I want to sincerely thank all of the contributors to the Chicago Area Chowhound board for their comprehensive reviews and thoughtful advice. I was recently in Chicago with a friend for four dinners which I review below. I’ll also mention a few lunch places which were more spontaneous but quite good.
We had read a number of very positive reviews about Avec and decided to hit it first after our drive up from Kentucky. It was a Monday afternoon and we arrived at about 5:30 to find a fairly empty restaurant. We were warmly welcomed and chose to sit at the bar. We really liked the look of the restaurant—a lot of blonde wood and very open (it was a nice day outside which helped). We had a very long discussion with the server about cheeses to start with. Both of us are interested in cheese, but we have not sampled a large variety. Our server patiently explained the many cheeses on offer and we selected three. The wine list was extensive and reasonable. I had no experience with Portuguese wines which warranted another discussion with the server. He was very accommodating and we ordered a bottle of a refreshing Vinho Verde. The cheeses came on a wide wooden board with a variety of accompaniments and our server suggested the best order to eat them. I don’t remember the exact ones, but they were all very tasty and the order worked very well. On the online advice of many, we had already decided to try the chorizo-stuffed dates, but we were unsure of a second small plate. Several looked good, but we decided to ask, once again, our server for a recommendation. I really dislike brussel sprouts (a prejudice from childhood) and told my friend that I thought our server would recommend the dish. If so, we’d get it. Sure enough, he suggested the Shaved Brussels sprouts with fennel, dill, Parmesan, red onion and brown butter vinaigrette. It turned out to be the perfect foil for the spicy stuffed dates. Those dates were huge! The chorizo was unbelievably tasty and only accentuated by the pepper-tomato sauce. The bacon wrapping provided a sweet counterbalance. I really enjoyed the freshness of the brussel sprouts. There were a lot of ingredients, but everything worked harmoniously and cut the spiciness of the dates. Our wine went particularly well with the brussel sprouts. We only got one large plate: Trofie pasta with braised duck leg agridolce, peas, grilled radicchio, chai cured bacon and sardines. We had seen the portion size down the bar and it turned out to be the correct amount of food for us. The duck was absolutely dominant in this dish, but that’s what we wanted. I was curious about how the sardines would work and it’s hard to pinpoint their exact effect, but overall the dish was outstanding. Sometime about halfway through the pasta one of the runners came by to wipe some things up and knocked over our bottle of wine. We really didn’t have that much left, not much wine came out, and none of it hit us. However, he immediately poured us a full small carafe—a very nice touch. The desserts did not intrigue us, but we were extremely pleased with the amount and quality of food we had. The service was particularly impressive. A great start to our four days in Chicago.
VONG’S THAI KITCHEN (+ HOT CHOCOLATE)
We spent most of the next day in Oak Park wandering around looking at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes. We had very nice shawarmas at a Middle Eastern place near the Oak Park El station. We were planning to go to Frontera Grill for dinner, but it was closed because they were in Mexico. My friend really likes Thai food (I introduced him to it in New Zealand of all places) so we made a last minute decision to go to Vong’s Thai Kitchen. I know that there are many high quality Thai restaurants, but VTK was convenient to our hotel and I recently ate at Jean Georges in New York so I wanted to see what he could do with Thai. The restaurant was not full at 7 pm and we were seated immediately. The restaurant is quite beautiful with red dominating and a lot of exposed wood. We had some very tasty and refreshing cocktails as we perused the menu. We decided to get the $24.95/person dinner deal and ordered a nice bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The Black Plate special arrived and we liked the shrimp satay and VTK rocket roll the best, although all of the appetizers were tasty. For the main courses we got the shrimp and crab pad thai (I convinced my friend to try something other than chicken pad thai) and the tamarind beef tenderloin. Both of these dishes were quite good. I was particularly impressed by the amount of crab and shrimp in the pad thai. Also, the beef was cooked perfectly. The portion sizes were generous and we were very pleased with our selections. For dessert we had the passion fruit soufflé which had an intense passion fruit flavor, but was a little small. Our service throughout the evening was little cold; I just don’t think the main server had an engaging personality. It was very professional. In summary, we had a very nice meal. There were no “wow that’s fantastic” moments, but nothing was disappointing or even average. My friend thought it was the best Thai he had ever eaten, but he doesn’t get out much. We decided to go to Hot Chocolate for more dessert which was a great decision. This restaurant was crowded, but we sat at the bar where we could see the food coming out of the kitchen. Everything looked really good coming out, especially the sandwiches. My friend got the Chocolate #1 which was absolutely stupendous. From the small tastes I had I thought it was in the top five desserts I’ve ever tasted. The chocolate had an intense flavor and very interesting interplay of textures of the tart and soufflé. The salted caramel ice cream was a perfect complement to the warmth and flavor of the chocolate. We were horrified to see someone down the bar not finish her Chocolate #1 and almost asked the server to drop it off with us. I had a blueberry dessert which consisted of fresh blueberries, a lemon cheesecake and a big ginger cookie. This was also excellent, although not as good as the chocolate, in terms of flavor combinations and portion size. I would love to return to this restaurant for a full meal.
Our third day was spent largely at the Art Institute. I had been several times, but it was the first time for my friend. Furthermore, I had not seen the new Modern Wing which was very impressive. We had good hot dogs at Max’s with the works although we got rained on eating them outside the museum. Our dinner that evening was at Keefer’s Steakhouse and it was packed when we arrived for our 7:30 reservation. I had been to Keefer’s in 2006 and had the best steak of my life there (since supplanted by a cote de boeuf at Minetta Tavern in NYC). I really like the interior of the restaurant. It’s a little less clubby and more open than most traditional steakhouses. The sweeping bar is particularly impressive. If the day were not so cloudy the light would have been enjoyable coming through the large windows. I knew from experience that I would not be able to handle appetizers so I ordered the Kansas City Strip and my friend got the Bone-In Rib eye. We also ordered fries (excellent) and broccoli (not cooked enough) to accompany the steaks and bottle of nice Oregon Pinot Noir to go with everything. The steaks were outstanding. My friend declared his the best he had eaten. My steak was great but not quite as good as the NY Strip I had at Keefer’s in 2006. The seasoning and maitre d’ butter were perfect—they served to accentuate, but not overwhelm the beef flavor. The portion sizes were quite generous. The service was nicely attentive all evening. We decided to get dessert and had the orange-chocolate crème brulee (excellent, but paled in comparison to the chocolate dessert at Hot Chocolate) and apple tart (looked huge, but was fairly light and tasty). I know there is a lot of debate about great steakhouses and I’ve only tried Keefer’s. I’m a little disappointed that I was not adventuresome enough to try a different steakhouse and now, after two excellent meals at Keefer’s, I will probably be more reluctant.
On our last day in Chicago we took the El up to Wrigley Field and then walked all the way back downtown, stopping at the zoo and some galleries along the way. We had some really fantastic sandwiches at a small place just west of the zoo. I wish I could remember the name so that I could recommend it to people. For our final dinner we went to Frontera Grill (my third time, my friend’s first). We arrived at 6 pm and the place was packed—1 hour and 45 minutes to get a table. We went over to the bar to get a margarita and while we were deciding, two seats on the short side opened. We decided to just eat at the bar and I feel we made a great decision. We had a great view of everything the bar tenders were doing and we weren’t crowded by people trying to get to the bar. The bartender who served us was awesome the entire evening. He counseled us on the various margaritas and gave us excellent information and suggestions about the food. The restaurant was loud, but fun. It was great watching the bartenders at work (I can’t believe how many Coronas people were ordering—couldn’t they try a better beer?). We even got to see one pull himself onto the counter to snag one of the expensive bottles of tequila on a high shelf. The margaritas here, though small, are unbelievably tasty and potent. We sampled three different ones each and we were pretty blitzed. The food is also outstanding. We started with the tacos de lengua (chorizo and beef tongue). These had a very intense flavor of chorizo with some moderating influence of the beef tongue. The avocado-tomatillo salsa provided a creamy citrus-like counterpoint to the meat of the tacos. A really great appetizer. We also had the Hawaiian blue marlin ceviche (ceviche fronterizo) which was also outstanding. I’ve never had better ceviche. The fish was fresh and tender and not overwhelmed by the lime juice. Most ceviches I have sampled are either tough or have their flavor completely masked by the marinade. Frontera Grill knows ceviche. It’s worth noting that all of the minor accompaniments were also perfect, down to the freshness of the tomatoes and crispiness of the tostaditas. For our main courses I ordered the pork loin and my friend got the duck. Of the two, the duck was superior and an excellent dish. It was perfectly cooked and the sauce had an excellent flavor. The pork was just slightly tough, although the sauce was complex and excellent. I think if I sit at the bar again I would just order appetizers. It seemed harder to muster the attention necessary for the larger portion of the main courses. I will note that the tortillas were fantastic. We were pleasantly full by now, but I had excellent desserts in the past and so we decided to get two. I ordered the ice cream sandwich and my friend got the chocolate pecan pie. Both desserts were huge (much larger it seemed than those I had ordered in the past) and delicious. The pie was fairly straightforward, served with whipped cream, and had an awesome flavor. It was not overly dense as pecan pie can sometimes be. Also, the crust was very flaky (pecan pie which has sat for awhile can have a soggy crust). My ice cream sandwich is a little hard to describe. It had a slightly larger diameter than a DVD and was probably about 1.5 inches thick. The ice cream was chocolate and there was chocolate cookie for the outer. It did not taste pre-made since the cookie part was still quite crisp. The ice cream was outstanding in terms of smooth texture and intense flavor. It was served with some nice blueberries and fresh whipped cream. For a third time Frontera Grill treated me to excellent food, powerful/tasty margaritas, outstanding service and a fun atmosphere.
Thanks again to the Chicago Area Chowhounds. I look forward to your advice the next time I am planning a Chicago visit.