A nine-day trip home to Chicago for the Thanksgiving holiday brought a veritable bounty of bourbon, Bordeaux, and–alongside turkey and an ethereal homemade whole goat–quite a bit of beef. Undoubtedly, the warmth of good company is what made the trip special. Yet, lucky for me, my rouges’ gallery of friends and family is just as enthusiastic about food as myself. I had the chance to join them for a number of meals and drinks over the course of the week. Below you will find brief accounts of the seven establishments–some new, some old–I visited in my attempt to check the pulse of the city that taught me how to truly eat.
Swift & Sons
The new steakhouse from the Boka Restaurant Group (Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster) is perfectly placed inside Fulton Market’s new Google building. Sprawling, polished, and packed with knowledgeable and gracious servers, the restaurant is a clear testament to the group’s mastery of service. The “retro-future” 19th century bar mixes bold but balanced $13 cocktails like the Edwin & Noble (bourbon, vermouth, maple, thyme) and Annie May (pisco, rose liqueur, Earl Grey, lemon). The wine list is lengthy but restrained, with only a few bottles tipping over $200. Shellfish, chopped steak tartare, and a foie gras torchon made for fair (not great) starters. A celery root agnolotti proved more unique and surprisingly rich. Each of Swift & Sons’ four salads was crisp and expertly dressed, including a butcher’s salad filled with ruby red roast beef and beef tendon.
Though I’d read that the kitchen, headed by chef Chris Pandel, faced early struggles with their steaks, all the beef that reached the table on both of my visits was exceptional. Three types of wagyu and a 12 oz. beef wellington for two are tempting, but I found the 36 oz. dry aged long bone rib chop to be the best splurge on the menu. Otherwise, I would advise picking a filet or smaller ribeye while keeping expectations low on the side dishes. Desserts are a surer bet, with the S&S Cracker Jack served with peanut butter mousse and popcorn sherbet deserving its plaudits in the press. There were indeed noticeable high points and low points, but nothing fell below average at worst for me. Boka Group looks to be bucking the trend that high-end steakhouses need be stuffy, exclusive, and expensive. Just a month and a half since opening, they look to have their niche.
No stranger to Grant Achatz’s (Alinea, Next) state of the art, experimental bar, I returned to the Aviary for a fourth kitchen table experience. Running at seven courses of drinks and snacks, the litany of libations seemed the best way to dive into the past few months of progress at the mecca of mixology. There remained some old stalwarts on the menu, like Up the Ice Ante, a blend of oat, marcona almond, white peach liqueur, and horchata with flavored ice “poker chips,” and The Hollow, a sharp mix of corn whisky, saffron, ginger, fennel, and honeybush. Nonetheless, the new drinks proved surprisingly polished and very enjoyable. Netflix and Chilcano combined pisco, sauternes, quince, and ginger for a highly fruity and wonderfully refreshing start to proceedings while Flight of the Concord showed off the Aviary’s expert sculpting skills by combining rum, grape, and mastic with a perfect cube of gin and tonic ice. The bar’s accompanying snacks–which though they were always creative–tonight felt a bit more substantial, with flavorful pork belly and king crab preparations joining old favorites like mushroom “fries” with ketchup made of blended mushrooms. In all, a very pleasant (and, I must admit, hard to remember) evening that demands continued return visits.
Another new spot this trip, Pizza Barra is an offshoot of the Labriola pair of bakery/restaurants in Oak Brook and downtown Chicago. Located just a few stores away from their original café in the Oak Brook Promenade, chef Chris Macchia prepares a menu of unpretentious Italian small plates and pasta to accompany the restaurant’s namesake item. Instead of the wood-fired Neapolitan pies at Labriola’s other locations, Pizza Barra uses a coal oven at the front of the restaurant to cook their pies. While Chicago thin crust and pan pizza options give some variety (and feature toppings like Italian beef, clams, and barbecue) the star is the 16-inch artisan pizza made with ciabatta crust, Bianco di Napoli tomatoes, and a blend of imported and Wisconsin cheeses. Noticeably thicker than the Neapolitan but thin enough to retain a nice crunch, the artisan pizza had attractive spots of black char from the coal-fired oven. The cheese to sauce ratio was nicely handled, and even a buratta topped pizza resisted becoming soggy.
A hearty braciole with polenta, braised pork shank, and 32 oz. dry-aged porterhouse were executed with care and prove a legitimate draw for those looking beyond the pies. The desserts–that command an entire display case at the café location–tasted just as good in the sleeker, sit down setting. Despite some immaturity from the managerial staff, Pizza Barra succeeds as a sit-down extrapolation of Labriola’s proven formula. The menu isn’t looking to riff on the classics much, but it nonetheless delivers familiar and comforting flavors. Macchia and his team deserve credit for the depth of quality on the menu, and I’m excited to see their use of the Grotto’s old patio space in the warmer months.
One of Chicago’s perpetual hot spots since opening a little over a year ago, Momotaro is Boka Restaurant Group’s impeccably appointed temple of sushi and Japanese fare. Sushi chef Jeff Ramsey boasts being the only American-born chef to receive a Michelin star in Japan while executive chef Mark Hellyar wields experience at the helm of Morimoto’s restaurants. I returned for my fifth visit with the same group who ate at Swift & Sons with me earlier in the week and, despite unfortuitous seating by a very cold entryway, we enjoyed our meal even more than the steakhouse.
Though the preparation of A5 Japanese wagyu at Swift & Sons impressed us, Momotaro’s preparation blew theirs out of the water. Cut into cubes rather than slices, each bite had an impressive, crispy char and layer of molten fat that yielded to succulent meat. Hearing our praises, our server confided that Chris Pandel (chef at Swift & Sons) expressed his own amazement over the quality of the sushi spot’s take on the dish. Cocktails were as vibrant as ever, with the Lucky Peach (whiskey, peach liqueur, shiro miso, orange, lemon) proving both refreshing and balanced with the more delicate bites on the menu. Our rather weighty order of sushi rolls disappeared in mere minutes. Though the pieces are indeed on the smaller side, their freshness and simplicity was unerring. For a Monday night, the restaurant was absolutely packed, but the Momotaro team–though perhaps a bit impersonal–clearly isn’t resting on its well-earned reputation.
I’d been to Acadia, chef Ryan McCaskey secluded south loop restaurant, once before in the late stretches of summer and thought it one of the city’s strongest one Michelin star establishments. The food wasn’t just playful and disarmingly simple, but the staff, despite an unquestionably elegant setting, was among the friendliest and most naturally expressive I’d seen in the Windy City. When I read that the restaurant had been upgraded to two Michelin stars in the 2016 guide, I thought it was well deserved and eagerly awaited the chance for a return trip. The award prompted the discontinuation of Acadia’s pre fixe format in exchange for five-course and ten-course options, but I figured the switch would add more focus and flow to the meal.
Though many of McCaskey’s presentations were beautiful, each and every dish fell flat with regards to flavor. Despite the presence of uni, caviar, pork belly, lobster, and a litany of my other favorite things, the food lacked power and intensity. Components didn’t sing but were left muddled and flaccid on the palate. Add in the smallest portions I’ve seen on a tasting menu in years, and you have what seemed more like a parody of fine dining than one of only five Chicago restaurants with two or more stars to their name. The chef was in the building that evening, and he seemed to be working very hard from the peeks I got into the kitchen. Nonetheless, the expectation that comes with increased notability can sometimes sap the very creativity that won the prestige in the first place.
Nobody in Chicago tells a story through food better than Iliana Regan, and I truly believe nobody makes more effortlessly attractive plates than her either. Though I didn’t find the Native American dinner I attended during the later stages of summer particularly engaging from a thematic perspective, there was no question of the food’s quality and striking natural beauty. The fairy tale menu this fall left even more room for fun, with dishes modeled after Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, and less known stories like The Rabbit Bride. Little Red Riding Hood’s basket was found to contain a crust of hearty bread. Cinderella as told by Mother Goose manifested itself as a genius bowl of foie gras soup. Dry-aged duck with French onion was not just wonderfully succulent, but accented with ethereal dots of sauce and garnish. Also of note, an excellent supplement of white truffle shaved atop a house made spätzle.
The fairy tale theme, in truth, serves are more of a light framework for the progression of the meal; however, servers bring a nice enthusiasm and flair to the table that leaves guests grinning. Plates, dishes, and teacups lend to the atmosphere, but each element is restrained and natural enough to avoid seeming forced or tacky. Regan herself is ever-present, often delivering dishes and even pitching in to clear plates and refill water. There’s no question she is one of the most exciting culinary talents in Chicago, and, with such impressively affordable but expansive tasting menus, it’s no surprise Elizabeth proves one of the hardest reservations to snag as well.
The final flourish of the evening came at a return trip to the Aviary’s underground speakeasy The Office. Old favorites, like housemade chicken liver mousse with foie gras torchon and toasted baguette, satisfied just as much as ever. Meanwhile, the list of antique spirits grew impressively with some rather outrageous offerings. We sampled an Old Schenley whiskey from the 1900s, bottled in bond and possessing a punch of stewed orange, Meyer lemon, and Thai long pepper. Next came a Royal Army Service Corps Jamaican rum from 1955, poured out of a gallon stoneware jug and packed with notes of mesquite barbecue, cinnamon, butterscotch, roasted pineapple, and black garlic of all things. To cap off the evening–and a wonderful week back home–a 1962 Weller’s Original Barrel Proof bourbon. The original wheated bourbon recipe from Stitzel-Weller, the spirit had a balance of oak, acid, and sweetness whose lineage can certainly be seen in contemporary releases of Pappy.