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mk, green zebra, sprout, or north pond?

I'll be in Chicago for my 30th birthday and want to go somewhere special. I wish I could afford Alinea, but $200 a person just isn't in the budget at the moment. mk, Green Zebra, Sprout, and North Pond all have reservations available. Which would you choose?

Thanks!

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Alinea
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

Green Zebra
1460 W Chicago, Chicago, IL 60622

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  1. From those four, I'd definitely choose North Pond. Here's why.

    Green Zebra is almost entirely vegetarian. (They sometimes have one non-veg dish, sometimes none.) If you're vegetarian, or dining with vegetarians, or you enjoy vegetarian cuisine, then it's a great choice. Otherwise, probably not. To help you decide, I suggest looking at the menu on their website at www.greenzebrachicago.com

    North Pond, MK, and Sprout are quite pricey for restaurants that aren't high-end places like Alinea. MK is very good, but not all that unusual in any way. Sprout is even more expensive (I mean really, $37 for an entree of braised short ribs???). North Pond is similar in price to MK, but it has its exquisite, unique setting in the middle of the park facing its namesake pond, as well as a James Beard Award finalist (for the past five years) running the place. Because of its setting, North Pond really is "somewhere special" and for that reason I would choose it over the others.

    You could also consider some places that are less expensive than the previous group. Within the past year, I've eaten at three other restaurants with outstanding contemporary American cuisine, and prices that cost significantly less than the previous group. One is in a far northern suburb (Inovasi in Lake Bluff) and I suspect you'd like to keep it in the city (although you can take a commuter train from downtown that stops a block away). One is Deleece, on the north side about five miles from the Loop. And the third is Sable, in the "hotel district" in River North near the "Mag Mile". All three of these have entrees around $20 or less, and even if you get some moderate wine as well as an appetizer and dessert, you're probably going to spend somewhere around $50-60 or so including tax and tip.

    If you'd like to consider places with cuisine other than contemporary American, you might also look into French bistros (e.g. La Sardine), Italian restaurants (the Florentine, Cibo Matto, Cafe Spiaggia), or even an upscale Mexican restaurant (Salpicon, Mexique). La Sardine and the Mexican places will probably run $60-70/pp inclusive, and the Italian places a bit more, maybe $70-90.

    However, while all those other places have excellent food, none has the special, memorable setting that North Pond has. As long as you're willing to spend $90-120 per person including wine/tax/tip, I'd go to North Pond - and grab that reservation, because I know they fill up weeks in advance, especially for weekends. If you prefer to keep it well under that range, then consider one of the other places I've recommended.

    Wherever you go, mention that it's your birthday when making your reservation. Congratulations, and hope the day is very special for you!

    (And feel free to ask more questions!)

    17 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Thank you so much, nsxtasy! That's probably the most thorough, helpful reply I've received on any on-line message board ever!

      If you don't mind me asking a quick follow-up...

      I actually have been to Deleece before, and it is delicious. I particularly love the salmon over the black rice. Yum.

      As it is my 30th birthday (and I'll definitely take your advice and mention it to them), I want to splurge a little and go for a tasting menu at a restaurant I wouldn't normally go to. So, assuming we'd be getting the tasting menu at any of those options, you'd still recommend North Pond? It does look gorgeous.

      Thanks again!

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      North Pond
      2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614

      1. re: Ricabella

        >> So, assuming we'd be getting the tasting menu at any of those options, you'd still recommend North Pond?

        Yes, absolutely.

        And thanks for the kind words!

        1. re: Ricabella

          North Pond is beautiful and when we were there for my birthday we had the tasting menu - which was in consistent. Some dishes were wonderful, others odd.

          I would not discount MK. Can't say much about Sprout b/c we are trying it for the first time next week, but I do agree with Nsxtasy about Green Zebra.

          I would also gravitate towards the better regional Mexican (Mexique, Topologambo/Frontera Grill). But if you're looking for something fun and different, I would also consider one of our fine gastropubs: Publican, Longman and Eagle, Purple Pig or The Bristol. I know that some people aren't comfortable with the communal tables or the noise levels at some of those places, but I think they're part of the fun.

          You don't say when you are coming, but if you can get a reservation, I would certainly consider the Girl and the Goat, Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard's restaurant. Another of my favorites is tiny, but always interesting, creative and delicious: Bonsoiree.

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          Bonsoiree
          2728 W Armitage, Chicago, IL 60647

          The Publican
          837 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607

          Girl and the Goat
          809 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661

          1. re: chicgail

            >> Can't say much about Sprout b/c we are trying it for the first time next week

            I'm looking forward to hearing about it, and hoping you'll post all about it - maybe in time to help Ricabella, too! I haven't been there, and it's one of those places where the menu is very cryptic, mentioning only a few ingredients in each dish without really saying how it's prepared or constructed, so it's hard to get an idea of what the food is really like. Also they don't show prices on their website menu, but the ones I've seen on the Menupages site at http://chicago.menupages.com/restaura... sound very high (such as the example I cited above), so I'd be interested in hearing your impressions on that count also. Hope you have a great dinner (or brunch)!

            1. re: nsxtasy

              Thanks again for the replies! Chicgail, I'd love to hear how Sprout is next week. Keep me posted! From reviews on Yelp and Opentable, it looks like their prix fixe menu is $65/person. I'm a big Top Chef fan (part of why Sprout is appealing), so I definitely looked into the Girl and the Goat. Unfortunately, even a month out, there were no reservations available. Looks like Bonsoiree is also booked for the night. That place looks fabulous, too. Thank you for the recommendation!

              As of right now, I made reservations at North Pond and Sprout. I wish I could go to both! :)

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              Bonsoiree
              2728 W Armitage, Chicago, IL 60647

              North Pond
              2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614

              Girl and the Goat
              809 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661

              1. re: nsxtasy

                So here's my Sprout experience. We were there last night. Some things worked better than others, but bottom line: well worth the visit. $62 3-course prix fixe, plus two complimentary courses (butternut squash soup and grilled cheese sandwich cheese course)

                Dale Levitski is doing deconstructions of standard dishes, with his own, interesting twists. Some work better than others.
                "Foie Gras" = foi gras mousse that had little fois gras flavor, but excellent sweetbreads
                "Egg: = Lyonaise salad with pork belly instead of lardons

                "Steak" = surf & turf(steak on crab meat) with wasabi creme fraiche and tobiko
                “Pork,” = pork belly on an apple-potato latke and black tree-ear-like Japanese mushroom mixed with tiny slices of baby artichoke, with just a hint of curry

                "Corn" = brioche French toast covered with a creamy, sweet truffle-accented sauce, topped with ice cream and sprinkled with popcorn
                “Pistachio” = baklava with a burnt-sugar crispy swirl on top of it and a creamy mascarpone brick

                We also were lucky enough to be there when two other Top Chef "cheftestants" who were Dale's dinner guests.

                For photos and more detail, I blogged about it. http://foodbeest.com/?p=1925

                1. re: chicgail

                  Sounds interesting (and his website menu does not do his restaurant justice). Thanks for posting!

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    A little surprise update of just a few minutes ago. Sprout did not have a valet service last night (not a big problem) and, probably because of the TC party, there was a delay in taking our order. They called here to apologize and and offered us a gift certificate for future dinners. Good customer service.

                    1. re: chicgail

                      That's great! So... will you be going back to use it?

          2. re: nsxtasy

            We're coming to Chicago from Toronto for a weekend in mid-April, and having so much trouble picking from among all the great places to eat. The original plan was Sprout on Friday and Blackbird on Saturday. But now I'm thinking about a new plan, and would love some feedback.
            Friday lunch: Blackbird
            Friday dinner Moto (we're on the wait list at Alinea, but I think that's the closest we'll come..)
            Saturday dinner: Sprout or MK
            Thank you all for the great information that's already on this board.

            1. re: yyz guy

              I don't think of Moto as a replacement for Alinea. The food at Moto is interesting, using the unusual techniques and presentations typical of molecular gastronomy, but it's not a high-end experience, and although the food is interesting, I don't consider it among the best places around (not even close). Although the food may not be as unusual, I think you'll find it far better at places like North Pond and Sable (and again, North Pond is a truly special and unique place as well). (And if you go to Sable, don't miss the sweet corn creme brulee!)

              Also, there are so many great restaurants of all types in Chicago, you might want to vary your itinerary instead of having three meals that all serve contemporary American cuisine. We have great provincial Mexican cuisine you can't get in Toronto (at places like Topolobampo - which would make a great lunch, although I'm sure they're full for dinners in April - as well as Mexique or Salpicon). And we have other great restaurants of types that you may be able to get back home, but are also done exceedingly well here, such as Italian (the Florentine, Cafe Spiaggia), French bistros (La Sardine), tapas (Mercat a la Planxa), etc.

              1. re: yyz guy

                I couldn't agree more with Nsxtasy. Just because Moto utilizes molecular gastronomy techniques doesn't make it a great or even good restaurant. I don't think its worth the money.

                One other place you might really like is BrownTrout. The chef is a creative locovoire. I've been there twice. Both times the food is really fresh, thoughtful, delicious and memorable. We raved to the hostess who turned out to be married to the chef and he came out to say hello.

                I also love Mexique, Cafe Spiaggia, LeSardine (and sister restaurant Le Bouchon) and Mercat. As I suggested to the OP, you may also want to see if Bonsoiree is available.

                And, yes, I will report on Sprout after I eat there.

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                Le Bouchon
                1958 N Damen Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

                Moto Restaurant
                945 W Fulton, Chicago, IL 60607

                Cafe Spiaggia
                980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

                Mexique
                1529 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

                1. re: chicgail

                  This is really helpful. There's lots of farmhouse, locavore and new american cooking in T.O. but almost no good mexican so thanks for the nudge on that!

                  On a slightly different "need", we're arriving early friday and headig straight from our hotel near the water tower to the architectural conservancy by the AIC. It would be great to find a little bit of mid-morning susticance. A good pastry perhaps?

                  1. re: yyz guy

                    >> On a slightly different "need", we're arriving early friday and headig straight from our hotel near the water tower to the architectural conservancy by the AIC. It would be great to find a little bit of mid-morning susticance. A good pastry perhaps?

                    Go to Fox & Obel. It's maybe a 15-minute walk from the Water Tower, on your way to the Chicago Architecture Foundation on South Michigan Avenue. Fox & Obel is our premier gourmet food store, with the very best of everything - prepared foods, meats, fish, cheese, etc. The quality and variety of their baked goods - breads as well as pastries - are unequaled anywhere in Chicagoland. That's why they were recently named by Bon Appetit magazine among the ten best bread bakeries in the country (see www.bonappetit.com/magazine/2011/01/t... ). My favorites include their rich, yummy cinnamon swirl rolls, their brioche loaf, and their rustic fruit and nut loaf. Their bakery counter makes me feel like I've died and gone to heaven! If you want more than that - man cannot live on bread alone, LOL! - they also have a cafe in the rear where you can have anything from a cup of coffee to an entire meal, prepared to order. For breakfast, I recommend their cobb omelet. www.fox-obel.com

                    1. re: yyz guy

                      >> There's lots of farmhouse, locavore and new american cooking in T.O. but almost no good mexican so thanks for the nudge on that!

                      No problem! Here's more info on the Mexican places I've mentioned above. Topolobampo and Frontera Grill are Rick Bayless's famous longtime restaurants here, and both are excellent. However, Frontera Grill only accepts a handful of reservations, keeping most of the restaurant available for walk-in customers, and waits for a table are horrendous at both lunch and dinner unless you arrive 15-20 minutes before they open the doors. Topolobampo accepts reservations on Opentable.com ; dinner fills up three months in advance, but you can often get a lunch reservation only a couple of weeks out - reserve NOW if that's what you'd like. www.rickbayless.com/restaurants Mexique is in the West Town neighborhood about two miles west of the Water Tower (you can take the #66 CTA bus up Chicago Avenue). The cuisine at Mexique is Mexican but has a French influence, thanks to the chef-owner, who is Mexican-American and was trained in French cuisine. The atmosphere is lively bistro. It's open for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch. www.mexiquechicago.com Salpicon is another very good place, in Old Town convenient to the downtown hotels; it's only open for dinner and Sunday brunch. www.salpicon.com

                  2. re: yyz guy

                    Have to disagree with the naysayers on Moto. Did the Grand Tour there a few months ago and had a wonderful time ... you do need a sense of humor to enjoy it but our meal was both delicious and joyful ... and the service was very good. There's a playful sense to Moto that I found very appealing - and an interesting sense of nostalgia which I did not expect .. dishes we had made me smile with good memories snowmen and crackerjacks and clam bakes ... while wowing my tastebuds.

                    Cantu and crew also have a new spot named ING which has an asian twist - haven't been yet but can't wait to try it.

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                    Moto Restaurant
                    945 W Fulton, Chicago, IL 60607

                2. My daughter, who is a sous chef, and I had dinner at Sprout and it was wonderful. The prix fixe makes it a nicely priced option and included two lovely intermezzos that were super. Each course was well thought out and delicious, service friendly and smart ... just a wonderful experience overall.

                  Levitski was on the short list for a James Beard nomination so the quality of the food is pretty high.

                  It would be a very enjoyable spot for a birthday dinner ...

                  I also like Green Zebra a lot - and often dine there though I am not vegetarian. Recently I felt the menu slipped a touch but that may have been an off night and I plan to go back .. it has always been a hit with my guests.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Siun

                    I've only been to North Pond once, and it was disappointing. I've had many great meals at MK, including a fantastic 40th birthday tasting menu celebration. I also really liked Sprout and found it well-priced for what it was (really good food and service). I'm going back this week.

                    Salpicon never disappoints. I suggest lunch at Xoco if you want Mexican.

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                    North Pond
                    2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614

                    XOCO
                    449 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

                  2. I have been to North Pond at least three times over the years since it has opened and have been underwhelmed every time.

                    I have always had wonderful service and excellent food at MK. One of my favorites. Another favorite is RL. Always good food and a warm, clubby atmosphere. Salpicon is a great choice for mexican as the Bayless restaurants have never lived up to their hype, in my opinion. Has anyone been to Table 22 lately, except our President? It used to be a wonderful place to celebrate. Spiaggia is delicious, with beautiful views - happy birthday

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                    North Pond
                    2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614

                    Spiaggia
                    980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

                    1. one more vote for Sprout- it has fantastic food, great atmosphere and I think it's a great place to celebrate a birthday. As someone else said, the prix fixe is $65 and includes a starter, entree and dessert plus 2 intermezzos, so it's not a bad deal and we really loved it.

                      1. Go to Sprout! Fab food and cool atmosphere. Enjoy your birthday!