Plenty on your plate in Chicago

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It might be the nation's 10th most-visited city, but its innovative restaurants put it at the gourmet top spot, says Andy Lynes

If they ever build a restaurant on the moon, it might look like Belly Q (bellyqchicago.com). A converted pickle warehouse in Chicago's West Loop meat packing neighbourhood decked out in hand-trowelled cement and brushed steel, the cavernous space could be the set of a 1970s sci-fi movie. The food is out of this world too. Korean-born chef Bill Kim has reworked and Americanised dishes his parents and grandparents cooked him. So kimchi, the classically pungent Korean cabbage dish that's usually fermented for months, is made fresh every day and has a milder, more approachable flavour. It's delicious served in an open pancake with double smoked bacon. Short rib, made to Kim's grandmother's recipe, is finely sliced through the bone and marinated in palm sugar and soy, then grilled and served with crispy shallot, garlic and spring onions. A super-savoury side dish of Chinese sausage with dried shrimp, spinach, coconut milk and red quinoa is umami in a bowl. It all adds up to a thrilling first meal in the city.

As I sip a locally brewed Half Acre pale wheat beer and drink in the boisterous atmosphere, I already feel like the trip has been worth making. But Kim's exciting take on Korean barbecue isn't the only game in town. The West Loop has become known as Chicago's restaurant row (although it remains a semi-industrial area with numerous meat and fish wholesalers mixed in with the loft apartments, new-build high rises and art galleries) and there are an ever increasing number of notable eateries within a mile of Belly Q's front door including renowned Chicago restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff's modern American diner Au Cheval (auchevalchicago.com) and celebrity chef Stephanie Izard's eclectic Girl and the Goat (girlandthegoat.com).

Local chef Paul Kahan was one of the first to venture into the area, opening the minimalist fine-dining Blackbird (blackbirdrestaurant.com) in 1997, but Chicago's burgeoning neighbourhood scene has its roots as far back as the 1970s. Former PR man Gordon Sinclair opened Gordon, now the site of the highly acclaimed American/Mediterranean restaurant Naha (naha-chicago.com) in the then-derelict River North area of Downtown Chicago.

Others followed, including TV chef Rick Bayless who has been serving authentic Mexican cuisine at Frontera Grill (rickbayless.com) since the late 1980s.

River North was soon dubbed "eaterville", but it was another 1980s neighbourhood restaurant that not only put Chicago on the world gastronomic map, but also helped create the talent pool that's driving the current boom. Charlie Trotter closed his eponymous northside Lincoln Park restaurant last year but his innovative approach – he was the first American chef to offer tasting menus – has had a huge influence on numerous former employees including Kahan, Grant Achatz of three-Michelin-starred Alinea (alinearestaurant.com) and two-Michelin-starred Graham Elliot (grahamelliot.com) who have all sought out the cheaper rents of up-and-coming neighbourhoods in order to launch their businesses.

"You can be five miles down the street from where anything is really going on and if the food's good, people are going to want to go down that street," says chef Jared Wentworth, who opened the Michelin-starred gastropub Longman and Eagle (longmanandeagle.com) in the bohemian Logan Square neighbourhood in 2010. "Logan Square still isn't totally gentrified, it can get pretty dicey at three in the morning, but there are now five or six really good, compete-anywhere-in-the-city restaurants." These include Yusho (yusho-chicago.com), Telegraph (telegraphchicago.com) and Scofflaw (scofflawchicago.com).

Wentworth's menu of "elevated American bar classics" has been a smash hit and customers have been known to wait up to four hours to dine on the likes of popcorn sweetbreads with ranch dressing foam and his signature wild boar sloppy Joe sandwich. It's worth knowing that if you stay in one of the pub's six rooms (from $85 a night) you're allocated an otherwise unbookable table.

Chef Chris Nugent spent seven years working downtown at the fine-dining Les Nomades (lesnomades.net) before ploughing his life savings into opening the BYOB Goosefoot (goosefoot.net), named after the genus of edible plants, with his wife Nina at the grungy western edge of Lincoln Square in late 2011.

"To open a restaurant and be able to charge $115, almost what you would pay downtown, you need to have the support of Chicago – and that's happened. The mayor has eaten here," says Nugent, who has recently been named chef of the year by the Chicago Tribune and has a three-month waiting list for a table at his 34 seat restaurant. Nugent's tasting menus fuse classic French cooking with ultra-modern techniques and are built around produce from local farms, plus herbs and plants grown in his own Lincoln Square backyard.

Where Nugent led, others have quickly followed. Elizabeth (elizabeth-restaurant.com), recently opened by self-taught chef and forager Iliana Regan between a sport store and tyre shop close to Lincoln Square itself, is the permanent incarnation of her acclaimed supper club. Chicago's foodies have been salivating over marathon 24-course, ticket-only dinners that have included lobster with chicken liver sauce.

Wicker Park, northwest of the downtown loop, was recently named by Forbes magazine as one of the top five "hipster neighbourhoods" in America, based partly on the high number of independently owned coffee shops, bars and restaurants. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the wide avenues lined with handsome brownstone buildings are thronged with creative types and smartly dressed families on the hunt for good food and drink. The Wormhole (thewormhole.us), decorated with movie memorabilia including a large scale model of the Delorean from Back to the Future and staffed by barristas with serious beards is the place to go for small batch artisan coffee and a locally baked danish.

Outside Big Star (bigstarchicago.com), the queue trails back down North Damen Avenue towards the park where the locals play basketball and baseball. The casual Mexican food – deliciously spicy guacamole and piquant braised pork belly tacos – is worth the wait.

By mid-afternoon, it's the quiet before the dinner storm at nearby Trenchermen (trencher men.com), a wonderfully atmospheric bar and restaurant that retains the white glazed tiles of its previous incarnation as a Turkish hammam. It's difficult to imagine a better way to while a way an hour or so than sitting at the black walnut bar sampling the eclectic range of draught beers and eating inventive dishes such as cured chicken bresaola with pickle-stuffed "tater tots" (small hash brown cubes) and red onion yoghurt.

Dinner is a short walk away at The Bristol (thebristolchicago.com) in the chi-chi Bucktown neighbourhood. Heading north on North Damen, the street is lined with upmarket stores such as the Goddess and Grocer deli (goddessandgrocer.com), and restaurants including Trotter alumni Mindy Segal's Hot Chocolate restaurant and dessert bar (hotchocolatechicago.com), a favourite of Chris and Nina Nugent).

The Bristol's chef Chris Pandel has won the approval of his peers including Grant Achatz for his gutsy European influenced dishes that spotlight the bounty of produce from some of the best farms in the mid-West. I can't remember eating better chicken than the roasted breast and leg that's served with dill spaetzle (a German-style noodle dumpling) and apple and radish salad.

In Lakeview, two blocks west of Lake Michigan, Greg O'Neill also celebrates regional produce at Pastoral (pastoralartisan.com), a bar and deli that focuses on cheese and charcuterie. "American cheeses are finding their place on the world stage and some of the cheese makers have a rockstar following," says O'Neill, who is also president of the American Cheese Society and has worked with Praire Fruits Farm in Champaign, Illinois to produce a goat's cheese specifically for the shop.

But it's back in the West Loop where I find the most sophisticated use of mid-Western ingredients. Curtis Duffy, formerly of Alinea and Charlie Trotter's, has big ambitions for his multi-million dollar project Grace (grace-restaurant.com). "I want to be a three-Michelin-starred chef and Grace to be talked about world wide," he says.

The converted picture-framers has been transformed by acres of aged American black ash and a show kitchen where a vast number of chefs work with the precision of surgeons. The format – multi-course fine dining – might be familiar, but the flavours seem to have been beamed in from another dimension. Liquorice-flavoured sassafras root is served in a hollowed-out horned melon with celery root, crab, tapioca and green almonds.

Chicago currently stands 10th in the list of top US cities for international visitors, behind New York and San Francisco among others. Although both are undeniably great restaurant cities, neither can touch Chicago when it comes to cutting edge, modern progressive cooking. "I'd rate it at the top in the United States," says Wentworth.

Chicagoans' seemingly insatiable appetite for the new and unusual (as well as the traditional and comforting) is matched only by the ability of the city's chefs and restaurateurs to provide it. Next time you're in the neighbourhood, drop by and find out for yourself.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

American Airlines flies to Chicago from Manchester and Heathrow; United (0845 607 6760; unitedairlines.co.uk) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) fly from Heathrow.

America As You Like It (020-8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) has a four-night holiday to Chicago, including return flights from Heathrow to Chicago with United and room-only accommodation at the Omni Chicago (001 312 944 6664; omnihotels.com) from £890 per person, based on two sharing.

More information

choosechicago.com

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