{travelogue} Chicago: Eating, Drinking, and a Few Other Things You Might Want to Do

For some reason I keep going to Chicago in the middle of winter, so mostly I spend my time eating and drinking (and being cold) when I’m there. Occasionally I get around to doing other things, too – so here are my top picks all around.

Eating & Drinking

I’ve tasted many Chicago pizzas, but the spinach and cheese stuffed pizza at Bacino’s is my favorite. I could explain how they chop all of the cheese and spinach together to make a perfect blend and so forth but I think the picture is pretty much loud and clear on the deliciousness front. They have excellent buffalo wings, too. Bacino’s: 2204 N. Lincoln Ave.

If you’re after a luxurious vacation breakfast spot, NoMI in the Park Hyatt is killer. Along with your great view you’ll get to choose from some of the most luxe and well-prepared breakfast plates around. I’m not super into breakfast normally, but this place gets my nod – I ate there 2 days in a row.

The Aviary is the bar version of the infamous Alinea (discussed next), and easier to get a reservation, too. Astounding, exploding, crackling, infusing, boiling, foaming are all words that could be used to describe various Aviary cocktail concoctions on offer. Examples: the “In The Rocks” is a perfect old-fashioned cocooned in an ice ball you break with a rubberband slingshot, and the infusion pictured below starts out pale yellow and gets darker in color and changes in flavor with each new pour. One preparation involved a bunsen burner! You can get small perfect bites to go with the drinks, too. Be warned: while this is a spectacular experience for the cocktail aficionado, a drink can set you back as much as $28 here. I say, worth it for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The Aviary: corner of Fulton and Morgan Streets.

 

 

Alinea: are you kidding me? What a mind blowing and fun experience. Just for fun, I’ve included all my notes from each course of the dinner below. Alinea: 1723 N. Halsted.
  • TROUT ROE, coconut, hyssop, passionfruit: I don’t even know what hyssop is but damn. This hand-harvested steelhead roe with banana, coconut, and passionfruit gels and pastes, with fleur de sel foam, was a screamin’ start to the eating evening.
  • CAULIFLOWER, five coatings, three gels, apple: Five cubes of cauliflower puree with aromatic apple soup. Each cube was crusted with a different dried or dehydrated aromatic such as cheese, nuts, or what have you.
  • LOBSTER, popcorn, butter, curry: I think this was my favorite. Apparently it was supposed to be on a theme of “things that taste good with butter.” OK, you had me at butter. There were too many things on this plate to describe but they included a butter poached lobster tail, a butter sphere you popped to get melted butter out of, curry pudding, popcorn, a popcorn gelee ribbon (don’t ask), corn kernels, dehydrated onion, and in my mind an unnecessary dollop of palate-cleansing mango-lime gel.
  • WAGYU BEEF, maitake, smoked date, blis elixir: Maitake mushroom on an applewood-smoked fig puree, raw wagyu beef, a dusting of fennel pollen, and sherry that had been aged in casks that previously held maple syrup and bourbon.
  • RABBIT, prune, shallot, burning leaves: A tempura’d chunk of tasty rabbit loin with prune gelee, shallot, impressively served on a skewer of smoldering oak leaves.
  • HOT POTATO, cold potato, black truffle, butter: I could eat about a hundred of these. You’ve got a cold potato, chive, butter, parmigiano, and truffle slice on a metal toothpick stuck into the side of a tiny wax bowl that holds hot potato soup. Pull the pin to let the cold items fall into the hot soup and drink the whole thing like a shot.
  • SHORT RIB, Guinness, peanut, fried broccoli: Melty soft short ribs caged under a Guinness gelatin sheet. Peanuts and broccoli in different forms, including pastes, shaved, etc.
  • BLACK TRUFFLE, explosion, romaine, parmesan: Literally an explosion especially for one person at our table who shall remain nameless but who will heretofore be thought of as the one who uncouthly squirted hot truffle juice at the table. One ravioli filled with truffle tea and served with romaine and a truffle slice. Meant to be taken in one bite with your mouth CLOSED to contain the explosion.
  • LAMB, saffron, poppy seed, pistachio: Thought I would love this but it was not my favorite. Sous vide lamb in a lamb and veal stock with white poppy seed custard, foam, cippolinis, and I can’t remember where the pistachios came in at all…
  • CONCORD GRAPE, yogurt, mint, long pepper: An exploding ball of liquid grape sorbet with a mint shell and bathing in approximately 3 drops of yogurt water. Squirt in your mouth, not in your hands. No idea what the long pepper had to do with this one.
  • CRABAPPLE, foie gras, brown sugar, sorrel: An 18-inch metal skewer pointed at your face, with one bite’s worth of crapapple mousse coated in foie gras with apple gelee and a caramel chip. Diners were encouraged to attack the skewer hands-free with one barbaric chomp to the skewer.
  • BACON, butterscotch, apple, thyme: Dehydrated bacon suspended from a wire, dipped in caramel and flavored with thyme and dried apple. One bite o’ heaven.
  • PUMPKIN, gruyere, Blis maple syrup, smoke: Points for showmanship. Smoke-filled pillows arrive at each person’s place setting. A plate is set upon the pillows which deflate slowly and release smoke aromas to enhance the experience of the dish. There was a lot going on here- roasted pumpkin, pineapple puree, oloroso sherry pudding, maple cream, cereals and seeds, sugar crystals, and puffed rice.
  • CHOCOLATE, fig, olive, pine: I was roundly chastised for not finishing this but let’s face it, by this point I was stuffed. A soft chocolate sheet, olive oil custard, and elements of figs and olives plus pine nuts. The olives were mostly in sort of a crumbly form and not too offensive- mostly salty with a hint of brine. It came with pine ice cream which I imagine is made by, you know, soaking pine needles in warm cream or something, which was a little weird.
  • DRY CARAMEL, salt: The science nerd in me LOVED this finale. Picture a shot glass full of dry caramel crystals, roughly the feel of raw sugar. Put these in your mouth and they turn to liquid caramel as if by magic. Magic! Seriously. A simple yet great end to an incredible night of molecular gastronomy.

(For the record, I’ve tried Moto as well – and while it’s fun to eat the paper your menu is printed on, Alinea is a much better option for maxing out on molecular gastronomy.)

The Berghoff has been around since 1887, and bills itself as Chicago’s oldest restaurant. More importantly, though, they make their own brand of beer, boast a cool sign, and rock a German-esque wood and stained glass dining room right off the Miracle Mile. You can’t go wrong for lunch with a housemade Hefeweizen and a bowl of onion-apple-gruyere soup. Sure, it’s a little touristy, but you are a tourist, right? The Berghoff: 17 W. Adams St.

Fun Food Shopping

You can’t do better for a global roundup of olive oils and vinegars than the science lab-esque Old Town Oil Co. You can taste oil varietals and flavored oils from big stainless steel jugs, and fill up your bottles with the ones you like best. Bonus: it’s right next to The Spice House, which is a veritable temple of fresh bulk spices, shmancy salts and peppers, spice blends from around the world, and everything else spice-tastic you can think of. Old Town Oil: 1520 N. Wells St. The Spice House: 1512 N. Wells St.

Vosges is a Chicago chocolate company (with outposts in NYC and Vegas) that offers “haute chocolate”- sure, that might seem a little haughty (haute-y?), but one sip of insanely thick Aztec hot chocolate with chilies, cinnamon, dark chocolate, and cornmeal will surely win you over- especially if it’s a cold and windy day in the Windy City. And if you’re more or less adventurous, don’t fear: they offer a wide spectrum of chocolates in all forms and flavors, including a high-end chocolate bars boasting bacon, thai chilies, and a bunch of other wacky stuff. Vosges: 951 W. Armitage St. or 520 N. Michigan Ave.

Tea Gschwendner (pop quiz: close your eyes and spell “Gschwendner”!) is a German tea merchant that offers a dizzying area of fragrant loose-leaf teas. They wouldn’t be German without a little bit of attitude, which at Gschwendner comes in the form of making sure you know that only dirty disgusting apes would use teabags, while real humans always use loose tea. Cue eyeroll. Overall, though, the staff are knowledgeable and are happy to walk you through tastes and help you pick out the perfect tea for any occasion- and their teas are, admittedly, pretty darn perfect. They only have 3 U.S. locations, and 2 are in the Chicago area. The other, inexplicably, is in Scottsdale Arizona. Go figure. Tea Gschwendner: 1160 North State Street.

A Few Other Things To Do

At some point you’re going to want to take a break from your eating orgy to hear some Chicago blues, and there is no better place than B.L.U.E.S. Plus, the name is easy to remember even after a few drinks. Pack yourself in and get ready to rock- this intimate, funky spot has live music 7 nights a week. B.L.U.E.S.: 2519 N Halsted St.

The Museum of Contemporary Art is a manageable and very well-curated modern museum, and their museum shop is one of the best I’ve ever been to–most of my friends and family will find MCA gifts in their stockings this year! MCA: 220 East Chicago Avenue.

Before your trip, check the Second City website for tickets–they have shows almost every day–and experience a live sketch or improv show. Second City is, of course, the comedic birthplace of some of the funniest people ever, like Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Mike Myers, Jim Belushi, and Steve Carell. Second City: 1616 N. Wells St.

If you’re in Chi-town around Christmas time, stop by the Christkindlmarket – an outdoor German-style Christmas market in Daley Plaza, with ornaments for sale, hot mulled wine, potato pancakes, sausages, and lots and lots of people. It’s a fun and convivial atmosphere, but it does get quite crowded on weekends so you may want to go early. Christkindlmarket: Check website for dates and location. 

What are your favorite things to eat, drink, and do in Chicago? Let me know so I can try them next time!

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