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Travel Tip: Chicago Dining

A guide to some of the top tables in the Windy City

Harvey Steiman
Posted: October 24, 2011

Note: this is an excerpt of "The Vanguard in Chicago," an article by Harvey Steiman in the October 31, 2011 issue of Wine Spectator.

These Chicago restaurants, reviewed by Wine Spectator editor at large Harvey Steiman, reflect a vibrant, eclectic mix of cutting-edge and retro, and originality in everything from steak houses and haute cuisine to a rustic Mediterranean bistro. These restaurants underline Chicago's reputation as a food city of innovation and quality, with wine lists to match.

953 W. Fulton Market
Telephone: (312) 226-0858
Website: www.nextrestaurant.com
Open: Dinner, nightly
Cost: Chef's menu $65-$110; beverage pairings $58-$75

Chef Grant Achatz, already a culinary superstar with his avant-garde Alinea, tacks into a different wind with Next, which opened in April. It is, quite literally, the hottest ticket in town. And a ticket it is, for rather than take reservations and present a bill after dinner, Next sells your admission in advance. The menu is preset, just like a theatrical or musical program, and it will change four times a year, just as a repertory company changes plays.

For their opening act, "Paris 1906," Achatz and his executive chef at Next, David Beran, harked back to the days of chef Auguste Escoffier at the Ritz. On my spring visit to Chicago, Next lived up to the hype, and then some. Not only was the food magnificent, it actually seemed to transport one back in time 105 years to see and taste the cuisine as Escoffier might actually have done it. By July 1, however, Paris 1906 was gone, replaced with the next idea, a tour of Thai cuisine. Menu, decor, beverages, the whole scene changed. In October, "Childhood" supplanted Thai.

Next has no wine list. Instead, for the Paris menu, sommeliers poured preselected wines by the glass with each dish. Also available was a reserve set, which in this case included a vivid Vincent Carré Champagne Brut NV and Domaine Brusset Gigondas 2005.

500 N. Michigan Ave.
Telephone: (312) 464-1744
Website: www.thepurplepigchicago.com
Open: Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost: Small plates $7-$17

The Purple Pig executes Italian, southern French and Spanish classics, nearly all of them involving pork, with simplicity and directness. Occupying a ledge off Michigan Avenue overlooking East Illinois Street, the outdoor tables are the place to be in nice weather. Inside, it's crowded and bustling. The Purple Pig is the brainchild of Jimmy Bannos Jr., who grew up at Heaven on Seven, his father's New Orleans-style restaurant. He also worked at Mario Batali's New York restaurants. The results amply demonstrate how much he learned. The Pig is a hit.

Lardo on crostini, fine slices of rosemary-tinged cured fatback draped over rustic toasts, taste as good as they do in Italy. Pork neck "gravy," a red sauce flavored with the bones, mingles with a scoop of fresh ricotta. Another favorite dish was the pig's ear with kale, pickled cherry peppers and a fried egg. The ear, thinly sliced and fried to a crackle, tasted like potato stix of the gods, and the kale was light and crisp. Mixed with the egg, it was heavenly.

The well-selected compact wine list (approximately 250 wines), heavy on Italy and Spain, includes names such as Gaja and Numanthia Termes, but we happily sipped La Mozza Morellino di Scansano I Perazzi from a carafe for $28.

300 N. LaSalle
Telephone: (312) 329-1800
Website: www.chicagocutsteakhouse.com
Open: Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, nightly; brunch, Saturday and Sunday
Cost: Entrées $19-$55

On the steak house scene, long a Chicago strength, the new place in town is Chicago Cut. Its picture windows open onto the Chicago River, and the restaurant eschews the masculine trappings of most meat-and-potato joints. How many steak houses offer sushi or a chicken BLT?

Chicago Cut molds itself as a contemporary steak house. Even the wine list of 600-plus bottlings is up-to-date, coming as it does on an iPad. Its listings are strong on younger reds from California and Oregon as well as key players in Bordeaux and the Rhône.

On our visit, the New York strip steak, advertised as U.S. Prime, sported the requisite crust, heft and juiciness. Among the side dishes, grilled asparagus hit the spot but a fresh-shucked corn dish, a great idea, came overcooked. The setting and an attitude that minimizes the masculine aspects of other steak houses make it stand out.

Elysian Hotel, 11 E. Walton St.
Telephone: (312) 880-4400
Website: www.riarestaurantchicago.com
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost ­Entrées $38-$65; chef's menus $110 and $175

For fine dining, one of the city's most compelling new places is Ria, a sleek, modern dining room that opened in 2009 on the third floor of the plush Elysian Hotel. In February, 29-year-old Danny Grant, who had worked at the celebrated NoMi, replaced opening chef Jason McLeod, who had earned two Michelin stars for the restaurant in its first year. Grant's food exhibits a winning style of subtle, uncluttered flavors, something to keep in mind when selecting from the brief menu of five first courses and five mains.

On paper, duck egg with English peas, bottarga and orange might suggest a flavor clash, but the dish struck a delicate, pinpoint balance. Likewise, the flavor of jamón Iberico added only a haunting meaty grace note to wild sea bass and razor clams.

This kind of food opens up all kinds of possibilities for sommelier Dan Pilkey's long wine list, which seems to draw from every notable wine region. At more than 1,100 selections, including 37 by the glass, there's room for surprises such as Királyudvar Furmint Sec from Tokaji, ideal with seafood. Impressive verticals of American Cabernets feature the likes of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1984 in magnum. Spanish Rioja Bodegas R. López de Heredia Viña Bosconia Grand Reserva 1947 is joined by select older vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy, while Pinot Noirs from California, Oregon and New Zealand round out the list at more modest prices.

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