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A Tour of Chicago’s Tasting Menus

How Chicago’s tasting menu trend is showcasing chefs’ creative talent

Photo via Achatz’s Next

Tasting menus are all the rage these days. No longer the domain of big-name chefs alone, these creative, celebratory meals allow the kitchen to strut their stuff while offering diners a true expression of the chef’s culinary vision. That’s certainly true in Chicago, where they’re the only option at some high-end restaurants and the main thrust at many, many others. Take destination-worthy establishments such as Grant Achatz’s Next—it offers a themed, tasting-only menu, for which ticketed seats are procured in advance and the prix-fixe offerings change every four months.

The benefit beyond the buzz? It allows chefs to hone their skills and better plan their dishes. As for diners, they get a showy, entertaining night out they can brag about to friends and coworkers. But you don’t have to go to eateries like Next to take advantage of the trend. Below are a few of our favorite restaurants that offer a variety of tasting menu experiences.

Spiaggia restaurant and lounge

{980 North Michigan Avenue, Second Floor; 312.280.2750}

Settling into a table at James Beard Award-winning Chef Tony Mantuano’s sleek, Magnificent Mile eatery is to dine in an airy, upscale space with a well-stocked temperature-controlled wine room and an impeccable menu of regional Italian fare, whether enjoyed à la carte or by tasting ($105 for five courses, or $165 for eight courses, plus $85/$105 for wine pairings). Feeling flush? Add white truffle to the Costate di Wagyu or pillowy Gnocchi (an additional $75 and $130 respectively).

Photo via Roka Akor

Roka Akor

{456 North Clark Street; 312.477.7652}

Melding thoughtful design and contemporary Japanese robatayaki cuisine under one roof, Roka Akor’s signature omakase menu ($90 per person, plus $50 for optional wine or sake pairings) is created with guests’ individual palates in mind, while its decadent omakase ($128 per person, plus $50-$75 for optional wine or sake pairings) dazzles according to chef whim. The customized experience may include subtly smoky Yuzu-Miso-Marinated Black Cod with pickled red onions. Other offerings include by-the-ounce A5-10+ Wagyu from Japan, served with Himalayan sea salt, garlic salt, and truffle salt on the side, as well as ultra-fresh deluxe sashimi platters.

Photo via Oriole

Oriole

{661 West Walnut Street; 312.877.5339}

A gem of Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, Oriole’s culinary philosophy is rooted in the intimate and sensory experience of fine dining. From the masterful mind of Executive Chef/Owner Noah Sandoval, tasting menus are crafted that inspire reflection, thoughtfulness, and interaction—in short, a meal centered around each individual diner. A typical tasting menu runs $190 (plus $125 for wine pairings), and is orchestrated with ingredients at the fore.

Grace

{652 West Randolph Street; 312.234.9494}

One of Chicago’s arguably most lauded restaurants is also among its most elegant, thanks to Curtis Duffy’s seasonally changing New American tasting menus, of which there are two (titled flora, aka vegetarian, and fauna, which features meat, both $235 per person, plus wine pairings). Whether you choose the former—graced with the likes of White Truffle with tapioca, Parmesan, and chive—or the latter (think white poppy-accented Bay Scallops with romaine and Nasturtium), an intricately conceived dining experience is in store.

Photo via Goosefoot Chicago

Goosefoot

{2656 West Lawrence Avenue; 773.942.7547}

Awash in gold-toned banquettes with but a handful of maple-topped tables, this BYOB brainchild of husband-and-wife duo Chris and Nina Nugent showcases oft-changing, seasonally inspired New American menus (multi-course $220.12 per guests, inclusive of menu, tax, and gratuity, plus still or sparkling water and coffee or tea) served within a quaint dining room. On one evening you may encounter Chestnut Soup with trumpet mushrooms and truffle essence and a dish of Scallop and Lobster with dehydrated butter and lemongrass the next.

Photo via Entente

Entente

{3056 North Lincoln Avenue; 872.206.8553}

Diners can design a tasting menu experience (about $70 per person, plus $45-100 for wine or cocktail pairings prepared with housemade sodas and tonics) at this intimate Lakeview spot from Ty Fujimura (Arami, SmallBar) and Chef Brian Fisher (ex-Schwa). You’ll be rewarded with options such as Carolina Gold rice with black truffle, duck egg, and Parmigiano or, perhaps, Pork Belly accented with apple, celery root, granola, and magnolia blossom, to name a few.

Photo via Salero

Salero

{621 West Randolph Street; 312.466.1000}

Modern Spanish pintxos and Basque cuisine found a home at this West Loop address, where an à la carte menu and a family-style menu del día ($45 per person) are served. The latter features three to four pintxos, two or three tapas, paella, and two desserts—an ideal choice for those in search of a little taste of Spain.

Smyth

{177 North Ada Street, #101; 773.913.3773}

A lush ivy exterior gives way to a dual concept in the West Loop, courtesy of husband-and-wife team John Shields and Karen Urie Shields, who cut their teeth at Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea. Neighborhood restaurant and bar The Loyalist gives way to fine-dining Smyth, where an eight-course ($135, plus $85 for beverage pairings) or 12-course ($195, plus $125 for beverage pairings) tasting menu emphasizes heirloom and rare varieties of herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Photo via Temporis

Temporis

{933 North Ashland Avenue; 773.697.4961}

This brand-new, 20-seat, tasting-menu-only restaurant in West Town exclusively features a seasonal, 10-course menu ($110 per person, plus $95 for wine pairings) from co-chefs Sam Plotnick and Evan Fullerton, both Les Nomades vets. Highlights on the seasonal menu change but may include Squab Liver Mousse with parsnip, nori, and clove; Sunflower in Five Forms, accompanied by sunchoke, endive, salsify, seeds, and chamomile; Tandoori-Spiced Rabbit with spiced carrot purée and greens; Rooibos Brûlée with blood orange and kumquat; and Foie Gras Ice Cream with passionfruit and Sauternes reduction, offset by a black sesame tuile and quenelle.

Elske

{1350 West Randolph Street; 312.733.1314}

This seasonal, tri-level Modern American haunt from Chefs Anna and David Posey exudes minimalist charm thanks to Scandinavian details and custom Danish furnishings, while featuring an open kitchen and a seasonal, edible garden in its courtyard. Its centerpiece, however, is the eight-course tasting menu ($80 per person, plus $45 for globally inspired wine pairings or $25 for non-alcoholic pairings). Depending on when you dine, that may include dishes like the Duck Liver Tart with buckwheat and salted ramps, and Bass Confit with pumpkin broth and shaved shiitakes. À la carte options are also available.

By Jennifer Olvera