First off: a huge thanks goes out to nsxtasy, GourmetWednesday, kathryn, and the rest of the Chicago ‘Hounds that helped me plan the itinerary for this awesome weekend trip!
I had a couple of friends meet me in Chicago for a guys’ weekend and thought I would share my impressions of the establishments we visited. I came up a couple of days earlier than the others and had an additional full day available for culinary adventures that I hadn’t made plans for.
Day 1 Dinner: Picked up a personal size Numero Uno at Pizzeria Due on my way into town since I hadn’t tried theirs before. Very good pizza and the crust had great flavor, but I still prefer Lou Malnati’s… I can’t explain why, I just love their deep dish.
Day 2 Breakfast: Since I was not able to get a dinner reservation for us at Topolobampo, I grabbed some breakfast at XOCO so that I could experience some of the Rick Bayless magic. The breakfast empanadas were probably the flakiest and most savory empanadas I’ve ever had. The hot chocolate was incredibly rich and creamy… it was without question the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. My only gripes were that the salsas that came with the empanadas left something to be desired and that the churro I had was mediocre at best. The salsas lacked any sort of heat and were a little on the salty side… I will say that I am incredibly picky when it comes to salsa and consider high-quality salsa to be priority #1 at any Mexican restaurant. The fact that I still loved this restaurant despite the bland salsas (and actually went back again for breakfast the next day) says a lot about how good the hot chocolate and empanadas were.
Day 2 Lunch: I happened by Sable Kitchen & Bar while doing some shopping and remembered reading some high praises of this small plates and craft cocktail destination. I had the Short Rib Sliders and the Bacon Jam. Both dishes were wonderful and I would highly recommend them to anyone, but they were outshined by the cocktails. From the cocktail menu, I had the Fool’s Paradise, Fence’s End, and War of Roses. I would say that all 3 of them would land somewhere in the Top 10 cocktails I’ve ever had pretty easily. Alex Renshaw was bartending and was an absolute magician; all of his recommendations absolutely knocked it out of the park.
Day 2 Dinner: I decided to check out The Purple Pig and figure out what all of the fuss was about. Since I was dining alone, I was able to bypass the 2-hour wait for a table and walked straight in and sat down at the bar. This place was as good as advertised, although the wait for a table would definitely be a deterrent for me when there are so many other great restaurants in the area. The fried Pig’s Ear dish is a must-have; it’s one of those dishes you just can’t stop eating. The Pork Secreto was very good… it was fairly simple in composition, but the pickled watermelon rind that is mixed in with the red peppers provided just enough uniqueness to keep it interesting. I finished things off with the Sicilian Iris; if you go to Purple Pig and don’t get one of these chocolate chip & ricotta cheese stuffed fried brioches, you are missing out. The bartender provided excellent wine pairings with all three courses. I would highly recommend sitting at the bar and making some new friends instead of waiting for a table… you can most likely be assured that everyone you meet here will share your affinity for good food. The turkey leg and charred cauliflower that the patron next to me had was “unbelievable good” by her account.
Day 3 Breakfast: As soon as the other guys got to town on Friday morning, we hit XOCO for breakfast. I had an empanada and hot chocolate again, but with the Huevos Rancheros this time around. Empanada and hot chocolate were awesome (surprise, surprise). Huevos Rancheros was also good, but I wouldn’t say it was a stand-out. I was expecting more of a creative flair than what I got, it was right in line with the breakfast classic that I’ve had at countless restaurants back home in Texas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it was perfectly executed, but in hindsight I wished I had just ordered another empanada.
Day 3 Lunch: I was the only one in the group that had been to Chicago before, so I took the rest of them to Lou Malnati’s... which I assume is the best pizza restaurant that exists in the world. We ordered the Malnati’s Classic Chicago Deep Dish. It’s closer to a “religious experience” than it is to a “meal”.
Day 3 Dinner: The only thing better than the setting (right on the river) at Chicago Cut was the Bone-in Filet Mignon that I could cut with my fork. I would also highly recommend the Lolllipop Lamb Chops as a starter and the Lobster Mac n’ Cheese as a side. The iPad wine list was very cool as well... although it might end up feeling gimmicky after a while.
Day 3 Post-Dinner Drinks: After our phenomenal steaks, we went to the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the Hancock building. We got a table right next to the window on the south side of the tower with an incredible view of downtown and the lake. The view was so good I almost didn’t notice the abysmal selection of whisky available. The “premium scotch” list consisted of 10 choices, of which only 2 were actually what I would consider a “premium scotch”. The “small batch bourbon” list had 5 selections… with the most premium being Maker’s 46. If you’re visiting, the view more than makes up for any other shortcomings, but I don't see any reason to go again unless I'm with first-time visitors to the city.
Day 4 Lunch: We ended up being a little bit overly festive at Vertigo Sky Lounge the previous night, so we skipped breakfast and woke up just in time for our noon reservation at Mercat a la Planxa and did the lunch-equivalent of the chef’s tasting menu. This meal exceeded expectations and was probably one of the best values of the entire trip. At $35, I was expecting 3-4 items, but got an excellent 8-item sampling instead. I would highly recommend Mercat as a lunch destination. I will also say not to worry about a reservation at lunch… when we showed up at noon for our reservation, there were only 2 other occupied tables. This was a Saturday, so weekdays may be busier.
Day 4 Dinner: We had reservations at North Pond, but decided we wanted to do something closer to where we were staying. Fortunately we were able to luck into an early reservation at TRU. I didn’t realize it until we got to the restaurant, but this turned out to be my first true “fine-dining” experience and was easily the best meal of my life thus far, so I may have been easier to please than their normal customers. We all did the full 13-course experience and wine pairing. We also opted for an additional caviar starter and kept a side cocktail (which were all excellent) throughout the meal to keep us busy between courses. Standout dishes were the carrot soup with liquid-nitrogen-hardened mascarpone, the white asparagus with truffle-infused sabayon (apparently this dish debuted the same night and we were the first table to be served as far as I could tell), pork belly served over charred cedar (which provided great aromatic depth), the wagyu beef two ways, and the Valrhona sorbet with chocolate mousse variations. One of the coolest things we had was an “exploding truffle” that was served with our coffee at the end. The truffle was filled with blueberry-pomegranate liquid and had a very thin dark chocolate outer shell. It was served over dry ice to keep it cold so the chocolate shell melted almost instantaneously after biting into it; the resulting effect was that the truffle seemed to go from solid to perfectly liquid as soon as the shell was broken… very cool and the perfect “wow” factor to end the meal on.
Day 5 Lunch: Again, got a little too festive the previous night (this time at Untitled), so we cancelled our plans for the Shaw’s Crab House brunch buffet and opted for some Portillo’s Italian Beef sandwiches (sweet & hot of course) and Chicago-style hot dogs. It’s like a miracle drug for hangovers.
Day 5 Afternoon Drinks: Sheffield’s in Wrigleyville. Great craft beer selection and a very cool setting right in the middle of the Belmont-Sheffield Music Festival. The beer garden area was a great social space and the weather was absolutely perfect!
Day 5 Dinner: We brought the last day to a close with the tasting menu at Salpicon. This time, we opted to pass on the wine pairing and requested a flight of margaritas with the tasting menu and a sipping tequila with the dessert courses… this is Mexican food after all! Our waiter did a great job pairing the tequilas. I can’t believe this isn’t already a menu option; a true high-quality tequila pairing would have been incredible. Everything here was great and I do have to say that it was a nice change of pace from the standard Tex-Mex fare I’m used to back home. All of the dishes had great flavor and were cooked perfectly (selection of tostadas, goat-cheese-stuffed squash blossoms, sweet potato wrapped prawns, ahi tuna w/ chipotle crème, ancho-honey quail, chihuaha-cheese-topped beef tenderloin w/ tomatillo-shiitake sauce, and raspberry crepes), but the highlight of the evening was the tequila-lime-serrano sorbet that was brought out before dessert. The sorbet gave you a second or two of crisp refreshment before punching you in the face with Serrano pepper… every person at the table let out a “woah!” at the same time and immediately went for another bite; I seriously considered licking the plate. I thought it was the most perfect transition from a main course to a dessert I had ever had and did a great job representing some of the boldest flavors in Mexican cuisine without being a traditional Mexican dish. I would highly recommend this restaurant and I thought the tasting menu was a great value at $70. In all honesty, I was hesitant about doing Mexican food in Chicago… now I will make sure I get a reservation at Topolobampo next time I’m in town.
Day 6 Breakfast: Grabbed breakfast at The Bongo Room before my flight. I got a White Chocolate & Caramel Pretzel Pancake and a Key Lime Cheesecake Pancake. Yes, I had dessert for breakfast. Yes, it was excellent. No, I have no regrets.
Again, thank you so much for all of the help! All of the suggestions on this board were top-notch!