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In case your are looking to have at least one special meal while in Chicago, Chicon 2000 presents Leah Zeldes Smith's guide to the upper echelon of Chicago dining.
The publisher's paying.... You really want to impress somebody.... Or you simply want to sample the best Chicago has to offer.... Whatever the reason you want to spend real money for a sensational, dressy dinner while you're at Chicon, you couldn't do better. While Chicago offers fabulous fare in every price range, our top restaurants are world-class. But dining in them requires advance planning. While you might get lucky and chance upon a cancellation, if you call when you get here, you're better off making reservations well ahead.
Besides ordinary weekend crowds, Chicago's annual Jazz Festival will be attracting people downtown during Chicon, so restaurateurs warn that the weekend will be busy, especially at peak dining hours on Friday and Saturday night. Don't risk disappointment - call ahead. Most top dining rooms will take reservations up to three months in advance. For the most exclusive table in town, six months is de rigueur.
Men should pack a jacket and tie - most of the upper-echelon restaurants require them, and even when that's not the mandatory dress code, it's customary. Women have a wider range of possibilities, of course, but forget about denim and wear real shoes - these are definitely dress-up places.
I've listed the restaurants that are arguably Chicago's top 10. Which you should choose depends on what you want from dinner. If you want an intensive experience on the cutting edge of cuisine, go to Charlie Trotter's. If you're interested in complex and interesting fare in a livelier atmosphere, try Tru. For a more relaxed experience with very fine cuisine, attentive service and posh surroundings, you can't do better than The Dining Room. The most romantic atmosphere is to be found at Everest, Ambria and The Pump Room; the best views are at Everest and Spiaggia. If you prefer French, American, Italian or something more exotic, there are options here.
Several of these are within a mile of Chicon's site, but I have also included some that are worth making an expedition for.
Charlie Trotter is probably Chicago's most famous chef. His namesake restaurant, an AAA Five-Diamond and Mobile Five-Star award winner, is a culinary mecca for foodies from around the world (though a cab ride - 3½ miles - from the Chicon hotels). Trotter, named the James Beard Foundation 1999 chef of the year, serves unique, formal fare containing elements of many cuisines, and based on fresh and costly ingredients - Japanese beef, for example, organic vegetables, line-caught fish.
Trotter's offers only two menu choices: a regular degustation and a vegetable one (not vegetarian, per se, though it can be if you ask). Either is Trotter's choice of six to 10 exquisite small courses, elaborately and elegantly presented, and will cost $90 to $100 per person. A selection of wines to match generally costs about $65.
Meals at Trotter's are memorable, almost overwhelming. Dining here requires concentration to appreciate the complex flavors. One course might be a square of tuna layered with osetra caviar, smoked salmon, horseradish potato salad and a pair of tiny oysters, followed by a little plate of shiitake mushroom risotto with red-wine sauce, or a lobster claw with jicama slaw and vanilla-scented anglais sauce.
The dining room is small, hushed, elegant and unadorned - Trotter wants nothing to interfere with his food. Service is attentive but starchy. This is probably not the place for complex negotiations over a publishing contract.
There are two seatings nightly, Tuesdays through Saturdays. To guarantee a table, make reservations three months ahead, though it's barely possible that a cancellation will get you in if you call just before Chicon.
The most exclusive dining spot, however, requires reservations six months in advance - to the day, or it will be booked - which is when Trotter's opens its book for the celebrated kitchen table. At this table (seating four to six), you can watch the action and talk to the chef while you eat your dinner of 12 to 15 courses ($150).
312/202-0001 or toll-free: 888/LETTUCE; fax: 312/202-0003
676 N. St. Clair St., Chicago, IL 60611
Opened just this year, Tru is poised to give Trotter's a run for its money. Husband-and-wife chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand have teamed with Chicago's well-known Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant group to present a fine-dining restaurant with both high-impact food and a sense of fun. The airy open dining room is full of energy, with nice but silly touches like padded purse rests.
Like Trotter's, the menu is prix-fixe, but you can have as few as three (regular-sized) courses for $70, or go for one of the more elaborate tasting menus of smaller dishes for $75 to $125. And they'll accommodate you if you'd really rather have a lighter meal, too.
Tramonto's cooking is complex, but earthier and less fussy than Trotter's. He is fond of witty creations like cappuccino of carrot with orange, a soup served in a coffee cup and topped with foamed milk; "Mirror Image of Tartars," made with tuna, salmon and yellowtail; or a "Surf and Turf" of ahi tuna and sauteed foie gras in a pinot noir reduction. The signature caviar appetizer features a variety of fish roes, from sevruga to wasabi-flavored tobiko; its serving dish, a custom-designed glass staircase, is just a forerunner of the restaurateurs' fascination with funky dinnerware.
Gand is the pastry chef and her desserts are spectacular: options like a duo of blood-orange and chocolate souffles; rhubarb poached in strawberry juice with strawberry mousse and candied rose petals; and fudge tart with caramelized banana, peanut-butter ice cream and cabernet-infused caramel.
The private chefs' table is separated by a glass wall from cooking operations, but you still get plenty of attention from the chefs. They also have another private room on the mezzanine. Tru is normally open for dinner Mondays through Saturdays; at press time, they didn't know if they'd be open on Labor Day. Weekend reservations should be made three months ahead, especially for the chefs' table off the kitchen.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago
312/573-5222 or toll-free: 800/621-6906; fax: 312/266-1194
Water Tower Place, 160 E. Pearson St., Chicago, IL 60611-2124
This is my favorite restaurant. Chef Sarah Stegner's contemporary French cooking is creative without being twee, immensely satisfying and easy to appreciate. Stegner was the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year in 1994 and its 1998 Best Chef in the Midwest. Her sumptuous cuisine features dishes like foie gras with figs in a port reduction or glazed with a balsamic rhubarb sauce; sea bass over fingerling potatoes with saffron and tomato remoulade; and salad of warm goat cheese with cucumbers, olive bread and almonds in tomato vinaigrette. Pastry Chef En-Ming Hsu does exquisite things with fruit, chocolate, sugar and whatever other sweet things you can think of. One particularly memorable dessert was poached peaches on a bed of mascarpone, drizzled with a concord-grape reduction and topped with a perfect blown-sugar peach. Dining Room Manager and Sommelier Steven Lande is inspired at wine pairings. The cheese course alone is to die for.
But as much as the food, it's the atmosphere. The elegantly appointed dining room just breathes comfort. A bevy of servers is attentive to your every need, without being at all hovering or stuffy about it.
Your meal will cost about $70 per diner. The Dining Room is open for dinner Mondays through Saturdays (though closed on Labor Day) and brunch on Sunday. The brunch buffet is awe-inspiring - both for its extensive range of choices and its $48 price, which seems hard to justify, unless you stay there eating all day (not a bad idea, at that - who cares about programming when you can have food like this?). You can probably still get a weekend reservation if you call three weeks ahead.
Seasons at the Four Seasons Hotel
312/649-2349; fax: 312/280-9184
120 E. Delaware Place (900 N. Michigan Ave.), Chicago, IL 60611-1428
Almost a secret treasure - housed in a sister hotel a few blocks away, Seasons is just a smidge more casual than The Dining Room; the room and the service are possibly a bare trifle less luxe. But that fits the cuisine, which is American instead of French. Chef Mark Baker gets less press than his colleague at the Ritz, but that is no reflection on his marvelous modern fare, which relies on the freshest of seasonal produce and a restrained but innovative sprinkling of flavors from far flung cuisines. Consider lobster and scallop risotto with roasted salmon; guinea hen with blackberry juice; ethereally light Jonah crabcakes.
Pastry Chef Steve Stimson's desserts might include a milk-chocolate pyramid, dusted with gold leaf and dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World," with a filling of chocolate mousse and caramelized bananas, or berry cobbler, made according to Baker's mother's recipe. This is a favorite dining spot for some of Chicago's biggest wine collectors.
Seasons is not to be confused with Seasons Café, the less-expensive, casual restaurant also in the hotel. The dining room is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Mondays through Saturdays and Sunday brunch, and it will be open on Labor Day. You can probably get a reservation two to three weeks ahead. Dinner will likely cost $60 to $70 per person.
312/280-2750; fax: 312/943-8560
980 N. Michigan Ave., 2nd Floor, Chicago, IL 60616
In a city full of great Italian restaurants, this is the best. It offers a sleek dining room, a wonderful view of Michigan Avenue, and Chef Paul Bartolotta's brilliant New Italian cooking. Seafood is a fabulous option here - Bartolotta gets the best: Mediterranean sea bass in citrus sauce; wood-roasted scallops over greens with truffle vinaigrette; and, if you're very lucky, glass eels in butter with sage. Meats, pastas, risotti and everything else excel, too. The chef uses a light hand that lets the high quality of his ingredients shine through. Henry Bishop may be the least flamboyant wine steward in town, but he's super-knowledgeable and has worked with the chef so long he has an almost-perfect understanding of what wines will match the food.
Dinner at Spiaggia will probably cost $60 to $70 per person. Spiaggia is open for lunch Tuesdays through Saturdays and for dinner seven days a week. At press time, they didn't know whether they'd be open on Labor Day. Reservations should be made six to seven weeks ahead.
312/663-8920 or toll-free: 888/LETTUCE; fax: 312/663-8802
One Financial Plaza, 440 S. LaSalle St., 40th Floor, Chicago, IL 60605
Everest is literally the top of the pack. It isn't the loftiest restaurant in Chicago - that's the Signature Room on the 95th floor of the John Hancock building (a good spot for brunch) - but it's definitely Chicago's most elevated restaurant reaching these heights of cuisine. Chef Jean Joho's Alsatian-influenced French restaurant offers luxurious atmosphere, excellent views and the finest of Old World-inspired cuisine prepared from the freshest of American ingredients.
An amuse-bouche of savory mousse - perhaps velvety cauliflower fondant topped with caviar and a sprig of dill - will be served on a long-handled spoon shortly after you sit down. Foie gras terrine with marinated figs is a specialty here, as is salmon soufflé. Other Joho signatures include sea bass wrapped in thin slices of crisply roasted potato and pot au feui of beef tenderloin with horseradish cream. The star may be the lobster in gewürztraminer butter spiked with ginger.
Such haute cuisine, coupled with excellent service, is the reason Everest has deservedly received the Five-Diamond Award from AAA and the Five-Star Award from the Mobil Travel Guide. Dinner at Everest will run about $70 per person, though a three-course "pre-theater" menu is available early in the evening for about $45, without wine, and there is also usually a seven-course tasting menu for $80. Everest is open for dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays. Weekend reservations are needed six to eight weeks ahead, and can be made up to three months ahead. Everest's location is a short cab ride from the Chicon hotels (1½ miles).
847/541-7470; fax: 847/541-7489
269 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling , IL 60090
Before Charlie Trotter opened his doors, if you'd asked a foodie to name the top Chicago restaurant, he'd have unhesitatingly said "Le Francais." Never mind that the place is in northwest suburban Wheeling, 27 miles and at least 45 minutes' drive from downtown. Chef Jean Banchet opened this French restaurant in 1973, and quickly brought it to international acclaim. The menu in those days was classic haute cuisine, rich with unctuous sauces. Ten years ago, though, Banchet leased the place to Chefs Roland and Mary Beth Liccione, who kept the world-class reputation while giving it a nouveau treatment. But now the lease is up and Banchet is back.
The menu, I am given to understand, is lighter than Banchet of old, but still more classic than not. Feuilletee of cod brandade, par exemple, offers the classic cod, pounded with olive oil layered into puff pastry and topped with a quail egg for an update of the traditional version. And pan-seared foie gras with sauternes sauce and fresh figs, and sweetbreads with foie gras-stuffed quail are as classic as you could want. But there is also the very modern ravioli - a sheet of homemade tri-color pasta blanketing an arrangement of lobster, shrimp, spinach and mushrooms, with lobster sauce. Raspberry soufflé and tarte tatin number among dessert choices. Under Banchet's previous administration and under the Licciones, Le Francais was an AAA Five-Diamond Award and a Mobile Five-Star Award winner; I see little reason to think those designations will change.
Le Francais is open for dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays, and lunch Tuesdays through Fridays. You should make a reservation a month ahead, which is all they'll allow.
It will likely cost about $80 each to eat there, and one classic Banchet touch remains unchanged: The waiter will delicately ascertain who the host of your party is - and only that person's menu will list the prices.
773/472-5959 or toll-free: 888/LETTUCE; fax: 773/472-9077
Belden-Stratford Hotel, 2300 Lincoln Park West, Chicago, IL 60614
Another of the Lettuce Entertain You organization's upper-echelon restaurants, an AAA Five-Diamond Award winner. Chef Gabino Sotelino is in charge of the kitchen here, turning out French fare with contemporary flair. You'll find dishes such as sauteed sweetbreads on a bed of roasted belgian endive with tomato basil sauce; rack of lamb with potatoes dauphinoise and tarragon sauce; sautéed duck breast with figs, shiitake mushrooms and foie gras in sherry sauce; and black bass with fresh-fruit chutney. Add a world-class wine list, a charming room and impeccable service.
It will probably cost about $60 for dinner if you order a la carte. There are also several five-course tasting menus, including vegetable and shellfish options, for $50 to $65, and an eight-course grand degustation, for $70.
You should make your reservation four to six weeks out, although you can do so up to three months ahead, and probably ought to if you'd like to sit at Ambria's chef's table. Getting there will require a taxi (3½ miles).
The Pump Room
312/266-0360; fax: 312/266-9866
Omni Ambassador East Hotel, 1301 N. State Parkway, Chicago, IL 60610
Opened 1938 by Ernie Byfield, The Pump Room is one of Chicago's landmarks. It was, historically, the place to see and be seen (a role now probably held by Gibson's Steakhouse or the Michael Jordan-owned one sixtyblue). The Pump Room's celebrated Booth One was a vied-for spot among the rich and famous who ordered a variety of viands brought to them flaming on skewers. A huge collection of celebrity diners' photographs decorates its foyer. But Booth One is long gone and a great many changes have happened over the years. Last year the restaurant underwent a change of ownership (one of several in its history) and a $2 million restoration. The kitchen is now in the hands of Chef Martial Noguier, whose cuisine is classically French, with a bit of international fusion here and there.
The Gold Coast salad, a Pump Room classic, has been updated with chips of dried pear to sweeten and add texture to the traditional greens and blue cheese. Appetizers of sweetbreads with a ragout of enoki mushrooms and smoked-salmon and cream-cheese terrine are new, as are entrées such as duck breast over a mix of couscous with dried cherries and sea bass in vegetable bouillabaisse and olive tapenade. A nod to the restaurant's fiery past comes in form of individual baked Alaskas.
The food is exemplary; the room is elegant. Reports on service, however, have been mixed. Dinner at The Pump Room will probably cost about $60. It's open for breakfast and dinner daily, and lunch Mondays through Fridays, and will be open on Labor Day. It offers live jazz with dancing on some nights, and there are still celebrities to be spotted there from time to time. Reserve two to three months ahead. It's a short cab ride from the Chicon hotels (1½ miles).
4156 N. Kedzie Ave., Chicago , IL 60625
Ask many of Chicago's chefs to name their favorite eatery, and it will be this one, Chef Arun Sampanthavivat's namesake restaurant. Its nondescript exterior and working-class ethnic neighborhood hide a quiet, formal interior and food that's been described at the best Thai cuisine outside of Bangkok.
There's no menu. You pay $75 per diner, and get a 15-plus-course dinner tailored to your tastes after the waiter quizzes you on your preferences: "Do you like spicy?" "How adventurous are you?" "Is there anything you don't like?" "Do you have any food allergies?" If you and your party agree on things, you'll get a family-style feast; if everyone has different tastes, individual selections will be served.
You might get a trio of curries: fragrant masaman beef curry, then poached sea bass and cabbage in souplike sour curry, followed by delicate fried catfish in a light red curry, and then a variety of dumplings, such as light, pork-filled pockets with chili-shallot dipping sauce, or a collection of salads, such as seafood and grilled vegetables.
Arun's is open for dinner Tuesdays through Sundays. You should reserve at least three or four weeks ahead, and they'll take your reservation up to two months ahead. You need to be sure of your plans, however, because the restaurant requires a credit-card guarantee on its reservations, and will charge for last-minute cancellations. It's 8 miles from the Chicon hotels, so you'll need to take a taxi or have an adventure in public transit if you don't have wheels.
In her day job, SF writer Leah A. Zeldes (a k a Leah Zeldes Smith) is the managing editor in charge of food, entertainment and general features for Chicago's Lerner Newspapers chain.
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