Chicago_2 Pocket cemera photos by Donna unless noted

With both kids overlapping at camp for one all-too-brief week, Donna and I took a quick trip to Chicago and were immediately rapt by its fantastic architecture, open vistas and clean river.  What a gorgeous, friendly city.  First thing we did was take an architectural river tour which set the whole tone of the trip.  Highly recommend these.

Paul Kahan and Avec chef Koren Grieveson had just been in Cleveland the weekend before doing an SOS dinner at Lola and we'd seen them and so were inspired to visit Paul's new restaurant Publican, and then, of course, have a second meal at Avec immediately after.  Why are Paul's restaurants so successful? P1060617_2 Yes, it's that he serves crispy pig skin and an awesome duck heart and liver open-faced sandwich, but also he's there working these restaurants.  When we arrived he was fussing with a sprinkler out front and would soon be in the kitchen shucking oysters.  He's a cook's cook.  He has no interest in writing a book or doing a show.  He makes restaurants, serves the food that he personally loves, and as he pointed out, he gets simpler and simpler with each new place.  Blackbird is fine dining, Avec goes more casual, Publican has an awesome beer list and serves very rustic fare, and his next spot will be a tacqueria.

Martin09_0292 We met Martin and Lara Kastner here (that's him at left, photo by Lara).  Lara shot the photos for the Alinea cookbook.  Martin designed the entire thing, and the two went to China to oversee the printing. Martin's seems to me, well, not unsung but not sung enough in the success of this award-winning and innovative restaurant, having conceived, designed, and made many of the serviceware pieces that are integral to what have become signatures of the Alinea, where Donna and I concluded our trip. Items such as the squid, the antenna, the antibowl, and the paraffin bowl in which the hot potato cold potato soup is served.

I was delighted that Grant has rethought his no-old-dishes mandate and fits some of his signature dishes into his tasting menu, for us the aforementioned soup and the black truffle explosion.

Our meal was excellent, service more accomplished than ever, but what stood out for me besides the remarkable wines was the lack of pyrotechnics.  Grant Achatz has been a leader in progressive cuisine, pushing the envelope in terms of unusual ingredients, unconvential serving devices.  While there was some of this, the food and its flavors and textures were the focus.

Dessert blog Though one of the final courses, a dessert course, was one I hadn't seen before and I found fascinating and fun and, yes, delicious.  A dessert course in which the the table is cleared, a silicon table cloth is laid down, and one or two of the chefs appear and throw down your dessert.  This really is doing a Jackson Pollack, sans cigarette.  It would all be for nothing, of course, if it weren't such a tasty mix of chocolate and sauces. (Grant discusses it here, in one of his many excellent pieces for The Atlantic online.)

What a fun, beautiful, beautifully designed city Chicago is. Our biggest regret was how many great restaurants we were unable to see.  Next time, more time.

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26 Wonderful responses to “Chicago”

  • John Bowers

    I like how you specifically state that these are “pocket camera” photos by Donna. Cause you know she doesn’t want people thinking she took those with her main gear!

  • Natalie Sztern

    My sister lives in Chicago and it is a second home to me. I admit, though, amongst all I do there I must have one meal at anything Rick Bayliss. i remember the first time i went to visit about twenty-odd yrs ago after she settled in married life and was absolutely blown away by the line-up outside restaurants. Montreal NEVER gets an outside line-up ‘cept for Schwartz’s perhaps – it still blows my mind seeing people wait in line for a meal which they still did last time i was there (I won’t even wait in line for a movie)

    But i gotta say The Chef Was In the House that night and it was really good to see him walk the room – not imposing on anyone

    Does that happen everywhere a popular restaruant exists?

  • Stefan

    Michael, my wife and I were the couple sitting at the table across from you and Donna that night. Normally, I would have approached you for a chat. But when we heard you say it was your anniversary, I left you to your privacy. My own wife thanked me for that…on behalf of wives everywhere!

    I couldn’t help but peek over at you guys occasionally, though. Part of the fun of Alinea is watching other diners’ reactions! First timers for the Black Truffle Explosion are especially entertaining.

    We were hoping Donna enjoyed the experience (we couldn’t tell from our discrete glances!). Did we hear correctly that it was her first time at Alinea? What did she think?

  • chef gui

    Thanks for the post. I visited Chicago for the first time a couple of months ago. It was fantastic.

    I got to spend an evening in the kitchen of chef Achatz and that my friends was a treat.

  • Mark S.

    Being a Chicago resident and a regular visitor to the Publican, my favorite thing on a ridiculously good menu is the waffle. Strange, but true. Crispy on the outside and impossibly light inside, it is a great end to a great meal of pork, oysters and beer. My favorite version was the pickled rhubarb.

  • Kate in the NW

    How long until Chef Achatz has an all-out, all-restaurant food-fight as part of the menu?

    (And I say this in all due and well-earned awe, respect, and good humor…)

  • Tyler

    That beer list at Publican is enough to bring a tear to this beer geek’s eye.

  • Carol

    Ohhh, I’m so jealous. My husband and I are in the early stages of planning a dining vacation in Chicago. I have my heart set on making it to Alinea; now I must add the Publican to my list. Any place with crispy pig skin is gonna be good.

  • Annie

    I came to this on the heels of reading The Amateur Gourmet’s saga of his meal at El Bulli, and I’m awed by the creativity of these chefs. I’m curious, does inventiveness like this change your outlook about cooking as art vs. cooking as craft at all?

  • Lisa H.

    Glad to hear you enjoyed another trip to Chicago. I was born and raised in Cleveland and have lived in Chicago for three years, and I still can’t seem to get enough. Any chance you’ll be doing a book-signing next time you are in town?

  • Eddie Lakin

    Great to see that you enjoyed my town. Next time you’re here, you should make the effort to get out into some of the wonderful neighborhoods. Cheers!

  • sygyzy

    For those of you who haven’t read Grant’s pieces, the tablecloth is made out of silicon. It is not “cloth” as in cotton.

    The maple bubble would have worked just fine.

  • Dick Black

    I am glad to learn that there are still chefs out that have no desire to write a cookbook or appear in their own TV show.
    Far too much crap out there in print and on the air.

  • elizabeth

    I’ve always had a difficult relationship with Chicago for a variety of reasons, but I’ve only been there for work and therefore never get to explore the city properly.

    I was there for three weeks for orientation at my first job, but a lack of funds (I had just graduated college, and we had a very small food budget) prevented me from enjoying the city’s fine cuisine–though I did go to a nice little tequilla bar in Wicker Park that had excellent Mexican food. The more I read about the restaurant culture there (especially Alinea), though, the more it makes me want to plan a quick trip of my own there!

  • Shauna from Piece of Cake

    Ahh…Sweet Home Chicago. Single tear.

    I love the fact that Chicago’s restaurant culture is so much like the theater world there–it’s not about the glitz and showmanship like NY and LA eateries; it’s about the work. That’s what makes the food there so epic. You can taste that passion for cooking whether you’re at Wiener Circle or Alinea.

  • Shaggywillis

    I was at Alinea last week as well and did the tasting menu, so we got the chocolate dessert, but it was served on a plate and not on the table as seen above. I have to say, I questioned that process afterwards b/c there is a maple consume type bubble that we were told to burst first and I don’t think you would get the same flavor experience on the cloth vs. a plate. Just something I’ve been pondering. Welcome to Chicago, glad you had a great time. I love living here and the food get’s better and better.