In May I officially checked Chicago off of my bucket list! My NicLive PR client, Jesse Roque of Never Blue in Hendersonville, was asked to teach a cooking class at the National Restaurant Association Show, so we packed up the car and hit the road for four days of checking out the newest restaurant toys (everything from plates to kitchen equipment to lighting and chairs), stuffing face on the newest products in the industry, and eating our way around Chicago.
A couple of weeks before our trip, we tried to narrow down our restaurant wish list over lunch. It was tough. With a city full of James Beard Award winners, Michelin Star recipients, and Top Chefs, we sort of let available reservations and luck guide our way.
Our first night’s reservation was at Monteverde. Executive Chef and Owner, Sarah Grueneberg, is known as the “Pasta Queen” of Chicago. I was so pleased to see her expediting and grabbed her during a rare slow moment for a photo.
Grueneberg had me a little star struck. She snagged a coveted James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2017, and was a runner-up on Bravo’s Top Chef: Texas. In April 2017, she competed against fellow Chicago chef Stephanie Izard on Food Network’s Iron Chef Gauntlet. Monteverde was on Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants List, Eater’s list of the 21 Best New Restaurants in America, and was awarded Eater Chicago‘s Restaurant of the Year in 2016.
Grueneberg is the real deal and her food is the shit. Seriously, it made me high. I can only count one or two meals a year that do this to me. It happens when the food is so unbelievably good that you are taken to another place. I spent more time eating than snapping pics, but I did want you to see this giant bowl of deliciousness. I saw it being delivered to a table and had to order those meat balls for myself.
One other cool feature of the restaurant, is a pasta station with a giant mirror overhead so you can watch the chefs make the silky pasta minutes before it finds its way to your plate, and to your belly. Yes, I know I’m gluten free (ish), but when you go to food church, you don’t turn down communion.
Also on our list was Chef Stephanie Izard‘s Girl and Goat. We could only get reservations for a 10:15pm spot, which was going to be pushing it after walking a bazillion miles during the day. We popped into Little Goat instead, which is her diner concept. I ordered the Gluten Free Bahn-Mi burger and we noshed on tempura fried pickles dipped in ranch dressing.
And Stephanie Izard was there. In her restaurant. I was jumping up and down and running up to hug her (in my head). She had a baby in her arms when she passed our table, so I left her alone. But I SAW STEPHANIE IZARD. The next day it was announced that she won Iron Chef.
You cannot go to Chicago without hitting a Rick Bayless establishment. He’s racked up a handful of James Beard Awards for his restaurants and cookbooks, and won Top Chef Masters. Bayless is a Chicago legend with at least a dozen restaurants/projects across the City. He’s also found a way to go above and beyond by establishing the Frontera Farmer Foundation in 2003 to support small Midwestern farms. Each year, grants are awarded to farmers for capital improvements to their family farms, encouraging greater production and profitability. The Foundation has awarded nearly 200 grants totaling nearly $2 million. In 2007, he also launched the Frontera Scholarship, a full tuition scholarship that sends a Mexican-American Chicago Public School student to Kendall College to study culinary arts. No surprise that Bayless was awarded the Humanitarian of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
We made reservations for Bayless’s Frontera Grill, and ordered so many plates that they had to come out in waves. We even ordered four desserts. This dessert was my favorite thing on the menu that night. Rarely do I have a dessert that is so complicated, delicate, flavorful, interesting… that it slows me down and makes me examine and think about every bite. This cheesecake blew me away.
We were ultimately in Chicago for Jesse to participate in the National Restaurant Association Foodamental Studio. She demonstrated an easy pickled date and onion relish, but also talked about pickling fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs and other oddities. It was incredible to see her on stage and her demo was the most well attended class of the day!
The one thing I heard about the National Restaurant Association Show was there would be so much to eat I wouldn’t be able to stand it. About every five feet there were bites to be had. One morning, I started my day with Cheesecake Gelato.
Based on the exhibitors at this year’s show, trending food includes gelato, meat substitutes, and artisan sodas.
I couldn’t stay away from the cheesecake. Or the gluten free products. I hate at least half a dozen gluten free cheese poof biscuit things. I gotta find some of those locally!
I also tried my first Chicago Style hotdog with relish, dill pickle, pepper, mustard and tomato. It was different, that’s for sure. My mom asked me what I did about not having any ketchup. (Giggles.)
Deep dish pizza, y’all. I couldn’t leave Chicago without one piece, right? At Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, you order quick. Like as soon as you sit down. I’m not kidding. Quick. Because it takes 45 minutes to cook your pizza. You’re gonna want a few appetizers if you are hungry. It was definitely some of the cheesiest pizza I’ve ever had and hit the spot after walking our legs off touring the city.
The city streets of Chicago are super easy to navigate with GPS, and there are cabs and Uber drivers everywhere. Our hotel, the Palmer House, was pretty centrally located to shopping, Millennium Park, the Willis (Sears) Tower, and tons of restaurants.
And a Dick Blick art supplies store was right across the street. I was so freaking happy.
I couldn’t wait to get to the top of the Sears Tower (Willis Tower) to step out on the glass. I’m not afraid of heights so it was super cool to walk around the building and see all of Chicago. Get there before it opens so you don’t have to stand in too much of a line.
The Bean at Millennium Park looks like an alien pod meets a giant jelly bean, but it’s beyond cool and a must see. Did you know it’s actually named Cloud Gate? Weird, right? Here are some other things you’ll want to check out in Millennium Park. There are some interesting art installations in the park that are worth checking out too, so walk around a bit.
Trump International Hotel and Tower. Just for kicks and giggles. No, I didn’t go in, but saw it on the way to the Navy Pier, and thought it was worth sharing the view.
A huge thank you to Sysco Foods for their hospitality in Chicago and to Chef Jesse Roque for being a culinary rock star and keeping me on my toes.