Jennifer W. writes: “I am taking my husband to Chicago for his birthday later this month and am looking for somewhere special to take him to dinner. He is a former pastry chef, so somewhere with a fabulous dessert menu would be great. Do you have any suggestions? I know you know the great places in Minnesota to dine; do you know any in Chicago? Thanks!”
The first place that leaps to mind is Alinea, the ground-breaking Chicago restaurant of Grant Achatz. It leaps to mind because I’m anxiously awaiting receipt of Achatz’ new cookbook, “Alinea”; I paid $50 on the restaurant website so I could get a signed copy, but I now see my copy hasn’t yet arrived and the book is currently available on Amazon for $30. (Ah, now you know the heartbreak and difficulties of the cutting edge cookbook orderer.)
Anyway, if I had one meal to have in Chicago it would be at Alinea, even though it’s only open for dinner—and costs $145 per person. Looking at the current menu online I’m counting maybe 6 courses that are dessert-ish—in a very broad interpretation of dessert—like “bacon with butterscotch, apple, and thyme,” or “chocolate with fig, olive and pine.” Pine? Yeah, pine. If you don’t know about Chef Achatz, he’s America’s leading chef working in bold flavors and molecular gastronomy. In the world of food (give or take a couple detractors), he’s regarded as a stone-cold, once-in-a-lifetime genius.
If you’re looking for something less elaborate, a lot of people I know really adore Table Fifty Two, a sort of Southern contemporary bistro helmed by Oprah’s former chef, Art Smith. A glance at their current online dessert menu includes a fruit buckle with vanilla bean ice cream, a Smith Family twelve-layer chocolate cake, a pecan pie with shortbread crust and candied kumquats, and a buttermilk custard with whiskey sour gelatin.
If you can’t get into Alinea, or simply want fine dining, and not cutting edge dining, another favorite Chicago spot of mine is Blackbird, whose online dessert menu currently features “avocado cremeux with local blueberries, hyssop and charteuse granite,” “caraway pretzels with blackberries, mustard and hopped ice cream,” and “kalamata olive cake with rhubarb, toffee and buttermilk ice cream.” As we in the business say: Neat-o.
Finally, something I’ve never had but is on my life-list: The duck-fat fries at Hot Dougs. They’re only available on Fridays and Saturdays, though. (Incidentally, if any chefs are reading this and want some critic-bait, I hereby solemnly 100 percent guarantee a visit from this restaurant critic to any spot serving duck-fat or beef-tallow fries within 200 miles of the Spoonbridge and Cherry.)
I’ll keep you posted on that last one. But, till then: Happy Chicago Birthday!