Report back on a short trip to Chicago
I used the board for all the great insights into the food scene. Thanks for some great info. Here are our impressions, we arrived at Thursday lunchtime and left on Saturday afternoon and we only booked Alinea but getting into other places wasn't a hassle.
First a deep pan pizza for lunch at Lou Malnati’s - its very good and makes me glad I don't live in Chicago or else I would be the size of a house!
Next Alinea for dinner. To be honest a very mixed meal, we loved the 5 of the 6 main courses after the barrage of little bites to start. All these were good and showed what a great restaurant it is. We really didn't like the service, finding it stiff and a bit up itself. We seemed to really get on the wrong side of the sommelier (and his wine list is massively overpriced) who was was pretty sour all meal. Despite trying hard to interact with the serving team it felt like we were trying to crack jokes at a funeral.
The seven or eight little starters come in big vases, and they come all together, the waiter issues lots and lots of complex instructions - they should give paper to take notes: cook the scallop on the hot rock - smoke the fish in this jar - poach this in that stock - eat in this order - don't touch the hot rock (although it looks just like the edible rocks at Mugaritz) - drink a sip of water before the prawn head, and a sip of wine after - wipe your mouth from left to right etc etc. I get lost. I am certain I mix up the order. I forget to eat one dish that is floating in the flower vase. Why oh why don't they serve them in waves? Its a riff from El Bulli and they served their "morphings" in waves gently bringing you into the meal and giving you the ability to remember your instructions.
We also though the main presentation of duck five ways with a plate of 60 blobs of garnish was a gimmick. Far too much choice - i know the concept is for each diner to develop their unique experience as each dot is only enough for one. But its a bit confusing and we felt that getting the best flavours combinations is what I pay the kitchen for. It looks visually stunning - but that's probably why this dish has lost direction - its form over substance.
Desserts were fun, but a little too sweet for us, the Dark chocolate egg filled with liquid nitrogen is good theatre though.
The next day we set our selves for a food marathon. We started with Au Cheval as their doors opened for breakfast. Fantastic pub food including the most perfect burger. Really really good service with our waiter acting as a beer sommelier - they have an amazing selection of craft beer. Au Cheval was a clear winner for Chicago food and service!
Next an early dinner at Girl & the Goat. We arrived at 4:30pm and had a choice of all the bar seats. Good bar staff, interesting and good food (ask and they will serve small portions of some dishes so you can try more). It did seem like a bit of a production number and maybe a little bit commercial these days though.
Finaly a latish supper at Frontera Grill, we arrived at about 8:30 and waited for about 10 minutes (Friday night) for a table to free-up in the bar which we grabbed - others seemed to have similar waits (I think longer to be seated in the restaurant - you get a vibrating bleeper). The food was OK but nothing better than similar we have tried in San Francisco or even now in Hong Kong.
We finish our short stay in Chicago with a breakfast coffee at Intelligentsia which was very good, we tried both cappuccino and drip filtered. We then head to Portillo's for hot dogs and Italian beef sandwich - what can I say its an institution and a great way to say goodbye to Chicago before heading to the airport and our 16 hour flight home!
Thanks for a great board we wouldn't have found most these without you.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback! I hope you enjoyed your stay. If you had to summarize, which of these would you recommend to other visitors (with the understanding that no matter what you say about Alinea, everyone that knows of it has already decided whether or not it is where they want to go)?
I think it depends where they are from. We are not from the US so tend to love the local and "trashy" as much as the quality end of the market. So a soggy italian beef sandwich with hot pickles is as novel and fun for us as 20 courses at Alinea (in some ways more so).
We didn't try anything in Chicago we regretted, everything was worth the experience. It left us wondering about how good other places would be. If we returned we wouldn't re-visit Portillos or Lou's as we have been there and done that. We would probably try a longer meal at G&G, and definitely revisit Au Cheval. I would try another of Bayliss's places but not Frontera again.
My guess is that the city has a pretty broad dining scene with lots of places that have spun off from the G&G's lead - so lots to explore if we get back.
Rick Bayless is one of several creative and inventive chefs serving delicious contemporary Mexican cuisine in Chicago. He's not the only one, but he is the best known for several reasons, and not just his longevity since opening Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in the 1980s. Bayless takes his staff to Mexico every year to investigate new dishes and ingredients; as a result, his cuisine is contemporary Mexican, similar to what the inventive chefs in Mexico City and other big cities south of the border are creating. He has influenced and mentored an entire generation of top chefs here in Chicago. Just to cite a single example of his influence, check out the testimonial by Raul Arreola, founding chef of Mixteco Grill and the newly-opened Fat Rosie's, at www.fatrosies.com/meet-the-chef Those are legitimate reasons why he gets so much press. IMHO he deserves it for the role he has played here.
That being said, his are not the only restaurants in Chicago turning out delicious, creative contemporary Mexican cuisine. There are others that are also worth a visit, including not only the BYO Mixteco Grill in Lakeview, but also Carlos Gaytan's French-influenced Mexique in West Town, Priscila Satkoff's Salpicon in Old Town, Eusebio Garcia's Amelia in Back of the Yards, and Jose Luna's Salsa 17 in Arlington Heights.
There are also plenty of restaurants here serving conventional Mexican cuisine - enchiladas, tacos, etc. Nothing wrong with those too! However, because such fare is found in every American city, those visiting from elsewhere and looking for something different from what they experience back home may be better off trying our contemporary Mexican restaurants. Take a look at the menus on their websites to get a better understanding of what they offer, and then decide for yourself where you'd most enjoy dining!