Chicago Culinary Adventures – Day/Night 3 – Frontera Grill and The Aviary

After my epic feast at Elizabeth the previous night, I was amazed that I woke up actually hungry again.  I ventured out once again to the Windy City, this time taking an Uber X ride to save some time… or so I thought.  A very unwise path to downtown by my driver had me sprinting before my reservation ended.  Thankfully, I arrive with 2 minutes to spare and was granted access to Rick Bayless’ famous tribute to all things Mexico – Frontera Grill.

Having grown up in Texas, I tend not to favor Mexican restaurants when dining out as it’s just too familiar to me.  However, having read extensively about Bayless and his true passion for Mexican food, I figured it was worthy of a visit.  I had originally tried to get into his upscale Topolobampo but it was booked out 2 months in advance.  Still, Frontera was known for its brunch so I figured it out still be a worth substitute.

While the menu did have some familiar Mexican food tropes, including the tacos al carbon that my server seemed to be pushing hard, there were also some very interesting combinations and elements not typically seen on a menu like this.  One that immediately caught my eye was on their Specialties list – Frontera Hot Cakes – Four Sisters’ Garden corn cakes with whipped goat cheese and pecans, two farm sunny side up eggs with Burton’s maple syrup and red chile glazed bacon.

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The corn cakes were light and fluffy, and served as a perfect vehicle for the very strong but delicious whipped goat cheese.  The pecans were a nice touch and added some texture to each bite.  The bacon had some heat due to the red chili glaze but wasn’t overpowering.  Overall, a very nice take on a traditional breakfast.

Because I had gotten there so late, it was almost 3PM by the time I finished the corn cakes.  I debated whether or not to get something else, opting to hold off and perhaps get something later when wandering around town.  However, then I saw that one of the desserts was home made Mexican vanilla ice cream mixed with Torres brandy and a goat milk caramel sauce.  And that was simply too good to pass up as I’m a sucker for boozy ice cream.

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Although pricey at $9, this was truly heaven in a bowl.  The Mexican vanilla beans had a distinctive taste to them and the Torres brandy flavor was bold and plentiful.  However, what took it to the next level was the truly amazing goat milk caramel.  Called catena, the warm thickened goat milk with gooey caramel oozed perfectly over the top of the ice cream, creating that wondrous warm melted taste of so many flavors mixed together.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around the city and taking a very cool boat ride on the history of Chicago architecture.  But enough about that, back to the food…

My next stop was at Grant Achatz’s The Aviary, which had been described as molecular gastromony meets cocktail bar.  I had failed to gain entry into Achatz’s famed foodie temple, Alinea, but at least I could get a different take here.  Located 2 blocks from Moto, The Aviary was hidden behind a large door with a stern looking women with the dreaded clipboard/headset combo.  Fortunately, I had been able to secure a reservation in advance and was soon inside.  To the right as I walked in, there was an active kitchen and bar known as “The Birdcage” where the drinks and food were being carefully prepared.  Unlike most cocktail bars, I couldn’t order at a bar because of said cage so instead I was offered a seat in the main room.

A friendly server explained the concept and suggested that I do one of the food/cocktail pairings.  I had read in advance about the various options and although the 5 course pairing had some appeal, I concluded having 5 cocktails wouldn’t be a good idea.  Instead, I chose the 3 course cocktails and decided to do my own food pairings from the small list of ala carte choices.

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For my first pairing, I had chosen a champagne cocktail with both an orange liqueur and some fresh Valencia oranges with a tincture of smoked paprika – basically a smoky, spicy mimosa.  With this, I knew I had to try what was called “BBQ pork”, which was one of their specialties, a massive slab of fried pork skin with some really delicious BBQ powder on it.  At first I was intimated by the sheer size of it but some 10 odd minutes later, I was crunching down on the last piece.

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For my second course, I had been recommended “No Chocolate Here” – which which was a bourbon-based drink with black truffles and cynar.  With that, I opted for the A5 Wagyu (basically the best of the best) rib eye with a Dark and Stormy glaze.  The server explained that since the beef is so good on its own that it didn’t really need to be paired with anything else.  However, they thought that was a bit too Spartan so they added the distilled Dark and Stormy cocktail (which is why it’s not dark) as a complementary cocktail.  It was a great choice.  Unfortunately though, it made the other cocktail the odd man out with a none too pleasant clash of flavors that just didn’t work for me.

My server noticed it was sitting untouched and decided that he’d offer me something else instead.  He soon returned with the most theatrical presentation of the evening.

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After lighting the cocktail with a mix of 151 rum and Campari, the non-flaming version was called “A Moment of Silence” – Angosturra bitters, apry, aveno and rye whiskey.  This was a much better pairing than the last one plus, flame on!

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After a brief respite to finish digesting the rich beef I was presented with a leather treasure chest, which when opened had smoke billowing out of it.  Inside was a glass that was also swirling with smoke.  This was my final cocktail called “Infernal Imagery” – Barolo vermouth, mauria quina (a French liqueur) and rum.

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I had been told by numerous people that the foie gras Snickers bar was the way to go for my last bite.  While not a huge fan of foie gras, I had enjoyed it in the past with a sweet component plus I do love me some Snickers so what the Hell.  The cocktail was dense and very complex, with the various liquors and liqueurs somehow not fighting each other.  This was needed to combat the overwhelming richness of the candy bar, with the foie gras adding that truly decadent level of taste.  I was DONE.

Or so I thought.  Looking for a night cap but nothing too strong, I was drawn to their small beer list, which included a couple of collaborations with the famous Evil Twin brewery in Belgium.  Still, I wasn’t quite finding what I wanted and it turned out that my current server was also in charge of their beer program.  She said she would come back with her “baby” from the private room downstairs called The Office.  I was soon presented with a very impressive list of beers from some of the most respected brewers in the world, including an entire page of just Evil Twin imperial stouts – my favorite type of beer.

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Unfortunately they were all in bottles and I was in no condition to have a full bottle of an imperial stout after 4 cocktails.  There was one option though from their draft list, a collaboration between The Aviary and Evil Twin.  Called “Stalk You Like a Hurricane” it was a smoked porter which also came in a 7 oz half size and a mere 6.9 ABV.  It turned out to be the perfect way to end the evening, with a nice coffee-like taste and just a hint of the smoke so as not to overpower.  I was surprised how much flavor had been coaxed out of it.

Since The Aviary was only 2 blocks from the green line and it was still relatively early, I hopped on the L and headed back to Oak Park.  It was a beautiful night so upon arriving, I walked the 1.5 miles back to my friend’s place which also helped me sober up a bit.  I crashed immediately, drifting off to sleep with visions of smoky foods and flaming cocktails dancing in my head.


Chicago Culinary Adventures – Day/Night 2 – The Gage and Elizabeth

The next day I headed into Chicago on a truly spectacular day with a perfectly sunny sky and high 60s temperature.  Ironically enough, most of my day would be spent indoors although it made riding the L and walking from stop to stop much easier.  First up was The Gage.  I had read good things about it plus it was basically across the street from The Art Institute of Chicago where I would be going to after lunch.

The Gage is an impressively large restaurant on a recently renovated office building located directly across from Millennium Park.  Since I was once again dining solo, I was given a seat in the back of the restaurant along a large banquet, surrounded by a mix of tourists and businessmen having their power lunches.  Location aside, my real reason for picking The Gage was to try their venison burger, which had been getting some recent acclaim.

I was hoping to pair it with a nice local beer but their selection was pretty wanting.  Two of the beers that looked good had already been tapped out so I went with a Goose Island Matilda, which was close enough.


The burger soon arrived along side a large dill pickle and fries.  It was a perfectly juicy medium rare with pickled shallots, roasted wild mushrooms and smoked gouda.  I think the smoked gouda was a bit much as it took away from the burger taste but the pickled shallots added some nice acid to cut through the richness of it all.  I was also somewhat disappointed that there wasn’t much of the unique gamey flavor of a typical cut of venison meat but again that also wasn’t helped by the smoked gouda kind of overpowering everything.  Still, a very good burger that I figured would keep me full until the next feast.

The Art Institute turned out to be everything I hoped it would be and more.  So many paintings and other works of art that I had studied in college were right in front of me.  I’ll spare the blow by blow however and carry on to the good stuff – my epic meal at Elizabeth.

After a failed attempt of getting into Alinea due to the fact they only sell tables in groups of 2, I had stumbled across a restaurant getting a lot of acclaim called Elizabeth.  The restaurant used the same ticket system as Alinea and their other properties but in this case, I was allowed to purchase a single ticket.  It was quite a different experience having essentially paid for my meal 3 weeks before actually eating it but now the time had finally arrived.

The restaurant is located in the new and upcoming area called Lincoln Square, which reminded me a lot of the Mission District in San Francisco.  After a quick 10 minute walk from the L station, I entered the small but very cozy Elizabeth.  Named after the chef’s sister, the restaurant is known for its combination of modern techniques with locally sourced and even foraged (though don’t tell the health department that!) food.


Since I was solo, they had set up a special table right at the edge of the kitchen, which gave me a great view into all of the action.  Soon after that, chef Ilana came by to introduce herself and explain the concept.  The meal was to consist of 16 courses focusing on fish, meat and vegetables either collected by herself personally or via a very local source.


The first “snack” was called “chilled spruce” and cold microgreens along with a sauce made with day lilies, a gelee of day lily and two types of potato.  The day lily sauce with the gelee had a very nice brightness and the entire couple of bites did in fact remind me of the smell of spruce trees.  A very intriguing start.


The next course “caviar” was in reality a small lasagna layered with day lily, ramps and topped with fresh white trout roe.  This was a real winner as the light vegetables mixed beautifully with the smoky roe.  After finishing, I realized that this meal would probably be very special.


Next up was the first course that showcased the chef’s playful approach to food.  Called “the rock course – wild rice and bear”, I was instructed to use the rock as my dining utensil and to eat it in one bite, calling it an “adult rice crispy treat.”  The puffed wild rice had curry powder sprinkled on it and on top sat a piece of bear jerky – yep.  I picked up the stone and ate it all in one bite as advised.  The rice piece absolutely tasted like a spiced rice crispy treat and the bear jerky, while a bit tough, had a very rich, smoky flavor.


My next server told me this course was one that would never leave the chef’s menu.  Perfected from her years of doing an underground dining club, it was a string of noodles that had been made entirely out of shrimp.  Wow, this was a stunning bite, and I could see why it was such a staple.


The next course was the “tea course” although in this case the tea was actually a rich mushroom “tea” which had been fortified with bear stock (yep)  The stock gave the mushrooms an even deeper flavor and the aroma was amazing.  I loved this one.


Shortly after I finished the “tea”, a server came over and picked up what I had assumed was just a centerpiece on the table.  However, it turned out that the ends of the centerpiece here in fact the next course.  Local carrots that had been sous vided for 48 hours and then stretched into almost a taffy like consistency.  I wasn’t a huge fan of this as the texture was a bit odd but appreciated the creativity.

As an amuse to reset the palette, I was presented with what was described as a “red wine meringue” which was paired with some baby carrots and edible flowers.  Encouraged to eat it in one bite, the meringue indeed did have a very distinct wine flavor and a nice added crunch by the carrots.  A nice way to transition to the heavier courses still to come.


The first of the “knife and fork” courses was a Hen of the Woods fried mushroom, which had been coated in an acorn based powder with a scoop of aioli.  Given my garlic issues, I skipped the aioli but the perfectly fried mushroom didn’t really need it anyway.  The acorn crust was very crunchy and the earthy, meaty mushroom underneath was delicious.


The next course was “soup inspired by greens”  It was a fantastic mix of a rich, velvety pea soup with some grilled fiddle head ferns, fava beans and uh, something else I can’t remember (hey this isn’t a food review!)  To be perfectly honest, it was during this course I had switched to my 3rd glass of wine and I largely missed the explanation of the various components, which lasted a good 10 seconds.  It was another very solid course though despite my slight distaste for fava beans.


When the next course arrived “spring greens and sweet breads” I braced myself a bit as sweet breads is probably my least favorite luxury foods to eat.  Still, the meal had been excellent so far so I put my trust in the chef.  I’m glad I did as it turned out to be a fantastic course.  The sweet breads had been poached in a duck and apple sauce and then quickly grilled so it had a much needed texture that is a lot of times missing.  It was also a great call to place them on a perfect bed of creamy polenta, which somewhat disguised the very distinct (and to me not great) taste of sweet breads.


Chef Iliana presented this extra course herself, explaining that she had been on a hunt yesterday and had noticed some milk weed growing near some mushrooms.  She thought that would be an interesting pairing and added some Hen of the Woods mushrooms, baby bok choy and radishes from her garden to round out the dish.  She said the milk weed tasted like a combination of a green bean and an onion, and she was right.  After peeling away the fibers, the interior was indeed the mix of bean and onion.  Everything else was equally delicious and was a welcome respite from the very heavy previous course.


The last savory course was another highlight – “spring lamb and beets.”  Rather than a typical cut of lamb, the chef noted she went for lamb belly, which had been slow cooked for 7 days with a ras el hanout spiced braising liquid and then crisped up a bit on the grill.  Next to it was a beet and horseradish granita and ribbons of golden beets.  After never having lamb belly pretty much ever before, it was amusing to get it for the second time in two nights although this was quite different than Moto’s.  The flavor of the lamb belly was full of rich, deep flavor and the bracing granita next to it was the perfect complement.  Golden beets are one of my favorites and these crunch ribbons were fantastic.  A wonderful way to end the savory courses.


As a way to cleanse the palette once again, this very curious set up was placed in front of me.  Called “test tubes”, inside each tube was kombucha.  As I’m not really a fan, I took a couple of ceremonial sips with the long straw provided and was pretty much done with it.  Again, high points though on the creativity scale.


The next course though was a home run.  Called “fruit loops” it was in fact a crazy mix of porccini, thyme and strawberry (yep) fruit loops with a cashew infused dairy milk that together sure enough tasted like the best fruit loops ever.  On the side was an “egg” which was in reality a white custard with a sphere of encapsulated Meyer lemon, which exploded with lemony goodness when bitten into, and if that wasn’t enough, a fantastic buttermilk biscuit (the recipe of which was tweaked to create the fruit loops) and a sweet butter.  The mix of flavors, textures and overall just wackiness was off the charts good.  I called the chef over to tell her she was a mad genius for coming up with this.  Wowza.


Perhaps realizing nothing would really top that last brilliant dish, the last course downshifted a bit.  It even was named basically exactly what it was – “chocolate, chamomile and lily shoots.”  The chocolate was a quenelle of dark chocolate ice cream, the chamomile was both in the sauce as well as encapsulated into small spheres, and the lily shoots had been candied.  Oh and there was also a piece of shortbread and a lemon granita on the side.

After just over 3 hours, I waved the white flag and couldn’t even finish the small cookies given as a final bite.  I stood up to applaud the kitchen staff who smiled and bowed in my direction.  Easily one of my favorite meals of 2014 and way up there with all time meals.  There is no doubt whenever I’m back in Chicago, Elizabeth will be on my agenda once again.


Chicago Culinary Adventures – Night 1 – Moto Lab Experience

I had long been wanting to visit Chicago but the stars had never seemed to aligned properly between getting time off and avoiding the cold blustery or sticky hot months.  Finally, a few weeks ago, thanks to the overwhelming generosity of an old friend, I was finally heading to the Windy City.  At my friend’s prompting, I decided to take the money I would have spent on lodging and basically go crazy with my dining options, of which Chicago boasts plenty.

I had soon lined up a murderer’s row of choices, starting with my first stop right after I got off the plane at O’Haire – Moto.  As it turned out, the restaurant, known for its clever mix of molecular gastronomy and classic preparations, was in the midst of celebrating its 10 year anniversary.  As part of the festivities, they had a special 8 course tasting menu server downstairs in the Lab, which is where they develop new techniques and have a small seating area for guests.


I had made my way to Moto after taking the blue line metra from the airport and then walking about a half mile (including over a bridge) in a fairly industrial part of town with my suitcase.  While that probably wasn’t the wisest of ideas, my temporary exhaustion melted away in the cool, pristine Lab room.  There was no menu as they wanted to keep things a surprise but the executive chef Ritchie explained that it would be a mix of new dishes and several Moto classics.


The first course was a buffalo tartare with several micro greens picked from the their in-house grow room and crispy shallot strings.  It was a fairly classic tartare, never a favorite of mine, although the dense buffalo meat made it have a bit more texture than a typical steak tartare.


This was soon followed by a truly spectacular presentation – Flavors of the Sea.  In the center was a huge, perfectly cooked diver’s scallop.  This was surrounded by four different types of seaweed, some pickled, some crisped.  It was a really stunning dish and made me excited to see what was next.


Richie presented this course personally, calling it “Chicken Wings”  The wings had been sous-vided for 48 hours and then the bones removed.  There was a blue cheese emulsion and tiny braised celery.  The chicken was very moist and mixing the other components made it very much taste like a traditional wings and dip dish.


Next up was “Breakfast Radish”, Richie’s play on the classic French side of radish and butter.  In this case, the radishes were sliced into ribbons and the butter was turned into a powder.  Similar to the chicken wings, once you combined the elements, it tasted like its much more simpler version.  Delicious.


My garlic allergy led to a special one-off course for me, which arrived at the table in a box laser-etched with Moto.  Once I opened the box, I was immediately hit by the distinct aromatics of thyme and rosemary, revealing the following:


Inside was a skewer of roasted potato and lamb belly, which had been slow cooked for days and then quickly grilled on the plancha to crisp it up.  The metal coils on either side kept the skewers warm and heated up the thyme and rosemary to impart those smells.  I had never had lamb belly and found it to be very tasty, especially with the crisp potatoes adding a nice crunchy element.


By this point I was starting to feel a bit full and asked for a breather.  This turned out to be a good call as the last savory dish, while small, was incredibly rich.  Called “sus scrofa” it was slow cooked wild boar surrounded by a Mexican mole sauce which had been turned into a powder.  The boar was dense with flavor and very tender.  The powdered mole liquified as I scooped up the hot boar meat, turning into a very rich and delicious sauce.  Having grown up in Texas, these flavors were very familiar to me, albeit in a much different presentation.


Richie laughed as he saw my reaction to the first dessert.  I had read about Moto’s creative approach to sweets but this even exceeded my expectations.  Called “hot dog” I was told to eat it like I would a typical hot dog.  However, it was, of course, not really a chili cheese dog.  In fact, the hot dog was a raspberry sorbet.  The cheese was a very flavorful orange sauce, with the chili bits actually coca nibs.  Finally, the bun was angel’s food cake to complete the illusion.  Eaten together, it was like having an ice cream cake made with sorbet – incredibly clever and very tasty.


Richie came out for the final course to make a blood orange sorbet table side using liquid nitrogen.  He explained that using this method allows him to create the sorbet in 30 seconds plus it looked cool, of course.  My table turned into a mass of foggy air as he quickly whisked the mixture.  This was to go on top of the chocolate mousse, which was both a powdered mouse and a creamy liquid.


While I’m not the biggest chocolate mousse fan, this was a very nice take on it, especially with the theatrical elements at the beginning.  After I finished, I was given a tour of their grow room, where they cultivate various micro greens, as well as the kitchen where I met the staff.  They only have 7 cooks and 1 dishwasher for what on a full night can equate to over 1600 individual dishes – very impressive.  I was left with an impression of a very smart, very hardworking team that loves what they do and how to keep pushing themselves.  A great night.