Chicago Restaurant Week Recap: Discovering New Favorites
The 11th annual Chicago Restaurant week has come to an end and boy was it a fantastic time with over 370 restaurants participating this year! Although the name indicates a week, the celebration of the city's magnificent cuisine is actually 2 weeks. This year, for the first time ever, the event lasted even longer, as it was extended three days to coincide with Chicago Theatre Week, allowing theatergoers to enjoy two defining aspects of the Chicago cultural experience-award winning dining and amazing theatre.
During Restaurant Week, participating restaurants offered diners pre-fixe menus starting at $22; allowing the opportunity for patrons to get a true feel for the establishment.
Choose Chicago did a fine job generating buzz for the culinary event through their promotions. It surely contributed to me getting into the festive spirit!
In times past my co-workers and I usually went out for a few lunches during Restaurant Week, but it was pretty much business as usual for us. We didn’t give much thought to planning or consider the intent of the 2-week event, in fact, we usually ended up at one our old favorites where we’d eaten many times over.
This time was extremely different for me as it was my first Restaurant Week since I’ve launched my blog. To say I was eagerly anticipating it would be an understatement. I carefully planned my schedule, whereabouts, and dining companions. I believe this made a world of difference. I celebrated this year as it was meant to be and I shall henceforth be VERY EXTRA every Restaurant Week to come, lol!
In addition to indulging in amazing cuisine, there are added benefits to participating in Restaurant Week. Let’s face it, after the holidays' people like hibernating for the remaining days of January and on into February. It’s like pulling teeth to get us out of the house sometimes…I mean it’s cold and snowy! It can, therefore, be particularly slow for restaurants. Restaurant Week is a good incentive; the pre-fixe menu gives the consumer a lot of bang for their buck, and it encourages people like me to get out and to try new places. This hopefully leads to us becoming regular patrons while creating more restaurant business and revenue during a, particularly slow season. It's a WIN-WIN.
The following are my highlights from the week; it was my first time dining at each of the eateries.
1. BAR SIENNA
Located in ‘Restaurant Row’ in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, Bar Sienna is the establishment of Top Chef Alumna Fabio Viviani, who I’ve been a fan of and following since watching his season of Top Chef. Although I’ve been to his dessert bar Bombolini connected to Bar Siena, I hadn’t tried the restaurant. When my husband mentioned wanting Italian, I suggested Fabio’s restaurant. To my surprise, he immediately declined, asking "why would you want to go to Fabio's restaurant!?!?" He was imagining 80’s romance novel model and ’I can't believe it's not butter” Fabio, lol.
wrong Fabio, lol!
After clearing up the confusion, he was down for checking it out. Italian Street Food inspires Bar Siena's menu, and all dishes are made from scratch. Our reservation was for Saturday during brunch. Side Note: on the weekends you can only get brunch or dinner. We ordered the roasted meatballs, shaved butternut squash salad, avocado toast, and short rib hash.
My standout was the short-rib hash. The hollandaise sauce was light with a remarkable flavor. The short ribs were seasoned well and tender. The avocado toast was also tops! We finished off our meal with a salted caramel Bombolini, or Italian donut. I had no guilt indulging in that! The environment was also comfortable; the trees with lights on the branches gave the space a nice feeling of warmth which was much needed considering that it was bitter cold outside.
2. ELLA ELLI
Located in the heart of Lakeview, the gorgeous and elegant, Ella Elli is ideal for an intimate date night or catching up with your girlfriends. The dome booth that our party sat in gave us a feeling of having a private room. There was no need to raise our voices in conversation as the sound in the booth was crystal clear. The atmosphere set the tone for the remarkable meal that followed. I think that we ate the whole restaurant week menu plus a few a la carte items. Let me just say that I will be a regular here!
For my first course, I’d chosen Steak Tartare with Parmigiano-Reggiano and pumpernickel. If you’d have told me this time last year that I’d be eating steak tartare with a raw egg on top I’d have told you “get outta here! No way would I ever eat that!” At the start of my blogging, I decided that I’d experience and try everything within reason. I’m so happy that I’ve taken on this determination because I’ve developed a love for cuisine that I never would’ve given a second thought to in the past. The steak tartare was delightful, and the pumpernickel bread was a great accompaniment. My second course was a Lamb Scottadito with Herbed Yogurt and Harissa. Fabulous! I finished off with the apple bourbon cake with buttermilk ice cream and roasted apples. Let me just say that I could eat this cake daily! It wasn’t overly sweet, and all of the flavors were amazing together!
In addition to my courses, I was able to taste my companions’ dishes; I don’t think you could go wrong here! The braised oxtail rigatoni with whipped ricotta and fried rosemary was wonderful, and the Burger Au Poivre with St. Andre Triple cream, watercress, cornichon was on point. The sauce that accompanied that burger was epic!!! Do yourself a favor and get over to Ella Elli QUICK!
3. FIFOLET CAJUN & COCKTAILS
Named after the legendary blue lights which float above the bayou in Lousiana, Fifolet, is the place to go for New Orleans cuisine. The restaurant’s located in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. I’m in love with Cajun food, and when I was planning my week Fifolet was the spot for which I was most excited! You get a true feel for New Orleans when you walk through the door. The cozy fireplace and shimmering chandelier was a welcome sight! My friend Robea and I started off with the cocktails, Infamous Marie Laveau and Voodoo Punch. We were both impressed, especially with the Voodoo Punch. I usually steer clear of punches because I find them overly sweet but this one had a nice balance. They serve all the Cajun dishes I’ve grown to love. There were so many things that we relished during our meal.
I’d return just for the blackened shrimp Caesar salad. It was incredible with a nice kick, and the flavor of the catfish-caesar dressing was perfection. We also favored the cornbread and the shrimp and grits. The grits were among the best I’ve had! So creamy and savory. The fried green tomatoes with the house-made giardiniera are also a must! We finished off our meal with a couple of tasty beignets! Nice vibe, jazz, and service here! Will positively return.
Ema: I think we picked the coldest day of winter to venture out for lunch at Ema in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. All of the frigidness melted away once I stepped into what seemed like summer. My mood immediately lightened, and I’d forgotten how cold I’d been just minutes before. Ema is fresh and light and perfect for when you can’t take the brutal Chicago weather anymore, and you want to feel like you’re elsewhere.
I was ecstatic for Ema for a couple of reasons:
- Mediterranean is one of my favorite cuisines
- I love CJ Jacobson from Top Chef!!!! I was so stoked when I got the opportunity to meet him at First Bites Bash! Ema showcases his lighter style of California cooking. Again we selected EVERYTHING off the restaurant week menu and to be honest; I didn’t feel overly stuffed or guilty after eating so much. The food is filling but not heavy. We feasted and enjoyed every minute of it. The Fattoush salad, falafel, lamb kefta, chicken kefta, toasted almonds with garlic and olives, and crispy potatoes were all excellent. I highly recommend this restaurant!
In summation, Restaurant Week was a success, and I can’t wait to see the creativity that next year brings.
Hopefully, you’ll get the opportunity to visit some of these places.
As always, let me know your favorites!