Are you feeling fancy? A little classy? Got a hot date? You should probably brush up on the need-to-knows about Chicago’s newly starred Michelin restaurants.
Michelin has been giving and taking away stars from restaurants for 110 years, but Chicago has only been Michelin reviewed for the past four years. In its premiere year, Chicago received 16 one-star ratings, only four restaurants received two stars, and a whopping zero were awarded three stars. In 2013, there were only 19 rated restaurants. For 2014, though, Chicago has 25 restaurants with Michelin stars.
How exactly do Michelin stars get awarded? Reviewers called inspectors anonymously visit the restaurants multiple times before deciding whether to award stars. The stars are, of course, highly coveted by restaurateurs. Thousands of restaurants are considered every year, but only a few are deemed worthy.
According to Michelin, the stars are awarded based only on what’s on the plate — service and ambiance do not factor in. This is how Michelin explains its stars:
“One star indicates a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard. A good place to stop on your journey. Two stars denote excellent cuisine, skillfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality. Worth a detour. Three stars reward exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients. Worth a special journey.”
With this guide, you’ll be able to name-drop the chef, know when the establishment got its start, and which signature dishes to order from Chicago’s seven newest Michelin-starred restaurants. You’ll sound like a pro! Here are the who, where, when, and what’s for dinner.
Starting with the only restaurant already on the list to receive an upgrade, Sixteen has been awarded its second Michelin star. As the formal dining room on the 16th floor of Trump International Hotel, you know all the stops will be pulled out. The city view is always visible from the restaurant’s 35 feet of glass windows and outdoor terrace. Michelin notes the interior’s “gargantuan chandelier [hanging] like a 14-foot cascade of Swarovski crystals over white leather armchairs, plush fabrics, and a wall covered in polished West African kevazinga wood.” Michelin also describes the food as having mind-boggling creativity.
Who: Executive chef Thomas Lents, who trained under Chefs Joël Robuchon, Jean Joho, and Michael Tusk.
Where: 401 N. Wabash Ave., Chicago, IL 60611, between the Grand-Red and Randolph/Wabash subway stops.
When: Sixteen opened in early 2008 under Chef Frank Brunacci and quickly landed on the Michelin radar. The restaurant lost its star in 2012 — after Brunacci left but before before Lents came to the helm — and it regained its star in 2013, under Lents.
What’s for dinner: Michelin gushes about the early spring vegetables served raw but warmed with a mint pea jus, the langoustine tartare, and the whole roast duck over rye pudding with red cabbage and potato dauphine stuffed with duck giblets. There are a la carte dishes and tasting menus, and an available five-course prix fixe menu is $98. Reviewers on popular-among-foodies website Chowhound tout the gravlax tartare inside creme fraiche meringue with trout caviar, crisp skin and bones, and chickweed; the kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) soup; turbot with pumpkin confit, stinging nettles, and roast salsify; and venison with toasted Tuscan kale, sweet potato leaf, and cranberry blood-orange mostarda with a drizzle of gin-juniper jus.
Hitting the list with two stars, Grace serves up two tasting menus: flora and fauna. Flora, highlighting vegetables, can easily be made completely vegetarian upon request; fauna focuses on meat and seafood. The kitchen is visible through frosted-to-clear glass walls, and the dining area features a contemporary style with wood paneling and gray tables. The restaurant recommends business casual attire, and non-flash photography is allowed. Reservations can be made up to two months in advance.
Who: Chef and owner Curtis Duffy, who trained under the late Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz. When not cooking, Duffy volunteers with the Grand Chefs Gala, which raises money for the Greater Illinois Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Where: 652 W. Randolph St., Chicago, IL 60661, right off U.S. Highway 94 and closest to the Clinton-Green subway stop.
When: After leaving Alinea, Duffy opened Grace in November 2012.
What’s for dinner: Michelin describes a “parsnip” interpreted as a parsnip puree topped with parsnip “water” and small green pearls of tarragon that stay frozen until eaten; frozen ginger water that shatters to reveal nairagi sashimi with trout roe, caramelized cashew, pomelo, and Thai basil over fish sauce and sweet coconut rice; and Matsusaka beef with king trumpets, salsify crisps, and sanscho leaves. For dessert, Michelin describes an “extraordinary composition featuring Asian citrus in caramelized sudachi custard with toasted cashews, Asian pears, and nasturtiums.” Chowhounds talk about the Scottish salmon; braised lamb with kale and black mint; and a chocolate dessert with cape gooseberry, hazelnut, and banana mint.
3. El Ideas
Jumping now to the one-star list, El Ideas describes its mission as “redefining fine dining.” The restaurant only has 24 seats, is BYOB, and encourages relaxed attire and interaction between both diners and the chefs. Its website claims ”it is very common for guests to join the chefs in the kitchen to ask questions, take photos, and discuss trends.” The chefs will personally deliver your food. If you wanted to get up close to the action, this seems to be the place to do it. The name, by the way, pays homage to Chicago’s elevated train system but is short for “Elevated Ideas in Cuisine and Dining.”
Who: Chef and owner Phillip Foss, who has worked in kitchens in six different countries. The food he presents at El Ideas is a testament to his varied experiences.
Where: 2419 W. 14th St., Chicago, IL 60608, closest to the Western Avenue Metrorail but still fairly isolated by public transit. There is free but limited street parking. There is no sign, but El Ideas is the only establishment on the block with windows that face the street.
When: El Ideas opened in July 2011.
What’s for dinner: Michelin notes a thrice-cooked potato, scrambled egg, and dill aioli beneath osetra caviar; a roasted garlic roll stuffed with smoked raclette, strips of sturgeon over soubise topped with pickled onions and sunflower shoots; peanut macarons filled with foie gras mousse; a blackberry pate de fruits; and a quenelle of applejack cider sorbet with a hot, sugar-dusted donut and caramelized yogurt sauce. Chowhounders rave about the black bass with black rice, black garlic, black radish, and kumquats; foie gras with celeriac four ways, Meyer lemon confit, white verjus gelee, and a black and yellow mustard vinaigrette; kohlrabi foam soup with a display of mushrooms, shallots, steamed Maine lobster, pan-fried sweetbreads and crispy kohlrabi leaves that the chef instructs you to shove into the soup before eating; and a dessert of “movie snacks” such as black popcorn, crumbled homemade whoppers and pretzels, Twizzlers ice cream, and Coca-Cola foam.
Elizabeth is a nose-to-tail, root-to-branch, farm-to-table restaurant that asks diners to ”come with an adventurous palate and an open mind.” The chef, Iliana Regan, started by selling pierogis at farmers markets, which received rave reviews and piles of positive press. She then evolved her business into an underground venture: Food lovers flocked to her apartment to experience her elaborate tasting menus.
Regan’s restaurant features folk-art hens, flea market-chic tables with mismatched chairs, and, in an effort to keep the venture intimate while being conscious of the environment and her small staff, doesn’t take reservations; Elizabeth sells tickets to the tasting menu dinners.
There are three tasting menus: Owl, a 10-course menu that highlights local, farm-to-table eating; Deer, a 15- to 17-course menu that focuses on the woodlands and foraged ingredients; and Diamond, a more than 20-course menu pulling dishes from both the Owl and Deer spreads, as well as incorporating some of the chef’s staples. Regan is more concerned with the professionalism of her staff than conventional stuffy shirts, so, as Michelin says, your waiter may have more tattoos than you.
Who: Chef Iliana Regan. The restaurant is named after her sister.
Where: 4835 N. Western, Unit D, Chicago, IL 60625, a block-and-a-half north of the Western-Brown stop.
When: Elizabeth opened in the last weekend of September 2012.
What’s for dinner: With three tasting menus available each season, you can take your pick and then come back twice more to try the others. Michelin raves about the slow-cooked salmon with raw beet, white potato, parsley gel, and Meyer lemon puree; the shaved orange vegetables over cashew flan with smears of goat butter; carrot cake with shaved celery, cream cheese sauce, and blue cheese ice cream; and porcini-infused caramel topping with sea salt and an edible flower. Chowhounders note the arugula, souffle-like sponge topped with sunflower sorbet, goat milk sorbet, two honeys, and botanicals; foie gras with beets, baby radishes, and soft homemade brioche; and apple cider gelatin with sunchoke puree and loup de mer.
5. The Lobby
Featured as the dining room of Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel, The Lobby is grand and, well, busy. Throughout the week, there’s breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, coffee breaks, dinner, a chocolate bar, and live entertainment every night. They even have children’s menus. The cuisine is described as contemporary yet approachable American style, and the decor is very Gatsby-esque.
Who: Chef Lee Wolen, formerly the sous chef of New York’s Eleven Madison Park.
Where: On the fifth floor of the Peninsula Hotel, 108 E. Superior St., Chicago, IL 60611, closest to the Chicago-Red stop.
When: Before Duffy left Avenues and before Avenues closed, before the hotel turned Avenues into an event space and revamped The Lobby, the restaurant was known for … nothing, really. So we’ll just say that The Lobby got its start when it was renovated and turned into Peninsula’s main dining room in September 2012.
What’s for dinner: Michelin describes soft ricotta gnocchi on a bed of sweet potato puree with cranberries and baby sage leaves, bass served bouillabaisse-style with Gulf shrimp and razor clams in a dashi broth, slow-braised lamb shank, and a whole crisp-skinned roast chicken. Chowhounds discuss the amuse-bouche porcini soup with grated hazelnuts, diver scallop with browned butter sauce, and the Spanish octopus.
6. North Pond
Originally built as a small lodge for ice skaters on North Pond to warm themselves, the space remains in the arts-and-crafts style, focused on local farm-to-table eating; it claims to have “the loveliest setting in the city.” Chowhounds even touted this spot as a great place for a fellow reviewer to pop the question.
Who: Born-and-raised Chicagoan chef and partner Bruce Sherman.
Where: 2610 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614, in Lincoln Park on the shores of North Pond.
When: The space opened first as a cafe in 1998. Sherman came on in 2000 and immediately elevated the restaurant.
What’s for dinner: Michelin remarks on the composed salad of Chioggia beets with cured Atlantic char and both smoked and fresh salmon caviar, pork medallions with cherry gelee, and rabbit served three ways: buttermilk braised, a bacon-wrapped saddle, and a “truffle” of nut-coated liver with rhubarb jam. Chowhounds rate memorable dishes like the corn soup with crab and a cheese-stuffed pepper relleno; the pork belly with shrimp a la plancha, poached apricot, and cipollini onion; and octopus with tuna and sake-marinated watermelon.
Complete with a team member called the “Tavern Wizard,” Senza offers an elegant but casual atmosphere with two tasting menus: a 10-courser and a five-course option. This 48-seat restaurant was inspired by the “simplicity and sophistication of an upscale outdoor European cafe,” according to Michelin. It was started by a two-woman team, Susan McMillan and Amelia Fonti, that joined the restaurant world out of a love of hospitality. With many friends and family members who were gluten intolerant, they began Wheat’s End Artisan Foods and Senza as a safe haven for those with gluten sensitivities. That’s right: a gluten-free restaurant with a Michelin star. Yeah, we saved this one for last.
Who: Chef Noah Sandoval.
Where: 2873 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL 60657, equidistant from the Diversy and Wellington stops.
When: Opened in 2012.
What’s for dinner: Michelin, seemingly surprised by loving this gluten-free establishment, is impressed by the mini loaves of bread; sea scallops with wild leeks, caramelized onion soubise, and pickled blueberries; poached lobster with parsnip and apple puree, topped with soy sauce “caviar”; pan-seared foie gras topping caramel corn creme brulee; and white chocolate mousse with miso-butterscotch and rosemary gelee. Chowhounds have been surprisingly slow to review it in depth, but all profess a love for the place, adding to its mystique.