“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” ― Mary Oliver
Last weekend my mom, sister, and I embarked on our first trip together in years. Between our busy schedules, my sister and me having babies alternating years, and our own separate travel schedules, we let the planning fall to the wayside. But this year, I starting plotting in February and made it happen! We planned to relax and spend time together, eat at some new places, and shop. I’ll save the shopping notes for another day, because there is plenty to write about on the food first!
We arrived just in time to settle into the Hotel Palomar before dinner. The location (just off Michigan Avenue near the Nordstrom), rooms, and service were great, especially for the price (I do love those Kimpton hotels)! After freshening up we headed out to dinner at the much acclaimed balena. The setting was a cavernous, almost industrial loft with 30-foot ceilings and beautiful sphere lights hanging from wooden rafters. The restaurant is known for its inspired Italian.
We started with a super yummy burrata – a fresh mozzarella cheese with a luscious, slightly runny inside, to scoop up with our little toast points. And a flavorful cured ham plate, somewhat like speck and prosciutto.
For my main I had the char, which was a tiny whole fish, thankfully de-boned and open. For sides we had baked polenta and the charred raddichio. The first courses were perfection, if not truly “inspired”, as both have become somewhat common at rustic Italian spots. My entree was delicious, but on the small side which I think the server would’ve mentioned (along with the fact that it would be served whole, also not made clear on the menu). The only real miss was the radicchio, it wasn’t charred enough or seasoned enough to lose the bitter crunch, so none of us liked it too much. Overall, a good meal, but I think I would’ve been more impressed by it had I not read all the hype, because I think I’ve been spoiled by eating at too many other excellent restaurants in that town to be impressed by balena.
The real find was the brunch the following day at Rick Bayless’ XOCO. The quaint little spot is little sister to Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, both outstanding landmark restaurants in Chicago. XOCO is a quick-serve small corner shop specializing in Mexican street food like empanadas, churros, and tortas. For brunch we had freshly made churros, decadently rich Aztec hot chocolate, and a mean huevos rancheros.
Everything tasted amazing. Like my sister, I think this spot’s now on my must-do brunch list for Chicago. A short list that also includes Balsan in the Waldorf (had brunch there on my last visit), Deleece on Southport, and The Bongo Room, especially for those who have a morning sweet tooth.
For dinner on night two, we went to Michelin-starred Boka in Lincoln Park.
We all three actually wanted the same entree — rarely happens, but when it’s halibut, well, who could blame us — especially with all the eating we’d been doing, I think the “lighter” option sounded appealing. It was excellent, seasoned and cooked perfectly, accompanied by these amazing little bundles of asparagus wrapped in a crispy skin of some kind. A fitting spring meal, despite the barely spring temps both in Chicago and back home in Minneapolis.
But the Pavlova for dessert might have been my favorite! A fitting choice since my sister is the one who first introduced me to the Australian specialty years ago when I visited while she was living in Sydney. This Pavlova was deconstructed, with three little meringues amidst a rhubarb and St. Germain consomme, elderflower yogurt, and gelee pearls. The whole thing was such a balance of sweet, tart, crunchy and creamy – not to mention light and refreshing. The perfect end to a great meal. Definitely comparable in my mind to other Michelin 1-star restaurants like Blackbird and moto.
If you can even believe it, we were still able to eat the next morning. So off we went for our final meal in Chicago: brunch at Perennial Virant in Lincoln Park. Though my food wasn’t that photogenic, it was, more importantly – hearty and tasty! I had a great spicy bloody mary, followed by a homemade fresh pistachio with lemon curd doughnut, and then biscuits and gravy. I am a sucker for biscuits and gravy, and though I’ve suffered a lot of bad ones (that I ordered in hopes of the fluffy, creamy, savory delight) I’m happy to say these were not one of those. They were exactly as they should be. And our trip was exactly as I’d hoped too — a great time to connect and have long talks (over lots, and lots, of food).