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Postcard From Tom: Chicago

Sunday, August 7, 2005

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema's monthly report from the road.

Any discussion of great restaurant cities in the United States has to include Chicago. Here are a few reasons why:

ALINEA (1723 N. Halsted St., 312-867-0110)

The intrigue starts at an unmarked entrance and runs right through dessert at what became one of the most talked-about restaurants in the country when it opened in May. A bowl of steaming aromatics surrounds a raised dish of striped bass and fresh water chestnuts, hidden by a custardlike cloak of shellfish broth and cream. Beef comes with the "flavors of A1" steak sauce: a colorful trail of ginger, raisins and citrus. Rose-scented raspberries mate with red bell pepper in a sublime sorbet. Is the 31-year-old chef Grant Achatz a mad scientist or a culinary maestro? A few hours spent in his posh dining room in Lincoln Park suggests he is both. Eight-course tasting menu $75.

GREEN ZEBRA (1460 W. Chicago Ave., 312-243-7100)

Shades of green pop up on the walls, the banquettes, even the waiters' shirts in this coolly modern retreat in West Town. The color is a subtle reminder of the kitchen's vegetable-friendly focus. Yet there's no missing meat when the choices include beet pasta with cauliflower and almonds, baby carrots scattered with black truffles, and gnocchi tossed with morels and sugar snap peas. Small plates $7-$15.

HOT DOUG'S (3324 N. California Ave., 773-279-9550)

Named for its comic owner, Doug Sohn, this cramped, catsup-and-mustard-colored tribute to "encased meats" sits in the middle of nowhere yet always counts lines. There's a hot dog for everyone (even vegetarians) on the name-dropping menu. "Madonna" features spicy andouille sausage; specials run to the "Stanley Kubrick": Thai chicken sausage with peanuts and scallions. Go on the weekend, when the French fries are cooked in flavor-enhancing duck fat. Hot dogs $1.50-$3.50.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company