Often called “the real taste of Chicago” or the “taste of Chicago for rich foodies,” I never thought it was possible to be overwhelmed by food until I experienced Chicago Gourmet. A CG virgin, I did not plan to be tasting 120+ dishes in two days, but being from some of the best chefs in the world, you’d kick yourself for missing any one of these little morsels. All in all, if you braved the cold (winter, you’ve wasted no time rearing your ugly head), long lines and overwhelming alcohol supply, it was a memorable time for sure. Due to the addition of Bon Appétit as partner, the third annual foodie fest in downtown Chicago was the biggest yet and completely sold out with attendance up 25% from last year and tickets desperately being hocked on craigslist for $300+.
Mayor Daley opened the event praising Chicago for being named the 5th best food and wine city in the world, ahead of San Francisco and New York City and emphasized how important the culinary landscape is to our tourism. Seeing Ted Allen (Chopped), Cat Cora (Iron Chef), and Barbara Fairchild (Bon Appétit) just hanging out, mingling, eating and drinking really makes this event feel intimate and that only the most elite foodies get to be in the presence of such greatness.
Local celeb chef Rick Bayless opened the seminar series with a luxury guacamole and mojito bar, leaving the crowd with my personal favorite cooking tip: the more rum the better. Probably one of the most exciting announcements of the weekend was the soon to be release of the Chicago Michelin Guide, finally putting us on the map as a destination worth discovering.
I thought sampling a little bit of everyones dishes would give me a good sense of which restaurants to run back to, but it quickly became clear that cooking for thousands leaves lots of veterans with just average sample portions, making the standouts that much better. Oh, and if you wanted to have any chance of fighting the crowds to try everything, the alcohol was a temptation worth skipping, except to make the waiting more tolerable.
Here’s my personal best of:
Coq Au Vin that literally melted off the bone from The Chopping Block.
Urban Belly/Belly Shack’s spicy chicken skewer over yellow rice. Also fell off the bone delicious.
Mercadito’s Spicy Pork Taco had just the right heat and soft shell that they oh so kindly brought out to us in the line. Gotta give props to a chef that does the dirty work too.
Piccolo Sogno’s butternut squash ravioli. Great fall flavor combos.
Firefly Grill (Effingham, IL- If you know where that is, you get a cookie), who served Bacon-Blue Profiteroles on custom Chopping Blocks made from the same vendor that supplies Iron Chef. A new addition to the traditionally urban-centric line-up, it was really the lesser known suburban spots that put their all into the festival and impressed me this weekend.
Notable mention to Japonais for their beef skewer with eyedroppers of au jus.
If you didn’t make it to the specialty foods pavilion, you seriously missed out on some great national gems. 240 Sweet’s (Columbus, IN) artisan marshmallows in interesting flavors like avocado and lime and Thai chili. I wasn’t that adventurous, but their salted caramel was damn good. Also, The Sticky Toffee Pudding Company (from the UK) created delicious cake-based dessert with dates and hot buttery toffee sauce pre-packed for easy microwave servings. The gourmet Betty Crocker upgrade.
Dirk’s Fish Market– Laughing Bird shrimp with Thai coconut sauce and rice. Hearty and warm (which was appreciated given the weather).
Surprisingly, Japonais. Seeing as I eat their fairly regularly, they really stepped it up to show off their artistic plating of some type of blueberry gelatinous goodness.
Also, Labriola Bakery and Cafe’s (Oakbrook, IL) gelato far surpassed Black Dog’s version-sorry Jessica.
Though this one could be arguably everywhere, Gibson’s (for obvious reasons), NoMI’s Bacon Ice Cream (possibly because chef Ryan LaRoche took home the Hamburger Hop honors the night before with his wagyu burger with smoked-tomato aioli on a ciabatta bun), L20’s Tamarind Shrimp and oddly enough, Dominick’s for the cheese spread and Stella Artois (apparently beer was hard to come by with the surplus of wine and liquor).
Not so Haute:
Lao Szechuan– I am not one for heat normally, but I couldn’t even swallow the dried chili chicken it was so spicy.
Balsan– recently opened in the Elysian, their stuffed pig trotter (foot) with apple celery root, pistachios, and sauce gribiche had a texture that was just a bit too experimental for my liking.