(weekend) chicago foodie

My Vita-Mix is going to get quite the workout this week. After a weekend of serious good eats and lots of them (our first away together post little one), it’s about to be all things green for the next few weeks.

A presentation at the Housewares Show focusing on social media given by myself and a colleague brought us to one of our favorite cities. I’ve been attending this trade show, usually on behalf of clients, for the past 8 years, and Jamie often comes with. On this visit, like all the ones before, we stayed at the Hotel Monaco (part of the Kimpton Group). I’m a huge fan of this boutique hotel chain. Whenever I travel, if a Kimpton is nearby, they get my stay. On this visit, however, we started to notice the wear and tear of the Monaco. I was glad to see that the Palomar (another in the Kimpton group) will soon open around the corner from this location.

baylessWhen we landed, a visit to XOCO (pronounced cho-co) for lunch, the latest from Rick Bayless (who got his start in Cleveland!) was first on our list. Apparently, everyone else had the same thought. 2 hour wait. So we headed next door to Fronterra Grill (also by Bayless) instead. As we were planning our trip, I didn’t want to go here. Yes, it’s amazing, but I have been numerous times and wanted to try something new. Well, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been, it is so wonderfully good and satisfying there’s a reason we always head back. It’s fresh, he supports his local farmers and the flavors are exciting and consistently deliver. On this visit, we shared: guacamole, flautas de carnitas with local pork, dzotobichay (Yucatecan tamale of corn masa, swiss chard, pumpkin seeds and hardboiled egg in a banana leaf) plus mojitos and champagne margaritas. Enough said.

As if we weren’t full enough, as we left Fronterra Grill, we noticed the line was down at XOCO. So we did was any overly stuffed visiting foodies would do, we went inside to explore and ended up leaving with churros. Did we need that? Of course not. Was it worth it? Every last crumb.

For dinner, we took a coworker’s suggestion and checked out Graham Elliot. From the second we stood inside the space, we knew we were in for a treat. The decor itself is fun, contemporary and chic – it was right up our alley. Everything about this place is fun and laid back; you can tell the chef does not take himself, or anything for that matter, too seriously. As we perused the menu, we snacked on popcorn with white truffle oil andjamieshaved Parmesan – their answer to traditional bread and butter, and enthusiastically listened to Guns N’ Roses, Vampire Weekend, The Cars and Modest Mouse. For dinner, I opted for the beet salad (which just may have given the one one at Lolita — my current favorite — a run for its money!) while Jamie had the potato bisque with chive mushroom, pancetta and Wisconsin cheddar. For dinner, I got the lamb cassoulet (think of a  deconstructed version) with beans, housemade sausage and kale; Jamie ordered the pork carnitas with white hominy, roasted pepper, radish escabeche and avacado mousse. For dessert, we shared poached pears with a very intense gorganzola gelato and frisee (this could easily start a meal, too).

All I can say is that this was a very memorable meal and will go down as one of our favorites. If you are heading to Chicago soon, you need to eat here. We were blown away by the presentations, taste, staff, decor and everything in between. Even if I had to, I wouldn’t be able to pick which dinner I liked better, mine or Jamie’s – they both exceeded expectations and then some.

The next day started off at The Bongo Room – another favorite of ours that we usually try to hit up for a late breakfast. We always go to the Bucktown location, but on this visit went to the South Loop one instead. We both enjoyed our breakfast, but agreed it wasn’t the same and something was just a bit off. So if you go, be sure to head to Bucktown/Wicker Park instead.

In trying to try new places on this visit, we made reservations to The Publican, the newest restaurant from Paul Kahan, the executivechef/owner behind Avec and Blackbird, two favorites of ours. We had every intention of going. And I knew we’d have a great meal and wouldn’t be sorry if we went. But Avec is our place. I’ve been to Avec every year since he opened, sometimes twice a year. We couldn’t not go.

We went rather early at were able to quickly snag a seat at one of the communal tables. We started with the chorizo-stuffed medjool dates (even though we attempt to make these at home, we have to order them because they put ours to shame) and warm red quiona salad with apples, cabbage, roasted parsnips, walnuts and raisins plus a bottle of Quindals Emporda red wine. Now mind you, this would have been plenty of food. Even though the menu classified these as small plates, we were rather full by the end of this course – and beyond happy with our selections. But of course we had more coming: housemade tagliatelle with oxtail, spinach, cauliflower, harissa and smoked orange gremolta plus wood-oven braised pork shoulder with chestnut-bacon dumplings, butternut squash, kale and topped with fresh herbed puff pastry. This weekend was almost like our fond farewell to cold weather comfort foods because each dish fits cozily into this category – especially the aforementioned pork shoulder. This dish alone, was so so good, it almost reminded me of Thanksgiving with its chestnuts and squash. And to finish it off, a small piece of edel de cleron from France (yep, this is why it’s nothing but green smoothies for the next few weeks).

Speaking of the dates, here’s the version we regularly create at home. On this visit, we learned the dates are routinely made by a guy named George (since day 1) and for the sauce, they use jarred roasted peppers (I was surprised by that, but apparently the chef has yet to find something she likes better). I use tomatoes, but will try this next time.

I’m sure it’s a cardinal sin of sorts to visit cities like Chicago and regularly go to the same places. But I don’t care. I do this at home – often and for very good reason. These places earn your continual support. When I’m in Chicago, I will always squeeze in a trip to Avec, just like I can’t visit NYC and not go to Babbo. While I still want to try The Publican, Avec  has never let us down and continues to impress year after year.

One last note, we had every intention of stopping in The Violet Hour for a drink but never made it. I haven’t been, but have heard from numerous people that this  place is worthy of a visit. Think Velvet Tango Room, but slightly bigger and more offerings (from what I gather).


  1. Posted March 15, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I was in Chicago this past weekend too. I tried Zodiac for lunch with kiddos (easy when shopping on Michigan Ave) and loved the little shot of organic chicken broth served with rolls. Yummo. Also tried The Peninsula’s brunch on Sunday – I am still thinking about it today.

  2. Michelle V
    Posted March 16, 2010 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I’m going back in June and taking our daughter, I’ll have to try these places with her. I didn’t mention in the post, but the coolest part about Chicago was that families were everywhere! Even at Graham Elliot, there were kids in for dinner – and they were great and no one seemed to give it a second thought. I just love that.

  3. Suzie
    Posted March 16, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    I just took a weekend trip to Baltimore with my boyfriend and we stayed at Hotel Monaco at the suggestion of close friends who are big fans of the Kimpton group. This one is fairly new (fall 2009). We loved it. We experienced great service during our short visit and will now always make it a point to stay at a Kimpton when possible. Sorry to hear that they are neglecting one location, especially while constructing another. Too bad.

    Thanks for the information about some great eateries in Chicago. I am making a trip there in May and will put some of these places on my list.

  4. Kristenwags
    Posted March 16, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    So excited to visit Chicago in May. We’ve got Frontera and Avec on the list. As well as MK. Graham Elliot sounds like a must though!

    Gotta keep my eyes open as to the family-friendliness as suggested. Dining with our 9-m-o is easy, it’s the almost 3-y-o who’s a challenge! That’s a crazy age. Timing is everything at that age though.

  5. Posted March 16, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I am salivating as I read your post today! I am so glad I found your blog! I live in the Cleveland area and am loving all your tips for the best treats and wines around town! Hoping to take a trip to Chicago in late summer..going to print out this post and hope to get to dine in one or two of these places you write about!!! Happy Tuesday! :)

  6. Posted March 16, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Was at the same show seeing some customers , was at the bar at avec/blackbird with my daughter saturday night . Publican is one of my favorites. He also opened a taco joint in Wicker Park on Damen Ave. Tacos are in the 3 to 4 dollar range and they were awesome. I would also recommend a place called Nightwood in Pilsen ( they also own LuLa Cafe ) , been there 4 or 5 times and have never been disappointed. Rootstock is another good one

  7. Jessica
    Posted March 18, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    I love my Vita-Mix! I would love to know what you put in your Green Smoothie?

  8. mark
    Posted March 18, 2010 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    Forgot to mention your fine dining experience on the trade show floor in the Windy City. I think the place was called Connie’s Pizza.
    BTW, our VitaMix worked overtime the last 3 days.

  9. Michelle V
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Jessica – Isn’t it the greatest machine? I always start with a mix of kale and spinach and then whatever fruit I have, usually a mix of frozen berries and 1/2 a banana, plus some flax seed and splash of OJ.