The Blossoming Chicago Dining Scene
This year’s annual NRA Restaurant Show gave us a great excuse to head back to one of our favorite food towns: Chicago.
We attend the Restaurant Show every year, and this time around the mood was noticeably more somber than usual. It was about one third smaller than last year, but there was high quality traffic and we had a great time nonetheless. We got to meet Nathan Bates, who serves as the chef to the Ambassador for New Zealand. Read more about his Cool Career in our interview with him. And Chef Dirk Flanigan hosted an awesome Chefs to Know late night book party at Gage.
And of course we made sure to go out on the town and check out the ever-vibrant food scene. We finally had a chance to catch up with Curtis Duffy of Avenues, which we’ve been looking forward to since we met him in Spain with Grant Achatz three years ago! (Read our full interview with him here.) Duffy didn't disappoint—he blew us away with Chilled English Pea Soup with fresh and freeze dried peas, pea tendrils, cantaloupe, mint elixir, and a lavender surfboard. The soup was just screaming with flavor.
Our experience at Avenues didn’t end with Chef Duffy—we were also wowed by Pastry Chef Jimmy MacMillan’s impeccably executed and creative desserts. Check out our Pastry Chef Feature that highlights MacMillan, as well as our Technique Feature on his Diamond Chai Bar.
We visited 2005 Chicago Rising Star Graham Elliot Bowles at his eponymous restaurant and were impressed as always. This young chef continues to be at the vanguard of the Chicago culinary scene. He served us a deep sea scallop that was rare on the inside, piled high with smoked ham hock hash, fried pickle, and sweet pickled relish potato salad that was a beautiful and tasty ode to the South.
Ryan Poli at Perennial is another chef we always like to keep up with. He served us a funky Roman Brown Butter Gnocchi crusted with cornmeal and served with hedgehog mushroom puree. Another favorite: Braised Pork Belly with Beets, Fiddlehead Ferns, Pickled Ramps, and a Port Wine Reduction. It was beautifully presented with wonderful acidity.
We ate more gnocchi at Bin 26, where Chef John Caputo prepared Herb Gnocchi and Smoked Morels, Asparagus, and Bone Marrow. Sommelier Brian Duncan served us a 2005 Umberto Cesari, Liano from Emilia-Romagna to go with the dish that was thick and rich with the flavor of chocolate-covered cherries. Brian not only selects what wines to serve with your meal, he’s involved in the entire production of Bin 26’s own label. For more on Brian, read our sommelier feature with his wine tips and an interview.
Pastry Chef Tom Laurell of Bin 36 and A Mano made Bourbon Whiskey Waffles with Pickled Blueberries, Maple Ice Cream, and Ginger Coulis that was unusual and delicious. In fact, we ate lots of pickled fruits and vegetables in Chicago, and pickling is a trend we’ve seen around the country. Don’t miss Get Yourself in a Pickle for tips and recipes on pickling everything from blueberries to mushrooms to shallots.
We stopped by Café de Architects in the Sofitel Hotel to check out Chef Martial Noguier, who hasn’t been there long but is already making a big impact. We were happy to see that it’s one of the busiest restaurants in town. Chef Noguier, who is serving sleek, playful, modern French cuisine, has clearly brought his loyal following from One Sixty Blue with him.
We also made the trek to Urban Belly, which has quickly become a pilgrimage for many Chicagoans. Bill Kim’s new concept has a bright future. We especially loved the use of out-of-the-box ingredients, like hominy, which added flavor and texture to Kim’s sophisticated, elegant Rice Noodles with Hominy, Kimchi, and Spicy Pork Broth.
Paul Kahan’s restaurant, Publican, is all about one of our favorite combinations—beer and pork. They make their own beer and the dinner menu notes the region and farmer’s name next to each dish. The mismatched serviceware and communal tables are fun touches, creating the feel of a country kitchen.
And no discussion of Chicago’s culinary scene would be complete without Chef Grant Achatz. We caught up with the Chicago superstar in between his travels to talk about watershed moments in his career and how his kitchen is organized. Read our interview with him and check out his bio and recipes here.
The economy may be looking up, but we’re still keeping our eyes peeled for culinary bargains. Read the latest Chicago deal in our third Recession Buster feature about Juicy Wine Co.’s innovative special that’s getting people in the door.
Lastly, don’t forget about our upcoming Napa Sonoma Rising Stars on June 17th at the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, CA! For information on the winners and how to purchase tickets for the Rising Stars Revue, visit the Napa Sonoma Rising Stars page.
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