Monday, October 18, 2010

Road Trip: Chicago

We recently had a very decadent weekend in Chicago. We were celebrating with friends who came in from various parts of the country, but were friends of ours when we lived in San Francisco.  We have shared many meals together over the years, and it was really fun to get to share a couple more with them.  Nothing like sitting around a table with old friends, food, and wine.
While we had an awesome time, the food wasn’t one of my highlights overall this weekend.  Although there were some awesome courses, there were no top to bottom mind-blowing meals for me.  So, instead of dragging this trip out into several posts that you may or may not be interested in as primarily Indy people, I am just going to hit on the highs and lows of each restaurant.  Of course, if you want to know anything else about any of the places, don’t hesitate to email me or post a comment, I can always ramble on about food!
Graham Elliot
Our original plan when we set this trip up was to go to Avec, and in fact our friends had sent us a gift card to use when we got the opportunity to all get together.  Unfortunately after we planned the trip, Avec had a fire and was still not re-opened by the time we were there at the end of September.  So we had made a back up reservation at Graham Elliot, which also looked fun, and that is where we ended up.
This place sort of prides itself on giving you fancy, inventive cuisine in a more casual atmosphere.  There are no white tablecloths or dress codes and the place is noisy and sports a fairly young clientele.  The menu is a little on the pricey side, particularly if you decide to go with more than 2 courses, which we did. 

The dish that was a highlight for me at Graham Elliot was cuttlefish which was cut into strands that were made to look like linguine.  The fish gave the “pasta” a great flavor and it was in a light sauce seasoned with chorizo, saffron, very small raisins, pine nuts and cannellini beans.  The texture of the “pasta” was great and the other ingredients added nice variations.  This dish pulled off being playful and tasty at the same time.

My starter was the Graham Elliot take on a Caesar salad, which apparently is a menu regular.  This was the dish that was the biggest disappointment of the evening for me.  It is served with what was basically a long rectangular crouton.  There was Romaine lettuce sort of neatly stacked on top, and in other rectangular portions on the plate.  Across each portion of lettuce, there was a mild white anchovy.  The entire dish was served on top of the dressing.  This was one that was lovely to look at, but flavor-wise was a letdown.  Really, the dressing had little flavor and there was not enough of it to go around. 

graham elliot on Urbanspoon

This is my second trip to L20, and we were excited to actually go back somewhere in Chicago we had been before in order to use the knowledge we had learned about what we thought were the highlights.  The menu is broken down into a couple of very decadent tasting menus or a fixed price menu where you get 4 courses for $110.  Even though L20 is sort of known for seafood, on our last trip one of our favorite courses was hubby’s pork belly, so we decided not to be influenced and to get whatever struck our fancy.

Interestingly, one of the prettiest dishes I have ever had was also my least favorite of the evening taste- wise.  It was lamb tartare with Shiro ebi (shrimp) which is a very small shrimp which was also served raw on top of the lamb.  The color was beautiful.  The bright red meat and the almost pearlescent shrimp were almost jewel-like.  They were covered with pieces of pickled mango, greens, edible flowers, and edible gold leaf.  It was over the top in presentation and was like a piece of art (sorry the picture is dark).  Unfortunately, for me, there was a lack of any real flavor to it.  The meat was wonderfully fresh, but seemed almost unseasoned. 

My favorite course was my main dish.  It was halibut which was wonderfully tender and served in a thick, creamy, white corn chowder with a layer of chorizo gelée across the top and a couple of asparagus spears and what they described as “toast,” but was like a thin cracker that gave some texture to the very smooth consistency of everything else.  The reddish chorizo gelée was like a concentrated layer of the sausage flavor and was a very interesting take on mixing the flavors.  I really enjoyed it.
I also have to tell you (at his insistence) about hubby’s favorite course.  He had the salted cod dish as his second course.  It was also a very interesting and delicious take on a traditional salt cod brandade.  It was served in a glass and had a bottom layer of what was the closest to a traditional salt cod, with a layer of fingerling potato mousse that was topped with ribbons of gelée made of potato and topped with caviar.  It almost looked like a sundae, but with cod.  It was really really good as well (I snuck a few bites).
All in all though, while we thoroughly enjoyed our meal and our time with our friends, we weren’t as impressed with the food or the service as we were the first time.  The service was a highlight last time and this time had several problems (don’t take my napkin when I go to the bathroom if you aren’t going to replace it immediately).  If we do another revisit to a Chicago place, it will likely be somewhere else next time.  And it is really hard to go to a place more than once when there are so many other wonderful choices.

L2O (Beldon-Stratford) on Urbanspoon
Lunch at Emilio’s
One day we also had a quick bite for lunch at Emilio’s Tapas.  We wanted something light knowing we were going in for a big dinner later.  We just shared three small plates.  We had a plate with Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, olives and olive oil.  It was served with toasted bread.  It was very good, and I liked the way they cut the Manchego into thin enough slices that you could stack them on top and not overwhelm the flavor of the ham.
We also had a tortilla which is described as a Spanish omelet, but is more like a wedge of frittata served cold. It is layers of potato flavored with onion and held together with egg.  It was served with a nice little salad on the side with olives and marinated red onion.  The tortilla didn’t have a ton of flavor, but wasn’t bad when you ate it with a bite of the salad.
Finally we had the classic Spanish dish of sautéed shrimp in olive oil with nice crispy fried bits of garlic.  The shrimp were nice and tender and the garlic was pleasantly toasty, but not burnt tasting.  This was a pleasant way to eat a light lunch yet still get to try several different flavors.  The menu at Emilio’s is huge so there are many different things to try for sure and I would repeat this place when you want a quick lunch with lots of different flavors, but not an overwhelming amount of food.

All in all, while we had a completely wonderful trip to Chicago, and got to see friends we haven’t seen in years; like I said, food-wise none of my meals totally blew me away.  You know what I realized though, because I so often get frustrated with the food in Indy, was that we are actually quite lucky to have some gems around us that are a lot cheaper.  The week we got back, we went to Recess with friends for dinner and had a 4 course meal that was from top to bottom, loads better than any of the meals we had in Chicago during this trip, and for about $50 (before wine).  It was a good reminder to me to appreciate what you have. 
But hey, I don’t think I have every asked you guys for your recommendations for places in Chicago.  What restaurants have you eaten in there that were truly memorable?  Any “best things I ever ate” moments? Let me know!
Graham Elliot
217 West Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60654

2300 North Lincoln Park West
Chicago, IL 60614

Emilio’s Tapas
215 East Ohio Street
Chicago, IL 60611

Check out the bathroom at L20


  1. Naha.
    North Pond.
    ...many more...

  2. Went to Alinea recently - like eating art. 22 'courses' (many are one bite). Impeccable service, ingenious food. Of course, very expensive - with tip and wine pairings, $500/person. But, a once in a lifetime food experience.
    Try MK for a fun place with great food, Tru for elegance, Spiaggia for perfect Italian.

  3. Thanks you guys… I have been to a few of the places you mention:
    A little discussion about North Pond here:

    My review of Alinea here:

    I have also been to Tru (excellent!) and Spiaggia (I was a little disappointed). One of our favorites was Les Nomades as well (all visited pre-blog days). And Everest, although old school, was impeccable.

    Am adding the other places you mention to my list. Thanks!

  4. Urban Belly
    Longman & Eagle
    Girl & the Goat
    Big Star


  5. Oh, don't make me cry thinking about the restaurants I miss in Chicago.

    Whenever we go back we try and hit something new and some of our old favorites. Among the latter are;

    Nuevo Leon for their huevos rancheros
    Le Bouchon for classic bistro
    Gioco or Coco Pazzo for Italian
    West Town Tavern for American
    Al's Beef on Taylor for Italian beef
    Tank Noodle on Argyle for Vietnamese
    Moon Palace or Lao Szechuan in Chinatown

    that's just off the top of my head

  6. Chicago Pete: thanks! And sorry I made you cry. :)

  7. I haven't been back to Spring in some time, but l liked it a lot in years past. How do you find the place nowadays, ChicagoPete/shadow/Neal/ErinDay/anyone?

  8. huiray: I was at Spring a few years ago and had an enjoyable meal--as I recall two really good courses and one okay. I was with a friend though and we both really enjoyed ourselves. Great service on the night we were there.

  9. Erin, thanks. Pity Spring is still slated to close/still for sale, although they're supposed to be operating 'normally' until it is sold. Wonder how much time Shawn McClain still spends there in the kitchen in reality.

  10. BTW, recently introduced the Chicago sub-site: