Before anything else, I want to thank all of you Chicagoland chowhounds for incredibly useful info & suggestions. Here's a rundown of our Chicago weekend visit:
Pegasus in Greektown for Friday lunch. Unfortunately it was too early in the day for drinks on the roof deck, so we settled for mezedes and Vergina beers (perfect on an unexpectedly warm afternoon).The pantzaria was delicious, primarily due to the intensely garlicky skordalia that comes with it. Haloumi was almost leathery, but in a good way if you know what I mean. The grilled octopus was a bit too chewy, but tasty nonetheless. The horta was unexceptional, though the olive oil with it was nice & fruity. We were only two people at lunch, and three mezedes would have been plenty.
Café Iberico had too long a dinner wait after River North gallery openings, so we zipped down to La Sardine. Overall a quite good meal. The brandade de morue (more intense garlic!) served in an individual iron skillet was smooth & delicious, though the thick toast wedges were too soaked in butter. Onion tart surprised our non-mammal eater (me) by containing bacon and was graciously exchanged for the brandade. Duck breast in Madeira with lentils & spinach was rich and satisfying -- tender meat, nice hints of black pepper. Braised rabbit with mushrooms & leeks was reported to be very good. Grouper (a special): the fish itself was good, but the accompanying artichoke ragout and thinly sliced potatoes were far too buttery. The apple tart would have been very good but for its overly sweet caramel sauce.
After being dragged Saturday AM by my "let's just eat something NOW, we don't care what" companions for a greasy egg & cheese sandwich accompanied by watery coffee with fake cream in a Styrofoam cup at some dive on State Street, we headed to 26th St. & Kedzie armed with Rene G's priceless post. The masa at La Guadalupana smelled wonderful, but I couldn't yet eat a tamale. I settled for a tamarind nectar, and bought a jar of mole that I can't wait to cook with. Ready for a snack by the time we reached Coral, we had a good pan mexicano and a delicious sweet potato filled pastry. Many of the taquerias looked inviting, but we headed north for lunch at La Pasadita instead. All of our tacos were excellent (chile relleno, barbacoa, lengua, carne asada), followed by a surprisingly good chile-mango lollipop from Dulce Landia. If you can't make it to 26th Street, try their website, http://www.dulcelandia.com for a great variety of candies.
Dinner at Charlie Trotter's, a first for all three of us. Charlie was running a marathon in France, but the kitchen seemed to be running well without him. I can see how the place strikes some people as pretentious, but if you're willing to surrender to food genuflection -- which we wholeheartedly were -- it's great. By the end it was hard to keep up with all of the proffered details even though I was taking notes, but we were all glad to have ingredients & techniques described fully. I didn't want to have the strictly vegetarian meal, and they very willingly adjusted and substituted ingredients and whole courses from the regular menu to exclude mammal for me. In fact, I'd recommend that at least one person in a party place some restrictions on them, just to watch what variations they come up with. Besides, it gives you that many more dishes to try. A couple of dishes they served me were only loosely related to anything on either menu: when the others were served beef, I was given a freeform lasagna with kohlrabi, incredibly tender squab and a huitlacoche sauce. Most dishes had what elsewhere might be too many ingredients, but it all worked. The only dish I found to be less than inspiring was cod, perhaps that's because even prepared perfectly it's a boring fish, but the leek puree, caramelized onion and mushrooms with it were amazingly good. Desserts seemed to come non-stop; a fromage blanc cheesecake was extraordinarily light and wonderful. We ordered wines only from the under $75 section of the list, and unlike has been reported elsewhere, were never made to feel for a second as if we were being view as somehow cheap.
Sunday started with a visit to the new Maxwell St. Market. The variety of ... stuff ... for sale was a bit overwhelming, in both a good & a bad way. Much of the food looked & smelled good, but there were few meatless options for me and my companions weren't feeling especially adventuresome that morning. But we did try some very good quesadillas de hongo, and on the way out found one small stand that was making fresh hot delicious (though heavy) churros.
For a final meal, we went to Café Iberico for a lunch of tapas, a much better choice than waiting at night. The food was uneven. A special, fabes con almejas, was especially good - a casserole with white beans and seafood in a rich saffron-garlic sauce with a seafood stock, somewhat like a soupy zarzuela with beans. The chicken in the pincho de pollo was tasty, but the caramelized onions with it were extremely sweet from (I'd guess) added sugar. And what's with the dark orange rice? It doesn't get that way from saffron or even from achiote. Marinated artichokes were good, served with nicely roasted peppers and parsleyed potatoes. The scallops in the vieras a la plancha were vaguely metallic - they must have been soaked in the stuff many fish markets use (I forget the name) that adds about 1/3 to the weight of the scallops and robs the sweetness - and they came with the same orange mystery rice, but the sauce was pleasant if not tasting much of saffron. Queso de cabra would not have been out of place in a cheap old time red sauce Italian joint, served with rounds of mediocre garlic-basil bread. The Crema Catalana was too solid, and the arroz con leche though nicely soupy had too much cinnamon. (Any cinnamon is perhaps too much.) But oddly enough, despite all of these complaints, we all felt that we had a really nice lunch anyway and would return. Go figure.