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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

How Chicago's cuisine is resetting the boundaries of fine dining  

We tuck into some of Chicago’s tastiest dishes, from a 14-course European-style meal to a very gooey, cheesy deep-dish pizza pie

Mott Street restaurant, Chicago. John Brunton
Mott Street restaurant, Chicago. John Brunton

It does not take me long to discover that Chicagoans are seriously obsessed with food. Arriving at O’Hare Airport, the daunting immigration officer ends up quizzing me on if I know the best addresses to try Chicago’s famed prime rib-eye steaks and deep-dish pizza pie. Then stuck in traffic en route for the emblematic skyscrapers of Magnificent Mile, my Mexican taxi driver launches an impassioned description of how his adopted home is a paradise for food-lovers. “Where you will discover the best food from every part of the world in this ethnic ­melting pot”.

For many locals and visitors, fine dining begins and ends with the city’s unofficial gastronomic temple, Alinea, where one of the nation’s greatest chefs, Grant Achatz, continues the cutting-edge interpretation of modern American cuisine begun by the likes of his mentor, Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame. Achatz immediately garnered the coveted three stars the year Michelin published its first Chicago Guide in 2010. This restaurant has also been voted America’s Best Restaurant by the influential World 50 Best list, and he will reach a global audience soon when he represents the United States in a new Netflix world foodie competition.

So it is a surprise when the cab drops me in front of an anonymous grey townhouse in the residential suburb of Lincoln Park, with not even a signboard outside. But Alinea’s doors magically open every day of the week at 5pm, and the waiting list for a table stretches back for weeks. The experience mirrors classic European gourmet dining, with impeccable waiters presenting a never- ending stream of stunning dishes – as beautiful to look at as to taste.

A dish at Alinea, Chicago. John Brunton. 
A dish at Alinea, Chicago. John Brunton. 

The signature “Gallery” menu (US$345, Dh1,267) runs to 14 courses, and some just take my breath away, such as the “Black”– charred sculpted octopus served on a black marble, the “Terrarium”– a delicate lettuce taco filled with avocado and herbs balancing on a wire mesh, and the “Smoke”– a delicious mix of Osetra caviar and sunflower leaves. The chef clearly strives for total perfection, so it is not a surprise to see everyone in the kitchen intensely working away in silence. Achatz explains how “I was fortunate to have Chicago’s dining public embrace my progressive, out-of-the-box cooking, and today the energy in town is amazing, with talented young chefs bravely following their own vision of culinary exploration”.

Taking one of Achatz’s tips, I quickly discover that fine dining here can be hip and laid-back, too, as the next night takes me to new foodie hotspot, Oriole, whose young chef, Noah Sandoval, had also been recommended by Alain Ducasse before I left Paris.

Oriole restaurant in Chicago. 
Oriole restaurant in Chicago. 

The restaurant opened less than two years ago and shot straight to two Michelin stars, with Sandoval acclaimed last year as one of America’s Best Young Chefs. But behind the hype and accolades, I discover a restaurant and chef genuinely resetting the boundaries of fine dining. Housed in an industrial-chic former warehouse, I enter through an old freight elevator into a cosy redbrick dining room, seating just 28 diners.

The music, though not loud, is The Clash and The Smiths, while the bustling kitchen is on show behind a glass wall where the rock ’n’ roll chef is busy cooking alongside a small brigade of seven seriously tattooed assistants, who regularly pop out to serve and explain dishes at the table. If all this sounds like a brave new world, the revolution continues as I begin the 13-course tasting menu ($195).

A dish at Oriole restaurant in Chicago. 
A dish at Oriole restaurant in Chicago. 

Sandoval wakes up his gourmet diners by using starkly contrasting flavours and ingredients, such as succulent foie gras paired not with a traditional sweet confiture, but tangy, pickled onions, or the intense flavour of a marbled Wagyu beef, offset by crunchy gem lettuce and puffed rice crackers. His lemon souffle, meanwhile, is a dessert transformed as creamy cheese is poured over it. There is even a creative non-alcoholic pairing menu, mainly with teas. The young chef tells me: “The food scene in Chicago is pretty exciting right now, changing a lot with young chefs who have come up through the ranks opening their own places with a less rigid philosophy of what a restaurant should be.”

Food at Fat Rice restaurant in Chicago Jason Little
Food at Fat Rice restaurant in Chicago Jason Little

Chicago continues to surprise when I start checking out the dazzling international food scene; funky, casual diners serving a contemporary American take on Asian and South American cuisine, at very affordable prices. Just the kind of place where chefs like to hang out on their day off. While restaurateur Rick Bayless has turned his Neo-­Mexican eateries Topolobampo and Frontera into hip foodie institutions, the current flavours of the day are locales such as the exotic Fat Rice and Mott Street, where everything from Korean, Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese influences are on the menu.

Fat Rice interior Photo by Jason Little
Fat Rice interior Photo by Jason Little

Walking into the dining room of Mott Street for Sunday brunch, I feel I am on the set of Blade Runner. Most people are seated on long communal tables, sharing a host of different dishes, and one whole wall is an impromptu pantry stuffed with sesame vinegar, pungent belachan paste, Szechuan pepper, and thick black soy sauce – all of which feature in the cooking. ­Korean-American chef, Edward Kim, effortless transforms good old comfort food from the United States, such as hash potatoes, by adding spicy kimchi cabbage. Plump satay-style shrimps are served on a tangy bed of kohlrabi and lime ($12), while river catfish comes in a steaming claypot with bok choy, tofu and nuoc mam sauce ($16). The menu at Fat Rice in the fashionable Logan Square quarter is just as tempting, though the prime influence at this restaurant is the unique cuisine from Macau, a blend of Portuguese, Chinese and African flavours. I was in Macau recently, and was delighted that the dishes at this restaurant are just as authentic – and delicious – as anything I tasted in the former Portuguese colony. The owners, a young Chinese and ­Portuguese-American couple, Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo, travelled back to their roots in Macau, and have ­convinced Chicagoans to embrace spicy, unconventional dishes such as grilled octopus with almonds and green peach ($24), chilli-hot “kari ­kapitan” chicken and sardinhas ­furiosas ($12) – Portuguese ­sardines with Chinese mustard, tangy pickles and nori wraps. Just don’t come to this restaurant expecting a quiet, romantic dinner as the place is packed out until closing time.

Sardinhas Furiosas Courtesy Fat Rice
Sardinhas Furiosas Courtesy Fat Rice

Although Chicago is a city of distinctive, spread-out neighbourhoods, most visitors still end up staying in the sightseeing historical centre, around Magnificent Mile and Millennium Park. And while cutting-edge eateries are invariably a cab ride away, downtown is still the best place for some fun dining to sample the city’s famed specialities; pizza and steak. At one end of the Magnificent Mile, I join the queue outside Gino’s East – no fancy reservations here. Everyone has an opinion on where the best deep-dish pizza is made – Pizzeria Uno, Lou Malnati’s – but I found the ones at Gino’s exceptional, as long as you are prepared for very gooey, cheesy pizzas ($31 for two). To be sure, deep-dish it is very different to any pizza I have eaten in Italy – it takes an hour to bake in the oven – but with a ball game on the giant TV screen and crayons to add to all the graffiti adorning the walls, this is very much the classic Chicago experience.

Pizza at Gino East. 
Pizza at Gino East. 

At the other end of the Mile stands a grand Art Deco skyscraper, where the mythical Chicago Bull basketball star, Michael Jordan, has opened a traditional Steak House. The meatpacking district may be long gone, but a thick, juicy dry-aged steak is still the dish everyone associates with ­Chicago. And this surprisingly elegant, understated ­restaurant does not disappoint, with raucous sports fans relegated to the downstairs bar, while chef Craig Couper presents a creative farm-to-table menu featuring locally raised beef, Illinois vegetables and Wisconsin cheese. Relaxing on a comfy red-leather banquette, slicing through a giant slab of Prime rib-eye ($57), cooked rare to perfection, I can suggest no better way to end a foodie tour of the Windy City.

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