Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Chicago – Is My Kind of (Food) Town

Early in my first career in Information Technology, I moved away from Arizona where I had been born, raised and schooled all the way through a bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University (Fork ‘em Devils!) – to the big big city of Chicago.  OK, well not the city exactly, since my job required nearly constant travel, and to ease myself into the shock of my first big move to a big city, I opted to live in the suburbs of Chicago, a little place called Countryside (close to La Grange for those of you familiar with the Chicagoland area).  

Back then I was not at all a foodie, oh I ate – and my jogging and membership to Bally’s are the only things that kept me from weighing 500 pounds from all the hot dogs and great pizza. However, I didn’t get to take advantage of any of the other food opportunities in Chicago.  Although when I wasn’t traveling I would go into an office in the Loop of downtown Chicago, I didn’t end up doing much in the way of leisure activities in the downtown area.
I ended up moving back to the west, first with a stop in Denver, Colorado for a couple of years, and then back to Arizona where I’ve been ever since.  My move back to Arizona set up the situation where I met Wino4Life wife, so it all worked out perfectly for me… but Chicago is one place that I have always missed.  Luckily, my wife also fell in love with Chicago and we go back usually once a year at least.  You will think we’re crazy, but typically we visit in the heart of winter. 

A little taste of bitter cold helps remind us that suffering through our Arizona summers may not be all that bad.  Our trips are usually planned around what restaurants we’ll eat at, supplemented by time at the Art Institute of Chicago – which I absolutely love.  We stay somewhere on Michigan Avenue, which is a great location to access most of the great restaurants in the area.
Throughout our trips to Chicago, we’ve been lucky enough to dine at great spots like these:
  • Gibson’s Steakhouse (many, many times – amazing steaks).
  • Moto (our first dose of molecular gastronomy).
  • Alinea (a stellar birthday meal for me – thank you Grant Achatz!).
  • Graham Elliott (our first gastro-pub).
  • Café Iberico (very authentic Spanish food, many, many visits here as well).
  • Quartinos (great small plates and thin crust pizza, open late for weary travelers).
  • Lou Malnati’s Pizza (my favorite in the thick pizza category, sorry to Gino’s and Giordano’s).
  • Portillo’s (hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, not every meal needs to be gourmet to be delicious).
  • Garrett’s Popcorn (yes, I know it’s not a restaurant, only a popcorn stand…but have some and you’ll see why it made the list!).
  • Next Restaurant (Grant Achatz’s excellent restaurant with three theme/menu changes per year – back in March we thoroughly enjoyed The Hunt menu).
As the year wound down, we really didn’t have any holiday plans, so my wife and I both closely monitored Next Restaurant’s Facebook page, as they were winding down their menu theme of Bocuse d’Or, based on the French culinary competition.  One night the final tickets (yes, the restaurant has tickets like a concert instead of reservations) for December, and a table for four was available to us on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s – so we struck!  Having no idea who would accompany us, we figured worst case we would have a great meal, with lots of room at the table – although it would be pretty expensive!  I’m not sure if we would have been served food and drink for four, but luckily we didn’t have to find out, as one of our friends from Chicago and a neighbor friend of hers were available and wanted to try out Next Restaurant for the first time. 
As usual, our plans revolved around our dining – and we would be arriving Thursday night in time for a late dinner, so that left Friday and Saturday nights open for some serious Chicago dining!
So here is what our plans turned out to be:
Thursday Night. We arrived at the Omni on Michigan Avenue at about 9:30p, so off to Quartinos for a late dinner.  Overall we had an excellent meal, with a nice Italian Valpolicella Ripasso wine for only about $40.  Only one disappointment, we opted for a pasta with bolognese sauce dish, and something was up with the pasta – fresh made, but doughy and maybe undercooked?  But a stellar duck prosciutto, radicchio, and balsamic pizza more than made up for pasta.  Another disappointment…not with the food, but our annual pilgrimage to the cold of Chicago and it was mid 30s at night… what’s up with that???
Avec Pork Shoulder - Amazing!
Friday Night.  A few weeks back I ran into a buddy that I used to work with at lunchtime, and knowing that I was pursuing my second career in wine mentioned that his college roommate was none other than Chicago Chef and restaurateur extraordinaire Paul Kahan.  If names such as Blackbird, Avec, Publican, Publican Quality Meats, and Big Star ring a bell… it’s that dude!  My buddy offered to send a message to Paul on our behalf… so now seemed like the perfect opportunity.  We opted to visit Avec, a small, casual, no reservation, wait in a big long line type establishment located next to the more formal Blackbird restaurant.  Our hookup netted us the Chef’s table seats, on the counter in the main dining area, but right in front of the action of the Chef’s cranking out the food.  I did not know what to expect from a hook up like this, as it was my first one… but my expectations were exceeded.  Fantastic food and a great wine list with almost everything under $50.  The dish I had read most about - the bacon wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo - were good, but probably my least favorite of the night.  A stellar pork shoulder and a delicious brandade - we will be back!

Saturday Night. My wife and I pledged to start trying new spots in Chicago, and although our goal was met the previous night at Avec, originally I was looking for something new to try on Saturday night as well.  My go to website for restaurant information about Chicago is, and while perusing the restaurant information I noticed that one of our favorite Chicago spots was going to be closing at the end of December… Graham Elliott’s!  I was surprised as he had just one a second Michelin Star, and with the whole Master Chef TV gig… but it turns out he is looking for a new location, and to go a bit more upscale. Graham Elliott’s was our first gastro-pub, a very casual spot with tunes cranked, servers in jeans and t-shirts, and gourmet food and wine.  We had been three times before, including one “Tour” tasting menu that had us tasting everything on the menu.  We decided that we wanted to dine at this spot one last time, so ended up going to something familiar after all.  The transformation of the Graham’s concept was already evident, as the service was much more formal than our previous visits .
Some of the Highlights of Our Goodbye for Now Meal at Graham Elliott’s:
  • Truffled Popcorn.  One of the signatures of the Graham Elliott gastropub was a basket of truffled popcorn that greeted you as you sat down to your meal. To say this stuff was addicting was an understatement. No surprise then, the first dish on the tasting menu was truffled popcorn…but not what we were expecting.  First of all – a complete reimagining of the dish, with buttered popcorn ice cream topped with a nice slice of black truffle, and a single stand of fresh chive. All the flavors we expected, just in a totally new way. Graham’s move to more upscale was evident from the start!
  • Orange wine pairing. I am very enthralled by orange wines right now. These are white wines made more like red by leaving the grapes in contact with the skins and seeds.  I was very happy to see a 2008 Movia Lunar Brda paired with a sweetbread and a salmon course. Delicious, complex... I need to find somewhere I can buy some!
  • Venison and a Cool Wine. The sole red meat course was a great venison dish, paired with a very interesting wine - a 2011 Scholium Project "Gardens of Babylon".  Not released from a traditional winery, this wine (a blend of Petite Sirah, old vine Zinfandel, Syrah and Cinsault) is made from grapes selected from various vineyards selected to make the most interesting wine possible...delicious!
Sunday Night.  Finally, the big night that brought us to Chicago in the first place was here.  Temperatures had dropped significantly, so if finally felt like a day in Chicago.  As anticipated, our experience at Next for the Bocuse d’Or menu did not disappoint, stay tuned next week and I’ll be posting in more detail about the dinner.  
Just a Little "Tease" from the Bocuse d'Or Menu
At this point I’ll just say that we are such big fans of Next, that we ended up buying season tickets (yes, they also sell seasons tickets so you can try each of the three menus!). So 2014 will have us travelling to Chicago three times… 
  • February – Chicago Steakhouse Menu
  • August – Chinese Modern Menu
  • December – Trio: 2004 Menu (Grant’s first chef job in Chicago was at Trio restaurant).
Season tickets to a restaurant thousands of miles away from home… sounds excellent to me.  As my Wino4Life blog moves into 2014, I plan to start providing more food and wine pairing information.  My experience at restaurants like Next is about enjoying the meal, but also about learning more about how to pair great wine and great food to end up with something greater than the sum of the parts.  I know, my sacrifices for my blog are immense, but that’s just the kind of guy I am!


  1. It is so fun to read about these food/wine adventures!

    1. Thank you so much! I can't even express how much I enjoy writing about them (and having the adventure!)


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