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Best Tasting Menu in Chicago

c
CityFoodNY Aug 9, 2011 08:53 AM

I need recommendations for the Best Tasting Menu in Chicago. It's for a friendly / business dinner, type of food and price are no issue. We just simply want the absolute best of the best!
Thanks in advance!

  1. nsxtasy Aug 13, 2011 09:39 AM

    Some months ago, while dining at a restaurant, I remarked to the chef that it seemed as though the food preparations there were a lot simpler than at his previous restaurant. He told me that the preparation techniques were equally complex and technical if not more so, and built on those used at his former place, and that part of the art of cooking was making a dish outstanding without necessarily making the preparation steps easy to discern. So what you think may be a simple, straightforward preparation, may not be at all. (Except if you're making it yourself, of course.)

    3 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy
      huiray Aug 13, 2011 09:49 AM

      Sounds most promising indeed. May one enquire as to which restaurant this place is?

      1. re: huiray
        nsxtasy Aug 13, 2011 09:58 AM

        Michael, in north suburban Winnetka. For a while, he owned the famous now-gone Le Francais, and still occasionally has specials showcasing more elaborate recipes from Jean Banchet, who owned Le Francais for many years. Michael doesn't have tasting menus, but has some of the best food anywhere in the Chicago area. www.restaurantmichael.com

        -----
        Michael
        64 Green Bay Road, Winnetka, IL 60093

        1. re: nsxtasy
          huiray Aug 13, 2011 10:08 AM

          Aha. Thanks! I do remember your recommending the place in various posts.

    2. m
      mrsdebdav Aug 10, 2011 08:45 PM

      I get your point, CityFoodNY. I'm totally over the whole tortured food thing.
      I have had two tasting menus in Chi (I'm from NY but visit Chi often): Trotters and Green Zebra (veg). Trotters = meh, Zebra = really liked it (but I'm veg).
      If you're open to veg, try Zebra. Or, you might consider a place with great small plates; I recommend Sable in the Hotel Palomar. Food is terrific, place is fun, has a creative drinks menu, and you can craft your dinner to match your food preferences.

      -----
      Green Zebra
      1460 W Chicago, Chicago, IL 60622

      1. DoctaThunda Aug 10, 2011 04:44 PM

        I second Alinea, but there are a lot of other great options. I set up a wonderful business dinner for a client at Avenues. It was exciting and fun, but the setting is very chic - kind of old school fancy, which depending on your demographic and who you're taking could be a good thing.

        I'm going to check out iNG soon, so I'll report back!

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

        1 Reply
        1. re: DoctaThunda
          a
          ajpocp Aug 12, 2011 10:44 AM

          I went to iNG and did the chef's 2 hour menu or whatever it is they call it..I assume that is the equivalent of their tasting menu.....I found it rather "blah", not bad, just not outstanding, I personally felt the best thing there was the "breakfast" desert.

        2. h
          HoosierFoodie Aug 10, 2011 08:41 AM

          Alinea. I'm not sure its better than TFL or the best in the US but it if it isn't it is very, very close. It is the best in Chicago. From the last year+/- experiences. I would say Tru, L20, Avenues then Trotters. If I'm paying I would not go back to Trotter's. My last two dinners at Tru have been fantastic. I would have liked Avenues better but I don't think they put as much effort into their wine service as the others. I have not been to Everest in several years.

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

          1. m
            mountsac Aug 10, 2011 08:10 AM

            If the type of food doesn't matter, then Alinea is the absolute best of the best in overall fine-dining experience.

            Although, I do know some friends who find Alinea's food to be soul-less, albeit precise and balanced (I don't think that). I think the ultra contemporary and playful sensibility to food and presentation doesn't necessarily appeal to everyone. In which case, I'd recommend L2O. I also have a friend who was impressed by Ria's new chef's tasting menu on a recent visit.

            1. theskinnyduck Aug 9, 2011 09:49 AM

              Alinea. Hard to see any other contender. A pain to get a reservation though.

              If you need a second choice, I would say Tatami Room at L2O.

              6 Replies
              1. re: theskinnyduck
                nsxtasy Aug 9, 2011 09:54 AM

                Actually, it's not a pain to get a reservation at Alinea. Not at all. You just have to call them the morning that they start accepting reservations for your date, and you'll almost certainly get the date you want. (They start accepting them on the first of the month for the month 2-3 months later; for example, on September 1 they will start accepting November reservations.) You pick up the phone, you dial, they answer, you make the reservation. Easy!

                It's not like the French Laundry, where there's a good chance you cannot get reservations at all. When I've tried to get reservations at TFL, I used a phone with a redial button so I could call back as soon as I heard a busy signal. I was calling every three seconds, starting the moment they opened. After an hour of calling - yes, that's 1200 calls placed - I got through and all they had was an 11:00 a.m. lunch opening. Per Se is almost as hard as TFL.

                1. re: nsxtasy
                  theskinnyduck Aug 9, 2011 09:59 AM

                  The last time I made a reservation at Alinea, that's 150 phone calls in the first hour. Sure it's not as hard as TFL, but you still need to wait for that first day of reservation, and many people have work commitment at 10am.

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

                  1. re: theskinnyduck
                    nsxtasy Aug 9, 2011 10:04 AM

                    But you don't have to call in the first hour at Alinea. Let the first hour pass. Then pick up the phone, and make the call. Easy! If you're busy that day, get a friend to call for you.

                    At least you can get the reservation. Which you can't do at TFL or Next, unless you're really really lucky (AND waste a lot of time).

                    1. re: nsxtasy
                      k
                      kathryn Aug 11, 2011 03:10 PM

                      I'm with nsxtasy -- we were even able to move the date/time of our Alinea reservation a few days later.

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

                    2. re: theskinnyduck
                      cynalan Aug 9, 2011 06:06 PM

                      I consider myself really lucky then... called Alinea on July 1 for a September reservation and got through on the second call. September 15 is the big day. I'm very much looking forward to the dining experience.

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

                      1. re: cynalan
                        nsxtasy Aug 9, 2011 07:04 PM

                        No, you weren't lucky; that's just a typical experience. It's EASY to make reservations at Alinea. I've had the same experience as you every time I've been there. I called, got through, made a reservation. No problem!

                2. nsxtasy Aug 9, 2011 09:00 AM

                  Alinea.

                  Best tasting menu in the United States. Best restaurant in the United States.

                  I suppose I should ask, when you say "best tasting menu", whether you are referring to the multi-course small-portion "tasting menu" which is best, or the menu whose food simply tastes the best, but the answer is the same either way. :)

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

                  46 Replies
                  1. re: nsxtasy
                    huiray Aug 9, 2011 08:40 PM

                    What in your view would be the best "tasting menu" in Chicago that DOES NOT use molecular gastronomy techniques or tricks and uses ONLY actual natural food ingredients and conventional techniques?

                    1. re: huiray
                      nsxtasy Aug 10, 2011 05:52 AM

                      This is a false dichotomy. The other high-end restaurants use molecular gastronomy techniques, and Alinea uses "actual natural food ingredients and conventional techniques" along with molecular gastronomy techniques and unusual presentations, none of which I consider to be "tricks". What is often overlooked is that the food at Alinea is absolutely delicious, and the entire experience is FUN.

                      Restaurants in the Chicago area offering tasting menus include Alinea, Everest, Avenues, Charlie Trotter's, TRU, Schwa, Spiaggia, Bonsoiree, North Pond, Ria, L2O, Sixteen, Next, and Carlos. Which one is second best? That's a tough choice. Whatever it is, I would put it far behind Alinea.

                      1. re: nsxtasy
                        huiray Aug 10, 2011 06:34 AM

                        Nowhere did I say that Alinea DOES NOT use actual natural food ingredients and conventional techniques.

                        I guess there isn't any place, then, amongst the top tier anyway (or even in the "upper tier", so to say), that uses ONLY actual natural food ingredients and conventional techniques?

                        p.s. I wasn't really asking for second-best, either. :-)

                        1. re: huiray
                          uhockey Aug 11, 2011 06:29 PM

                          COMPLETELY avoiding "techniques or tricks?" So you're looking for a boring restaurant that hasn't evolved in the last 50 years? I don't think there are many great restaurants that haven't EVOLVED to use modern technique anywhere - but there are many whose food is quite "traditional" and "natural" overall - for the "best" of those in Chicago I'd say Trotter's followed closly by Everest.

                          http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                          1. re: uhockey
                            huiray Aug 12, 2011 01:32 AM

                            No, no...I expect restaurants to have evolved, even though traditional ones that still do things the same way as they have done for years - so long as it is excellent - is encompassed in the query. As I said elsewhere, I don't think of "Modern Techniques" as being the same as/synonymous with MG.

                            1. re: huiray
                              uhockey Aug 12, 2011 03:30 AM

                              Then go to Everest. Very few foams, and generally "Whips" moreso than foams. Did a very very good extended tasting there with no mg whatsoever and while it isn't Daniel or Savoy, it is one of the best "French" restaurants I've been to Stateside.

                              http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                              1. re: uhockey
                                huiray Aug 12, 2011 09:01 AM

                                Thanks.

                                BTW, just so there is no confusion about it - I am not opposed to MG per se (although I detest foams) but was trying to think of places where one COULD get an excellent meal (or the "best" thereof) that did not use MG.

                                An an additional thing to think about - people who watched Top Chef Season 8 may remember the "sunny-side up egg dumpling with braised pork belly and milk ramen with beef, pork and chicken" that Dale Talde made and served to Wylie Dufresne, no less, at wd-50 - using only "natural" ingredients and without using MG techniques, IIRC. I would say it was a creative, playful (and apparently tasty) dish - which won the episode, BTW. :-)

                                1. re: huiray
                                  huiray Aug 12, 2011 01:51 PM

                                  ...and it WOULD be nice to have an excellent, top-flight tasting menu available as occasion arises or as desire demands which did not have MG involved; no tortured food, no exploding bombs, no foams, no fanciful unnatural-looking concoctions, etc etc etc.

                                  1. re: huiray
                                    chicgail Aug 13, 2011 05:28 AM

                                    I don't think explosions, torture or foams are necessary, but it may be that at some level our expectations and our palates have changed enough that a top-flight restaurant has to do something with MG to be outside of the ordinary. We found recent dinner at Trotters was perfectly prepared and totally uninteresting to the point that we decided we would never spend that kind of money for a dinner there again.

                                    1. re: chicgail
                                      uhockey Aug 13, 2011 07:44 AM

                                      That is too bad. While I can't say they are still "reinventing the wheel" they are probably as close to The French Laundry as can be found in the Mid-West - just perfectly executed food in a room befitting royalty.

                                      While I completely agree that it is not my favorite meal in Chicago - it actually falls well behind Alinea, Avenues, L2o, and Schwa - I had three dishes there that STILL make me smile every time I look at my pictures and blog. If I lived in Chicago I'd go back, but in the setting of making trips once or twice yearly there always seems to be something newer or more flashy to steal my attention - as a matter of fact, only Alinea has managed to bring me back for a second look.

                                      http://uhockey.blogspot.com

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

                                      1. re: uhockey
                                        h
                                        HoosierFoodie Aug 13, 2011 07:53 AM

                                        I can see your point about food execution and a nice room in regard to Trotter's but past that my last visit didn't resemble much in comparison to TFL. I don't have pictures or a blog but I have eaten at Trotter's many times. My first kitchen table experience was a wonderful event. But Trotter's is not what it used to be and it shows. The service isn't what it used to be and I would agree with chicgail that the food was uninteresting. This is certainly not my experience w/TFL.

                                        1. re: HoosierFoodie
                                          huiray Aug 13, 2011 06:27 PM

                                          So - insofar as non-MG places are concerned, and for availability of a Tasting Menu (or being able to assemble something like that from their offerings), is the consensus then Trotters (for better or worse), Everest, Topolobampo, maybe Spiaggia maybe (or Cafe Spiaggia?), Michaels for Western-style food; and the kaiseki/omakase offerings at the Japanese places mentioned (and/or Arun's) ? Any others?

                                          1. re: huiray
                                            uhockey Aug 13, 2011 07:02 PM

                                            I'd not vouch for Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia does not offer "tasting size" portions.

                                            Vie in Western Springs, though not my favorite, fits the bill and Blackbird doesn't use much/any hypermodern technique.

                                            http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                                            -----
                                            Cafe Spiaggia
                                            980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

                                            Spiaggia
                                            980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

                                            1. re: uhockey
                                              chicgail Aug 14, 2011 04:57 AM

                                              Cafe Spiaggia doesn't have a tasting menu per se, but does offer small plates that would make up a wonderful meal.

                                              -----
                                              Cafe Spiaggia
                                              980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

                                            2. re: huiray
                                              nsxtasy Aug 13, 2011 07:10 PM

                                              Michael does not have a tasting menu. And I wouldn't describe the food there as "Western-style" (a term I have never heard used in the United States, although I've heard it used in Asia). I would describe it as contemporary American with French and other global influences. In that regard, it's basically similar to Vie and Blackbird.

                                              Spiaggia does indeed have a tasting menu; you can view a sample on their website.

                                              1. re: nsxtasy
                                                huiray Aug 13, 2011 07:35 PM

                                                Ah, but to me "Western-style" does indeed suggest a kind of food distinct from the ubiquitous "Asian" or "Middle Eastern" or "Indian" terms that Westerners are fond of using. ;-) And "contemporary American with French and other global influences" is indeed Western-style.

                          2. re: nsxtasy
                            f
                            ferret Aug 10, 2011 08:43 AM

                            The OP isn't likely to find a consensus on "best" (there are a couple on the above list that I have no desire to visit again) but they're good choices. In addition to those listed, Mercat a la Planxa has a great tasting menu option.

                          3. re: huiray
                            a
                            aburkavage Aug 10, 2011 06:30 AM

                            I'm with nsxtasy on this one! You'd probably be hard pressed to find a top-notch restaurant in Chicago that didn't have a vacuum sealer, sous vide machine, a big jug of liquid nitrogen, xanthan gum, ISI dispensers, etc. in the kitchen.

                            That said, I don't think the presence of such "gadgets" indicates that a restaurant is using "tricks" to cook food. Furthermore, most diners would probably be surprised at the amount of non-traditional techniques that go into perfectly cooking a simple duck breast or lamb loin that appears to be cooked in a conventional way.

                            1. re: aburkavage
                              huiray Aug 10, 2011 08:04 AM

                              ::Shrug:: For me, stuff like encapsulating a liquid in xanthan gum then having the diner pop it whole into one's mouth so that it 'explodes' when masticated is a 'trick'. Forming "pearls" or "caviar" by dropping stuff into vinegared water or whatnot is a 'trick'. To each his or her own.

                              My question really was directed to whether there was a good place in Chicago that did not use any MG techniques etc. for its Tasting Menu. As I mentioned in my post at 9:34 am, I gather there aren't any, then? [If this is true, then a plain "No, there aren't any" would have been a simple answer, instead of a defense of MG etc. :-) ]

                              1. re: huiray
                                f
                                ferret Aug 10, 2011 08:39 AM

                                Cooking food is a "trick" in that it changes the taste and texture of the ingredient. Using modern techniques doesn't make a meal less "authentic."

                                1. re: ferret
                                  huiray Aug 10, 2011 09:14 AM

                                  "Cooking food is a "trick" in that it changes the taste and texture of the ingredient."
                                  ---------
                                  Not to me. We'll have to disagree on the terms.

                                  =======
                                  "Using modern techniques doesn't make a meal less "authentic." "
                                  ------------
                                  Nobody said anything about authenticity or lack thereof until you did. 'Modern techniques' is not really the same thing as 'MG techniques', insofar as a STYLE of cooking is concerned. My posts have to do with MG as a style of cooking, as an epicurean practice.

                                  =======
                                  Anyway, this side-discussion is getting more and more OT, after what I thought was a reasonably straightforwards query.

                                2. re: huiray
                                  a
                                  aburkavage Aug 10, 2011 10:42 AM

                                  What I tried to explain, and forgive me if I came off as a prick, is that I don't think top notch restaurants nowadays are easily divided into two categories: those that use "MG" and those that don't.

                                  In other words, the "MG" techniques have penetrated fine dining, and a perfectly seared and juicy piece of beef may seem traditional, but probably has not been prepared in a way that most diners would recognize as such.

                                  So, I guess my answer to your initial question would be a "No." The chances are good that if a restaurant has a semi-serious tasting menu, they probably aren't preparing food in a traditional way. I'd be happy to be proven wrong, however!

                                  1. re: aburkavage
                                    chicgail Aug 10, 2011 11:02 AM

                                    I think that's true for any really first rate restaurant today. Maybe not to the extent that Alinea uses MG, but it is definitely used as part of the standard cooking process.

                                    1. re: aburkavage
                                      huiray Aug 10, 2011 11:08 AM

                                      No, no...no harm, no foul. I appreciate your answers and thank you for them. I still do wonder, though, if there are any places that indeed use only traditional techniques and "natural" foodstuffs (for lack of a better term, really) and put out an excellent "tasting menu" besides just great food...in Chicagoland...

                                      1. re: huiray
                                        d
                                        danimalarkey Aug 10, 2011 12:04 PM

                                        Everest and Spiaggia strike me as restaurants that don't use many "modern" techniques. I haven't had the pleasure of a tasting menu from either one but if the ala carte options are a good indication, they are probably pretty damn good.

                                        -----
                                        Spiaggia
                                        980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

                                        1. re: danimalarkey
                                          chicgail Aug 10, 2011 12:42 PM

                                          I would bet money that both of them use "modern" techniques. I've had foams at both places and I suspect they both sous vide as well.

                                          1. re: chicgail
                                            huiray Aug 10, 2011 12:58 PM

                                            Yes, indeed, foams would be the same as saying that they use an MG technique...
                                            :-)

                                            1. re: chicgail
                                              d
                                              danimalarkey Aug 10, 2011 01:09 PM

                                              You're probably right and I wouldn't take that bet! I'm just trying to indulge huiray's request - these two seem like decent contenders. Maybe North Pond, too?

                                              -----
                                              North Pond
                                              2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614

                                              1. re: danimalarkey
                                                huiray Aug 10, 2011 01:30 PM

                                                Heh.

                                                Outside of Chicagoland I wonder if Blue Hill (NY) would put out a non-MG Tasting Menu (not that they do at the moment)...

                                                1. re: danimalarkey
                                                  m
                                                  mountsac Aug 11, 2011 03:09 PM

                                                  depending on the definition of "tasting menu," the following might be of interest for this discussion:
                                                  - 5-course prix fixe at Les Nomades
                                                  - omakase at Katsu
                                                  - seasonal kaiseki at Mizu
                                                  - 5-course Peking Duck meal at Shanghai Terrace
                                                  - Arun's
                                                  All these are not MG-based cooking.

                                                  1. re: mountsac
                                                    huiray Aug 11, 2011 03:30 PM

                                                    Very interesting, thanks.
                                                    (Busily writing down these places to try next time or some time or whenever...)

                                                    1. re: huiray
                                                      m
                                                      mountsac Aug 11, 2011 09:13 PM

                                                      Another one is Topolobampo. Obviously not the same caliber as Alinea. But for the purpose of this discussion (about Non-MG tasting menu), it might be of interest. Plus Topo represents the top of the food chain for fine-dining Mexican in this country.

                                                      1. re: mountsac
                                                        uhockey Aug 12, 2011 03:31 AM

                                                        I don't like "Mexican" food in general, but Topo is quite special.

                                                        http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                                                    2. re: mountsac
                                                      huiray Aug 11, 2011 03:38 PM

                                                      Y'know, even if the quality of the offerings at NEXT may be contentious, I would say their past Paris 1906 menu was on the whole a good one done without MG. Their current Thai-based menu - which I would also classify as a "Tasting Menu" of sorts - I suspect is also being done without MG techniques although I could be wrong.

                                                      1. re: huiray
                                                        d
                                                        danimalarkey Aug 11, 2011 08:20 PM

                                                        As far as Next, the Paris 1906 menu certainly did use modern techniques (and I'll be honest, with generally great results). I'm about as certain as chichgail above that the chicken dish, for example, did use "meat glue" for the breast, and it was cooked sous vide, besides (we can set aside for now that argument that "boiling meat at a constant temperature for a set amount of time" is hardly exclusive to "modern" or "molecular gastronomy". Hell, even the beet gelee, served as part of the mignardises, might as well be considered "modern" or as part of the "MG" school, even if it was prepared "traditionally". For the Thai menu, I'm inclined to agree that it's pretty traditional, as far as Thai goes, with the desserts being an exception. The Chicago Reader published a review this week (along with an interview with Next's head chef, Dave Beran) that does touch on how they developed their Thai menu and, in particular, how the desserts came to be (which are widely considered to be the most innovating/Alinea-esque dishes on the whole menu).

                                                        1. re: danimalarkey
                                                          huiray Aug 12, 2011 01:27 AM

                                                          Yes, that's right, the chicken was sous vide-d first (something like that)., and the beet gelee is iffy. It is also true that sous vide would be borderline MG. As I mentioned upstream somewhere, I don't think of "Modern techniques" as being synonymous with MG.

                                                          1. re: huiray
                                                            naughtyb Aug 17, 2011 10:48 AM

                                                            After reading this thread, I am convinced that the OP does not have any clue what molecular gastronomy is and what it is not. Sous vide is not borderline MG. It isn't MG at all. For instance, you can take a smaller piece of salmon, place it in a sealed ziploc bag, and put said salmon in a sink filled with warm water for 2 hours and you would have prepared the salmon sous vide. What about that is MG?

                                                            1. re: naughtyb
                                                              huiray Aug 17, 2011 11:00 AM

                                                              Point well taken; as danimalarkey has already said, sous vide is really just (quote) "boiling meat at a constant temperature for a set amount of time" (unquote). To me, the "grey area", *if any*, arose from when the technique was used and initially "featured" by the media or others - as part of the prep - of dishes that is distinctly of the MG school -- so to someone who may not be a Chowhound or much interested in food such a technique may call up images of dishes that lump together stuff like making "caviar" with liquid nitrogen. encapsulation of liquids in gum, etc. Hence the reason for my initial comment in my post that you object to; and I might even consider that ignoring the early circumstances under which the technique came into the public consciousness might be slightly disingenuous. Since then sous vide (and the modern equipment for doing same) has become unremarkable. Personally, I consider sous vide to be merely a modern technique of cooking food under controlled conditions.

                                                              There, does that satisfy you (and hopefully the OP)?

                                                        2. re: huiray
                                                          m
                                                          mountsac Aug 11, 2011 09:04 PM

                                                          I'm actually doing the Thai menu at NEXT this Sunday. Will let you know what I think.

                                                          1. re: mountsac
                                                            m
                                                            mountsac Aug 16, 2011 09:59 PM

                                                            I went to Next this past weekend. I've read some lukewarm reviews on the Paris menu on here. So I guess I was pleasantly surprised by the Thai menu. I wrote an Yelp review. But I'll copy it here, in case anyone is interested.

                                                            -----------------------------------------------------------------------------

                                                            http://tinyurl.com/3nrsont

                                                            1. street food appetizers

                                                            The entire presentation was really rustic and Southeast Asian - newspaper table-cover, cheap-pink napkins, and plastic-ware. The food was sitting on top a banana leaf. The roasted banana was a perfect combination of contrasting textures. The sharpness of the fried garlic and pickled shallots also paired well with the creamy banana. I am usually not a fan of bananas in savory dishes, but this was superb. The steam buns were well executed. The dough was well risen. But the green curry filling needed a bit more kick. The sweet shrimp and garlic was okay. Fresh ingredients naturally taste good. But the pairing of textures and flavors was nothing too revelatory. The prawn cake had nice crispy texture. I only wish the shrimp paste part was not so thin - a bit more substance would have added some contrast to the crunch. The fermented sausage was gamy and had a nice kick - the texture did not taste like sausage but the flavor was really intense and interesting.

                                                            2. soup course

                                                            The waiter presented it as tom-yum soup. Objectively speaking, the broth was good, with ample umami from the pork. There was also a nice kick from the chili. But the sourness was not very present. I missed the lemon-grass flavor in authentic tom yum broth. Now the pork belly in this soup was amazing. The pork seemed to have been breaded, which provided an added texture. The pork itself was also just tender and flavorful.

                                                            3. rice and things that compliment the rice

                                                            First up was nam-prik-pao. I had to ask the waiter what it was a second time because it was so damn good! It was a chili-jelly made with caramelized shallots, chili, and garlic. The interplay among all the flavors (sweet, tangy, spicy, salty) was complex and sensational - it was my single favorite item of the night. The duck egg congee (I thought there was rice in it; though I could be mistaken) was creamy and abound with umami - another great dish. The pickles with strawberries, in comparison, was not all that memorable. There were also two dipping sauces that came with the rice. One was very spicy, and one was really funky - neither was pleasant to my untrained palate.

                                                            4. fish course

                                                            This was cat fish cooked in a savory broth. The fish was filleted rather than served whole (a source of disappointment). But the fish itself was cooked well. Some of my dining companions commented on the slight over-salting of this dish. It didn't really bother me. But I did think the flavor profile of this dish lacked nuance.

                                                            5. meat course

                                                            The beef cheek curry was very good. The beef cheek itself was braised to a tee - super tender and melted in your mouth. This made me want to go buy beef cheek myself and cook it at home. The curry was peanut-based. It was basically the "Panag Curry" that you'd get from a Thai restaurant. Good balance between creamy sweetness and mild heat.

                                                            6. palate cleanser

                                                            Then we were give a shot of fruit juice mixed with lemon grass juice. I was worried about the lemon grass. But the shot turned out to be very balanced and very refreshing - perfect for a palate cleanser.

                                                            7. desserts

                                                            The coconut dessert was fantastic. The presentation was cool. And the combination of textures and temperatures from the different ingredients was simply genius. This was probably the most exciting dessert I've had in a long time. The dragon fruit was a nice and refreshing finish. I'm usually not a fan of rose in my food, but this added a pleasant sweetness to the fruit.

                                                            The decor of the place was contemporary and eclectic, which had nothing to do with the menu. Service was just right - professional and cordial, yet friendly and humorous. One of the servers was a foodie beyond the memorized menu and was able to carry on interesting conversations with us - awesome.

                                                            The meal had a good balance between heartiness and showmanship. The fine-dining menu also kept the traditional family-style format, which was a nice touch. I went in with a certain degree of cynicism (difficult ticket system + corn-fed gringo tackling Asian food). Though there were a couple missteps, the overall dining experience was engaging and interesting. I left impressed and looking forward to the next season.

                                                            1. re: mountsac
                                                              huiray Aug 17, 2011 04:53 AM

                                                              Thanks for the report, mountsac. Encouraging. Basically no MG, then, but for the dessert?

                                                              1. re: huiray
                                                                mcgeary Aug 17, 2011 07:43 AM

                                                                I ate at Next last week and I'd guess that the watermelon/lemongrass shot was created with a rotary distiller. I also think the catfish and beef cheek were probably cooked sous vide. As noted earlier, modern techniques and equipment are used to produce a lot of dishes you wouldn't classify as "molecular gastronomy."

                                                                1. re: mcgeary
                                                                  huiray Aug 17, 2011 10:45 AM

                                                                  Thanks.

                                                                  BTW Sam Sifton has a review of NEXT (both the Paris 1906 and the Thai menus, as well as something on Aviary) in today's NYT which I happened to read after my earlier post today. He seems quite smitten with the place and the food; gushing, even. Personally I thought Paris 1906 was good but I had reservations about it as I and others have expressed here in other threads.

                                                        3. re: mountsac
                                                          nsxtasy Aug 11, 2011 03:58 PM

                                                          A five-course prix fixe is not the same thing as a tasting menu. And IMHO Les Nomades does not compare well with the best of Chicago's high end places (those mentioned above). It's not bad, but not great, and when you're spending a lot of money, well...

                                                          Also, the problem with Next is not the quality; it's that it's next to impossible to get reservations unless you're incredibly lucky, and you can spend hours and hours trying to get one to no avail.

                                                          1. re: nsxtasy
                                                            uhockey Aug 11, 2011 06:31 PM

                                                            The quality and experience don't live up to the top tier of Chicago either, IMO. Alinea, Avenues, L2o, TRU, Schwa, Trotter's, Everest, Bonsoiree all trump it by some degree.

                                                            http://uhockey.blogspot.com

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                                                            1. re: uhockey
                                                              huiray Aug 11, 2011 06:54 PM

                                                              Heh. But if these are the places that are any good that do not use MG then thats what they are. Insisting on comparing them with places that use MG is not as useful with regards to this particular question...
                                                              :-)

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