good value lunch
I have a short work-related trip to Chicago: arriving sunday evening and leaving early tuesday (undecided whether it will be before or after lunch, but likely before). My wife will be joining me, and it will be a rare occasion without our young daughter.
We've been to chicago a few times, but never had the opportunity to make it a foodie visit for various reasons (travelling with family/passing through etc). We've had the chicago pizza at uno's and decided it wasn't our thing -- so we'll pass on that on this trip.
I definitely want to include a traditional hot dog on our itinerary -- either Portillo's or Al's (which one?) probably due to location. I've heard the hype about hot doug's but it's probably too much of a detour for us. We'll also probably have to include 'Reza' -- the persian restaurant, because it's my brother in law's favourite, and he gets really irritated that we've never been on our trips to chicago! Other than that, we're reasonably open to suggestions.
Had this trip occured at a different time we would have considered somewhere really high end -- the menu at Alinea looks extraordinary (I realise it would be too late reservation wise anyway), but things have to be on a reasonable budget on this trip. Hence the question about good value lunches. It seems that unlike Manhattan or London, there are a dearth of 'good value' lunches at high-end restaurants. I'm thinking of e.g. Jean Georges in NYC or Le Gavroche in London. Am I missing something, or is that the case here? Do note that the lunch in particular that I'm thinking of is Monday, which is a traditional bad day for restaurants I realise.
I've had a look at the menu of 'blackbird', which looks OK. It seems to offer bouillabaisse -- is it in any way even approaching authentic (or if not, tasty?) at that price?
Other tips would be greatly appreciated.
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
Thanks for the tips everyone, here's what we ended up doing:
Sunday evening: Reza's on Ontario. Although they have a week-end buffet, we decided to go a la carte at this Iranian restaurant (which bills itself as mediterranean/vegetarian!). The space itself is massive and reminded me of an old warehouse. We had the starter of grilled mushrooms. This featured large mushrooms, grilled perfectly and somewhat swimming in a garlic butter sauce. My wife loved it, I thought it was good and rather different to what is normally served in an iranian restaurant.
As seems to be the annoying habit in American iranian restaurants, the main course comes with a soup -- opted for the barley/chicken. Although the taste was not bad, the consistency was rather too gloopy, and at any rate, I hadn't come for soup. We were also given cold pita bread, which was as expected. For mains, I had the 'sultani' kabab -- filet and minced kababs; and my wife had the chicken on the bone kabab, my brother-in-law's recommendation. Ironically, the most difficult thing to get right for an excellent iranian meal is the white rice -- and Reza didn't really pull it off. The rice had obviously been cooked without butter (probably due to american habits) and was lacking appreciable saffron, and therefore lacked the appropriate fragrance. With regards to the kababs, the 'barg' (fillet) was actually pretty good, and the best I've had in the US east of the west coast. The 'koobideh' was disappointing, as was the 'jujeh' (chicken). They weren't terrible, but not terribly good either. For drinks we had the traditional 'doogh' -- buttermilk with soda water -- which lacked a little salt, easily remedied. All in, c. $60 with tax and tip. I would say it's good for the mid-west, but I won't be rushing back.
Monday lunch, we went to Blackbird. The restaurant design is very late 1990s 'uber cool', and I felt made the rather small space look very dated and somewhat stark. Although we were prepared to order from the a la carte, the prix fixe options looked appealing (and were from the main menu) and we went for that, which at $22 for three courses is really a bargain. My wife started with the cuttlefish, which I thought was a pretty decent rendition. I had the soup (vichysoisse), which I remember enjoying, but not much more!
For the main course, my wife had the grilled sturgeon, which she thought was very nice -- I agreed it was cooked extremely well, but wished the flavours had been developed a little more. I had the duck confit served on peas (?fresh at this time of year). I felt this was really superb. One little note about presentation -- they really seem to have a thing about serving things on the sides of plates. It's certainly unique, but it does remind one that the portions are on the rather small side!
Desserts -- 'chocolate soup' for my wife and an almond financier for me, were nothing to write home about. I felt the service a little cool and off-hand. It's difficult to judge a restaurant from one visit for a prix fixe lunch (one little irritation -- our waitress kept putting on a fake french accent, and then went on to pronounce everything incorrectly -- just as one example, for the soup -- which is an american invention anyway -- she omitted pronouncing the last s sound -- so it was 'vichysoi'. It just came off as pretentious.) Also, when the table was cleared, it was done in a rather off-hand manner. From this one impression, I'm not sure it's comparable to most one-michelin star restaurants I've eaten at, however, overall, I couldn't argue with the value, and despite the little hiccoughs, we had a very enjoyable time. With tax and tip and bottled water -- just over $70.
Dinner that evening was at Portillo's: We had two hotdogs, an italian beef sandwich and fries. With a coke it came to $14. The hot dogs were superb, the fries were also excellent. The beef in the sandwich was way overcooked, but I loved the dipped bread it came in. In future, I will order just the dipped bread and hot dogs. A great 'first time' chicago dog experience.
We did decide to have lunch on tuesday before departing, and I managed to snag an early lunch reservation at Topolobampo on opentable the day before. We arrived, and after a wait of a few minutes, were ushered to our table. I thought the space was really nice -- lighting rather subdued for a lunchtime, but overall it gave the impression of a sleek, but comfortabe space. The mexican art was nice to admire, and seeing the heads of the chefs working was an enjoyable diversion.
After seating us, our waiter was very keen to sell us drinks, which we declined and this rather put him out. We were then given our menus, had tap water poured for us, and then ignored for a while. I had some questions regarding the menu, not being that familiar with mexican cuisine. He answered them, but seemed unable to opine whether one dish or another might be preferable. We asked for a 'just one minute' to make up our minds, and he then disappeared for about 10 minutes. We finally gave our orders, and he then disappeared again. I noticed that all the other diners had some chips and guacamole, except us. It wasn't a menu item, so I presumed they hadn't ordered it (indeed, one couple served by someone else were served theirs whilst ordering) and it was just given to everyone. Since our waiter was nowhere to be seen, I eventually asked another waiter whether we could have some. He sort of implied that it was our fault -- I've no idea -- but our waiter did come by a couple of minutes later and plonked them on our table.
For starters my wife had the trio of ceviches and I had the gazpacho (made with crab rather than scallops that day). The ceviches were superb, as was my soup. They were the best things on the menu that we sampled that day. Appropriately spicy, but not too much, and full of flavour. For the ceviches, the quality of the seafood was outstanding, and it was clear that the tomatoes for my soup were at the peak of ripeness, as is appropriate for the season. For the main course, my wife had the lamb with mole negro, and I had the king salmon with squash-blossom sauce. My wife enjoyed her dish, but sampling it, it confirmed to be that I am just not a fan of mole negro -- even when well prepared. The chocolate/chilli thing just doesn't work for me. My salmon was prepared perfectly, and the squash-blossom sauce, again fairly spicy, was a very good complement. Overall a very good dish.
We declined dessert and with tap water, tax and tip, the damage came to just over $100. We thought the food was very good indeed, as was the ambience. It was certainly a unique experience for mexican cuisine for us. However, the service really was sub-par -- not sure if that waiter was having an off-day or what. One final thing -- the guacamole was listed on the bill, but with a tarif of $0, so not sure if it was comped or what.
One last report: a few weeks back I was in Schaumburg with my extended family. They aren't very adventurous, so I thought it would be fun to go to Shaw's for brunch -- six adults and three children (children dine for free). I thought the brunch was superb. The steamed snow crab legs, the bacon, the crab cakes and king crab were all really fantastic. Other items were very good too, as was the dessert selection. Service was also very good. Best of all, my in-laws all got to try a variety of sea-food, which they normally would never touch -- including freshly shucked oysters -- and very much enjoyed it. Not sure they would ever order such things again, but one lives in hope. It's pricey, at $45/pp (+tax/tip), but well worth it if you go all out on the seafood.
If you're doing Reza's, I'll chime in and say that their broiled mushrooms are pretty flipping good. It's pretty much a given if I'm going there, and I might get two orders of them. I'd also give a nod to the dark meat chicken kebabs with dill rice. I've never found any of their vegetarian stew type dishes to be anything better than "food," but their broiled meats are all decently prepared in a simple olive oil/garlic/lemon type sauce. Other than that, it's basically a middle eastern place for falafel, baba ghannouj, hummus type stuff, imo.
>> I definitely want to include a traditional hot dog on our itinerary -- either Portillo's or Al's (which one?) probably due to location.
For Chicago hot dogs, definitely Portillo's. They have a location on Ontario in River North, convenient to the downtown hotels around North Michigan Avenue.
>> We'll also probably have to include 'Reza' -- the persian restaurant, because it's my brother in law's favourite, and he gets really irritated that we've never been on our trips to chicago!
So go. Then you won't ever have to go again. :)
>> Had this trip occured at a different time we would have considered somewhere really high end -- the menu at Alinea looks extraordinary (I realise it would be too late reservation wise anyway)
Even aside from the reservations issue, they're closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so it might not have been an option at all, depending on what time you're arriving on Sunday.
>> Hence the question about good value lunches. It seems that unlike Manhattan or London, there are a dearth of 'good value' lunches at high-end restaurants. I'm thinking of e.g. Jean Georges in NYC or Le Gavroche in London. Am I missing something, or is that the case here?
You are correct. Chicago is different from New York, in that none of our ten or so truly high-end restaurants is open for lunch. Zero. Zip. Nada. And I realize that this is a way you can dine at the restaurants there without paying full dinner prices, so it represents a bargain, but that's just the way it is here.
However, many of the restaurants in the "second tier" - our best restaurants just short of those ten or so "temples of haute cuisine" - are open for lunch. Blackbird is one of these, and they have a three-course prix fixe lunch menu that is a great bargain for a nice lunch. Topolobampo is another great choice, with big savings off their dinner prices, with entrees in the high teens for lunch vs high thirties for dinner, but they're closed Mondays. Naha is also open for lunch (including Mondays), but it's pretty expensive, probably the most expensive lunch in town, and hardly a bargain at all.
>> I've had a look at the menu of 'blackbird', which looks OK. It seems to offer bouillabaisse -- is it in any way even approaching authentic (or if not, tasty?) at that price?
I haven't had it; hopefully someone else can answer your question about it. But if you're really looking for a great bouillabaisse, you might consider one of our best, most authentic French bistros. La Sardine has it on their lunch menu, and they're open for lunch on Mondays.
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
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Thanks nsxtasy. I almost convinced myself that we should dinner at L2O given the lack of high end lunch, but my wife put paid to that idea. Blackbird looks like the winner for monday lunch -- La Sardine looks good -- but blackbird probably edges it overall (just my looking at the menus).
Gordeux: re: Reza's -- we'll have the kababs, but thanks for the tip re: the grilled mushrooms. My wife loves mushrooms, so it looks like we'll definitely order those.