Ralph Lauren? Chanel? Versace? Like haute couture, fine
dining is such a subjective shopping
experience. Cue Chicago! Because for creative food aficionados with deep
pockets and elevated palates, Chicago is the (secret) Paris of the United
States in terms of fine dining choice.
A few simple reasons put Chicago at the top of America's
fine dining destination wish list.
First, diners get more for less. Because
real estate is generally cheaper here. That gives chefs and their investors
more breathing room to find their perfect location at an affordable price tag,
which can translate into a more palatable price tag for diners.
city's rich architectural and industrial heritage is an inspiration for
interior designers and owners, who have created a host of award-winning
interiors from the raw spaces.
Third, the Midwest is a land of milk and honey
in terms of "raw material" for that special dish. Getting to know the farmers
who supply their restaurants is a creative joy for many chefs.
Chicago's recent influx of corporate headquarters (Google, McDonald's Boeing et
al) provides a steady clientele willing to support a chef's creative vision.
And last but not least, fine dining isn't only a special occasion event for
many locals. Chicagoans love good food, whatever that means to them, and many
are willing to support their favorite chef's vision at most any cost.
Of course, Grant Achatz has ignited diners' tastebuds and
imaginations since 2005 with Alinea, followed by Next and now Roister. One
mixologist at Achatz's cocktail bar, The Aviary, knows a subset of foodies who
fly in from around the world to experience Chicago's molecular gastronomy.
But with 22 Michelin-starred restaurants going strong, all
of Chicago's fine dining restaurants boast a loyal local following. Take
down-to-earth North Pond, in Lincoln Park, where many lucky locals have dined
several times a week for years. (You'll understand why, when you taste Chef
Bruce Sherman's French-inspired Michelin-starred Midwestern cuisine.) But even
Gold Coast newcomer Maple & Ash has a customer who has been in over 100
times since the millennial-focused steak house opened in October, 2015,
according to the hot spot's director of wine & spirits.
With variety in mind, here are five of Chicago's mostly
Michelin-starred fine dining restaurants, plus two more. In alphabetical order,
because there's no way to choose a favorite when the choice is so stylish.
With a new (second) star in his Michelin pocket, Chef Ryan
McCaskey has proven there's a place for serene chic in the South Loop. But
serene doesn't trump the Chef's sense of humor. He admits to dancing to the
restaurant's cool Indie soundtrack in the kitchen and expresses his love of
junk food via riffs on ramen and "Fritos" on your plate. His "pot roast" is not
exactly what your mother would have made, either. With five and ten course
tasting menus inspired by the natural landscape, atmosphere and tastes of the
Northeastern United States and Maine in particular, Acadia is a restorative
pause from the craziness of, say, a long week at nearby McCormick Place
Convention Center. Comfort food, reinvented.
The seared foie will make you swoon. But Chef Carrie
Nahabedian's love and respect for French foodways shine through every succulent
bite at her "passion project" place, Brindille, in River North where the
monthly "Taste of France" five-course menu will have you seeing life through
rose colored glasses. Which isn't difficult, considering the Chef's cousin and
business partner, Michael, has fashioned a sexy, award-winning interior where
dark and light play off each other like a Dutch Master's painting. Definitely a
nice instagramming backdrop. The wine list contains one of the best ranges of
French wines in Chicago; both deep and broad. And if dinner doesn't sate your
appetite, reserve a cooking class with the Chef on Saturday mornings, followed by
Maple & Ash
The big news in Chicago fine dining this year is Maple &
Ash; a swanky, badass 21st century version of the venerable Chicago steakhouse.
In the Gold Coast neighborhood off Mag Mile, it makes sense that Maple &
Ash trades in superlatives. Think pink sequined cowboy hats for ladies who
order the rib-in steak, caviar "bumps" and champagne super soakers. Plus 650
wines ... by the glass. Downstairs, there's a clubby feel for lunch and
libations while upstairs it's a sexy "vampire den," in the evenings, according to sommelier
Belinda Chang, who heads up the wine and spirits program. Chang also admits
that "our goal is to make guests
cry....because they don't want to leave." Tears will be flowing after August 8,
for sure, when Maple & Ash launches Eight Bar and Patio in the current
ground floor space.
Maybe it's because Chef Bruce Sherman is a Chicago boy (who
happened to study at the prestigious Ecole Ferrandi in Paris), or maybe it's
because his staff is just so darn sweet, but dinner at North Pond always feels
like going home. If home happens to be a cozy former boat house with a Michelin
star on the wall in Chicago's Lincoln Park, that is. The short stroll through
the park to North Pond gives a hungry diner time to anticipate Sherman's
generous cuisine, where America meets France in the least pretentious way. Warm
up by the fireplace in the winter, enjoy the birdsong in summer and appreciate
the glowing oak of the Prairie-style decor all year round. With a thoughtful
menu that changes with the seasons.
Granted, it's not that easy to spot the entrance to Oriole,
on the alley side ground floor of a defunct glue factory in the West Loop. But
once you realize your GPS is correct, and you see the discreet sign on the
black-painted brick, you're in for a treat. First, there's the cinematic entrance
to the den-like restaurant via a former freight elevator door. Then, there's
that "who me?" feeling of surprise, like you've gotten an exclusive invite to
the coolest emerging indie actor's dining room. With only 28 seats and an open
kitchen, the feeling is intimate. And every detail, from the soft lighting that
shines perfectly on each table to the creamy paper lanterns floating from the
ceiling is a zen-like poem of understatement. Because here, the focus is on
Chef Noah Sandoval's multi-course tasting menu; an exquisite experience that
unfolds in perfect harmony as an ode to American cuisine in all its culturally
diverse facets, textures and tastes.
In a late 19th-century former print shop not far from
Chicago's Ogilvy Transportation Center and Union Station, Sepia has the, well,
sepia-toned feel of a classic. Hand-crafted millwork, burnished brass and
vintage stemware make an ideal setting for an intimate meal between friends or
business colleagues. Chef Andrew Zimmerman's inventive seasonal menu draws on
mostly organic ingredients and Sommelier Arthur Han is a gem of a guide to the
restaurant's unique wine list. There's also a quick daily lunch option called
the "pinto box" -- a riff on the traditional Japanese bento box -- for dine in
or take out.
A dignified, sleek retreat high above the hustle and bustle
of North Michigan Avenue, Spiaggia has been a national beacon for fine Italian
cuisine since 1984. Today, three
Spiaggia dining options satisfy most any appetite. There's the bar menu in the
lounge for a quick bite, the a la carte menu in the Cafe for elevated homestyle
Italian favorites and the refined tasting menu in the stylish, airy dining room
with floor-to-ceiling windows over the city. And if you didn't catch founding
Chef/Partner Tony Mantuano on season two of Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" you'll
recognize him in the restaurant by his kind eyes and Italy-meets-Chicago