Trip Report: Portillo's, Intelligentsia, Yusho; Wildberry, French Market, Publican, Do-Rite, Johnnies
En route from Boston to Wisconsin, we planned on spending a day in Chicago a few days before Christmas. Due to the end-of-semester academic crush and general holiday madness, I didn't have much time for advance research or to post queries on the board, but thanks to the many helpful posts already here, we had a great time, with some fantastic and memorable food, so I want to report back in some detail.
We arrived at our hotel (the Burnham, in the Loop) late morning and headed out to Portillo's on West Ontario. This was my first time in Chicago and while I'm generally a mustard and relish-only purist I really wanted to have the full chicago dog experience. Tomato slices on a hot dog - who knew??Turns out I've been missing out! Less unwieldy to eat than I had expected - that steamy-soft bun makes a nice handle for the dog and all the toppings. I don't know if Portillo's is the apex of the standard chicago-style hot dog experience, and I was a little worried when I saw the kitschy decor and multiple food stations but I thought it was great. She had an Italian beef sandwich with sweet peppers, dry. Pretty tasty but I think (and confirmed at a later visit to Johnnies) that it kinda needs to be dipped otherwise it is, well, a little dry. I considered a second dog but wisely decided to save stomach space for later.
I was a little sleep-deprived due to our early-ish flight, so I was super-happy to discover that there was a branch of Intelligentsia a few blocks from the hotel, right near Millennium Park. I don't drink a lot of coffee (mostly avoid caffeine) but when I do I really do like super-serious 3rd wave coffee geek places with intense baristas. So Intelligentsia was perfect! She had a very nice earl grey tea; I got an espresso and a canele. The canele was very dark, almost burnt, but that was right to my taste. There was some mixup with the espresso (they called someone else's name for mine so it sat for a while until I checked on it), so the barista tossed the cold one and very nicely pulled a shot of the extra-fancy single-origin (I think) espresso they were serving. It was a very good shot, maybe not quite as amazing as Gimme Coffee in New York (my favorite), but still very very good.
After walking around Millennium Park (and taking a zillion pictures at the Bean - you have so much excellent public art there, makes me jealous!) we warmed back up at the hotel and then took the blue line El train to Logan Square and walked up to Yusho. What a fantastic meal! We're both still talking about it. Our initial welcome was pretty friendly, and the service was a nice mix of informal, polished, and - especially once we started asking questions about the food and drink menus - enthusiastic. We shared: Chicken Skin; Chicken Wings; Grilled Tofu; Pickles; Tuna; Beef Tongue; Steam Bun.
Roughly in the order they appeared:
Chicken Skin = chicken bacon!: the skin was stretched flat with some garlic slivers pressed in and roasted until the fat was fully rendered and it was basically a chicken chip, with a drizzle of japanese mustard and a sprinkle of togarashi. Addictive and delicious.
Chicken Wings - deboned wings, cooked until quite soft and rich, seasoned with bonito salt, lime and thai chili. This was an interesting prep - it really brought out the unctuousness of the wing, without quite crossing over into gross fattiness. In truth I wouldn't want more than a few bites of these because of how rich they were, but when balanced with all the other dishes it worked well.
Pickles - cucumber, lotus root, carrot. I am obligated to order pickles wherever I find them. Memory is fuzzy on the flavor details but they were excellent and a nice foil to the richer/fattier dishes.
Tuna - sort of a poke-esque prep with soy dressing, long shreds of taro root chips, pine nuts, and radish. YUM. When tuna is this good it really doesn't need anything else. By the time this dish was half-finished I started to panic and seriously considered placing another order just to make sure there was enough. I wouldn't think to pair radish and pine nuts with soy sauce but it all worked together as if it's been done forever. Just delicious.
Beef Tongue - Skewers of tender, thinly sliced tongue, showered with grated horseradish, over yukon gold potato puree, with (I think?) pickled ginger. Texturally perfect, with rich deep flavors. I wish I could describe it more precisely but all I remember was that it was smack-the-table delicious.
Steam Bun - my recollection was that this was tasty, with a filling of pork shoulder (vaguely char siu-ish?), kimchi, and crushed peanuts. It didn't make a huge impact on me, though that may be because it sat on the table for a bit while we ate the tongue, tuna, etc. One tip: this is not a great plate to share - once you cut it in half it falls apart and you end up using a fork and not getting all the components in each bite. I think it's probably better to eat (as a sandwich) right when it arrives. The steamed bun waits for no one.
Grilled tofu - I like tofu but this was not my favorite. I respect the straightforward slab of grill-marked tofu and I genuinely liked the sweet-pickly pineapple chunks that came with it (along with chrysanthemum - I think this was a green sauce - and walnuts) but this one never really came together for me. The grilling toughened the outer skin of the tofu without adding a whole lot of flavor, and the combination of flavors was okay, but not particularly special.
I haven't even mentioned the cocktails yet! Fantastic and creative bartending. I started with a Negroni, which tweaked the standard recipe: voyager gin, cardamaro, gran classico, and toasted soybean bitters. I gather that the cardamaro stood in for sweet vermouth and the gran classico was the Campari equivalent. Honestly it tasted like a well-made negroni, with a little extra in the finish from the bitters. She had the draft cocktail, which the waiter described as "summer in a glass" - which was exactly what she wanted on a cold night. It was citrusy, light, a bit fizzy - tasty enough that she got two. For my second drink I had the Sujeonggwa - they reeled me in with the note "served warm" on the menu. This was an interpretation of a Korean ginger/cinnamon/persimmon tea - I think some of those elements were part of this drink, along with some whiskey and vermouth, cherry, and some pine nuts floating on top. It basically tasted like the best mulled wine ever. I would drink these all winter long.
As the meal progressed and it became clear how great the food and drink was, we were enthusiastically telling the waiter how much we were enjoying it. By the time we finished the savory courses, we were pretty well stuffed and turned down dessert, but when the waiter found out we were from Boston (and therefore couldn't come back for dessert anytime soon) he said "you guys aren't getting out of here without dessert!" and came back with a (large!) dish - on the house - of their latest soft-serve creation: eggnog ice cream with fernet caramel and white chocolate-nori crunch. Whoah! This was ridiculously good. Fernet caramel! Nori crunch! it all worked. the nori just added sort of a salty bite to the white chocolate, the bitter medicinal notes of the fernet played really well in a caramel, and it all complemented the rich eggnog custard amazingly well. I'm not usually one for odd savory flavors in dessert but this was just delicious.
I think the total bill for everything - including tax and tip - was just under 100 dollars. Just an amazingly good value for a great experience. Tremendously confident, creative, and precise cooking - no obvious/familiar dishes (well, maybe the steam bun) - just a ton of enthusiasm and skill. If I lived nearby I would go all the time.
As it happened, we were planning to drive up to Wisconsin at exactly the same time that "Winter Storm Draco" hit, so we ended up spending an extra day in Chicago. I seem to be writing a novel here so I'll add another post to this thread soon on the places we visited on day two. Hope these reviews are helpful!