After decades of thinking anything between NY and SF/LA was just a barren land of Walmarts and McDonalds, Chicago has proven me wrong…at least in terms of pure culinary awesomeness. Restaurants like Alinea and Moto rival El Bulli, Fat Duck, and Marc Veyrat in terms of creativeness and originality. Gastropubs like Longman & Eagle are every bit if not better than those in England. Hot Doug’s is a whole tier above LA’s Wurstkuche and Pink’s Hot Dogs. And Schwa, man, Schwa is revolutionary, just like Wolvesmouth.
There has been a lot of talk about Michelin’s Chicago picks, even with Michelin abandoning LA and Vegas, and despite its heavily criticized guides in Hong Kong, Italy and Japan, as well as the inconsistencies in its Michelin 3 Star ratings worldwide. But with limited time, money and stomach capacity, and several recs from tweeting foodies and bloggers, I narrowed my list down to 12 Chicago spots in 3.5 days.
Day 1 was Pizzeria Uno, Al’s Italian Beef and Spiaggia. Day 2 was Longman & Eagle, Publican and L2O. Day 3 was Schwa and Moto. And my final day was Hot Doug’s, Topolobampo, Graham Elliot and Alinea. All this came immediately after some hardcore eating in the D.C. area, including Ben’s Chili Bowl, the Chef’s Table at Volt by Bryan Voltaggio, and his Table 21 the day before.
The 3starbackpacker recs in Chicago go to Schwa, Alinea, and Hot Doug’s, in no particular order. Longman & Eagle and Moto come in a close 2nd. As for my Michelin predictions, they’re as follows:
Alinea: 3 Michelin Stars. 3starbackpacker highly recommended.
This was truly exceptional cuisine, worth the flight to Chicago alone. Alinea was innovative, creative and had excellent food with solid execution. I think it’s better than any other Michelin 3 Star in the U.S., including Robuchon (which recently had topped my list for best Michelin 3 Star in the U.S.), and along the lines of the great Michelin 3 Stars of Spain, including Sant Pau, Arzak and El Bulli. Service was top notch, though didn’t particularly enjoy a hard-sell wine pairing as soon as I sat done, which was almost as expensive as the full menu without being told the price or what the pairing was comprised of.
Schwa: 2 Michelin Stars. 3starbackpacker highly recommended.
GQ declared it “The Most Revolutionary Restaurant in America.” It really is. Schwa is a laid back, no fuss, BYOB restaurant run by a collaborative community of chefs led by proprietor Michael Carlson, who worked with Paul Bartolotta of Spiaggia, Grant Achatz of Alinea, and Heston Blumenthal of Fat Duck. It’s not polished like Alinea or Alain Ducasse by any means, nor an evening of molecular gastronomic dishes out of a mad scientist’s laboratory like Moto or El Bulli. Schwa is something all its own. Amazingly delicious, complex, and unforgettable. Schwa’s better than most of the Michelin 3 Stars out there, and if I ever go back to Chicago, this is where I’m going.
Moto: 2 Michelin Stars. 3starbackpacker recommended.
Had the 20 course Grand Tasting Menu here. Loved the edible menu, exploding Acme chocolate bomb, clam bake, ramen dessert, imitation cheese crepes, wagyu coffee, baseball cracker jacks, and melting margarita snowman. Every bit as fun, creative and original as Alinea, Marc Veyrat, The Bazaar by Jose Andres, though some dishes were conceptually better than they tasted, like their famous pulled pork Cuban cigar or their non-sushi sushi. Service wasn’t as flawless as Alinea or what you’d expect from a proper Michelin 3 Star, though a lot more friendly. Would pick Moto as a nice change of pace over a typical Michelin 2 or 3 Star.
L20: 1 Michelin Star
Had both the Singular 10 course tasting and the Fall 12 course tasting. Solid meal. Service was flawless, and room could compare to any of the best dining rooms in New York, London or Paris. A few hit or miss dishes here, and I found a lot of the dishes more aesthetically beautiful than they tasted. No particular dish knocked me off my feet, but if Spago, Melisse, Providence, Cyrus, Gordon Ramsay in New York and Guy Savoy in Vegas can get 2 stars, maybe L2O will too.
Spiaggia: 1-2 Michelin Stars
John Mariani of Esquire Magazine gave Spiaggia 3 Mariani Stars in his Michelin predictions, and considers Chef Bartolotta’s Spiaggia one of the best Italian joints in the U.S. Well, let’s just say Spiaggia’s seafood carpaccio, truffle gnocchi and chocolate mousse blew my mind, and I don’t even like chocolate or sweets in general. Overall an excellent meal, along the lines of Il Mulino, Del Posto and Babbo in terms of quality and atmosphere.
Topolobampo: 0-1 Michelin Stars
After seeing Rick Bayless win Top Chef Masters and seeing how he brought Tex-Mex cuisine to a level of true gastronomy, coupled with John Mariani giving Toplobampo 2 Mariani stars, Topolobampo was probably the biggest disappointment in Chicago for me. My main entree of Carnitas en Guasmole and the pairing with Bonarda wine were good, both a step above what you’d get from say El Torito. However, the chips and guacamole didn’t beat out El Torito or grocery store guacamole, my trio of ceviches were pretty standard fare, my Bunelo de Manzana dessert unmemorable, and the Cafe de Olla undrinkably sweet. All said, I’d go back to check out the full tasting menu and to try out a few more dishes, since I didn’t really get a full sampling of Rick Bayless’ menu.
Graham Elliot: 1 Michelin Star
Top Chef Graham Elliot’s Chicago joint came recommended by a few Tweeting foodies and bloggers. Reviews on this place are mixed, but I had a pretty good experience at Graham Elliot. My dinner started off so so with truffled popcorn and deconstructed Caesar salad with a Twinkie crouton, but just got better with each course, including a butternut bisque with ginger marshmallow with toasted peptic, a fois gras snap crackle pop lollipop, and a campfire stout cocktail with chocolate peanut butter smores. Coupled with an excellent pairing of beers, cocktails and wines by beverage director Michael Simon who kicked my meal up a notch, thumbs up to Graham Elliot.
Longman & Eagle: 1 Michelin Star. 3starbackpacker recommended.
This is a great whisky gastropub that John Mariani of Esquire gave 2 Mariani Stars, and that has gotten a lot of great reviews. Longman & Eagle is good as other Michelin starred gastropubs I’ve been to, though as a preface, I came for brunch, which has a more limited menu. Nonetheless, my brunch of a baked cheese apple salad and a pork belly BLT with egg all hit the spot, all washed down with perhaps the best Old Fashion I’ve ever had. If I’m ever back in Chicago, 100% I’ll be here for dinner.
Publican: 0-1 Michelin Stars.
A lot of fellow Tweeters raved about Publican as being better than even L20 and Moto. It’s basically simple farm fare in a beer hall atmosphere, and I managed a few ales along with pork rinds, oysters, homemade charcuterie and boudin noir. Food was simple and good, though reminded me of a lot of charcuterie-serving bistros I’ve been to in the past. If I lived in Chicago, it’d be a regular spot for me.
Hot Doug’s: 1 Michelin Star. 3starbackpacker highly recommended.
Hot Doug’s is just plain awesome. Where else can you get a Fois Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage Hot Dog? I’m still bummed I went on a non-duck fat fries day. Next time I’m in Chicago, heading back there and trying every gourmet dog on the menu. Hot Doug’s beat out Pizzeria Uno’s deep dish and Al’s Italian beef as my choice for favorite Chicago grub. So much for my Wurstkuche and Pink’s Hot Dogs obsession.