Chicago’s restaurant scene should be just a shadow of its former self. Even in 2019 it seemed to be floundering, reeling from the loss of several notable establishments, including Grace, one of the city’s two Michelin three-star restaurants. The following year was, of course, a terrible time for fine dining all around the world. In 2020 and 2021, Chicago lost two classic restaurants we have recommended for decades, Everest and Spiaggia. As of this writing, dining rooms have been able to operate at full capacity for mere months. Now should be a historically bad time for Windy City gourmands.
And yet. Chicago’s dining scene has weathered the worst (hopefully) of the pandemic and emerged, improbably, as wonderful as it ever was. If the Michelin star count is any indication, it’s even better. In 2019, Chicago earned a total of 27 stars. Now it has 30. Considering the times, this is an incredible achievement.
When we visited this summer, hotel rooms in Chicago were easier to come by than restaurant tables. It proved impossible to secure (prepaid) reservations at Ever, the new venture by Michelin three-star chef Curtis Duffy. Likewise the two-star Dining Room of Moody Tongue. Even so, we dined splendidly. Often I find at least one restaurant that doesn’t live up to its hype, but this time, there wasn’t a single disappointment. Against all odds, now is a historically good time for Windy City gourmands.
Located south of downtown near the McCormick Place Convention Center, this new Italian-Mediterranean restaurant is the second offering by chef Stephen Gillanders of critically acclaimed S.K.Y. Since it had opened only a month or two before we visited, the restaurant hadn’t yet completed its décor. The airy space full of midcentury modern-style tables had only a couple of sets of curtains on its expanses of windows. Nothing else absorbed sound, making it a bit too loud for my taste. That qualm aside, the service and food were both excellent. We started with the black truffle puff bread, which was crisp and soft, topped with toasted garlic, ample black truffle and fried parsley. I also loved the sweet, salty and fresh yellowtail crudo with black pepper and cherry, and the housemade ravioli filled with rich Boursin cheese. The latter came al dente and bathed in a sweet-pea velouté that epitomized the early summer season. But what I dream about is the Berkshire pork confited in duck fat. It arrived shredded and pressed into a rectangle, topped with crunchy crackling. Some just-wilted chard, sweet cipollini onions and a pool of amatriciana sauce leavened the sublime richness. The by-the-glass wine list offered unique selections like a floral and minerally Moschofilero and a Pinot Noir-like Groppello. If the noise level isn’t a deterrent, Apolonia is worth the taxi ride.
2201 South Michigan Avenue. Tel. (312) 363-2431
Tucked away on an unpromising street south of downtown and I-55, Moody Tongue, a Michelin two-star gastropub, justifies the detour. Unable to secure a table in the gastronomic Dining Room, we reserved a table in the Bar, a more informal industrial space with old wood floors, black walls and globe pendant lights. I counted no fewer than 16 beers on draft, all made with Moody Tongue’s “culinary brewing” philosophy. I was pleasantly surprised by selections such as the strawberry hefeweizen and orange-blossom Belgian, both of which tasted fresh and finished clean. But unadorned beers such as the Aperitif Pilsner offer nowhere to hide, making them a better test of the skill of the brewmaster. This Pilsner — round and crisp, with just the right bite — would easily pass muster in Prague. The food, aside from a sloppily presented dessert, displayed the same care and attention as the brews. Hamachi crudo topped with pickled strawberries and rhubarb melted in the mouth. Bacon and leek enhanced the richness of Maine diver scallops, accompanied by a creamy-briny purée of purple cauliflower and sea urchin. Our main courses were also deeply satisfying. Well-rendered duck breast came with beluga lentils and a savory foie-gras emulsion, and the tender Mishima Ranch New York strip was perfectly medium rare, with heirloom carrots and supple parsnip purée on the side. Bar food doesn’t get much better. Closed Monday to Wednesday.
2515 South Wabash Avenue. Tel. (312) 600-5111
Porto is a romantic restaurant ideal for more adventurous palates. Another one of Chicago’s newest Michelin stars, it occupies a jewel box of a space with a colorful, maximalist décor. The inconvenience of a short cab ride to its West Town location is more than offset by the superb Galician and Portuguese seafood served here. One can order à la carte, but we opted for the seven-course tasting menu. After an amuse-bouche of lobster panna cotta, we tossed back some fresh and briny Baja West Coast oysters with sweet seaweed-infused rhubarb water and Cava espuma. The signature uni toast — sea urchin conserva, charred cauliflower purée, seaweed and lemon gel on toasted brioche — was rich but lacked the oysters’ complexity. I have only praise for all the subsequent courses. The fatty dry-aged Galician turbot with fermented tomato, monkfish liver sauce, favas and dashi foam was a special treat, since the fish appears so infrequently on American menus. And the presa Ibérica pork with a cabbage-vermouth purée, fermented mustard and smoked pork jus was a savory sensation. Beverages kept pace with the food. I enjoyed both the by-the-glass list of well-chosen Spanish and Portuguese wines — try the Listán Negro, a light and zesty red from the Canary Islands — as well as the dramatic cocktails. My gin-based Crepúsculo was black with squid ink, for example, and the Old Fashioned-like Humo y Sal came with a puff of cherrywood smoke. Diners can sit at a central bar, at tables alongside it or in a conservatory-style space in the rear. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
1600 West Chicago Avenue. Tel. (312) 600-6336
Devon Avenue has Chicago’s largest concentration of Indian restaurants, but perhaps the most beautiful and interesting of them is just west of the Loop. Rooh’s kitchen has an extraordinarily talented duo at its helm. Executive chef Sujan Sarkar was named Chef of the Year by The Times of India, and chef de cuisine Sahil Sethi also has an impressive résumé that includes a stint at Noma in Copenhagen. Their menu has numerous easily recognizable items — naan, dal, butter chicken — but they often employ local ingredients, giving traditional recipes new twists. For example, the kulcha (flatbread) came topped with Tillamook cheddar and shishito pepper, turning it into a sort of delectable mini pizza. The sweet potato chaat with cool yogurt mousse and aromatic dehydrated raspberry was enhanced by a tempura of local kale, the flawless filigree of breading adding a satisfying crunch. But my favorite was the humble-looking lamb keema Hyderabadi. It proved to be one of the most sublime shepherd’s pies I’ve ever tasted: an umami-rich stew of ground lamb and al dente green peas blanketed by lusciously creamy and airy potato mousse. It was also fun to sample the creative “Ayurveda-inspired cocktails” (try the Malabar Old Fashioned with coconut oil-washed bourbon). Our waitress was new and unfamiliar with the menu; when I tested her by asking what bhel was, she replied, “I’m sorry, I really don’t know.” We laughed together and she waved a colleague over to help. Whether you’ve never tried Indian food or you’re a connoisseur, I suspect you’ll have a highly enjoyable experience at Rooh. Closed Monday.
736 West Randolph Street. Tel. (312) 730-8495
When we visited, this new Croatian-Italian restaurant was one of Chicago’s most difficult reservations to get (the concierge of the Four Seasons assisted). It has a simple décor with wood floors, wood tables, whitewashed exposed-brick walls and an open kitchen. But 2018’s “Top Chef” winner Joe Flamm is behind that kitchen, and his celebrity is doubtless part of the draw. Some local critics have been grumpy about the restaurant’s popularity, noting that the food lacks the precision and creativity of Spiaggia, where Flamm worked for several years. Certain dishes are better than others, but I was delighted with our meal, which we enjoyed next to the table of Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago. We started with some buttery grilled radishes with whitefish roe, which had delicious notes of brine and char. A glass of Pošip, one of my favorite Croatian white wines, was an excellent pairing. The mafaldine pasta with lamb ragu and caciocavallo cheese was comfort in a bowl. Even better was the perfectly al dente spinach cappelletti filled with Parmesan and tossed with brown butter and subtle summer truffle. I wished there had been more baby artichokes with the citrusy roasted scallops, but I relished the pork ribs with a spicy-sweet Calabrian chile agrodolce glaze, contrasted by a soothing relish of yogurt and cabbage. For dessert, I sipped an aromatic Plum’s the Word cocktail of rum, slivovitz, lime and persimmon and orange liqueurs. The dining room was packed, but our helpful waitress provided well-timed service throughout our meal. It was great fun trying out a restaurant that everyone in town is talking about. Reserve 60 days in advance.
932 West Fulton Market. Tel. (872) 260-3921
Within walking distance of The Peninsula, The Langham and the Four Seasons, Tzuco is the new restaurant by acclaimed Mexican chef Carlos Gaytán. I was a fan of his now-shuttered Mexique, a French-Mexican bistro that earned a Michelin star in 2013 and 2014. Tzuco is larger and grander, its walls resembling a sort of cabinet of curiosities, with various sculptures and dried plants displayed in a lattice (there is also an appealing patio). The menu has some nods to France — onion soup with Poblano peppers, mahi-mahi with a habanero beurre blanc — but the dishes lean more Mexican than Continental. We started with a spicy shrimp aguachile, which had limey brightness but surprising depth of flavor, too. The empanada-like “pescadilla” followed: a crispy squid ink-infused tortilla stuffed with fresh mahi-mahi and topped with a mixed salad and avocado. Accompanied by fresh white-corn tortillas and black beans, the traditional cochinita pibil (a large fork-tender pork shank) burst with spicy-savory flavor. It would have been enough for two, but I didn’t regret also ordering the sensational burger, a decadent agglomeration of sirloin, Gruyère, serrano peppers and black truffle aioli. Some pickled yellow beets provided much-needed acidity. And we succumbed to the “Lemon” dessert, a trompe-l’oeil triumph. What appeared to be a fruit was in fact lemon mousse filled with mint gelée accompanied by crunchy coconut streusel and toasted honey ice cream. It was the most charming dessert I’ve had in years.
720 North State Street. Tel. (312) 374-8995