Leave the coasts behind: America's hottest new dining destination lies smack in the heartland. Here are three of our favorite places in Chicago's chic and creative restaurant scene.
Amid an interior of beige and white, coolly accented by ebony tables and white onyx cutlery, French chef Laurent Gras gives seafood a new sense of immediacy with a menu as precisely executed as it is unconventional. His ingredients are global and first-rate: Maine codfish, Spanish octopus, deepwater snapper from Japan. His dishes are modest in size yet generous in potency. Shrimp tartare is sprinkled with edible pansies and gold dust; a trifle is composed of caviar, salt cod and potato. That snapper is smoked over cherrywood and glistens with apricot oil. See www.l2orestaurant.com.
Mercat a la Planxa
Part tapas bar, part Latin grill, Mercat a la Planxa marks a coming home of sorts for locally raised chef Jose Garces, the wonder-toque of Philadelphia's top Nuevo Latino eateries. Opened last year in the Blackstone Hotel, Mercat is a Catalan kitchen and Garces' first hometown restaurant. A meal at Mercat is kicked off with a cocktail menu strong on sangria and cava as dishes big and small flow freely from a glass-tiled open kitchen. Tiny padron peppers come fried in a crust of salbitxada (almond sauce); Catalan sausage and meatballs serve as anchors for a spicy Spanish stew. Mercat's namesake plancha entrées include grilled chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage). Rambling over three colorful floors, this is an all-night fiesta with prices that won't kill the fun. Details at www.mercatchicago.com.
Italian architect Renzo Piano's recently completed expansion of Chicago's beloved Art Institute includes a new foodie haven. Perched on the new wing's third floor with views of Frank Gehry's Jay Pritzker Pavilion Terzo Piano is an indoor/outdoor Italian boîte as sleek as the museum itself. Designed by local architect Dirk Denison, Terzo Piano begins with a presentation kitchen at the entrance showcasing cheese, meats and salads. Further on, a clutch of 11 custom-designed mobile panels helps create individual dining zones that can contract and expand according to crowd levels. Smaller tables, accented by original George Nelson swag-leg chairs, have been rendered from resin and glow from within via abundant natural light. Outside, the designer name-dropping continues unabated via Bertoia chairs and Durat tabletops crafted from recycled plastic. It's all capped by the superlative Italian creations of local celeb chef Tony Mantuano a favorite of the Obamas, no less. See more at www.terzopianochicago.com.