Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill

I’m a huge fan of the Top Chef series and was even more excited about coming to Chicago to try to get a taste of Rick Bayless’ cooking after learning about him from the Top Chef Masters competition. He has quite a collection of restaurants in Chicago but I heard about one of his restaurants that you didn’t need to book one month in advance for, the Frontera Grill.

I organised to meet with a few friends there and we put our name down shortly at 6pm when they opened only to already be told that we’d have to wait at least two hours before we’d be seated. Fortunately I wasn’t so hungry from a very big brunch earlier in the day. We headed out to Sable for some drinks as the bar at Frontera was far too busy for our liking and returned when we were called about two and half hours later.

This is us dining after finally getting a table!

We ordered the sample platter of appetisers to share, a number of obligatory margaritas and of course a tamale to try. In most other places, mexican food tends to be a bit bland when served. What surprised me when we tucked into the platter was how everything that so much vibrancy, flavour and life. The dishes didn’t really blur together and each had very distinct flavours that you can try. There was even some ceviche on the platter (more peruvian than mexican) but I didn’t really complain as we ate it all. The guacamole tasted rich and went perfectly with the home-made corn chips.

I also wanted to try the tamales as I’d had one at a mexican take out place and was disappointed by the dry, cornmeal steamed around a pitiful amount of meat. Our waiter actually brought us the wrong tamale to begin with (a plain one) that actually had a lot of fresh flavours and was very promising. I’m glad that when the real chicken tamale arrived, I wasn’t disappointed by the bursts of flavours contained in the golden yellow husks.

For the main I had to order the pork mole, the more traditional of the ones listed on their menu. In total I think they had three or four different varieties including a green mole for fish, and a duck or chicken mole as well. I’m glad I went with this traditional dish, hoping to feel the rich, dark and complex flavours that mole is supposed to have and that Bayless delivered impeccably.

We split for dessert, the banana bread mainly because I really wanted to try it and figured I wouldn’t be back at the Frontera Grill for some time to come. It came with toasted walnuts, caramelised banana and some home made ice cream to provide relief from the richness of the entire dish.

I had high expectations for the entire experience and other than the having to wait for a table, the restaurant definitely delivered on all the points it was supposed to be. I can’t think of any of the dishes being flavourless and all of my friends also commenting on how great everything was.

Name: Frontera Grill
Found at: 445 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60610, United States
Website: http://www.fronterakitchens.com/restaurants/restaurants.html

Chicago’s Stetson’s Steakhouse

As part of the working week we had a group, my company organised for a dinner in the hotel we were staying at. The result was a dinner at the surprisingly inventive Stetson’s Steak house. We had the private dining room booked and they had a fixed menu for us with a number of alternatives to choose from. We also had two types of wines, but taking the chance, I asked for a glass of Zinfandel instead (which I got and enjoyed very thoroughly).

Our first cocktail was an inventive shrimp cocktail with shrimps almost appearing mutant size – they were really that big. It come straddled across a fresh tomato sauce with a background of wasabi kick and cleverly kept cold through some dry ice in the bottom container. Spectacular to look at and a very great combination to start with.

I opted for the lobster bisque that was a very good bowl of soup indeed. Nothing very surprising here but an extremely enjoyable bowl with lots of flavour.

They brought around tiny coronets of lemon sorbet to cleanse our palettes for the oncoming main menu. I wasn’t expecting this and was delighted by the zesty citrus flavours.

I ordered a 400g steak that arrived with a lovely BBQ sauce and they brought around a number of sides to go along with it including some onion rings, asparagus.

I had to try the mac and cheese as well though there was already a lot of food. The steak was perfectly cooked to medium rare and it was very deliciously juicy and meaty.

The cheese course arrived looking grand with an interesting assortment of prunes, fruit and honeycomb as well as some toasted bread to eat the cheese.

Dessert arrived in the form of a platter with tiny cakes and chocolate dipped strawberries. Too much decadence here but I couldn’t resist trying some of the cakes and blueberries.

I really enjoyed the dinner. Although I don’t know how much the dinner overall cost, looking at their website, the US$100 seemed reasonable for the sheer number of courses that arrived and the quality of the food. It’s definitely not an every day sort of place to eat. Or at least, not to do the tasting menu every day of the week but would definitely head back to have a steak there.

Name: Stetson’s
Found at: In the Hyatt on Wacker (151 East Wacker Drive Chicago, IL 60601, United States)
Website: http://www.hyatt.com/gallery/stetson/index.html

Chicago’s Nomi

Nomi, Not to be confused with the world’s number one restaurant in the world, Noma, you can find this Chicago based restaurant in the Park Hyatt Hotel offering effectively regionally sourced foods with the theme of being served from the “Kitchen” as you would make at home. Of course, it’s a lot fancier than that.

They served us a few rounds of some lovely crusty bread and butter. Unusually the butter tasted a lot more creamy than what you get in most other American restaurants (a good thing). I remember the bread being especially warm as well helping the butter to melt and to start our appetite for the things to come.

Opting for a theme of mushrooms, I started with the Forest Mushroom Soup. It arrived drizzled with truffle oil, and the perfect use of sourdough bread to provide crisp croutons to contrast the soup’s texture. Although still welcome to provide bite, the use of goat’s cheese to add salt and a melting creaminess seemed a tad excessive although the additional pan fried mushrooms were very good. The others split a plate of jamon iberico ham and cheese to begin.

The mushroom theme continued with the hand cut linguini served with black truffle cream, parmigiano-reggiano and fresh herbs. A generous serving of pasta with lots of cheese, but surprisingly light on the flavour. I expected more saltiness or sharpness from the cheese, and a rich earthy flavour from the truffle but both were a little bit too subtle for my liking. The truffle aoili chips we ordered to share was good and the pasta aided by a side of foraged mushrooms pan fried in probably a little bit too much butter.

My fellow diners ordered a wide range of dishes although I was only able to successfully take a picture of the skate ala plancha that looked amazing served atop its bed of dauphinoise potatoes and assorted roasted vegetables.

Our waiter teased us with a board filled with the offering of today’s tarts but we were defeated as a group to even attempt dessert. If I had space for it, I probably would have tried the brioche beignet although they had a huge menu to choose from. Not the cheapest of the meals I had, this one, even with two bottles of wine between the five us cost about US$98 including service.

Name: Nomi
Found at: 800 North Michigan Avenue Chicago, IL 60611, United States
Website: http://www.hyatt.com/gallery/nomi

Drinking Spots in Chicago

We went drinking a number of times in Chicago and although I neglected to take any photos, I would definitely recommend the following places depending on what you want:

  • Sepia – A great place to drink some interesting cocktails. We went here just after having dinner at Avec for nightcap and heading home. The interior is decorated like the 20s, or sepia tones with a great bar decorated with books and photography equipment around the place. Comfy lounge chairs welcome you to fall back and enjoy your drinks
  • Sable – We had a two hour wait before our table was ready for Frontera Grill so we went for a couple of drinks beforehand to Sable. This bar has floor to ceiling glass windows to the street and high chaired tables lining a narrow corridor. I believe this is the pre-drinking spot before people head into the restaurant although you can order food in the bar area as well. A very nice bar although the atmosphere is slightly ruined by the TVs showing sports behind the bar. What is with that? A great selection of cocktails and didn’t get a chance to look at the food.
  • Elephant and Castle – As one would expect from a place like this, a British themed pub serving British foods like Fish and Chips, Chicken Pot Pie and Irish Stew alongside a broad range of British and European beers and ales. The London Pride I had was pretty good although it was strangely super cold to the point of being almost tasteless. I had to let it warm up a bit to get any sense of the flavour).

Avec’s Spin on Mediterranean Food

I caught up with a number of friends for dinner the first night I spent in Chicago and they recommended the restaurant Avec. They recommended getting there early (6pm) that worked for me as I was still recovering from the flight and wouldn’t really last to a very late dinner. It’s a good thing too because like many popular restaurants in the town, they had a first come first seated basis.

The front door to the restaurant is rather discrete. Upon walking in, it feels like you’re entering a huge communal sauna where the entire room is wood-panelled including the tables and the major counter top. Putting my name down for the group of four, I sat at the counter and sipped on a glass of red wine from spain until the others arrived. I asked about getting something local (i.e. American) but they said that this was a mediterranean restaurant and thus only offered wine from France, Italy and Spain. Strange.

The others soon arrived and we were shown to our table that we split with another group sitting at the end of the large table side. A lot of the dishes had been designed for sharing and even though we ordered a number of large dishes, we still opted to split them as a group to try to savour and experience all that Avec had to offer. It worked for me. Our waiter came to recommend a number of dishes including a number of daily specials on the board.

We went for these chinese greens that were served with some toasted quinoa and had a great earthy nutty feel to them. It had a great mouth feel and gladly had not been overcooked.

Next up were the apparently famous chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce. Our waiter pushed us really hard to order more than just one of these dishes, but we only really wanted to try one each. Of course the date, meaty flavours mixed with the spicy tomato sauce worked really well but I remember this being particularly overseasoned and needing to reach for more water to quench the thirst.

We then tried the marinated hanger steak with lemon marscapone leeks, escarole and charred onion vinaigrette that turned out to be a perfectly cooked, slightly smoky piece of steak that disappeared rather quickly.

We also tried the crispy duck with toasted fregula and couscous, mustard greens, squash and egg yolk that reminded me of a Chinese style duck blended with mediterranean flavours. I really enjoyed the choice of the large cous couse here, and the egg yolk bursting to add a richness to this dish. The crispy duck added texture to the dish and, at the same time, was too overcooked to enjoy any of the duck flavour.

Ajit recommended ordering the “deluxe” focaccia with taleggio cheese, ricotta, truffle oil and fresh herbs. This bread, slightly slimmer than what one would expect from a Foccacia was filled with a creamy filling all full of great umami. Once again the only disappointment was how they went a bit heavy on the salting of the bread that was perfectly fine with out it.

Typically unable to resist desserts, my friends ordered some dessert wines and I opted for the hazelnut crumb cake with fennel creme fraiche, candied hazelnuts and butterscotch, a rich cake including a sweet sauce very well balanced out by the choice of a creme fraiche instead of whipped cream.

Overall a pretty good dining experience though not as perfect as I’d hoped after hearing all the reviews. I’d still definitely go back and try a few of the other dishes as I think the flavour combinations were pretty inventive and not what you would find in many other kitchens.

Name: Avec Restaurant
Found at: 615 W Randolph, Chicago, IL 60661
Website: http://avecrestaurant.com/

Chicago’s Bristol

One of the final places I ate at during this trip to Chicago was The Bristol. It’s one of those places that focuses on nose to tail eating and the pig features heavily in their menu in a wide variety of forms. It’s not too far of a walk from Bucktown towards a more polished neighbourhood filled with high end independent stores.

As you can see from the picture below, they take their pig seriously.

I had a hard time picking something on the menu as I wanted to try quite a number of dishes. I think it’s the sort of place I could go back to. We were seated immediately at the bar, and I think was almost preferred to the crowded noisy shared tables behind us. We also got to see the bartender make some of his brunch drinks including the Bacon Manhattan we tried.

A mixture of bourbon, maple syrup and a bacon infusion plus a candied streak of bacon with oversized ice cubes worked up a charm. It’s not the sort of drink I would have too many of, but its a decadent drink that makes you think about what exactly a mixologist can make. A great balance and a perfect start to a brunch.

Here’s the crowd behind us.

Ajit ended up with the burger. Not a huge sized burger, but definitely a good portion size as well as the duck fat fries topped with parsley, salt and a number of other tasty seasonings.

Not content, I had to order another cinnamon roll just to try it from this place. As you can see, it seemed a bit more cooked and less fluffy as the ones we tried at ann sathers. In a way, I preferred this one as it focused more on the cinnamon flavour and the roll rather than the sweet glaze poured all over it.

I went for a braised pork chilaquiles, salsa verde, cilantro, lime, fried egg. Continuing on the mexican theme, what turned up was a soft pork belly bits of meat through softened tortilla chipps and lots of flavour all throughout. I put on quite a bit of the home made chilli sauce that was reported “very spicy” but turned out to be slightly more than a typical tabasco. Still a great addition to it though.

Name: The Bristol
Found at: 2152 N Damen Ave Chicago, IL 60647, United States
Website: http://thebristolchicago.com/

Brunch at Ann Sathers

Although London’s offering of great brunch places continue to increase, they still cannot match those on offer in some other major cities. Chicago has no shortage of these places and Gaz and Molly suggested a brunch catchup at Ann Sathers, who has four different spots about town.

They are apparently especially known for their massive cinnamon rolls (above) as well as other baked goods that you can order at the counter to go. The above two rolls came as a “side” to a pretty big breakfast offering.

We met at the Lakeview restaurant made up of two huge rooms constantly turning tables over but never feeling rushed. I think we met pretty early, about 10 or 11am to avoid queuing up, but there was a significant queue stretching out the door by the time that we left. The menu offered some pretty classic american fare ranging from the eggs benedict, omelettes and pancakes to a grilled breakfast including bacon and eggs.

I opted for a slight twist on the eggs benedict opting for the “southern style” where instead of hollandaise sauce, the poached eggs came with a gravy and in place of bacon, was an american style sausage patty. Yum.

It felt a bit lavish but went down a treat. It also tasted much better than what the picture shows above.

Name: Ann Sathers
Found at: 909 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL 60657
Website: http://www.annsather.com/

The Publican

I was due to meet Danilo and Jenny in Chicago on the short weekend I had there. Thanks to Jenny we decided to have lunch at the Publican. They also invited Matt along who happened to be in town. Let me emphasise that this is a good thing. It’s a nice bustling place and one where you definitely have to book in advance. Or plan to wait for a long time.

Jenny and Matt below.

We tried far too much for a brunch, starting with one of their sticky pecan rolls. Topped with nuts, thankfully not too excessively sweet (at least compared to their Cinnabon brethren) yet surprisingly filling.

The pork rinds had been recommended, dusted with a slightly picante (calling it spicy is not quite fair) dusting of spices and a cone of chips that were supposed to accompany the chicken fried chicken.

Highlight of all the sides was the recommended maple glazed bacon. I’m not normally a fan of thick cut bacon – it turns out to be to excessively fatty to a point it dominates the smoky and salty flavours that make it a wonder to behold. And besides, if something is going to be so fatty, it’s best that it crisps up from that benefit. There’s a good reason people who like fried chicken expect a crispy crust.

I opted for a bit more of a twist on a classic, the eggs benedict. The eggs, poached in red wine and served with prosciutto and toasted bread. I appreciated the attempt at something different, but the red wine flavouring kind of dominated the rest of the dish.

The toast wasn’t quite toasted enough or maybe they really should have chosen a sourdough instead of plain bread because I think what the dish lacked was a contrast of flavours. That perfect maple glazed bacon, crispy on the outside, would have made the perfect accompaniment but instead everything seemed a little bit soft. Picture of an overcooked egg.

Other people ordered interesting dishes including a massive weisswurst (white sausage) that came poaching in a big copper pot.

Matt was brave enough to order the artery clogging chicken fried steak with two fried eggs.

And Danilo opted for a more sensibly portioned Ploughman’s platter.

Name: The Publican
Found at: 837 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607
Website: http://thepublicanrestaurant.com/


I only had a short weekend to Chicago and had plenty to do so didn’t really have much time. Unfortunately there was no trip planned for Alinea, however Ajit suggested the very swank and busy Japonais. I’m always up for trying everything so Ajit booked it in with a lot of us.

Located by the river in Chicago, it obviously was a popular location. Plenty of tables and many of them full for the duration of our dinner obviously indicated it seemed to be one of the go-to places of the moment. It felt like it was trying to be a bit like Hakkasan, but seemed a bit frantic instead of the cool interior charm.

After almost no sleep in 24 hours, I found the intensity of all the questioning from the attendants honestly a little bit overwhelming but it was good that we could share a few of the starter dishes. I’m not really sure what this dish was involving fish and I can’t seem to match it to anything on the menu.

This one was the Ahi Tuna Ceviche – I love yuzu and this was one marinated with some white soy. The contrast between sharp citric and salty soy was great and didn’t overpower the tuna.

I think this is the Wagyu Robata – Smoked american wagyu-style with green and white asparagus, and wasabi ginger ponzu. The ponzu sauce worked really well. The shavings of green and white asparagus didn’t really do that much, even for texture.

Who doesn’t like steamed buns can just leave the room now. We ordered these Manju buns filled with braised pork, scallions and a sweet sour sauce. I made the mistake of trying the buns with the sauce and they were perfect without it. Unnecessarily weird fusion food going on here. I’d order these again and then just leave the sauce.

The Chilean seabass cartoccio arrived wrapped in plastic before the parcel was opened at the table. Many of the components failed to really work well except for the strong flavoured tomato compote that I was scraping against. Can’t really say that soy-butter really does it for me being surprisingly bland and dreary.

My main dish was the Tuna steak. It was a lot smaller than I thought it was going to be (a good thing with all those appetisers) served with a roasted scallion potato puree and picked celery salad. It came with some tempura too FTW. Nicely cooked, delicious fish and plenty of flavours that actually worked well together.

Controlling my urge to order the Japanese Ribs, Gaz did that instead. What arrived was a pretty great sight that I was told tasted pretty good. I’m a bit skeptical to see how much of the red miso BBQ really came through, but they looked pretty darn good.

Overall a pretty great dining experience. I felt you paid a lot more for the atmosphere than necessarily for the food. Being a “western meets Japanese” concept I think they managed to hit the mark with some dishes whilst others definitely need more work on balancing texture and flavour combinations. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Website: http://www.japonaischicago.com/
Found at: 600 W. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Il


Moto is found in the meat packing district of Chicago. Unlike other cities where the meat packing district has now been overrun, this meat packing district is still full of butchers and trucks carrying carcasses and their processed goods to their destinations. It seems to definitely stand out on its own.

Moto is much smaller than I thought it was going to be with room for probably no more than 50 or 60 covers. The greeting area is just as small and there is only one set of toilets available for each gender. Décor is understated with only a curtain hanging from one side of the room and a mirror with wooden panels on the other.

This restaurant is yet another one of those that specialise in using modern cooking techniques, ala Fat Duck and Il Bulli with this chef’s speciality known as creating edible paper creations jam packed with printed flavours. They offer a 20 course tasting menu and a 10 course tasting menu and we were pretty happy with the latter one.


Our first dish was an assortment of small flavours, served complete with the menu printed onto edible paper and then propped up against a thin slice of garlic toast.


I can’t really remember all the little flavours but you can see the toast sitting atop some whipped butter, a poached garlic bulb with some toasted sesame seeds. And I think the black dots were balsamic but can’t really remember what the green sauce was.

The next dish was a trio of dishes made to look like a breakfast, yet cleverly made with savoury flavours. On the left was a shrimp cake, a breakfast “gazpacho” made with, what looked like, tiny scrambled eggs and then the item to the right what looks like an egg is actually a puffed garlic, deliciously light and delicate dotted with a yolk that was made out of corn reduction. The shrimp cake was firm and crisp, the gazpacho packed full of summery tomato flavours.


Our next dish, the “instant risotto” was made out of puffed rice, topped with a roasted piece of flaky piece of fish and made with some English peas and micro grains. They had already poured a soup into it, and we were asked to mix it together until it really became the consistency of risotto.


Here’s the result:


Whilst not working perfectly (I think there was too much soup) we all agreed it was a tasty dish. The puffed grains of rice gave that crisp contrast to the dish, almost giving it the firmness you’d expect from properly cooked arborio rice.

The next dish was a baguette and gruyere cheese whipped together, pasted to the side and then brûléed to give it some additional caramel notes. The spoon sitting on the centre had brown onions that had been cooked on the spoon itself, with an onion broth being poured at the table. On top of all this sat a home made, dehydrated and then puffed onion ring towering magnificently above the entire dish.


Our next dish was the pequin capon (a variant of some sort of chicken). I can’t really remembering the details of what this dish was served with but I do remembering thinking how tasty it all was. One of my fellow diners commented on the excellent plating (which I thought looked like a fish) but him noticing the tiny sliver of celery leaf on the sauce used to offset the entire look.


It also came served with an edible paper in a small plastic bag, brushed the flavour of buffalo chicken wings. It had some great kick to it.


The next dish definitely wowed us all, presented as the cuban pork sandwich and presented as if it were a cuban cigar sitting inside an ashtray. Cleverly made with vine leaves wrapping a cuban pork mixture inside, with a ring of edible paper acting as the cigar paper) and then sitting in a pile of, what looked like, ashes. These ashes, of course, weren’t like any other, made with a combination of black and white sesame seeds and then a cuban spice mixture. Absolutely delicious and something that was definitely memorable.


Our “reuben lasagna” was made with a crisp flake soaked in dill sauce, topped with home made thousand island sauce, and then layered with different items. It was also dished up with some dill pollen which had a surprisingly strong flavour. I can’t remember exactly what was in the middle of this as well.


Our next dish, made to look like an Italian cannoli was yet another sweet looking dish made out of savoury items. The wrapper, a fried tortilla holding a deliciously divine duck mixture, came served served with jalapeno powder and a deep, complex mole sauce.


I’d never had mole sauce before, and if this was anything to go by, I’d definitely order some more again. The jalepeno powder had that delicate, melting in the mouth flavour leaving just enough kick to tell you of its origins.


The happy face was a combination of passionfruit and raspberry sorbets, sitting atop a mint pesto and served with fresh raspberries, a raspberry sauce and coconut ice. Although I thought it would have been too many flavours yet it turned out to work perfectly, making it an excellent palette cleanser and a lovely tropical theme.


This corn cake was steamed and served with some candied corn and a rich brown butter sauce. It was surprisingly light and airy.


Our final trio of desserts was amazing starting with a “bomb”, filled with liquid graham cracker, covered in chocolate, with a sugar “wick” that they actually set on fire.


The next was a mini hamburger, this time sweet acting like savoury with the bread made out of sweet brioche, topped with sesame seeds, the burger patty being a peanut butter mixture, and the cheese (a banana purée), the tomato ketchup (maraschino purée) and the only real thing in there being a real piece of iceberg lettuce. The trio was finished off with a chocolate mousse log (picture not shown), light and delicate but definitely out-wowed by the other two dishes.


It was so impressive that we asked to see if we could have another of the diabetes-inducing yet spectacular bomb. Surprisingly, our waitress said she’d see the kitchen would try and so we ended up with five more sparkling bombs at our table. Yay!


I had a wonderful time dining with my four other guests (Ron, Ajit, Alistair and Tom) experiencing the delicious and complex flavours all presented in an inspiring environment. Whilst not cheap (USD200 including a starting cocktail, a bottle of wine and a large bottle of beer) it was definitely a great experience.

Name: Moto Restuarant
Found at: 945 W Fulton, Chicago, IL, USA
Website: http://www.motorestaurant.com/