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Jul 23, 2014 05:10 PM

5 days in Chicago - Lots of tasting menus, want advice.

Hey CHers,

The wifey and I are hitting up Chicago for another 5 night trip in a couple of weeks. This is my 3rd visit, and wifes 2nd. I've previously done Alinea x 2, Schwa, Tru x 2, L2O, Sprout, Purple Pig, Publican, GATG, Les Nomades and a few more I can't think of right now.

Alinea is awesome, but not going to re-visit as press has been less positive of late. I'm happy to remember Alinea as the best meal ever if they're on the decline.

We are huge Modernist/MG fans and think this is Chicago's strongest area, so we want a ton of tasting menus and are good with contemporary american every night. Here's the lineup and a couple questions at the bottom:

Sunday - Sixteen
Monday - Next
Tuesday - Grace
Wednesday - Goosefoot
Thursday - EL Ideas

Next, Grace and Goosefoot are set in stone for me, as we've never been to Next, and Grace and Goosefoot seem like the hottest places in town. Plus we've already paid for the non-refundable tix at Next.

Here are the Qs

1-Would you change out Sixteen or EL Ideas for Moto?
It seems like there's been a huge improvement at Moto in the past 2 years, and like I said, we love molecular cuisine.

2-Is there anywhere else you'd switch out for Sixteen? If so, why? I've looked at and probably wouldn't do L2O, Boka, Acadia, 42 grams instead, though I do love those restaurants. The only place I really still love is Tru (was blown away by Chef Martin on my most recent visit), would you do Tru or Sixteen?

3-Do Sixteen or Grace allow BYOW? I know Goosefoot/EL Ideas are BYOW, and Next isn't, but no reply from Grace/Sixteen when I emailed.

4-Any other places that I may be totally missing?

5-I'll be going for another 5-7 days next June, so there will be time for Balena, Boka and Tru again then.



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  1. >> 1-Would you change out Sixteen or EL Ideas for Moto?
    It seems like there's been a huge improvement at Moto in the past 2 years, and like I said, we love molecular cuisine.

    I haven't been to Moto in a while, so I'll pass and leave this question for others to advise on.

    >> 2-Is there anywhere else you'd switch out for Sixteen? If so, why? I've looked at and probably wouldn't do L2O, Boka, Acadia, 42 grams instead, though I do love those restaurants. The only place I really still love is Tru (was blown away by Chef Martin on my most recent visit), would you do Tru or Sixteen?

    In recent visits, I loved TRU, but wasn't wowed by Sixteen. However, it sounds like you enjoy trying different chefs/restaurants. Since you've already been to TRU (twice) but not Sixteen, I honestly think you should go to Sixteen and decide for yourself.

    >> 3-Do Sixteen or Grace allow BYOW? I know Goosefoot/EL Ideas are BYOW, and Next isn't, but no reply from Grace/Sixteen when I emailed.

    I recommend phoning the restaurants to ask.

    >> 4-Any other places that I may be totally missing?

    You've covered almost all of the high-end fine dining scene here; I can think of only a few places you've missed, including two that are definitely high-end: Spiaggia is Italian and has been recently remodeled, and Les Nomades is French. Some would consider Topolobampo, Rick Bayless's Mexican restaurant, in this category as well; it meets on some counts (including tasting menus), not on others (e.g. attire, d├ęcor, service - not that these are bad, they're not, but they're not like the true high-end places). There are also some places just a tad below those in formality and price: in addition to Acadia (already mentioned), these include Naha (which I love), North Pond (ditto), Brindille (French, I like a lot), Blackbird (like a lot), and Elizabeth (like a lot, although not overwhelmed the way a few other folks are). All of these are worth considering.

    >> 5-I'll be going for another 5-7 days next June, so there will be time for Balena, Boka and Tru again then.

    Since you now mention Balena and Boka, here's something else to give some thought to. Do you want to do long tasting menus of contemporary American cuisine at high-end fine dining places night after night throughout your stay, as you currently have planned? Or would you prefer to mix those up with other types of cuisine and/or less lofty places where you can be a bit more casual and be satisfied with the traditional three(-ish) courses, such as Balena, Boka, Piccolo Sogno, MK, Anteprima, etc.? Or would you consider one of our small plates restaurants, since some of these (GT Fish & Oyster, Mercat a la Planxa, Perennial Virant, Purple Pig, Sable) have some of our very best chefs and are turning out some amazing food? Other ethnic foods? Deep-dish pizza? There's no right answer, but it's something to think about. Right now you have five pretty similar haute cuisine places on your itinerary, yet you mention some more casual places as possibilities, and there are other options as well. So you might want to mix some of those others in. Or, you might not. Of course, it's entirely up to you.

    Also keep in mind that dinner is not your only opportunity to enjoy Chicago's finest. Some of the places mentioned above are open for lunch, in case that's something you would like to do. There are also all our terrific breakfast restaurants (led by Jam and M. Henry). And our great places for grazing, like the French Market and Eataly.

    6 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      I should add that my experience is that Alinea is as good as ever. My dinner there this past winter was the best meal I have ever had in my entire life, and significantly better than my earlier meals there. We were there for over four hours of amazing food and presentation; Chef Achatz was there and did the preparation of our dessert at the table. (I'm not a FOTH; he did the same for other tables around us.) As gonzo mentioned elsewhere, several folks he knows have also reported that Alinea has stepped up their game in recent months, so I'm guessing the negative reports you may have heard may be something that was going on earlier last year, not recently. Don't be afraid to go back!

      1. re: nsxtasy

        I think you are the only one on this forum this year who believes that Alinea is as good as ever. On this recent thread several other Chowhounders spoke about meals at Alinea and every one but you was of the opinion Alinea was somewhat disappointing, not as good as lesser priced fine dining options in Chicago and/or has declined:

        1. re: Gonzo70

          Exactly a month ago, you posted about Alinea, "I am glad to be hearing virtually all positive experiences the last few months from people." Yet you continue to disparage Alinea based on people who were "disappointed this last fall/winter". These quotes are your precise words, posted one month ago today.

          My advice to the OP (97Sperss) is, whenever you hear contradictory opinions about a place - usually from different people, not from the same person, LOL! - if the place otherwise appeals to you, go (back) there and try it for yourself and form your own opinion. And then come back here and let us know what you find.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            Because since I posted that multiple people have reported recent disappointing experiences at Alinea. I also had a caveat that most of the first-hand positive information I had been hearing about Alinea came from people with VIP status who received extra courses and special treatment.

            You seem to think that your single somewhat recent positive experience trumps the report of several other people who were not so ecstatic about Alinea.

            1. re: nsxtasy

              Nsxtasy, this is Chowhound at its worst -- when people attack words in posts, rather than talking about food.

            2. re: Gonzo70

              >> "I think you are the only one on this forum this year who believes that Alinea is as good as ever."

              I went to Alinea twice last year (and other times dating back to 2010) and I also thought it was a good as ever, so Nsxtasy is definitely not alone. Not to mention the voters at Elite Traveler magazine, who voted it # 1 in the world again, or the Pellegrino/Restaurant magazine voters who placed it in the top 10. I've been to 8 of the top 11 restaurants on the ET list and half of Pellegrino's top 10 and while there are some real head-shakers on both lists I think they got it right with places like Alinea, Ledbury, Le Bernardin, Azurmendi and Mugaritz. Grace is nowhere to be found on either list's top 100.

              You keep praising Grace but my one meal there was a bit disappointing in several ways. I wrote a review of it for Chowhound last summer (several others agreed with me) but don't bring it up every time someone mentions Grace, unlike you with your constant criticism of Alinea. I could bring it up again every time someone mentions Grace, but then I'd be as annoying as you.

        2. Ambitious line up you have planned, but definitely some of fantastic venues. I agree with Nsxtasy that you may want to at least swap out one lengthy tasting menu for a less intense meal just to break things up; when I travel to New York I have learned that trying to squeeze in too many top tier menus in a short period of time ends up sounding better in theory than in practice.

          Of the five dinners you have planned Grace, El Ideas and Goosefoot are among my favorite restaurants in Chicago; Grace I believe is now Chicago's best venue - I am in the camp that believes that Alinea is on the decline and Achatz/Kokonas are more about profit and expansion at this point than customer service or maximizing the potential of their existing venues.

          If you do want to stick with all lengthy tasting menus, I would recommend Moto over Sixteen., Like Nsxtasy I have not been overly impressed with Sixteen. Been there four times; once everything was firing on all cylinders but one meal was terrible and two were a mixed bag. Not the consistency I expect from a venue at this price point. And their current menu/theme just seems weird to me. Moto on the other hand has become so much better and consistent over the past couple of years; great experience and amazing tasting food. I strongly recommend requesting to be seated in the "lab" - the downstairs area that looks like a chemistry lab and has an open station where some of the chefs are prepping courses. Great vibe and interesting viewing.

          Another outstanding lengthy tasting menu and all around highly enjoyable dining experience is Elizabeth. The chef there (Iliana Regan) has shown steady improvement since opening nearly two years ago; I have been dining there every 2-3 months and the progress has been remarkable (just had a fantastic meal there last night). Elizabeth features an open kitchen, the chefs serve/present some of the courses and the menu features hyper-seasonal ingredients much of which the chef plays a role in procuring (via foraging, growing and occasionally hunting/fishing). Such a friendly place and the dishes are beautifully plated and lots of interesting, unique ingredients and flavors; really makes for a whimsical and memorable evening.

          So I would recommend subbing in Moto or Elizabeth for Sixteen - although that would require some rearranging of your itinerary as neither venue is open on Sunday. If you cannot squeeze them in this trip, definitely put Moto and Elizabeth at the top of your list for next time in town. El Ideas is such a wonderful, entertaining and unique experience that I would not swap that out. Based on what is open on Sundays I would swap out Sixteen for Boka - or even do a B&B night as I call them; dinner at Boka and dessert and after dinner drinks at Balena (they are just a couple minute walk from one another and both open Sundays).

          Regarding BYO definitely contact the restaurants to see their policy; other than Goosefoot and El Ideas you would almost certainly have to pay a corkage fee if you brought your own, but if you had a special bottle you wanted to bring it can be arranged at most restaurants. Grace has an incredible wine program with reasonable mark ups; Sixteen however I found the alcohol to be crazy high and have not been blown away by the wines I have consumed there. If you like coffee be sure to have the Sparrow coffee at the end of the meal at Grace.

          Enjoy your trip!

          1 Reply
          1. re: Gonzo70

            Thanks for the suggestions Nxstasy and Gonzo, I was hoping you'd both chime in.

            The Boka+Balena suggestion is a very interesting alternative to Sixteen, I'll have to look at the menus and consider this for sure.
            I'd now really prefer Moto, but I don't think I can do it, as I don't want to miss any of my other four meals and none can be swapped because not much else is open Sunday. Moto will have to be next time I guess.

            I've been to Topolobampo twice, both times for lunch, and not really overly impressed either time. I may get in line for Frontera this time and give one more shot.
            Also loved Purple Pig last trip, so will return there for a lunch this trip.
            Other lunches will probably be Eataly, pizza at some point, and going to try to make it up to Hot Doug's since they are going to close in October.
            I'm trying to keep the lunches less intense given all the tasting menus for dinner.
            I also keep reading about Naha for lunch, and will consider that for sure.

            I tend to stay on a night time schedule because of work, but if I wake up before noon, I'll definitely go to Jam, it sounds awesome.

            Thanks for all the input, this is going to be tough.


          2. Hi all,

            I'll be in Chicago for the marathon in October, and my friend and I (both foodies) want to reward ourselves with a fantastic dinner...only she doesn't want to go out right after the race, which leaves us dining on Monday night. I don't think Next is what we had in mind, and I have no way to know what their theme will be. Would be thrilled to hit Elizabeth or Grace, but of course they're closed on Mondays.

            I'd be grateful for any suggestions. Not concerned about price, just want a great meal and experience. Thanks!

            5 Replies
            1. re: Girlsurgeon

              The problem, as you note, is many fine-dining places are closed on Mondays. I just did a quick search on OpenTable and note that Tru, Sixteen, L20, and Brindille are all open on Mondays. I've never dined at any of them. If you search the Board using those restaurant names, I am sure you will find some reviews. And perhaps other Chicago hounds with experience at those restos (or others open Mondays) will chime in.

              1. re: masha

                Thanks, Masha! I use opentable all the time but didn't even think to check because so many fine dining places are either selling tickets or not using the service. Tru looks great and has gotten a lot of positive comments from chowhounders.

                1. re: Girlsurgeon

                  Tru is amazing, been twice and super choked that I'm not going this trip. L2O was also fantastic, but is very seafood oriented, so keep that in mind. I'm going to sixteen tonight. There are so many awesome places in chicago that it's nearly impossible to go wrong.


                  1. re: Girlsurgeon

                    TRU is indeed terrific, one of our very best fine dining restaurants. Anthony Martin is doing wonderful things; I greatly enjoyed my most recent dinner there. I think it's our best option for fine dining on a Monday.

                    Sixteen, when I dined there not terribly long ago (under current chef Lents) was very good, but not quite on the same level as TRU.

                    It has been a while since I dined at L2O, at that time under the opening chef, so I consider my experience to be no longer current.

                    I ate at Brindille last year and I liked it a lot. I'm a bit hesitant to include it among our top "fine dining restaurants", just because of differences in various ways - price, attire, service, menus (they have a tasting menu available but they don't emphasize it). I don't mean to criticize it; it is among several restaurants (along with places like its sister restaurant, Naha, as well as North Pond, Acadia, and others) that are just below that top tier. All outstanding and worthy places, to be sure, just in their own way. If you want top fine dining, then TRU is a great choice; if you decide you want to spend a bit less and/or you don't want to get quite as dressed up, this group is excellent for that.

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      Thank you 97Sperss and Nsxtasy! Got a res for Tru, and I'm psyched -- it looks fantastic. Will be back in Chicago later that month, so I'll have a chance to check out some of your other recommendations as well. Can't wait!

              2. Our experience at 16 was good but not great. The food was excellent but the timing, pacing of the courses, was off. The staff really tried. That was a little over a year ago so take that for what its worth. We would go back but Chicago has a ton of options. I don't know about BYOW at Sixteen but I wasn't impressed with their wine list so that would be a great option.

                Grace is fantastic but don't know about BYOW there, either. I would not do their wine pairings again. We can't wait to go back.

                For many years Tru was by far our favorite restaurant in Chicago. We have been there many, many times. The food is as good as it has ever been. However, from our last two experiences the service has really dropped off. The wine service is a shadow of its former self. Its gone from great to very mediocre. The waiter was pushing caviar (which I love but my wife does not) and a duck special that didn't interest us. It was a bit annoying. A lot of the staff is the same so I hope that we were just unlucky with a pushy waiter. They do begrudgingly allow BYOW.

                L20 is one of our favorite places and we've had wonderful experiences. We have taken wines in there before but call ahead because the policy may have changed. From what I have read, they ask that you call the Sommelier first but I don't know what that means or implies.

                2 Replies
                1. re: HoosierFoodie

                  Went to Sixteen last night. I agree, good but not great, especially at the price.

                  Many of the courses were excellent, but the wine pairings definitely left something to be desired, I would say at least half of them didn't really elevate the food.

                  One of the highlights was the 2003 Bionic Frog that they had in the Coravin from the spring tasting menu. It was pretty awesome.

                  Going to Next tonight, we'll see how that goes.


                  1. re: 97Sperss

                    Hey Chris,

                    Thanks for the update! Hope you and the wife have a fantastic time eating and drinking your way through Chicago. Looking forward to the rest of your write-ups!