Chicago: A Winning Dining Experience

Four days in Chicago with my husband and kids meant that I had the opportunity to research, and subsequently experience, a variety of restaurants in a notoriously excellent food town.  Yay!  I took advantage of my usual tools –Zagat, Chowhound, recommendations from friends and relatives of friends, and frequent visits to in order to plan our meals.  My weekend dining included food from a Top Chef winner, a Top Chef Masters winner, an Iron Chef, and a Cupcake Wars winner.  That’s what I call a winning weekend!

Before we left I had plotted out two dinners and two brunches, and had stuffed a file folder full of printed web articles about additional places to explore.  There were a wealth of options, and not nearly enough time.

Topolobampo was at the top of my list. Topo is owned and operated by Rick Bayless, the winner of Season One’s Top Chef Masters, and is one of the highest-rated restaurants in Chicago.  No brainer.

I had a recommendation for Mercat a la planxa, a tapas restaurant that happened to be in our hotel.  Again, highly rated and convenient for my son and I to eat dinner, and my daughter and husband to enjoy drinks with us before they ate a Kosher Shabbat meal in the room.  (our workaround for Friday night).

The Saturday night plan was for us to go to Mana Food Bar, a vegetarian restaurant in Wicker Park that had received terrific reviews and would meet all of our dining needs.

Sunday morning we would dine at Karyn’s Food Bar, a vegan restaurant that again would satisfy everyone.

And finally, Monday morning when it was just my husband and I, we would enjoy one of our favorite breakfast destination’s anywhere, Lou Mitchell’s.

It was on the train from the airport to the city when I realized that one of the Top Chef winners was from Chicago.  Stephanie Izzard, winner of Top Chef Season Four, had recently opened The Girl and The Goat in the West Loop.  I could hardly contain my excitement.  I was going to reach number six on my Top Cheftestant experience list. But when?  There was no choice.  We were going to have to squeeze in drinks and appetizers on Saturday afternoon.

I am going to have to devote a future blog entirely to cupcakes.  It is something that I have truly been obsessed with for the past few years.  But suffice it to say, Molly’s Cupcakes, winner of an episode of Cupcake Wars, has some of the best cupcakes I have ever had (and I’ve had a lot of cupcakes). We visited twice during our four-day trip!

Lest you think that all we did on our trip was eat, rest assured that we walked for miles (had to work off some of the food), saw an air show, visited family, toured the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio in Oak Park, and thoroughly enjoyed the architecture of this great city.  The most delicious part of the trip was having my family of four together.  It’s rare these days.  But I am fortunate that they indulge me and whenever possible, join me in my eating adventures.

Here is a quick wrap-up of each of the restaurants.

Rick Bayless

Topolobampo.  This was a disappointment.  The food was fine but my high expectations were not met.  There was nothing unique about the flavors, and our surly server detracted from the experience.  My son found the texture of his food lacking and the taste just so-so.
My rating (on a 1-5 scale):   3.5
Zagat rating:  28

patatas bravas
Mercat a la planxa.  Terrific Catalan tapas.  Their presentation of patatas bravas was gorgeous.  The pea soup with goat’s cheese and a pea sorbet was out of this world. Each dish had a unique flavor and beauty.  This further demonstrated what was missing from our lunch at Topolobampo. And, we got a bonus.  This is a Jose Garces’ restaurant.  Garces’ is the newest Iron Chef America.  I didn’t even know this until two days later and I still loved the dinner.
My rating (on a 1-5 scale):   5
Zagat rating:  26

The Girl and the Goat

The Girl and the Goat.  Wished I could have tried more.  We loved the feel of this place.  Cool music. Rustic décor.  Large open kitchen where you can watch Top Chef’ winner Stephanie prep the food.  When a server tells you, “the cauliflower here changed my life,” believe her.  The artisan bread with honey butter and tomato relish is also worth the trip.
My rating (on a 1-5 scale):   4

Mana sliders

Mana Food Bar.  I have come to appreciate vegetarian food.  I wish more cities had quality vegetarian restaurants. Why don’t they?  There is so much to like about this place.  Favorites:  jicama, mango and cucumber salad; thai rice noodles, mushroom burger sliders and sweet potato pancakes.  Everything was delicious.  Don’t be afraid to try it!
My rating (on a 1-5 scale):   4
Zagat rating:  26

Karyn’s on Green

Karyn’s on Green.  This is a Vegan restaurant.  I knew from the reviews to expect high quality, top-notch food. But, I was a little skeptical.  Verdict:  My banana pancakes were great.  Didn’t miss the eggs at all.  My daughter absolutely loved her chilaquiles with salsa verde.  The “chicken” and waffles also received high marks.

My rating (on a 1-5 scale):   4

Lou Mitchell’s.  This is a Chicago institution, and I had been looking forward to the Greek omelette in a skillet since the last time we dined here, a number of years ago.  I also had fondly remembered the donut holes they handed you at the door.  The second time was not such a charm.  The donut holes were cold.  The omelette was good but nothing special.  I am not sure if I had built this place up in my mind over the years, or whether the quality had declined.    Either way I’ll try someplace else next time I go to Chicago.
My rating (on a 1-5 scale):   3
Zagat rating:  23

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