Tag Archives: downtown restaurants

Join the cast in #ARecipeforDisaster !

Chicago Chef Rick Bayless – famous for his PBS television series Mexico: One Plate at a Time with Rick Bayless, and for his several iconic Chicago restaurants – has co-written with the creative team at Windy City Playhouse a super-energetic, immersive comedy about the passion, pitfalls and insanity of the restaurant business as lived out one evening at a fictitious joint called The Contumacious Pig.

It’s called #ARecipeforDisaster and it’s just rollicking good fun. Laughter. Serious action. Behind-the-scenes scheming. Good food.

Not giving away the menu, but the wild mushroom soup veloute-style was rich and utterly delicious. Well, the second version anyway. I won’t tell you what “accidentally” happens to the first version (which isn’t bad anyway). Unassuming, shy, insecure Sous Chef Julian is called upon to replace the Head Chef who’s disppeared this evening. He and the restaurant team go through one calamity and near-disaster after another as the Head Chef and the long-awaited whole pig continue to fail to show up, and then, yes, the Health Inspector, bumptious and slightly randy, unexpectedly comes to visit.

Rick is really good at playing the insecure, shy sous chef, stumbling from missed opportunity to mishap. The two extraordinarily conceited influencers that are part of the play openly express their hots for all the men as the two ladies loudly brag about their number of followers while wandering as if they own the place through the mock-up restaurant where you, as audience member, are yourself seated as a mock influencer. All the other actors are marvelously animated, and they make you feel their characters truly care about each other. Not surprisingly, there’s a happy ending to this fun farce.

Other food for the evening includes items like a creamy, fresh lemon pasta dish with freshly picked herbs (lemon verbena, parsley, cilantro, basil) and a magisterial dish of Potatoes Dauphinoise with a touch of Thai – a nice chance to see how Rick is reaching across the globe to incorporate new influences in his dishes.

Cash bar before the play. Then a little cocktail and two small wine pairings go with the food for the ticket price. Only a few chances left to enjoy this delight at the Windy City Playhouse above Petterino’s. Tickets here through April 24 on W, Th, F, Sa and Su.

Roka Akor – steak and sushi in Asian-inspired surroundings

Roka Akor checkerboard wall of wood shingles
Roka Akor checkerboard wall of wood shingles

Beautiful, chic, Asian-inspired decor that coordinates with the top-drawer steak and sushi-inspired menu. That’s Roka Akor, 456 N. Clark St. Ended up going here for an event that didn’t take place and decided to sit down at the bar and take in the ambiance anyway. Loved the sexy, bluesy-jazz music emanating at just the right volume form a clearly quality sound system. Loved the rich texture of the checkerboard of shaved and shiny wooden shingles on the wall and the airy asymmetrical pattern of sturdy beams in the Asian-latticed ceilings. Lots of light from floor-to-ceiling windows. Subtle interior lighting that enhances the trendy-but-comfortable atmosphere.

Roka Akor red-ice-cube cocktail
Roka Akor red-ice-cube cocktail

Pat(rick) Henaghan, who’s not only manager but a master bartender himself, offered to make a sample of one of the cocktails he’d designed for the event that was postponed. Surprising, certainly, to see him putting deep-orangey-red ice cubes in a tall glass. Whoever heard of deep-red ice cubes? Well, Pat explained, these are made from a combination of strawberry and yuzu (Asian fruit) puree that freezes beautifully into a slow-melting ice-pop texture (Popsicle is the brand we adored when we were kids) and gives an amazing shot of color to the vodka/Seville sour orange cocktail he created. This one will be on the regular menu soon – a perfect drink for enjoying in the sun on Roka Akor’s patio.

Roka Akor tempura
Roka Akor tempura

On Pat’s recommendation, tried the vegetable tempura – a generous portion of lightly battered-and-fried slices of carrot, sweet potato, broccoli, zucchini and eggplant served with two amply filled dishes of sauces – one sweeter, one slightly more acidic – both low-sodium and both delicious with the perfectly cooked vegetables. Five- and six-dollar Happy Hour specials are available 5 to 6 pm on the patio and in the lounge; the rest of the Roka Akor menu cries out for further experimentation.

Judging by a short conversation with Dean, who was passing by on his way to a demonstration of menu items for staff members, this seems like a good place to work. Pat even invites staff members to submit drink recipes for the menu – unquestionably a nice way to make people feel recognized and appreciated.
From this limited experience, have to say you’ll likely enjoy your visit and feel much appreciated as a customer, too. Visit them at www.RokaAkor.com.

Review: 312 Chicago restaurant

The folks at 312 Chicago know how to cook, for sure, but they also have a sense of humor. They’ve just spent the month of March celebrating their 18th birthday with a special “Get Smoked” 3-course prix fixe dinner for $18.

312 Chicago turns 18
312 Chicago turns 18


When I asked our server why the “get smoked” thing, he said, “Well, Chicago used to have a law that you couldn’t smoke until you were 18. So we decided since we were turning 18 we’d get smoked! Alas, Chicago changed the law just a couple of weeks ago to say that you can’t smoke now in Chicago until you’re 21.” We all agreed, then, that customers can likely expect another fun opportunity like this again three years from now…

The wines on their list lean towards the Northern Italian, as does the food, so we asked our server to recommend for us. We were pleased with the suggested Cannonau di Sardegna D.O.C. Riserva. Hearty enough to go with the appetizer and the pasta courses, but not so strong as to overwhelm. According to one wine writer in “The World’s Best Wine under $25,” it “emphasizes ethereal, perfumed aromatics rather than an overt expression of fruit.” Well, okay!
They did a fabulous job with their “get smoked” menu. Starting with a dish of hot, melty soft, creamy, smoked house-made mozzarella served atop two lightly cooked, peeled slices of delicious fresh-tasting tomato and accompanied by ribbons of fresh, fragrant basil.

Next up was a dish of their house-made fettuccine – tender, delicate and delicious wide noodles – coated with just the right amount of tomato-y Ameritriciana sauce and studded with bits of fried pancetta, and seasoned with a touch of red pepper flakes. Perfect spice. Perfect pasta. Perfect combination. The serving was generous, and the leftovers were delicious again a couple of days later served with sautéed scallops and steamed greens. Mm-mm.

We were pleasantly surprised when we cut into the third course dessert, “torched chocolate cake with lemon gelato,” a light yet rich-tasting layered confection topped with browned (smoked) meringue that hit just the right note after the meal. The gelato was especially tasty and the caramel sauce was just icing under the cake.
And then came, compliments of the house, little après-dinner glasses of their house-made Limoncello. Thick and lemony and sweet and a lovely ending to a fresh and pleasant meal. Although the restaurant no longer does regular wine dinners, they are introducing a new feature this year. They will have a bartender serving drinks out on the patio (weather permitting, of course) all summer. The restaurant, attached to the Hotel Allegro, is situated at the corner of LaSalle and Randolph, across from the Townsend Center, so if you’re going to be that area, don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy their food and drink in a comfortable yet elegant atmosphere.

Quay Restaurant – riverside dining and drinks

Quay restaurantYou walk in from the busy street, up a few stairs to the front bar of Quay Restaurant and Lounge. Nice sports bar atmosphere with dozens of televisions in case you get bored or want to watch a game with friends. But if you’re not into that, all the passersby on their way to Navy Pier keep the sidewalk view lively on weekends.

Décor is clean and modern, and then you notice a striking feature—a seemingly endless wall sculpted in wavy ridges that lines the entire left side of the restaurant. Despite occasional interruptions where another texture like, say, a rough-hewn wood beam, breaks the line, the wall carries your eye from the front bar all the way to the mirror at the end of the passage that makes the wall seem even longer.

We asked for the room with a view, so our host led us down the long hall to the quay-side lounge. On the way we passed the dining room. It was low-key with warm subtle lighting emanating from great columns enclosed with diffusing material that looked like bronze-y capiz shell. Tables were arranged with generous space between them, and the atmosphere looked quiet and casually elegant.

Later we noticed a shell theme in the bathroom, too, where floors are inlaid with iridescent white shell-looking tiles—a unique look that, combined with the row of stainless steel sinks lining a mirrored wall, makes you feel you’re in an elegant hotel powder room rather than a restaurant bathroom.

The quay-side lounge sits across the width of the restaurant, looking out onto trees lining a small branch of the Chicago River, and has its own bar. It reminded me of someone’s modern but comfortable back porch—bright with sunlight and airy with open windows (it was one of those gorgeous late-summer days in Chicago). The window view is lined with tables for two, and along the wall are several cozy bright-orange couch-and-table setups that seat two to six people. One of Chicago’s popular architectural boat tours has its landing right at the foot of stairs that come out the back of Quay’s lounge. While we lunched we watched the boat fill up, take off, and return.

In the spirit of coziness we sat in a couch nook. The drink list has a nice selection of decently priced reds and whites, some good ones by the glass, as well as beers and liquors to satisfy almost any taste. The bottle of the Santa Margherita, Alto Pinot Grigio we ordered was beautifully chilled; it tasted of the joys of a warm summer day.

Our waitperson worked hard at opening the bottle using the waiter’s corkscrew—it looked like she might not make it so I suggested she set it down on the couch to steady it. She said, no, we have to learn to do it this way; I practice on all my friends! That was the kind of friendly, relaxed attitude of everyone in the restaurant; yet we got totally professional service throughout our visit.

We trusted our server’s recommendations for appetizers and were not disappointed. We shared an order of the mussels steamed in Chicago’s own 312 Ale—dark, rich broth with lemongrass and chives that we couldn’t get enough of. We dipped the several kinds of bread in it and then asked to keep it on the table to dip our potatoes and more bread in during our meal. The roasted beet salad was simple and good—the light, white vinaigrette dressing went very well with the bitterness of the watercress and arugula and the sweetness of the red onion and beets.

My companion ordered the salmon with smoky beans, bacon and rapini (also known as broccoli rabe or broccolini). The salmon was perfectly cooked; the beans salty and flavorful, a surprisingly nice combination, and the deep green crisp-cooked vegetable had a bitter touch that complimented the richness of the beans.

I ordered the Seafood BLT—it sounded so original. And it was. A generous mixture of little shrimps and scallop and crab chunks, dressed with a pink roasted red pepper mayo that tasted deliciously homemade, was served with bacon on thick slices of toasted brioche. Num. It came with a massive portion of nicely browned though slightly dry French fries that I couldn’t finish. In fact I couldn’t eat all the sandwich either. So I asked for a doggie bag—and ate the remainder for dinner that night.

Since we’d heard that Quay had a fabulous pastry chef, we opted for dessert. After our server gave us a lively and enthusiastic description of each option, we selected the goat cheese cream cheesecake and the Banana Tres Leche cake. My friend enjoyed the dense cake soaked in custard, topped with whipped cream and served with roasted pineapple and a light caramel sauce. But it couldn’t compare to my dessert.

It’s hard to describe how delicious that goat cheese item was—the goat cheese mixture sat in a perfectly rounded mold atop a wafer thin slice of what I think was white chocolate, with homemade peach jam smeared out from one edge in the nouveau cuisine approach to presentation and a line of peach jam topped with almond crumble out from the other edge. Light yet rich, sweet and tart, smooth and crunchy—a feast of contrasting textures and flavors that I will go back for. I secretly wanted to lick my plate clean like I used to do with ice cream when I was a little kid. The baklava straw topping it and the dark Rainier cherries on the side almost seemed like afterthoughts. The dish was a masterpiece even without them.

By the way, the descriptions for each item on the Quay menu are unusually helpful—unlike many menus that leave you wondering what they really mean. And we appreciated the extra “color” our server supplied in her explanations.

Address: 465 E. Illinois. Look for the elegant black awning out on Illinois—Quay is located in the huge red brick building known as the River East Arts Center.

Phone: 312.981.8400,  Email: info@quaychicago.com

Parking: Across the street underground and Quay will validate your ticket so you’ll pay only $10 (for up to four hours).

CTA/walk:  Half a mile from Michigan or catch the CTA bus 29 at Illinois to Navy Pier.

This place is definitely worth a trip—if for the goat cheese cream cheesecake alone!