Chowhound Presents: Table Talk with Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh of Sweet: Desserts from London's Ottolenghi | Ask Your Questions Now ›

Restaurants & Bars

Chicago Area Trip Report

Trip Report: Xoco, Publican, Bongo Room, Intelligentsia, Violet Hour, Alinea, Hot Doug's


Restaurants & Bars 33

Trip Report: Xoco, Publican, Bongo Room, Intelligentsia, Violet Hour, Alinea, Hot Doug's

kathryn | Jun 21, 2010 10:10 PM

Xoco: The line wasn't too bad for a late lunch around 1:30pm on a Wednesday, and this spot was right by our hotel. A tad big overpriced but we did spot Rick Bayless in the house. Met a nice woman in line who turned out to be a culinary student who also confirmed my suspicions on what the best dishes were.

Had the ahogada torta which was very good but I'm not sure I understand the whole sandwich in soup thing. Tasty, messy, filling. The pork belly torta was out of sight delicious, though. Nice balance of bacon to belly meat, with good crusty bread, and some bitter greens, and a fantastic dipping sauce. Ended it with some fried to order churros and Barcelona hot chocolate. The hot chocolate is NOT like what I had in Spain: too thin by a lot. But the churros were excellent texture-wise, just overly topped with sugar and cinnamon. But overall a thumbs up.

We were very tempted by the pastry display and the ice cream sundaes they had on offer that day (maple-pecan-bacon struesel and salted caramel sauce). Next time?

Publican: Had a reservation for 8pm but unfortunately, our table wasn't ready yet. We stood in the bar area at a circular table studying the beer list among the din. Our server recommended the Goose Island "Matilda" and it really hit the spot, especially given the warm weather. We were seated shortly thereafter (it seemed like the wall against the street may have been the quieter area to dine) and they kindly sent us some pickles for our trouble.

Our meal was excellent. Slow start: 1/2 dozen oysters and pickle plate. Liked the hard boiled egg pickle and the bread and butter ones but had no idea what to do with the red onion pickles which were a little too pungent to eat on their own.

The meal picked up with the next dish: hamachi crudo with pistachios, english peas, and mint. The combination of peas and mint was pretty familiar to me but not in the context of a crudo; the dish didn't really come together for me until I added on the pistachios. Tasty, just wish there had been more nuts on the plate.

Our charcuterie plate consisted of coppa (perfectly thin and fatty), the pork pie (oh my god! you people are so lucky!), duck preserved lemon gallantine (saved this one for last and it was the BEST), head cheese, morteau sausage (spicy and had a really nice texture), plus cornichons, two kinds of mustard, and pickled chard. Damn! I wondered aloud if it were possible to purchase just a single pork pie for my next BBQ or picnic.

We also really enjoyed an endive salad with sugar snap peas, strawberries, walnuts, and grilled ricotta salata. Well seasoned. Perfectly sweet snap peas and strawberries. Dressed with just enough balsalmic vinegar to match up with the ricotta salata. It tasted like summer in a single bite. I'm stealing this for my next cocktail party, I swear.

We were rapidly becoming very full but then the last dish arrived: spectacularly cooked sweetbreads with a near perfect char on them, with a fava bean vignole, ham, and aioli on top. What the menu didn't mention was the addition of shaved fennel and English peas, to boot. Creamy aioli, sweet peas, luscious fava beans, and those magnificently crusted sweetbreads. It was almost too delicious to finish. Almost.

We were stuffed (no room for dessert) sadly and needed to rest but I would come back and eat here on a weekly basis if i lived in the city. Chicagoans, you are quite lucky to have Publican available to you year-round!

A note about the noise: it's loud due to people talking loudly and lots of hard surfaces, which to me is worse than if the music's just cranked up.

Bongo Room: this was a BUST. Pretzel pancakes were wet and doughy, possibly undercooked. Like a dense circular brick, with no nice little crisp edge that you want in a good pancake. The pretzel bits in the pancake batter were soft and soggy, but what the pancakes were in need of was textural contrast. I ordered a single pancake, it came drowned in a too thick and too sweet chocolate and caramel sauce, and I could choke down only half of it. Ugh. I want my pancakes to be light and springy, please.

The four berry brioche french toast was definitely better, after I scraped off a lot of the sauce (again, too much sauce). I love brioche as a whole but I felt that the toast itself was probably not soaked long enough since the center was a little bit dry. Came with the same thick white sauce as the pancakes did, and berries. Couldn't figure out where the ginger cookie part went -- if it was there, it was unnoticeable. This was also a single piece order.

Side of bacon was OK. I realized too late that the Bongo Room robs you of the pleasure of dragging your bacon through maple syrup because everything comes with its own special sauce. The thai chicken sausage, though, we got as a side was excellently flavored and I appreciated that they cut it lengthwise and cooked it that way. Overall, though, I was really disappointed since I felt it had been hyped up significantly online. Not sure I would return.

Intelligentsia: went to the location in the Loop. Overall, great service, love watching them brew coffee in those Chemex cups. Delicious black pepper cookie; my husband's peanut butter cookie was nice too (with whole peanuts inside). I'd definitely stop by if it were in my neighborhood in in NYC.

VIolet Hour: Our second time here. The Juliet & Romeo was possibly better than I remember is being. Really also loved my Miraflores and my husband's Daisy 17. The hand carved ice blocks for the rocks drinks were also a nice touch, as were the "sidecar"s for cocktail overflow (you don't see that quite as much in New York City). Palate-wise I think the menu reads a little like Pegu Club but with a twist of Death & Co. if you've been to those cocktail bars in NYC.

Alinea: best restaurant I've been to in the USA and quite possibly my entire life. My second time there. Ranks up with Extebarri and Arzak in Spain as the best meal I've ever had. Perfect, perfect, perfect, from the Silpat plating of the chocolate and menthol dessert course by Chef Achatz to the warm and friendly service to the ingenius dishes. Clam chowder served in a clam shell with a little beach of crumbled saltines, and a brunoise of potato and bacon? The best lamb loin I've had in my life, sliced thin and skewered on a rosemary sprig, sitting in a pool of popcorn soup? It doesn't get much better than this! Not sure what we're going to do for our NEXT wedding anniversary, you know?

PHOTOS here:

Hot Doug's: met up with a large group of friends at 10:30am and waited outside in the heat. Surprisingly, I was actually hungry by the time we got to the front of the line! A bit of sensory overload when I first walked in and I was momentarily blinded by all the options on the wall (you can get any of them deep fried as well?!).

Ordered far too much food:
- Duck Fat fries ... we didn't realize how HUGE this was going to be
- Chicago-Style Hot Dog with all the trimmings
- Spicy Thai Chicken Sausage with Sriracha Mustard and Sesame-Seaweed Salad
- Calvados Duck Sausage with Morello Cherry Mustard and Goat Cheese
- Smoked Crayfish and Pork Sausage with Spicy Cajun Remoulade and Hickory-Smoked Sweet Swiss Cheese

I thought the crayfish and pork sausage was really nice, very high quality and you can tell all the care that goes into making it. My husband's spicy thai chicken sausage was amazingly flavorful, especially with the sriracha mustard and seaweed salad.

Doug was his usual charming self. Might have helped that we had a few young ones with us, though. :) Overall, I found Hot Doug's to be quirky, fun, and delicious. Worth the wait.

Thanks Chicago! Until we eat again.

1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

Hot Doug's
3324 N California Ave, Chicago, IL 60618

Bongo Room
1152 S Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60605

Violet Hour
1247 N Damen Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

Want to stay up to date with this post?

Recommended From Chowhound