The high five
Is it worth dropping an entire paycheck at Chicago's priciest restaurants? We try before you buy.
When chef-scientist-culinary deity Grant Achatz opened Alinea on May 4, food aficionados across the planet flipped out. The lucky ones with a reservation hopped on planes to attend opening night. But the majority of foodies could do little more than read other diners' post-meal raves online. It's not that they weren't passionate about getting in; it's that they didn't have the cash. Dinner for two, with wine, at Alinea costs roughly $500. Which got us thinking: Could it really be that good? Like, a-week's-pay good? And if Alinea's worth it, what about the other $500 meals in town? Would we be satisfied, or would we leave wishing we had spent the money on better things, like, you know, rent.
There was only one way to find out. We went to five of Chicago's leading contemporary fine dining spots—Alinea, Charlie Trotter's, Moto, TRU and Avenues—and assessed each on the same criteria. Could these high-end eateries make us happy to the tune of five Franklins? Here's the answer.
1723 N Halsted St between North Ave and Willow St (312-867-0110)
Getting in: The phone is answered by a woman with a robotic voice. She tells us with forced formality that the next available reservation for two is ten days away (an 8:45pm reservation on a Sunday). It's a bit of a wait, but much better than the rumor that they're booked solid through June.
The scene: Walking into Alinea is like walking onto the Battlestar Galactica. An eerie hallway leads to a pair of sliding doors operated by a motion sensor. Once inside, we discovered the contemporary dining room, peered into what seemed like an incredible kitchen and realized that practically every person in the place was either a food writer or a chef, and that not a person in sight was over 40.
At your service: While we waited for our table, a hostess offered us a seat in the practically nonexistent lounge (it's more like a hallway) and a glass of champagne. After about a ten-minute wait, we settled into the upstairs dining room, where the service was perfectly fine and very relaxed. Full disclosure: We were recognized by a handful of diners, as well as two members of the service team, but we heard our server exchanging friendly banter with other customers as well, leading us to believe that our experience wasn't skewed because we'd been identified as journalists.
On the plate: It's hard to describe what's on the plate here. We pulled a lone grape, wrapped in peanut butter and brioche, off its stem with our teeth; we dug into a heavenly, creamy, sweet and salty concoction of Dungeness crab slivers atop a frozen puree of parsnip, cashew and coconut; and we devoured pastry chef Alex Stupak's sponge cake speared with a vanilla bean, that was coated with a caramelized shell of sugar and resting in a bowl of freeze-dried cherry-flecked vanilla foam. Both chefs combine flavors in ways you've never had before, to create food that you didn't think was even possible. There are curious, exclusively designed utensils and a few showy preparations, but the emphasis is always on flavor. Occasionally the flavors don't work—we found the capsule of granola way too overpowering in its hazelnut flavor—but for the most part it's a dream.
In the glass: A glass for each course, and that's no easy task. Some of the pairings were brilliant complements: A special-reserve Madeira mingled with the grape juice in the PB&J and emphasized the nuttiness of the peanuts. When it came to a dish of hearts of palm cut into five equal sections, each one stuffed with a different filling (from vanilla pudding to barley with black truffles), the Au Bon Climat Pinot Gris' only purpose was to cleanse the palate between bites, a job it did perfectly.
The gimmick factor: A mysterious hunk of ginger pierced by silver needles sat on our table for most of our meal before the server ground a few shavings over our soy-encapsulated snapper, and a lever-style metal wand stabbing a caramelized orange was meant to offer a no-hands canape you could grab with your mouth by leaning forward. To us, these gadgets neither added nor took away from the meal, but it livened up the room, with diners interacting with each other over the experiences.
The damage: 2 12-course tastings ($220) + 2 wine pairings ($150) + 2 coffees ($7) + tax ($37) + tip ($82) = $496
The verdict: This isn't the food of the future. It's the food of right now, and Achatz is poised to be the leading stateside mastermind of culinary creativity that's going on throughout Spain, most notably at Ferran Adria's El Bulli. If this new wave of food reconcepting interests you, but you can't make it to Spain and you've got $500 to burn, Alinea is the spot to get your socks knocked off.
816 W Armitage Ave between Halsted and Dayton Sts (773-248-6228)
Getting in: No problem. Called on a Tuesday, got in the next day.The scene: A charming, sunlight- and flower-filled house with dining rooms on both floors (the coveted seats are upstairs). Framed menus from special dinners in Trotter's past dot the walls of the stairway, while the bathroom walls are papered with menus from restaurant big shots all over the world. It's formal—jackets are required—but not as stuffy as you'd expect, with early jazz and ragtime piped through the speakers.
At your service: The captain here is all smiles, checking in on us every ten minutes to flash his pearly whites and make sure that everything's okay. Other servers are likewise smiley and friendly, in a successful attempt to make diners feel at ease.
On the plate: We went with one of the traditional tasting menus and one vegetarian tasting, given Trotter's fondness for veggies and his popular cookbook, Raw. A high level of creativity and reverence for season was present in both tastings, which included dishes like an enormous diver scallop with English pea puree and crispy pig's feet; a magenta square of slightly pickled, perfectly cooked heirloom beets given heat from a drizzle of horseradish vinaigrette; a ragout of wild mushrooms with a smidge of miso puree and a slow-poached egg yolk. Desserts were far from an afterthought, and both the subtle passion fruit–topped sponge cake and the decadent, sharp, bittersweet chocolate tart with herbacious mint granita were outstanding.
In the glass: The wine program yielded some delicious pours, like the Shadow Canyon Cellars "Lainer Vineyard" viognier that complemented the scallops, but they paled in comparison to the pairings in the nonalcoholic beverage tasting menu. Sweet gewurztraminer juice tasted like a light-bodied, late-harvest wine, minus the alcohol. Every drink choice—including a saffron broth with toasted jasmine rice—was so aromatic and mild that they seemed like a liquid extension of the food.
The gimmick factor: Nonexistent, really. Trotter takes the whole experience very seriously; there's no time for games and no use for tricks.
The damage: 1 grand tasting menu ($135) + 1 vegetable tasting menu ($115) + 1 wine pairings ($85) + 1 beverage pairings ($45) + tax ($44.84) + tip ($68.40) = $493.24
The verdict: Trotter's reputation is well-earned. Every dish shows confidence, control and an overall vision that combines high-quality ingredients, perfect seasoning and practiced technique. Another bonus: Trotter refuses to repeat dishes, resulting in one-of-a-kind creativity that not only looks beautiful but truly tastes amazing.
945 W Fulton Market between Sangamon and Morgan Sts (312-491-0058)
Getting in: Easy. Called on a Wednesday and got in that night.
The scene: The sparse dining room was made even more minimalist by the lack of customers, and the Portishead-ish music signaled that Moto clearly aims for a younger, more laid-back feel.
At your service: Friendly and even a little bit flirtatious, the young, not-quite-fine-dining-level servers seemed knowledgeable about the food and excited about chef Homaro Cantu's creativity.
On the plate: Above all, Cantu's food is playful and visually enticing. It would be easy to dismiss it as whacked-out science experiments with no substance, but you can't: More often than not, the flavors actually work. Maki wrapped in edible, nori-flavored paper packed with delectable toro was cute but also delicious. Courses like the spoonful of artichoke ice cream served with macadamia nut and 100-year-old balsamic relied on the quality of the ingredients and marriage of textures.
The meal wasn't perfect, though. The "braised pizza"-cabbage cooked down with oregano and tomato sidled by just-okay slices of seared beef-tasted like something from Pizza Hut, just as the doughnut soup tasted like a Krispy Kreme. But as much as we love pizza and doughnuts, fast food wasn't really what we were hoping for. And while we appreciate the clever cutting skills it took to create sweet potato chain links, they didn't do much to remind us what time of year it was.
In the glass: For $60, sommelier Matthew Gundlach paired a glass with each course, including a great match of Mount Langi Ghiran's Australian Riesling with a cold, creamy and tart shellfish parfait. The only mismatch was a Jaques Puffeney "Cuvee Sacha" Arbois with our French onion soup-the strong, sherrylike wine was a bit jarring so early in the meal.
The gimmick factor: We didn't plan on falling for the Deja Vu, a piece of edible paper accompanying a parfait of shellfish and bubbling, carbonated grapes Cantu dubs as "Champagne." But it worked. The paper, which had an image of the dish on it, tasted salty, briny and tart-a clever, instant-replay reminder that we loved every aspect of the dish we just devoured.
The damage: 2 10-course tastings ($200) + 2 wine pairings ($120) + tax ($32) + tip ($70) = $422
The verdict: Cantu's goal is to push the limits of what diners have come to know as conventional food, and in doing so he's part of a culinary movement often labeled avant-garde. Does it entertain? Yes, if you come with an open mind. Does it taste good? About 70 percent of our meal did, but at these prices, you'll have to decide if that's good enough.
676 N St. Clair St at Huron St (312-202-0001)
Getting in: We were given a reservation for the very next day by a cordial reservationist who warned of a $50 per person cancellation fee.
The scene: A beautiful white room with original Ruschas and Warhols on the walls. Classical music is piped lightly through the stereo system. Men are asked to wear a jacket, which didn't seem like a problem for this fortysomething crowd of businessmen and married couples—we got the impression they wear jackets in their sleep.
At your service: Early on, our servers were stoic and removed, barely smiling while we ordered hundreds of dollars worth of food. The simultaneous service showed teamwork and timing, which some people would probably appreciate, but for us, it was a bit robotic.
On the plate: Disappointment. The amuse-bouche of white bean puree tasted like it had been sitting in the walk-in cooler since morning; a stack of three bento boxes held underseasoned carrot and asparagus terrine; the Wagyu beef tartare could have used even a sprinkling of salt. We get that chef Rick Tramonto strives for subtlety, but overall, the food was just bland. And the lack of attention to season was a shock—pears, squash and apples with gnocchi in spring? And to see strawberries tossed in simple syrup plated with equally underripe pear slices and a blackberry next to a played-out chocolate molten-lava cake was the final letdown of the night. Where has Chicago's pastry queen, Gale Gand, gone?
In the glass: Going for the sommelier's pairings, we were given small tasting pours with each dish. We liked the way the Linne Calodo Slacker from Paso Robles complemented the earthiness of the mushroom risotto, but were perplexed by a sauvignon blanc paired with the beef tartare, and the Tokaji Cuvee was completely obliterated by the chocolate cake.
The gimmick factor: We'll never understand the Crystal Caviar Staircase, complete with an etching of Tramonto's signature. It's caviar. It's a staircase. It's a big, tacky so-what. Wasabi tobiko belongs at a sushi bar; condiments like egg and capers are a no-no. If you want the good stuff, like the Beluga, you have to fork over an extra $35 to $180.
The damage: 1 Chef's Collection ($135) + 1 Vegetable Collection ($90) + 2 glasses of champagne ($48) + 2 wine pairings ($81.50) + 1 tea ($6) + 1 coffee ($4) = $364.50 + tax (36.45) + tip ($80) = $480.95
The verdict: We understand and respect Tramonto and Gand's revered reputations in Chicago's dining scene, but somehow the food has slipped to lackluster, with little, if any, passion or creativity. And the fact that we were charged $4 for a cup of coffee when we were already paying $500...well, like everything else, it was disappointing.
In the Peninsula Hotel, 108 E Superior St between Rush St and Michigan Ave (312-573-6754)
Getting in: Easy. We called on a Tuesday and the friendly reservationist said that getting in the next night wouldn't be a problem.
The scene: Formal room, open kitchen, great views of the Water Tower. Jackets are preferred, but they aren't strict about it. Across the room from us, a diner was eating in full cowboy gear—hat, chaps and all. (He was celebrating his sixth birthday, but still...)
At your service: Nice people acting formally. Not quite fine-dining trained, but genuinely helpful and competent.
On the plate: We love the flexibility of the menu, with choices of four tasting menus (vegetable, seafood, protein and grand), and a la carte (three courses for $68). The seafood menu included a beautiful preparation of paper-thin hamachi sashimi with a brush stroke of soy caramel and a thin layer of yuzu gelee (a savory, panna cotta–ish custard); and an addictive pairing of subtle cod filet with salty brandade and briny clams. The protein menu highlights included a rich, perfect risotto with buttery frog legs and a slightly dry but tasty braised buffalo short ribs with grits and smoked apricots.
In the glass: When a champagne cart offers Krug by the glass, you know you're in good hands. Sommelier Aaron Elliott asks for your preferences before beginning the wine pairings, but feel free to put yourself in his hands, because every pairing was spot-on, from the floral Mikune "Root of Innocence" junmai daiginjo sake he paired with the hamachi, to the A. Gautheron "Les Fournaux" Chablis he paired with the cod.
The gimmick factor: The foie gras is served on what is essentially a Rice Krispies Treat, and the lamb comes with a sauce made with crushed Altoids, but nothing here screams "gimmick."
The damage: 1 glass of Laurent-Perrier ($18) + 1 glass of Laurent-Perrier Rose ($29) + 1 seafood tasting ($98) + 1 protein tasting ($98) + 2 wine pairings ($116) = $359 + tax (35.90) + tip ($75) = $469.90
The verdict: You'll never dis hotel restaurants again. Chef Graham Elliot Bowles may employ an unusual textural play or whimsical ingredient here and there, but the recent press that's lumped him in with chem-lab chefs like Homaro Cantu and Grant Achatz seems unfair. He's making food using high-quality, seasonal ingredients with creative combinations that equal big flavor. He and Elliot are a powerful tag team, creating couplings that'll remind you why people paired food and wine in the first place.