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Jul 2, 2013 10:50 AM

Returning to Chicago for first time in 2 years; what's new?

I have made several trips to Chicago in the past five years or so, to visit family and friends there. However, I have not visited your lovely city for two years (long story). I am returning soon to see family and friends and an exhibit at the Art Institute. Normally I keep up on the Chicago food scene but have not done this as much lately.

I've had excellent advice from many board members in the past, and thank you in advance for your assistance.

One member of our travel party lives in Cincinnati, and the rest of us live in Columbus. We eat anything. The family member whom we are visiting in Chicago, who will be dining with us some of the time, is a vegetarian (no seafood but dairy and eggs okay). At any given time, there may be between two and eight people dining out. We will be in town from around July 12 to July 16 or 17. I understand it will be difficult/impossible to get reservations at short notice.

I prefer small plates so I can taste as much as possible without getting full. My SO and I love tasting menus, but we usually can't do this with other people along.

Places I have eaten at, and enjoyed, on previous visits include: Sable, Publican, the Girl and the Goat, Purple Pig, Frontera Grill/Topolobampo, another regional Mexican place whose name I cannot recall, Mercat a la Planxa, and Miller's Pub (friendly service, good beer, and the best burger I ever ate at 1 am after a long day waiting for a U2 concert). There were more but I'm blanking on them right now.

I know we will be visiting the Art Institute. Our two go-to places for lunch nearby are Terzo Piano and The Gage. I have also put Henri on my list for this trip as well, unless you don't recommend it.

Otherwise, I am uncertain of our itinerary. We will be staying with friends in Elmhurst (any recommendations there?) and commuting into the city. So, I'm not sure about what neighborhoods we will be in at what times of the day; if our party is willing to travel for food; et cetera. I'm open to your suggestions.

I would like to know what is new in the past two years, as well as places I still haven't visited. Here is what I am considering:

-if just my SO and I go out for dinner, maybe Naha or Goosefoot
-Slurping Turtle
-Fat Rice
-Chez Moi
-a Bill Kim place, since I've not been to any of them
-I'm curious about EL Ideas, but uncertain
-anyone tried Little Goat? what did you think?
-for the members of our party with a sweet tooth, Floriole, Vanille Patisserie, Do-Rite, Glazed & Infused, Doughnut Vault
-French Market at the Ogilvie Transportation Center (if we're on the Metra, we might as well stop in)

I apologize; I am usually more organized. Thanks for any advice, help, and suggestions you can offer.

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  1. One thing you may want to consider, is that your companions may not have been to places you've previously visited and loved. So you might want to consider a return visit to one or more of those places, to show them off to friends.

    >> We will be in town from around July 12 to July 16 or 17. I understand it will be difficult/impossible to get reservations at short notice.

    Not necessarily. The number of places which are already entirely booked for those dates is exceedingly small. Many of our best places don't book up except for Friday or Saturday night seatings between 6 and 9 pm. At this point you can probably get whatever reservation you want for any place you've mentioned, with the exception of Goosefoot. Wait until the last minute, and you'll have more trouble with some places on Saturday night, but even then, there are others that will probably have plenty of availability.

    >> another regional Mexican place whose name I cannot recall

    Probably Mexique, Mixteco Grill, Salpicon, or the now-closed Mundial Cocina Mestiza.

    >> I know we will be visiting the Art Institute. Our two go-to places for lunch nearby are Terzo Piano and The Gage. I have also put Henri on my list for this trip as well, unless you don't recommend it.

    You could also consider Mercat a la Planxa (tapas) or Tesori (Italian).

    >> We will be staying with friends in Elmhurst (any recommendations there?)

    I don't know of anything in Elmhurst itself, but not that far away, I like Vie in Western Springs (southeast of Elmhurst) for creative contemporary American fare, Parker's in Downers Grove (southwest of Elmhurst) for terrific seafood and Neopolitan pizza, and Sergio's Cucina in Itasca (northwest of Elmhurst) for Italian.

    >> I would like to know what is new in the past two years, as well as places I still haven't visited.

    Chicago Magazine Best New Restaurants 2013 -

    Chicago Magazine Best New Restaurants 2012 -

    >> -if just my SO and I go out for dinner, maybe Naha or Goosefoot

    Naha is still terrific. You almost certainly won't be able to get a reservation at Goosefoot.

    >> -I'm curious about EL Ideas, but uncertain

    I wasn't all that impressed, although it has its fans. Not a single dish wowed me. And considering the inconvenient and less-than-desirable location and service that is not comparable to most fine-dining places, I thought it was very expensive.

    1 Reply
    1. re: nsxtasy

      And, of course, there's always the "Hot List" from Chicago Magazine, the ten places that are getting the most buzz, shown on the right side of their dining web page at

    2. I'm one of those who disagrees with nsxtasy's one mediocre dinner at EL Ideas. I'll go as so far as to say it might be the third best place in Chicago, after Alinea and Schwa, perhaps tied with Next. A lot of people really like EL Ideas and, thus, you are right that it will be hard to get reservations there, or any other popular place, in a couple of weeks.

      I will say, though, that EL Ideas is unlike every place you have been to or are interested in Chicago. I trust you've read about it, so you can decide for yourself whether you will enjoy playfulness of the food, interacting with the open kitchen, possibly plating and serving yourself, and the industrial decor.

      I'm not terribly impressed by Slurping Turtle or Bill Kim's Urban Belly, but I will admit that my travels all over Asia have probably ruined my standards. I guess I would give the edge to Slurping Turtle between the two, but that may be more due to my personal tastes rather than any issues with execution. I will add Yusho as being better than both, though also a more substantial restaurant concept with small plates, though I didn't think their noodles were the best either.

      Balena didn't impress me enough to hurry back any time soon, but I guess if you like Terzo Piano, then it would be ok.

      I haven't been to Little Goat, but everyone whose opinions I trust has been a little disappointed, especially in comparison to Girl and Goat and other similar diner-type places around Chicago.

      You've listed the top dessert places in Chicago, so your friends/family should be happy at any of those. I literally never eat doughnuts, so I can't compare those, but I must say that I have yet to be truly wowed by any of the bakeries/patisseries in Chicago.

      As you've gathered, Fat Rice is super popular and small, so go early and expect a line nonetheless (I haven't been).

      14 Replies
      1. re: W42

        >> I will say, though, that EL Ideas is unlike every place you have been to or are interested in Chicago. I trust you've read about it, so you can decide for yourself whether you will enjoy playfulness of the food, interacting with the open kitchen, possibly plating and serving yourself, and the industrial decor.

        True. FWIW, none of those in my party have any inherent inclination against such a non-traditional experience. If the food were truly delicious, we would have loved it. But it wasn't, so we didn't; in fact, we all agreed it was just nowhere near as good as other higher-end Chicago restaurants in its price range (e.g. Acadia, Naha). I also don't understand why it's so expensive, considering the sketchy neighborhood, etc.; restaurants usually choose such locations for cost reasons, and pass the savings along to their customers. By way of comparison, El Ideas charges $140, while Goosefoot is now up to $115, in a much better and more convenient neighborhood, with far better food and service.

        1. re: nsxtasy

          My guess about the cost of EL Ideas is this. To start, like Goosefoot, EL Ideas sources from expensive suppliers and they can't subsidize the food cost with wine/alcohol sales. The differences with EL Ideas is that the menu changes on an almost weekly basis so ingredient costs are high and there is no bulk monthly discount—unlike Goosefoot which apparently just changed their menu once over the past year and can predictably order accordingly. The EL Ideas location is a holdover from when it was the prep kitchen for Foss's food truck.

          To nsxtasy on whether EL Ideas is "truly delicious":
          I guess we will just have to accept that we have different tastes and what I have found to be "truly delicious" isn't what you like. As you noted, a lot of people have said in so many words that they found the food at EL Ideas to be indeed delicious. While your impression has a lot of weight because you are one of the only ones to post on this board multiple times a day, that the reservation list at EL Ideas is only growing longer seems to indicate that you and your companions just have different tastes from many others.

          I know you said your party was not included against a non-traditional experience, but I would hazard your tastes do seem to tend towards the more traditional European fare: your listed favorite fine dining places are all old French restaurants in the suburbs. Yes, I know you like Alinea but you also stated that Naha was the "most creative" restaurant in the city. In comparison, Naha wouldn't even make my top 10 when it comes to creativity. I would describe Naha simply as a nice European bistro with North African influences.

          I should also note that it's not that I dislike traditional French food—I've driven all over France to taste the work of legends before they retire. But the food you grow up with or whatever your first experiences with fine dining are will shape your tastes as a kind of gold standard. Similarly, you can see how chefs who are classically French or Japanese trained will retain that influence even if they go on to cook completely different kinds of food.

          Finally, I'm reminded that with the high turnover of dishes at EL Ideas, so I'm sure that some menus are objectively better than others (I've had some courses that were "meh" but far more that wowed). I'm sure we all have been disappointed with meals that were widely liked by many others whose opinions we trust. So then we have to decide whether to give the place another chance, before determining it to be objectively "not worth it" or "bad." Your feelings about the food at EL Ideas are almost exactly what I have said about Grace, which you having been raving about, but the difference was that more people on the LTH forum had similarly forgettable impressions.

          You may not be consciously inclined against a non-traditional experience, but I think it's revealing that you state Goosefoot has "better" service. I wouldn't judge EL Ideas as having worse service because it's basically non-existant. At best, the chefs explain and serve the courses they came up with—something I happen to like more than having a waiter recite what they were told. Maybe you could say the service is different or non-traditional, but I don't think it makes sense to compare them.

          But if your definition of value and fine dining involves a traditional waiter experience, then places like EL Ideas or Brooklyn Fare or even many kaiseki experiences will come up short. Obviously I don't care at all about service unless the staff is really offensive, but I do sympathize with waiters who spend long hours at middling pay trying to dote over expensive diners who expect such treatment (not saying anyone here is guilty of this, just that I probably cut staff more slack).

          1. re: W42

            Sorry, the end of my first paragraph about EL Idea's price got cut out as I double checked my post:

            The EL Ideas location is a holdover from when it was the prep kitchen for Foss's food truck, so it's not like they chose the location to save money (Goosefoot can't be paying that much either for what appears to be an old storefront down the corner from a discount supermarket). Secondly, EL Ideas has 10 less seats—though Goosefoot intentionally never fills their 34 seats—and has only one seating per night, whereas I have seen Goosefoot have at least two seatings.

            I don't want to derail this thread anymore, but if you're really curious about the cost, Phil Foss does tend to respond on the LTH forum.

            1. re: W42

              I'm not going to respond point by point to the lengthy essay above. It's clear that one person here loves El Ideas - as I indicated in my first reply above, it has its fans - while I was disappointed in my recent dinner there and I thought it was grossly overpriced. Our opinions differ; I'm not sure anything more needs to be said.

              However, I strongly object to statements presented as fact when they are just not true, such as "your listed favorite fine dining places are all old French restaurants in the suburbs" (not true) or "you also stated that Naha was the "most creative" restaurant in the city" (also not true). Making false claims like these undermines the credibility of any other arguments one would make.

              Furthermore, it degrades the level of discourse here on Chowhound when anyone resorts to personal attacks on others, trying to discredit other opinions here by making the argument that "your opinion is not important because you like some other place". It should suffice to state our own opinions and why we like or don't like a restaurant, rather than criticizing others for expressing theirs, which only makes the author seem petty and mean-spirited.

              I post on Chowhound about places I have eaten in order to help others decide where to eat. Some folks will have similar opinions, while others will disagree, and that is fine; that's the way of the world, we don't need to agree, but the more opinions one reads, the more informed our decisions will be. I also include helpful tips, such as how to get reservations, when a no-reservations place is likely to be least busy, transit directions, etc. I would encourage others to do the same, respectfully, because the more opinions and information we all provide, the better this place will be, and the more help it will provide to others.

              1. re: nsxtasy

                Well, I'm sorry that you read any personal attacks in my post. Where I think we actually agree, and what I was trying to say was, "we just have different tastes."

                I'm really not sure how I was wrong about those two facts, though, so I do feel the need to defend my credibility. On May 22, 2013 you wrote:
                "Chef Nahabedian is one of the best, most creative, most inventive chefs in Chicago"

                As to the other point, correct me if I'm wrong that the following fine dining places listed on your "Best meal I ever ate:" and "My top 5 favorite restaurants" all serve French cuisine, opened years ago, and are out in the suburbs:
                • Le Francais-Wheeling, opened 40 years ago, now closed
                • Tallgrass-Lockport, opened 31 years ago
                • Michael-Winnetka, opened 8 years ago
                • Oceanique-Evanston, opened 24 years ago

                My point was that you seem to like classic French food—am I wrong? And I wasn't even including Joel Robuchon and Picasso in Las Vegas and Per Se from your "Best meal I ever ate" list.

                I don't see how it's a personal attack to say that someone is a fan of a particular kind of food, whether it be Thai or sushi, and thus their tastes are more geared toward that style, though of course we here probably enjoy a lot of different kinds of food. Similarly, I am always unsure whether someone will enjoy Ethiopian or really traditional kaiseki when it's totally different from what the usually like.

                Professional reviewers deal with this all the time, and many are even pretty open about their preferences. Frank Bruni liked Italian food and grew up with it, so some thought that he was too generous with those kinds of restaurants and didn't appreciate other cuisines enough. Corby Kummer doesn't like tasting menus, Neil Irwin doesn't like small plates, and EL Ideas was apparently just not your thing.

                I do also agree that the Chicago board could use more opinions and posters—there is simply just a lot less activity here than on other regional boards on this site and others.

                1. re: W42

                  >> I'm really not sure how I was wrong about those two facts, though, so I do feel the need to defend my credibility.

                  You made up things that were just not true, yet presented them as fact.

                  >> On May 22, 2013 you wrote:
                  "Chef Nahabedian is one of the best, most creative, most inventive chefs in Chicago"

                  That statement - with which I still agree, all the more so after eating at Brindille last night - is entirely different from what you previously claimed I said. Here is the false statement that you made up - your words, not mine: "you also stated that Naha was the "most creative" restaurant in the city." NOT TRUE.

                  Similarly, your previous statement, that "your listed favorite fine dining places are all old French restaurants in the suburbs", is NOT TRUE. Those eleven restaurants mentioned in my profile - which I posted several years ago, and have just removed - included two French restaurants and nine contemporary American restaurants, of which one no longer exists, three are in the city of Chicago, three are in the suburbs of Chicago, and four are in other cities elsewhere in the country. Again, your statement is NOT TRUE.

                  Please cease and desist from your continued false statements and personal mischaracterizations and attacks. As the Chowhound Team likes to say, "post about the chow, not about the Chowhound".

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    I'll probably hear about this, but I didn't read W42's post as a personal attack at all.

                    I thought it was a pretty fair assessment of another opinion that was as valid as any of ours here. Isn't that what we're doing here: stating our opinions and discussing their validity or whether they match our own experiences?

              2. re: W42

                I have to agree with much of your assessment, W42. I, too thought the food at El Ideas was mostly wonderful, creative, quirky, interesting and whimsical. And I also think that the Chicago board does get dominated by certain opinions, which is why I post here less than I used to

                I got to hang out in the kitchen at El Ideas– with other diners - while we watched one of the chefs holding a white plate with a very dark brown rather phallic-shaped thing on it.

                “It’s a banana,” he said, “Roasted for four hours in bourbon and vanilla bean.” It tastes a lot like bourbon and vanilla.”

                “But very starchy,” added (executive) Chef Phillip Foss, . “Throw it away,” he added and turned to attend to something else.

                As we learned, the El Ideas chefs spend much of their time playing with their food. And to the ultimate good benefit of those of us who have eaten there. kitchen staff was literally experimenting with food while we were there (not with what was served) and I enjoyed the non-traditional service as well.

                There were hits (a perfected seared scallop on cauliflower puree with curried tomato sauce and nitrogen-frozen foie gras that melted in your mouth).

                And misses (a silver-dollar sized fried disk of chopped unidentified pig parts garnished with tiny cucumber slices and carrot and pepper strips that tasted – porky – and unpleasant).

                The menu I had a few months ago is almost certainly not served now.

                While it is demonstrably not for everyone, it will well worth the experience and I would hope to return.

                1. re: chicgail

                  Just an opinion - but a visitor to a city is usually looking for consistently good food and not "hits and misses".

                  1. re: TeacherFoodie

                    I totally get and appreciate your point of view, TeacherFoodie.

                    I travel a lot and while I love to find places that are unflinchingly brilliant, those tend to be few, far between - and often prohibitively costly. What gets left to experience is the consistently "pretty good" or the fun highs and lows. Sometimes I opt for the former. Sometimes I prefer the latter.

                    In this case, not only are the hits real hits, but the overall experience is unique and unusual enough that some people - visitors or locals - would find it worth their while to check it out.

                    But each of us has to make that choice for ourselves, that's why a variety of CH opinions is so valuable.

                    1. re: chicgail

                      Not to further complicate this discussion but I guess there could be a restaurant with consistently good "hits" and then it would qualify in my definition of what a tourist-Foodie is looking for. As long as the hits are publicized then I don't see a problem (ie. you know what to order before going). I just wouldn't want to send a visitor to a restaurant where there is an increased chance of disappointment.

                      1. re: TeacherFoodie

                        El Ideas does a 12 course set tasting menu. There is no choice of what you order (although I believe the kitchen does accommodate vegetarians and food allergies). So, it's not an issue of ordering the "hits" and avoiding the "misses."

                        And, it's virtually inevitable with that number of courses that diners will find some dishes more delectable (hits) than others (misses). Also, it's not the same thing as eating a traditional 3-course meal where, if one of the courses is a miss, it's really disappointing. Part of the point in going to a place like El Ideas is to go out of your comfort zone and eat things you would not ordinarily -- it's only a few bites so, if it's a "miss," it's no big deal. When we were there, although none of us think of ourselves as picky eaters, we all were confronted with at least one dish that contained an ingredient that we did not "like" and normally would not order -- surprise, surprise, sometimes we really liked the dish anyway; sometimes, not so much.

                        1. re: masha

                          Wherever we go, there are so many different variables involved that can affect our opinions. Most restaurants change their menus frequently, and dishes one especially enjoys may be on one menu but not on another. A restaurant may prepare a given dish differently on one night from another. At restaurants where you select items (rather than a fixed tasting menu), you only taste the things you order, which you may or may not like better than those you didn't order. Some people like some dishes while others might not like the exact same dishes. So it's no wonder that we come away with different opinions! You only hope that you get the best, most complete picture of a restaurant by reading as many opinions as possible.

                          To help in selecting a restaurant, you can also get an idea of the restaurant's culinary style by looking at the sample menu on their website, although that doesn't always tell the whole story and the actual menu can vary from that one. All you can do is gather as much information as you can, choose a place to go, and hope that it exceeds or meets your expectations.

                          Those expectations can also be affected by the price range of a restaurant. When I go to an expensive restaurant (say, over $100 per person for food alone), I expect the food to "wow" me, to make me smile and want to say, "this is AMAZING" - not necessarily everything, but that ought to be the case with some of the dishes (say, a third of them or more). The places that have truly blown me away, like Alinea or Per Se - in chicgail's words, "unflinchingly brilliant" - are the ones which accomplish this course after course, with virtually their entire menu. Yes, they are rare, but it happens.

                          I think it's all the more remarkable when you have a superlative meal like that at a place that's *not* very expensive. And if you find a place that can do that consistently without spending a fortune, you can go back as often as you like with no regrets over the cost. That's how I've felt lately with Anteprima, which - despite my predisposition to go to places I've never been - I've dined at four times already this year, and I would be happy to go four more times in the next six months.

                          As for El Ideas, our experience was that nothing was dreadful; I wouldn't use chicgail's word "unpleasant" to describe a single dish we had. But nothing wowed us either, nothing good enough that we were still swooning over the memory of its taste the following day. We didn't hate our meal there, or any of the dishes. But we expected to like it more, given the hype that we had read and especially given that we were spending $140/pp plus tax/tip. (And, while we care much more about food than service, the fact that they serve the entire room at the same time meant that it took a while before they cleared, so we were sitting with our dirty dishes longer than we do in a restaurant with staff to bus tables. Not a cardinal sin, but not stellar service either.) Yes, it's based on a single meal. Maybe the dishes that night were not the best ones El Ideas serves. Maybe we just didn't like dishes that other people would have enjoyed more. Maybe it was just an off night. But that's how we felt about our dinner there. Clearly, others have enjoyed their experiences there. It's impossible to know for sure why we all come away with different opinions, but we do.

                          Just to give one more example of how we can form different opinions, I've eaten at Acadia twice in the past six months or so. The first time, we ordered a la carte, and I thought each of the three dishes I ordered was outstanding. The second time, we ordered the tasting menu (which was much more expensive), and, like at El Ideas, nothing was dreadful but nothing was particulary impressive. One great meal, one that was just okay, at the exact same restaurant. (And I should add that it's not a matter of not liking tasting menus. I have enjoyed tasting menus at many other restaurants, such as my recent dinner at Grace, which was exceptional.)

                          So again, there are many different variables involved, and reasons why we form the opinions we do. It's usually impossible to explain why one person likes a place and another doesn't. All we can do is read what people think and say, see how it fits with our own personal likes and dislikes, and then decide for ourselves where to go, and form our own opinions by doing so. And, hopefully, share them with others by posting them here on Chowhound.

            2. re: W42

              Just got to chime in here with props for El Ideas. We loved it. Friends of ours who come in annually for a special dinner with us thought it was the best place we've done. I think the pricing is very fair, the food was both creative and delicious, and the service was fine within the context of their model -- cannot recall at any point when a water glass was empty, for example. And if you are a wine person who likes the ability to bring a special bottle or bottles from your cellar (in our case, the 2 couples each brought 2), the BYOB feature allows you to pair really good wine with the meal at significant savings from most restaurants.

              Also, given the length of your stay in the area, I bet you can get in. Rather than sell tickets, El Ideas takes reservation up to 60 days in advance, but does not charge your credit card until 7 days in advance. So there tend to be openings for tables on short notice as people cancel just before that 7-day deadline. Call up, speak to Allison and explain the window when you are in town, and I bet she can accommodate you.

            3. The original comment has been removed
              1. Thanks to all for your replies, which I will read carefully and do my best to respond. I have been MIA due to a new pair of glasses which left me unable to read for several days (off-topic, I know, but I felt you deserved an explanation).

                I am also expecting more information tonight or tomorrow about our itinerary which should help me to nail down some choices and/or eliminate some options. I will return with that as soon as I know.

                Thank you all again for your help. I am really looking forward to my trip!