fine dining

#Foodie Review: Grace (Chicago)

Clearly I love food. Anyone that follows my blog or my tweets on Twitter understand this more than most. I love to eat, I love to dine out, and I love to experience new cuisines and restaurants. I have a low tolerance for bad food and no tolerance for bad service. Of course I can’t write a blog for every restaurant that I visit. So I’ve decided to do a series of comparison reviews. In some, the connection will be obvious. In others, perhaps less so. In the first of the series, I set out to find two restaurants that were of similar quality in food, decor, value, and service albeit different cuisines. In this case, also looking for strikingly different levels of activity and, likely, different levels of competition and long-term success. For the first pairing, I chose two upscale restaurants.

Today I focus on the first of the upscale restaurants, Grace, one of the West Loop’s premier dining establishments. As a comparison, I dined at Acadia and will subsequently do a full review of that South Loop spot.

A tale of two city restaurants … Grace and Acadia

Part 1: Grace

Grace
652 W. Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60661

Summary: Recommended / Special occasions only.

This is one of the restaurants I have wanted to visit since moving back to Chicago. Everyone has heard of Chef Duffy’s fascinating and tragic history and rise to where he is now. You kind of want this place to thrive. But, this is Chicago, so backstory or not, the food and service must be stellar. And I was impressed. The food was spectacular. It was showy without being too over the top (I don’t really want a pillow on my plate). And I left more satisfied than when I dined at Alinea, albeit less so than L20 or Everest.

FOOD: 5

Very interesting presentations of each course. We all had the menu with meat and lots of it. We loved the heirloom tomato dish with a delicious whirl of sauce.  There was an amazing oyster dish that my friend Sherry thought was superb.  An artichoke dish could have been skipped but the meat dishes were amazing, including both lamb and beef. Wine pairings were good but not great, and I have yet to find a wine guy as good as Dan Pilkey, formerly of Ria. It is perhaps because of him that I find so many not up to par. (Let’s be clear here, I am not an expert and they certainly know more than I do, but the good ones bring you along with them and the wines fit perfectly with the meal.)

When I dine at these showy places, I often worry that the emphasis will be so much on presentation and flare that the food will be bad. Or, that the temperature will be off. That was not the case at Grace, and all of the dishes came out at good temp and high quality.

SERVICE: 4

Service was exceptional and well coordinated, albeit a bit practiced and “obvious”. My friend summarized service as “quite good but a little bumpy given the prices.  Could have been more precise.” I agree. At Les Nomades, service is amazing and the servers are there when you need them and almost invisible when you don’t. Here, and maybe this is more due to newness of the restaurant, the service seemed too much like they practiced and wanted to get it right like a routine. I kind of want them to seem a bit more like they are simply happy to serve us.  Overall, I think service was great. Nothing we needed was ever held back, transitions were smooth, and timing was on point. If I felt they were happy to be hosting us, I would have felt a tad better.

One note: The sommelier, as I mentioned above, was good but not the best. IMHO, she needs to learn to be less intrusive and a bit more nuanced in her interactions with the diners.

DECOR: 5

This is a beautiful, understated, classy establishment. I love the open and airy kitchen with bright woods and colorful spices on display. It’s fun to watch the activity in the kitchen without being overwhelmed by it as can be the case in some restaurants (I sat sweltering in front of the kitchen of Little Goat recently.) The room is small and thus not many patrons. You can have a conversation without screaming or worrying that your neighbor hears every word. Everything is tastefully presented.

VALUE: 3

This is a very very very expensive place. And I knew that of course before dining. It is in line with most places of this style and caliber but I still feel it is pricier than it needs to be. One caveat is that it has been a few years since I dined at Alinea and thus cannot vouch for whether that place and others have also gone up significantly. But, you get what you pay for and Grace is an experience more than a meal.

OVERALL: 4

Grace is a great addition to the West Loop culinary scene and its nice to have another high-end restaurant over there versus in the Gold Coast / River North area. Grace is ideal for a very special date, not business in my opinion. More for celebrating a milestone birthday or anniversary. Given the prices, this clearly could not be a regular dining spot for most people and I personally would not see myself returning anytime soon given the tremendous number of other choices in Chicago, many of them significantly less pricey. That said, the chef’s story, the great food and tasteful decor, and the strong level of service make this highly worth trying if you are a foodie.

Stay tuned for review of Acadia in part 2 of this tale of two city restaurants.

More on the chef >> http://graphics.chicagotribune.com/grace/

Chef Curtis Duffy

Chef Curtis Duffy and Adam Stanley

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

For more reviews, go to my yelp profile here or find me on TripAdvisor with username ALSWharton.

Follow me on Twitter 
Connect with me on Linked In 
“Like” me on Facebook
Or visit me online at http://www.alswharton.com/in

Collage by Adam L. Stanley

#Foodie Review: L’Anima (London)

photo from lacartes.com

Summary: Highly Recommended / Couples, Business, Special Occasions

How on earth did I not know about this place until I was one week away from taking a (brief?) hiatus from London? I leave to head back to Chicago next month and thought I had tried enough Italian restaurants in London to conclude that Chicago had better ones. Then a friend from the large international insurer with which I was recently associated recommended I try this place, merely minutes from my office on a street of which I had never heard, Snowden.

Thank you Heather!

Walking in to the restaurant, I will admit I was a bit put off. As much as I recognise that I am a “suit”, I try desperately to avoid restaurants full of other suits. And this one almost. Looked as if there was a uniform. Few women, all guys with button down shirts, blue blazers or suit jackets hanging on the back of the chairs. Not kidding. I even found myself taking off my jacket as I sat down to ensure I was conforming. LOL.

L’Anima
1 Snowden Street
Broadgate West
London, EC2A 2DQ

SERVICE: 5
From the entrance to the end, the team here knows service. And I’m not talking “better than typical London” but truly service on par with some of the finer restaurants in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Greeting us were two hostesses who actually smiled as we entered. The quirky sommelier, the attentive, friendly and trendy servers, and the manager were all service oriented and focused on ensuring our experience was exceptional.

Bottom line: The servers were nice and not snobs that make me want to be mean while I should be enjoying my meal. Smiling means a lot and they actually smiled as they helped us.

FOOD: 5
Starter: Charcoal scallops
Exquisite food with fantastic displays, if just a tad spicy for me. (Apparently the norm for the region in Italy that is the focus of the restaurant). I started with charcoal scallops with an uber spicy crust and salted cod on the side. Well prepared and presented on a clam shell, taste and appearance were impressive (but hot). Second course was quid ink cavatelli. YUM!!!!!!! Fantastic and unique, the tiny bean shaped black pasta with the slightly crispy peas and succulent mussels was amazing. My partner had a spring salad followed by Linguine with crab for his second course. I barely got to see what was on his plate before it was completely devoured.

Sea bass mainMy main was a perfectly prepared sea bass that was not too salty as is often the case. It was perfectly seasoned and also the perfect size. With a side of spinach to share between us, and my partner’s Rabbit Siciliana, we were well and truly stuffed by the end of the dinner. Expecting the CS to start gently suggesting we wrap it up as by now it had been two hours, I tried to psyche myself up to dessert. But the team seemed to know just how long to let us sit and digest. Perfect! They kept our wine and water glasses full and just when I felt ready to tackle dessert, the menus arrived. I had the raspberry soufflé with a moscato and my partner had pistachio ice cream with an Espresso Martini. Talk about a sugar rush! Heavenly!

Over all, the food was superb, the sizes good, and the wine pairing suggestion (Nero Di Lupo) was excellent.

DECOR: 5
I liked the fact that the bar is separate, so if anyone wanted to come for a drink they could enjoy cocktails without standing over diners as is the case in so many London restaurants. The dining area was pristine white and quite minimalist, almost uncanny given the mostly business clientele. I expected to see actors and fashionistas sitting in the low white leather chairs. I noted with a chuckle the intensity of the sommelier as he went table to table ensuring there were no wrinkles.

photo from edsmagazine.com

photo from edsmagazine.com

Music was low (enough that we could hear the singer in the bar area just a tad. Amazing vocal chords on that one…) and whilst fairly loud, you were able to have a conversation with those at your table without also participating in the table over’s discussion. Finally, the bathroom was fabulous. Stylish without the gimmicks of soft porn, transparent doors, or the like so many places are now trying to do.

Oh yeah: HUGE kitchen and well designed so you can see it without it being “in your face” or, worse, smokey!

VALUE: 4
I would say this place is certainly not your everyday meal spot. Our bill came to about £240 including four courses, a small side, a reasonably priced bottle of wine, two cocktails, water, coffee, and “optional” but well-earned 12.5% service. Pastas and risottos were quite reasonable, with small or large portion options. Mains ranged from £20-£40 if I recall and nothing seemed ridiculously out of line. I would suggest, however, that a Tasting Menu would have been nice. £75 per person or £100 including wine would have resulted in a bill pretty darn close to what we paid but somehow tasting menus always make you feel better about the bill!

I rate this restaurant against higher end restaurants but must also consider Italian food options in general. And I will admit that L’Anima is knocked down just a notch because I would not typically expect to pay this much for Italian food. Interestingly, the cost was comparable to rather touristy places I tried in Rome and Florence earlier this month.

OVERALL: 5

My meal - 25 June 2013

My meal – 25 June 2013

I am giving L’Anima my first 5 star for an Italian restaurant and thus also naming it my best Italian restaurant in London or Chicago. I highly recommend it for couples, business diners, and special occasions but not for children or the budget conscious. While great for food and exceptionally high standard of service, and a nice environment in which to dine, it is still too expensive for an everyday meal or even a splurge meal for many.

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

For more reviews, go to my yelp profile here or find me on TripAdvisor with username ALSWharton.

Follow me on Twitter 
Connect with me on Linked In 
“Like” me on Facebook
Or visit me online at http://www.alswharton.com/in

ALS

mandarin, chiclen liver and foie gras parfait

#Foodie Review: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)

dinnerbyhestonblumenthal

Summary: Highly Recommended / Special Occasion

Because the food is exquisitely near perfect, decor is fabulous, and service is exceptional, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental for a special occasion. A bit pricey (£30 – £40 for a main; £15 – £20 for a starter) and thus less of a value than somewhere like Avenue or Vivat Bachhus, it still is a much better experience for the money than Galvin La Chapelle. And you will only spend a bit less around the corner at Buddha Bar, an overpriced, overly trendy, good but not great food, disappointment.

I would be more than happy to go to “Dinner” again, with friends or colleagues, and especially to celebrate a special occasion or a visitor from the States. You will love it, I’m certain. Let me know what you think!

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

Mandarin Oriental
66 Knightsbridge
London, SW1X 7LA
Above photo from restaurant website.

Long Version

FOOD: 5

mandarin, chiclen liver and foie gras parfaitStarters included this amazing Meat Fruit dish, a gastronomic pleasure that looked like an orange but was a chicken liver & foie gras parfait wrapped in a mandarin cream. It tasted as good as it looked.

I had the Rice and Flesh, a saffron rissotto style rice with calf tail and red wine. Our mains were fantastic, starting with my spiced pigeon which paired perfectly with my sommolier recommended 2010 Buio Buio Isola Shiraz. The pigeon, and I will admit I do not often do the rat bird thing, was so well prepaered I didnt even think about Trafalgar Square’s missing flocks once! Tender, juicy, goodness. Two friends had steak, one the ribeye and the other the fillet. Both looked, smelled and tasted exquisite. I tried the Herefore Ribeye and then stole another bite. May come back for that one night. The light eater amongst us had a rather standard cheese tray but shame on him for doing that at this place. (He had a dinner party just before our celebration meal, unfortunately)

tipsy cake

Tipsy Cake (c 1810)

Sides were perfect, including wonderfully prepared, clearly unhealthy, triple cooked chips along with buttered carrots, and finally green beans with shallots. To end the meal, we had coffees and the Tipsy Cake with spit roast pineapple, which was orgasmic. Not one person dining with me was less than blown away by the food from start to finish.

DECOR: 5

Open Kitchen allows you to watch them work.

Open Kitchen

My favorite part of the decor is the fact that the entire kitchen is visible through huge all the way to ceiling windows. Throughout our meal, we watched large pineapples slowly roasting on a spit and a well disciplined kitchen team working their magic. It was actually strange after a while, watching them completely ignore us. I almost thought it was a two-way mirror like in police stations. (too much television).

Dinner by Heston BlumenthalThe colors of the walls and furniture, the unique lighting, and the general ambiance of the restaurant (warm, inviting, comfortable) made this a fantastic place to dine. (As an aside, this was a complete change from the absolute rubbish Mandarin Oriental Bar just outside, which was like a Marriott Courtyard lobby bar. Shamefully boring and shockingly plain in its decor, given this is a Mandarin Oriental.)

SERVICE: 5

Our primary server was Jonas and he was fantastic. But from entering the restaurant, service was perfect. Wine glasses promptly filled, food served on point and well coordinated, and food described exceptionally well. Jonas was patient as my partner kept discussing whether Amber came from the whale’s arse (waste) or his regurgitation. Long story there but clearly the remainder of our party of four had zero interest in this story, though apparently Dinner uses some Ambergris in cooking to add flavour. Ambergris is also an aphrodisiac so not sure if that adds more credence to one side of the debate or not …but I digress. (If interested in finding the conclusion of the debate, click here.)

Service was not pretentious and the staff seemed genuinely interested in our enjoyment of the meal and overall dining experience.

VALUE: 4

Clearly, we did not go to this place with a pretense that we would be getting a cheap meal so I compare its value to a group of restaurants in London with similar options, decor, and reputation, if not with a Michelin star as Dinner received in 2012. A bit pricey (£30 – £40 for a main; £15 – £20 for a starter) and thus less of a value than somewhere like Avenue or Vivat Bachhus, it still is a much better experience for the money than Galvin La Chapelle. And you will only spend a bit less around the corner at Buddha Bar, an overpriced, overly trendy, good but not great food, disappointment.

For those of you in Chicago, I would compare Dinner at Heston Blumenthal to Naha, Takashi, or Sepia more than Everest, Graham Elliott, or Les Nomades. Great food for moderately high prices that one can splurge on occasionally as opposed to ridiculously high priced indulgence that makes you feel guilty for not donating more to your favorite charity immediately after dinner.

Our meal for 4, had one of our friends not eaten beforehand, would have been roughly £400 including service and VAT. That’s steep given we only had 1 bottle of wine with the meal and that it excluded cocktails before dinner at the crappy Mandarin Oriental Bar. Mains were well prepared and presented, but I think you pay for the labour to put together such a presentation. Same food, of course, would be cheaper at most other restaurants. But, for a special occasion, I would suggest this place over Galvin La Chapelle without hesitation.

OVERALL: 5

Because the food is exquisitely near perfect, decor is fabulous, and service is exceptional, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental for a special occasion. It’s pricier than some but not all fine dining spots in London, so the only ding it got from me is in Value (4 out of 5). That said, I would be more than happy to go to “Dinner” again, with friends or colleagues, and especially to celebrate a special occasion. You will love it, I’m certain.

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam L. Stanley | ALSWharton Connections

Follow me on twitter http://www.twitter.com/alswharton
Connect with me on Linked In http://www.linkedin.com/in/adamstanley
“Like” me on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/ALSWharton
Or see my snapshot at http://www.alswharton.com/in

Happy New Year!

Cheers!

#Foodie Review: Everest restaurant (Chicago)

20111002-220658.jpg

Everest

440 S. LaSalle | Chicago, IL

SHORT VERSION:

Everest, while an absolutely fantastic experience I would recommend to friends, colleagues, and anyone who asks, was not good enough to win me over either Avenues at the Peninsula or Les Nomades. I do, however, think it had better food than Alinea, better service than L2O, and a better overall experience than Ria. If you love French food, and can only try one uber expensive fine dining experience this year, go to Les Nomades. If you want to get a distinctly Chicago experience that is almost as good but has a better view of our city in a historic building, go to Everest. If you can afford to do both, by all means, HAVE AT IT and invite me to come along if you like! Avenues is still #1 on my list of the restaurants given Michelin stars, but I STRONGLY RECOMMEND Everest and would go back again (especially if someone reading this review invites me to be their guest. Smile.)

LONG VERSION:

Continuing on my Michelin star restaurant quest and admitting up front that this review is biased based on comparison to the other Michelin star restaurants at which I have dined. See all reviews of the list here http://bit.ly/nGR9Vc

Most relevant comparisons: L2O (quality of food, value relative to others); Sixteen (decor highlighted by beautiful views); Avenues (Service and staff) but unlike Avenues, Everest is not CLOSED now. (Read about Avenues closing here)

Food: 5

Roasted Maine lobster in butter and ginger sauce almost made me cry it was so good. The terrine of Foie Gras with black mission figs was the perfect balance of sweet and savory. The wild halibut with heirloom tomatoes was perfectly prepared and amazingly flavorful. The veal? Not so great and quite the disappointing final course.
Dessert was absolutely fantastic, both the selection of cheeses and the Alsace Style Plum Financier, fromage blanc Tuileries, with cinnamon glace. Yum! Cannot pronounce most of it, but boy was it good! I could have done without the paired Hungarian Riesling poured with it, but that leads me to the wine review….

Wine note (part of Food rating):
I am not going to change my system and rerate all restaurants based on wine but I do find that with these upscale dining experiences the wine can make or break a particular venue. The fact is, Ria is made better by their sommelier and his personal participation in the evening. Likewise, the embarrassingly poor explanation of wine pairings at L2O hurt my experience there. Unfortunately, Everest was more like L2O. Note to restaurants: I can read. If all you are going to do is read the label to me, save it! At Everest, most of our wines were poured by a somewhat grumpy server who did not smile the entire evening. At one point, he poured a French Pinot Gris that was definitely a bit sweeter than my norm. No, I am not a wine expert but I do drink it a lot. I mentioned this to him when he served the next bottle and he just about scolded me saying, “It was NOT sweet, maybe off dry but not sweet.” Whatever grumpy!

dessert

Service: 5

Unlike Les Nomades, where I felt the server enjoyed making us happy, this place had servers that seemed to do it because it was how they were trained. Strangely, the net result is the same, but I left with a slightly less satisfied feeling after my meal at Everest. Yes, everything was well timed. Yes, every course was served seamlessly, explained well, and picked up at just the right point after completion. But the team seemed just a TAD sterile. Don’t get me wrong, here. Service was spectacular, but do I remember anyone in particular or have fond thoughts of the team overall? Not really. The kitchen team at Avenues that seemed to be having a ball or the service staff at Ria that worked so hard to please made me WANT to give them a 5.
That said, this team gets it. You are paying a lot for a meal and it needs to be an experience that is both memorable and flawless. I did not have to ask for anything the entire night.

Decor: 4

It took me a while to get over the fact that I felt as if I had walked back into the 80’s but was missing Madonna, bad hair, and rubber bangles on everyone’s wrists. I mean mirrors, white walls, somewhat gaudy lighting, and white art deco furniture was a bit overwhelming. But the view, oh the view, it makes you forget everything else. We initially were seated at a table removed from the windows but when the restaurant cleared, we were asked if we wanted to have our cheese and dessert at a window. Spectacular view of the city. And while the decor is a bit dated, the restaurant was clean, ambiance pretty nice and the noise level minimal. There was also artwork from an Italian sculptor that is a friend of Chef Joho that was pretty cool.

Value: 3

Tasting menu at $125 per person for roughly 8 courses was higher than many and equal to a few of the other high end of the restaurants on the list. The wine pairing was a bit pricey relative to the others at $98 per person. The champagne was ridiculous with a glass of Mumm at $24 (More than a bottle at Binny’s). Our meal for the two of us was $570 so with tip this was a $700 meal. I do not give this restaurant a 3 because that is ridiculous, though most will agree that this cannot be a normal meal. However, relative to some of the other restaurants on the Michelin list which have great food at much better pricing, I would say Everest is a lower value.

Overall: 5

This is getting harder as I reach the final restaurants on my quest. I saved a few of the highest rated for last. Just how do you compare venues like Everest, L2O, Ria, Avenues, and Charlie Trotters when all of them are clearly leaders in fine dining? All of them would arguably be classified as 5 star restaurants in their own right. And, frankly, you are guaranteed to have a good meal at all of them. But alas, I must try hard to differentiate amongst the “dining gods”. Everest, while an absolutely fantastic experience I would recommend to friends, colleagues, and anyone who asks, was not good enough to win me over either Avenues at the Peninsula or Les Nomades. I do, however, think it had much better food than Alinea, better service than L2O, and a better overall experience than Ria.

In relationship with #foodies,

Adam

Adam in Four Seasons Hotel

Let's Eat!!

Reviews:
NaHa
Avenues
All Yelp Reviews