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Lucire: Volante
State Street Chicago has some of the best food in the United States—if you know where to look

A taste of Chicago, 2013-style

Elyse Glickman finds Chicago very much a food lovers’ paradise, with sumptuous steaks, hearty farm-to-table fare, dressed-up hot dogs and deep-dish pizzas
photographed by the author, Jess Smith, Jeff Kauck and Doug Fogelson

In the late 1970s, The Taste of Chicago—mother of all American summer food-and-entertainment festivals—did much more than create a template for foodie celebrations worldwide. It also sparked a transformation that took the city from a beer, hot dog and pizza town into an innovative restaurant capital. Granted, people from around the world seek out Vienna beef hot dogs and deep-dish pizza—and for good reason. Today, however, classic steakhouses are running neck and neck with high-concept restaurants that defy genres.

If you find yourself in “Chicagoland” any time of year, be sure to find time to eat your way around the city, both at hidden neighbourhood gems and classy destination spots. Here’s just a tiny taste of the best.

Trendy Chic-ago

Filini (221 North Columbus Drive, Chicago, IL 60601, 1 312 477-0234)

Filini not only offers timeless northern Italian fare that’s clean, crisp and modern, but also fresh ambiance. The sleek space occupies two levels inside the architecturally striking Aqua Building, which is also home to Radisson Blu Hotel and private residences (see overleaf). The brightly lit, airy glass-enclosed space almost has an aquarium-like feel, which is not just appropriate to the building’s theme, but also the menu as seafood and fish rank among their most delectable items. While the lower-level bar features excellent “market fresh” cocktails, the upper-level restaurant takes the “open concept kitchen” format to new heights. From that kitchen, wonderful things like seasonal vegetable gnocchi, halibut, black squid risotto and other items that are not excessively seasoned or sauced. The emphasis is on natural flavours and a presentation as light as the décor. Desserts, however, are a decadent stand-out, particularly the affogati (panna gelato affogato with coffee, chocolate or grappa drizzle, milano cookie) and bombaloni (Italian “profiteroles” with chocolate, banana rum and caramel sauces).

N9NE Steakhouse (440 West Randoph Street, Chicago, IL 60606, 1 312 575-9900)
With its mod-’60s décor, and the contemporary accoutrement (courtesy of Chef Michael Shrader) served with the filet mignon, N9NE is not your parents’ steakhouse. While a small selection traditional main courses (such as filet mignon, the excellent New York strip with Bordelaise sauce, salmon, etc.) and sides (spinach, thin and steak fries, mashed potatoes) are there for your delectations, modern appetizers and creative salads and entrées fill out the rest of the menu with a sense of fun. How can you not smile when a N9NE-logoed popcorn box filled with rock shrimp adorned with two non-traditional sauces (lemon aioli and hot Thai red sauce, oddly wonderful when mixed) or crispy cones brimming with scoops of tuna tartare and lobster salad arrive at your table? Salads, such as the Heirloom tomato salad (made by the lovely balsamic-based vinaigrette) provide a nice, clean counterpoint for the meats and starches. If you’re still around after dinner and crave a cocktail and a bit of a flirt, check out Ghostbar upstairs. If you feel you’re experiencing a bit of déjà vu reading this, it’s probably because you’ve seen or been to their (excellent) Las Vegas counterparts at the Palms Hotel & Casino. However, remember this is Chicago, baby, and what you see is the real deal—good taste in its natural state.

Keefer’s (20 West Kinzie, 1 312 467-9525)

Although many a local reviewer and Playboy dubbed Keefer’s one of the best steakhouses in America, and the chops (including the Delmonico filet that’s much in demand at lunch and dinner) live up to the hype, owner Rich Keefer winces slightly and will tell you the fish dishes created by chef John Hogan are incredible as well. Given that he and his brother conceived the airy, Frank Lloyd Wright-esque restaurant, he ought to know. And yes, the fish dishes are incredible. The dinner preparation of the halibut, in fact, meets all the requirements of what a restaurant’s signature dish ought to be (Dijon mustard, brioche breadcrumbs, wild mushroom sauce and watercress coulis). If you come for lunch, you have the added benefit of some fun extras such as a bowl of seasonally tuned soup of the day and fluffy potato croquettes. Salads, meanwhile, are crisp, clean and spare on dressing, which is great considering that the mix of vegetables are what will sell them. The broccoli salad is a surprising mix of broccoli heads, apple, fennel and podda cheese, while their basic artisan tomato salad is punched up with the addition of pine nuts. If you’re a chocolate fan, meanwhile, you’ll be quite happy with the orange-chocolate crème brûlée or the thin-but-dense triple chocolate cake adorned with honey chocolate ice cream.

Markethouse (611 North Fairbanks Court, Chicago, IL 60611, 1 312 224-2200)

Chef Scott Walton has transformed an old-school hotel coffee shop into a new school spin on that time-honoured American institution. The ambiance is a playful yet elegant riff on décor motifs and colour schemes of casual hotel dining layouts from 1950s through the 1970s. According to Walton, however, what makes Markethouse modern is the way the interior designers’ natural woods and decorative elements capture his uniquely Midwestern approach to “farm-to-table” fare that is heartier and earthier than what a diner may experience in California.

While the bar offers a mix of traditional and modern cocktails, the 160-set main dining area features a full menu that capitalizes on Walton’s now-famous herb and vegetable rooftop garden (no small feat as Chicago’s seasons are well defined and very intense in terms of climate). With regards to the restaurant’s signature offerings, Markethouse is a true “meat and potatoes” kind of venue, right down to its dense, herby meatloaf along with other simply plated meats, poultry and fish (much of it sourced by Slagel Family Farms in Fairbury, Ill.). The mac and cheese and risotto are also exceptional—no truffle oil or gourmet pretense, just melt-in-your-mouth perfection. Other nice touches include extras with a story behind them, including a small jug of pickled vegetables and sweet potato bread from the local bakery Red Hen.

Desserts, however, are where Walton’s crew ups the ante. The butterscotch bread pudding is dense, substantial and nuanced. Key lime pie has a herbaceous savoury hit from the Thai basil in the chef’s garden.

Prairie Grass Café (601 Skokie Blvd, Northbrook, IL 60062, 1 847 205-4433)

If business brings you to Chicago, chances are you may find yourself in the city’s northern suburbs, you have a fantastic excuse to try the Prairie Grass Café. On the other hand, this place is also worth the trek if you want to catch some real local flavour. This restaurant is devised by its owners (chef Sarah Stegner, Rohit Nambier, chef George Bumbaris) to bring big city inventiveness together with casual comfort foods to an audience of young professionals and families who want a little creativity and global influence with their nostalgia.

Though Prairie Grass does have some elements of Chicago steakhouse and Greek family restaurant, don’t pin it into a genre. That’s the vision devised by James Beard award-winning chef and Evanston native Stegner and colleague Bumbaris, who set out to bring luxury culinary touches (they originally teamed up at the Ritz–Carlton Chicago) to home-spun Midwestern fare. There is also a farm-to-table element to their pitch, but the presentation and execution of the dishes is what makes this spot so strong.

The moussaka, for example, comes in its own skillet and replaces the ground beef with a savoury mint creek farm lamb with short rib texture. The widely acclaimed Chicago Magazine’s number-one sirloin burger (that’s a mouthful!) replaces a bun and greasy fries with a thin crust of mild Amish Bleu cheese topping and crisp baked potato wedges. Rather than heavy tartare sauce, the Maine peeky-toe crab cake is adorned with a cucumber, avocado and grapefruit salad. Another element that has made the restaurant a “top story” among local and visiting diners is the fact that several popular menu items feature meats and honey from a farm owned by noted Chicago journalist and TV presenter Bill Kurtis. He put an extra personal stamp on the venue by donating the large-screen televisions for the bustling sports bar area. Even an hour out of the downtown Loop, you can’t get more “Chicago” than that!






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Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.