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Busy weekend trip report.. fine dining, cocktails...

MrChopin | Nov 18, 201405:29 PM

We arrived in Chicago from Baltimore late on 11/13 and stayed until midday 11/17. Had a host of experiences from fast food to 3* Michelin, most excellent. Before the details, thank you to all of your comments! I lurked and read a ton of info here and lthforum. This research ensured that my gf and I would have an amazing weekend in a city we both love and consider a potential future home.

Fast food / Junk Food
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- Glazed and Infused: went here out of convenience when waiting on another reservation. Donuts are mediocre. Old Fashioned was the best of the three we had. 2/5

- My Pie: Allowed us to place our order 20 minutes in advance. Really dry crust and sausage was fairly bland. Plus, the smallest available pizza was $16, which we didn't finish. 2/5

- UB Dogs: Really enjoyed the fries and aiolis (wasabi, habanero). The dog was tasty too, and the guys behind the counter were super friendly. 3/5

- Firecakes: Skipped Vault after 20 minutes in a stationary line at 5*F wind chill. The old fashioned was pretty nice, the pb+chocolate ok. 3/5

- Lotus Cafe: We did a banh mi tour in DC about 3 months ago. This was as good as any of them, really spicy, nice bread. 4/5

- Al's Beef: A quick stop for the mini sandwich, nice snack portion for my gf and I to split. Preferred the hot peppers to sweet peppers. 4/5

- Red Hot Ranch (Ashland): A great late-night burger, juicy, cheap, and fast at 2:30am. 4/5

- Pequods: Allowed us to place our order 30 minutes in advance. I've been to Chicago twice before (Bacino's, Lou Malnati's, Giordano's, Pizzeria Uno). Pequod's is definitely my favorite. The pan pizza caramelized crust sets it apart, but the sauce here was high acidity too, very nice sausage. We didn't get to Burt's Place for the ultimate. Next time. 4/5
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Cocktail Bars
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We love cocktails, went to as many places as time would allow. A cocktail bar is almost as much about ambiance as flavor.

- The Berkshire Room: Cool space though the seats in the middle of the room seem to defy cocktail bar rules (lurking in the dark..). We felt on display, especially separated from another table by 3in of glass. We split two cocktails and The Heroine was better though I prefer more focus on alcohol. I'd read a lot about The Weston on yelp and it came up thinly disappointing after drinking two vieux carre's elsewhere. 3/5

- The Aviary: Abuzz at 9:30 on Sunday, stayed that way until 11:30. We had four cocktails, all of which were great in presentation but fell short in flavor. Service was pushy at times and distant/awkward at others. The Aviary did have the black truffle explosion (I had 2 and would do even more next time), and the foie snickers, which I wouldn't do again. The price didn't justify the flavors. 3/5

- The Violet Hour: Had trouble locating the door handle at 1:45am Saturday. The place was full even then, and until 2:30 when I left. Three cocktails later and I am mixed, a weak old fashioned and their signature drink muddled. The price acceptable but the flavor meh. Service was great, friendly, served me a drink after last call cause they noticed I drink fast. 4/5

- Scofflaw: Awesome drinks and food, but the vibe was even better. Snow outside and we arrive at 11:30, sit in huge chairs a la 1920, next to the fireplace. Mousse was great, burger and fries solid. The Curtain Call was one of my favorite drinks of the weekend. 5/5

- Sable: Awesome stuff. They had a great vieux carre. Even better was one of their Spanish Gin and Tonics. Rustic, dark vibe, perfect temperature (warm enough but not drowsy). Definitely would return. 5/5
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Nice dining
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Girl and the Goat: Disappointing. Dinner 4:30 Monday. Pushy service recommended 3-4 plates, then more later, then we didn't see her again until the check. We finished only two plates due to their size, and pig face way under-seasoned. It was packed by 5:30 on Monday, seemed like a factory churning out meals as quickly as possible with plenty of tourists snapping photos. 3/5

Au Cheval: Redhot burger on steroids. Snack 2:00 Monday. We finished the burger in minutes, well cooked. Service a bit socially awkward. Seemed like they served food until about 3:45 when the kitchen was shut down for cleaning. Several excellent cocktails, and a fantastic booth view of the Willis Tower, definitely would return for Marrow. 4/5

The Publican: Excellent Saturday Brunch. Had a res at 10:30, the hostess quoted a party of three 1.5hrs as we walked by. Glad for opentable. Great pimento, bacon, and lobster-eggs. Super bright space, nice bathrooms, wish for more space at the communal tables but provides for conversation. 5/5

GT Fish & Oyster: One of our favorites. Quick lunch Monday. Clean, spacious, steady and unobtrusive service. The clam chowder in the re-sealable jar was an excellent idea. Lobster [salad] roll was very refreshing, one of the best we've had. Same with the tuna BLT was spicy, damn good. 5/5

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Michelin Stars
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- Blackbird: Perhaps the most disappointing of our trip. Lunch Friday. We went a la carte with beef tartare, sweatbreads, and duck confit. Our server took offense we didn't order more, nearly demanding that we get another dish. She was probably right in what she recommended size-wise, but we didn't want to leave totally full, and her push was too much. The food was either over (tartare) or underseasoned (confit). The one shining moment was the $22 Vieux Carre, best I've had to date.

- Longman & Eagle: You guys are right.. this place should not have a star. Brunch 9:30 Sunday. Odd feel and heavy on flannel, jeans, and bears Jerseys. Brunch was tasty, the whole hog crepinette especially so. They charged for an extra pickled jalapeno without mention ($2 seemed petty) and service was bit off. Otherwise nice but not exceptional. 4/5

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Schwa: Booked about 1 month in advance. Friday night dinner, 12 courses, 2.5 hours. Called on a mid-Wednesday and got the straight-to-voicemail so I bombed them. I got through on the third call. As temperamental/playful as reported, definitely have a credit card number ready.. can't imagine them hanging on the phone as you scramble. They confirmed a few days before our date. I asked them straight up what kind of beer they liked and told them I'd be bringing them some local sour beer, to which they said "We love sours!" I had backup plans and was afraid of a last minute cancel, but everything went through.

Arrived to an empty restaurant at 6pm, was full by about 8. Staff was awkward throughout. At first they were racing through plates, so we purposefully delayed until the full restaurant kept them busy. We heard them describe dishes with differently to different tables at least twice. Another table brought them a bottle of crown royal, another a gift basket. After each gift they replied: "You guys are awesome." That's nice, but I'd hoped they'd be excited for the beers I transported from PA, which were near impossible to get even for locals and totally unique. I couldn't tell any more interest in them than for the liquor store Royal. Oh well for enthusiasm.

At least half of the savory dishes were mediocre and with odd combinations: a banana and roe dish was muddled; a scallop and white chocolate candle were served in a carved pumpkin.. unique but the scallop was so overwhelmed and only a texture purpose.

Only 1/3 of the savory courses were non-fish.. not filling. Highlights included the quail egg ravioli and fried sweetbread with mustard and daisy cutter ipa. The desserts were a huge improvement: the chimay atop creme brulee, the pickled watermelon and unagi ice cream, and the build-your own rootbeer float (my favorite dish of the night) were all fun and well-rounded.

Worth the 1* and definitely a deal compared to other tasting menus, but I'd definitely recommend going later if you want more interaction/lively. We'd read about trips to the kitchen to do shots and so on, but our experience was sterile by comparison. No Michael Carlson present. 4/5

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Alinea: Sunday night at 6pm, 15 courses, 2.5 hours. I bought tickets two months in advance and was a bit miffed when I had to make first contact seven weeks later, unsure if they'd even inquire about allergies or special occasion despite holding my $650.

It has a great vibe but definitely felt more like a restaurant than expected--communal booths odd.

I disagree with most here on the service. Compared to Grace, they were less polished but definitely more open, jovial, laid back. We cracked jokes with them all night, maybe too much so. I prefer this to an orchestrated ballet, which is much more in line with Grace. It was probably the most relaxed and playful, bantering service I've had in a tasting menu setting. My gf and I are both pretty chatty and comfortable teasing, so maybe they responded in accord.

When we left around 9:00, they booked a 3-top at Aviary for us as we were meeting a friend. (Aviary seemingly does just 2, 4, or 6).

The table to our left spoke Spanish as a first language. Several of the servers conversed and presented dishes in Spanish. That's a first.

The food was disappointing at first. Of the first 7-8 dishes, at most 2 were memorable. The caviar and foam was excellent, but the jerky-twig forage was laughably literal. Many of the fish dishes had off-seasoning or too much sauce. The dishes started hitting the mark with the finger limes, pork belly, and squab around #8 or #9. Hot Potato / Cold Potato was great. A transition course I haven't seen mentioned here or elsewhere--truffle on concrete--was tauntingly whimsical and harmonious. The balloon was another excellent dish. The table-plating at the end was nice but the dish too filling (up until then we felt very comfortable). No Grant Achatz present.

One final, disappointing note. As some have suspected here, we saw evidence of VIP status/treating tables differently. The aforementioned Spanish couple (2 people at a 4-top) got the black truffle explosion. 3-4 other tables (all filling their tables) did not.

torn between 4/5 or 5/5.

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- Grace: Saturday at 8:30, 15 courses (including the breads), 2.5hrs. Halfway through our Alinea meal on Sunday, my girlfriend and I leaned in: "Grace crushes this food." Has Alinea's food quality gone downhill (I'm aware of the reduction in # of courses) or has Alinea always been more-show-than-substance?

In either case, Grace's food -is- currently crushing Alinea. Of the six savory courses, five were downright fantastic and as good as Alinea's two best iteams. Three were at the VERY HIGHEST quality we've had anywhere, far above Alinea: (1) the smoke-caviar dish and (2) signature Duffy-crab dish were as playful as anything at Alinea, but were absolute wonders in spicing, texture, and time-sensitivity. The sweetbreads and (3) Miyazaki beef were also fantastic if more traditional.

The sweets were weaker than the savory dishes, and service was more formal / less relaxed than Alinea, but the polish on all that Grace touches is so delicious, delicate, understated-but-exceptional... Grace has Alinea beat hands down and is easily Chicago's #1 (from what we experienced). Even the servers at Alinea were praising Grace about the polish, including the seasonal bathrooms.

On a side note, they said that since the Wednesday after being awarded 3*, their phone has been buzzing non-stop with reservations.

Duffy was not present either, which meant we missed him, Carlson, and Achatz. A bit disappointing to miss every Michelin star celeb chef.. *shrug*.

Easy 5/5.

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Thanks for all the info Chicago CHers! Hopefully this post is useful for others down the road.

Lotus Cafe & Banh Mi Sandwich,
The Berkshire Room,
The Aviary,
The Violet Hour,
Scofflaw,
Au Cheval,
The Publican,
GT Fish & Oyster,
Longman & Eagle,
Alinea,
Firecakes Donuts,
Lou Malnati's Pizzeria,
Giordano's
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