This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
Since I get regular emails on this subject, I thought I might as well create a whole post on restaurants (and a smattering of bars) in Chicago that I think are worth recommending.
The first of these is Elizabeth Restaurant ($$$), run by my friend Iliana Regan and her excellent staff. I chanced on an extra seat back when she was doing dinners at her apartment and ever since I’ve been a fan. I love her intricate approach to showing off what the woods and fields of the region have to offer. She has three menus, the ones that are probably the most interest to a visitor are the Owl, which is focused on Midwestern agriculture, and the Deer, which is focused on foraging and hunting. I’ve had bear, venison, raccoon, wild mushrooms, and other unique local woodland products here, all presented beautifully in multi-course formal tasting menus. You have to pre-buy tickets to this restaurant to secure your seats.
Salmon wrapped in turnip at Elizabeth
People who have serious food allergies who read this blog will be delighted to learn of the existence of Senza ($$$ previous post), a fantastic restaurant staffed by many veterans of Chicago’s most respected fine dining institutions that happens to be very strictly gluten-free, which is a boon for anyone with celiac disease. Unlike other gluten-free restaurants, the cuisine is more focused on meat, fish, fruits and vegetables than gluten-free bread and pasta that dominates the less accomplished restaurants of this genre. Tasting menu only, but it’s a perfect way to experience the talents of the kitchen.
Two less formal restaurants I frequent are Vera ($$) and La Sirena Clandestina ($$) in the West Loop, which is really the hub of the food scene here. Vera is a seasonally-focused Spanish-inspired wine bar. Sit at the Otro bar and enjoy delectable deviled eggs topped with creamy uni, the famous jamon iberico, the most perfectly cooked crispy brussel sprouts with anchovy dressing, and a glass from their very long list of sherries. Menu items change often as the seasons change, so I can’t recommend any one thing, but be sure not to miss ordering something each from the meat, the seafood, and the vegetable sections of the menu.
Bacon wrapped dates in blue cheese fondue and kale salad at Vera
La Sirena Clandestina is a romantic little South American-ish spot. I think some of my readers will enjoy it because the chef uses cassava flour for things like pao de quijo, which are cheese puffs (also found in Lakeview at Cassava, a gluten-free cafe), and fried smelt, which are little fish served with an aioli-like made with Brazillian malagueta peppers. I personally have an addiction to the empanadas, which are always filled with something new and interesting like spicy duck chorizo. Seafood dishes are a highlight here and there are lots of little appetizers that are surprising hits like the cilantro coconut risotto. Don’t miss the excellent cocktail program. I think the pisco sour is one of my favorite drinks in the city.
Cassava battered smelt at La Sirena
Another good option in the West Loop closer to the city core in Embeya ($$$), which has a nice selection of Southeast Asian dishes like this sausage stuffed squid and excellent drinks. If you are wheat-avoidant there is hardly any on the menu.
For Lunch, Blackbird ($$$ except for lunch special) is a great place to get a tasting menu that’s not very expensive. $22 will get you an excellent three-course menu that varies with the season. If you want something a little less formal, Publican Quality Meats ($) is a butcher shop that has a variety of really great options, like the butcher’s meal, which lately is Cocido, a Spanish blood sauage, cumin, and chickpea stew. I also go to Au Cheval sometimes for their chopped liver, which is so far my favorite liver in the city.
In my own neighborhood, which is above the West Loop and is usually called West Town, I am a huge fan of Ruxbin ($$), which is just really wonderfully cooked comfort foods with unique, often Asian-influenced, touches. One of the best dishes I had here was a perfectly cooked steak with miso-butter rice “tots” and the best crispy savory broccolini I’ve ever had. The catch is that it’s impossible to get into on Sunday, which is reservations only, and the rest of the days there are no reservations, so sometimes the wait can be long and unpredictable. I suggest putting your name down and heading to Noble Rot or Lush where you can get great beer or wine to bring back when your table is reading since Ruxbin is BYOB. I need to try more of the Mexican options in Chicago, but I typically go to the dive called Taqueria Traspasada ($), which is on the corner and open late, for simple good tacos.
For lunch, the local butcher shop, The Butcher and the Larder, serves up delicious sandwiches and soups. Other neighborhood staples for me are The Green Grocer, a small grocery store which has an excellent selection of pretty much everything I like, and Nini’s, a little Cuban-Lebanese deli that has an assortment of homemade and high-quality goods.
In Wicker Park I like Carriage House ($$), which features low-country Southern Food, Violet Hour ($$) for cocktails (but on weekends there is often a very long line to get in), and Trencherman ($$) for brunch and cocktails.
Logan Square is another food-lover’s mecca. I really enjoy the cocktails at Billy Sunday($$) and the Japanese-influenced food at Yusho ($$), particularly the savory egg custard known as chawanmushi. Longman & Eagle has delicious tallow fries.
Up north in my old neighborhood of Lincoln park I recommend The Peasantry ($$), which is very rich and delicious dishes inspired by street food, and Rickshaw Republic ($$), which is oddly enough Indonesian street food. I guess it makes up for Chicago’s anemic food truck scene,a consequences of draconian regulations here. For drinks in that area I recommend Barrelhouse Flats for cocktails and Deliahs for beer.
If you are willing to go further north, there are very good Indian, Thai, and Korean restaurants. For Korean I usually go to Dancen ($), which is a Korean dive bar where you can get cod roe soup that is really made with cod sperm sacks. It’s better than it sounds, but if that’s not your style, the seafood pancake is also really really good. For Thai I love Andy’s Thai Kitchen ($) and Sticky Rice ($), which have many authentic dishes, one of my favorites being the fermented sausages.
If you are willing to go way out of the way, Bridgeport is a fun artsy neighborhood further South that has Maria’s ($$), home to a truly impressive beer list and cocktail program, and Pleasant House ($), where they have managed to give British food a good name with their delicious flaky savory pies.
The more central areas of the city are not my preferred place to go, but if I have to be there, I will go to The Purple Pig ($$), a gastropub that is sometimes impossible to get into, Gyu Kaku ($), tasty Korean-Japanese barbeque with many offal options, Slurping Turtle, and Xoco ($), which has good hot chocolate and Mexican caldos (soups). For drinks I like Sable’s cocktails. I keep meaning to try Sumi Robata bar and will report back since that looks really awesome too.
That’s a lot of places, so if you want other recs for other neighborhoods or other types of cuisine, let me know in the comments. Also there are still places I need to try, so I will add more to this as I think of things or find new things.
Also don't forget to try the local Chicago-Swedish spirit, Malort, which I bet all of you will really really enjoy. It's a must!
If you want to know some underground dining options, you can email me privately.
There is no doubt that gluten-free options are growing. However, at least in the places that I've lived, most gluten-free options are kind of sad. They are either bundled in with "health food" options and are also whole-grain/vegan/low-fat bundles or misery or are just regular menu items made with an assortment of mediocre processed gluten-free breads and pastas. Since the main problem for me with wheat seems to be the complex carbohydrates, often these options are worse than regular food. For those with celiac, it's not exactly fair to be banished to a butter-free ghetto just because you can't have wheat.
So I was excited to eat at Senza, which is a new gluten-free restaurant in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. Except they don't want to be known as a gluten-free restaurant, just as a really good restaurant that happens to be gluten-free. The concept reminded of of a restaurant I read about in Berlin called Ma Restaurant and I expect Senza will share a Michelin Star with Ma considering the level of cuisine here.
The lighting was not very good for taking pictures myself, but their website has some great photos like this one of the steak entree:
The cuisine, as you can see from the photos, is very modernist, but still very filling and satisfying. I ate off the A La carte menu at this visit, but I'd love to try their tasting menu some day. Everything was cooked with the utmost skill with excellent use of classical techniques. Of course my favorite classical technique, the flavoring with stocks and broths, was showcased in the prawns dish, which features a lovely savory consomme (a type of broth clarified with egg whites) made with Virginia ham. I should try this myself as I have seen it in cookbooks as a use for the hardened ends of a good ham. The scallops were perfectly seared and my halibut and arctic char dishes made it clear that the chef really does seafood very well. Each dish also features a wealth of interesting little textures and flavors. One of my favorites with a tiny little s'more on top of the chocolate ganache for dessert, served alongside a lovely little cup of creamy chicory "coffee." The scallops came with mini choucroute, which are bundles of pork wrapped with sauerkraut.
I would probably skip the bread and pasta next time. I tried a little, but especially compared to the meats and fishes, it's just kind of clear that this isn't where the restaurant shines. I do think it's possible to do bread service that doesn't just remind you that gluten-free bread will never be that nice sour crusty french bread you miss so much. Cassava, also in Lakeview, does "bread" in the form of cheese puffs made with cassava that are really good. Also, personally, I can't tolerate high alcohol beverages like wine or cocktails very well and gluten-free beers don't agree with me, so I would love to see some ciders on the menu, especially considering that they are experiencing a bit of a revival these days.
On Saturday I paid a visit to the local wine and spirits shop Lush and there were doing a cider tasting. I tried a few really good ones, my favorite being the Eric Bordelet Poire Granit. Later I learned this was a perry, a pear cider, which I am glad I didn't know because I had only had really horrifyingly sweet perrys. But this was dry and almost buttery. I also was a huge fan of the Isategi Natural Cider, though the staff at Lush noted this was a hard sell to most people. But I love very sour barnyardy tastes. If you like gueuze or kombucha, you'll like this. And I think Senza's food would pair well with these.
Either way, I'm glad that Senza is showcasing the fact that there are many good real naturally gluten-free foods that don't require creating elaborate mediocre substitutes. And given that trends in restaurant food are moving away from things like grain and sweet-heavy dishes and have been for some time, it was only a matter of time that such a restaurant would open. And Senza is very serious about gluten-free. They told me that there is absolutely no gluten allowed in the restaurant ever, which is a must for people with celiac disease.
I am excited to welcome our first ever guest blogger. Sarah Davies is a member of Eating Paleo in NYC and is a testament to the diverse appeal of our group. We have everyone from Crossfitters building muscle to celiacs interested in healthy healing grain-free eating. Sarah is an example of the latter. Last week she helped me teach the first NYC Paleo Skillshare making some delicious roasted vegetables, soup, salad, and mandarin chicken! She talked about how her cooking methods allow her to get through the week without stressing about food. That's very appealing to me, because as long as I've been doing this, I admittedly don't plan as much as I should. I often come home from work and realize that salmon filet that I was planning to eat was eaten three weeks ago and all my vegetables are spoiled! Inspired by Sarah, I'm planning to well...plan more! Hopefully you will be too!