The allure of what Grant Achatz’s Next restaurant in Chicago is doing is too difficult to resist. Ever since I discovered their agenda almost a year ago I’ve been looking for an excuse, either business or personal, to fly up to Chicago once every four months to attend their thematic dinners. On this particular occasion, the excuse was an even better bait than Next itself: Chef Matthew Accarrino from San Francisco’s SPQR invited me to a special dinner he and four other renown chefs from the windy city were curating for a select few at Vie Restaurant. Accarrino recently held the much celebrated pop-up at our very own Harry’s Pizzeria, which you can read about here.
Here are my notes on this particular dinner and other places I got to try out. As always in order of preference.
My previous trips to Chicago have ended with the meals at Next at the very top, but for reasons described below this time it was not the case. However, despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy the “Vegan” series as much as I enjoyed “Kyoto” and “The Hunt”, the meal that Matthew Accarrino and 4 other Chicago chefs prepared for a lucky group in honor of SPQR was so impressive it probably could’ve ended at the top even if I would’ve had the chance to dine at other Chicago hotspots like Alinea, Schwa or Goosefoot.
Chef Paul Virant from Vie restaurant hosted and the roaster included chef Andrew Zimmerman from Sepia, Curtis Duffy from Grace, Pat Sheerin from Trenchermen and Accarrino himself. Each chef had the goal of serving a dish from SPQR’s cookbook, but with their own twist. The dinner consisted therefore of 5 brilliantly executed courses that also sang in chorus together and were cleverly paired with Italian wines making for a magnificent Michelin Star quality meal.
Chef Zimmerman from Sepia started off the proceedings with a sardine dish that was beautifully plated and matched flavor composition with visual impression. The sardines were marinated and powerful in flavor yet soft in texture. Delicate garnishes from peppers and edible flowers made the sea specimens shine. Stunning dish.
Chef Curtis from Grace followed up with a take on the classic buratta salad that would make any Michelin inspector take out his box of stars and start throwing them around. The soft cheese had been aireated which made it cloud like in texture and melt in your mouth delicate. Cherry tomatoes of different vareties had been blanched and peeled to match the delicacy of texture of the cheese, and both sweet corn and basil were integrated within the two main characters for a welcome level of flavor complexity and diversity. Things were definitely going in the right direction.
Host chef Virant stunned us all with a brilliant, packed with richness and diversity of textures take on a classic land and sea combination: fish and pork. A succulent loin of tuna perfectly seared just lightly on the outside had been wrapped in a virtually translucent slice of guanciale, and then topped with a crunchy slice of baguette holding summer beans, apricots and baby onion rings. Each bite screamed summertime holiday on a coast somewhere in Italy, and the gorgeous rose wine pairing helped bring the fantasy to life.
Next up it was Accarrino’s turn. By now if you have read my posts both from my visit to SPQR in San Francisco or the SPQR pop-up at Harry’s pizzeria you may have realized Matthew is a special kind of chef. He celebrates the best of his bi-cultural nature (Italian family, born and raised in the US Midwest) whilst being creative with the best produce his surroundings have to offer him. That’s what he is, that’s what he does, and therefore the timeless classic from Emilia-Romagna, the lasagna, was in for a bit of a makeover under his spell. Chef Accarrino’s choice was unique, and one that probably nobody in the room had experienced before: pork and beet. This yielded the most delicious lasagna I have ever tasted, and probably one of the best things all together for that matter. Visually stunning thanks to the natural color from the beets and magnificently presented in a sideways stack of very thin layers of pasta and pork ragu, it was the sort of thing you wished you could eat more often. Beet pesto, pickled slices and other beet “things” garnished the winner of the night.
Pat Sheerin, chef from one of my favorite Chicago restaurants, Trenchermen, honored his predecessors with a sweet, delicate quail paired with corn, olive oil poached tomatoes and chanterelles. A pleasure to devour and another fantastic dish to finish of the night. Vie’s pastry chef, Elissa Narrow, provided a wonderful sweet take on peaches and apricots in a jar of vanilla Bavarian.
These are the kind of meals one would travel hundreds of miles for. Collaboration amongst some of the top chefs from one of the best food cities in the country, celebrating the cuisine of one of the most talented chefs in America. Very lucky to have been there.
As I mentioned above, in my previous two visits to Chicago my meal at Next had been the highlight of the trip, both “Kyoto” and “The Hunt” blowing me away and taking me to places I had never been to flavor, texture, visual wise. This is one of the most exciting places to eat in America right now, and one that is constantly pushing the boundaries of what dining means.
Sometimes, as was the case with the “Vegan” meal I attended this week, these boundaries can be pushed perhaps too far, and impression is replaced with puzzlement and sometimes even deception as to what the meal’s intention was. The “Vegan” menu at Next was so complex, so elaborate, that it made me conclude it was the exact opposite of “comfort food”. And by comfort food I don’t mean a BLT with fries, I mean a meal that satisfies you, that you savor, that you remember. That you wish you could go back to sooner rather than later.
The challenge of creating a menu sans animal proteins is not an excuse. The world of fine dining is swimming at present with vegetable centric options where the ingredients shine and nurture you, and do not need to be smoked, pulverized, frozen and thawed before getting to your plate. This is after all, the work of two of the best chefs in the country, Grant Achatz and Dave Beran, so there where of course some highlights. The opening course, a creamy burnt guacamole was spread over a rock and had crispy kale curls which made it an impressive meal opener. The small crispy artichoke had a mint pesto at its heart that helped make it one of the best I’ve ever tasted. The Swiss chard had been deep fried in a light batter, which is probably the fastest way to get people to eat their vegetables. And a perfectly charred cauliflower floret benefited from the curry flavored intensity of red pepper/harissa puree.
Some other highlights are impossible to describe, as the divergence between the wording on the menu and what is placed in front of you increases drastically with some courses (the wonderful crumbs are made of what?). In parallel though, some dishes were extremely heavy on acidity and seasoning, as if their intention was to disguise the simplicity of the vegetables. And some courses had very little flavor and did not justice to the main ingredient, as for instance, the wild mushroom course. A gorgeous cart is presented table side with some amazing specimens, and then a small potion of farro based wild mushroom “risotto” contains only traces of the wild ones. Other vegetables, like salsify and fennel, were barely visible and one could barely taste them as the complexity of the garnishes and the technique used muted them.
As I’ve written before, dining at Next is something I will always enjoy and will always make up and excuse to go to. They are way out there when it comes to creativity in the kitchen so if only as a culinary culture enhancing experience, it’s worth any gourmand’s time and money. But the “Vegan” meal I enjoyed the least out of the three I’ve been to, since I was expecting more vegetables to shine on their own and not see them on the backseat while technique and garnishes drove and played shotgun.
One of the many restaurants in Chicago that holds the coveted Michelin Star, Sepia is located in the West Loop and serves American classics with a modern twist, under chef Andrew Zimmerman (who cooked at the SPQR the night before). Chicago presents endless options when it comes to great food, but what drew me to try Sepia was word on the street they had the best burger in town. I’m glad I chose it over so many other options, since the lunch Chef Zimmerman served us was truly great (and yes, the burger was amazing).
We started off our lunch with probably the best way to start off a lunch: a house made charcuterie platter. Sweet and dense foie gras, lardo strips on toast, pates, mortadella and other hams were presented next to a generous helping of sliced brioche and toast. Nothing quiet beats starting off a meal with a decent selection of charcuterie.
Between those and the main courses, chef Zimmerman brought out a few dishes from the dinner menu. My option were some delicious crispy chicken sweetbreads surrounded by delicate zucchini and mushroom bits in an earthy, creamy sauce. I also tried the sweet corn filled pasta with black truffles which was a true delight.
My lamb burger arrived and at first bite it amazed me. Spicy lamb patty with semi-charred feta on top on a soft bun. There’s something about lamb meat that I love so much that even makes me like a lamb burger almost more than a regular one. This one was a true treat. My fellow diners finished up their meatloaf burger, house turkey “BLT” and lightly grilled artic char with a brilliant egg that was purple on the outside. Sepia is one of those great American restaurants I would be happy to go back to anytime soon. Great dishes, in a great room, with great service. That’s really all there is to it when it comes to eating out.
No trip to Chicago is complete without a visit to a Paul Kahan establishment. I feel he is to that city probably what Michael Schwartz is to Miami, and I’ve had some pretty fantastic food on previous visits both at Acme and The Publican. The latter is a few blocks away from Next, so if your dinner is on a Sunday or a Monday, when The Aviary bar next to Next is closed, this is your best bet. It was once more on this occasion, and it is almost impossible to browse through their menu and not order some of their food, particularly their American hams.
Blackbird is Paul Kahan’s most “upscale” of his restaurants, and presents finer dining options in a rather formal yet inviting setting. The lunch fix prix is terribly cheap at 22$, almost difficult to believe considering lunch at any fast food place can set you back 15$ nowadays. It wasn’t my favorite Paul Kahan meal though. My lamb tartare, made of slices of lamb loin had very little flavor despite having various garnishes such as lentils, spicy marrow and cured rhubard.
My main course, confit of duck leg, was OK but not the best I’ve ever had. My fellow dinners were not too impressed with their entrees or appetizers either. Luckily for us, desserts saved the day as they say, as the gracious Dana Cree, pastry chef for Blackbird and Avec, approached the table and introduced our desserts to us, including an extra one she felt we needed to try.
Her desserts were absolutely stunning in presentation, originality and flavor and I would go back anytime to try some more of her creations. In fact, since Avec is next door, I may play the “savorys at Avec-sweets at Blackbird” combo one day. She was particularly proud of her strawberry bubblegum ice cream made without using actual bubblegum (impressive), and the burnt grapefruit with avocado and goat cheesecake I had was the best sweet thing I ate during the 48 hour layover.
Apart from the 4 places mentioned above, I returned to 3 places I had been to in previous trips which I absolutely love: GT Fish & Oyster for their amazing lobster roll, Au Cheval for their decadent burger and The Publican for their impressive hams. Highly recommend these options when in town.
That’s it for this week, write to you soon,