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Chicago - Alinea and more

Here's a recap of my eating and drinking tour of Chicago recently. Alinea, Pops, RM, Avec, Vera, and more!

Day 1

I got to the city after an unpleasant, big city reminder, of watch where you sit on public transit with a piece of gum somebody left on the sit. Oh Chicago, you really know how to treat people. After getting checked in to the hotel and cleaning off the gum, I went straight over to Pops for Champagne and met my friend Moriah who works for Hart Davis Hart.

 

Pops was a fantastic contrast to Ambonnay. Much bigger, full of people, noisy, and a bunch of bartenders who were efficient but not particularly friendly or interested in discussion. I don’t understand how you have a list like theirs and have servers that don’t want to engage the guests. Different philosophies I suppose. Their bottle list is great and covers a lot of styles and producers. Their glass pour list was good, but felt a bit safe. I ordered the wines I’ve never had and coupled with my knowledge of the other champagnes on their list, I was a bit disappointed. There was nothing that was really inspiring, just lots of good choices that would make most people happy. I get it, particularly since they’re in the touristy area of Chicago. Nevertheless, it was a bit of a bummer, although it did provide a nice contrast to Ambonnay. The one thing I did really enjoy was they offered 3 and 5 ounce pours, which made it easier to try a few different wines.  This might be a good one to add to the mix at Ambonnay.

 

After Pops we went up to Osteria Langhe in Wicker Park. It was a good neighborhood joint that felt like it could be in Portland. I was a bit saddened by this though. One of my favorite things about travelling is experiencing what other people are doing in their cities, I don’t want to visit my own city with a slightly different package. Moriah was kind enough to bring a bottle of Chevillon Vaucrains 05, which was great and we bought a bottle of Henriet-Bazin BdN, which was big and delicious, showing off its roots in Verznay/Verzy. The food was tasty, and reminded me that Portland is so spoiled with its great natural ingredients that we don’t cook as well as we should. We just let the ingredients take center stage, whereas in other places they have to be better cooks, and that was certainly the case here.

 

After dinner we met up with Moriah’s boyfriend Greg, who works for Kermit Lynch and some French winemakers at a jazz bar. Despite a rude beginning it was a pleasant way to finish off the night.

 

Day 2

 

I woke up with a hangover, what a surprise. I bundled up and went over to Intelligencia for a bit of coffee to get my day going. Its funny to see the Chicago brand of coffee nerd/hipster. Seemed a bit more curated and twee than the Portland version. With a bit of caffeine and Advil on board I hopped on the train and went back to Wicker Park. I just walked around looking at shops and the neighborhood. It brought back a lot of memories of growing up in the Midwest, different architecture, ascetics, and building materials.

 

I tried to go to Cumin for some Nepalese food, but they only had a buffet and that was too much food for me. I wandered some more and ended up at Xoco, which is one of Rick Bayless’ joints. I had the 3 Floyds Zombie Dust IPA which was an awesome beer and sikil pak which is like pumpkin seed hummus that’s pretty spicy. They served it with jicama and cucumber sticks, and it was awesome and I definitely want to make it here.

 

After the snack I continued up Milwaukee Ave to Red and White, the wine shop. One of the owners came into Ambonnay a week or so before I went to Chicago so I went to check it out. It was a well thought out shop with plenty of good wines, but it showed me how sad the wine culture is in Chicago. Lots of people told me this was one of the best wine shops in the city, and while good, I guess I expected more considering the size of Chicago. I recognized most of the wines and they’re available across Portland in bars, shops, and even grocery stores. Again, I feel like Portland is ridiculously blessed. So this isn’t a knock on Red and White as much as a knock on Chicago, you guys need to get your act together and sell more great wine. From Red and White I wandered up to Logan Square, poked around and then headed back downtown for a nap.

 

After a refreshing nap, I got up and went to Avec, good on them for opening at 3:30. I was the first one in the door and by the time I left it was pretty full, impressive. I had the famous stuffed dates, and they’re really that good. Pretty incredible, particularly the sauce! Afterward I had a fantastic salmon dish that was cooked perfectly, meaning the salmon was actually rare. The food was well worth the trip and you should stop in if you can, the wine list on the other hand, left a bit to be desired. They tried really hard to make an affordable list with lots of interesting wine, but it was trying really hard, and the wines just weren’t that interesting.

 

After Avec, I went around the corner to Sepia. I went because they had one of the Illinois Sparkling Wine Co wines by the glass. It was the Franken, which was Chard grafted on to some crazy domestic rootstock. The wine was impressive texturally and clearly well made but not necessarily with best grapes for bubbles. Definitely worth having a glass if you can find it. After my quick one and done I went back to the hotel to meet my friend Kristin who flew into hang out with me.

 

After throwing her stuff at the hotel, we went over to RM Champagne Salon. Like Pops, RM was very different than Ambonnay. It was also crowded and loud, but it was darker and seemed to be focused on a hipper crowd where as Pops was slicker and focused on tourists and moneyed downtown people. I liked the look of RM a bit more, but it was hard to get a feel since it was crowded. Unfortunately their list was a bit lacking. For a place called RM, they only had 2, maybe 3, grower champagnes on the list. I don’t really care one way or the other, but it did strike me as odd given their name. Like Pops, the bartenders couldn’t seem to care about the champagne, they were just slinging drinks. A bit of a shame that both places are champagne focused, yet not really delivering as far as staff goes.

 

After RM we wandered around, looked at Girl and the Goat, packed, and then found Momotaro, which we were going to check out when we saw their “bar” sign, which looked way more inviting. We went down and found their izakaya, which was a ton of fun. Great atmosphere with bartenders who wanted to make conversation and tell you about all the cool stuff they serve. We had their tuna air toast, which air toast might be one of my new favorite names for food. Its just fun to say and gives so much possibility of what it could be. Say it out loud, air toast! See, fun! Afterward we enjoyed some fried squash that was sprinkled with bonito flakes. Because of the heat of the dish, the flakes moved, almost danced. It was fantastic and awesome! I’d go just for the dancing bonito flakes.

 

Moving through our bar hop, we ended up at Vera, which I had a few people recommend. They really do have a great by the glass sherry program. Well worth checking out. The staff was great and the feel of the place was welcoming.  Just skip the sherry on tap, its definitely a neutered version of sherry. I wish I had more room in my stomach to eat there, their menu looked cool. 

 

On the way back to the hotel we rolled the dice to get in to Aviary, but the wait was long, and in hindsight I’m glad we didn’t because we were already well into the booze.

 

Day 3

 

Slept in a bit, planned the day, and realized we might just get lucky and be able to get into Avec for brunch. I’m not one to do the same restaurant twice unless its great, and I wanted Kristen to experience the stuffed dates. The brunch was pretty great, but I must say the Avec folks recommend ordering too much food. I guess a lot of people that come there are big eaters. The papas bravas were awesome! The dates were awesome, again! The Moroccan pancake was great, the chicken wings were fine. The paella was good, but we probably could have skipped it. Overall it was delicious and gave us enough fuel that we only needed a small snack until our 9:30 reservation at Alinea.

 

Next we walked off some brunch and stopped at the Bean, neither of us had seen under a grey sky before, a totally different experience, and in many ways more compelling. Next, we went to the Art Institute to see one of the Penetrables of Jesus Rafeal Soto. It was amazing, playful and thought provoking all at once. We also stumbled upon the Ethel Stein, Master Weaver exhibit. Her work was incredible and well worth seeking out. I couldn’t believe that someone could create these pieces with a loom. Wow. 

After so much art goodness, we needed some liquid stimulation. Kristen wanted to see Pops after RM, so we headed in that direction. Along the way we found Eataly. Amazing, huge, almost too much to take in. We had a couple of the beers they brew on site, and they were delicious. We moved along to Pops, which was pretty much the same experience for me, except that it was much less crowded. Being less crowded didn’t make the bartenders anymore personable though.

 

After this we went back to the hotel to get ready for the big dinner.

 

I must say Alinea was an incredible experience, well worth the money. I’m not sure how much to share, because so much of it is an experience. Surprise, wonder, joy, playfulness, challenges to what fine dining should be. I absolutely recommend going They took fantastic care of us, and did it in a playful manner. If you want to see what I ate and drank, I have the menu at Ambonnay. Also we had both the meat and the vegetarian dishes, and they were pretty similar, each having a couple things I liked better than the compliment across the table from the other menu. I don’t feel like you’d lose out on doing one versus the other, in fact I might go with the veg menu if it wasn’t for the fish spine and fin in the meat menu. The rutabaga was way better than the pork belly.

 

They exemplified the service style I like best, extremely detail oriented while being warm and welcoming. I’m so glad the service wasn’t stuffy. I want great service to be both technically great while being warm and friendly. I strive for this at Ambonnay, and I feel like I achieve it to the degree I want for my place more often than not.

 

 

Day 4

We were pretty tired from a late night full of amazing, so we packed and got everything ready to leave then drug ourselves to Intelligencia. A bit of caffeine helped, but good god it was cold that day so we just wanted to stay inside. Unfortunately I didn’t read the hours on the David Bowie exhibit very well, and it was closed. We ended up going back to Wicker Park and wandering around. It was cold, cold, cold, and no fun to be out. We ultimately went to Piece and had a pizza and some good beer

 

Afterward we went back to the hotel and grabbed our stuff and went to the airport really early. A bit lame maybe, but we were tired and couldn’t think of much else to do. It was actually pretty fun bouncing around O’Hare and having time to appreciate the neon walkway many times, having drinks at a few different crappy airport bars, meeting people, laughing, and just enjoying the ridiculousness of hanging out at the airport. The Frontera Tortas food is actually great for airport food so make a stop if you’re there.