CHICAGO You haven't been to Chicago until you've tried the sea urchin ice cream.
Wait, stop, hear me out. I know there's a veritable United Nations of comfort food to cram into your long weekends in Chi-town. But the city is also foodie capital of the moment. And to ignore that would be about as bad as putting ketchup on a Chicago-style hot dog.
Last spring, the James Beard Foundation anointed Chicago's Grant Achatz as the nation's most outstanding chef. Chicago was the only city to be represented twice on Food & Wine's Best New Chefs list. And Gourmet's annual restaurant issue led with a story about Achatz's Alinea with the headline 'A Restaurant That's Really This Good.'
Yes, the deep-dish pizza makes you moan and so will this food. But it will also surprise you, make you think, and maybe even erupt in spontaneous giggles. It's been known to happen.
So back to that sea urchin ice cream: It came midway through a nine-course tasting menu in a west-side restaurant called Schwa. From the outside, the place looks like a hole in the wall with crumpled blinds. Inside, a cook there are no hosts or waiters here welcomed us into the cozy sage-green dining room and offered to open the bottle of wine we'd brought. It felt more dinner party than restaurant.
By the time the ice cream arrived, we were already convinced that Chef Michael Carlson is some kind of flavor savant. He melded together the familiar and the exotic to create new textures and tastes that didn't disappoint, so the idea of sea urchin ice cream seemed almost natural.
As Carlson presented it to us (he and the other cooks took turns as servers), he told us it's a 'pine cone.' And indeed it was: the ice cream and salted caramel was wrapped in a delicate pine-scented tuile. It was sweet and salty, creamy and decadent and nothing like that funky piece of sea urchin you might've tried at a sushi bar.
The universe of Chicago restaurants is vast. If it has a Dog Star, it's Alinea. Achatz, its chef, has built a reputation on a style that involves equal parts taste, creativity, and science. He's a master of molecular gastronomy, a style that uses different cooking methods and chemical compounds to manipulate flavor and texture.
Alinea's guiding principle is that nothing is what it seems that is, if you've ever seen anything like this to begin with. His most famous dish is ravioli that burst open with pungent black truffle liquid but don't expect to find it on the menu. It changes regularly, offering two options: a 13-course tasting menu for $145 or a 27-course 'tour' for $225.
His coffee-table cookbook also named for his restaurant will be published Wednesday. In it, he writes about where he gets his inspiration essentially, from everywhere: from nature, from A-1 sauce bottles for dishes such as venison rolled in savory granola or candied kumquats stuffed with olive and a vodka-like liquor that's been turned to gel.
That Achatz is a tongue-cancer survivor spared career-ending surgery by a clinical trial only makes his accomplishments more legendary.
But whether the food is made into foam or cooked on a traditional cooktop, the bottom line is the same: taste. Earlier this fall, nearly 6,400 people paid upwards of $150 to try the city's finest at Chicago Gourmet, a high-end food and wine expo in Millennium Park. Carrie Nahabedian, chef at Naha and the James Beard Foundation's pick for best chef in the Midwest, presented a cooking demonstration that combined salty prosciutto, sweet melon, and scallops scented with licorice.
'It's a textured layering of flavors,' she said.
Later that weekend, Kendal Duque, chef at Sepia, explained his thinking behind a simple salad: the sweetness of watermelon, the saltiness of goat cheese, the tanginess of yogurt, and the texture of fennel was all brought together with a vinaigrette.
'We try to do food that's very approachable, food that people are familiar with,' he said. 'But we definitely take a chef's approach to presenting flavors and combining textures.'
His word was borne out in a dish of noodles from Sepia. Flat ribbons of pasta were tossed with tender pieces of duck, mushrooms, and a poached egg that, when pierced, flooded the dish with a silken richness.
Chef Shawn McClain has also built a mini-empire of restaurants on the same premise. As chef and partner in Spring, Green Zebra, and Custom House, McClain is also indirectly responsible for Findlay's Revolver. Revolver Chef Michael Bulkowski worked with McClain, serving last as chef de cuisine at Green Zebra, arguably McClain's most interesting challenge.
The premise is simple and yet seen far too rarely: haute vegetarian. For far too long, veggies have gotten the shaft, hidden beneath cheese shellac or 'meat replacements.' At Green Zebra, they finally get their moment. Ravioli are stuffed with creamy sweet corn puree that shines like summer. Brussel sprouts get a nice smoky char as they mingle with gnocchi and carmelized onions.
And while the restaurant keeps a meat or fish dish on the menu for unbelievers, you won't order it. There are far too many other options to tempt you away.
There are simply too many great finds in the Chicago restaurant scene, so here are a few helpful hints:
Get out of the loop. Some of Chicago's best finds such as Schwa aren't downtown. The city's neighborhoods offer a lot: great food, great shopping, great charm. Check them out ahead of time and go early to explore.
Look into reservations early. These places book up, so plan in advance. And if you've read about TableXchange.com, a new Web site that lets you buy reservations, don't risk it. Some restaurants will not honor paid reservations. And even if they do, it's just bad precedent. There are plenty of options to go
Consider a food festival. Each year, the city's Green City Market (
chicagogreencitymarket.org) hosts a fund-raiser. For $50, you can sample the fare of dozens of the city's finest restaurants. And some of the chefs are even on hand to serve you. Chicago Gourmet (chicagogourmet.org) also kicked off this year to mixed reviews, but watch for it to grow into its shoes in coming years.
Read up. The city has no shortage of food coverage. Check the reviews in Time Out Chicago, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, and Chicago Tribune. The Tribune's food blog, 'The Stew,' has lots of great nuggets.
Be daring with your orders. Don't rule out dishes based on a single ingredient. It may be prepared in a way you don't know you love or in combination with another flavor that makes all the difference. Think about it: Who knew sea urchin ice cream could be so good?