Who would think that spectacular repertoire menus, white tablecloths and wine pairings would be too confining for chefs? Turns out a number of top talents have branched out from their fine dining empires to include faster, more reasonably priced ways to sample their fare.
Grahamwich (615 N State Street) is the alter-ego of the multi-course River North restaurant, Graham Elliot (217 W Huron Street). Don't expect signature dishes like deconstructed Caesar Salad at this casual spot, but do expect the same commitment to quality ingredients and unexpected touches. My favorite sandwich is a classic tuna salad. I enjoy Elliot's upscale take served on ciobatta with green beans and a soft poached egg. I also like the flavored colas and when I have room, the soft serve ice cream.
It can be a challenge to get seats at a Rick Bayless restaurant. Frontera Grill and Topolobampo have been winning James Beard awards for amazing Latin cuisine and outstanding service for years. Bayless opened Xoco (449 N Clark Street) to explore his love of Mexican street food. Everything -- the churros, guacamole, and hot chocolates -- are excellent pairings to the tortas. Try a Pepito Torta (pictured above), or my favorite, the Woodland Torta with mushrooms, goat cheese and black beans.
After Bill Kim launched his noodle shop Urban Belly (3053 N California Avenue), his next project was to push the concept a little further and make Korean food even more accessible. He succeeds with Belly Shack (1912 North Western Avenue). His version of a meatball sub might look mild-mannered, but the combination of chili paste, Somen noodles and mint will leave your mouth singing for hours. If you want the full experience, order a side of kimchi to go with your sandwich.
The full priced, sit-down restaurants of these chefs should be on your list of places to try. However, if you can't spare the time or money, you can still experience award-winning, innovative cuisine from Chicago's finest.