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Early Planning for November 2014 return to Chicago . . . restaurant questions

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My wife and I will be back in Chicago -- in fact, my hometown¹ -- this November, and am just beginning to plan our food agenda. I have some questions re: where to lunch/dine this time around.

Our last trip we ate at Blackbird, Mercat a la Planxa, Publican, Purple Pig, and Sable.

I know we will be going to Girl and the Goat this trip.

That said, I rarely (or never!) see reviews of restaurants like The Boarding Room or Sixteen . . . North Pond or The Lobby . . . Elizabeth or L2O . . .

Now please don't misunderstand: I see recommendations for places, but rarely do I see an actual review/comment by someone on their meal there. Are these recommendations from personal experience? or merely by reputation?

Any thoughts? comments?
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¹ Born here; left for California at age 5.

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  1. Try lthforum.com Lots more reviews there.

    1 Reply
    1. re: jadec

      Thank you.

    2. One caution about The Lobby is in the past several months they lost their head chef, both sous chefs, the pastry chef, wine director and some of their best front-of-the-house staff. So any reviews you see that are not very recent should be ignored; it is not the same restaurant in 2014 that it was in 2013. Many of the staff that left (including Chef Lee Wolen) went to Boka which is fantastic and one of my favorite venues. Boka recently also renovated their space and did a fantastic job and Chef Wolen's food keeps me coming back on a very frequent basis (heading back later this week). If you hit Boka, you may want to stop by sister restaurant Balena either before or after for a cocktail and/or bite; they are just a block away and I love the staff and energetic ambiance there and excellent food and beverages there.

      Elizabeth is another of my favorites. Such a fun dining experience with the open kitchen and beautiful, creative, unique cuisine. Another great venue that is somewhat similar regarding modern, fine dining cuisine in a casual ambiance is El Ideas. At El you can even hang out in the kitchen between courses; only negative of El is the location is off the beaten path. Have dined several times each at El and Elizabeth and each was an amazing memorable dining experience. El is BYOB so helps lessen the price tag. Elizabeth is considerably less expensive on week nights for the exact same food - so go on a Wednesday or Thursday if you can.

      Sixteen is a restaurant that frustrates me. Been four times; one meal everything was firing on all cylinders and was one of my top meals I had consumed in a while, two had good and bad aspects and one the service was utterly atrocious. I love that they completely change up the menu with the seasons and tell a story through the meal, but the inconsistencies with the food quality, services hiccups and pricey beverages make me trigger shy to recommend and hesitant to return. Moto has become my go to restaurant in this price category for fun, whimsical modernist cuisine. I find the food more consistently good at Moto than at Sixteen and service friendlier and more customer focused.

      L2O has fantastic seafood with beautiful plating, but is quite expensive and the service (while highly polished and attentive) is just a bit too formal in style for my preference. For a splurge meal I much prefer Grace (my favorite restaurant in Chicago) where the food is even better and the service (while just as polished) is more personable and the dining room less stuffy (though extremely luxurious). I am heading to Grace next month for my anniversary and actually find it to be superior to Alinea for a special occasion/splurge dinner.

      North Pond I really enjoy for brunch (the setting is beautiful) but I haven't been wowed quite enough to go for dinner where the prices are considerably higher for a similar sounding menu.

      Boarding House I have never been and personally have no interest; I could be wrong but it seems to me to be overpriced for what it offers and be more of a trendy/see-and-be-scene place than an upper tier restaurant.

      I do love a Girl & a Goat; the ambiance is not the greatest as it is rather noisy with tables closely spaced, but most of the food I have greatly enjoyed and prices are a bargain for what you receive. Definitely worth a visit.

      Two other great restaurants: Senza; while heir claim-to-fame is they are gluten free, the food is amazing (even be bread and pastas are phenomenal), the staff so warm and friendly and the space beautiful. Goosefoot: Some of the best tasting food I have ever had; gourmet French/American cuisine in a relaxed setting and is BYOB; reservations at Goosefoot are amongst the toughest in the city. My only knocks on Goosefoot and Senza are the menus are slow to change, but this is a non-issue for a first visit.

      If you have any interest in Asian cuisine; Juno (has been closed the past few months because of a fire)will be back open by then (incredible Japanese food) and Embeya (modern Asian fusion) is another of my favorites.

      Aside from Boarding House (zero times), Juno (once) and L2O (twice) I have been to all venues mentioned at least three times (some many times) within the past couple of years.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Gonzo70

        Thank you for your detailed response. You've given me much "food for thought" about whose food ends up on our plates . . . ;^)

      2. I can only comment on 3 of your restaurants. My least favorite and probably the most expensive is Sixteen which I found pretentious, the food laughably hit and miss (albeit gorgeous and well plated) and the service arrogant and dismissive. Last time I went I arrived for the last serving of their summer menu which highlighted vegetables and fruit but it was almost impossible to get our waiter to tell me what, if any proteins were in any of the dishes. Only two of many courses mentioned proteins in their descriptions but I could see there were some proteins in the served dishes. My questions were met with "that's not the focus of this dish" and a recitation of the upbringing of several of the vegetables. Apparently they were very well brought up and educated at the best schools etc. I finally skewered a piece of what appeared to be squid which prompted our waiter to say he'd ask the chef. Seriously!? If the chef put it in the dish it must have at least mattered enough to warrant knowing about it. Anyway a few courses were amazing, delicious and creative but the majority, a clear majority were not. I actually felt sorry for our guests being constrained not to say what they actually were thinking about the meal and service since my SO was hosting and it was cost a little bit under $500 per person with drinks. We did get some great laughs afterwards when my SO wasn't around. "The artichoke went to Choate but couldn't get into Dartmouth, poor dear etc."
        Gonzo summarized the situation at The Lobby pretty well. I have been there once since the chef et al left and had a thoroughly delicious meal. Everything on the menu was a reworked/retooled version of what had been on the menu under the very talented Chef Wolen and the reworking was quite successful. The restaurant has built in flaws that make it difficult space to work with. It is located in a cavernous lobby. It is designed not to be intimate and inviting. In short unless the new chef is as talented as chef Wolen or they move the restaurant back to the old Avenues space it is a place you may not want to splurge in just yet.
        I'm not a fan of North Pond despite its amazing setting in the park and the fact that it's food is always well prepared. I just don't understand all the love this place gets. It's expensive and the food doesn't wow at all. I can't remember the last meal I had there in any detail. It's a place the makes me ask "why did we come here again?"

        1. Below, I will list my favorite restaurants around Chicago, places that I consider "do not miss" type places. But first I'll address your specific questions.

          >> Now please don't misunderstand: I see recommendations for places, but rarely do I see an actual review/comment by someone on their meal there. Are these recommendations from personal experience? or merely by reputation?

          I can't comment on anyone else's posts, but my recommendations are almost all from personal experience, based on dining there. The reason I say "almost" is, the primary exception is when I recommend our most widely-praised local coffee roasters. I don't like coffee and I don't drink it. But the other recommendations are my opinions based on dining there. And, since you asked, ...

          >> That said, I rarely (or never!) see reviews of restaurants like The Boarding Room or Sixteen . . . North Pond or The Lobby . . . Elizabeth or L2O . . .

          I've eaten at five of these six (not the Boarding Room), including three within the past six months. I absolutely LOVED my recent dinner at North Pond; it was outstanding in every respect. I did post a brief review here on Chowhound; you'll find it at www.chow.com/topics/570587#8873858 Every single dish made me want to shout, "WOW! THIS IS AMAZINGLY DELICIOUS!" The desserts, in particular, were some of the very best restaurant desserts I've ever had. I also love the way Chef Sherman plates his food; many of the dishes present 5-7 different items, so each course is its own little "tasting menu". Did I mention that I really loved just about everything? :) (EDIT: I wrote a more detailed review of that dinner on another site. It's copied below*.) My dinner at the Lobby in December was also thoroughly excellent. However, it's worth noting that I dined there the last night that Chef Lee Wolen was in charge; he is now running Boka. So my high opinion of my dinner there may not be relevant now that he has left. I also had dinner last month at Elizabeth. I thought much of it was very good and very clever. But there were a few courses that were total flops, notably a ribeye that was served mostly raw. Last month I had dinner at three recipients of one Michelin star - North Pond, Elizabeth, and Sepia - and North Pond was the best by far. It's been a year and a half since I ate at Sixteen, and at the time I thought it was fairly good but not great, with no dishes that truly wowed. I ate at L2O a number of years ago, under the founding chef who is no longer there (so my opinion is no longer relevant), but at the time I did post a detailed review here.

          Now, as for the "do not miss" places I would recommend to anyone on a first visit here (as an adult, anyway)...

          Contemporary Mexican cuisine is a specialty here, and it is NOT like what you find in California. You can try to get a reservation for lunch or dinner at Topolobampo (see opentable.com) or Frontera Grill (see cityeats.com), which are at the same location in River North. www.rickbayless.com/restaurants If you can't snag one, make a reservation at Mexique in West Town www.mexiquechicago.com or Mixteco Grill in Lakeview. www.mixtecogrill.com

          Alinea - Acclaimed by many as the best restaurant in the country. My recent dinner there was the very best in my entire life. Notable for its unusual presentation techniques as well as its amazing deliciousness. www.alinearestaurant.com

          Grace - Sophisticated place whose "sum is greater than the parts", with excellent food, décor, and service. www.grace-restaurant.com

          North Pond - Unique for its setting in the middle of the park, facing its namesake pond and the city skyline. James Beard Award-winning chef turning out wonderful food (special props to the dessert chef too). Unlike the previous two, more casual (jackets not required/recommended) and less expensive ($100-120/pp including moderate alcohol and tax/tip). My recent dinner there was the best so far of 2014. www.northpondrestaurant.com

          Naha - Like North Pond, another James Beard Award-winning chef turning out wonderful food. And similarly more casual and less expensive. www.naha-chicago.com

          Sable - Delicious contemporary American cuisine in a small plates format, combined with innovative craft cocktails. www.sablechicago.com

          GT Fish & Oyster - Excellent seafood in a small plates format, combined with innovative craft cocktails. www.gtoyster.com

          Anteprima - In a city full of new and old Italian restaurants, this remains my favorite, and my most frequently-visited restaurant not in my 'hood. www.anteprimachicago.net

          Lou Malnati's - With locations all over the city and suburbs, perhaps our best place for our delicious local specialty of deep-dish pizza. www.loumalnatis.com

          Jam - Chicago has quite a few breakfast/brunch-focused restaurants, but if I had to choose only one, it's Jam. Imagine what a creative chef with a fine-dining background would create for an inexpensive breakfast restaurant, and that's Jam. www.jamrestaurant.com

          And, while not a single restaurant, I think our French Market is also worth a visit. It's in one of the commuter train stations just west of the Loop, and features some of the best restaurants of their type in Chicago, including Lillie's Q for barbecue, Vanille Patisserie for breads and pastry, Saigon Sisters for pho and banh mi, Pastoral for cheese and sandwiches, and Fumare for Montreal-style smoked meats. www.frenchmarketchicago.com

          And don't miss Garrett's for popcorn, with several locations downtown while you're here, and locations at O'Hare to grab some on your way home. www.garrettpopcorn.com

          *Here's a more detailed review of my dinner last month at North Pond, which I wrote a few days later:

          We ate there Sunday night, and our dinner was absolutely OUTSTANDING. It's the best restaurant dinner I've had in 2014, and I'm sure it will end up among my best of the year.

          Of course, one attraction of North Pond is its exquisite setting in the park, facing the pond. We had requested seating in the front room, with the big windows facing the pond; apparently so did everyone else, as that's where everyone was, with no one in the rear room with the open kitchen. I just hope their business improves as the weather warms up, as Chef Bruce Sherman is working wonders there.

          Still, it was the food that made this dinner so amazing, so I'll talk about that. (Sorry, no photos.) One of the unusual aspects of Sherman's food is that the dishes are plated with the main ingredients pretty much separate. So when a dish is described on the menu as, for example, "Grassfed Beef, Mushroom: New York Striploin Medallions, Short Rib; Beech Mushrooms, Confit Potatoes, Mushroom “Pudding”, Marrow, Pistachios", those are not ingredients mixed together in a single item, but rather, you'll find each of them in a separate place on the plate. As a result, what you're likely to find is that each plate is its own little "tasting menu", with lots of things to try, and odds are high you'll love many and maybe even all of them.

          Standouts at this dinner - actually, everything I tried was a standout - included:

          "Foie Gras, Ginger: Seared Foie Gras, Gingerbread, Earl Grey Tea Sorbet, Kumquats, Blood Orange, Hazelnuts, Frisée". Just a wonderful rendition. Also praiseworthy because the foie gras portion size was quite generous even though it was only $3 more than some of the other appetizers.

          "Beet, Pastrami: Candied Red, Gold and Chioggia Beets; Smoked Pastrami, Sour Cream Panna Cotta, Rye Crumble, Quail Egg, Beet Greens". I loved the juxtapostion of such different textures in this dish. The pastrami was actually rather mild.

          "Leek, Apple: Warm Apple-Potato Vichyssoise Soup, Charred Leeks, Mussels, Toasted Pumpernickel, Green Apple Boules". A terrific soup. Interesting to have a warm vichyssoise. And I loved the way the leeks and mussels were floating in the soup.

          "Grassfed Beef, Mushroom: New York Striploin Medallions, Short Rib; Beech Mushrooms, Confit Potatoes, Mushroom “Pudding”, Marrow, Pistachios". I love short ribs, and this was one of the best short rib preparations I've ever had. It was all meat, no fat, yet amazingly moist and tender. It was covered with a red wine reduction that is one of the thickest, most concentrated reductions I've ever had. The other items on the plate were all very good as well, but oh, those short ribs! Wow!

          The desserts, from pastry chef Greg Mosko, deserve special recognition. These were two of the best, most creative desserts I've had in a long, long time. A lot of desserts are delicious but not unusual, or unusual but not that amazingly delicious, but these were wow-worthy!

          "Chestnut, Orange: Chestnut Mousse, Ginger Cake, Orange Segments, Blood Orange Sorbet, Chickory Glaze, Sage". Wonderful. Not mentioned in the ingredients listed - the black pepper meringue pieces surrounding it.

          "Coconut, Milk". I'm not sure of the official description of this one because it's the one dish that isn't on their website menu, so let me describe it. In the center was a disk-shaped toasted coconut cake that was very nice. (And since the coconut was toasted, it didn't have the raw coconut chewiness that can be unpleasant.) It was topped with dabs of milk chocolate crémeux. In the center was a small scoop of sorbet whose flavor escapes my memory. There were three thin chocolate tuiles standing up around the sorbet. There was white chocolate powdery crumbs around the cake. And the plate was spread with a yummy ancho cream, which was only slightly spicy but also rather caramel-y in taste. I loved, loved, LOVED this dessert. Bravo, Chef Mosko!

          Also worth noting... I had the strongest iced tea I have ever had in my life, and I loved it! I asked about it, and they said it's a black tea from Intelligentsia. Service was excellent - efficient and friendly, yet unobtrusive. Oh, and the bill, including moderate alcohol and tax/tip, was just under $100/pp, which I would consider a bargain for such a special restaurant with such delicious food.

          Since this discussion was last active, North Pond was awarded a star from the Michelin Guide.

          With new trendy restaurants opening up every week and getting all the attention, it's still worthwhile to stay aware of the places that have been around for a while. Their food may be every bit as good, even though they aren't receiving much media attention any more. North Pond is a perfect example. And even though the setting in the park may be our most common association with the restaurant, the food should not be forgotten. This dinner was thoroughly outstanding in every way. Thank you, Chef Sherman and North Pond!