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Chicago Restaurants: A Cornucopia of Tastes

Players:{Paco, John, Jui} and Viren

Prologue: Variety is the Spice of Life

Much to my surprise, Chicago has a wonderful collection of good restaurants of diverse types, cuisines and leanings. I went there expecting meat-n-potatoes food -- ok, very, very good meat-n-potatoes food -- but was pleasantly surprised to see the variety present. Most of the restaurants I went to were in and around downtown, and I've been told I missed out on some great restaurants in the 'burbs.

Act I: Japonais, Japonais, Japonais

Maybe if I say its name thrice, I will be magically transported to it. Japonais is a great contemporary Japanese restaurant in the River North area. The focus there is of course on sushi and especially sashimi. It is here that I've had some of the best sashimi cuts I've had the pleasure of tasting. It's a very popular place and a little on the expensive side, but definitely worth the visit. The decor is great: the main restaurant is divided into two main rooms -- the red room and the green room, each with its own particular style. They also have a bar/lounge downstairs that gives you a good view of the river and is a great place to people watch. A must if you are in Chicago. Try the Chef's special selection.

Act II: Topolobampo: Bayless to the Rescue

Topolobampo is Rick Bayless' upscale restaurant showpiece. Weirdly enough, it is situated inside the Frontera Grill, which is the poorer cousin from across the railway tracks. Having eaten at both the Grill and Topolobampo, I would recommend the latter even with the price difference. When we ate at Topolobampo, not only was the food (which falls into the nouveau Mexican category) great, but we had one of the most knowledgeable and savvy waiters I've ever had. Highly recommended, reserve early.

Act III: Vermillion

An Indian-Latin fusion restaurant in River North. The menu seems a little contrived in order to get Latin and Indian influences in dishes, but the food is good. I liked the decor a lot, but it did not fit with the restaurant cuisine: the decor was very modernist with the walls exhibiting black and white photographs by Indian fashion photographer Farrokh Chothia, and the place is strewn about with red and black leather couches that make you want to lounge before your meal. The menu is split between tapas with a decided Indian flavor and more traditional entrees. I wish that the food had more of a kick to it, but everything was rather subdued, contrary to what you would expect from two of the spiciest cuisines around. The bar makes some of the best mojitos and caiprinhas that I've had the pleasure to get drunk on. Also, do not leave without trying the "Vermilion Hedonism", a wonderful chocolate dessert.

Act IV: Monsoon

Yet another Indian restuarant, this time with an upscale Asian twist. The decor is elaborate, silk curtains, copper-topped bar and framed quotations from eastern philosophers capped by a gigantic silk "chandelier" that looks like an inverted fez. The food is not quite as breathtaking as the decor or the service, but is definitely pleasing to the palate (if not the pocketbook). Like Vermilion, nothing on the menu here is bad. So, be adventurous.

Act V: Mambo Grill

Small, fun restaurant of the Cuban persuasion, with a contemporary twist. Worth going to, especially since it has some wonderful vegetarian items. Their black bean soup is great, and do not leave without trying their unique chipotle chocolate cake. There's usually a good crowd at the bar and the restaurant plays some great music.

Act VI: Sugar: A Dessert Bar

Right around the corner from the Mambo Grill is "Sugar: A Dessert Bar", a bar/lounge that serves desserts and alcohol to go along with the desserts. All the desserts are literary themed: "Hunchbaked of Notre Dame", "Marquis de Sucre", etc and include some unique items including edible plates made of sugar and items that have millet and dates are the main focus. Sugar also has some great cocktails to complement the desserts, as well as some greats liqueurs (ports, cognacs, dessert wines, etc). The decor is wonderful and whimsical, with beehive chandeliers, multi-colored curtains and glass walls. Do not miss going to this place!

Act VII: High Tea

Who would have thought that there would be so many places to partake of high tea in Chicago? Luckily for us, two of them were around the corner from us: Pierrot Gourmet and the Peninsula Hotel. The former is a great little french sidewalk cafe that server coffee, pastries and sandwiches. It was a filling afternoon tea, complete with scones, devonshire clotted cream and finger sandwiches. If you want to go a little upscale, afternoon tea in the lobby of the Peninsula hotel is for you. They have a much better selection of teas and provide the standard selection of scones, clotted cream, finger sandwiches, pastries and souffles. Worth going to. Just plan on not having any dinner. BTW: the Peninsula also hosts a chocolate buffet every Friday and Saturday. Try to make it.

Act VIII: Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe

Aah...my favorite cafe in Chicago -- The Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe. They have a great line of truffles and chocolates, but my reason for going there is their variety of hot cocoas/chocolates. They have a fantastic selection including choco-chai, Mexican, and Mayan. Do try their chocolate desserts as well. They make all their own chocolate and it shows.

Act IX: Chicago Diner

The only all vegetarian diner that I've been to, and frankly I was a bit disappointed. I had one of their salads which, from the ingredients, had a lot of potential, but the practice fell short of its promise. However, their vegan desserts are great. I had the chocolate chip cheesecake and it was pretty good. If you are in Wrigleyville and feel like trying some fun vegetarian food, go here.

Act X: Green Zebra

Lots of promise, lots of hype. This looked like an interesting place to go, since it catered to vegetarians and was supposed to have some great food. Well, it did have wonderful food that was nicely complemented by nice soothing decor. The problem was that the portions were appetizer sized, while the prices were expensive entree sized. Go there, but don't expect to be sated.

Act XI: Flat Top Grill

A better class of mongolian BBQs. Flat top grill has a lot going for it, including good desserts and alcohol. The staff is great and the place is hopping in the evenings.

Act XII: Fogo de Chao

Fogo is a standard Brazilian churrascaria. The meats are wonderfully cooked and the salad bar is plentiful. However, at a price of $50 (without alcohol), there are other places where I would rather go.

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