I had such a great time on my trip to Chicago! One of the highlights of my trip was a boat tour on the river, showcasing the architecture of the buildings right alongside the river. It was really awesome. However, of course my favorite activities all involved food, and today you get to read all about the fabulous dinners I had here. Let me tell you, not all reservations were easy to come by, lunch or dinner. These Top Chef contestants know what they’re doing, their restaurants are outrageously popular. But of course I got them all, one with the help of Chef Joe Flamm (yes, I felt extra lucky). Needless to say, I highly recommend all these restaurants, each was delicous with varying types of great atmospheres. Some fun, some swanky, some relaxed and modern. I hope you seek them out, if you happen to live in or visit Chicago.
All I can say is wow. Joe Flamm just recently opened this beautiful restaurant, the food being a mix of Italian and Eastern European. Joe Flamm is the winner of Top Chef Season 15. A charismatic and charming young man, you get the immediate sense of man with a deep rooted decency and humbleness, you felt obliged to root for him, which of course paid off, since he won. He worked at one of Chicago’s best restaurants, Michelin starred Spiaggia, under Superstar Chef Tony Mantuano.
Rose Mary is just as humble as its owner. It is rustic, welcoming, and non-intimidating (if that is a word). The greatness of the food is almost surprising, if you are not actually aware of where exactly you just walked in. The menu is short and to the point, mostly made of small plates, which is of course my favorite. There is more to try this way. We ordered a bunch of dishes, one better than the next. It was the day after my birthday, and this was my last dinner in Chicago, before flying home to New York the next day. What is a birthday girl to do? I ordered a bottle of bubbly, and went to town. Our dishes were: Grilled Clams with smoked ramp butter (heavenly), Roasted Scallops with baby artichoke, burnt citrus and salmoriglio (outstanding), Grilled Chicken Wings with Calabrian Chile-basil vinaigrette (juicy and unexpected), Beef Burek (my absolute favorite), Tuna Crudo with crispy capers, shallot-beef fat vinaigrette and veal aioli (unbelievably delicous), and Crni, which is basically a risotto with squid ink, lobster brodo. confit squid and tarragon (a star on the menu). While everything was absolutely delicous, not one of the dishes was anything I ever tried before, or a the very least tried in that version. It’s always a major plus when a restaurant has something new for me to try, being that I literally eat out at least twice a week. This place should be on anyone’s list when visiting Chicago.
Barrio is a Mexican eatery owned by one of my absolute favorite Top Chef contestants, Katsuji Tanabe. He is a Mexican-Japanese immigrant, whose tag line is: I took a risk. As an immigrant myself, I can profoundly identify with this simple, yet deep and personality exposing statement. He lives life to his own drum beat, throwing norms to the wayside, all along winning and making impacts. He appeared on Top Chef Season 12, and made it to 6th place, and while he may not have won, he, without a doubt, stayed in everyone’s memory. I dare you to mention his name to any Top Chef fan, and they will all know who you’re talking about. He’s funny, opinionated, and passionate.
His restaurant Barrio is Mexican fare, however it has twists and turns, with an American influence. It’s huge, it’s fun, it’s a crowd pleaser. It was my first night in Chicago, and I was so ready for tacos and margaritas. I was not disappointed. We started with Barrio Nachos (aged Jack cheese, pickled red onions, black beans, jalapeños, charred tomato salsa, pico de Gallo and garlic cream), which was a classic, just kicked up a notch. Next were Chorizo & Potato Taquitos with roasted poblano crema, cotija cheese, pickled red onions and watercress. I never had anything like this, it was so good, please someone ask Katsuji to bring these to New York. Our tacos of choice were Smoked Brisket with cheddar cheese, avocado slaw, crispy onions and guajillo bbq sauce. This dish had the most obvious American twist, and it was just what the doctor ordered that day. 100% delicous. My absolute favorite dish that day were the Tuna Ceviche Tacos with a crispy wonton shell, pineapple, avocado, red onion, Serrano, lime and a honey soy sauce. I could easily have ten of these. Addictive. The whole experience was light hearted, fun and satisfying on every level. Two thumbs up.
I once attended a discussion at the Y on the Upper Eastside with Top Chef judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons and Graham Elliot, narrated by Food Critic Adam Platt. Here the audience was able to write questions on a piece of paper, that were then answered by the panel. One of the questions was: which is your favorite restaurant owned by a prior contestant? Nobody on stage was really committing to a specific restaurant at first, but then very quietly, Padma asked “Monteverde? In Chicago?”, to which no-one really answered. But I did. It stayed in my mind, I vowed to visit someday, see what the hype was all about. And I did, and yes, I see her point. Hailing from Texas, Sarah Grueneberg started her Chicago career at Spiaggia as well, mastering on every level. She appeared on Top Chef in season 9, coming in as the runner up, only second to Paul Qui. She was dedicated, passionate, opinionated, and determined. You would find yourself on the edge of your seat while watching her progress sometimes. I was definitely excited to try her food.
And she didn’t disappoint. Not even a little bit. The restaurant was sleek, elegant even. This was a hard reservation to come by, and I could see why. Everything here was upscale, without being stuffy or boring. It was the night of my birthday, and I couldn’t have picked a better spot to celebrate it. We started out with Burrata E Ham (rosemary tigelle, prosciutto die San Daniele, stone fruit mostarda and prosciutto butter), a heavenly plate of OMG. Super fresh, fluffy bread, we loved it. Next were Wagyu Skewers with rhubarb mostarda, spring onion and whipped Mangalitsa lardo. I admit, I don’t know most of these ingredients, but who cares, they came together in the most delicious manner. More please. My choice of pasta that evening was Gnocchetti Con Pesto with housemade ricotta, basil, Tuscan pine nuts and Sardinian Pecorino. Are you kidding me? Unbelievably delicous. My daughter Sasha picked Potato-filled Zlikrofi (possibly a German dish?) with roasted spring onion, Montasio cheese, brown butter, Mieli Thun honey and fresh shaved summer truffle. She said it was the best pasta she ever had in her life. Hands down. This is a must-try restaurant, Padma was right.
[Please excuse the poor quality of the pictures below. Not sure what happened, but I didn’t want to leave them out.]