I think the first time I felt the desire to go to Chicago was when I was a teen, watching a new movie called Ferris Bueller’s Day Off after high school exams in 1986. It may have taken almost thirty years, but I eventually got there. And what a shock to the system after leaving the heat and humidity of New Orleans to land in a rather chilly and windy city. A midday arrival gave us time to relax in our gorgeous apartment-style corner room at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel – that landmark 82-storey tower with balconies that resemble rippling water – before hitting the streets in search of a lunch venue.
Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is known for its shopping, but more interesting for us was The Purple Pig, set back from the street at the back of an office building. This bistro-cum-gastropub-cum wine bar is all about Mediterranean-style share plates, communal tables and a lot of noisy bustle. We liked it so much that we returned for dinner another night. You know what it’s like … so many things you want to try on the menu, and one sitting isn’t enough to try your fair share of them.
There’d be something off-kilter if razor clams (12) were on a menu and I didn’t order them. And the simpler they’re prepared the better they are, as was the case with these little beauties that were all olive oiled-up with lemon and oregano. Stuffed squid (13) was another one we gravitated towards; served whole and filled with prosciutto and bread crumbs. The burnished little tube matched nicely with chermoula and a very tasty Santorini fava purée blackened with squid ink. We couldn’t pass-up on the popular milk braised pork shoulder (13); a hefty hunk of fall-apart meat doused in beautiful gravy, served atop creamy mash.
Arriving relatively early for our dinner visitation still required a 45 minute wait; something we were prepared for as we already knew how good the food was. There wasn’t much of a vegetable presence with what we ordered that night other than what accompanied the proteins and the salt roasted beets (8) with whipped goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette. The diced beet is sweet, takes on a bit of the red wine it was cooked in and takes well to the buttery crunch of the nuts.
An ever-juicy fan of pork secreto (14) didn’t disappoint – teamed with leek, roasted red pepper and pickled watermelon rind. What’s so secretive about this cut of meat? Well, nothing really as it’s only the skirt steak from the bottom of the belly. My love for quail (15) was reaffirmed when I took the first bite into this flavour-packed little bird. Stuffed with chanterelles and trahana – a dried conglomerate of grain and yoghurt or buttermilk – the quail stretches across a mound of salsify purée; drizzled with pomegranate molasses and adorned with pomegranate arils.
If it was my job to hand out gold stars I’d be grabbing a handful and scattering it over the turkey leg confit (16). The enormous leg is an absolute bargain – a drumstick that harbours a bounty of tender meat that made us second guess it as being lamb due to its “sticky” texture and rich lamb-like flavour. Crispy lentils are rained over the turkey and for contrasting flavours there’s endive and agrodolce. A serious must-have.
A skerrick of room remained for sweets. A lemon panna cotta (7) humbly served in a bowl garnished with candied pistachio and strips of lemon marmellata. Plus a pumpkin tart (8) with saba gelato and pumpkin seed caramel. The panna cotta is just that and the tart provided a satisfactory sweet ending.
The Purple Pig – 500 North Michigan Avenue
Waking up each morning and drawing the curtains firmly reminded us of our whereabouts. A lofty view over Lakeshore East Park and the lake to the east and over Millennium Park to the south. I could see why people had the desire to make home in one of the numerous towers in this part of town. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to step into Sim City, the Lakeshore East precinct could quite possible deliver. It’s a contrived neighbourhood of apartments and condos with a beautifully manicured park at its core complete with joggers, walkers, parents with strollers and tourists that somehow lost their way after visiting the Cloud Gate.
Most mornings we got our breakfast bagel hit at Einstein Bros, but to break the monotony there was one little visitation at Eggy’s Diner on the edge of the park downstairs. The term diner may be used a little loosely in the rather modern looking space, yet one glance at the menu does assure you of the style of food that’s available. Burgers, biscuits & gravy, chicken & waffles and soup of the day. Reads like diner to me.
As the better half started his day with toast and fresh fruit, I dove deep into a pile of high cholesterol. The house signature breakfast poutine (10.5) – an enormous plate of blonde and undercooked fries topped with crispy fried cheese curds, two fried eggs and sausage gravy. Even with my substantial appetite I hit the two-thirds mark and surrendered; feeling a little queazy from the lump of stodge now sitting in my gut. Why do I do it to myself?
Eggy’s Diner – 333 East Benton Place
Our go-to place for coffee was none other than Intelligentsia, an absolute magnet for caffeine addicts like ourselves. The line of people at the counter is proof enough that the fair trade coffee they produce is of high quality. And they’re pretty meticulous in how they make it. Great espresso, a very decent macchiato and cortado, and for those that like pour-over and the like, well, they do those as well. They even look after tea drinkers.
Intelligentsia – 53 East Randolph Street
It may have been a bit of a public transport schlepp, but catching the train right down to 93rd Street in South Chicago was well worth it. Why? Well, this place – Calumet Fisheries. Word has it that it’s here you can find some of the best smoked and fried food in the city and if it’s good enough for Anthony Bourdain, it’s good enough for me. One thing I love is that it isn’t tourist central, and I kind of dig the unglamorous surroundings.
It’s in a semi-industrial part of town, a couple of kilometres from the Indiana border, by the Calumet River and smack dab next to the same drawbridge that the Blues Brothers jumped with their car. Since 1928 generations have been flocking to this seafood purveyor; by foot, by vehicle and by boat.
Anything smoked is done so onsite in the small smoke-house by the seafood shack. A decent variety of fish and of course the shrimp I fell head over heels with. A good chunk of trout set us back a measly $4.19. Impossibly smoky, oily in a good way and delicious. The shrimp dinner (9.59) is a tasty tray of fries and crumbed shrimp with coleslaw and hot sauce.
And then there’s the half order of frogs legs (7.09); also crumbed and fried, seriously juicy and enjoyable with every lip-burning bite. My favourites? The smoked shrimp and trout by far. As for the fried things, well, nothing ground-breaking there.
Calumet Fisheries – 3259 East 95th Street
Down in the thick of the Theater District is the city’s oldest restaurant, The Berghoff. This place kicked off in 1893 as a men only saloon, serving up corned beef sandwiches with every stein of the house brew. Prohibition came and went, three restaurants grew beneath the one roof and the boys club finally crumbled to the pressure when a bunch of women stood at the mens bar in 1969 and demanded a beverage. You go girls!
The Berghoff of today is a mixture of German and American edibles and a mixture of locals and out-of-towners. You’d sooner see me at a place like this than furrowing my brow and wondering what all the fuss is about the deep dish pizza in this town. Mind you, we didn’t find anything extraordinary about what we ate at this Chicago institution.
The beer is good. Tick. The potato pierogi (7.95) are on the cusp of blandness; sautéed, doused in a creamy sauce and accompanied by sweet potato. The mini brat & knockwurst (6.95) is a convenient way to sample two types of sausages if you don’t really feel like eating a great deal. They’re topped with sauerkraut and served with German potato salad that is crunchy and verging on being raw. A pool of water at the bottom of the plate transformed the bread into a soppy mess before it even hit the table. Oh dear!
I loved the slow braised ox joints (17.95). Soft and tender just as it should be and served with delicious sautéed Swiss chard. There’s also some golden pumpkin gnocchi that, if it was cooked properly, would have been really good with the rich meat. Instead it was very firm, starchy and tasted sour. Perhaps we should have gone to a deep dish pizza joint.
The Berghoff – 17 West Adams Street
Architecture buffs are well catered for in the Windy City – somewhere Frank Lloyd Wright’s career kick-started, with many of his designs scattered all over town. But it isn’t all about Frank, either. From post-modern 311 South Wacker Drive with its illuminated crown to the neo-gothic Tribune Tower with its intricate buttresses surrounding its peak to the solitary Lake Point Tower with its sleek and graceful Y-shaped form. Gorgeous structures were to be seen everywhere I swung my gaze.
Getting out on the Chicago River is not only a nice way to see the city, but for architecture fiends like myself, it’s a great vantage point to see its buildings. We took the Architecture Foundation River Cruise and enjoyed every minute of the 1½ hours of learning about the city’s history and its buildings. Highly recommended.
After a day of cruising, walking and sight-seeing it’s always nice to kick back with afternoon drinks and plates of good food. That’s exactly what happened after catching the train out to Logan Square. One thing for sure is that had we not already booked a room at Radisson, we would have tried to nab one of the six funky rooms at Longman & Eagle. A restaurant and bar with accommodation? You bet. Although I’m sure the noise would drift beautifully into the rooms upstairs.
Whiskey boozers can go wild with the 150 varieties available, but we opted for G&T’s and a succession of Michelin star plates of gastropub goodies. A small chunk of seared foie gras (21) is artfully arranged with two piles of apple and bacon crumble by a brushstroke of rosemary caramel. Sweet, savoury, a little sour and crunchy. Dabs of parsley purée pretty-up the plate a little more.
Some seasonal sweetcorn, lentils and squash create the presentation base for the seared scallop (16) on one side and truffled braised pork cheek on the other. Two of my favourite foods on one plate. Bonus. A slick of rich pan jus connects both proteins, adding depth to the relatively light arrangement.
Had the next dish been written in English it would have deterred a few people. Confit tête de cochon (16), or confit pig head. Both sound fine to me, mind you. The rich disc of caramelised pork rests on a nest of mustard greens; leaves that add a fresh crunch and mild peppery bite. Nice one. A cluster of pickled mustard seed cuts through the richness and perhaps induces some lip-pursing with its sour notes, and at the same time the compressed peach injects a little sweetness along with a candied apple vinaigrette.
Two roasted marrow bones (11) sit erect on a plate, crowned with a bacon and shallot jam and flecks of preserved meyer lemon. Some sourdough toast provides some crunch factor for the wobbly marrow goodness.
Our final plate of savouries is a confit of Pacific octopus (15) that joins grilled beef tenderloin in a rubble of confit potato and relish of artichoke. A clever combination that’s held together with sweetness from tropea onion and swathe of black olive caramel.
The one dessert we chose took on an Asian slant. Black sesame doughnuts (9). Four golden balls of fried dough resting on a smoky black sesame purée, cooled with a coconut sorbet and lime and palm sugar granita. The added coconut tapioca and powdered coconut contributed even more to its complexities.
Longman & Eagle – 2657 North Kedzie Avenue
An organic focus and locavore sensibility is what you can expect to find at this eclectic Logan Square staple not all that far from Longman & Eagle. Lula Café has been dishing it up for over 15 years in this gentrified part of town; a place where locals gather to get their fill on farm-to-table goodies. Non-carnivores can even rejoice with their nightly 6-course vegetarian tasting menu? You don’t see that very often in non-vegetarian restaurants.
We were at Lula’s for the great value Farm Dinner held every Monday. Three courses for $38. Or $58 with wine. Bargain. Artisan ham is prettily plated with candied black walnuts, celery root ash and a little purslane – that worldwide weed that makes periodic appearances on our plates. Two types of swine featured on the plate – Broadbent country ham from neighbouring Kentucky and speck from Iowa’s La Quercia Meats. Top quality produce.
The main course took us both by surprise. Chestnut trofie – one of my favourite types of pasta – is generously mixed with braised wild boar, slivers of acorn squash, smoked gouda and black olives. Incredibly delicious, it’s just like one of the pastas you’d get in Northern Italy. A chestnut and sunflower seed pesto made it all the better.
After such a large serving of pasta we both struggled with the caramel mousse torte. And the generous size of the wedge didn’t help either. Both the mousse and scoop of chocolate sorbet were great, as was the pretzel crumble, but the heaviness and richness didn’t really complete the meal as we’d preferred. There’s nothing fun about feeling over-stuffed.
Lula Café – 2537 North Kedzie Boulevard
Back in town, for one of our lunches, it was Blackbird in the West Loop that caught the attention of the better half. A relatively chic restaurant with a 3-course lunch prix fixe for $22. Can’t say no to that. The digs are simple. Clean lines, minimal, bright and a little noisy at times. Service comes with precision and a touch of rigidity. At least it did on that particularly drizzly afternoon.
Nothing rigid about the smoked Arctic char, although I couldn’t ignore a slight mustiness in the flesh. Curious as to where that came from. Still, the flavour was lightened by the gooseberries, cucumber and lemon.
A golden pool of carrot soup harboured tasty tid bits like spiced almonds, sage, raisins and even smoked sturgeon belly. Every spoonful had a different texture and an overall sweet and sourness made for a warming starter.
A confit duck leg teetered over stubs of roasted okra that still retained a bit of a bite. Nice textural contrasts with the pan-seared discs of chewy rice cakes. This Southeast Asian compressed rice cake – or lontong – is one of my favourites so it was a welcoming surprise to see it here. Slices of fresh pear brought a crunchy freshness and pickled lime hollandaise added a touch of sourness.
Combining fish with ham hock jus always works for me and I could only wish there was more of it with the wood-grilled sturgeon. The meaty flakes of fish joined fingerlings and roast leek, with crunchy pear and a tiny amount of glorious osetra caviar.
The desserts ended up being our winning dishes; perfectly portioned and far from being heavy. The first, a warm dark chocolate crémeux huddled against delicious sticky rice and cooling date ice cream. A rice crisp surfed the mound of goodies with a tongue-tingling scrape of brûléed cream mixed with Turkish isot.
The other, a summer coupe with buttermilk ice cream. A gorgeous sweet sourness melted across the tongue with pops of flavour from small chunks of candied lemon rind along with crunch from meringue hiding in the depths of the glass. You’ve got to love ending on a high note.
Blackbird – 619 West Randolph Street
Our lunchtime bargains didn’t end there. Over in River North is NAHA, home to American-Mediterannean comfort food with a side of sophistication. Three courses for $22 didn’t seem to draw the lunchtime crowds that day, as we were just one of a few tables that took advantage of the set menu. That meant we got a lot of attention from the servers and, annoyingly, our water glasses were topped up after every second sip. Feeling like you’re being watched isn’t much fun.
A cannelloni of Swiss chard made a hasty appearance thanks to us being the first orders in. A rustic and hearty tube of pasta loaded with ricotta and greenery, spooned with sweet sungold and black cherry tomatoes. At the same time we get a simple salad of greens flecked with black quinoa and matchsticks of amazingly sweet late summer peaches. A Minus 8 ice wine vinegar dressing zings it all up and the hero Sofia goat cheese steals the show with its gloriousness.
A rather casual BLT sandwich is pimped with a thick strip of slow roasted bacon; with cured tomato rather than the usual fresh. The over-heated half-baguette made for a lot of crunching and a red cabbage slaw cooled any wounds the crouton-like bread inflicted upon the roof of the mouth.
I loved the North African “tagine”. A generous mound of cracked bulgar came sauced-up with a Lebanese arak broth; a perfect match for the tender chicken thigh. Some aniseed freshness was delivered by slivers of roasted fennel, and sweet-sourness from black plums.
Desserts showed some artistic flair in terms of the plating, and they didn’t disappoint, either. Luscious bittersweet chocolate pavé with a milk chocolate beignet. Quite a decadent match with the malted milk ice cream, chocolate cream; even whips of gold leaf. Nice touch with the caramel corn.
The lemon & almond tart went down a treat. Served with a soft-yet-crunchy rubble, poached blueberries and white chocolate ice cream.
NAHA – 500 North Clark Street
Many would regard this place as the pinnacle of dining in Chicago. Perhaps even the pinnacle of anywhere they’ve ever eaten.
3 Michelin stars. Online ticket booking system. Not one for the frugal. And it was finally time to unfold and iron that dinner jacket I had in my luggage for over two months; and for the better half to get out and buy one just for the occasion. Yes, dress requirements are paramount, even though we both removed our jackets as soon as we sat down. Ahhh, that’s better. Can I take my shoes of as well?
For a high-brow restaurant such as this, the room we were sitting in had something like five tables in it. Any other place would have crammed in another ten tables. Perhaps a meal that costs you hundreds of dollars also buys you personal space, along with exceptional and knowledgeable service. Oh, and the 13-odd courses we were about to experience.
The chef is a quintessential Midwesterner. A guy that grew up in Michigan with a hankering for igniting the leaves he raked into piles as a youngster. A nostalgic burning aroma that occasionally makes its way into much of the food he dishes up today.
Our first morsel is a crunchy-yet-soft doughnut-like nugget tempura pumpkin purée, delicately spiced with clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. Sherry vinegar and birch syrup inject a little sweetness and being skewered on an oak twig adds an autumnal element.
This delicate little medallion consists of Golden Brook trout roe that has been smoked with applewood. Matsutake mushroom custard brings an earthiness with a granny smith apple consommé that’s set to a gel. The flavours are fresh and clean with pops of saltiness from the roe and crunch from apple. The dark spots are braised mustard seeds.
A little bit of drama came with the Maine diver scallop, set in front of us in a pot spewing out dry ice vapours. The approach is simple. You dip your fingers into the vapours to lift the top half of the scallop shell and set it aside, then wait for the vapours to subside.
What’s revealed is a freshly shucked scallop that has been given the ceviche treatment with lemongrass and citrus. We’re told there are 14 textures in there, some of which are sea grapes, tapioca pearls and Osaka seaweed. A true oceanic celebration.
Autumn colour was presented in the next dish which was focussed on the humble squash. A dehydrated squash blossom sits beside a tuft of cardamom and saffron cotton candy, with an arc of creamy cauliflower purée that resembles shattered sheets of ice. Beneath a sheet of transparent gel is squash custard and West Coast dungeness crab. A beautiful arrangement that smelled very much like dessert, thanks to the clean aroma of cardamom.
There was a bit of a primordial feeling with the next dish that came presented on slate and Japanese binchotan, with a fire that was there for aesthetic purposes only. A huddle of four individual bites consisted of seared tuna belly, wagyu beef, pork belly and a shrimp head. There’s no particular order for consumption, but it was suggested we leave the prawn head for last. And I’m pleased we did as it was the winning component. Impossibly crunchy and filled with spicy togodashi and radish.
We could smell this next dish enter the room before we even set our eyes on it. The smell of forest fire wafted behind it, and we could now see why. Pine needles. In the bowl are veal cheeks that have been lightly smoked over pine; topped with a cracker that tasted like incense. To the side is a white sesame foam, and beneath it a mound of forbidden rice that had been infused with lapsing souchong – a Chinese tea that’s traditionally smoked, but they found one that was smoked over pine needles.
The hot potato cold potato is something designed to just throw back after one simple action. The wax bowl is filled with a cold potato and black truffle soup. Suspended over it is a pin that’s skewered with parmesan, Danish Lurpak butter and a ball of hot Yukon gold potato crowned with black truffle. You simply lift the wax bowl to your mouth, take the bottom of the pin and quickly pull it out, allowing the elements to fall into the soup. Down the hatch it goes. A delicious play on the two different temperatures.
The star of the savoury portion of the menu is the duck course. Five preparations of the bird that went as follows – pressed confit of thigh, rillette of neck, 5-day aged breast, mousseline made with heavy cream and finally, Hudson Valley foie gras.
What comes with the duck line-up is a platter of 60 different pairings for the duck. Pairings from fruit to emulsions, gels and meats, chocolate, olives, horseradish, beetroot and many more. The best approach is to hold back from trying too many flavours and limiting it to 2 or 3 flavours per piece of duck. A bit of experimentation and discovery in what works and what may not.
Next we have the truffle explosion, another down-the-hatch tasty morsel. It’s a ravioli of sorts, filled with a warm and delicious broth spiked with truffle and topped with romaine and parmesan. Can I have 5 more, please?
As a palate cleanser we received five long pins that carried ginger. Each pin could be removed from the base, making for easier nibbling on the five varieties – galangal, blue ringed ginger, turmeric, white ginger and yellow ginger.
And then there was this. The apple balloon. You latch onto the sour apple “leather” string, place your lips at the top of the helium ballon, inhale and let it gather up to your mouth. Just like apple taffy!
The corn dessert is a medley of textures and flavours with nice pops from finger lime. Nice to see an Australian native on the Alinea menu. There’s corn cake in there, mango, white chocolate gelato frozen in liquid nitrogen, at the top is the silk from young corn ears that’s candied and fried, and white chocolate rope coiled at the top.
The final dessert at Alinea, and on our Chicago visit, was their signature “table dessert”. The table is cleared and a rubber mat is laid to cover the entire surface. And then the action begins. The chef starts with a traditional tart crust in the centre, gradually layering with Armagnac butterscotch and milk chocolate to create a warm milk chocolate tart. Sweet crème fraîche is painted all around, followed by a sauce made from violets. Frozen milk meringue joins in, as does a roasted hazelnut praline, freeze-dried ice cream, violet candy, crispy brown butter and candied basil.
It’s like food theatrics on overdrive and a dessert that you approach from any direction you want. Sadly it was my least favourite component of the meal; especially the violet sauce that reminded me of air freshener. Once that image entered my mind it was all over.
Alinea – 1723 North Halsted Street