Aspen Times Weekly: High on Chi
I ARRIVED IN CHICAGO last week with a serious case of FOMO. Rush-hour traffic choked every route out of O’Hare International Airport and my Uber driver, unfortunately, seemed timid in gridlock. We arrived at my chef pal’s three-story West Loop condo — a gift for the week from his client, for whom he’d been cooking at a posh lakeside estate in South Haven, Mich., over seven weeks — with just minutes to spare before a coveted 6:30 p.m. dinner reservation.
One lightning-fast wardrobe change later, we were running, literally, down the street to the restaurant. That’s what you do when you’ve successfully booked a four-top at Grace, the Michelin three-starred spot opened in late-2012 by Alinea alum Curtis Duffy (and memorialized in the heart-wrenching 2014 documentary, “For Grace”). The 64-seat restaurant serves only two lavish 10 to 13 course tasting menus nightly, each of which costs $235 per person (optional wine pairings, another C-note), surpassing even Grant Achatz’s landmark as the toniest in town.
We were not about to let this once-in-a-lifetime experience slip away due to tight timing. So we ran. And we arrived, breathless, into the foyer, where our host couple was waiting, at 6:47 p.m. Though we were told that Grace adheres to a strict, 15-minute, uh, grace period, our hostess smiled sweetly and whisked us into the dining room. I collapsed into a tufted armchair and surveyed the serene, glowing space, all-plush fabrics in tones of sable and cream. At the far end of the room, la pièce de résistance: the brightly lit, immaculate kitchen enclosed in glass — Duffy’s modernist laboratory. Inside, no fewer than twelve cooks and servers swanned behind the chef, who was facing outward, bent over his workstation, deep in a groove. We had arrived.
The procession of plates during the 12-course tasting was nothing short of Shakespearean. My companions selected the carnivorous “fauna” menu; I chose “flora,” featuring vegetable creations, for variety. There may have been a dozen components displayed at once — sea cress, plum, hazelnut powder, clover, toasted pumpernickel crumbs — but the tiny tableaux lacked pretension. Some were whimsical, such as a transparent disc of sugar set inside the lip of a glass to lend the impression that Alaskan king crab was “floating” in clear liquid. Others were interactive, like the foil lid we peeled away from a tiny jar to reveal a swirl of trapped smoke shrouding delicate morsels of rabbit and chanterelle mushrooms.
Grace — one of only 109 restaurants in the world awarded three Michelin stars in 2016 — gave us a meal we will likely remember 10 years from now. At the same time, we knew there were plenty of high-low surprises still to come.
The next day, during a light brunch of Bloody Mary cocktails, oysters, and tuna poke at GT Fish & Oyster, Italian-born chef-owner Giuseppe Tentori swung by our table to say hello. Tentori, formerly sous-chef at Charlie Trotter’s, knew my cohort through the respected Boka Restaurant Group, which has developed some of the top restaurants in the city. Would we like a tour of GT Prime, his soon-to-open, high-end steakhouse concept just a couple blocks away? Yes please!
We followed Tentori two blocks down Wells Street in the River North district — “I got 99 problems but a fish ain’t one,” emblazoned on the back of his GT Fish T-shirt — to arrive at a 5,600-square-foot construction zone. The restaurant was nearly finished, the energy palpable. Plastic covered glossy black tables inlaid with bronze silhouettes of game animals and cushy dining chairs edged with faux rabbit fur. Stepping over stray building materials, we climbed the unfinished floating staircase to a private dining room for a bird’s eye view of the open kitchen with sparkling, state-of-the-art commercial appliances.
Downstairs, we ran into Rob Katz, Boka Group co-owner, chatting with a stunning brunette. Anything else we should check out in the area? Katz didn’t skip a beat. “Sumi Robata Bar, right across the street,” he said. “Some of the most exciting food there right now.”
The brunette flashed a grin. Jessica Kato, wife of Sumi chef Gene Kato, it turns out, would be delighted to escort us.
Inside, the slim space resembled a blond bamboo Bento box. We slid onto cube stools at the chef’s bar, lined with a wavelike, live-edge wood slab, and chatted with chef Kato. Soon enough he sent out our first plate. Though “robatayaki” is Japanese for “fireside cooking,” which, at Sumi Robata Bar, translates to grilled meats and seafood, we’d asked for more esoteric specialties. After one bite of house-made tofu —luscious like pudding and topped with briny salmon roe, enokitake mushrooms, and a tangle of crispy ginger (pictured, above) — I wondered aloud how I’d never encountered this before. Ditto for the soba-flour toast points on which we smeared Kato’s chicken liver mousse, made with free-range Japanese fowl delivered just 12 hours post-slaughter (no iron-like, mineral aftertaste here) and tempura halibut cheek that flaked apart into togarashi broth.
“Anything fried we serve with daikon because it has a digestive enzyme,” Kato explained, urging us to pair each bite with a dab of oroshi (a ball of grated daikon, chile and scallion). Lesson learned: When food touring, keep an open mind — and itinerary.
Though we avoided traditional tourist traps, we did embark on epic culinary sightseeing: Eataly. The two-story, 63,000-square-foot Italian emporium is part gustatory amusement park, part epicurean museum. Each major food group — pasta, bread, cheese, salumi, fish, meat, olive oil, wine, and on and on — has its own sprawling section with display cases, tasting counters and miniature restaurants.
Wineglasses in hand, we stocked up on charcuterie and pantry goods. While scoping pizza, we ran into an Aspen friend on a business lunch.
Small-world moments would continue. At Momotaro — where I sampled incomparable nigiri: Japanese billfish, skin blistered gently with a blowtorch — we saw Katz, celebrating his son’s first day of school over sushi. We gushed about our serendipitous Sumi experience and shared our night’s itinerary: Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard’s third restaurant, Duck Duck Goat.
After 14 (or 15, we lost count) small plates of modern Chinese food — “reasonably authentic” according to Izard — split four ways, thankfully, family-style, we stumbled out of the sultry, busting den and onto the street. Duck eggrolls, beef short rib and bone marrow potstickers, garlicky beans, sweet fried rice…it’s all a blur.
On our final night, we capped our West Loop dinner theater experience at a pair of Grant Achatz/Alinea Group ventures: Offbeat cocktails at The Aviary, home to 30 kinds of hand-chiseled ice (really) and where the single-bite “Black Truffle Explosion” (an Alinea signature) inspired my buddy to admit, “There are times I may have teared up — allergies, I swear!”
At Roister, Achatz’s rowdy, stripped-down spot, we had reserved seats for a tasting menu in the subterranean prep kitchen (pro tip: order a round of Fernet shots for the kitchen crew and reap untold rewards). Dish after dish was a revelation: we dug into a pile of warm potato chips to find tender smoked salmon over curried spinach; chamomile-marinated fried chicken was shatteringly crisp; dessert riffed on a Take 5 candy bar… with silky foie gras replacing nougat, natch.
Back-to-back nights of multi-course tastings left room for little else. However, we did squeeze in an obligatory Chicago dog at a weathered, circa-1949 Irish pub downtown and made two trips to Izard’s playful Little Goat Diner (for an encore of the “Breakfast Tasty Thing” (a stack of scallion pancakes layered with kimchi, bacon, and eggs). As anticipated, we left Chicago beyond full and inspired more than we could have ever imagined.
Any fear of missing out, though, is but a distant memory.
Amanda Rae is plotting a Chicago encore. Recommendations? email@example.com
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