LUNCH: Pizzeria Uno
It’s not Chicago if you don’t do pizza. Pizzeria Uno is one of the main exponents of the deep-dish pizza and has several restaurants in the city centre, including the imaginatively named Pizzeria Due. The pizza itself is a wonder, more like an upside-down cake than anything else, heavy with melted cheese on the bottom and filled with layers of tomato, sausage and more cheese. It’s encased in a buttery polenta crust that tastes like biscuit. One slice is an embarrassment of riches and the small pizza would easily feed two or three. Don’t expect anything more – the pizza is the star of the show and the rest of the menu is accordingly lacklustre. Pizzeria Uno has turned itself into a chain across the United States, but if you are outside Chicago and order from a franchise, you might not get the same pizza.
29 East Ohio Street
DINNER: Girl and the Goat
A good food city is one where people dine out every night of the week and travel across town just because they feel like having a particular dish at a particular restaurant. It might be only 5pm on a week night, but Girl and the Goat is packed – young women in silky dresses ordering cocktails, couples on dates or meeting the parents, city workers unwinding their ties and catching up. The food is confident. Starters include trays of warm bread attended by tubs of farm butter, pots of pate and condiments. The menu is nominally divided into vegetable, fish and meat but it is unashamedly meaty – there’s ‘‘wood-oven roasted pig face’’, grilled confit duck leg, and braised beef tongue topped with a salsa. Even in the fish section, dishes come with goat chowder and pork belly on the side. But the special focus on goat produces classics like a tender shank with dark caramel jus, and a serve of simple crumpets jazzed up with a pot of goat-liver mousse and apple butter. The West Loop restaurant is the brainchild of Stephanie Izard, who gained national attention in 2008 when she became the first woman to win the reality cooking competition Top Chef.
809 West Randolph Street
BRUNCH: Billy Goat Tavern
The Billy Goat Tavern is a tourist cliche if ever there was one. Most famously staffed by a Greek man who shouts ‘‘cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger’’ and promises ‘‘no Pepsi, Coke’’, the tavern operates 6am to 4am seven days. Generations of comics from Saturday Night Live trooped through its doors to get a bite to eat, the walls are adorned with newsprint and photos and you can buy souvenir T-shirts at the counter. But it still fills with tradesmen and delivery drivers coming off early morning and late-night shifts to wolf down a cheezborger and a cup of $1 coffee. The cheeseburgers are tender, dripping with orange American cheez and fresh in a crisp paper wrapping.
430 North Michigan Avenue
LUNCH: Al’s Beef
It looks like a chain diner – a bus stop out the front, bored staff in baseball caps and polo shirts, furniture from the McDonald's school of design – but Al’s Italian Beef serves roasted beef sandwiches that are hearty, flavoursome and extremely messy. There are also Chicago hot dogs, sausage sandwiches and subs.
28 East Jackson Boulevard, various locations
This is the jewel in Chicago’s food crown – three Michelin stars, a regular in the World’s 50 Best, at one time judged the best restaurant in North America. Tucked away in Lincoln Park, the restaurant sports an unobtrusive facade and a hidden interior door. It has recently dropped reservations and started selling ‘‘tickets’’. Everything has to be paid upfront and tickets are only sold in multiples of two. If anyone drops out or falls sick, if you’re a single diner or a group of three or five, Alinea happily pockets several hundred dollars of your money for an empty seat.
If you’re part of a (healthy) couple or an even-numbered group of friends, a lovely night is on the table. But if not, you might be left with the lingering feeling that Alinea is more preoccupied with profit over hospitality. Alinea says the ticket system is ‘‘like going to a sporting event’’ – if you can’t make it, you lose the price of your ticket. Except that sporting events don’t force fans to buy extra seats they can’t use, and they get the chance to legitimately re-sell tickets if they can’t make it.
That being said, the meal is well executed. Sommelier Richard Richardson is brilliant and not patronising and the parade of deconstructed dishes is excellent. Particularly impressive is a dish of tender veal and beef medallions served with a glass tray filled with dozens of tiny sauces and accompaniments – a sort of choose your own adventure beef. There are some who say chef Grant Achatz is Willy Wonka, inventing and reinventing dishes with imagination. But that crown is taken by Heston Blumenthal, who focuses his playfulness with themes and tableaux (the Sound of the Sea edible beachscape, a Mad Hatter soup made from a gold pocketwatch). The only time Alinea comes close to Blumenthal’s whimsy is an edible balloon filled with the scent of green apple. The dessert finale, in which a chef fills a chocolate vessel with ingredients and then smashes the whole piece, Jackson Pollock-style, on to a rubber mat on the table, is spectacular but awfully serious. This restaurant is only worth it if you are prepared to jump through the hoops.
1723 North Halsted Street
LUNCH: Slurping Turtle
French-trained Japanese chef Takashi Yagihashi won a Michelin star for his eponymous fine dining restaurant Takashi and has since opened the upmarket casual Slurping Turtle on the near North Side. There are no bookings but turn up for lunch early. Billed as ‘‘Japanese comfort food’’, the dishes are small, simple and made for sharing. There are plates of duck-fat fried chicken, baskets of cold silky tofu garnished with ribbons of seaweed, and bowls of hot noodles in clear umami broth. Flavours are clean and the food looks good. Desserts are refreshing, including a Japanese ‘‘sundae’’ of green tea ice cream, watermelon slices, summer berries and agar agar cubes. But try the rich, creamy quail egg shooter, sweetened with condensed milk, which Takashi concocted during a battle on American Iron Chef. He lost, but the shooter is a winner.
116 W Hubbard Street
SNACK: Garrett Popcorn
It’s a Chicago staple – a mix of cheesy and caramel popcorn in huge bags to share. It’s since expanded across the US and into Malaysia, Japan and Singapore.
4 East Madison Street, various locations
Moto is up-and-coming and trendy. It’s set among the warehouses of Chicago’s meatpacking district, where well-dressed couples on dates tiptoe along dirty sidewalks and sleek cars pull up to the valet outside the restaurant doors. It doesn’t take itself particularly seriously – one of the dishes is called ‘‘Smell the Glove’’ – and has made a name for itself producing a particularly high tech brand of molecular gastronomy. Dinner begins with a glass platter featuring the entire 15-course menu in miniature, each course reduced to its essence and scooped up in a half-teaspoon. A sashimi dish is presented in a sealed terrarium filled with stones, seaweed and smoke. Another course has diners digging for mushrooms buried in a cupful of edible soil and a venison dish is served on a glass tray filled with autumn leaves and twigs, to simulate what a deer would be looking at as it foraged among the trees. Dessert features a printed edible menu and a tiny pumpkin made out of cinnamony mousse. The whole thing ends with a DIY baking course in which you mix up a batch of cookie dough at the table using ingredients that are not what they seem at first glance. Chef Homaro Cantu and his team also starred in a Discovery Channel show, Future Food, in which they brought the lab to the kitchen. Extraordinary food that’s also technically wondrous and has a certain impish joy that Alinea lacks.
945 West Fulton Market
Natasha Rudra is The Canberra Times' sections editor; she travelled at her own expense.