Charlie Trotter's iconic restaurant closed in 2012, but the chef's legacy extends all across Chicago, with new restaurants opened by alums of his kitchen. Grant Achatz, Matthias Merges, Bill Kim and others all opened restaurants that make a huge impact on Chicago's dining scene, while carrying on Trotter's legacy.
Gourmet magazine anointed Alinea the No. 1 restaurant in the country. What’s all the fuss? Chef/mastermind Grant Achatz serves food the likes of which you’ve never seen. Sit back and enjoy the show, a well-orchestrated ride that plays with textures, temperatures and notions of “normal” cuisine, while somehow remaining grounded in season, flavor and flawless execution. Past menu stunners have included the black truffle explosion with romaine and parmesan, and the hot potato, cold potato served with black truffle and butter. But you never know what dish will steal the show when you’re in the audience.
Matthias Merges (Yusho, Billy Sunday) expanded beyond Logan Square and opened A10, helmed by Billy Sunday chef John Vermiglio. The cuisine melds Italian and French ingredients and influences, and it's inspired by Merges' travels in the region. If the perfect pastas, inventive desserts and great cocktails are any indication, Merges must be an ideal travel companion.
Bill Kim's Korean barbecue spot is a delicious mix of traditional dishes and contemporary techniques. There are grill tables to cook up your own Korean barbecue, or order off the a la carte menu—Thai-style fried chicken is habit-forming, not just for its crunchy fry but for the supremely juicy and flavorful meat that’s tucked inside the triple-battered exterior, and the soft serve ice cream is a must-order dessert.
The Asian-Latino street food restaurant from Bill Kim can be hit or miss, but there's no denying there are some gems on the menu. The Belly Dog, a hot dog with egg noodles, pickled green papaya and togarashi-spiced fries is a standby, and if you leave without the Vietnamese cinnamon caramel soft serve, you're missing out.
Who would have guessed longtime Trotter's chef Matthias Merges would find his calling checking IDs at the door of a Logan Square bar? Granted, his is not just any bar: Here, barkeep Alex Bachman combines his penchant for unusual ingredients (a syrup made from maidenhair ferns, say) with an uncanny sense of balance, turning out creations that both pay homage to and defy tradition—often simultaneously. Though Billy Sunday is squarely a bar, the food is a worthy companion to the drinks: Don't miss the banana pudding.
Curtis Duffy is no stranger to fine dining, and this lush eatery (which Duffy owns with sommelier Michael Muser) traffics in a lot of upscale tropes: textured fabrics, a hushed room and long, multicourse tasting menus. Yet Grace makes a few subtle tweaks to the fine-dining formula. However fussy the food may be, it is plated to appear as if it came from nature. And though much of it leans sweet, it’s ultimately balanced and clean. Still, perhaps the biggest achievement is that even with three dessert courses (by pastry chef-to-watch Bobby Schaffer), you don’t feel stuffed when you walk out of here. You simply feel satisfied.
Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz—the restaurateurs behind Girl & the Goat—created GT Fish at least in part to raise the profile of chef Giuseppe Tentori. Whether that will happen is unclear (the Trotter alum doesn’t have the TV presence of, say, Stephanie Izard), but one thing is for sure: The food coming out from GT would make any cook a star. Sunfish ceviche sparkles with acidity but is never drowned by it, barbecued eel is geniusly paired with a potato-and-octopus salad, and pastas (squid-ink gnocchi; tortellini with crawfish) are nothing short of masterful. Yes, the desserts here are a major fail. And yet as a whole, the place remains a huge success.
Mindy Segal rehabbed her Bucktown restaurant in the spring of 2012, making it sunnier and adding a huge garage door that opens to let in warm weather. Segal—first and foremost a pastry chef—also rehabbed her approach to desserts: Now, the pastry menu consists of a seasonal cake, pudding, pie, etc., and the dessert menu changes weekly. On the savory side, little has changed. The pretzel, the burger, the mac and cheese—breathe easy, it’s all still there.
Chef Homaro Cantu has become known through the TV show Future Food for wacky-sounding ideas like ending world hunger with edible paper. But what’s going on in the mad scientist’s restaurant? It’s anybody’s guess what the night’s tasting menu holds, but past trickery included a play on egg-drop soup in which frozen egg- and microgreen-pellets were dropped tableside into steaming soup, and triple-seared beef was paired with “caramelaserized wine.” And yes, a laser was involved in a wine pairing.
To dine at Grant Achatz’s follow-up to Alinea is a rare—and rarefied—opportunity to submit oneself to a very specific vision of what great dining might look like. That vision changes every three months, from French food to Italian food to modern plates that don’t even look like food. Usually the experience is more lighthearted and lively than Alinea. But it is in no way less delicious.