Alinea – Chicago

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Alinea Logo

 

Alinea is on the list of “must eat” places for any “foodie”, and I certainly was no different.

The restaurant stopped taking reservations over the phone several years ago. Now, they sell “tickets”, which go on sale the month prior. Their reasoning was that it was taking two full time employees to answer the phones for reservations, and to make their reservations more “transparent” as anybody could see their schedule. Getting the preferred date and time is somewhat akin to winning the lottery.

Some say that getting the earliest reservation possible is the way to go, that way you don’t “see what’s coming” as servers bring dishes to neighboring tables.

The restaurant is located in a non-descript gray building on Halsted. If it weren’t for the very small valet parking sign, you would have a hard time finding the restaurant.

I was able to reserve a 5:00 PM reservation, the earliest available.

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Centerpiece
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“Flying” Lily & Shishito Pepper

After being seated, the noticeable things were the “centerpiece” of rosemary, mint and lemon rind in a pitcher, as well as a lily and shishito pepper hanging from the ceiling.

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Peach Aperitif

The meal began with an aperitif of a peach “juice ball” with basil on top of some frozen crumbles. We were instructed to just eat the peach ball first.

The next “course” used the water pitcher in which prosecco was poured into the pitcher then shaken to remove all of the bubbles. This was poured over the “frozen crumbles”, which was actually frozen alcohol. The dish together was somewhat reminiscent of a bellini.

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First Course

The next course consisted of 3 small dishes.

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Iberico Ham & Manchego Cheese

The first consisted of bread, Iberico ham and manchego cheese. The bread was pillowy soft, while the ham and cheese added a salty punch. This was a high class ham and cheese sandwich.

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Guindilla de Ibarra, Anchovy & Olive

The second was a gelatin cube with flavors of guindilla de Ibarra (a type of chili pepper), anchovy and olive.  Once again, this dish had a strong salty component to it.  This was not one of my favorites.

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Paprika, Chili & Garlic

The last dish consisted of paprika, chili and garlic.  Despite the strong flavor profiles of the ingredients, the taste was somewhat subdued and underwhelming.

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Gazpacho

The next course was a soup. Inside of the bowl, was a fennel tea with tapioca pearls and a gazpacho foam made of tomatoes and strawberries. We were given a metal boba straw to drink the soup. On the rim of the dish was a strawberry, tomato, basil, pumpernickel and burrata cheese. The soup was very refreshing and fun. On the rim of the dish, the tomato tasted like a strawberry, and the strawberry tasted like a tomato.

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Char Roe

The next dish was served in a bowl that looked like a shell that was sitting in another bowl with dry ice. The dry ice enveloped the shell looking dish with a thick fog which contained Arctic char roe, peas, olive oil and chamomile. The salty theme continued with the roe, but was mellowed with the peas and olive oil.

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Salad
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Salad

The next dish was a salad served on a slab of concrete. The salad consisted of white and green asparagus, fava beans, black truffles and a carrot dressing that was “spray painted” over the salad. The asparagus and fava beans were nice and firm, the black truffles adding some earthiness while the carrot dressing added a hint of sweetness. This was a nicely balanced, creative and fun.

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Prep for next course
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Goose Barnacles

The hanging squash blossom and chile were also brought into play. There was a black kettle and “charcoal” that were set on fire, but this was the beginning of the following course.

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Corn with Uni Butter & Togarashi
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Fish Cracker
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Goose Barnacle

There were several components to the dish. There corn with uni butter and togarashi; ice fish cracker with smoked Hamachi tartar and kombu seaweed. Lastly, on a piece of driftwood adorned with seaweed were goose barnacles. On the rosemary was unagi with umeboshi (pickled plum), brown sugar and soy glaze.

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Chicken, Daikon & Lily

The “charcoal” was yakitori chicken legs wrapped in kombu and nori. Another piece of charcoal was daikon. The shishito pepper had been grilled. The lilly flower was served raw. A dashi was poured over the entire dish, which had been kept warm over the fire.

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Hot Potato – Cold Potato

Next was the signature hot potato-cold potato. The dish is served in a wax bowl with a pin holding a black truffle hot potato. By pulling out the pin, the hot potato is dropped into cold truffle and potato soup. The interplay between temperature and texture makes this a simply wonderful, and stunning dish.

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Olive Bread
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Olive Bread
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Lamb

The next dish brought a large vase filled with olive brances with pieces of oily, cottony fluffy olive bread. The remainder of the dish included black grapes, green and black olives, lamb loin and tenderloin, lamb sausage, greek yogurt sauce and lamb jus. The bread was meant to use to sop up the sauces. The lamb was perfectly cooked with just a hint of gaminess but the brine of the olvies was a little too strong for my taste.

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Cheesecake

The parade of desserts then started. There was a deconstructed cheesecake including freeze dried blueberry powder, matcha, strawberry frosting, “shattered” hibiscus. Not being a huge fan of deconstructed desserts, this one was actually quite good. The cheesecake was creamy, which the hibiscus added some textural crunch.

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Green Apple Balloon

Next came the signature green apple balloons. This is a green apple taffy, somewhat reminiscent of a Jolly Ranchers green apple candy in flavor, but obviously more chewy. The balloon is filled with helium. The idea is to suck on the balloon and inhale the helium and then to talk like a Munchkin from the Wizard of Oz movie. Doing this gracefully is kind of an art, as the taffy is super sticky and you are likely to get it all over your face as the balloon deflates.

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“Jackson Pollock” Dessert

To end the meal, the “Jackson Pollock” dessert was the finale. The mind numbing list of ingredients in this one included a rum-molasses reduction, white chocolate, mango puree, guava, passion fruit, carmelized banana, compressed watermelon, pineapple, dragon fruit, kaffir lime candy with rice paper wrapper, chocolate, lychee sugar and a frozen coconut sphere which shattered upon hitting it. This was a kaleidoscope of flavors, colors and textures.

It should be noted that portions are small. We didn’t eat lunch, so we weren’t super stuffed when we left, but were satisfied.

Given the great restaurants in Chicago, I am not sure that I would be in a hurry to return, but I am glad to have had the experience.

The Girl and the Goat – Chicago

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The Girl and the Goat

The Girl and the Goat opened with much anticipation in 2010 after chef Stephanie Izard won Top Chef over another heralded chef in Richard Blais.

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The Girl and the Goat

The Girl and the Goat kept Izard’s momentum going as it was nominated for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation. Although the restaurant did not win the award that year, Izard did win a James Beard Award for Best Chef Great Lakes in 2013.

Inside, the restaurant is quite dark, with lighting at a premium in the dining room. It is somewhat brighter near the kitchen however. The tables are spaced fairly closely to one another as well. This being one of the more popular restaurants in Chicago, the noise level is also somewhat at a fever pitch.

As with many restaurant now, The Girl and the Goat is a small plates concept. This is good in that you are able to try several dishes during a visit.

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The Girl and the Goat

The Roasted Beets ($9) was paired with green beans, white anchovies, avocado crème fraiche and bread crumbs. The beets were nicely roasted, tender and sweet. The green beans added a nice crunch, while the anchovies added some salt and funk. The avocado crème fraiche added some creaminess and balance to the dish.

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The Girl and the Goat

The Pan Roasted Halibut ($19) was nicely paired with Marcona almond butter for some nuttiness and richness. The blueberry nuoc cham added some fruitiness and salty funk, while the mushrooms added some earthiness to the dish. The white asparagus added slight hints of sweetness and more earthiness to the dish.

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The Girl and the Goat

The Chili Shrimp ($17) was not hot at all, more of a mild heat. The shrimp were fairly large, and nicely cooked. They were still sweet and tender, and not beaten to death with heat. It was paired nicely with the sweetness from the corn.

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The Girl and the Goat

Grilled Walter’s Chicken ($21) was sort of a surprising dish in that is was somewhat soup like. The chicken was fall off the bone tender, with hints of Asian flavors due to the five spice. The fingerling potatoes were nice and creamy.

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The Girl and the Goat

The Braised Beef Tongue ($15) was very tender and “meaty”. The masa was kind of surprising since it was in chip form, but added a nice textural contrast.

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The Girl and the Goat

The Miso Butterscotch Budino was silky smooth with some saltiness from the miso. The black sesame seeds added a textural contrast and more earthiness to the dish. A very satisfying way to end the meal.

The food here is excellent with execution also being on point. There are a couple seats on each side of the bar which allow a great view into the kitchen. I would try and get those seats if you are a foodie.

Frontera Grill – Chicago

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Frontera Grill is Rick Bayless’ flagship restaurant, and one that I had been wanting to visit for many years. Bayless is considered one of the top experts in Mexican food, having lived in Mexico for several years back in the 1980’s. He continues to take his staff on yearly “food missions” to Mexico to this day.

Bayless has won a James Beard Award for best chef, Midwest Region. His restaurant Topolobampo has 1 Michelin star. He also won Top Chef Masters, Season 1 in 2009.

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Mixed nuts/seeds

The meal began with a complimentary small dish of seasoned nuts, including peanuts and pepitas (pumpkin seeds). They were nicely spiced, but not hot.

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Tortillas
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Salsas

Warm corn tortillas were also provided with two types of salsa. The tortillas were nice and fluffy with some texture to it. The salsas had some spice to it, but again was not hot. I really liked the green salsa, although the red was also good.

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Tortilla Soup

The Topolobampo Tortilla Soup ($8) is different than most tortilla soups, in that the broth is clear rather than having tortillas blended into the soup itself. The soup seemed to lack was good, but the pasilla chiles did not impart a lot of heat. The chicken remained moist, but the soup seemed to lack any real depth of flavor. I prefer the chicken tortilla soup by Dean Fearing immensely.

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Queso Fundido

The Classic Queso Fundido ($8) is a skillet of melted Jack cheese, roasted peppers and green chorizo. The cheese was melty good and stretchy, the peppers adding just a bit of punch, while the chorizo added some texture and meatiness to the dish. I really liked this dish, and would order it every time.

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Street Corn

The Mexican Street Corn was good, but was a little disappointing as it seemed too “formal”. The corn was not slathered in mayo to the point of being overloaded. There was an ample amount of queso fresco however. The addition of epazote added some herbal pungency.

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Chile Rellenos
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Chile Rellenos
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Rice & beans

The Chile Rellenos were incredibly huge. Battered and nicely fried, they were swimming in a pool of tomato based sauce. They were nicely stuffed with shredded pork and cheese. The dish came with a side of black beans and rice, which were also good. This is a solid dish, and is very hearty.

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Carne Asada Brava

The Carne Asada Brava included slices of perfectly cooked, tender and flavorful beef. It was paired with a sweet tamale, which could have been a little sweeter for my taste. The salsa also imparted a lot of flavor but not much heat.

With my years of anticipation to eat at Frontera Grill, it fell slightly short of my expectations. The food was good, but was not “wow, what have I been waiting for all of these years!” good.

I would like to try Topolobampo on my next trip to Chicago for comparison sake though.

Stan’s Donuts – Chicago

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Stan’s Donuts
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Stan’s Donuts

Stan’s Donuts, located in Westwood, CA close to the UCLA campus is one of my favorite donut places around. The shop is small, but has been a local favorite for many years.

During my recent trip to Chicago, I saw a donut shop with “Stan’s Donuts” on it. I did not think much of it as the logo was different. Strolling around the area near the Park Hyatt Chicago, I spotted another Stan’s Donuts. Out of curiosity, I stopped in to check it out. Much to my surprise, the locations in Chicago are an offshoot of the original Westwood location.

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Donut
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Chocolate Peanut Butter Donut

I decided to try one of my favorite donuts, the chocolate peanut butter donut. The donut was lightly and fluffy. The chocolate was sweeter than I remember, however the peanut butter is the exact same.

Although the donut was passable, it just doesn’t compare to the original. I don’t know whether I attribute some of that to nostalgia, taste or a combination of both.

The Purple Pig – Chicago

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The Purple Pig

The Purple Pig is located on heavily trafficked Michigan Ave., but is somewhat hidden.

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Menu

They have a small plates menu, which is not very large which I prefer as the kitchen won’t get overwhelmed and execution of dishes is usually more precise.

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The restaurant is not very big, but they do have a patio which does provide extra seating.

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Salt Roasted Beets

The Salt Roasted Beets with Whipped Goat Cheese and Pistachio Vinaigrette was a great way to start. The beets were slightly soft and sweet. The goat cheese added some richness to the dish, while the pistachio vinaigrette cut through some of that richness.

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Roasted Bone Marrow

The Roasted Bone Marrow with Herb Salad and Sicilian Sea Salt was what you would expect. Pure fatty goodness that was lifted up by the addition of sea salt. The herb salad helped to cur through some of that richness.

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Pig Ears

The Pig’s Ears with Crispy Kale, Pickled Cherry Peppers & Fried Egg was a well executed dish. The pig ears were cooked to a nice crispness. They taste like a stronger version of chicharrones. The fried kale accentuated the crispy theme, while the pickled peppers added some nice acidity and punch. The fried egg helped to create a “sauce” that lifted the dish to another level. I preferred this dish, much more than the pig ear dish from ink.

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Pork Shoulder

We finished off the meal with the Milk Braised Pork Shoulder with Mashed Potatoes. The pork was very tender and flavorful. The mashed potatoes were nice and creamy. The dish could have used some textural contrast however.

The Purple Pig is a nice little place that I would definitely come back to in the future.