13 Must-Eat Dishes at Top Chicago Restaurants: Honey Butter Fried Chicken

Honey Butter Fried Chicken's Fried Chicken Nachos (Photo by Tim Musho.)

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I eat out a fair amount — especially if you follow me on Instagram (@juliechernoff), where I’m dropping food porn on the daily. The pursuit of everything delicious is my chosen profession, after all. A sacrifice must be made, and every pound I gain (and there have been a few this year) is in service to you, our readers. Here are some particularly tasty dishes (and a cocktail or two!) that I’ve enjoyed in the past few months, at restaurants you should definitely check out, some new, some tried and true. Many of these offer private dining spaces and the possibility of buying out the whole restaurant when you really need to make a splash.

Arun’s Thai Restaurant — Summer 75 Cocktail

Chicago Restaurants: Arun’s Thai Restaurant's Summer 75 Cocktail

Photo by Julie Chernoff.

After more than 30 years in the restaurant business, Chef/Owner Arun Sampanthavivat was thinking retirement … but instead brought in a new partner and decided to renovate. The food and its presentation are still every bit as remarkable, but now the quality of the cocktails matches the cuisine. New partner and director Paul Schermerhorn has stepped the game up considerably with drinks like my new favorite Summer 75 ($17), a play on the classic French 75. Bombay “Sapphire East” gin, ruby red grapefruit juice, house-made spiced Thai syrup, Gingerade kombucha and sparkling rosé, garnished with a Pama float, lemon peel and Thai basil, combine for a refreshing and well-balanced tipple. 4156 N. Kedzie St., Chicago, 773-539-1909

Bad Hunter — Rye Gnocchetti

Chicago restaurants: Bad Hunter's Rye Gnocchetti

Photo by Julie Chernoff.

Sun-filled Randolph Street storefront by day, beguiling by night, Bad Hunter is one of my new favorites on Chicago’s Restaurant Row. Chef Dan Snowden favors a veggie-centric menu (thus the restaurant’s playful moniker) and yet if you want some crispy bacon on your veggie burger, all you have to do is ask. The pillowy Rye Gnocchetti ($16), available at both dinner and brunch, sauced with wood ear mushrooms, Thai basil pesto, Brazil nuts and English peas, is a party in your mouth that you never want to end. The dish is herbaceous, substantive and, when topped with a runny poached egg at brunch, perfection. 802 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-265-1745

Clever Rabbit — “Crudité” and Carrot Margarita

Chicago restaurants: Clever Rabbit's Crudite

Photo by Julie Chernoff.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the shock and awe of the enormous, must-share Crudité Platter ($38), although the price provides a hint at its substance. The veggies are both raw and pickled, sliced and whole, arranged artfully around the exceptional cognac-touched, smoked mushroom mousse, with a sweet and sour eggplant relish (agrodolce), Bijou goat cheese and hemp seed naan, made in-house. You’ll want to recreate it at your next party! Order a Carrot Margarita ($12), its bright orange hue testament to the fresh carrot juice combined with Piedra Azul reposado, spicy anchor Reyes verde, agave, and lime, with sage-leaf bunny ears for good measure. What’s up, Doc? 2015 W. Division, Chicago, 773-697-8711

Dusek’s — Sourdough Pretzel Epi

Chicago restaurants: Dusek's Sourdough Pretzel Epi

Photo by Julie Chernoff.

You’re psyched because you’ve got tickets to see one of your favorite bands play at Thalia Hall, but you should be really pumped to eat at Dusek’s before the show … and order this top-selling snack, fresh out of the wood-burning oven in the dining room’s open kitchen area. Because not only is the Sourdough Pretzel Epi ($7) shaped in the classic epi form, resembling a stalk of wheat, but it also comes with soft house-made butter and pickled mustard and a fluffy pile of finely grated Parmesan cheese on top, which takes the decadence meter to 10, just where I like it. 1227 W. 18th St., Chicago, 312-526-3851

GT Prime — Mortadella Arancini

Chicago restaurants: GT Prime Mortadella Arancini

Photo by Christine Domino.

This gorgeous “meat-centric” offering from Giuseppe Tentori and his partners at the Boka Restaurant Group is the future of steakhouses. Yes, there is steak, and it’s terrific — but instead of enormous slabs of beef paraded about, they offer sliced, medium rare meats (beef, bison, venison and lamb) in four- and eight-ounce portions (plus a really great burger). Sharable cold and hot plates allow still more room for creativity, and the Mortadella Arancini ($12) should be front and center on your table. These fried risotto balls are crispy-crusted wonders, filled with nubbins of mortadella, set atop pools of mozzarella sauce and sprinkled with crushed toasted pistachios and an aged balsamic glaze and balsamic pearls. On second thought, you may not want to share. 707 N. Wells St., Chicago, 312-600-6305

Honey Butter Fried Chicken — Fried Chicken Nachos

Chicago restaurants: Honey Butter Fried Chicken's Fried Chicken Nachos

Photo by Tim Musho.

Be still, my stomach. Fried chicken is coming your way. Next time you head to co-chef/owners Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp’s poultry Valhalla, make it a Thursday, because that’s the only day you can get their special Fried Chicken Nachos ($10). A bowl of house-made fresh tortilla chips are topped with pimento cheese and chunks of their amazing fried chicken (brined, so it’s juicy, and with a good kick from a well-seasoned dredge), corn pico de gallo, a drizzle of lime crema, and some candied jalapeños for good measure. Oh, my. 3361 N. Elston Ave., Chicago, 773-478-4000

Margeaux Brasserie — Grande Shellfish Tower

Chicago restaurants: Margeaux Brasserie's Grande Shellfish Tower

Photo by Huge Galdones.

Oo la la! The Waldorf’s chic new bôite — just steps away from Michigan Avenue — provides James Beard Award-winning super chef Michael Mina with his first Chicago toehold on the way to national domination. Although the allure of first-rate people watching is reason enough to stop in, the food here is lovely, starting with the massive Shellfish Tower ($165) that serves four to six crustacean fans (a Petite version is available for $75). But really, anything off the pristinely fresh raw bar will be a definite crowd pleaser, from oysters to crudo. Pair with a bottle of Sancerre and you will be on your way to foodie bliss. 11 E. Walton, Chicago, 312-625-1324

NaKorn — Fresh Mango and Coconut-Sweet Rice

NaKorn: Fresh Mango and Coconut-Sweet Rice

Photo courtesy of NaKorn.

There’s a lot of delectable happening at my new favorite North Shore restaurant. Childhood friends and Bangkok natives Sam Rattanopas and Mina Sudsaard co-own this metropolitan hotspot, and from the Crabcake Bites to the Grilled Skirt Steak with Green Chili Curry, they are hitting it out of the park with their take on modern Thai food. But nothing satisfies at the end of a meal like their Fresh Mango and Coconut-Sweet Rice ($10), accented with mango crème and fresh vanilla bean ice cream, drizzled with salted coconut sauce and topped with a crispy French tuile. Every one of your taste buds will thank you. 1622 Orrington Ave., Evanston, 847-733-8424 

Steak 48 — Chef Brian’s Au Gratin Potatoes

Chicago restaurants: Steak 48's Chef Brian’s Au Gratin Potatoes

Photo courtesy of Steak 48.

Another steak restaurant in River North? Yes, and it’s a keeper. Brought to you by the scions of the Mastro family (they sold the Mastro’s Steakhouse empire years ago), the Chicago iteration of Steak 48 was built from the ground up and it’s a stunner. These bathrooms are definitely going on my long-planned tour of “Where to GO in Chicago”… but I digress. The main event — those prime, wet-aged steaks — is delivered with fanfare, served (in a lawsuit waiting to happen) on plates heated to 500 degrees. But, as the menu clearly states, “Sides Matter,” and the one that matters most is Chef Brian’s Au Gratin Potatoes ($14). Holy cow, as it were. The potatoes are tossed with caramelized onions and there are both gouda and mozzarella cheeses mixed throughout and encrusted on top. This is potato nirvana, truly. 615 N. Wabash Ave., Chicago, 312-266-4848

Table, Donkey and Stick — House-Made Charcuterie

Chicago restaurants: Table, Donkey and Stick's House-Made Charcuterie

Photo by Julie Chernoff.

Stepping into Logan Square’s Table, Donkey and Stick is like walking in to a Tyrolean way station in the Alps; you immediately feel comforted and welcomed, as well as a deep-rooted need that your thirst be quenched forthwith, preferably with a fine Bavarian beer. Happily, you’ve come to the right place for an Alpine adventure, which includes sampling the House-Made Charcuterie ($8 – $13), each with its own bespoke garnish. The Duck Liver Mousse, served with house-made fruit preserves, a dusting of chili powder and some fresh oregano leaves, is an absolute must. Don’t miss the excellent salumi, and grab an Alpine-style cheese as well. When you order two or more charcuterie items, you get your choice of freshly baked house baguette or sunflower oat bread, but aim for both. This sticks to your ribs in all the best ways. 2728 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, 773-486-8525

Temporis — 10-Course Prix Fixe

Chicago restaurants: Temporis' rabbit composition

Temporis’ Rabbit Composition (Photo by Julie Chernoff.)

So much about this dining gem is unexpected, from the subtly changing lighting in the tiny 20-seat dining room, to the evolving 8- to 10-course Prix Fixe Menu ($125) that takes the term “farm to table” to a new level, thanks to a surprise table element. The location on a slow stretch of Ashland in the Noble Square neighborhood throws another curveball at your expectations. Co-chefs Sam Plotnick and Don Young, who came up in the kitchens of Les Nomades, are wise beyond their years. The cuisine and its presentation are both spectacular; I can still taste the memory of the composed rabbit dish that included a rabbit rack, loin and leg confit combined with pickled and foamed carrot elements (of course), bitter mustard greens and toothsome cranberry beans. These are two chefs to watch. 933 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago, 773-697-4961

Ten Mile House — Crispy Grilled Cheese

Chicago restaurants: Ten Mile House's Crispy Grilled Cheese

Photo by George Pfoertner.

How do I love this Crispy Grilled Cheese ($10)? Let me count the ways: I can’t stop thinking about it; I’ve been inspired to attempt a recreation at home; and, of course, CHEESE. I’d put this sandwich up against any contender. Four, count ‘em, four melty cheeses combine forces for this beauty. Sandwiched between two slices of hearty country bread, you’ve got white cheddar, mozzarella and provolone, plus the option to add mushrooms or roasted tomatoes ($1.50 each), bacon ($2), and house-smoked meat, i.e. pork or brisket ($4). But it’s the gruyere crust on the outside that takes it over the top and into your dreams. 1700 Central St., Evanston, 847-905-0669

Tortoise Supper Club — Halibut with Spring Vegetables and Mushroom Jus

Chicago restaurants: Tortoise Supper Club's Halibut with Spring Vegetables and Mushroom Jus

Photo by Julie Chernoff.

A great pre-theatre option, the Tortoise Supper Club is just a stone’s throw across the river from the Goodman and other Loop theaters … and they will comp your valet! The service staff is stacked with pros who know how to get you in and out so you don’t miss the curtain. This past spring, I had a beautifully sautéed halibut dish served over sautéed wild mushrooms and spring greens in a pool of mushroom jus, garnished just so with fresh pea shoots. Although that’s no longer on the menu, the Chilean Sea Bass ($47.95) preparation with sautéed watercress and ginger, coconut rice and a deeply flavored shrimp ragout, is a more-than satisfying stand-in. 350 N. State St., Chicago, 312-755-1700

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Julie-Chernoff

Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz ScaggsRick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck(not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.