One of the first big city experiences I sought out was some top quality coffee - and I wasn't disappointed at the Millenium Park location of Intelligentsia coffee. Smooth creamy espresso, tasty baked goods and filter coffee that fetches up to $12 a cup! The patron in front of me in line was intrigued by the fancy filter coffee and it came highly recommended, however, she said she couldn't bring herself to foot the price tab. Made me wonder - if we seem ok to pay $12 for a glass of wine, what makes a cup of coffee worth more of less than an alcoholic libation? I enjoyed starting my day with the smooth cappuccino topped with a heart shaped in the foam in a china cup, amongst the passers-by around the outdoor seating with flower pots on the street by Millenium Park.
The next big city food experience that really stood out was street-side dining at the delightful Gemini Bistro in the trendy Lincoln Park neighborhood. I love a restaurant that does simple, elegant food and does it really well, and Gemini Bistro certainly did that. The service was impeccable, the drink menu was interesting (jalapeño margarita anyone?) and the outdoor dining on the tree lined street made the overall experience wonderful. I was impressed by the halibut special - crispy halibut cooked perfectly, topped with an oil and heirloom tomato salad, grilled asparagus and a beurre blanc sauce. Definitely a restaurant I would love to see as my neighborhood local!
The piece-de-resistance from my time in Chicago was dinner at L20, opposite Lincoln Park. I booked at the recommendation of reviews on the Opentable website, and it was quite an amazing fine dining experience. When first walking into the dining room, what overcame me was the serenity - peaceful without feeling quiet or empty, elegant without feeling stuffy. The overall experience reminded me of what makes fine dining in my opinion:
- Wait staff that are attentive and knowledgable about all aspects of the menu - and can explain any aspect (and do in a friendly and professional manner - we don't all know what a 23-flavor gastrique is - but that doesn't make us the equivalent of a food ignoramus). And all the plates are removed from the table at one time when all diners have finished.
- A menu that is interesting and creative, without using too many flavors that overpower each other or pander to the latest food 'trend'. L20 did this beautifully - the ora king salmon with pumpernickel crust and grilled artichokes was succulent and tasty with each flavor complementing the overall dish. Their use of savory flavors such as avocado mousse to top the lime parfait dessert, while unusual, added an interesting flavor that added to the overall depth of the dessert.
- The menu should include techniques and ingredients that are out of the ordinary to the home chef - after all, if I'm paying a lot, I want it to be something I couldn't cook myself. L20 used foams, mousses and parfait in a very subtle, elegant yet complimenting the overall dish - not simply showing off. One of my favorite courses was the palate cleanser - a champagne granita topped with a lemon foam and a lemon meringue on the side. Cleansing, fresh and simp,y beautiful texture and flavors.
- Even the 'extras' have been paid attention to. For example, the water tastes different. L20 served house churned butter and a selection of breads that was wide enough and tasty enough to start their own French bakery (flaky crossaints, crusty Demi baguette full of flavor and subtle chewy bacon and mustard twist amongst other tasty selections - and the wait staff encouraged seconds!).
- And the bathrooms have soft towels, just one more little 'extra'.
My biggest regret of the trip was not getting the opportunity to taste authentic deep dish pizza. I guess either the popularity of real Chicago pizza, or the holiday weekend crowds - meant the wait at one outpost of Giordano's was 75 minutes just to get a table. So alas - I'll have to return to Chicago for that authentic deep dish pizza experience.