Thursday, February 26, 2009

Newlywed Fogies Out on the Town: Restaurant Week

It’s Restaurant Week in Chicago. One hundred and thirty restaurants have come up with a $22 lunch menu and a $32 dinner menu, throwing wide their doors to the impoverished masses.

This was an opportunity that F and I could not resist. So in our effort to get out more and to explore Chicago’s culinary scene, we chose Bistro 110 for our gastronomic adventure. This decision was not made lightly.

First, I read the reviews for each and every restaurant on and dismissed any restaurants that had received fewer than three-and-a-half out of five stars. Then, I divided the remaining restaurants by cuisine. Our options included French, Italian, American, Steak (evidently a subset of American), Japanese, Vietnamese, Continental, Fusion, Latin, Mediterranean, and one gastro tavern.

Then I visited the website for each restaurant within a given cuisine and reviewed their Restaurant Week menus side-by-side. I whittled down each cuisine category to two restaurants and did away with a few categories all together—like the gastro tavern, The Gage, whose menu featured various foams and a “reconstructed root beer float.”

I narrowed our options to the following four: Bistro 110 (French), Naha (American), David Burke's Primehouse (Steak), and Tizi Melloul (Mediterranean) and printed out the menus for F to review. It was really very close, but we went with Bistro 110, mostly because of the duck and the snails.

The Dinner Menu:

French Onion Soup
Endive and Goat Cheese Salad
Escargots en Croute
Pizza de la Maison

Wood-Roasted Half Chicken
Grilled Steak Frites 110
Duck a l’Orange

La Fameuse Crème Brûlée du Bistro 110
Gateau Breton

Bistro 110 turned out to be a spacious restaurant tucked onto Pearson Street, off of Michigan Avenue. It stands next to the Ghirardelli chocolate shop in the small square next to the Watertower that has always thrilled me with its fairy lights and horse-drawn carriages. We were seated at a table along the side of the large dining room and were immediately set upon by two waiters and a busboy. We were greeted, our waters were filled, extra place settings were whisked away, and menus appeared before us.

F looked up in near panic, “This is the regular menu!” he whispered. It was, indeed, a full list of $15 appetizers and $30 entrees. When I asked for the Restaurant Week menu, we were presented with a simple 5 x 7 card, and while our waitress remained friendly, the flutter around us ceased. It seemed we were still part of the impoverished masses despite our elegant setting, but we didn’t mind. F ordered the Escargots en Croute and Grilled Steak Frites 110, while I ordered the French Onion Soup and Duck a l’Orange. In the meantime, our waitress presented us with the bread basket and a huge, whole roasted head of garlic, from which we scooped generous lumps, hardly making a dent.

The Escargots en Croute was OK. It was essentially a gigantic croissant, beneath which were hidden six slightly tough snails. The French Onion Soup was fantastic, but we had to break through a thick cheese seal to get to the soup. Both appetizers suffered from excess; too much pastry, too much butter, too much cheese. But F thoroughly enjoyed his steak and thin, crispy frites. My duck was tender and the sauce was tasty, but the sweet potatoes were the highlight of the dish—small, cubed, and lightly caramelized. Even F liked them, and he claims to hate sweet potatoes. So far, we rated our meal a 3 out of 5 stars. And then the dessert arrived.

F ordered the Gateau Breton and I ordered the La Fameuse Crème Brûlée du Bistro 110. The famous brûlée was a fine dessert, but the Gateau Breton! I have been dreaming of it ever since. It was a very simple, warm, crumbly shortbread cake dusted with sea salt and accompanied by an unnecessary but delicious scoop of vanilla bean ice-cream and a drizzle of caramel. This Gateau Breton was absolutely fantastic. F laughed as I returned again and again to his dessert, forsaking my poor crème brûlée. While as a whole the meal rates 3 out of 5 stars, this dessert was a 4.5 (I reserve the 5 for any dish that can rival a gorgeous dessert named “The Dieter’s Dilemma” at the now-extinct Brush Hill).

As we fought over the last crumb of the Gateau Breton, F and I pondered whether we had ever had a restaurant meal we would rate the nearly unattainable 5 out of 5 stars. Between us, F and I came up with only a very few. Here is my list:

Brush Hill

Once a year, my parents would take my sister and me to Brush Hill for a special dinner. Brush Hill was a restored 18th century post-and-beam barn at the top of a hill in Vermont. I remember the drive up the hill along a winding path through the woods. I remember the dining room with only three tables and a gently roaring fire in the 12-foot-long brick fireplace. I remember ordering perfect, tender, pink lamb chops with mint essence, garlic, and grilled leeks. I remember that the kitchen was directly through an oak door near the fireplace, and the chef would come out to talk with my parents. I remember walking up the creaking stairs to the restroom on the second floor, past two bedrooms furnished with antiques. I remember that at the time, my sister and I were in the habit of rating bathrooms from 1 to 5, and we gave Brush Hill the highest honor. And I remember the reason we came back again and again to this restaurant at the top of a hill deep the woods of Vermont: The Dieter’s Dilemma, a puff pastry shell filled with French vanilla ice cream, topped with chocolate-rum sauce. It was quite simply the best dessert I have ever had, and probably will ever have. Brush Hill is long closed, but the memory of that dessert remains forever imprinted on my taste buds, never to be outdone.


F and I were married at my parents’ house in Connecticut. For our honeymoon, we drove up the East Coast and spent a few days in Vermont, where we had the best breakfast of our lives at Dot’s in Wilmington. Dot’s is not much to look at from the outside—or the inside, for that matter. It’s a small building next to the river that runs through town. The back end of the restaurant hangs over the river. It’s dizzying but also exhilarating to think that were the restaurant to slip into the churning waters, Dot’s homemade bread would be the last thing you’d ever taste. And that would be just fine. My oatmeal and bananas were satisfying on the chilly October morning and F’s eggs and bacon were perfectly prepared. But Dot’s homemade wheat bread is the best bread I have ever tasted. I can’t do it justice with words, so I won’t try to describe it. You will just have to go to Dot’s for yourself.

Mercat a la Planxa

Our Chicago friends took us out for dinner at Mercat a la Planxa to celebrate our engagement. While the atmosphere is a little too trendy for me (Dot’s is really more my style), being with good friends on the eve of my wedding and tasting exotic and delicious dishes that arrived one after another in a dizzying array, made this dining experience one of the best of my life. Our friend E had eaten at Mercat many times with her colleagues and knew the waiter, who was exuberant and generous with suggestions, portion sizes, and little treats from the chef. It was a feast of Bacon-Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Almonds, Garlic Shrimp, Spicy Potatoes with Spicy Paprika Aioli, a selection of cheeses, and the truly wonderful and surprising Langotsa y Vainilla, or Butter Poached Lobster, Roasted Garlic Flan, Basil & Vanilla. And then our friends ordered F a glass of 25-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. It tasted like a barrel; like pitch and oak and knotted rope. It was unbelievably good, and everyone at our table held the glass to their noses, unwilling to pass it on. I wish I could have kept that glass.

Those are my top three restaurant experiences to date. What are your 5-star restaurant moments?


  1. ooh duck.

    and that first time we had ba ba reba was pretty earth-shattering.

  2. indeed it was, however its memory has been sullied by shenanigans. But you are correct, those bates and dacon were my culinary first true love...

  3. cool stuff, although i'd warn anyone against using yelp as a guide. the reviews are written by (mostly) unpaid writers (hey, i've yelped myself, but will no longer) ---AND--- they are now under fire for removing positive and negative reviews to balance out how much the restaurant pays them or sponsors their events.