by Dan Morgridge
Just when winter finally seems to have corralled us indoor with nasty weather, the city lures us right back out again with Restaurant Week. The fifth annual foodie festival finds over 130 different restaurants offering prix fixe lunch and/or tasting menus for those who think variety is the spice of life. We’ve picked out a small sampling of the participating restaurants to show what’s out there – and what we think looks tasty. Looking for a particular cuisine, or just something closer to home? You can use the city’s handy search engine to browse by name, style (including vegetarian/vegan), and neighborhood.
While TRU and Rick Tramonto might be long gone, it’s not hard to find some of his protégés around Chicago. High among them is Greg Biggers, who worked not only at the four-star TRU, but also returned from New York later in life to manage Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood and RT Lounge. For Restaurant Week, Biggers displays the familiar TRU new-school-of-old-school French cuisine. Their dinner looks strong, but their lunch offers some very affordable treats. Lunch starter options include a winter salad with braised apples, spiced ricotta, and frisee lettuce or a local squash soup with duck confit and sweet potato. Main course options include seared Arctic char, roasted Amish chicken, and a truffle risotto with winter veggies in a brown butter emulsion (and they say restaurant week always leaves out the vegetarians). Dessert options include a vanilla honey parfait, meyer lemon tart, and a dark chocolate ganache.
Homaru Cantu and the magic of MOTO get a new spin at their latest location down the street. For Restaurant Week, the Future Food star and his staff are preparing a menu of their usual ingenuity. Hearts of Palm with pineapple, pork belly, coconut and mint start the night off. A “Chicago Steakhouse” is listed as short rib, russet, iceberg and bleu cheese – don’t think for a second that won’t be turned on its head. And last but not least, dessert is a classic red velvet… soup? The menu is $45, and beverage pairings are $15. Although if you’re here and really want to get on board with Cantu’s mad science bandwagon, spend a little extra: go for the “flavor tripping” on miracle fruit, an entire menu built around the wondrous little berry that makes your taste buds perceive sour or bitter flavors as sweet.
The Drake Hotel’s iconic red sign isn’t quite tall enough for Chicago’s towering skyline, but it’s still an unforgettable part of it. The hotel’s Cape Cod restaurant has almost as much tenure in the city as the hotel does. Their offerings this week don’t reinvent the wheel, but hell – it’s a damn fine wheel. For their Restaurant Week dinner, try the Maine lobster bisque with chive whipped cream and Armagnac – or opt for Hawaiian Blue King Prawns with picked turnips and fried shallots. Their offerings for the main course include a farm-fresh Idaho river trout in braised fennel with a blood orange salad, or pan-roasted flounder in celery root ragout with fried broccoli and red radish slaw. They wrap everything up with a choice of a traditional crème brulee, or their own bread pudding (a house-made baguette, Bailey’s custard, brandied cranberries and vanilla crème anglaise) – tough choices all around.
For all the creativity of modern American cuisine, there’s a chance that maybe you just want one damn good piece of meat for dinner. David Burke’s Primehouse offers a fantastic array of aged steaks, and the centerpiece of their lunch and dinner menu is their 40-day dry-aged steak “Burker”. Served on a toasted potato bun, the burger is dressed with garlic spinach, crispy shallots, and bacon mayonnaise. Of course, you could choose the Alaskan king salmon or the classic filet mignon as well, but…mmm, Burker. Of course, you’ll have tough choices before you get to the main course: a lobster bisque with green apple essence and lobster spring rolls, a wedge salad, or surf and turf dumplings (with coconut shrimp, lobster, and jerk pork with mango aioli) all present decadent starting options. And last but not least, save room for the dessert: mini prime, cheesecake lollipop, and Jove’s homemade ice cream should stretch the belt out a notch or two in the best way possible.
Pilsen’s not-so-hidden gem released their restaurant week menu like they do all of their menus – as a hand-written single sheet. Their dinner offering shows off Jason Vincent’s style, which is a great spin on New American comfort food without falling into pure gluttony. First course options include a salad of local Genesis Growers spinach, house buttermilk, candied walnut and speck. For the second course, diners can choose between Michigan char roe with kohlrabi, egg and brioche, or a foie gras agnolotti. The third course makes diners choose between Nate’s family meal chicken (listed as being served with “napkins”) or spit-roasted pork loin in anchovies, shallots and capers. Nightwood then wraps things up with an extra fourth course of dessert: a cocoa-nib semifreddo with brownie chunks and hot fudge, or a salty caramel sourdough pudding with toffee and vanilla. The menu cost is $44, but with an extra course and eight different options for the courses Nightwood gives extra bang for your buck.
Dan Morgridge is a writer from Chicago. He is accepting all offers to be a paid Restaurant Week dining companion.