"Chicago Gourmet is much more than an all-you-can eat gourmet food fest."
When Sheila O'Grady became the new head of the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA) in 2007, better days for Chicago's already thriving restaurant scene were inevitable. The year before, the IRA was so weak that it was powerless to stop the Chicago City Council from infamously banning foie gras. But O'Grady, who previously spent over four years as chief of staff to Mayor Richard Daley, brought the organization instant credibility and influence.
A year into O'Grady's tenure, the ban was lifted, but she and Mayor Daley had a lot more in mind. Early in her tenure at the IRA, she and the mayor discussed their shared desire to have a high-end food event in Chicago. And from that, Chicago Gourmet was born.
While last year's inaugural event was widely deemed a failure due to insufficient food and a boatload of organizational difficulties, the idea of the event remained strong. And in Chicago, when a project has competent leadership and the full support of city hall, eventually it gets done. And last weekend, the IRA put on a celebration of Chicago's restaurant scene that was truly exceptional in every way. Get your scrolling finger ready—lots of tasty photos, after the jump.
Whether it was a desire to reach a target market of devoted food lovers, a desire to keep the mayor happy, or both, an unprecedented array of Chicago's high-end restaurants and head chefs descended on Millennium Park to serve samples of their best food. Depending on which chef I talked to, they either donated all of their time and food or they donated all of their time and most of their food. More than 80 different restaurants participated and some offered more than one item.
Chicago Gourmet is much more than an all-you-can eat gourmet food fest. The chefs were joined by representatives from more than 300 different wineries and 65 liquor brands, all armed with unlimited pours. For those who want to learn something along the way, there were 25 cooking demonstrations put on by some of Chicago's hottest chefs, along with 17 seminars on drinks, 15 on wine and one each on champagne and spirits. Eight of those seminars were actually open to anyone who happened to walk by, not just those with tickets to the event. And for the wine connoisseurs, there was a Grand Cru tasting event each afternoon, though admission to those required an additional $175 ticket.
While unlimited wine and booze certainly have their appeal and I'm always happy to get lessons that expand my culinary knowledge, I was there to eat food. It was hard work, but I committed myself to two days of excessive binge eating and I proud to report that I visited virtually every restaurant there.
Most of the food was in five different "gourmet tasting pavilions," which were tents, each of which had a different culinary theme. On Saturday, the pavilions were divided by: Regional American, Latin, Stockyard, Asian and Dessert. On Sunday, they were: Gastropub, Seafood, French, Mediterranean and Dessert. There were about 75 different restaurants in the pavilions, each of which committed to serving for half a day.
There were also a decent number of restaurants (maybe 15 or so) that committed to two full days of food. Those places either had their own tents or had a table set up in one of the many tents devoted to wine tasting.
Before devoting the rest of this report to food porn, I thought I would, as one of the top grazers at the event, identify my 10 favorite places at Chicago Gourmet. In alphabetical order, they are:
Top 10 Favorites at Chicago Gourmet
Barry-Callebaut: Barry-Callebaut, the world's largest chocolate manufacturer, staked a claim to being the world's best with four-layers of chocolate perfection. The layers included (starting at the bottom): chocolate butter cookie with fleur de sel; hazelnut milk chocolate paste with some kind of thin crushed cookie mixed in; a rich flourless chocolate sponge; and a decadent layer of baked chocolate crème brulee. This dessert was as exquisite as it looks here.
Blue 13: Apparently Blue 13 has been open for a little over a year, but I had not heard of it until I found myself staring at pans full of pork belly that were sitting out as the Blue 13 team set up on Sunday afternoon. I'm not quite sure how I missed the place given that, I learned at the event, they sell a lobster pizza I think I'm obligated to review for Slice. In any event, I was not the only one entranced by the platters of piggy belly. A line of 40 or so formed, eagerly awaiting their pork belly served with an Asian barbecue sauce, kimchi and ginger lime broth.
There was a whole lot of pork belly at Chicago Gourmet. Blue 13's kimchi pork belly was not only the best of the event, it was the best I have ever had. It was also the best use of kimchi I've ever experienced, but that's far less impressive than calling it the best pork belly. The meat was remarkably tender and the crunch and heat from the kimchi worked wonders.
The Bristol: It's not often that I get excited about a bite of food that has neither meat nor sugar in it, but the heirloom tomato panzanella from The Bristol was simple perfection. Magnificent chunks of juicy late summer tomatoes tossed with pieces of hearty bread drenched in an outstanding vinaigrette still maintained some chewiness. Maybe I was unduly influenced by the fact that it was a lighter dish surrounded by some meat-heavy items but memories of the panzanella stayed with me long after the event was over.
C-House: Toni Roberts, executive pastry chef at Marcus Samuelsson's C-House, either really loves making people happy or she spent the weekend sending a message to everyone who makes sweets in Chicago. Either way, the people lucky enough to stop by her table on Sunday morning got their minds blown four times.
The slushyesque concord grape lemonade, perfect for those of us who baked in the sun while waiting our turn, was an incredibly tangy, immensely satisfying, soul-titillating drink.
From the tangy drink, I turned to a rich, remarkably moist salted fudge brownie that was absolutely packed with chocolate.
After the sweet chocolate, I turned back to tangy; this time it was sour candied citrus. I think there was zest from limes, lemons, grapefruits and oranges. Each piece was drenched in sugar and softened from the cooking process. The result was something along the lines of all-natural Sour Patch Kids.
As good as the first three desserts were, I think this one was the best. It didn't photograph as well, but the fromage blanc panna cotta with praline pecan and a concord grape was so good I actually laughed in disbelief as I ate my first bite.
Japonais: I did not want to include Japonais in my top ten of anything—other than top ten most pretentious restaurants in Chicago—but in Millenium Park, even if some of the presentation was silly, the food was spectacular. Japonais was one of the few restaurants that made two appearances in the Gourmet Pavilions, once in Asian and once in Desserts. At their Asian table, Japonais had two offerings. First was thinly sliced marinated New York Strip prepared on a hot rock. The use of the hot rock reminded me of all that is wrong with Japonais while the taste of the meat hammered home what was right. It was a tender bite of incredibly well-seasoned meat cooked perfectly.
As good as the New York Strip was, it paled in comparison to the Waygu Robata, ridiculously tender and perfectly cooked ribeye pieces that were served with an eye dropper full of wasabi ginger ponzu. This meat was so good that I can't bring myself to mock the eye dropper. This was, without question, the best bite of beef that I had at Chicago Gourmet.
At the Dessert Pavillion, Japonais excelled again, this time with a green tea fromage served on a sugar butter cookie and topped with a dollop of mascarpone cream and goat's milk cheese along with Thai basil leaf, a blueberry and a small piece of candied peach. I strongly regret not eating more than one of these.
Mexique: Ordinarily if I eat food from eight different Latin restaurants and one of the chefs is Rick Bayless, I have a pretty good idea which place is going to be my favorite. But since Bayless's cooking equipment never arrived, I didn't get to try his chipotle shrimp. Even if I had, I'm not sure he could have put out something better than the duck leg carnitas ravioli in mole covered with young coconut foam and roasted cocoa nibs.
Every individual flavor came through incredibly well and the nibs added a nice crunch to an otherwise incredibly soft dish. Mexique bills itself as a French-influenced Mexican restaurant, but unless the French can stake a claim to foam, this one stuck me as 100% Mexican and 100% incredible.
RL: RL, located in next to the world's largest Polo store, went with a fantastic twist on the BLT—scallop BLT. Sitting on top of an unobtrusive piece of crisp bread was a perfectly seared sea scallop topped with a firm piece of flavorful bacon, a juicy bit of heirloom tomato, Louis dressing (chili and mayo), and some arugula bits. Next to pork belly, scallops were the most common protein at Chicago Gourmet, and RL's rendition was head and shoulders above the rest.
Rosebud: Rosebud came with two different dishes. The first, a Waygu beef strip loin with a toasted sesame slaw was merely excellent.
Rosebud's second offering was absolutely spectacular and catapulted the restaurant into my top ten. The braised pork belly served with cooked honey crisp apples was a magical combination of sweet and savory in an unbelievably tender package.
Tru: Tru served what I thought was the most creative and quite possibly the best bite of the event—a lobster boil done "Tru style." A very rich corn pudding was topped with an Old Bay gel, layered with a generous piece of lobster, all topped with potato chips. Eaten in one bite, it was a creamy, savory, crunchy, lobster-infused mouthful of delicious.
This was the only thing I went back for thirds on at the event.
Vie: Paul Virant had a great pedigree (stints at Blackbird and Everest, among others) when he set off on his own at Vie in 2005. Western Springs is far away and my gourmet meals are too few and far between, so I've never really considered making my way to Vie despite the many raves it's received. After eating Virant's Dietzler Farm grassfed beef summer sausage with heirloom tomatoes and peppers, prairie fruit puree, basil and chevre, a trip to Western Springs is definitely in order.
I had this dish early Saturday morning and it set the standard by which I would judge the rest of the weekend. Every element was perfect. The summer sausage's hearty flavor was complemented by the sweet tomatoes and prairie fruits which, in turn, were accented by the tangy chevre.
Fannie May: Fannie May started making candy in Chicago in 1920 and the company remained based here until it was bought out of bankruptcy and reopened in Canton, Ohio.
The company has made a comeback in recent years and, while they now make their candy in North Canton, Ohio, I am not the only Chicagoan who still carries a torch for the company. Under the new ownership, Fannie May has teamed up with another legendary player in the Chicago dessert scene, Eli's Cheesecake, which produces a line of cheesecakes based on some of Fannie May's more popular candies.
I love Mint Meltaways, the mint chocolate treats that melt away slowly enough to still savor each piece, but not so slowly that there's any desire to chew. As much as I like the candy, I was stunned at how good the Mint Meltaway cheesecake was.
The Rest of the Chicago Gourmet Food Porn
Carnivale brought a Mixto Ceviche of shrimp, octopus and calamari drenched in a fantastic sauce of tomatoes, basil and habanero. Bonus points for providing sporks!
Blackbird served some outstanding smoked sturgeon with zucchini bread panzanella.
Cuban restaurant Café 28's habanero marinated chicken with vegetables in escabeche had a nice kick, contrasting well with the slaw.
Market brought deliciously rich mini grilled cheese sandwiches with duck confit, pear and melted brie on rolls from Turano.
Le Colonial's first salad roll was a good, but far from earth-shattering Goi Cuon Vit, which included grilled duck, rice vermicelli, lettuce, daikon, carrots, mint and basil and an excellent coconut plum dipping sauce.
Le Colonial's second soft salad roll was Bo Bia: julienne vegetables and herbs in rice paper with a peanut plum sauce.
Province dished out vegetables from Green City Market in a light lavender-honey chicken salad with orange mojo dressing. Enjoyable, but not memorable given the rest of the food.
Francesca's brought two desserts to the table. Up first was an excellent pumpkin bread pudding topped with a maple sabayon.
Francesca's second dessert, a mini tiramisu, was very good, but didn't stand out.
Fogo De Chao brought two meats: Linguica (pork sausage) and Beef Ancho, billed as "the prime part of a ribeye." Both were consistent with churrascaria quality: good, but not great.
Not content to just serve beer, 3 Floyd's also dished out Gunthorp Farms jagerwurst with housemade Robert the Bruce mustard and red cabbage braised in duck fat and Robert the Bruce. The complete package was outstanding—I went back for seconds.
Ajasteak's spiced corn soup with peekytoe crab was very good, but not strong enough to stand out.
Four Seasons Hotel's barbecue Sligo Farm pork belly with sweet corn slaw and little buttermilk biscuits was a pleasure to eat, even if a tad heavy on the sauce.
Gibson's and Hugo's Frog Bar had four items available for two full days. The kobe beef slider had potential for greatness but was a bit overseasoned.
Much better, the filet mignon sandwich featured a well-seasoned, extremely tender piece of meat.
From the Hugo's Frog Bar side of the kitchen came a disappointing crab and avocado salad dominated in flavor and texture by a tarragon remoulade.
Gibson's/Hugo's final entry was a good, albeit unremarkable carrot cake cupcake. Under normal circumstances, everything from these restaurants would have been very good, but the bar was incredibly high at Chicago Gourmet.
Jack Binion's Steakhouse, which is at the Horseshoe Casino, brought a couple of showgirls along and served two different dishes, including this very tender braised pork belly served with port wine sauce.
They also had a seared sea scallop with a corn relish that brought in a consistently long line.
Keefer's had an almost perfect roulade of La Quercia prosciutto, mozzarella, red pepper and olive relish with heirloom tomatoes. The mozzarella was a little hard for my taste, but that's being too picky. This was a great dish.
Mercat a la Planxa, an excellent Barcelonan tapas restaurant, disappointed with a soggy chochinillo al asado with rosemary white beans. The texture and subtle flavors were helped but not saved by the chicharrónes sprinkled on top.
The Mid-America Club made an excellent braised wild boar "porchetta" with canellini beans and a very nice olive jam.
Pastoral served a rotating variety of cheeses over the two days. I tried Big Ed's, a raw cow's milk cheese from Saxon Homestead Creamery in Cleveland, Wisconsin. The bold cheese stood well on its own but was even better with the excellent jam served on top.
Red Light had scallion crepes stuffed with five-spice braised pork and served it with a hoisin-cognac sauce. I have no idea what the five spices were, but they made for a really well-flavored dish.
Signature Room at the 95th came through with a delicious creation dubbed "turkey a la king" packed with lobster and turkey confit in a gouda spaetzle.
Late Saturday afternoon, the Signature Room had run out of turkey a la king, but uber-prepared Executive Chef Patrick Sheerin carried on with cheesesteaks made with bison and oka cheese, both from Canada, and a horseradish sauce.
Sunda had a shrimp toban on rice cake that was pretty good, particularly thanks to some pepper on the back end.
Sweet Misgivings is a 10-month old bakery that donates over 50% of profits to Chicago House, a non-profit that provides housing for homeless HIV/AIDS-affected men, women, and children and their families. The new business had really good baked goods: pecan bars, little cookies with large pockets of chocolate, and very rummy rum balls.
Tavern on Rush barely seared my teriyaki filet mignon, which was served on a bed of sweet and spicy vegetable slaw. The flavor was great, but chewing the nearly raw meat was a challenge.
Terry's Toffee was as incredible as always. The hazelnut toffee coated with dark chocolate was exceptional.
Labriola's meatball was pretty much everything you want in a meatball—well-seasoned meat in a little pool of sweet and tangy tomato sauce, all topped with parmesan. While meatballs may not meet most definitions of gourmet, this one was up to the standards of the event.
Labriola also had hazelnut gelato, a much-needed cool treat in the middle of the heavy trekking through Chicago Gourmet.
Urban Belly did what Urban Belly always does: make a fantastic soup, usually involving pork belly. In this case, it was a kimchi and tofu stew with pork belly in a delicious lemongrassy broth.
Arun's curried fish patty sat on a light garden salad with an outstanding lemongrass vinaigrette.
Lao Szechuan served the chef's special of dried chili chicken: small pieces of crispy fried chicken with some good heat on the back end.
Sola had an outstanding Hawaiian Ahi Poke with hijiki, avocado, sushi rice, wasabi tobiko (flying fish roe), soy syrup, wasabi oil and lotus chips. The high proportion of good fresh tuna was accented by many different flavors. The wasabi tobiko was particularly noteworthy.
Top Chef Stephanie Izard was there representing her much hyped forthcoming restaurant, The Drunken Goat. Izard, a noted pork aficionado, opted for a light, well-balanced chilled chicken dish with pumpkin vinaigrette, olive tapenade, and some tomatillos that brought it all together.
Sepia's miniature porchetta sandwiches with pickled fennel and Calabrian chilies were, other than some slightly mushy bread, great. The pickled fennel and chilies provided a nice tang with some kick.
Graham Elliott passed out sweet corn panna cotta with chipotle jam, roasted garlic cream, corn nuts and cilantro shoots. The textures and flavors mixed very well together, and the chipotle jam stood out as one of the best parts of the two-day binge.
Heaven on Seven had little servings of the same fantastic chicken and andouille sausage gumbo—the foundation of Jimmy Bannos's restaurant empire.
New-to-Chicago Mercadito's exceptional spicy mango guacamole had jicama and chipotle. I'm not sure how well it would work as a condiment, but alone on the homemade tortilla chips, it was possibly the best guacamole I've ever had.
Zapatista made a relatively bland and soggy cochinita pibil with pickled purple onions. Other than citrus, it didn't have a lot of flavor.
Lockwood's fig mint lamb stars an outstanding fig puree with mint, brown sugar, pepper and balsamic vinegar.
Erie Cafe had some wonderfully rare prime rib on Turano rolls with a choice of horseradish or horseradish sour cream. I went with the latter and took moderate advantage of the self-serve au jus policy for a fantastic prime rib sandwich.
Ditka's pulled pork did not have any smoke taste to it at all. Pulled pork from an oven can make a fine, even excellent sandwich. But this pulled pork was just OK and vastly overmatched by most offerings at the event.
Morton's filet mignon sandwiches were on remarkably soft rolls. As tender and juicy as the meat was, it suffered from a lack of seasoning and high bread-to-meat ratio.
Rockit had tasty mini burgers with brie cheese and fried shallots. The untold secret: visible amounts of melted butter inside the bun compensated for the juice that had been cooked out of the medium-well burger.
The Gage's pan-roasted whitefish was fine, but it was outshined by a sensational duck sausage.
The Gage also appeared at the dessert pavilion with very good pumpkin and sage s'mores and refreshing apple cider push-pops.
Goose Island's excellent Slagel Farms pork meatballs, topped with a spicy aioli, were the meatball versions of the restaurant's slider.
Spring's roasted autumn squash tabbouleh came with roasted apples, grilled shrimp, pumpkin seeds, cranberries, and a cider citrus vinaigrette. The pumpkin seeds added much needed salt and crunch, resulting in a remarkably light, texturally perfect sweet and savory treat.
Oceanique perfectly executed day boat scallops with red watercress and a light yuzu marmalade. Yuzu is not ordinarily among my favorite flavors, but this was good enough for seconds.
Riva prepared Caribbean ceviche: shellfish and diced vegetables, all soaking in an exquisite lime and coconut milk mixture.
L20, not surprisingly, prepared one of the most labor-intensive dishes. The smoked salmon was phenomenal. The translucent Earl Grey and ginger noodle looked impressive, but when eaten with the rich, well-seasoned salmon, didn't rile up the taste buds.
Café des Architectes put out absolutely exquisite meringue-like hazelnut macaroon filled with fig and capriole goat cheese. The combination of rich fig and creamy goat cheese was effectively dusted with crunchy hazelnut sugar was phenomenal.
NoMi served house-cured salmon with tiny turnips, dill crème fraiche and a massive pillow of beet foam.
My Dietzler Farms mini-burger with butter kasse cheese, pulled pork and onions from the Park Hyatt had been sitting out for quite some time before I got it. I'm sure a fresh one would have been better.
Avec's wood-grilled squid salad with basil, red onion, lemon, heirloom tomatoes, and romano beans was a fantastic light flavorful treat that benefited greatly from the crunchy beans.
Purple Pig, Jimmy Bannos's next venture opening in October, will feature house-made charcuterie. They went for lighter fare: a very nice antipasto with a hearty slice of bread and dollop of remarkably soft and rich feta cheese.
Floriole Bakery served light desserts with three meringue boulders and some plain shortbread bites. The meringues came in chocolate, almond and pistachio, and while all three were ridiculously light and good, I thought the pistachio flavor was the best.
Bittersweet Pastry Shop handed out pieces of a very thin and soft apple tart with ginger caramel and vanilla yogurt. It was good, but I know from experience that Bittersweet can make much better pastries.
Old Town Social, a three-week old restaurant, had a house-made porchetta with a mustard piccalilli. The porchetta was good, but the piccalilli, featured in the restaurant with all of their house-made charcuterie, was exceptional.
Paramount Room featured a cornmeal croquette topped with rabbit rilettes, pomegranate and pumpkin. The toppings were all very good, but something went very wrong with the mushy, crumbly croquette.
Tavern at the Park served a very nice roasted corn cake with duck confit and organic micro greens, all in a port wine reduction.
Metropolitan Club had a rosemary scallop terrine with pickled grapes, juniper berries and mache (lamb's lettuce). The pickled grapes alone were good enough to get me back for seconds.
Dirk's Fish served smoked salmon burgers topped with a little spicy mayo, all on a bed of arugula with ginger garlic dressing—unquestionably the most flavorful salmon burger I have ever eaten.
Supreme Lobster & Seafood Company, a seafood supplier, teamed up with Radhika Desai and the Shedd Aquarium to offer whitefish cakes with saffron and roasted cumin aioli. I'm generally not a fan of non-smoked whitefish, but these saffron-packed fish balls had great flavor.
Marche's pork pate with pickled onion marmalade and mustard.
The Chopping Block, a cooking school, prepared cous cous and goat cheese galette topped with a tomato-olive conasse that surprised me with its depth of flavor.
Les Nomades's cornets filled with Roquefort mousse, pear and port wine were a fantastic mix of sweet and savory flavors and crunchy and smooth textures.
L'Eiffel Bistrot & Creperie offered crepes, crab cakes, and petit escargot, a celebration of butter and garlic.
Prosecco's Insalata Granchio had a small piece of brioche with lump crab, roasted red pepper, caramelized onion, scallion, and truffle citronette.
Quartino used a hand-powered meat slicer to cut its peppery homemade lonzino. The incredibly rich flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture was only enhanced by the fantastic apricot rosemary paste.
Naha offered two very different items. Up first was La Quercia coppa with a salad of arugula and roasted peppers with Greek feta cheese. The flavors were incredible, but my piece of coppa was too crisp to work well in a salad.
Naha's second offering, roasted late summer plums with mascarpone and crushed cherry biscotti, was absolutely exceptional. I ate it for the first time about an hour before I left on Sunday, but went back on my way out so that it would be my last taste en route home.
I was absolutely blown away by the variety of food available and overall efficiency. Staff and volunteers were around and ready to help. In terms of improvement, next year could include more recycling (almost none this year) and more vendors offering pop and juice.
So what does an event this incredible cost? Well, other than for the lucky 675 people who bought $89 one-day passes on Groupon, paying attendees had to pony up $150 for a one-day pass or $250 for a two-day pass.
Around 8,000 people showed up, which was about a 25% increase from last year. And given how well this year's event went, I can only imagine the attendance going up next year.
If you plan to be in Chicago and can afford a ticket, I can't recommend the event enough.