Chicago Foodie Travel

I’m eating my way through Chicago this weekend - I haven't been here in 10 years but am glad to see that some places I enjoyed in the past are still hoppin'!

Café Spiaggia - 980 North Michigan Avenue

I’m starting my weekend by having lunch at Café Spiaggia right on the Magnificent Mile. The friendly staff makes me feel at home by giving me a primo window table with a view of Lake Michigan. The appetizer selections are tempting, but ultimately I decide on one of my favorites, baby octopus served with a Tuscan bean called cicerchie, which resemble large corn kernels but have the taste and texture of chick peas. Delicious and served with just the right amount of chopped black olives. A glass of garganega, the primary grape of the Vento region's Soave, is a perfect compliment. Pastas are available in generously sized half-portions. The "farro" spaghetti with clams in white wine sauce tasted like most gummy grocery store whole wheat pasta.  Sadly, the texture isn’t the only thing laking about the dish; the pasta also tastes quite flat, an indication that little or no salt was used in the pasta cooking water. As the Italians say, “the pasta cooking water should taste like the sea!” The few clams in the dish did not produce the briny sauce that makes Spaghetti with Clams one of my favorites.  It does pack a punch with garlic though. Whoa!  I apologize to anyone who came in contact with me that afternoon!

Would I go back?  Yes.  Over all, I would say Café Spiaggia is a nice dining experience. It has a lovely view, top-notch service and perfectly cooked octopus. Just stay away from that whole wheat pasta!

La Trattoria del Merlo - 1967 N Halsted Street

The Merlo group owns 3 restaurants in Chicago.  La Trattoria is located in Lincoln Park near the original, more upscale, Merlo on Maple.  The chef/owner apparently hails from Emilia Romagna (also homeland to Parmigiano Reggiano, Proscuitto di Parma and Ragú Bolognese).  As suspected, the prosciutto, parmigiano and fig platter uses top-knotch ingredients.  Pastas are a mix of mainly hits, but also some misses.  My favorite is a carrot gnocchi with rabbit ragú and a few peas.  Maccheroncini with spinach, sausage and mushrooms is served in a piping hot earthenware shallow bowl, rich and delicious.  The special pasta of the day, basil rigatoni with onion and taleggio cheese is disappointing.  The pasta is perfectly al dente in texture but has absolutely no flavor, very flat.  The pasta cooking water needs salt, lots of it, enough to taste like the sea, to awaken the taste of the pasta!  The copious onions are overpowering and not cooked through.  Merlo’s specialty, the Ragú Bolognese, is decent enough but again is lacking salt (maybe the pasta was cooked in the same water with the rigatoni and can account for the deficit).  The secondi also proved a mixed bag.  The pork shank is “fall off the bone” tender and well seasoned, but the duck breast, ordered medium rare, is served well-done .  The fish of the day, a generous portion of branzino is well cooked and delicately seasoned. 

Albeit a bit pricy, the wine list had an ample selection of the usual suspects from Toscana, Piemonte and the Veneto with a few surprises thrown in here and there.  Our server seems to lack depth of knowledge about ingredients and the menu items.  Merlo doesn’t make my repeat list for next time. 

Blackbird-  619 W Randolph Street

I have been wanting to go to  Blackbird for 10 years, just to see that stunning room in back of the huge glass picture window.  It looks just as it does in the magazine photos but with a well-heeled lunch clientele. 


Lunch is reasonably priced with mains hovering in the mid-teens.  A duck tartare appetizer is off the charts amazing.  I have been burned a few times lately with over-seasoned, sauce-laden tartare, but this perfectly seasoned version wins me back over.  The bouillabaisse (fish soup hailing from Marseilles) has plenty of fish and shellfish and is a nice accompaniment to a rosé from the Bandol region of France.  The cheese selection is comprised of some offerings from the mid-west, including one of my favorites, the Walbash Cannonball.

I would definitely recommend trying Blackbird for its fun modern atmosphere and competent food. 

TRU,676 N. St. Clair Street

The experince at Tru, located just off the Magnificent Mile is just what you would expect from one of the city’s upper echelon.  The lovely dining room is elegant without feeling stuffy.  In fact, the staff evokes that same vibe by letting you know that they strive to make the dining experience as comfortable as possible.  Chef Rick Tramonto, known for his amuse bouche, doesn’t disappoint.  A cauliflower puree with salmon roe is silky and well-flavored.  Salmon tartare with gelée and chive blossom leaves me wishing for just one more bite, just one!  It’s all about the pace though...


Beef tartare topped with a gold leaf encrusted egg yolk looks too amazing to eat, but one subtlety-seasoned bite reminds me this is edible art.  The parmesan crisp, called frico in Italy, on the other hand, adds nothing to the dish and is rubbery, as though it had been made well in advance.  Borrowing influence from Asia, the Thai lobster soup with a green curry foam is well balanced and subtle.  A lamb roulade filled with a delicate mint-flavored turnip mousse is cooked to a perfect succulent medium rare.  It’s accompanied by flavorful cherry tomatoes and lemon spaetlze.  The short rib, one of the signature dishes, comes topped with eel!  Separately, the two are good, but their contrasting tastes seemed to compete when combined.  All of the dishes are beautifully presented, with desserts playing second fiddle to none, but I’m a cheese girl and the cart at TRU is too tempting to pass up, delicious selections from France, Italy and the USA. 

The wine list was interesting and well-edited.

TRU definitely earns its ranking among the best in the country and worthy of a splurge.

Frontera Grill - 445 North Clark Street

Rick Bayless’ hotter than hot authentic Mexican spot is just a popular as ever judging by the hour plus wait for a two top on rainy weekend at lunchtime.  Insider tip- the bar tables (with waiters, full menu, the works) are first come/first served, so maybe you’ll get lucky and bypass the wait altogether.  The food is Mexico-Mexican and hits the mark.  Definitely go for the carne asada tacos and wash it down with a blue agave margarita which I prefer to the gold.  The salsas are picante but flavored perfectly with just the right amount of char, great with some of their homemade corn tortillas.

avec - 615 W Randoloh

This restaurant is next door and owned by the folks behind Blackbird.  It has a “no reservations” policy which can lead to long waits on weekend nights, but the hostess is great at keeping the hungry customers apprised of progress.  Its vibe is young and hip with a communal table running down the length of the restaurant.  The menu is divided by larger and smaller plates and sharing is de rigueur.  Their take on panzanella, a bread salad from Tuscany, is an interesting departure from the standard in its addition of fennel and some pungent cheese.   Trofie (a short squiggly shaped handmade pasta from the Liguia region of Italy) is sauced with calamari, bacon and grilled radicchio is a stand out.  A braised pork shoulder is succulent and juicy, just as it should be after hours of cooking.  Another unexpected highlight happens to be the communal table, that is if you happen to be seated next to foodies.  My new friends recommend  Piccolo Sogno (near avec), Ricardo Trattoria in Lincoln Park and lunch at the Ralph Lauren Restaurant for my next trip.  Check out avec- it’s worth the wait.

Ciao for now!

                                                     back to main foodie travel page