Chicago

USA- Grace- ✪✪✪

Grace Interior

Grace Interior

CHICAGO, IL, USA

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $235 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

A newcomer to the three-star ranking, Curtis Duffy's Grace restaurant is an up-and-coming, adventurous restaurant that takes an innovative approach to fine cuisine. There is a real focus on service, presentation, and detailed work at every step of the meal- the waiters appear practically choreographed in their movements- that makes the evening incredibly special. 

First Bites: Fava Bean Cracker + 4 Small Bites, 9/10

First Bites: Fava Bean Cracker + 4 Small Bites, 9/10

We start out with a super creative presentation- four small bites on a fava bean cracker, all served on an enormous log. Preserved Meyer lemon and lemon balm were sprinkled throughout, and each bite had a different character- salty, sweet, citrus, etc. 9/10.

Course 1: Trout + Caviar, 9/10

Course 1: Trout + Caviar, 9/10

Another exceptionally clever presentation- poached trout with Osetra-grade caviar from Germany, served in a yogurt cup with foil lid. The lid has saffron and uzu puree on the underside that we were encouraged to scrape off, and there was a pool of smoke inside as well. The smoke seeps into the salmon for a classic taste, and there are tiny Hon Shimeji mushrooms that are firm, crisp, and tiny. 9/10.

Course 3: Crab + Roe on "Ice," 9/10

Course 3: Crab + Roe on "Ice," 9/10

If you're starting to get the feeling that super-creative presentations are Grace's thing, then you're in the same boat I was in. Danish trout roe and crab with togarashi spice are carefully placed on a sharp, blade-like "ice" layer of cooked sugar. The sweet, candied sugar brings out the crisp flavors of the crab and vegetables, and the unique spice is a perfect match-up. The roe pops in your mouth- refreshing like a summer salad. 9/10.

Course 4: Oysters + Salad, 7/10

Course 4: Oysters + Salad, 7/10

Long Island oysters with herbs and seaweed, white grapefruit, and chewy maitake mushrooms were presented next. The flavor in the oysters themselves I would label as "movie popcorn," and this was a busy dish with tons of flavors and textures. Perhaps even a little too much going on. 7/10.

Course 5: Rabbit + Cannellini, 8/10

Course 5: Rabbit + Cannellini, 8/10

We got to experience the grilled rabbit, prepared in confit style, with cannellini beans. The rabbit was very well cooked, but a touch dry. 8/10.

Course 6: Braised Pork, 8/10

Course 6: Braised Pork, 8/10

An interesting take on a classic dish- this pork was braised and matched up with a port wine reduction and a chicharron of fried pork. The crispy, crunchy rinds pair perfectly with the pork, which falls apart under the fork. The main protein is rich, and stands up to the other ingredients- like cauliflower- well. 8/10

Course 7: Wagyu Beef, 9/10

Course 7: Wagyu Beef, 9/10

Served as a "deconstructed spring roll," this herb-driven dish came with a broth of Tom Yum and caramelized peanuts. True to A5 Wagyu form, this beef was well-marbled and exceptionally rich. The presentation was colorful and playful, with crunchy veggie chips to try to offset some of the richness of the dish. I really enjoyed this one- a great capstone course. 9/10.

Course 8: Ice Cream, 8/10

Course 8: Ice Cream, 8/10

At the beginning of the meal, we got asked whether we prefer chocolate or vanilla- and this was the payoff. Bite-sized ice cream cones of almost-butter-rich ice cream were a great follow-up to the Wagyu. 8/10.

Course 9: Frozen Pear, 9/10

Course 9: Frozen Pear, 9/10

Frozen Pear, Post-Opening

Frozen Pear, Post-Opening

Another unbelievably creative execution- a hollow sphere made of frozen pear juice, with blond brownie holding everything together at the base. The soft, almost gummy brownie is a great match for the pear. 9/10.

Course 10: Panna Cotta, 8/10

Course 10: Panna Cotta, 8/10

A beautiful dish of panna cotta and green strawberries. 8/10.

Final Bites: Cocoa Butter Sphere, 6/10

Final Bites: Cocoa Butter Sphere, 6/10

The final dish left a small sour note on my palate- a cocoa butter sphere had an extremely strong lemon tea inside that didn't agree with me- tasted somehow rusty and oxidized. 6/10. 

USA- Alinea- ✪✪✪

Alinea- a ground-breaking establishment that led the way on ticket-based seat sales and broke a whole bunch of culinary rules on their way to the 3-Star Michelin Guide rating they now hold. Here was my experience;

The Famous Alinea Balloon

The Famous Alinea Balloon

CHICAGO, IL, USA

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $298 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

1st Course: Osetra Caviar + Foam, 10/10

1st Course: Osetra Caviar + Foam, 10/10

Right out of the gate, Grant Achatz starts with a very strong first dish of Osetra-grade caviar, a type known for its creamy walnut taste. Unlike most caviar I have had, it wasn't strongly saline or ocean-y- the creamy texture matched up nicely with a toasted brioche and egg yolk custard. They even gave us a mother-of-pearl spoon with a "landing pad" to enhance the visual presentation of the dish. 10/10, an outstanding dish. 

2nd Course: Salsify Jerky, 5/10

2nd Course: Salsify Jerky, 5/10

It was hidden in the Jesus reference!

It was hidden in the Jesus reference!

What's an elite fine-dining experience without a Jesus reference, am I right? Just kidding- this second course was served to us in a crown-of-thorns-esque assemblage of twigs that had "branch camouflage" of Salsify jerky (a root vegetable in the dandelion family). The jerky was cooked in soy and garlic then dehydrated, giving it a smoky, earthy flavor but too small to be very satisfying. The waiter said that some people compared its flavor to oyster- I would have said more like dried beets. 5/10, with -2 points for the bizarre religious reference. 

3rd Course: Skate Wing + Herbs, 7/10

3rd Course: Skate Wing + Herbs, 7/10

Course 3 was a colorfully-presented skate wing poached in brown butter with parsley, oxalis, and lemon. I'd call this the botanical garden plate- fun textures, beautiful hues, not terribly memorable taste but great crunchy mouthfeel from the flowers that paired nicely with the wing. Extra points for the clever presentation- a plate shaped like a folded napkin. 7/10.

4th Course: Prawns + Beans, 9/10

4th Course: Prawns + Beans, 9/10

Dish 4 was the "pebble dish," so named for the fun textural interplay of the hard beans (the pebbles), the soft Hawaiian sweet prawn with Ogo (seaweed), and the softer still custard. I liked the framing of the plate as a small-scale diorama of a beach- the flavors recalled the ocean and the tropics in a cool and original way. 9/10.

5th Course: Gurnard + Bourbon Sauce on a Bourbon Plank, 8/10

5th Course: Gurnard + Bourbon Sauce on a Bourbon Plank, 8/10

Watermelon with dollop of bourbon sauce

Watermelon with dollop of bourbon sauce

Though its difficult to make out in the photo, the fifth dish was served on a long black bourbon barrel plank (a cool touch) with two people served at once on either end. A fish from New Zealand called Gurnard was served alongside watermelon, broccoli, and a fish sauce aged in the selfsame bourbon barrels. A big and filling dish with tons going on- the Gurnard had peanut-y and sesame flavors that matched well with the actual peanuts, the fish sauce imbued a seriously rich taste. Quite a lot to take in and led to feeling a bit full as of the fifth course, but a solid 8/10.

6th Course: Eggplant + Fresno Chili, 6/10

6th Course: Eggplant + Fresno Chili, 6/10

Post-broth

Post-broth

The sixth course provided a nice break from the seafood in favor of a hearty vegetable dish- eggplant poached with pickles and banana puré, gin and tea, lemongrass ginger, Fresno chili, and mint. The chili had some serious kick- they're hotter than jalapeños by far- which really danced up this veggie-heavy dish. The eggplant texture provided an excellent base to enjoy the mustard seeds. However, the lemongrass flavor shows up suddenly and pounds the broth and mustard into the dirt- an overwhelming flavor that doesn't let up. Great concept, but I'd humbly recommend a smaller lemongrass serving. 6/10.

Course 7A: Chicken Skin

Course 7A: Chicken Skin

Course 7B: Tamarind

Course 7B: Tamarind

Course 7C: Lemongrass + Chili + Soda "cocktail"

Course 7C: Lemongrass + Chili + Soda "cocktail"

7 was a fun "Tour of Italy"- three single bites including chicken skin, a tamarind, and then a "cocktail" of lemongrass, chili, and soda. The coconut and lime flavors of the tamarind were perfect, and the caramel chunk gives it a fun texture interplay. 9/10.

8th Course: Hamachi + Pine Branch, 8/10

8th Course: Hamachi + Pine Branch, 8/10

Course 8- some Hamachi (also known as Japanese yellowtail, but with a more refined taste) was served skewered on a pine branch with Shishito peppers and beans. The peppers weren't particularly hot, and the presentation style was clearly interesting- a pile of logs sat unsuspectingly in the center of this woodsy dish. We'd find out the logs' role in a few moments... 8/10

9th Course: Abalone + Maitake Mushroom + Shiso, 8/10

9th Course: Abalone + Maitake Mushroom + Shiso, 8/10

Course 9 included some tempura of abalone served with dashi (dried kelp that forms the backbone of many Japanese dishes) and shiso, a cilantro-like mint also from Japan. What was really cool was that the next course was cooked for us in the middle of the table as we enjoyed these small skewers. 8/10. Quick video:

10th Course: Pork Belly, 10/10

10th Course: Pork Belly, 10/10

Inside the fire was... some absolutely incredible pork belly. Course ten was not only wrapped in kombu (a type of kelp) and cooked and cut on-table, but served with parsnip, black trumpet mushroom, some delicious cuttlefish ink with julienne. This dish was truly outstanding. 10/10!

11th Course: "Hot Potato, Cold Potato" 9/10

11th Course: "Hot Potato, Cold Potato" 9/10

Our waiter told us that Course 11 had been on the menu for almost 9-and-a-half years; certainly a confident comment. Suspended above a warm broth was a cold potato with black truffle and a small cube of butter. The butter melts quickly, so the recommendation was to withdraw the small metal spike holding the ingredients up and eat it all in one go. The hot and cold mixed together brilliantly and this -certainly a bit salty- dish made it easy to see why one might continue to offer it for almost a decade. 9/10.

12th Course: Squab Liver + Roasted Orange, 8/10

12th Course: Squab Liver + Roasted Orange, 8/10

Course 12 was certainly one of the most colorful of the evening- squab liver mousse with beets, roasted orange, and a bunch of flower petals. Some of the petals weren't terribly fresh, but the squab was absolutely exquisite. I wasn't 100% sure why the orange was roasted/burnt, since this heightened the already strong flavor and didn't pair terribly well with the squab. But, the squab itself was a total delight- wonderful texture, incredibly fresh (almost on-the-farm) taste, perfectly cooked. 8/10.

Course 13: Mint Ice, 9/10

Course 13: Mint Ice, 9/10

The 13th course was super fun and interesting- looks like a block of ice, right? The small shavings in the center were exploding with the flavor of minty dark chocolate! Another fun trompe l'oeil where the appearance and the taste were at odds. I also noticed how the kitchen moved back and forth on the color spectrum- bland, bright, bland, bright. 9/10, great surprise, wonderful palate cleanser.

Course 14: "Graffiti," 8/10

Course 14: "Graffiti," 8/10

As we headed into the final few courses, the 14th "Graffiti" course of hazelnut, perigord, and balsamic were served in the shape of broken asphalt with a spray can of liquid applied on top. The reference was a little bizarre, but the creativity of the presentation said a lot. 8/10.

Course 15: Almonds + Grapefruit, 8/10

Course 15: Almonds + Grapefruit, 8/10

The 15th course, known as "Quince," was an almond-heavy dish cooled with dry ice. It reminded me of those awesome fruit and nut cereals I used to enjoy as a kid. It had a fruity kick from the grapefruit, and wasn't terribly memorable but a great approaching-the-end dish. 8/10.

16th Course: Green Apple Balloon, 9/10

16th Course: Green Apple Balloon, 9/10

Someone in the back of the house has the (not terribly enviable) job of creating green apple taffy, carefully crafting it into helium-ready balls, filling those balls, and connecting them to a rope of candy without breaking them or unleashing a bunch of helium into the kitchen. This person, needless to say, is a master craftsman at their job. Eating the balloons leads to all sorts of cartoon-voiced hilarity, a thoughtful way to get people laughing together and cementing great memories at the end of the meal. 9/10.

Course 17: Painting of Fruit, 10/10

Course 17: Painting of Fruit, 10/10

The very last statement starts with a large, grey latex that gets laid on top of the table. Then, small bowls of ingredients are brought out. Finally, a member of the kitchen emerges and freehand-paints a gorgeous mural of dessert, like so:

Creative, unique, delicious. 10/10.

USA- Sixteen- ✪✪

CHICAGO, IL, USA

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $251 pp (includ. champagne + wine)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10

For my very first review, Trump Tower's Sixteen restaurant is the perfect place to start. I know it's got a "mere" two Michelin stars, but let's work our way up to that, shall we? With five AAA diamonds and a Forbes five-star rating, this place comes very close. 

The front and back of the house were totally in sync, the wintery views from the floor-to-ceiling windows were breathtaking, and the wait staff were charming and 0% snooty. Here are six reasons you'll have a good time here:

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1) They seem to actually care about the humans who make the restaurant work. Chef Thomas Lents crafted a seasonal menu that pays tribute to the people who inspired and taught his team. Some of this is name-dropping- "guess who worked with Joel Robuchon, you guys?"- but mostly it felt sincere. Profile photos of those people adorned the walls and menus.

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2) The Oyster with cider gelee you start with is the best oyster I have had in the Midwest. Salty and creamy, and charmingly presented on a massive plate... That plate gets its top level removed to reveal....

 

3) A sub-plate! With two more small bites! How clever. This one had Xo cracker, shrimp sausage, and ginger- practically exploding with taste, and an edible flower to boot.

4) Have you ever wondered what a lime ice salad tastes like? Well, wonder no longer, because Sixteen makes them. This creative and beautifully presented dish (with chopped ice shards forming the backdrop) was refreshing and tasted like fresh-from-the-garden vegetables. A nice break in January.

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5) The main dish was a rarity in the fine dining world- enough food that you actually felt full. I chose the Poussin roasted in hay, hazelnut, onion, and apple vinegar. Though there were other courses worth mentioning, this one stood out for the clean presentation and the heartiness of the dish.

6) Dessert kicked it out of the park. An apple cake with maple yogurt, fenugreek ice cream, and lemon balm. Solid black plate nicely set off the bright colors of the fruit and dairy, the tastes matched perfectly.