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Feb 26, 2012 05:30 AM

Feedback on Dining Agenda

Hi all. I'll be visiting Chicago for three days in mid-April for my first dining excursion there. As it currently stands, my dinner agenda includes Tru, Charlie Trotter's and Alinea. Thoughts? I'd really appreciate feedback.

I'm also curious, what are some good late night dining options (as I suspect I'll be a bit peckish after dinner at Alinea)?

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  1. Alinea is an experience not-to-be missed. It is considered the best restaurant in the U.S. for good reasons.

    Charlie Trotter is iconic, is closing - and, while the food and service can't be faulted for its perfection, is just not mind-blowing any more.

    Tru is superb, but you might want to try some of our awesome second-tier restaurants as well:
    Girl and the Goat
    Perennial Virant
    Mercat a la Panxia
    Graham Elliott
    There are plenty of others.

    Or try our signature deep-dish pizza from Uno, Due, Lou Malnoti or Pizzaros. I promise you it's not like what you may have tried elsewhere.

    7 Replies
    1. re: chicgail

      This is great--thank you so much! How difficult would it be to get a table at either Publican or Girl and the Goat on a Saturday night without reservations? The reason I ask is because I'm not sure how long our dinner at Alinea will last.

      1. re: degustingdiary

        You will NOT want to eat after a 22-course dinner at Alinea. While some course are just a bite or two, and none is a "full-sized" entree, you will have more than enough to eat.

        My suggestions were for options other than the three you mentioned.

        1. re: chicgail

          ...went to Aviary and The Office after Alinea. Had 2 cocktails and a huge sundae. Some appetites are bigger than others.

          1. re: chicgail

            I had dinner at Alinea last week and one of the courses was a simply grilled whole porgy with chickpea fritters. It was the highlight of the meal. I thought Alinea was more about theatrics and presentation. IMO, the flavors were not so extraordinary and service was rather pushy. That said, you should try it at least once.

            Charlie Trotter's was wonderful and much more polished as far as I'm concerned. I'm glad I got to try it before it closed.

            1. re: Riverman500

              ...what makes Alinea the only "mg" restaurant in the US that matters on a global scale is specifically that the theatrics and presentation come distant 3rd to the food and service.


              1. re: uhockey

                My impression of Alinea was the opposite. To each his own.

          2. re: degustingdiary

            As for The Girl & The Goat forget about it. This is a restaurant that requires serious advance planning to get into and on a Saturday night.... don't even think about it without reservations made well in advance! Unless you are a Rabelaisian Gargantua there should not be a need to dine after Alinea. The idea is rather mind boggling to me

        2. I recently had dinner at Tru after not having been since the Rick Tramonto days as chef and we had a terrific meal. We would go back in a heartbeat which is not something I felt when Chef Tramonto was at the helm.. There were some gimmicky things going on like the snow amuse but all in all it was a very satisfying experience. We didn't do the larger tasting just the three course prix fixe. The larger tasting strikes me as the better value but we were eating very late for Chicago (9:30 reservations) and didn't want to invest the time. As it was we were there for almost two hours but I really loved the food and the service and the ambiance. We had wine pairings with our courses that we really enjoyed. The sommelier did a great job but I was a bit surprised that he never consulted with us about our preferences

          My SO started with the duck consume with foie gras and confit ravioli and fresh herb julienne that was paired with an aged Sherry. He literally was unwilling to share "These ravioli are mine". Hmmm ... Mr. Nice Guy wasn't being so nice for once. I didn't share my delicious langoustine appetizer either or any of the Spanish white wine paired with it. Between the complimentary gougeres, amuses and terrific bread service I was getting a little full by entree time but my entree, a Thomas Kelleresque, sous vide short rib was a revelation for me. It had all of the things I like in a long braised dish, intense flavor and tenderness plus all of the things I wish a long braised dish had, namely it was still medium rare and retained all of the texture of the meat minus the fat and collagen. I had read about this 3 day sous vide method but never tasted it. It was amazingly good in the hand of the Tru chefs. The concentrated sauce and vegetable pairings were really outstanding. It was paired with a Spanish Rioja that worked beautifully with it My SO was less happy with his main which was a butter poached lobster dish (with a supplemental charge) that I tasted and found slightly tough with a ho hum lackluster flavor. My SO scarfed down the short ribs I couldn't finish and we were both delighted by our desserts. Not only were they fun, inventive and tasty but they looked so pretty on the plate. I had the S'mores and he the Pumpkin Patch.

          If my recent experience is any guide you should have a great meal at Tru. I have never been to Alinea, much to my regret (I only live 1 1/2 miles away!) but everything I have heard and read suggests it will be unforgettable. As to Charlie Trotter's I have mixed emotions. I started eating there when it first opened, when they served ala carte food. I have had some great meals there over the years but haven't been in a fairly long time. Why? For the same reasons I hadn't bothered with Tru for several years. I was underwhelmed and thought that the cost to satisfaction ratio was a loss. My mind has changed about Tru and since Charlie Trotter's is closing in August you do need to go there while you can.

          "Peckish" ? after 20 something courses at Alinea? That is certainly not something I have heard about. The Girl and the Goat does late night seating though.

          6 Replies
          1. re: KateBChi

            Thanks for the detailed write-up about Tru! I have an extended tasting menu planned, and you've made me all the more excited.

            Regarding Trotter's, I don't have especially high expectations, but rather thought I should at least visit before it shutters.

            As for Alinea, the reservationist said the tasting menu was between 16-18 courses, not 20-22, so that's why I considered a postprandial option. Another reason was last summer I had a 20+course dinner at Jose Andres' SAAM, which practices a similar small bites approach, and afterward needed an additional eight courses at Red Medicine to reach satiation. But if you say Alinea should be sufficient, I'll take your word for it.

            1. re: degustingdiary

              Go to Trotter's - it is worth it - and with the doors closing soon all the moreso.


              1. re: uhockey

                It was your advice that convinced me to give Trotter's a shot in lieu of Ria, and it will inaugurate my dining festivities, so thanks again for sharing your insights into the Chicago food scene. I'll let you know how it goes.

                1. re: degustingdiary

                  Ria's customer service has pretty much assured me that I will never visit them. I've never met a more ass backwards front-of-house.

                  I'll be in Chicago in two weeks for Next - El Bulli and EL Ideas. As always I'll report back.


                  1. re: uhockey

                    care to elaborate on the issues with ria's customer service? i am considering going there in the future and am curious to hear from a respected source.

                    regarding the op's question, i would personally sub out tru for l2o (tatami room maybe) as the two meals i have had there (12 course under gras, tatami under brennan) were substantially better than the full tasting (including dessert tasting) i had at tru under current chef martin.

                    1. re: streaksinthesky

                      There is no front of house, apparently. The only person you "are allowed" to talk to is the hotel's reservationist. They do not answer e-mails, either. It makes any form of dialogue, questions about the tasting menu, etc impossible. Add in the excessive prices (the cheese cart alone makes me laugh) and small portions plus revolving door chefs - it is a hotel restaurant, plain and simple.

                      L2o under Gras was a revelation - though I haven't been back. I'd still go to Trotter's if I was the OP - you may never have another chance.


          2. ...I'm way behind on my "reviews." Life and work seem to get in the way.

            With that said, I cannot recommend EL Ideas strongly enough. I went to NEXT El Bulli and a bunch of other greats stops in Chicago. I just got back from 6 days in New York that included 29 restaurants. EL Ideas was my second best meal of 2012 so far and #1 was an extended tasting at Per Se that cost $400 more than EL Ideas. Phil Foss is turning magic out of that space.


            1 Reply
            1. re: uhockey

              Dang it. Have a trip to Chicago coming up in May, and El Ideas was one of the places I was tossing around but ultimately decided against it. Oh well, hopefully there's a next time.

            2. There's not a dog in the bunch! Trotter's from my recent experience is the weakest of the group. But as mentioned before it is closing so hopefully that mean re-focusing on what they used to do as well as anyone. Tru, IMHO, is better now that the last few years of Tramonto's tenure. Maybe as good as ever.

              Alinea is in a league by itself so that choice is a no brainer. I also would not hesitate to go to L2O or Ria where my experience in January was fabulous.

              11 Replies
              1. re: HoosierFoodie

                Thanks, HoosierFoodie. I'm really excited about Tru!

                1. re: degustingdiary

                  Hi all,

                  I just got back from Chicago. I'll try to get my write-ups as soon as possible, but work might preclude me from doing so as quickly as I would like. In any case, below is my truncated impression of Charlie Trotters (my blog includes the full review along with the pictures):

                  "On our worst day," Chef Charlie Trotter has been wont to say, "we’re still in the top three restaurants in America." Well, while I certainly appreciate his confidence, I'm afraid I'm going to have to gainsay that declaration, as I enjoyed dinners in four Chicago restaurants over three days, and Trotter's wasn't able to crack the top three in a considerably smaller set of competitors.

                  Upon completing the near four-hour meal, I found that the food was generally quite good (save for a bland rabbit dish and forgettable desserts), at times even excellent, but it was the discommodious front of house, which discussion boards and yelp reviewers seem to extol, that left a lot to be desired.*

                  After being promptly seated in the dining room closest to the entrance, a captain named Julio came by, presented the menu and said, "The only choice you have this evening is whether to go with the menu on the left or the right [referring to either the grand menu or the vegetable menu]," and I would have to hear this routine recited verbatim a half-dozen more times before the evening was over.

                  But in my email and phone exchanges with the restaurant I had made it clear--and was told that it had been noted in my reservation--that I was interested in doing the kitchen table menu in the dining room. Notwithstanding Julio's failure to take a look at my reservation before approaching my table, once I brought it to his attention he quickly consulted with Chef Trotter and confirmed that that was in fact what would be prepared.

                  That was merely the first of many front of house peccadilloes--on multiple occasions my empty water glass went unfilled for upwards of 15 minutes, stentorian servers seemed unable to learn the art of discreteness, tables were marked with silverware seconds after a course had arrived--though Julio wouldn't be the culprit as he was largely AWOL after introductory niceties, and I would be seeing a lot more of Roberto, a runner, as well as a cavalcade of other staff.

                  As for the aforementioned bright spots regarding the food, much like Spago it was the early part of the meal that outshone later courses. The amuse, for example, presented in a large wooden box contained a ridiculously good melange of cuttlefish, slightly warmed uni with uni ice cream, clam with English pea purée, compressed eggplant with fava beans, crawfish with lotus root and togarashi, and a Kusshi oyster with a ginger granita. One after another, the punchy flavors jolted my palate, awakening it from its months-long hibernation.

                  And there were other resplendent compositions: a soft shell crab garlanded with grapefruit purée, potato strings and more togarashi; a nearly raw scallop atop sultana raisin purée and an amalgam of roasted nuts **; and one of the tastiest vegetable courses in memory composed of intenerated cardoon with a bacon-celeriac purée, an amaranth crisp, red wine-braised celery and crunchy black quinoa.

                  But more than a few dishes disappointed: watery stinging nettle-mint soup with a cippolini onion risotto that simply lacked the richness with which it is generally prepared; a rabbit loin inching dangerously close to going cold that was marked by an unpleasantly elastic texture, further encumbered by a muted ramp purée and woefully underseasoned--if seasoned at all--Burgundy snails; and just about all of the exotic and expensive meats, except for the goat shoulder, were overwhelmed by their accoutrements, thereby masking the proteins' flavors.

                  Am I glad that I went? Yes, and I imagine avid gurgitators might pay the restaurant a visit in its remaining months to put a proverbial feather in the cap. But I think the more important question is, would I go back? And to that I would have to say, no, probably not.

                  * Honestly, Chef Trotter was actually the most charming part of service, with his sotto voce vivisections of academics each time he peregrinated past my table, especially as the number of political science-based confabs begin pullulating through the dining room over the course of the evening. And his wry humor only became more endearing during the kitchen tour.

                  ** I've seen plenty of chefs strolling through the dining room fishing for compliments, but in this case on his way back to the kitchen, Chef Trotter noticed my plate languishing and approached the table and engaged me in conversation for a minute before clearing my plate.


                  1. re: degustingdiary

                    ....hang on, going to go dig out my thesaurus to figure out if you enjoyed the meal or not. ;-)

                    Really though, like Spago I think one goes to Trotter's to see the history of US fine dining since neither are reinventing the wheel with their cuisine anymore. The service gaffs are inexcusable, however, and commented on far too often to be overlooked. I loved my meal there, but I like it best as a memory - I don't need to return.


                    1. re: uhockey

                      Well put, Dr.

                      P.S. I'm really looking forward to your reviews of the 20+ other places you went to while in New York aside from Per Se and breakfast spots, since I'm planning another summer visit.

                    2. re: degustingdiary

                      Great report. Your experience is very different from my last visit there, but you do bring a really great perspective to the game.

                      1. re: chicgail

                        Thanks, chicgail.

                        Did you find your last visit to Trotter's wholly satisfying?

                        1. re: degustingdiary

                          No. Everything was done without a hint of impropriety or misstep. But at the same time, nothing stood out as extraordinary and so the overall experience was disappointing. If I am paying that much for a meal, I want the memory of it to be encased in a silver box - and, unlike my first visit there many years ago, we didn't get that.

                          I was glad to hear that your visit was more of what we have come to expect of CT.

                          1. re: chicgail

                            That describes all my experiences at Trotter's. Technically top-notch, but soulless. I honestly don't know if the food scene 15-20 years ago was less "competitive" but it seems that I can do better (or at least as good) for less these days.

                            I can recall meals that I had at Jackie's, Star Top and Yoshi's (in addition to some others) 20 years ago with greater clarity than Trotter's. I admire the man and the restaurant, but it hasn't elicited a "wow!" from me in many years.

                            Some friends were trying to talk me into joining them for a "last gasp" there but I'm not that interested.

                            1. re: chicgail

                              Ah, gotcha and totally agree.

                              Based on your username, I'm going to infer that you are a Chicago resident, so fortunately you have a panoply of other establishments to frequent.

                              1. re: degustingdiary

                                Because of my experience and because I do have other establishments to frequent, I avoid CT.

                                1. re: degustingdiary

                                  Eh, it is a place I'm glad I went to and will be even happier to have visited when it is gone. I had a really lovely time there and I'll keep the memory just that way, but even with my frequent returns to the city I've never felt the need to go back and I still don't even with the doors about to close for good - I'd sooner head back to Alinea for a 4th time or re-visit TRU, Schwa, El Ideas, or one of the Kahan spots.


                    3. Hi all,

                      As many of you suggested, I was going to have a great meal at Tru, and that I did. Here's my truncated write-up (the photos and full review are on my blog):

                      Leaving Tru, I asked inly, is there a better one-star Michelin restaurant in the country? If there is, I certainly haven't found it.

                      From my initial email correspondence with the restaurant's general manager to the deft handling of our table by Hanna, our server, and Aaron, our captain, every aspect of service demonstrated nonpareil attention to detail: the choice of black or white serviette, the synchronized clearing of plates, the sweeping of crumbs after every course, the ushering to the washroom (and the staff's militant commitment to ensuring a safe return to your seat) and everything in between. And then there was the food, which is almost without fault, especially on the savory side.

                      We started the meal, as many restaurants do, with Comté-filled gougères, the ratio of which was tilted a bit more in the direction of choux pastry than I would have liked. But that's not to suggest that their starch program isn't on point. Indeed, Tru convinced me to end my year-long moratorium on consuming bread in restaurants. Let me explain why. Of the four breads on offer, I asked to have a round of rosemary impregnated brioche. With the gentlest squeeze, an indentation formed, leaving buttery residue on my digits. At that point I knew I would have to indulge.

                      As for the more substantial items, three courses in succession left me genuinely puzzled why the rouge guide would consider the restaurant inferior to the townhouse on Armitage from the previous night. First, there were the back-to-back fish courses--a roasted striped bass with a sensorily balanced combination of brown butter purée, pickled daikon, white soy powder and key lime supremes followed by tilefish anointed with an umami-laden mushroom broth, shitakes, sake, ginger and soy--beautifully cooked with each fillet teeming with moisture and flaking into bite-sized quadrilaterals.

                      And then there was the anticipation that preceded the Jidori chicken. First black serviettes were placed on the table. Not a minute later the plated dish arrived on a halved piece of timber. Finishing tableside, Aaron glazed the breast with a rosemary-chicken jus. With the foie gras cream, chicken crackling, quenelle of mushroom purée and pile of honshimeji, this was not a dish for the sodium sensitive, to wit, for me it was the jam.

                      Not everything was as stunning as the first twelve or so savory items, however; a coconut milk snowball palate cleanser that formally transitioned us into the dessert portion of the meal had the texture of poorly made ice cream: gritty, icy and the mango-passion fruit purée in which it was sitting was cloyingly sweet. And then there was the penultimate dessert course--a half inch plane of dark, dense Valrhona chocolate--which proved to be tantamount to the experience of driving with a flat tire: one may be able to make a little progress, but eventually it becomes clear that one has no choice but to stop. There was just too much chocolate and nothing the timid pear sorbet could do to cut down on the dish's richness. However, with the unrelenting friandise that included, inter alia, root beer floats, canalés, mango pate de fruits and exploding chocolate truffles, neither minor lapse had the slightest wobble in my affinity for Tru.


                      5 Replies
                      1. re: degustingdiary

                        Nicely written - I need to go back.

                        As to the answer on the 1* question - The Modern, Bouley, Cafe Boulud, WD50, Atelier Crenn, La Folie, Everest, and Schwa would all be strong contenders and I genuinely believe The Modern, Boulud, Bouley, Crenn, and La Folie are better all around. Schwa - while 100% different in terms of service - is also vastly underrated for its cuisine.


                        1. re: uhockey

                          Thanks, Dr.

                          All of my 1* meals have been in either LA, San Francisco or Las Vegas, so I think you're right that New York would pose a serious challenge to my supposition. As for La Folie, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree, as I've had four meals there and don't think it comes close to what Tru deliver last Friday.

                          Looking forward to your reviews from your most recent Chicago trip.

                          1. re: degustingdiary

                            I guess Tru must have really stepped up their game - though admittedly chef Passot looked after my table when I ate at La Folie.

                            As LA and Vegas no longer have a Michelin guide I didn't even take them into consideration.

                            Still working on NY thoughts from Feb/March, then the 3 days in Chicago, then 8 in Toronto/Ottawa/Montreal.

                            Definitely enjoying your reviews so far, though, especially as I may end up back in Chicago before moving west.


                        2. re: degustingdiary

                          "And then there was the penultimate dessert course--a half inch plane of dark, dense Valrhona chocolate--which proved to be tantamount to the experience of driving with a flat tire: one may be able to make a little progress, but eventually it becomes clear that one has no choice but to stop."

                          I went back to Tru a week or so ago and had that same dessert and you described it perfectly. What a mistake! But we loved the rest of our meal. I had the pumpkin gnocchi with the veal veloute and mimolette cheese which was light, fluffy, very flavorful and the sauce and cheese suited beautifully. My SO ordered the duck consome with duck confit & foie gras ravioli again since it was still on the menu and he was extremely happy. He ordered the Wagyu braised beef short ribs with apple and jalapeno puree that I loved back in March and was not a bit disappointed. I had the prime rib eye with wild mushrooms and foie gras. My main was a little aggressively salted but all in all a restaurant that dropped off my radar years ago has stepped up to the top of the list. I'd really like to do the extended tasting but that is a non-starter for the SO. Enjoyed your review!

                          1. re: KateBChi

                            Thanks, KateBChi! And I totally agree with you about the Wagyu short rib -- it's absolutely delicious. I'm really hoping to make it out to Chicago more than once a year, particularly so that I can visit Tru and Alinea during different seasons.