Weighing In on Chicago Dining

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is one of my favorite places to gain weight.

For years, I have visited the birthplace of my mother and happily put on pounds. Slabs of juicy Midwestern steak at Morton's of Chicago and Gene & Georgetti. Pies at Pizzeria Uno so layered with sausage and mozzarella that my dad once bet my petite Auntie Mary a dollar she couldn't finish one slice. (She did.) Soggy, spicy Italian beef sandwiches at Mr. Beef. Gold Coast hot dogs so good and snappy I once had three and didn't feel guilty.

But now, at 46, the guilt and the pounds don't slide off as easily as they once did. So when I went back to Chicago for the first time in four years this spring, I decided to eat differently. Considering the city's dining scene, it was not hard to do.

In the last several years, many new Chicago restaurants have begun to offer more refined, even delicate dining options. Tasting menus with several small courses. An emphasis on the freshness and quality of vegetables and fruits. Sushi at a dozen new places.

Before leaving Los Angeles I tipped in at 182 pounds. My goal was to thoroughly enjoy myself but weigh the same when I returned in four days.

On a Thursday afternoon, my girlfriend, Lisa, and I checked into the recently remodeled Allerton Crowne Plaza, a landmark 1924 hotel on Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile. Its location is ideal, a short walk to many city landmarks. From the red brick hotel, we walked to all the restaurants mentioned here, which would be almost unheard of in Los Angeles.

After relaxing for an hour or so in our pretty but small room, we took to the streets.

Topolobampo

For years I had heard that Topolobampo (named after a town in Sinaloa) is considered America's greatest Mexican restaurant. The chef-owner, Rick Bayless, has made countless trips south of the border researching, eating and tweaking regional dishes from throughout Mexico.

Our expectations at dinner that first night were high, and Topolobampo lived up.

Shortly after we were seated in the warm and festive room, its walls adorned with oil paintings by Mexican artists, our waiter brought a bowl of guacamole with slices of cucumber and jicama for dipping. That was followed by crisp little corn masa cups filled with shredded pork and the Mexican cheese queso fresco, accompanied by grilled orange slices.

Soup is a must here. The sopa Azteca, always available, was a bottomless pit of flavor: a dark broth flavored with pasilla chile, strips of chicken breast, avocado, cheese, thick cream and strips of tortilla chips.

For the main course there was a dazzling trout roasted and served in a cornhusk with a tomatillo sauce. The moist fish was stuffed with fennel, mushrooms and corn. Our other pick was leg of lamb seasoned with spices, mild chiles and wild mushrooms.

A pleasant, knowledgeable wine steward selected a glass to go with each dish.

I've never had a finer Mexican meal. (I made the mistake of telling that to my cousin's wife, Lorenza, who is Mexican, and she hasn't spoken to me since.)

Make a reservation at least two weeks in advance--it's that popular.

Bin 36

The next morning we took a stroll, one of many that weekend down Michigan Avenue, one of the nation's best streets. The mix of elegant hotels, old and new architecture, luxury stores and old churches is a walker's, shopper's and browser's delight. In the four days we were there, in the 10 times we walked the avenue, we must have looked at more than 250,000 pairs of women's shoes.

After working up an appetite and thirst, we headed toward the Chicago River and into Bin 36, next to the House of Blues Hotel on Dearborn Street.

If you enjoy trying moderately priced wines, Bin 36 is for you. This high-ceilinged, modern restaurant and wine shop offers 10 flights--samplings of four similar wines--for about $16. There's the white Italian flight, the white Rhone flight, a tasting of Merlots and so on. A brief description of each wine comes with the flights, along with a pad and pencil to make notes.

I had a deep and crowded bowl of mussels (I counted 24) steamed with white wine, garlic and tomatoes. Lisa had a rich pumpkin soup finished off with cream and chives. We split a very tasty, thick tuna burger and a red pepper and goat cheese sandwich on focaccia.

The red Rhone flight included wines made from syrah, mouverde and grenache grapes. (That may not be the best match with mussels and tuna, but it tasted good.)

We got back on Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile and walked until we came to the Water Tower, the graceful stone building that survived the great Chicago fire of 1871. On display inside was a photo exhibition of Chicago hot dog stands. It made me crave a Gold Coast dog. But I held off.

Blackbird

That night, dinner was at Blackbird, a West Loop spot recommended by a good friend whose food judgment is beyond reproach.

But Blackbird is not for everyone. As we walked in, it seemed the diners in the stark storefront room turned and stared. The place was so narrow that, as we were led to a table, we practically brushed against other people's plates. The noise level was the highest in Chicago since Michael Jordan sank his final jumper to win the 1998 world championship.

The young clientele was dressed casually. Lisa, wearing an elegant teal shantung silk pantsuit, looked at me with daggers in her eyes. "I dressed up for this?" she growled.

It was going to be a long evening.

But when chef Paul Kahan's food arrived, I was glad to be there.

Our two appetizers were a salad of duck confit and smoked duck breast with grilled chicory, red pearl onions, sun-dried cherries and Sherry vinaigrette, and a braised leg and grilled loin of rabbit with tarragon and chanterelle mushrooms. Both were excellent.

For the main dish, I ravaged glazed short ribs of beef with baby turnips, and leeks bathed in braising juices. I was glad Lisa didn't want any. She was content with her wood-grilled big-eye tuna with tomatoes, artichokes and a Meyer lemon vinaigrette.

Spiaggia

Saturday morning I went to the 25th-floor gym at our hotel. If I was to keep my goal of not gaining weight, simply walking up and down Michigan Avenue wouldn't be enough. I did a little treadmill jogging and tossed a few weights. Then I took the stairs--two at a time, 23 floors--down to the second-floor hotel bar for a Bloody Mary, which I understand is chock full of vitamins.

For lunch we considered NoMi, a new and striking restaurant at the Park Hyatt Hotel, but opted for Spiaggia, a fine Italian restaurant.

Spiaggia is an oasis of tranquility and elegance on the second floor of an office tower. The high-ceilinged, two-tiered room has a view of Lake Michigan and the grand old Drake Hotel. Dinner here is easily a $200-a-couple affair. But the $38 three-course lunch is almost a bargain.

After devouring a couple of yeasty, crusty rolls, we began with seared duck liver and an arugula salad with ricotta, toasted hazelnuts and a balsamic mustard vinaigrette. Then I had the dish of the trip-- costolette d'agnello , roasted Colorado lamb chops, with a humble-cut, slow-cooked lamb shoulder, a meltingly tender, caramelized nest of richly flavored meat. Simply delicious.

Lisa enjoyed a vibrant Mediterranean sea bass with spring vegetables and basil.

Desserts were fine too: a rustic apple tart with caramel ice cream and a luscious mascarpone tart.

Service was refined, and the overall experience was pure pleasure.

Seasons

I'm not much of a Sunday buffet brunch man. But the thought of dining at Seasons in the elegant Four Seasons Hotel, and its $51 brunch (without champagne), intrigued us.

When it comes to buffets, I considered the Santa Barbara Biltmore the standard. Not anymore.

Seasons is an ornate old-world dining room--chandeliers, plush carpets, well-spaced and finely appointed tables. The buffet, attractively spread out in two rooms on six long tables, included rack of lamb, pigeon legs, prime rib, crab legs, smoked salmon, shrimp, pates, ripe cheeses and many other dishes. A whole table was devoted just to sushi.

I was going along pretty well, pacing myself, taking my time. A little bite of this, a little taste of that. But then I lost control at the temptress of a dessert table.

Like a 10-year-old, I crowded my plate with so many pastries, cakes, mousses and tarts that I actually was embarrassed. Minutes later, when my companion returned to the table, she said my eyes had glazed over.

During one of our late afternoon walks we came across a Gold Coast Hot Dog joint. I had to have a dawg. I hadn't had any pizza. No Italian beef. No ribs. The dog was good.

When I got back home in Los Angeles, I went straight to the scale. I tipped in at 185, three pounds heavier but worth every mouthwatering ounce.

Guidebook: Sampling Chicago Cuisine

* Where to eat: Topolobampo, 445 N. Clark St.; telephone (312) 661-1434. Lunch: entrees $11.50 to $16. Dinner: appetizers $7.50 to $9.50; entrees $19 to $30. Open for lunch Tuesdays through Fridays, dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Bin 36, 339 N. Dearborn St.; tel. (312) 755-9463. Lunch: entrees $8 to $15. Dinner: appetizers $8 to $16; entrees $18 to $28.Blackbird, 619 W. Randolph St.; tel. (312) 715-0708. Lunch: entrees $8 to $20. Dinner: appetizers $7 to $14; entrees $16 to $28. Open for lunch Mondays through Fridays, dinner Mondays through Saturdays.

Spiaggia, 980 N. Michigan Ave.; tel. (312) 280-2750. Three-course fixed-price lunch $38. Dinner: appetizers $10.50 to $29.50; entrees $31.50 to $39.50. Open for lunch Fridays and Saturdays, dinner daily.

Seasons, 120 E. Delaware Place, at the Four Seasons Hotel; tel. (312) 649-2349. Sunday brunch $51.

Gold Coast Dogs, several locations including 159 N. Wabash Ave.; tel. (312) 917-1677. Hot dogs $1.99. Wabash location open Mondays to Fridays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

*

Michael Krikorian is a crime reporter for The Times.

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