Every year to kick of the coveted Chicago Restaurant Week, Choose Chicago hosts a little event called First Bites Bash. With over 60 restaurants, it’s a means of getting a glimpse of the 14 days that follow.
This year, it took place inside the Aon Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier, and it was a perfect venue.
As you walk in on the lower level, you are obligated to not just look around you but ABOVE you, towards the grand ceiling.
You were also able to enter on the second floor and from the wrap-around balcony, getting an aerial view of the hustle and bustle below.
This was my first time ever attending, and to say my breath was taken away was a literal expression. I felt like a kid at Christmas seeing an array of gifts everywhere. I have a never-ending “Chicago Bucket List” of restaurants I have wanted to visit, and I magically encountered a land where SO MANY of them were all in one spot!
So how do you navigate First Bites Bash? Well first of all, there’s a map.
Naturally, you must plan accordingly. Some took a simple route – work your way outside the perimeter and work your way to the middle. I attempted this with my partners-in-crime, but we were much too distracted by celebrity sightings and marvelous aromas to stay on task. So here’s a more complicated, yet logical way of maneuvering through the crowd. Start with some appetizers.
First, stop at Park Grill at Millenium Park & sample their Cultural Mile Salad: spinach, kale, quinoa, Puna Gardens hearts of palm, cauliflower, cabbage, cilantro, carrots, celery, shaved red onion, fennel, asparagus, dried cranberries, dried cherries, sunflower & pumpkin seeds, and coriander vinaigrette. Executive Chef Alfredo Sandoval clearly doesn’t want you to go hungry with this one! 😉
Next up, stop at Untitled Supper Club, where Operations Manager Davey Carlson will slide you a previously controversial piece of foie gras mousse on toast. It literally and figuratively made my eyes roll to the back of my head in bliss.
One of the biggest “surprise” factors to me was from BOKA. Chef Lee Wolen’s Smoked Beets, served with yogurt, crispy grains, and sunflower seeds, were beyond any words. I mean, I would have overlooked this any given day and my life would just not have been complete. Genius, Chef.. this was genius.
Now you have lots of options to move onto from here. You can start with the seafood, the meats, there’s plenty of vegetarian options for your “main courses” as well!
While I’d love to highlight every place I stopped at, I’ll Sound of Music it up and just tell you about a few of my favorite things.
There were 2 stops that stood out for great scallops.
The first was Cindy’s Rooftop. Their marinated scallops were light but so flavorful! Special shout out to Sasha, pastry chef at Cindy’s, for assisting in this perfect shot 😉
CRW Lunch menu here. For more details on Cindy’s visit ChooseChicago.com. For another, more hearty rendition, I checked out Fred’s at Barneys New York for their Smoked Nantucket Bay Scallops (served over a sweet corn cake, confit mushroom, and preserved lemon emulsion).
TWO of my favorite dishes was from Common’s Club which is located on the 2nd floor of the Virgin Hotel. They actually served 2 different dishes that both were amazing – I can see why Executive Chef Moosah Reaume decided to bring both to the tables for the evening. First up – “Fire Shrimp”: Rock shrimp, scotch bonnet fire water, green papaya, & heirloom carrot. Secondly, he offered up an “Old Fashioned” (pictured below): foie gras, tart cherry, orange bitters, woodford reserve, captain crunch <—hellloooo!!!
So Justine, what about meat??
Don’t worry. Bar Takito offered up one of my favorite Spanish dishes of all time – Ropa Vieja. Sitting atop a handmade popcorn tortilla is braised brisket, roasted bell pepper, olive tapenade, and goat cheese. I mean, it’s just such a pretty dish and all the flavors stand out yet harmonize so well.
MAKE SURE, however, that when you are both making your rounds for First Bites and prepping your stomach & general mentality for Chicago Restaurant Week, you SAVE. ROOM. FOR. DESSERT. Because there is always room for dessert. And if there’s one flavor that has grown exponentially in popularity, I’d have to argue (and I’m possibly biased here) that it’s UBE.
One of the dishes I was most excited to see on the lineup (before I even walked through the doors even!) was from Warm Belly Bakery. I’m Filipino. And if there’s one dessert that just screams Filipino heritage & pride, it’s halo halo, and here at Warm Belly Bakery, they offered a Deconstructed Halo Halo (ube cookie topped with calamansi leche flan, toasted coconut, salt, and paired w/ sweet corn ice cream).
While they don’t have a CRW menu per say, you can stop by their bakery all week long to try this baby yourself! Visit their site for hours & location.
Well. Room for anything else? Duh. Everyone is looking for some alcohol. I, however, am not a huge drinker. But I needed something to help get in the swanky, fun mood – so do as I did.. get a Bourbon Ganache Bonbon from Veruca Chocolates 😉
Stop by their store to try these or any of their FABULOUS creations – visit their site for hours & location. Well that wraps it up folks. There are so many Chicago Restaurant Week winners for the next 14 DAYS!!!! Make sure you make your final choices because it’s from January 26-February 8 ONLY! And then you have to wait a whole year to get another shot at these amazing prix fixe menus. Here’s your cheat sheet of links:
- Chicago Restaurant Week Finder – use this to review your options
- OpenTable.com – make sure you get those reservations in!
- CRW Instagram Contest – Do you take as many pictures (or even half as many?) as I do? Well ChooseChicago is running a contest where you could win some amazing packages (hello AIRFARE MILEAGE!)
XOXO Justine|Chicago Food Affair
All opinions and notes are mine; I received a media pass in exchange for features on my social media accounts. In other words – I just really love food, and I love sharing suggestions with YOU. Choose Chicago helped me do that this time 🙂