If you're considering more of an urban retreat than a rural one for your last-gasp-of-summer getaway, Chicago has never looked better or offered more world-class food. In fact, the purely dated notion - mostly only held by a few stubborn bicoastal snobs now - that Chicago is somehow stuck in a nursery-food time warp of deep-dish pizzas and dawgs has been retired for good.
But that doesn't mean you should gravitate toward the other extreme and seek out the chichi kitchens of the passing moment when you head south. Anything but. While Chicago does ambitious, contemporary food as well as any city, it's too unpretentious, at heart, to have mastered high attitude and style over substance, so skip the frantic attempts at flash.
That means Moto, where the chemistry lab cuisine sounds fun until you have to eat it. And the mediocre sushi at Japonais doesn't justify the good-looking but indifferent waitstaff who recently slammed trays into our heads, twice, as they shot through the dressy crowd. A tired plate of unagi probably isn't worth a metal plate in your head.
What is worth the visit? Among some of my favorite Chicago restaurants right now:
The Cafe at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago
160 E. Pearson St., 312-266-9498
Part of the fun of this hotel bistro is the glamorama setting; the open cafe looks out on the hotel's sweeping, sky-lit lobby fountain and onto the lake beyond. What makes The Cafe more than just a photo-op, though, is the menu, which features the kind of food you actually want to eat (as opposed to the brainy, tortured, deconstructed food that too many chefs want to make).
A recent bounty of summer crab specials included one of the best dishes, period, I sampled in Chicago: a soft-shell crab sandwich that featured sweet, juicy crab splayed out between crunchy grilled country bread and dressed with a rich oozing lemon and caper remoulade. If you're already homesick, there is a dish of Wisconsin baby beets, cucumbers and warm herbed goat cheese wrapped up in phyllo dough - but save room for the Moroccan-spiced chicken breast paired with chickpea fries, a pan-seared skate wing, and an opulent fettuccini crowned with lobster cream sauce and rock shrimp.
For the big finish: a banana split sundae studded with perfectly caramelized slices of baby bananas, and bite-sized doughnuts filled to bursting with strawberry jam and drizzled with an elderflower and rhubarb puree.
500 S. Dearborn St., 312-523-0200
Shawn McClain has made his name as one of Chicago's brightest young culinary stars, and his two previous restaurants (Spring, which focuses on seafood, and the vegetarian Green Zebra) both established his credentials. It's his latest restaurant, the meaty Custom House, that proves he can master every basic food group, and even update the traditional Chicago flair for supernal steakhouses.
Wisely situated in the theater district, the swank dining room - which features enough Midwestern stone and sweeping glass windows to pass for a Frank Lloyd Wright homage - sets the organic stage for lush heartland cooking. Everything here is done right: the dry-aged New York strip; the prime bone-in ribeye; the braised short ribs. It's the sides, though, that add an unexpected, high-flying flourish, from horseradish crème frache puffs to Parmesan polenta and onion beignets.
52 W. Illinois St., 312-222-1888
There's nothing sadder than a once-hip restaurant that has lost its following. While Ben Pao was never cutting-edge, it did, for a while, pack in serious diners. On a recent Saturday (Saturday!) night, though, the slightly slumped River North dining room, all soaring columns and lacquered surfaces, was hosting a few desultory diners and everything seemed dead.
Until the food landed on our table. Proof that some kitchens keep turning out fine cuisine even when they've been abandoned, Ben Pao is still doing what it does very well. What it does is a glossy, Americanized version of Chinese food, but that doesn't mean the flavors, bastardized or not, are any less bright or addictive, or that the restaurant's signature dishes are any less exciting.
Worth the stop alone is a dish of fat, meaty black-peppered sea scallops, wok-seared with nappa cabbage and scallions. Also memorable: plump, lightly poached shrimp cooked in ginger soy with shiitake mushrooms and crisp asparagus; a sesame-crusted chicken that defies the curse of the usual overbattered chicken nugget; and a clean kung pao chicken.
108 E. Superior St., 312-573-6744
More proof that Chicago offers better Asian cuisine than any American city outside of San Francisco, this jewel box restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel, just off North Michigan Avenue, is expensive but usually worth the bill. While the dim sum - except for a silky scallop shu mai- tasted a little wilted on a recent visit, the Shanghai and Cantonese entrees are still studies in elegant dining.
Among the best: Kobe beef paired with pan-fried radish cake; a wok-baked lobster in roasted garlic sauce; and chili prawns tossed with baby asparagus.
Just when you think you've escaped Wisconsin, though, you realize you haven't. Could it possibly be true that our state Assembly was trying to shutter the UW law school and gut one of the few state institutions that actually bring prestige and real money into Wisconsin, a diner (and UW alum) sitting next to us asked, after discovering we were from Madison. Absurd, we reassured him, the kind of rumor outsiders concoct just to make Wisconsin look like cheap comic relief.