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Trip review: Avenues, Alinea, Frontera, Lou Malnati

nextguy | Jan 2, 201105:13 AM

Hello all,

I would first like to thank all CH'ers for their valuable insight on the best of Chicago. Truly, Chicago is one of the great cities that I have visited. This review will be fairly short and I will not review every single plate that I ate as much better writers have already done so.

I arrived in Chicago on December 29 just before lunch. After checking in my wife and I walked to the original Lou's. This was my first experience with Chicago deep dish pizza and I thought it was ok. I ordered the Chicago Classic and thought that the butter crust was very good and the fillings tasty. My wife, who cannot eat gluten, ordered the crustless Lou. Instead of a wheat crust, they build a crust using sausage. I preferred her fillings to mine. Service was good although the pizza took longer to arrive than the 35 minutes our server advised. Not a big deal but after a long flight and a further than expected walk we were anxious to get moving.

Later that evening we made our way to the Peninsula hotel and Avenues restaurant. First off, what a beautiful hotel and restaurant. The restaurant was not full and we were seated at the bar by the very friendly maitre d. Chef Duffy was cooking on the line for at least the first half of our meal and it was great to watch the chefs prepare the plates. Each one was absolutely a work of art and truly imaginative. The amuses, the first four courses of the evening, and the palate cleanser before dessert were among the best I have ever eaten. In particular, I have not been able to stop thinking of the Faroe Island Salmon and the Grains dish. I would return just for those. The beef ribs, although it is probably their signature course, was very good but not great. Although the beef was very tender I found it just a bit dry. Alinea's was better. The desserts, three of them, were an interesting mix. Although I did not love them, I respect them for what I think the chef was trying to accomplish. The Ocumare Chocolate was in fact very interesting with a piping of chocolate across the plate with different elements placed along its path. At first I ate the dish in random places and found it odd. My wife discovered that if you started at one end and ate to the other the dish made more sense. Service was great throughout the evening with staff that was informative and friendly. They went out of their way to work with my wife's dietary restriction even offering her some of the best glutein free bread she has ever had. It is really too bad she could not eat the Grains dish but she was not complaining as she was served a fantastic mushroom risotto instead.

The next day was a slow day for us. We had lunch at Frontera and were very happy we made reservations. The line at noon was already very long and got longer as our meal progressed. Before continiuing I should say that Mexican cuisine is not my favorite. Unfortunately, although this meal was good, I did not gain any new appreciation for it. We started with the trio of ceviche which was ok but very sweet. For my main I had a pork mole and my wife had the quesadillas. I thought her dish was better than mine. I wish I could say more but as I am not connoisseur, I will leave a better review to others.

On NYE, in fact the real purpose of this trip, we ate at Alinea. My expectation for this meal was very high given all the hype, research, and their recently awarded stars. Making this reservation was a pleasure. The staff in their office was friendly and helpful and we were very excited for the 12 course meal. We arrived at the restaurant which was hard to see as the sign and building are very understated. The interior is stunning with a view into the kitchen as we made our way upstairs to our table. Again, I don't want to review every dish but the highlights were the truffle risotto, the truffle explosion, and the desserts with the final one being prepared tableside by Chef Achatz. My big surprise for this evening was how understated the use of molecular techniques actually was. Early videos and the chef's own book led me to believe that it would be more obvious and I was impressed that although the techniques were definitely there, for the most part they were hidden. I cannot really fault any dish except maybe the starter of Osetra caviar. I found it had a bit of a bitter aftertaste. On the other had, I also can't say that any of the dishes would make it to my all time top 5. The techniques and flavor profiles were pretty much flawless but something just felt missing. Maybe it was all the food I had already eaten on this trip, maybe I was still thinking of Avenues. Maybe I also felt let down by the service. Although they were knowledgeable and helpful, they felt detached and sometimes awkward. They did not have the concern of the staff at Avenues, the easyness of staffs at Robuchon or Le Bernardin, or the polish of those at Per Se. It was a fine evening but maybe I unjustly expected more. At midnight, the whole group of chefs paraded out of the kitchen to greet every guest. It was a nice touch and a good way to end the evening. But even so...

To summarize, Chicago's food scene definitely deserves all the attention it has been receiving. The highlight, as you probably can tell, was Avenues. Prior to making that reservation, I was actually right on the verge of booking at L2O. Something held me back though and then Chef Gras left. A fine restaurant such as L2O probably would not be affected by such a departure in the short term but I chose not to take that chance. Things ended up working out better than I could have hoped for and Avenues is truly a GREAT restaurant. It was probably the most innovative one that I have eaten at. Not every dish was perfect but each one made me think. And I mean really think. They are beyond a doubt deserving of their two Michelin stars and shold certainly obtain three.

Thanks again for all the great help. If not for CH, I probably would not have "discovered" Chicago!

1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

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