I casually strolled into the reputable restaurant, expecting to breezily get a table. I assumed the folks standing around were just there for drinks and headed to the host stand and requested a table for two.
“Hmm, yes – that’ll be about a 30-45 minute wait, and that may bump into when the kitchen is closing, so you may not get to eat.” Wait.
No, I was not at some new hot spot in New York at 10:00 on a Friday night. I was in Chicago on a Thursday at 2pm! I knew the Chicago restaurant scene was SERIOUS (do you know how many bars and restaurants they have that you have to pre-purchase tickets for??), but I was not prepared for potential lunch rejection from what I lovingly dub an upscale diner.
Fortunately, after about 25 minutes, our names were called and we were sat at Au Cheval. And Lord, am I glad we were. I would describe Au Cheval as kicked up diner food. Everything we had was a better version of comfort food that we love. What we ate and drank:
Matzo Ball Soup – I might get my bliksa card taken away (personal word merge of Black Shiksa), but I don’t really care about matzoh ball soup – in fact, I don’t care about most brothy soups (sorry, chicken noodle – where’s the cream??). But Jay ordered this one and I swear, someone’s Bubby must have been back in that kitchen. The matzo ball had great texture and flavor. Look how BIG it is (#twss)! And there was nothing plain about this broth. It was so good and if I lived in freezing Chicago, I’d eat that thing every week.
General Jane’s Honey-Fried Chicken with Chili, Sesame seeds & Cilantro – I had my eye on this from the first moment I saw the menu. The name seriously tells you exactly what it is. Sweet, spicy, crunchy, perfect. I loved this so much. And it was a huge serving.
The Burger – we noticed there were A LOT of burgers being served. I suddenly realized this was why people go to Au Cheval. That burger is the main draw. Jay ordered the double burger (which is actually a triple and the single is a double – got it?) with bacon.
Let’s talk Chicago bacon – they tell you you’re getting bacon and give you pork belly instead. This happened multiple times. This is the best surprise of all time. It’s like someone handing you a bag from Target (which, like bacon, is great in itself) and inside is a blue box from Tiffany’s.
Anyway, we got this damn burger (there’s a reason I’m cursing it; we’ll get there) and it was so good. Great flavor, perfect texture, PORK BELLY. These people next to us got some ridiculous cheesy, creamy hash browns (yes, I asked), which we promptly added to our order.
The drinks were great, I really enjoyed the Horse’s Neck, made with old overholt rye, lemon, ginger beer, angostura – a little sweeter than I usually go, but really drinkable.
As we roll our stuffed selves out of there around 3:30, I realized that we had a dinner reservation for the allegedly lovely, Michelin-starred Boka at 8:00 and there’s NO WAY we’re going to be hungry enough to enjoy that meal. We even tried to push the reservation back, but our appetites failed us. Curses, double (triple) burger! Really, I was mostly sad that I was going to be down a Chicago dining experience – but I had faith that we’d find another good meal or two.
Like any good conference attendee, (oh, did I mention I actually had a professional reason to be in Chicago?), I skipped the beginning to eat deep dish and drink some fancy Goose Island beer named Matilda. Great beer. Deep dish usually annoys me – I find it to be soggy and too saucy. But the one at Lou Malnati’s was awesome – AND you could get it well done making for a way better pizza (and like I previously did with dumplings, I realized deep dish wasn’t the problem, it was WHERE I had been getting it from).
Fast forward to that night. We met up with the wife of Jay’s best friend, the lovely Ariana (aka my new favorite person to eat with). Torn between giving Boka another try (more established, reputable, a little on the fancier side) or heading to new cool kid on the block, Parachute (trendy, quirky, chill Korean-American food), we decided to give Parachute a whirl, even though we weren’t going to sit until 10:00.
Guys, let me preface this by saying – I believe this was my second favorite dining experience this year next to Rose’s Luxury. Okay, let’s start!
Baked Potato Bing Bread with Bacon, Scallion and Sour Cream Butter – yep, you want that. Worth paying for.
Crispy Stuffed Sesame Leaves – I’m still not sure what these were but they were lightly fried and delicious, with an earthy soy sauce (this is important).
The house pickles are great snacks, sweet, salty, funky, perfectly umami (or as we say in our house, “ooooh, mommy!!” Yes, we’re weird.)
Raw Fluke with Pomelo and Yuzu Kosho – let’s get this over with. This is the dish I was actually the least impressed with. I usually love a good crudo, but with the pomelo (a citrus fruit similar to grapefruit) and the yuzu kosho, which features a ton of citrus flavors, the dish was too bright for me. I poured a bit of the aforementioned soy sauce on it and then loved it. A little bit of salt goes a long way for me.
Now let’s get to the mind-blowers. I shed a little tear thinking about the last three (oh, dear, it was four) things and the two desserts we ate. Don’t judge us, we were hungry.
Tri-tip Steak with Lobster Mushrooms, Meyer Lemon and Béarnaise – stupid, stupid Candace. My first couple of bites of this perfectly rare steak, I tried it without the lemon and that was a mistake. Mind you, it was amazing without the lemon, but once you factored that in, there was a whole complex world of flavors happening. I LOVED this.
Pork Belly and Mung Bean Pancake, Kimchi, Black Garlic, Hen Egg, Pineapple – first things first, this was so pretty. Look at it – it’s too pretty to eat, right?? Wrong. It was my favorite dish. I hope the other two got some bites in because I took no prisoners on this one.
Udon with Dungeness Crab, Guanicale, Fava Beans, Sabayon – I didn’t expect to love this one as much as I did. In my mind, I think of sabayon as a dessert, but this one was savory and coated the udon noodles like a sauce. Not to sound like a total heel, but it felt like Korean carbonara with crab. Delicious Korean carbonara with crab that you want to eat every day.
And on to our coolest experience of the night, the Bi Bim Bop with Spanish Octopus, Squid Ink, Soft Egg, N’duja, Gai Lan and Gochujang. I went to the restroom before this last item came out, and when I returned, I noticed the diner sitting next to us had taken over our hot pot of bi bim bop and was mixing it up the proper way. Turns out she was Chef Beverly Kim’s mother and wanted to make sure we had the dish the proper way. She told Jay I was beautiful and like any good mother worth her salt, asked if we had kids and prompted us to get to it. She was incredibly sweet and it was the perfect way to end meal.
Except it wasn’t the end – it is so, so hard to find restaurants that are doing both amazing food AND desserts – Parachute does both. We excitedly ordered the Sheep’s Milk Cheesecake with Asian Pear and Ginger. Our server told us he loved the Warm Carrot Pudding, served with Thai Tea Ice Cream and Cardamom, so we figured why the hell not and tacked that on. I was pumped for the cheesecake and it was really delicious. The pear was subtle and the ginger added nice depth.
But then the warm carrot pudding happened.
It’s not a pudding the way my American brain was think of pudding – it’s a moist, sponge like cake. And this one was phenomenal. It had great spice flavors that were more developed than any carrot cake I’ve ever had. I often find cardamom to be overwhelming, but it was perfect with this dish. As amazing as the entire meal was, I would go back in a heartbeat for this dessert alone.
We drank a bottle of orange wine (very fun, if you haven’t tried!) recommended to us by our server. And the service was absolutely phenomenal. Helpful, warm, funny, considerate, attentive, but not intrusive. It was the perfect meal experience from start to finish.
Last but certainly not least, we met college friend Carr/drama king/Burlington’s Finest at the Publican for Saturday brunch. We kicked it off with the buttermilk-glazed doughnut, which was a great start and made me feel good about going savory for my main. Jay had and loved the weisswurst, which elicited a lot of white sausage jokes. And I happily devoured the duck confit benedict, served with a tasty béarnaise and perfectly poached eggs. And I cannot for the life of me remember what Carr ate. Oh, I also ordered maple syrup braised bacon. Which was pork belly. Tiffany’s box in a Target bag, yo.
I knew Chicago would be delicious, but I didn’t expect it to be so impressed by every single meal, no matter how casual or upscale. Whenever I think of my favorite food cities, my brain automatically goes to San Francisco and New Orleans. Will definitely be adding Chicago to my mental list. I can’t WAIT to return with my short list of only 65 more places to try.
Any places in Chi-town that you feel are MUST eats??? Sound off below!