I discovered while in Chicago that dining out could be very entertaining. Our meals were served with a flourish by choreographed waiters one course at a time. We felt pampered and I learned a new food term: Amuse Bouche (pr: amus boosh).
Let me translate for those, like me, who get home after work around 7 and heat up something frozen ’cause you’re too tired to cook anything and eating out means those local, noisy, casual bars/restaurants that have really great burgers, mexican or chinese food or takeout. Amuse bouche is a small appetizer, not on the menu at the chef’s discretion that can be eaten in one or two bites.
Each course was interesting with different tastes and unusual combinations of meat and sauces. Now I know what savoring each bite means. Not to mention the fun and adventure of eating in a really fine restaurant.
The first evening: North Pond Restaurant
First evening, we were at North Pond, a beautiful restaurant located right in Lincoln Park. Being right in the park, parking was problematic. They did have valet parking on the street behind the restaurant, but it was difficult to figure out where that was.
I forgot to get an interior photo so I borrowed this one from their website. I am such a sucker for Arts and Crafts buildings. I had assumed that it was a modern building decorated in the style of arts and crafts but found out later that it was an original; built in 1912 as a shelter for ice skaters. It was redesigned to keep the feel of the original building.
the restaurant features, “contemporary French-American, innovative, seasonal cuisine.” The menus focus on local produce and organic food and it is all served beautifully. I forgot to photo the amuse bouche, but it was salmon tartar served in a small pool of papaya puree – the two tastes really went well together. The first course for my sister was pea soup and potato, beautifully served.
I had the Prawn, Pea, which included some yummy spicy prawns, peas, some kind of greens which looked like clover and almonds.
We decided to forgo the salad and went right to the main course. Sister had the Alaskan Halibut and Zuchini…
while I had according to the menu, “Charred grass-fed Flatiron Steak, Smoked Lyonnaise Fingerling Potatoes, Grilled Little Gem Romaine, Roasted Beet Jus”. The red stripe on the plate wasn’t just decorative, it’s beet juice. Pretty and tasty. Delicious!
Dessert looked very beautiful but was probably the most disappointing. Sis had a chocolate type dessert and I had a Banana, Hazelnut combo. I can’t speak for the chocolate dessert, but I had a thin slice of a kind of hazelnut banana pudding, warm bits of banana bread and these banana chips that had a strong, sharp taste.
We decided to skip the wine, and try out cocktails. I had a Strawberry Bahia, which had pureed strawberries and coconut milk in the ingredients. Sis had some kind of citrusy martini which she let me taste. Yum!
It was a two-hour meal and full dark when we left. A few steps from the restaurant was the pond with a beautiful view of the city. And a full moon. A beautiful night.
The second evening: Tru
“It was a dark and stormy night” and M and I weren’t even sure if we were going to make it to the restaurant. The rain was falling and wind was blowing – hard. We were even more nervous when the tornado sirens sounded, and us, on the 20th floor. What were we supposed to do? Go down to the lobby?
Did the hotel even have a basement? I had never heard of tornadoes in downtown Chicago, but I suppose anything is possible. Luckily the rain and wind seemed to let up a little, and we decided to chance it. Because I wasn’t comfortable about driving in stormy weather, we decided to take a cab.
The cabby didn’t know where Tru was – we had to give him the address. Hmmm, the restaurant may not be well-known to cabbies for a couple of different reasons. Maybe good or maybe bad; we weren’t sure. The restaurant was in a black building with a simple sign on the outside. No fanfare, no hoopla announcing what was within. I almost didn’t see it. Neither did the cabbie. Luckily Sis has sharp eyes and got us there.
You could not find a restaurant more different from North Pond than Tru. We walked into a dark lobby and an empty bar area lit only by dim lights and candles. Even though we dressed up for the evening, I really felt underdressed. The dining area was very elegant and a little more high brow than I was used to. Pretentious comes to mind, except that the many people who served us that evening were very attentive to the two girls from Michigan. The waiter pulled out the table so I didn’t have to slide around on the banquette seating, and brought out an ottoman for M’s purse, to keep it off the floor.
Sister suggested that this may not be the right place to take photos….and I agreed. I left the camera in my purse and knew that any pictures would have to come from their website.
There was a person who brought us napkins on a tray for us to choose, two others poured out the water from bottles in tandem… with a choreographed flourish, another person brought us their drinks, another took our orders and served the food….and on and on. The place was practically empty – probably because of the storm – and we thought perhaps the waiters were putting it on for us because there wasn’t enough business to keep them busy.
Because of high prices, we decided to order ala carte and forgo the salad and dessert – from the prix fixe menu. But we wanted to continue our exploration of cocktails so I ordered a granny smith martini and sister ordered …
According to the website, they “offer progressive French cuisine at its finest. Tru delivers fresh ingredients, bold creativity and artistic presentation.”
Of course we had an amuse bouche, this time it was some kind of a puddinny type sauce but not sweet, covered with a crusty topping. The texture was interesting but I thought the North Pond’s amuse bouche was better. M disagreed, she much preferred this one.
The main course for me was the slow-cooked jidori chicken with summer truffle, celery and royal trumpet mushroom. The chicken was so tender, it could be cut with a fork and the mushrooms had a delicate taste. It was really very good, but you know, it still tasted like chicken in a mushroom sauce. I think I was hoping for a more exotic flavor. Sis ordered green asparagus and morel mushroom feuillette in a sherry cream sauce. She kept making noises over it so you know that it was really good.
A variety of little breads were brought to us on a tray more than once and we each chose something different. After the meal, even though we didn’t order dessert, they brought over a tray with several different kinds of chocolate truffles and little brownie type cakes.
We felt truly pampered through all this, but what really sold us was, as we were leaving, the host – who had a cab ready and waiting for us – gave us each a small fruit-filled muffin in a cellophane bag with their business card attached. Talk about going the extra mile. We had never experienced anything such as that before and probably never will again. The muffins served as breakfast the next morning and made the experience even more memorable than it already was.
The 3rd evening – Frontera Grill
As the most famous of the three restaurants we ate at, it was the most anticipated, also the most disappointing. They only took a few reservations and the rest of the public (us) were told that the wait could be 1 1/2 to 2 hours. It was a lovely afternoon so we decided go early and walk to the restaurant. We gave our names to the host and he told us that it would be about an hour and a half, but to come back to the desk in 40 minutes.
I loved the interior decor but my pictures came out poorly, so I grabbed these from the website. Very bright and fun. And very crowded.
Brightly colored paper-mache dragons leered at the customers in the crowded bar.
A very blurry photo but giving you the idea of how crowded it was.
We decided to walk on down to the river while we were waiting. We hung out listening to a band playing and watched some of the river traffic go by.
We got back in exactly 40 minutes and were given a beeper/buzzer thing that would go off when our table became available. So we sat and waited. And waited. We waited another hour and more but when the couple sitting next to us with a larger number got a table, Sister took charge and went to the desk. Apparently, they had crossed off our names – why? I don’t know but they scrabbled to find us a table right away. We ended up outside, under the awning. It wasn’t our first choice, cause traffic noise was loud, but by this time we were hungry and really needed to eat.
Because this was a Mexican meal, we had to have margaritas. We both consider this our favorite alcoholic beverage.
No amuse bouche tonight but some really good appetizers.
Sis had the Quesadillas Capitalinas: Mexico City-style quesadillas stuffed with jack cheese and fresh epazote and of course, guacamole.
Sister taught me another term from the culinary world: ceviche (seh-VEE-chay) which is where they take raw fish and “cook” it in the acid of citrus juice. So my appetizer was treated in this way with the shrimp and calamari.
As I said, we were very hungry, so when the main course appeared, we quickly made it disappear. I forgot to take photos. I had the Enchiladas de Mole Poblano which are homemade tortillas wrapped around chicken and doused with mole sauce along with black beans.
Sister had the Enchiladas de Pato al Pasilla: tortillas wrapped around duck carnitas (which is a spicy, shredded meat) with caramelized onions and sweet potato, and doused with sweet-spicy pasilla chile sauce. Frisee-watercress salad.
We knew that we hadn’t spent our budget for that evening yet, so we had to get dessert. Both of us had the chocolate pecan pie with kahlua whipped cream. At the first taste, both of said, in unison, Wow! I know Sis has a big weakness for pecan pie and my love for Kahlua is no secret. Put the two together with that wonderful stuff called chocolate and, let’s face it, it’s a little bit of heaven.
While we both enjoyed the meal, and we knew everything was homemade, including the tortillas, it didn’t seem to taste that much different from the Mexican food we already knew and loved. Rick Bayless and Frontera Grill are so highly acclaimed and so famous, we had really anticipated something special, and instead got good but nothing special, with the exception of the appetizers and dessert.
We decided that if we ever came to Frontera’s again, we would only order appetizers and dessert (oh, also more margaritas) and forget the main courses.
I did want to mention a couple of stand out meals found around town for our lunches. We spent our first full day in Lincoln Park and had lunch at a really nice diner on N Clark Street called The Golden Cup. It was all dark wood, with a luncheonette counter and well-worn booths covered in dark green vinyl. It specialized in Greek food. Sis had a gyros and I a gyros omelet. Very, very good and very good prices.
The second afternoon, I talked Sis into going to Chinatown with me. If you are looking for inexpensive souvenirs to bring home to the family, this is a good spot to get them. We were looking for dim sum and I said that we had to go to the Triple Crown Restaurant. I first went there in the mid-1990’s and was excited to see that it was still in business. Living in Kalamazoo, we have little opportunity to eat dim sum so we tried a little of this and a little of that – whatever looked good on the menu. We really didn’t know what we were ordering. It was delicious! Plus we got these little 8 oz aluminum bottles of diet coke that were so cute that we tucked them in our purses to take home after we drank the soda. They are so cool looking.
This ends part 2 of our adventures in Chicago-land, as my prize for winning a photo-contest for Midwest Living Magazine. The next, and final installment is a look at our sight-seeing and what we did when we weren’t eating.