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Foodie rec's? Food over atmosphere

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Im spending my birthday weekend in Chicago (wonderful city by the way) and would love some recommendations.

I have been spoiled and travelled around the world for work (live in LA and NYC) and have been lucky enough to eat at the "best" restaurants. At this point, service and atmosphere don't do much for me since I've been to so many beautiful restaurants and places with superb service that it doesn't do much for me anymore. Really the only places that excite me are places that pass my "TV test": if I was home in my living room, watching tv, would ths food impress/excite me and be worth the money?

I hope that doesn't sound too obnoxious but I guess for me If I'm dining with people I care about the only thing I want is good food.

Been to Spiaggia and Tru. Spiaggia was good but nothing remarkable to be honest. We had the tasting menu and the dishes were prepared beautifully but didn't wow me or make me want to come back (especially for the price). Tru was similar but definitely more creative. also went to sable, good but nothing I would recommend over something else (though their drink menu was great!)

I'd rather pass on a large tasting menu restaurant a la Alinea...looking for just really tasty food!

Thoughts were Naha, avec, Next, Purple Pig, North pond, telegraph

Love to hear what you love!

Thanks in advance :)

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Spiaggia
980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

Naha
500 North Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610

Purple Pig
500 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

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  1. Well, I think most of us here on Chowhound primarily care about how the food tastes, above all else. Granted, sometimes we have constraints - geographical, financial, taste of our companions, etc. But we all love food!

    The very best meals I've had in the Chicago area in the past few years - meals where one dish after another after another was amazingly delicious - were at the following places:

    1. Alinea. I know, you don't want a large tasting menu. But this was one of my best meals nonetheless - not because of all the gimmicks, but because all the dishes tasted really great. I wouldn't rule it out, especially since you've enjoyed high-end dining elsewhere. It really is *that* good, and it's also a wonderfully fun experience. They open reservations on the first of the month, two months ahead - December 1 they will start taking reservations for February - and they fill up fast.

    2-4. Michael, Michael, and Michael. I've been there numerous times and it's always been superb. Yes, three of my best meals in the past few years have been there. It's in the suburbs, and if you don't have a car, the Metra commuter train from downtown Chicago stops about a block away (Indian Hill station on the Union Pacific North Line - www.metrarail.com ).

    5. Sable. I know, you've been there and weren't impressed. I was - another meal where all the dishes tasted really great. Some people love it, some don't. I do.

    6. Deleece (on Southport). This is a relatively unhyped "neighborhood" restaurant serving contemporary American food on the North Side. Again - one terrific dish after another.

    7. Inovasi. Another relatively unhyped "neighborhood" restaurant serving contemporary American food, in far north suburban Lake Bluff (the same Metra Union Pacific North line stops a couple blocks away). I've had several great, great meals there.

    What's really amazing - and, I think, a reflection not only of the economy and how restaurants are dealing with it, but also what so many top chefs are doing these days - is the variation in prices among these places. Alinea is $300+ per person including moderate alcohol and tax/tip, Michael runs $100-ish, and the other three are incredible bargains in the $50-60 range.

    I could name several dozen more restaurants in all categories where I've had meals that were very good, even excellent, but these have been the best of all. And I suspect that's what you're looking for. If not, and you'd like more recommendations (or more specific recommendations by location, type of food, etc), just ask and I'll try to help.

    Oh, and of the places you mentioned as possibilities... Naha is very good. I've been thoroughly disappointed by Avec, not only for the long waits and no-reservations policy, the godawful communal-only seating, and the horrendously uncomfortable seats (boxes, benches, stools), but the food hasn't impressed me either - but some other people like it, different strokes I guess. I went to Next for the current "childhood" menu, thought it was tons of fun, but I didn't think the food was amazingly delicious at all. Also the tickets are very hard to get. I haven't been to Purple Pig. I like North Pond a lot, for the food as well as the exquisite setting in the park. I don't know anything about Telegraph, other than it just opened recently and I don't know anyone who's been there yet.

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    Alinea
    1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

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

    North Pond
    2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614

    Deleece Restaurant (on Southport
    )3747 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago, IL 60657

    Michael
    64 Green Bay Road, Winnetka, IL 60093

    Inovasi Restaurant
    28 E. Center Ave, Lake Bluff, IL 60044

    Sable Kitchen & Bar
    505 North State Street, Chicago, IL 60654

    Telegraph
    2601 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

    Next
    953 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607

    4 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Thank you so much for your detailed response! Because of you I snagged a reservation tomorrow for birthday dinner at Alinea. :)

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      Alinea
      1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

      1. re: DReborn

        Terrific! Enjoy it - it's a really unique and satisfying "experience of a lifetime".

        1. re: DReborn

          If you drink liquor/cocktails at all, I'd ask for a table at The Office or The Aviary, after Alinea. That is, if you can walk! I think my final request before the check at Alinea was for a hammock, which unfortunately, they could not provide.

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          Alinea
          1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

        2. re: nsxtasy

          How could you guys almost not let me go to Alinea?? :). What an amazing dining experience. I've decided that if you don't enjoy Alinea you are not a happy foodie.

          One note which was a great bonus, we were the first table seated at 5:45 and got to be the first table served each dish. Every other table was staring at ours throughout the night while we got to be surprised they already knew what was coming.

          Second note: wine pairings are a rip off. Just get two $125 bottles of their list for better value and better wine. I'm a wine guy so I asked which wines were in the pairings and they were $20-40 bottles of wine and you only get four glasses per person. Awful value for 230 a person

          Thanks again ChowHound

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          Alinea
          1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

        3. You sound like someone after my own heart.

          Naha is wonderful, consistent excellently prepared food. I also like North Pond, but to me the real draw there is the location. I have loved some things there and was disappointed with others.

          I haven't been to the current NEXT menu. I was there for Paris 1906. It is quite an experience, and while the food was authentic and well-prepared, I loved some dishes and was unimpressed with others. It's also rather difficult to get a "ticket." You would have to friend them on Facebook and be lucky enough to respond in time for same-day tickets.

          There are a few other places I would recommend. I don't know when your birthday is, but if it is 3 months out, you should be able to get reservations at Stephanie Izard's The Girl and the Goat.

          There are some very good places in the suburbs, but venturing outside of the main business/tourist area into Chicago neighborhood might be easier. You might consider The Bristol (an excellent farm-to-table gastropub in a neighborhood), BrownTrout or Sprout (Dale Levitisky's restaurant). Also Bonsoiree and Takashi earned Michelin stars and are very good choices.

          1 Reply
          1. re: chicgail

            The Girl and the Goat books up 3 months in advance over OpenTable, but for the best times, call them, up to 6 months in advance.

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

          2. If you're serious about focusing on the food, get out of downtown and get out into the neighborhoods:
            Birrieria Zaragoza 4852 S. Pulaski One dish--Mexican goat stew--one incredible dish
            http://www.birrieriazaragoza.com/
            Sun Wah: 5039 N. Broadway Beijing Duck dinner
            http://sunwahbbq.com/
            or if you're not that adventurous
            XOCO 449 N. Clark, tortas and caldos
            http://www.rickbayless.com/restaurant...

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            XOCO
            449 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

            Sun Wah
            5039 N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640

            7 Replies
            1. re: camusman

              I'm a fiend for good Peking duck! I'll check out Sun Wah, thank you!

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              Sun Wah
              5039 N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640

              1. re: DReborn

                One note about the Beijing Duck Dinner (which is absolutely amazing) -- it really should be ordered in advance. Sun Wah accepts reservations and I'd suggest making one ~1 week before you plan on eating there -- request a duck to be held for your table then. Sun Wah is BYO, though they also have beer/wine available.

                If you enjoy Thai, my current favorite among Chicago's amazing Thai restaurants is Aroy Thai (ask for the Thai Classics menu if they don't offer it upon arrival). They focus more on Northern dishes. The Pork Neck Salad is amazing, as is their version of sausage (I would go with the combination of Issan-style and Sai Ua). The Chou-chi is unlike any other dish I've had at a Thai restaurant -- a pork ragu, sort of, with a strong coconut milk flavor over a slightly fried egg. Aroy is also BYO.

                I always like The Publican -- lots (and lots) of hearty, meaty fare in a European-ish beer hall setting. Very good beer list and a decent selection of seafood, too (especially oysters). Many find the seating (largely communal) uncomfortable and the restaurant a little loud -- for me, the food has always triumphed over that (YMMV).

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                Sai Cafe
                2010 N Sheffield Ave Apt 1, Chicago, IL 60614

                Aroy Thai Restaurant
                4654 N Damen Ave, Chicago, IL 60625

                Thai Classic Restaurant
                3332 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60657

                Sun Wah
                5039 N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640

                1. re: danimalarkey

                  Two years ago, I loved the meal I had at The Bristol up in the Lakeview neighborhood. I'll second XOCO. Creative and well-executed.

                  Last Thanksgiving, Rick Bayless's friends took him for a surprise birthday dinner to Lao Sze Chaun. If you look back at his Twitter feed from last year, he posted a picture of the dish numbers they ordered.

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                  XOCO
                  449 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

              2. re: camusman

                I like Xoco a lot, do note it is a quick service style restaurant. You order at the counter, and they give you a number, but bring you your food. Bayless does have a pretty different style from Mexican food in LA.

                Also note their hours:
                Tuesday - Thursday: 8am–9pm
                Friday & Saturday: 8am–10pm
                Sunday & Monday: Closed

                I'm not sure I'd recommend a Thai restaurant to someone who lives in LA. It just doesn't seem all that unique to Chicago, although I'm not sure how much Thai DReborn eats in California.

                I've only eaten there once but Lao Szechuan didn't seem markedly better than the Sichuan restaurants in NYC. LZC is indeed good. Just not all that special for a visitor to Chicago, especially in comparison to NYC's Little Pepper, Szechuan Gourmet, Legend, Spicy & Tasty, etc.

                The dishes I liked were:
                Twice cooked pork
                Lamb with cumin
                Tony's chicken with three chili
                Szechuan Smoke Tea Duck
                Mapo Tofu
                Garlic Peapod Leafs
                Don Don Noodle
                Chengdu Dumpling

                1. re: kathryn

                  I do love ethnic food...

                  Any other suggestions for Thai, Indian, Greek, Chinese?

                  1. re: DReborn

                    I love the atmosphere at Greek Islands; all the bustle is very Chicago, and the food is quite solid.
                    http://www.greekislands.net/
                    Excellent Thai to be had at TAC Quick, under the Sheridan Red Line Stop. Order off the chalkboard.
                    http://tacquick.net/

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                    TAC Quick
                    3930 N Sheridan Rd, Chicago, IL 60613

                    1. re: DReborn

                      I had some of the best Chinese I've ever had in this city this past weekend -- Lao Hunan (2230 S. Wentworth Ave). The owner has a mini-empire of restaurants, each of which tend to focus on one region -- Lao Hunan is his newest. Differing from Szechuan cuisine in that it's a 'drier' heat, ie. not as oily (as our server explained it), it was still wonderfully spicy and flavorful. Our server happily walked us through the menu, making suggestions on our heat tolerance/preference. Not everything is super-spicy, too -- there's a pork belly dish called "Chairman Mao's favorite pork belly" that was as enjoyable as the high-octane "Twice-Cooked Duck" (my favorite from our meal).

                      For a more contemporary approach (ie. strong focus on seasonal ingredients, traditional preparations -- not contemporary as in maltodextrin powder) to Greek than what you'll find in Greektown, consider Taxim, in Wicker Park.

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                      Taxim
                      1558 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

                2. If all you care about is the food above atmosphere Alinea is #1 and closely followed by Schwa. I loved L2o, but that was under Laurent Gras so I don't know how it stacks up today.

                  Naha and North Pond are great and good respectively but more "formal fine dining" and their food is nothing new.

                  Definitely agree with the recommendations below for Girl and the Goat - very different - and would also consider Avec for small plates/sharing.

                  All that said, I've had plenty of chances to travel and eat at the "best" restaurants as well - given that constraint I'd still suggest Chicago has one of the top 3 dining scenes in the United States.

                  http://endoedibles.com

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

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

                  North Pond
                  2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614

                  Naha
                  500 North Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610

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

                  1. thanks again for everybody's help! had a great food weekend in Chi-town. List of restaurants I tried:

                    Alinea-amazing, worth every penny. One of the best dining experiences i've had (and I've had a lot!)

                    Purple Pig-tasty, fun, worth a stop

                    North Pond-very pretty, food was solid nothing special. if not for the setting/location it would be a pass

                    Sun Wah-amazing duck! I love peking duck and their duck was extraordinary. rest of the menu was tasty as well. Definitely worth a visit!

                    Greek Islands-really did not enjoy it. overpriced, nothing special. And I love greek food!

                    Sable-good, great drink menu. Didn't love it but I know some people who would.

                    Spiaggia-meh. I don't know, it was obviously very well done Italian but nothing wow'ed me. Maybe Cafe Spiaggia is a better value/meal.

                    thanks again!!

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                    Cafe Spiaggia
                    980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611