I had the extreme fortune of going to two fantastic restaurants in Chicago this weekend: Table 52 and Frontera Grill.
I have no idea how we scored a dinner reservation to Table 52 on Open Table at a relatively normal eating time, 9pm (and that was our only option). Someone must have had an emergency surgery to give up their spot. As for Frontera Grill, we snuck in there by the chin of our chinny-chin-chin for a late lunch. We called six weeks in advance and there was only one option for the entire weekend, 1:30pm on Saturday. Frontera only takes reservations over the phone, which makes it an even tougher assignment.
52 W. Elm
Table 52 is Art Smith’s restaurant in a small historic carriage house in the Gold Coast. Art Smith is or was (not sure of current job status) Oprah’s personal chef. This restaurant is also a favorite of the Obamas. You could literally walk right past this place and not know it was a restaurant. It serves “sophisticated” Southern cuisine, which is just perfect for me. Not that I’m sophisticated, but I’m definitely Southern.
We arrive on schedule Friday night and we wait for a minute next to a large wood-fired oven, where skillet after skillet of veggies, mac and cheese, flatbreads, biscuits are being finished.
We are seated upstairs, which I’m sure at one time was a bedroom with 12 foot ceilings. Now it has been converted into a comfy dining room, with round tables, chandeliers, and large hutches. After doing a little research, it looks like this is where the Obamas ate for Valentine’s day.
While we are perusing the menu, they start bringing out the treats. First, a plate of deviled eggs with bacon and fried apples on the top. Next a skillet of goat-cheese biscuits which is the bread basket for everyone. At this point, there is no need to order an appetizer, though all of them look lovely.
After a superb and very honest consult with the waiter (he told us what NOT to get, which we appreciated), we ordered the catfish and the shortribs for our dinner.
Let’s just say the sides steal the show. Here is the lineup:
- Three-Cheese Mac
- Burton Farm Maple-Glazed Sweet Potatoes
- Cornbread, Bacon, Jalapeno-Honey Butter
- Cauliflower, White Cheddar, Pepperoncini, Bacon
- Braised Collard Greens, Smoked Turkey
- Cheese Grits, Bacon, Sweet Corn
- Green Beans, Blueberries, Curried Peanuts, Chili Vinaigrette
Seriously?? How am I supposed to decide here? We restrained ourselves and ordered the cauliflower and mac and cheese. I could have just eaten the biscuits and cauliflower and been totally happy.
For dessert we had a 12-layer cake with chocolate icing with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate mousse. Then we rolled home and started filing our applications for The Biggest Loser.
445 North Clark Street
The next day we went to Frontera Grill for lunch. Needless to say, I packed quite a lot of eating into my weekend and it shows now. I need Spanx to wear my tennis skirt.
Frontera Grill is a Rick Bayless restaurant; it is the casual “sister” restaurant to Topolobampo. I have said this before. I am a Mexican food snob. When you see a picture of Rick Bayless, who is decidedly NOT Latino, you can hardly believe he makes this food. I guess that the myriad of James Beard awards and so many other awards that are lining the walls are a definite nod to never judging a book by its cover. This place is divine.
We kicked off the lunch with a round of Cheladas and Micheladas (no judgement people, I was on vacation). Chelada is a mexican beer served over ice with a lot of fresh lime juice squeezed in the bottom of your glass and rimmed with salt. A Michelada is that with a hit of bloody mary mix. It is refreshing and a sure ticket for a nap after a big lunch.
For starters we have these listed below and some of the best guacamole I have ever had. I have no idea what sort of magic was in it, or how you get such a good avocado in Chicago in October, but it was perfect.
- Sopes Rancheros: Crispy corn masa boats, savory shredded beef, roasted tomato, avocado, homemade fresh cheese.
- Taquitos de Pollo Ahumado: Crispy taquitos of smoked chicken, poblanos & black beans. Homemade sour cream, salsa verde, anejo cheese, guacamole, Frontera salad.
Then for entrees, we got a wide range of menu offerings.
Tacos al Carbon: Wood-grilled meat, poultry, fish or mushrooms sliced & served with roasted pepper rajas, two salsas, frijoles charros, guacamole & homemade tortillas.
Sapitos: A trio of Xalapa-style gorditas (corn masa cakes) in chipotle-black bean sauce each with its own topping: scrambled eggs, grilled chicken, chorizo, plantains; homemade crema & queso fresco.
Pozole Rojo: Mexico’s classic pork & hominy soup/stew infused with rich red chile. Classic crunchy, aromatic garnishes.
The best treat of all was this–reminiscent of Mexican giardiniera.
Verduras en Escabeche: Homemade pickled jalapenos with carrots, onions and cauliflower.
I am sure that nighttime is hopping there, as the bar is as big as the restaurant and lined with tequila and dragon sculptures.
Food is amazing and totally accessible without being pedestrian. Everything well-done with amazing flavors and freshness-not what most people expect from Mexican food.
I could do an entire post about the art collection there. It is fascinating. A sample:
I could go on and on ad nauseum about these restaurants. I know many of you will be taking fall trips to Chicago and I would highly recommend trying to go to either of these. If you are unable to get a reservation, you can eat at the bar at both places. Same menu, same experience. But, maybe with a few more cocktails.