Location – 500 S. Dearborn (Dearborn and Congress)
In one word – Occasion
Food – Custom House is the meat-centric restaurant in Shawn McClain’s foodie-mecca-trio that also includes Spring (fish-centric) and Green Zebra (vegetarian-centric). All three restaurants can certainly boast the same high levels of creativity and quality showcased in their seasonal menu, however, the personalized service and stylish ambiance at CH, makes it my go-to “Special Occasion” restaurant in Chicago. Recently my Trusty Sidekick and I ate at CH again for Valentine’s Day.
For Valentine’s CH offered a prix fix menu—four courses for $80/person, not including wine. Each course had several choices. I chose the tuna tartar with blood orange, the king crab salad, and seared scallops for my main course. The tuna tartar was my favorite course—the tuna was dressed with blood orange juice and a little olive oil and the small juicy pieces of blood orange had a hint of raspberry flavor that complimented the sweet taste of the tuna. My Trusty Sidekick also chose the tuna tartar, then had the roasted beet salad with mascarpone and for his main course he ordered the dry-aged New York strip steak. He loved the tuna tartar too, but his favorite was the steak, which was juicy and flavorful. Our meal also included two sides: sautéed green beans and CH’s creamy mashed potatoes. These mashed potatoes are impossible. You just can’t figure out how they could ever exist in a form that’s this silky, smooth, and light. They boggle the mind. For dessert I tried the chocolate banana bread pudding, which had great banana flavor but wasn’t anything memorable. My Trusty Sidekick chose the cheese plate, which included five or six different types of cheeses, including a really strong delicious bleu cheese.
On a side note, I was so disappointed that the prix fix menu didn’t include one of Custom House’s thick, silky, fresh vegetable soups, which, besides their mashed potatoes, are what I look forward to the most on their menu. When you go, try the mashed potatoes and try the soup!
Drink – We noticed Sea Smoke on the menu, told our server that we liked the style of this wine, and asked for a few recommendations. From his suggestions we went with a bottle of Spanish red for $45 that we enjoyed. Definitely more than we usually pay, but it was ok because “definitely more than we usually pay” is the subtitle of the “Special Occasion” dinner.
Service – The service is detail-oriented without being overly fussy; they will fold your napkin if you get up to go to the washroom, but they won’t hover by your table to awkwardly pull out your chair for you when you return. The service is also very personalized. After we sat down our server asked if I didn’t eat meat. Since I hadn’t said anything when making the reservation I looked at my Trusty Sidekick, wondering if he had called to mention this, but he hadn’t. Our server informed me that CH had filed this information after a previous dining experience I had there. He then informed me what options on the menu could and couldn’t be prepared without meat. The fact that CH keeps these kinds of dining preferences in their records is something that I haven’t experienced at any other restaurant.
Scene – The space is modern, but elegant. A good deal of the restaurant is enclosed by glass-walls, which makes the space feel very open and comfortable. A rich ebony wood dominates the color palate, which is accented by the colorful abstract paintings on the walls. One focal point of the restaurant is a limestone wall that separates the dining room and the kitchen, and allows you to peak in on the chefs. In the dining room, the tables are well spaced, and I find them to be a bit smaller in length than the typical table. These two things help create a more private, intimate dining experience whether you’re going on a date or celebrating with a close group of old friends. You’ll see lots of 20 and 30 somethings; I’ve never seen children here.
Dress – Dress up. I wore my nice (i.e. ridiculously expensive) pair of dark jeans, a lace blouse and a suit jacket. Go for a look that’s sophisticated and urban, not “formal.” Jackets are not required for men.
Cost – For food, drink, tax and tip, our bill was about $250, or $125/person: $80/per person for four courses plus $45 for wine and $40 for tip. Of course this is why you need a special occasion to go to Custom House!
written by hungry yuppie
Location – 1339 W. Taylor Street (Taylor and Ada)
In one word – Biscuits
Food – Although Taylor Street is better known for its Italian restaurants, Sweet Maple Café has established itself as the place to go to for brunch in the UIC/Little Italy area. If you want some shee-shee version of eggs benedict, go to a Wicker Park yupster brunch place. At Sweet Maple, stick to the basics. The menu isn’t very extensive, but anything you order will be good. The french toast is second to none, the home fries are so good I stole them off my date’s plate. Oh, and make sure you get a biscuit (as a side if necessary). Do it now, thank me later. Sweet Maple also offers a decent sandwich selection if you’re in the mood for lunch – after what I ate, I think you’d be crazy to pass up the breakfast options.
Drink – The coffee is delicious; it’s Intelligentsia, but it tastes like it’s been brewed on site. Otherwise, it’s the basics: juice, water, tea, etc.
Service – The host is a busy guy, so don’t wait for him to come to you; get inside and put your name down ASAP. Once you are seated, your wait-person will be re-filling your coffee cup often enough that you can pretty much guarantee you’ll be taken care of.
Scene – This place attracts neighborhood folk, South Loop yuppies, and all comfort-food lovers. Sweet Maple Café is not very big; there are 12-14 tables total, and only two or three seat more than 4. This makes for an unfortunately long wait due to this cozy spot’s popularity. In the summer, it’s no big deal – they have a bunch of lawn chairs that they set up outside, so take a seat and wait for the nice gentleman taking names to call out your name. In the winter, you’ll have to squeeze into the entry-way while you pass the time. Regardless, the food is well worth the wait.
Occasion – A brunch for two. With the size and popularity of this place, you’ll be waiting forever if you have a party of 4 or more.
Cost – $12-$15 per person will set you straight for brunch.
If you like…, try – Original House of Pancakes
Written by RG
Location – 517 S. State (State and Congress)
In one word – Refreshing
Food – Having just finished Omnivore’s Dilemma, I am a bit wary of my food of late. Lucky for me, Epic Burger has arrived in the Loop. EB dubs itself as the place with a more mindful burger. Finally, we have a place to get all natural burgers in Chicago, I am home! When I ordered my junior all-natural beef burger, I was asked if I wanted a wheat bun (yes), if I wanted grilled or raw onions (grilled), what kind of cheese I wanted (Wisconsin cheddar), if I wanted nitrate-free bacon (obvi) and if I wanted a cage-free fried egg on top of the burger (not this time). I finished the burger fast, it was delicious and didn’t leave me with that “I ate too much grease, roll me to my bed” feeling. The fries come with sea salt (sizable portion). If you don’t do the beef, you can get a turkey burger, chicken sandwich or a portabella mushroom sandwich.
Beverages – They have milkshakes and smoothies! A burger and a smoothie, I’m not sure if I could think of a better combo. One of my eating partners tried the Lemon Squeeze; it seemed like it hit the spot.
Service – There’s not all that much to it, you order at the counter and pay. Then they bring your food to you (Corner Bakery style). However, even with that little of interaction, I was impressed. The staff was really courteous.
Scene – It’s a burger joint, so there’s no one to impress here. Given that it’s near the DePaul Loop Campus and Columbia College, you can expect to see students here as well as South Loop locals. All the stuff in the restaurant is eco-friendly: the cups, the plates, the chairs, everything. I appreciate that; you feel like EB is trying to make a difference in the world. And by patronizing it, I have completed my ecological duty for the day.
Dress – Again, you’re seeing students here. Anything more than jeans is too formal.
Cost – You can get a burger, fries and a drink for $10. I think that’s a deal for healthy fast food.
If you like, try…Veggie Bite
Location – 2110 S. Wabash (21st and Wabash)
In one word – Tease
Food – I saw the menu for this restaurant a while ago and got slack for thinking the offerings looked like a hotel buffet line. Unfortunately this gut reaction was correct. The food at Room 21 was that of a hotel buffet line…at best. We started with the spinach artichoke dip, it was heavy and creamy. The dip was served with chips that were far too thin to hold such a heavy dip. We later found out that this item was being removed from the menu very soon. We then sampled the spicy calamari. Not so spicy, not so good. An eating partner and I shared the burger with cheddar and bacon. It came out without the cheddar or bacon. No good in my mind. My other eating partner had the vegetable risotto. It was too creamy for our taste, more creamy than risotto ought to be. Finally we had the cardamom doughnuts, which for me, was the highlight. Fried dough with sugar, it would be kind of sad if they messed that up.
Drink – I’m just getting over the flu, so I had to stick with water. But, there seemed to be an assortment of cocktails to sample.
Service – Another low point of the night. At first, I found the service strangely aggressive. I asked what was good. The items were shouted at me. Our server was visibly irked by the way we were ordering and that we weren’t ordering cocktails. When our burger was done incorrectly, we told him we didn’t want another burger with bacon and cheddar. By that point we were over the idea of burger, we weren’t going to eat it either way. He managed to do this uncomfortable avoidance for the latter part of the meal. It wasremeniscant of my Crust experience. When we finally got his attention, he told us he would comp one (“JUST ONE,” he shouted) dessert for us. And then when we got the bill, that burger which was wrong was on our bill. Now that ain’t right. Luckily for us, the manager, Brittany, came by to ask about our meal. We were honest about the experience. She comped both the burger and the spinach artichoke dip for us. And, she was truly listening to our feedback. She said that the restaurant is now under new management and was in a period of transition. Maybe things will turn around in terms of food and service in a couple of months.
Scene – The place is really fun! This was the high point of the experience. There’s an outdoor patio and the inside is like a tolerableLas Vegas (that’s a compliment). We thought overall the place was a tease – it dressed up all nice but at the end of the night didn’t even give us a piece of bacon.
Dress – We went on Wednesday straight from work. We were fine in our attire, though you can dress up more if you’d like.
Cost – Well we had no cocktails and got the dessert, burger and dip comped. With that, we spent $36 for three. I think our real bill would have brought us to about $60 for three.
If you like (or want something better), try… Grand Luxe Cafe (I’m serious)
Update: I went back to Mercat last week and was still as impressed by the cuisine as I was at the time of the original review. I also recommend the Estrella Damm Inedit – a beer they serve that was developed by El Bulli’s Ferran Adria. I was more astonished by the high price point during this visit, but I want to think that the quality of food legitimized the cost.
Location – 638 S. Michigan (Michigan and Balbo)
In one word – Experiential
Food – Here’s my disclaimer: Moons ago, I spent three months in Barcelona where I indulged in Catalan cuisine everyday. You can imagine my glee when I heard a Catalan restaurant was opening in Chicago. Colcots, creme catalana y croquetas, que bueno! Would this place live up to my memories of Barce? Yes, it most definitely did. You’ll order tapas style, so let me just run through the gamut of what we ate: pan tomate (one of our favorite dishes from Barcelona, which lived up to our memories), Cadi Urgelia cheese (it’s served with a lavendar jam, which tastes AMAZING! If this is what flowers taste like, count me in), Mitibleu cheese (it’s gorgonzola gone wild served with this ridiculously fantastic mustard), the olive assortment (it had a strong marinade, which worked for me), croquetas de jamon (which were my least favorite because they seemed too pan fried, but I still ate ALL of them), alcochofas y setas flatbread (flatbread served with artichokes and mushrooms, it has this super roasted flavor, the table loved it!), setas al horno (roasted mushrooms, I barely got a bit because my eating partners were such heathens and devoured it quickly), patatas bravas (these potatos aren’t smothered in the spicy sauce like they are at most places, this made the dish feel lighter), colcots (eating these roasted green onions really did make me feel like I was back in Spain). Enough food for you? What about dessert? We did it up right: Crema Catalana (their version had jam at the bottom which so worked for me), the quatro chocolates (which included this white chocolate hot chocolate, and this chocolate made me feel like I found my life partner in a tea cup) and goat milk’s cheese mousse on a chestnut cake with grape (sigh). I wish I could have filmed my eating partners and I attacking the desserts. True survival of the fittest.
Drinks – They had my favorite beer from Barcelona, Estrella Damm. We also sampled their seasonal sangria, which tasted nice but wasn’t potent.
Service – JC, our server, treated us us well. By the end of the meal, JC was speaking to us in Spanish. It was like we had known him forever. He recognized that we knew a little bit about Catalan cuisine and brought the chef over to meet us. I don’t tell anyone that I write about food when I go into a restaurant, so I appreciated that the chef wanted to meet a group of barely getting by-2o somethings. The chef, Jose, was so down to earth. This is his third restaurant and he’s going to be on Iron Chef. I felt like I was meeting a celebrity!
Scene – It was hip! They did a nice job with the asthetics of this place. It felt rich and contemporary. I liked that the decor has a touch of Barcelona while staying true to Chicago style. The bar is downstairs and the dining area is upstairs. There was this interesting table on the third floor of the building, it’s isolated at the top of the restaurant. I’d like to sit there one day, you get to oversee all that’s happening in the restaurant from that angle.
Dress – I thought that all the other patrons were attractive and really well put together. You better, too. Work on your hair and make-up before walking in. However, don’t feel like the place inaccesible. Even though you have to comb your hair, you should still come.
Cost – For all of that food, sangria and tax/tip, I paid $42. Yes, it’s not cheap, but I considered it to be a bang for my buck (did you read how much we ate?).
If you like, try…avec
Location – 226 W. Chicago (Chicago and Franklin; other locations in Bucktown, Hyde Park, South Loop, Wrigleyville and Taylor Street)
In one word – Adequate
Food – Bar Louie positions itself as a distinct neighborhood bar, except for the fact that it’s in pretty much every neighborhood. They have a substantial menu of burgers, sandwiches, pizzas and salads. We went the salad route. I had the pear salad with balsamic viniagrette and almonds. The dressing was a bit strong, but other than that I was satisfied. My friend had the chopped chicken salad. Her big beef was that there was only one small chunk of avocado in the salad. I take restaurants naming avocado in an entree on the menu seriously. If it’s listed, there ought to be at least a moderate amount of the ingredient to chomp on, right?
Drink – We both ordered one of Bar Louie’s draft beers. They have a decent number of options.
Service – Luckily we weren’t in a hurry. It took them about 25 minutes to get us our salads. Normally I wouldn’t have noticed, but we were the only ones in the restaurant. I’m not sure what the hold up was. Also my friend ordered her salad without bleu cheese or bacon. As it so happened, it first came out with those ingredients. The waitress did notice the mistake right away, so it was corrected relatively quickly.
Occasion – It’s a pretty casual environment. You could come here to catch up with a friend or on a really low key date.
Dress – Honestly you can wear anything. Dress for the occasion.
Cost – I paid $19 for a beer and a salad. To me, that was a bit excessive.
If you like, try…Green Door Tavern
Location – 1301 S. Wabash, http://www.opera-chicago.com
In one word – Loud
Food – I’m torn about Opera. The food is well made. Good ingredients, clearly a capable chef, but there’s something about the cuisine as a whole that I don’t get. I understand that the restaurant is supposed to be modern Chinese. However, the menu doesn’t work together all that well. But like I said, the food here is still good. So just because I don’t like the thematic nature of the place doesn’t mean you should write it off all together. If you block it all out and just eat, it’s quite good!
Drink – I didn’t partake in any mixed drinks. I took my server’s advice on white wine and was content.
Service – I have had a couple of experiences at Opera. One time my server had a cooler than thou attitude and wanted to rub it in my face. Appetizing! This last time, I had a slightly dowdy server, who was very willing to share recommendations but didn’t mind that I was a bit snappy and decided to not take her advice. She got a good tip.
Occasion – This place really feels like you’re eating in a club. You can go the date route or go with a big group. The atmosphere aims to be more trendy than other KDK-owned restaurants in my opinion (with the exception of Carnivale).
Dress – Perhaps forgo the sweatshirt (what?!?!) for sleek jeans or a cute dress? Just this once?
Cost – You’ll probably drop $45-50 per person here. It’s more than I usually like to spend, but once in a while I’ll do it.
If you liked…, try – Carnivale, Mirai
Location: 1120 S. Michigan
In one word – Apathetic
Food – From the name, you shouldn’t be shocked to hear that eggs are the speciality here. Apparently this place has the best eggs benedict in the city, but I didn’t feel like assessing that claim. Instead I had the Santa Fe fritatta, which had bacon, avocado, peppers and three kinds of cheeses. In addition to the egg options, there are crepes, pancakes and french toast. The menu is vast…to the point where it’s overwhelming.
Drink – They have fresh squeezed juices here, including a strawberry/orange juice. If you’re looking for a morning spirit, it’s BYOB.
Service – Everything was fine and dandy until the end of the meal. The waiter dropped salsa on my friend and there was no compensation, just a “sorry.” This is a service industry, even if it was an accident, there needs to be some effort to remedy a situation like that. This place lost all marks for service with this incident.
Occasion – Come for the usual brunch occasions, but keep your party size small. While this place is pretty large, you will have to wait a bit for a table if you come at peak brunch time. It’s sceney here, so you’ll have a fun time people watching as you wait for your table.
Dress – Again, the typical brunch attire is acceptable.
Cost – About $20.
If you like…, try – Bongo Room, Orange, Oak Tree
Location: 1112 S. Wabash
In one word – Bad
Food – This place is supposed to be reminiscent of a local New York City diner. While they have got the correct menu – matza ball soup, reubens and malt shakes, the execution is not on par with your local Brooklyn diner. I even went here with real New Yorkers to confirm my suspicion. I have given this place a couple of chances and have yet to like a single thing on the menu.
Drink – I mean, it’s a diner. As long as their soda fountain machines work, they’re doing okay.
Service – One time I was here I had this really rude waitress. I was confused if I was at a new Chicago diner hoping to gain a following or at Ed Debevic’s.
Occasion – If you’re still on board for sub par food, come here for a very casual occasion. Maybe get a quick bite here before a Bears game at Soldier Field (don’t worry you can get a hot dog at the game to redeem the meal you had the diner).
Scene – To their credit, when you walk in, the place does look like a high quality diner. There’s a bar area if you are dining alone or in a hurry.
Dress – Jeans, sweatshirts, the casual attire is totally appropriate here.
Cost – For a simple meal, expect to pay $10 – 15.
If you liked…, try – Sammy’s
Location – 3231 N Clark St.
In one word – Frushi
Food – Where to start? The frushi, the fruit-filled sushi, is one of Orange’s novelties. As is the pancake flight. Each month the restaurant offers four kinds of short stacked pancakes based on one theme with a cute name. Very good, but will give you your carb quota for that week. I like Orange because they change up their menu and you honestly can never choose poorly at this place.
Drink – This place is a haven for the juice connoisseur. You’re given the option to create your own juice blend (all from fresh ingredients), but honestly I am always content with the freshly squeezed OJ. Also try the orange-infused coffee. Just do it, you’ll like it.
Service – Friendly, casual, everything you want in a brunch establishment.
Occasion – If you want to impress some out of towners with a fun Chicago establishment, take them here. I like this brunch locale because there aren’t that many small children here (in comparison to other brunch places). There is an Orange in Lakeview, but I don’t find their staff to be all that friendly and it’s really small. All in all, if you want to get in to eat within a half hour and good service, go to the South Loop location.
Dress – Brunch wear, meaning sweatsuits, Bears jerseys and jeans desperately in need of a wash, are acceptable.
Cost – Frushi, juice, coffee and an entrée plus tip will probably take you into the $20 range.
If you liked…, try – Bongo Room, Kitsch’n River North