Chicago is one of the best culinary cities in the US and I try to visit, and eat, as often as possible.  Wanted to share some of my, and my fellow foodie friends favorites.

Alinea – 1723 N Halsted St,  312-867-0110 – Chef Grant Achatz’s high-end restaurant has received numerous awards and has been named the best restaurant in Chicago (and the United States).  Achatz trained with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry and often gets lumped in with molecular gastronomists, but he’s after something deeper than that.  Picture his peeled grape, coated in a peanut casing and served on the stem as an homage to PB & J.   It’s dinner as theater. The creative 14  or 20 course prix fixed menu is very expensive but the experience is magical.   Guests get to play a guessing game in between each course, wondering what might come next and how it might be arranged.  A good majority of the dishes are eaten with your hands, which seems totally in line with the course served in front of you. Definitely a restaurant for the adventurous.


Aviary – The meal wouldn’t be complete without one of Achatz’s signature helium taffy balloons, which fill the dining room with high-pitched laughter from each party as they suck down the sticky and sweet dessert. But desserts don’t stop there: Instead of a tableside painted dessert, the new desserts are set atop an acrylic painting by artist Thomas Masters, whose pieces are seen throughout the restaurant. The plating of each element (cherry, white chocolate and bourbon) reflects the painting underneath it, like a 3-D version of the plate.

Avec – 615 W Randolph St, 312-377-2002 – Chef Paul Kahan’s Mediterranean restaurant has been popular for a long time, but still remains top notch. Creative and yummy small and large plates with a reasonable wine list make it the perfect spot if you can deal with the wait at this no reservations spot.  But once you do get in the food, staff, and energy make up for the any wait.
Band of Bohemia – 4710 N Ravenswood Ave – My friend Denise’s new favorite place.  The team from Alinea and El opened this funky-chic brewpub infusing great flavors into house beers & pairing them with international small plates.
Blackbird Restaurant – 619 W. Randolph, 312-715-0708 – Upscale but very hip restaurant where Chef Paul Kahan created delicious New American dishes, an excellent wine list, and creative cocktails.  The best bargain is his prix-fixe lunch. Order the endive salad of endives, seared whitefish and wood-grilled sturgeon.
Giant – 3209 W Armitage Ave, 773-252-0997 – Former Nightwood chef Jason Vincent is back in his own restaurant in a tiny space in Logan Square. Hard to get reservations in this hot spot to taste his creative dishes with local Midwestern ingredients and house-made pastas.
Grace – 652 West Randolph Street, 312-234-9494 – A favorite of my friends Kirsten & Steve.  This is truly a culinary adventure, where chef Curtis Duffy spins out, of so effortlessly, outstanding tasting menus that are as lovely to look at as delicious to eat.   The wine pairings are perfect, the service just what you would expect.  A place to return to many times when you get that bonus or commission check!
The carrot course at Grace restaurant on the near west side of Chicago, Wednesday, January 30, 2013. (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune) B582682127Z.1 ....OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS, NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT, NO DIGITAL MANIPULATION...
Greenriver  – 259 E Erie St,  312-337-0101 – in one of the stranger environments, as you need to go through a Northwestern Memorial Hospital building, and the way isn’t entirely well-marked, so just head to the elevators on the left, go up to the 18th floor and you’ll emerge at a host stand. And once you arrive, it feels nothing like a hospital building, welcoming bar, open kitchen, and large outdoor patio with lounge furniture and beautiful views.  Opened by Danny Meyer and the team behind New York’s Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog, they then hired Julia Momose (the Aviary/Office) as head bartender and Aaron Lirette (Celeste) as executive chef.  Food and wine selection is great but the bar and the view are equally as impressive.
Kai Zen – 2557 West Chicago Avenue, 773-278-5776 – “Next-level sushi” is the signature of this “inviting” Humboldt Park Japanese, a “hidden gem” whose “beautifully prepared” offerings include “creative but balanced” rolls and “divine” omakase tasting menus, all presented by a “wonderful”, “prompt” staff; a meal in the “cozy”, “unpretentious” space doesn’t come cheap, but fans say the “quality” is “worth every penny.”
Lula –  2537 N Kedzie Ave,  773-489-9554 –  In true farm-to-table cuisine fashion, creative American food has never tasted this good.  Creative, flavorful, and dishes calling you to dig right in keep coming out of the kitchen (has a great vegetarian tasting menu).  Comfortable setting where they never try to turn a table makes this a great choice for brunch (no reservations but worth the wait) or dinner.   Try the beet bruschetta and baked French feta.
Momotaro – 820 West Lake Street, 312-733-4818 – Trendy, but for good reason, they serve excellent Japanese creations including some unique sushi and cooked food.   The Saki list is long and interesting, and they make an awesome cocktail.   Start with charcoal-seared bonito and hirame sashimi, followed by jidori chicken hearts and the cedar roasted sea bream.  Getting hungry?
Next  Restaurant – 953 West Fulton Market,  312-226-0858 – Another favorite of my friends Kirsten & Steve’s.  Chief Grant Achatz makes every meal an adventure with a totally new menu, and theme, every few months.  His excellent and innovative tasting menu has a great wine paring list, that is a must.  Service is spot on.  This is a “meal you will never forget”.

Nico Osteria – 1015 N Rush St,  312-994-7100 –  Chef Erling Wu-Bower is doing everything right.  The specialty is fresh, delicious seafood and home-made pastas at his Italian restaurant. He has brought the talents behind Blackbird, avec, Publican Quality Meats, The Violet Hour, and Big Star to Nico Osteria.  It has a warm and inviting urban rustic feel that suits the food and neighborhood.  Don’t miss any of the crudo’s, pastas and the Brussels Sprout Bruschetta.

Roister – 951 W. Fulton Market – The Alinea team hooked up with chef Andrew Brochu to create this casual dining experience.  You know the moment you walk into the restaurant that you will be having a great time…it’s like entering the perfect party.  You get a cotton satchel containing all your silverware, and a playful menu that is a take on the classics from all over the world.  Take for example the pasta with clam sauce.  Not a traditional Italian dish here as the chef adds some Thai / Japanese flavor with mint, chilies and a dollop of wasabi caviar.
Smoque BBQ – 3800 N Pulaski Rd, 641, 773-545-7427 – If you are a BBQ lover, this is the place for you.  And the BYOB policy (check to see if still in effect) will make this a bargain meal to boot.  Everything on the menu is outstanding, from the meat, sides, sauces.  You will have to wait a bit to be seated, and the space has no frills, but what the hay, you will be totally messy yourself by the time you finish that heaping plate of ribs!
Smyth – 177 N Ada St, 773-913-3773 – Chefs John Shields and Karen Urie-Shields have returned to Chicago to open Smyth and The Loyalist, a dual concept in the West Loop.  Upstairs is a fancier tasting-menu restaurant (Smyth) serving an inventive eight-course menu, while downstairs is the more casual bar and restaurant (The Loyalist) serving creative comfort food and cocktails.
The Girl and The Goat – 809 West Randolph Street, 312-492-6262-  Chef Stephanie Izard’s glorious  restaurant is raved about for her small plates that feature both “fun” uses of “familiar ingredients” and more “adventurous options” (“the pig face is a must”).  It is extremely popular, so get your reservations early. The bartenders make a mean cocktail that will take the edge off your wait.  And don’t the miss dessert below.

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