Our Top Picks for Chicago Restaurant Week 2019: Avli Taverna

Avli Taverna's Kataifi Prawns (Photo courtesy of Avli Taverna.)

Updated Feb. 6, 2019 

Editor’s Note: Chicago Restaurant Week has been extended through Feb. 12.

Unlike the great hullabaloo of the “Big Four” winter holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Eve), when restaurants full-to-bursting turn away business and reservations at hot new spots (and popular older favorites) are impossible to come by, January stretches out like an endless wasteland. Gone are the office holiday parties with the free-flowing booze, the mega-meals with visiting family and friends. The winter doldrums are officially in charge.

But, wait! For the 12th year in a row, Choose Chicago’s Chicago Restaurant Week is here to make it all better. This year’s edition, which runs from Friday, Jan. 25 to Wednesday, Feb. 6, is the biggest ever, with about 400 restaurants vying for your hard-earned dollars — and a quarter of those are first-time participants. In general, you’ll find prix-fixe lunch and brunch menus throughout the city and suburbs priced at $24, and dinner at $36 or $48 (up from $22, $33, and $44 in prior years), not including beverages, tax, or gratuity.

The super-sized “week” will officially kick off on Thursday, Jan. 24 with the First Bites Bash at the Field Museum with sweet and savory food bites from more than 70 of the participating restaurants. “Top Chef” winner Joe Flamm (Spiaggia, Café Spiaggia) will be your host for the evening, with proceeds going to local nonprofit Pilot Light to help fund food education for Chicago schoolchildren. General Admission tickets are $125 each.

Chicago Restaurant Week 2019: First Bites Bash

First Bites Bash (Photo by Adam Alexander Photography.)

The time to book your Restaurant Week tables is now. ASAP! Grab your calendar, plop down in front of the computer, and start surfing the Choose Chicago site for the full list of this year’s restaurants and menus. Here are some of our top picks for 2019.

Avli Taverna

This hot ticket in Lincoln Park, sister restaurant to the longtime Winnetka favorite Avli, opened in the fall, so obviously a newcomer to Restaurant Week. Owner Louie Alexakis and his team step right up to the plate (see what I did there) with a four-course Greek meal for $36, with at least one vegetarian choice in each. I’m crazy for the Prawn Kataifi, all crunchy shredded filo-coated deliciousness to be dipped in a spicy mayo. And his Moussaka Tselementes, made with eggplant and slowly braised lamb shoulder, is top-notch.

Bar Biscay

Chicago Restaurant Week 2019: Bar Biscay

Bar Biscay’s Gougères (Photo by Galdones Photography.)

West Town got a whole lot tastier when Bar Biscay, the second restaurant from the mind trust behind MFK, opened last year. Chef Johnny Anderes’ inspired Basque cuisine is all that is right with the world. His four-course menu, priced at $48, features some of his greatest hits: Manchego Gougères, Clam & Jamon Fabada (a white bean stew featuring a distinctly non-kosher duo), Sausage-Stuffed Piquillo Peppers with Mornay Sauce, and a Coconut Cake with Pumpkin Purée. That’s plenty of food, of course, but if you’re like me, you can’t help but supplement with the Chorizo Toast with Pickled Egg or the Shortbread with Chicken Liver Mousse and Quince Paste. Both are killer.

Bellemore

Chicago Restaurant Week 2019: Bellemore

Bellemore Interior (Photo by Anthony Tahlier.)

Even after more than a year, Bellemore is still packing them in at this hot ticket in the West Loop. Chef Jimmy Papadopoulos is offering both a three-course lunch for $24 and a four-course dinner for $48. Carrot Toast, Icelandic Cod with Harissa-Charred Eggplant and Pickled Grapes, and the Chocolate Ice Cream with Puffed Rice and Black Sesame would be my lunch rec; for dinner, the Kona Kampachi, impossibly tasty Farro Risotto with Celery Root and Whipped Mascarpone, Green Circle Chicken with Grilled Cabbage and Black Truffle, and the Passion Fruit Parfait with Roasted Pineapple and Caramel get my vote.

Big Jones

I don’t need an excuse to visit chef Paul Fehribach’s seminal Southern gem in Andersonville, but if I did, his Louisiana Mardi Gras Odyssey Restaurant Week menu would certainly do the trick. Three courses (plus delectable Jalapeño-Cheese Cornbread) for $36 is a straight-up bargain. His Gumbo z’Herbes is a revelation, filled with “seven greens for good luck,” heirloom rice, and pickled okra. Crawfish Etouffée and Gumbo Fat-Fried Chicken are two of the entrée offerings, although vegetarians won’t feel like second-class citizens with a big ol’ plate of Sweet Potato and Barley Jambalaya in front of them.

Brindille

Chef Carrie Nahabedian has put together a beautiful three-course menu for $48. Considering that many of the entrées on this James Beard Award-winner’s regular menu hover around that price, this meal is an exceptional value, and the perfect opportunity for you to check it out if you haven’t yet been. Perhaps you’ll be drawn to the umami-packed Woodland Mushroom Soup with Cauliflower Gratin and Triple Crème de Bourgogne, Tarragon, and Rye to start, to be followed by a Classic Grilled French Prime Sirloin “Entrecote” Steak Frites with Garlic Butter, Green Peppercorns, and Madeira, or the wintery preparation of Filet of Great Lakes Whitefish with Glazed Butternut Squash, Savoy Cabbage, and Charred Brussels Sprouts in a pinot-noir based sauce. Finish on a sweet note with Oeufs à la Neige, the “floating islands” of soft meringue, or a selection of Grapefruit and Vanilla Madeleines, Peppermint Bark, and buttery Breton Sables.

Café Robey

Wicker Park’s deco gem has a four-course, $48 dinner for you. Chef Kevin McAllister wants to make sure you can enjoy your meal, whether you are vegetarian, omnivore, or follow a gluten-free diet. That could translate to a Black Pepper Profiterole filled with Sunflower Mousse and Concord Hash; Tuna Tartar with Kiwi, Blood Orange Kosho, and Toasted Nori (available in a vegetarian version); Baked Cod with Black Olive Crust in a Lemongrass Broth; and a rich Avocado White Chocolate Mousse for dessert.

Crosby’s Kitchen

Chicago Restaurant Week 2019: Crosby's Kitchen

Crosby’s Kitchen’s Lobster Deviled Eggs (Photo courtesy of Crosby’s Kitchen.)

If you’re looking for a family-friendly spot for Restaurant Week, this Lakeview comfort food restaurant could be just the ticket. The price is certainly right with a three-course lunch for $24 and four-course dinner at $36. Appealing choices include Lobster Deviled Eggs, Pike Place BBQ Salmon with garlic-ginger-soy glaze, Homemade Rigatoni with Braised Beef Ragu and Herbed Ricotta, and their classic Carrot Cake or a Cookie Ice Cream Sandwich (stuffed with vanilla ice cream and soft caramel). Definitely in the comfort zone.

Demera Ethiopian Kitchen

Not sure why it took me so long to make it to this Uptown stalwart, but I know I’ll be heading back soon. Since Ethiopian cuisine is best enjoyed communally, it’s not a surprise that they are offering a three-course lunch for two at $24, or a three-course dinner for two for $48. Eat like a king, but get ready to use your fingers with the soft and spongy injera bread, meant to be torn off and used as the method of transportation for the spice-redolent stews, like the Vegetarian Shiro made of spicy mixed legumes with garlic and ginger, or the Siga Wot, tender cubed beef cooked in the deeply flavored berbere sauce.

Dos Urban Cantina

Chicago Restaurant Week 2019: Brian Enyart and Jennifer Jones Enyart, Dos Urban Cantina

Brian Enyart and Jennifer Jones Enyart (Photo by Todd Rosenberg.)

Talk about #relationshipgoals! Chef Brian Enyart and pastry chef Jennifer Jones Enyart are partners in life as well as business. I’m loving their special menu for Restaurant Week, which showcases their modern take on Mexican cuisine. The three-course dinner, priced at $36, has three options in each course, with some love shown to the meat- and gluten-free diner. I’m all about their Salmon Tartar with cranberry-arbol aguachile, avocado, and cucumber as a starter, and the killer Cochinita Pibil (Yucatan-style roast pork with pickled daikon radish and savory rice cakes) for the main. But how do you choose between Jennifer’s stunning Chocolate Cake, Coconut Tres Leches, or a Mint-Chocolate Chip Sundae (with toasted marshmallow and cocoa nibs, no less)? My best recommendation is to go with two other people who love to share and order one of everything.

Ella Elli

Chicago Restaurant Week 2019: Ella Elli

Ella Elli’s Avocado Toast (Photo by Galdones Photography.)

Another hidden gem, this one in Lakeview of all places! An inventive, globally inspired two-course brunch menu ($24) and a four-course dinner ($48) are on offer this week. I’m Avocado Toast with Slow-Poached Egg and Everything Seasoning all the way as a starter at either meal. The pillowy Ricotta Gnocchi with Truffle and Roasted Mushrooms are a wintertime delight, as is the Lamb Scottadito with Herbed Yogurt and Harissa. Vanilla Panna Cotta with mixed berries and Marcona almonds makes for the perfect coda.

Le Sud

Oh, my. Chef Ryan Brousseau is going all-out at this new Roscoe Village place, even culturing house-made butter to gild his crusty homemade baguettes. The three-course dinner offering, priced at $36, includes a vegetable course (the deeply Roasted Carrots with Sunflower Seeds and Citrus would be my pick), a protein-forward entrée (the Pan-Roasted Steak Frites and aioli or the Duck Breast with Lavender-Honey Glaze, Beluga Lentils, and Pickled and Roasted Fennel were both a quick trip to the South of France), and what French meal is complete without dessert? The Basque Cake with Crème Chantilly is a standout, but who would quibble with Chocolate & Orange Mousse or house-made ice cream? Pas moi, certainement!

Mordecai

In the House the Cubs Built (aka Wrigleyville’s Hotel Zachary) lies this duplex restaurant/cocktail bar. Chef Matthias Merges (a co-founder of Pilot Light, the beneficiary of the First Bites Bash proceeds) offers a three-course dinner for $36. Start with a classic Wedge Salad or Roasted Cauliflower Soup, then move onto Seared Skate Wing with Paprika Aioli, Brown Ale-Glazed Pork Country Ribs with Braised Greens and Popcorn Grits, or a vegetarian Portobello Bolognese Rigatoni. Dessert can go one of two ways: the obvious choice, a rich Butterscotch Pudding, or the wildcard — a 1.5-ounce pour of “very old Barton [Whisky] bottled in bond.” Choices, choices.

Naoki

Chicago Restaurant Week 2019: Naoki

Photo courtesy of Naoki.

The entrance to Lincoln Park’s hidden sushi treasure — for a Lettuce restaurant, it’s downright understated — can be found in the back recesses of the Belden-Stratford’s lobby. But don’t let that fool you. Chef Naoki is a master of flavor and texture; the fish is pristinely fresh always. So their five-dish-plus-a-cocktail dinner is a real find at $48. Start with the Yoshimi, a sake-lychee-yuzu cocktail mashup. First up food-wise are “tuna tacos,” a well-seasoned tartare in a wonton shell, joined by spicy aioli and shredded cabbage. The good news keeps coming: Salmon Sashimi Naoki-Style, assorted maki and nigiri, Udon Noodles with Shrimp Tempura, and then a refreshing sorbet. If you feel like supplementing, might I suggest the Edamame “Guacamole” with rice crisps? Yum.

Napolita

Chicago Restaurant Week 2019: Napolita

Photo courtesy of Napolita.

Up in Wilmette, this neighborhood Italian joint is serving up special Restaurant Week menus for brunch and lunch (three courses for $24) and dinner (three courses for $36; four courses for $48). Their Arancini di Rosso — fried risotto balls stuffed with braised beef, peas, and cheese — makes a satisfying starter, to be followed by one of the Neapolitan Pizzas (I’m partial to the red-sauced Salumi Picante and the über-rich Carbonara complete with egg) and a scoop of rich and creamy gelato. It’s the trifecta of cholesterol and you will love every last bite.

Oceanique

Chicago Restaurant Week 2019: Oceanique

Oceanique’s Nut Tart (Photo by Renee Andre.)

Still one of the very best seafood restaurants in Chicagoland! Evanston couldn’t be prouder of chef/owner Mark Grosz’ French-accented spot. Your $48 will score you a three-course meal, augmented by a starting amuse bouche and a refreshing mid-meal sorbet. Starters range from a Butternut Squash Ravioli with Prosciutto and Crispy Sage to Grilled Calamari and Shrimp with Guacamole and Watermelon Radish. For entrées, Organic Norwegian Fjord Ocean Trout pairs with Elotes and Butternut Squash; Wild Delaware Skate goes with lovely winter veggies (fennel, broccolini, cauliflower) in a port-based sauce. Dessert is from a selection of fabulous pastries — perhaps a Napoleon, or the Warm Three-Nut Tart.

Saigon Sisters

The sisters in question, co-owners Mary Nguyen Aregoni and Theresa Nguyen, are offering a three-course dinner menu for $36, with an optional wine pairing for $22, at their West Loop location. I crave a bowl of their Phò Dumplings Soup, each plump little pillow stuffed with Wagyu beef and Thai basil. Entrees include Thit Heo Kho (braised pork in coconut-caramel sauce); Bo Luc Lac (beef tenderloin cubes in oyster sauce with broken rice and arugula salad); Vegetarian Curry Noodles with Fried Tofu; and a stunning Branzino dish with shrimp paste sauce. Coffee Caramel Flan is a lighter choice than the Bread Pudding, but both are calorie-worthy.

Split-Rail

Chicago Restaurant Week 2019: Split-Rail

Split-Rail Interior (Photo courtesy of Split-Rail.)

Although chef/owner Zoe Schor is now largely focusing on her kick-ass fried chicken at this West Town restaurant, she’s getting back to her roots for Restaurant Week with two special four-course menus ($48 each) inspired by the “Queer Eye” Fab Five, complete with favorite quotations. You can opt for the “Antoni,” which starts with “More Than Just Guac…” followed by Poke Inspired-Crudo with spicy mayo and more avocado. Roasted Pork Loin with Whiskey-Caramelized Onions and Honey Mustard is the main attraction, and there’s yet more alligator pear in the Avocado-Chocolate Mousse for dessert. You can also go with “The Other Guys” and chow down on a Bean and Cheese Empanada, Shaved Veggie Salad, Wild Boar Bolognese, and “It’s a French Tuck” for a sweet finale. I do love me some Fab Five.

 

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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

 

 

 

 

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