.

                            Seven days a week, Bongo Room serves pancakes with sauces, like their pretzel pancakes with white chocolate caramel sauce, or their blueberry pancakes with almond panna cotta cream. And seven days a week, M. Henry serves their blisscakes, pancakes stacked with mascarpone and fruit, and also their bread pudding. And seven days a week, Orange will custom blend your choice of 10-20 different fresh fruit juices. Please tell me where, other than the breakfast specialist places, you can find these delicious dishes. You can't - and that's the very definition of "special" - something delicious that you can't find anywhere else.

                            >> I think Yolk and Meli are the best of them.

                            Again, I disagree. I think Yolk and Meli are the LEAST SPECIAL of them, because they only sell the same conventional egg and pancake dishes you can find at any diner or IHOP.

                            >> The Publican and Mexique probably being my 2 favorite.

                            Places that do a weekend brunch are a different animal because you can't get breakfast there during the week. (And if their bland dessert waffle at dinner is any indication of the quality of brunch at the Publican, I'd rather go to McDonald's.)

                            1. re: nsxtasy

                              >> And seven days a week, M. Henry serves their blisscakes, pancakes stacked with mascarpone and fruit, and also their bread pudding.

                              I was under the impression (partially based on posts other sites, but also on the online menu) that the bread pudding was only served on the weekends. You probably make it up to M. Henry more often than I do on weekdays - is it really every day? If they serve the bread pudding daily, that would be excellent and exciting information!

                              1. re: pamiam

                                I honestly don't remember, and I could be wrong about the bread pudding being served on weekdays. Sorry!

                                1. re: pamiam

                                  The bread pudding is served only on weekends - I have an old e-mail confirming it. It is excellent, but the rest of the food is just as good if not better - I'd not let the Pudding determine what day I went. :-)


                          2. Well done - Alinea is breathtaking. :-)


                            1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614