I spent the past few days visiting my nephew in Chicago. It’s not a city I know well at all, so it was fun for me to walk around and get a sense of the different neighborhoods. One day we rode bikes from Logan Square, his neighborhood on the city’s west side, straight east through Bucktown and Lincoln Park before turning south and riding along the lake shore bike path to downtown. This is a phone snapshot from where we turned around just before the Navy Pier.
I didn’t want to make this an eating vacation, but of course that’s what it became. We were dining out most every meal, so it was hard not to want to try a few of the places I had heard about.
Late one morning we stopped by Xoco, Rick Bayless’ new fast-casual spot right next door to his celebrated twofer, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo (which serves a higher-end menu in a less-boisterous back room). Xoco specializes in tortas (Mexican sandwiches), churros and hot chocolate. After waiting in the slow-moving line for 20 minutes and staring at the looming blackboard menu, my nephew slipped next door to see if we could snag a table at Frontera. Success.
The one thing we tried that was really knock-your-socks-off good was the caldo de camaron (above) — a shrimp soup made with lobster stock, dried shrimp and guajillo chile. The spice burrowed as deeply as the sea-funk flavor. The texture was fascinating — velvety with micro-particles of (I’m guessing, but pretty sure I’m right) ground shell held in suspension. We liked our other dishes — chicken enchiladas in mole poblano and this vegetarian tortilla stack (left) — well enough. By the way, that’s a fried kale leaf on the side. Very fun.
We twice went to a fine neighborhood restaurant right around the corner from my nephew’s apartment called Lula Cafe. The Monday night three-course farm dinner is a steal at $28, and just the kind of smart pricing and portioning that makes a weekly special sing.
We snagged the last table in the house at about 6:15 and were eating our first course of black bass crudo with nectarines in a flash.
On another day, we got fortifying bowls of duck posole (right) topped with slow-cooked farm eggs for a late brunch. I love the fact that brunch is served every day (but Tuesday, when the restaurant closes) at this place, and it’s always packed. Other nearby diners were eating kale strada, cauliflower omelets and a breakfast burrito that has a passionate following. It all looked great.
The best meal was without question at Avec — the stark, wood-paneled corridor of a restaurant next to its big brother, the stark, all-white restaurant Blackbird. (The relationship is a bit like that of Holeman & Finch to Restaurant Eugene.)
The well-edited menu features only a dozen small plates, a half dozen large plates and loads of cheeses and salumi.
We ordered a quartet of stunningly good small plates. One was a rusk of bread heaped with lima bean puree, shredded beets and kohlrabi in a sharp mustard vinaigrette. Another hunk of bread came heaped with the weird, weirdly perfect pairing of crispy duck and sardine fillets. Lots of red onion and parsley helped make the case for this unusual, unforgettable surf and quack.
A small portion of seared hanger steak came with a fattoush-like salad of radicchio, roasted tomatoes and dried cracker bits — all of it with just the right heft and acidity to answer the fatty richness of the meat. There was no leaving without the signature dish of chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon and set on a piquillo pepper and tomato sauce Four fat bites of love.
The strangest and worst meal we had was at the buzzy new sushi place called Macku. Fans have followed head chef Macku Chan from a previous restaurant to this spot near Lincoln Park for his creative ways with flavor combination.
We sampled a $75 omakase, which brought a generous amount of food. I won’t go into all of it, but we did love the spicy yose nabe (fish soup) that kicked off the meal. Kawagani (small, fried whole river crabs) come with a fun sweet curry dip, though the portion was cumbersome. Two people don’t want to eat 8 or 10 fried critters.
But the raw fish? Not so much.
The various preparations of signature sashimi come as little piles of fish with all kinds of heavy-duty sauce and toppings. The best was madai (sea bream) with toasted pine nuts, fried shallots and balsamic reduction. The drippy, black intensity of the sauce would make a BP executive shudder.
But that sushi, pictured above, was head-scratchingly weird, silly and poorly made. Any time the fish is warmer than the rice, you know something is amiss. There’s white tuna with a squiggle of banana-wasabi puree, bonito with fried garlic and tomato-mushroom puree, squid with an oily orange slick of spicy tobiko and salmon with truffle oil and mushrooms. I kind of understood the pairing of flounder with foie gras and shiso, but it was in the context of warm greasy fish and competing flavors.
I don’t think I’m headed back to Macku but look forward to exploring Chicago more when I return later this summer.