Broke But Happy In Chicago
For $200, Chicago offers some stunning dinners
If you're looking for an excuse to visit Chicago, United now flies there nonstop. It's a destination worth the eight hours on the plane: as vibrant as New York and twice as friendly. Chicago is the most architecturally interesting city in America, and a great food town.
Not the cheapest. It's amazing how much people in Chicago are willing to spend on dinner, with dinner in a top-end restaurant running as high as $200. For one. Even so, it's hard to get a table. If you want a weekend table at Charlie Trotter's or Tru, call a month or perhaps two ahead.
Many Chicago restaurants do two dinner seatings, one at about 6 and the second at about 9. They tend to be full past midnight. As one high-end Honolulu chef once confided to me ruefully: "I am always amazed how those guys get both high prices and high volume."
Still, it's splendid to see such a vibrant restaurant culture. Why hold back? When in Chicago, you might as well go for the Midwestern gusto.
Located just a block off Miracle Mile, Chicago's downtown shopping and restaurant district, Tru is a stunner. Not from the outside. But walk in and your eyes pop. The bar features an Yves Klein statue, video art works, paintings. The dining room is minimalist, black chairs, tables covered with snowy Frette linen, the tables widely spaced.
Joining me was a friend, Paula Bodah. Equally a stranger to Chicago, Bodah writes on restaurants for Rhode Island Monthly. As we sat down, the waiter brought her a blue velvet hassock. For her purse. She was charmed. "How come all restaurants don't do this?"
Tru is a whole lot of restaurant for a place that seats 100. You have to like the vast Peter Halley painting and the fresh produce displayed like art in glass cases. Still, the décor may try a little too hard, especially since the art that matters is that of chef-owner Rick Tramanto, the 2002 James Beard best chef in the Midwest.
Tramanto's regular prix fixe menu is $90 for four courses, more if you'd like caviar or foie gras. It seemed to make more sense to choose the $130 "collection" menu, which began with caviar and went on forever.
Although the caviar was the first official course, it was preceded by nearly half-a-dozen dramatic bites of food-little things such as a silver spoon filled with heavily truffled celery root or a salad of haricot verte with miso and citrus.
Then, tada, the "Stairway to Heaven." One of the multiple motifs at Tru is glass, from the custom presentation plates to the frosted glass kitchen doors. Still, nothing matches the caviar presentation: a glass staircase, reaching about a foot high, each step filled with a caviar. The top step was ossetra caviar, followed by salmon roe (ikura), golden whitefish caviar and green wasabi tobiko, which probably seems more exotic in Chicago than it does in Honolulu. Filling out the staircase were chopped egg, onions and so on.
After the caviar, served with a Margain champagne, something unexpected happened. There were eight courses to go, and each of us got the same courses, but different food. For instance, when we got to the soups, served in Versace coffee cups with golden winged handles, we got two different soups. I got a lobster bisque, with a spoonful of lobster ceviche on the side. Bodah's soup, in a slightly different cup, was asparagus and mussels.
When we got to the foie gras, mine was sautéed on top of braised red cabbage topped with acid-sweet, bright maroon lingonberries. The whole thing was capped with gold foil, something I haven't seen on food since the heady days of the Japanese yen bubble. (Gold foil is, of course, whisper thin, inert. You can eat it; for a while, you're slightly more valuable.)
Bodah's foie gras came with chocolate sauce and french toast. Once you got over the disbelief, it was fabulous, the chocolate sauce restrained in amount and sweetness, the whole preparation actually making the foie gras seem richer.
The sommelier matched each course with a taste of wine. With the foie gras, the wine was from the most modern of the Austrian producers, Alois Kracher, a late-harvest pinot noir, a remarkable wine, sweet enough to match even the chocolate foie gras, but with an acid backbone that made it refreshing to drink.
The chocolate foie gras was far from the only surprise. One course caught me totally off guard. It was round and flat on the plate, a cold cut of some kind, I thought. Then I tasted it: octopus, pounded into a thin circle, seasoned like carpaccio. It was both a reminder of home-tako poke-and something totally out of my experience.
There were two separate fish courses (Casco Bay cod with a Merseult, black bass with an Anderson Valley pinot noir) and two different meats as well.
Mine was Australian beef, two slices of the tenderloin, with truffled mashed potatoes and a little ceramic bone, filled not with bone marrow, but a foam that tasted distinctly of marrow, without the greasy-gritty texture of the real thing. It came with a reasonable, though not astounding, bourdeaux from St. Estephe.
Bodah got a very large plate on which, huddled in the middle, were four tiny slices of rare lamb. The only other things on the plate were a single chive, a few crystals of sea salt and a small semicircle of pepper.
These minimalist plates drive some people crazy: "There's no food there!" Of course, those are the same people who are unlikely to be entertained by a three-hour dinner in tiny courses. To me, the dish was almost perfect. It was just enough red meat near the conclusion of a long meal. Hiding under the lamb-it didn't look like enough lamb to hide anything-was a puddle of deeply flavored lamb jus, some infant carrots, artichoke puree and a single bluepoint oyster.
After the collection of cheeses, including some French roquefort, and a taste of 30-year-old Ramos-Pinto tawny port, we got several desserts each: a chocolate-topped crème brûlée, a fruit and bread pudding, some raw brown sugar gelato. Tru's pastry chef, Gale Gand, is as celebrated as Tramanto.
I was unmoved by the desserts. Perhaps I was too full to appreciate sweets. Maybe not. Up rolls a mignardise cart. Mignardise are those little candies and cookies that always show up at the end of these extravagant dinners. Amid the chocolate truffles and complex little cookies were the lollipops-espresso lollipops about the diameter of a dime.
Tru is formal. Men need jackets, women dress. When you get up to visit the restroom, a busboy in a black suit jumps to escort you. While you are gone another replaces your napkin, touching it only with a silver tong.
A lollipop is almost the only relaxed touch.
Wine to accompany the $130 collection dinner was $80 apiece, so that the resultant tab, with a tip for the flawless service, was an eyebrow-raising $500. Still, I thought (1) you only get to Chicago a few times in a lifetime and (2) I'd never have a better, or more expensive, dinner.
I was wrong.
Tru aims to be the best restaurant in Chicago. Charlie Trotter's aims to be one of the best restaurants in the world. For all I know, it may be. It's the best restaurant I've ever eaten in. The only thing that comes close is eating a succession of small courses at the kitchen counter of Alan Wong's.
Although it's located in Lincoln Park, adjacent to downtown, the cab driver couldn't find Charlie Trotter's. It has no sign. It's just a small 1908 house-actually, two houses sitting side-by-side in a neighborhood of nearly identical houses. Inside are steep stairways and small rooms, as you'd expect in a historic house. The restaurant seats maybe 100, upstairs, downstairs, in the kitchen.
It's pleasant-white enameled walls, wood wainscoting so lovingly finished it glows, flowers everywhere. But the restaurant doesn't try too hard. That goes for the staff as well. The service is impeccable, as it has to be in a place like this, but it's far from stuffy. The servers weren't petrified of seeming human.
You have only two choices: a vegetarian menu or the tasting menu: $130, wines to match $85, tip of 18 percent added automatically.
It was worth it. The printed menu was apparently only a guideline. There were eventually 10 courses, some of which the menu barely hinted at. "We always throw in a few surpises," said the waiter.
It wasn't as dazzling as Tru. It was just that every course offered amazingly clean and focused flavors, and those flavors took you on a gastronomic tour of the world.
The first course arrived in a Japanese jubako, a stack of lacquered boxes. In the top box, a perfect diver scallop, sprinkled with hijiki, on a tangle of soba noodles. In the second box, a maki sushi like you've never tasted before, the center filled with parsnip, pineapple and avocado. Finally, a slice of sashimi, not just 'ahi, but blue fin 'ahi. "Hashi?" I asked. There were chopsticks on the table instantly, on a nice bamboo chopstick holder. I felt right at home.
The next stop was a wild leek terrine, very Midwestern, quite mild, but it was coupled with a dollop of Maui onion sorbet. Yes, you read that right, it was a sorbet than packed the most powerful blast of Maui onions you could imagine.
That was just a warm-up, served with a Paul Bara champagne.
Then came the main course, one work of art after another. It was culinary, not visual art: Although nicely presented, the courses were designed more for the palate than the eye.
It's hard to convey flavor. Try this. Turbot, which is a meaty, neutrally flavored white fish, just a sliver of it, topped with a healthy spoonful of ossetra caviar, its salty and fishy flavors extending the fish. Under the fish, one full-flavored razor clam, one Bouchot mussel, a slice of artichoke cooked in something delicious and, underscoring the medly of seafood flavors, a cheerful green purée of English peas.
With it, an Loire white from Nicholas Joly, who is the source of much wine-world controversy. I've heard of wines that have petrol on the nose. This one decidedly had a whiff of hydrocarbons, but despite its odd power, it underscored the rich seafood flavors, cleared your palate and made you ready for more.
That experience-powerful food, the right wine-repeated itself over and over.
Rabbit, a perfect slice from the loin, with cauliflower, fennel, parsley oil- flavors picked and extended by a sauvignon blanc from amazing Rochioli in California's Russian River Valley.
Then a dish I didn't recognize. Broth. Some thin, white slices. "Poularde," said the waiter. My French tends to desert me in times of trial. "Poulet? Chicken?" I asked. "Poularde," said the waiter, "young hen."
It was a chicken breast, cooked in buttermilk, sliced thin. You didn't really chew it; it more or less sublimated into pure flavor on your tongue. The broth was oxtail soup, redolent with thyme, and in the middle was a round something-oxtail off the bone, cipolline mushrooms, wrapped around salsify root and encircled with Swiss chard. So light and yet so rich.
The duck course veered into the American South. Cooked with ham hocks, on a collard green puree, with a bit of carmelized turnip, it was enough to make you whistle Dixie. Especially paired with spicy, well-mannered syrah, also Southern in its way, a Domaine Courbis from the south of France.
We no sooner finished the syrah, then out came oversize Reidel crystal glasses. Glasses so big you could raise a family of goldfish in them. Into the glasses a velvety, chocolatey, smooth Sirita cabernet from Napa, made by Trotter's former sommelier, the much-heralded Larry Stone, now of Rubicon in San Francisco.
With the wine, a single slice of remarkably clean-tasting vension from New York's Millbrook Farm, with a swirl of eggplant puree.
"Do you want to move on to dessert?" asked the waiter. It seemed too early to throw in the napkin. "More meat?" Errr. "Or, cheese?" Cheese it was, from Lazy Farms in Vermont, which sells out every ounce of cheese it makes before it's even produced. "I'm sorry we don't have more French cheeses," said the waiter. We weren't.
As an intermezzo, rhubarb sorbet. Rhubarb is, of course, slightly acid, but this was mellowed by a few drops of the most expensive olive oil on Earth, Manni, from 500-year-old trees in Tuscany, so pure and clean that you can, well, pour it over sorbet.
Dessert: nothing fancy, fresh fromage blanc, which is somewhere between cream cheese and sour cream. The cheese was dotted with fresh Brooks cherries, hazelnut pralines and fresh rosemary. With desert came two wines: a 20-year-old tawny port and a concentrated, luscious, late-harvest semillion from Australian producer Elderton.
This was one of those dinners that kept reawakening your appetite even as you got full. And one of those restaurants to which you vowed to return, even as you signed the check, which was $26 more than the tab at Tru.
Spiaggia is generally acknowledged to be the finest Italian restaurant in Chicago. Chicago Magazine insists it is the best in the country. With its tiered marble dining room and panoramic windows looking out on Lakeside Drive, it doesn't look like any Italian restaurant you've ever seen. Wear a coat. If you're in jeans or running shoes, you can't get in. On the other hand, the staff is Midwestern friendly, easy to talk to.
Chef Tony Mantuano has chutzpah-and a tasting menu priced at $135, $5 more than Trotter's. I doubted he could top Trotter, and doubted I could manage one more 10-course dinner. The three-page menu was really set up, explained our server, for people to pick three courses: an antipasti, a small pasta portion (no big bowls of pasta here) and an entrée.
When you add all that up, it easily comes to $100 in food alone per person. The 700-bottle wine list can take you on some distant journeys, but the list does have relatively reasonable Italian whites and reds.
The food is wonderful. I was with a large party, and being me, ended up tasting from almost everyone else's plates. Some highlights:
Among the antipasti were a wood-roasted loin of rabbit wrapped in pancetta. An arugula salad with sautéed diver scallops and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Finally, the trio de feagto d'anitra, foie gras three ways, seared with braised rhubarb, in mousse with summer truffles and wrapped in duck proscuitto. Small bites of each, but, wow!
The small pasta portions were so rich they felt like a lot to eat. The spaghetti was loaded of Maine lobster and asparagus, the risotto made with vivid green nettles and surrounded by morels. Best of the good bunch: the soft, yet al dente gnocchi with two sauces, one suave with ricotto cheese, the other profound with black truffles.
Among the entrées: wood-roasted Copper River salmon, with baby carrots and pine nuts, young Wisconsin lamb chops with polenta, and-break out the hats and hooters!-a massive yet tender veal chop, charcoaled and served with crisp-fried sweetbreads.
The dessert menu is extensive. What caught my eye were the unusual gelati and sorbetti, with flavors such as pine nut or gorgonzola (an Italian blue cheese). The server winced when I ordered gorgonzola. "Are you sure?" I was. It was exceptional, the edgy flavors of the cheese balanced against the smooth, sweet dairy of the gelato.
"I'm not sure this is an Italian restaurant," said one of our party. I disagree, it does Italy proud. Spiaggia is worth a stop, because Honolulu has nothing comparable.
Sometimes the last thing you need while traveling is a multicourse, multihundred-dollar meal. Some alternatives: Chicago has a well-regarded, reasonably priced Mexican restaurant, Frontera Grill (445 N. Clark St., Chicago, 312-661-1434). Its tortilla soup is a classic, its heuvos fronterizos, with achiote sausage and garlic sauce, will pick up your appetite. Don't miss the duck tacos. The slices of wood-grilled duck are marinated in red-chili adobo sauce (the Spanish verson, not the Filipino). They are good enough to eat even without the homemade tortillas and two salsas.
Smith & Wollensky (318 N. State St., 312-670-9900) is a pricey steakhouse by night, but on a nice day, you can sit amid the bright flower beds on its riverside terrace and have a large salad for lunch. Especially good is the steak salad with sautéed mushrooms, though you may also be tempted by the fine raw bar of oysters and crab.
If you're looking for deep-dish pizza, you probably can't do better than Pizzeria Due (619 N. Wabash St., 312-943-2400). There's also a Pizzeria Uno (29 E. Ohio St., 312-321-1000), but those who know say Due is better. Chicago pizza has a thick crust, a layer of melted mozzarella and then the pizza sauce (a little sweet to my taste) above the cheese. A large bowl of salad costs $3.49 and individual pizza is $4.99 with cheese, $6.79 with the works.
For some reason, Chicago is also famous for hot dogs. Your best bet is Portillo's (100 W. Ontario St., 312-587-8910). You may be torn between the Maxwell Street Style Polish dog with grilled onions ($2.75) or the Char-Grilled Italian Sausage with house-cooked sweet peppers ($3.50). Have both. You order at the counter, they call your number. "We're 25," we said. "Oh, honey, you don't look a day over 18," said Brenda as she handed us our hot dogs.
Finally, Mike Ditka's (100 E. Chestnut St., 312-587-8989) is the best looking sports bar I've ever seen, all wood, brass and sports memorabilia. The food? Let's just say you're far better off at Murphy's on Merchant Street, which has far better meals for far less money.