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Chicago is an established foodie destination for one main reason: when you're holed up for months trying to avoid arctic blasts, you need good food to occupy your time. At least that's how I see it. It's no coincidence that Chicago Restaurant Week opens during the unrelenting cold of February, supplying diners with over 300 restaurants to enjoy.
Scheduled through Feb. 12, this year's event actually spans two weeks. While lots of foodies will use the special three-course, $22 lunch and $33 or $44 dinner prix fixe menus as a chance to sample Chicago's celebrity chef restaurants and hot eateries, a more interesting approach is to grab the opportunity to try different country's cuisines.
You can literally taste the world when you visit Chi-towns's diverse dining spots. Nosh through four continents with my suggested Chicago Restaurant Week eating itinerary:
Spain: Mercat A La Planxa
Mercat A La Planxa offers an elegant culinary experience focused on the Catalan region of Spain. The communal spirit and festive atmosphere of the Spanish dining tradition comes alive here with a bright décor and shared tapas plates.
The restaurant offers both lunch and dinner menus for restaurant week, including Arroz a La Cazuela, a savory casserole of rice, chicken, chorizo and shrimp, Cepes Y Butifarra Coca, flat bread covered with wild mushrooms, Catalan sausage topped with roasted garlic and Manchego cheese for lunch.
For dinner, choices include Datiles con Almendras or bacon-wrapped dates, Spanish staples of Serrano ham and fig salad served with spiced almonds and sherry vinaigrette and Gambas Al Ajillo,or garlic shrimp on a toasted baguette. If you have room, there's Croquetas de Xocolata ,chocolate croquettes covered in banana marshmallow, rosemary caramel and Arbequina olive oil.
Germany :The Berghoff
The Berghoff is a Chicago institution, established at the turn of the 20th century as a men-only saloon where Berghoff beer and free corned beef sandwiches were served. After surviving prohibition, The Berghoff was the first Chicago restaurant to get a liquor license and it evolved into a welcoming, family- run, German eatery which it remains today.
Selections for restaurant week lunch and dinner include Kartoffelsuppe Mit Thuringer, a Munich style potato soup with smoked thuringer German sausage, Wiener Schnitzel A La Holstein, a dish of breaded and fried veal cutlets with fried egg, anchovies and German potatoes and potato pierogies.
Feel the warmth of gracious Ethiopian hospitality at this popular spot. The space is decorated with Ethiopian art work, wooden tables and bright linens so that it feels like you're in the dining room of an Addis Ababa house.
The menu reflects the country's different regions and ethnic groups and the restaurant week dinner offerings include Azifah Selatah, lentils sauteed with onions and jalapeno with a lime vinaigrette, Doro Wat, a delectable serving of lemon marinated chicken stewed in a spicy sauce and Ye-Beg Wot, pieces of cubed lamb stewed in a special Demera sauce. Ethiopian food is eaten with spongy, tangy, injera bread so don't ask for utensils!
Vietnam: Saigon Sisters
An exciting new restaurant that helped create a Vietnamese cuisine craze in the Windy City, Saigon Sisters is an airy cafe in a LEED certified building. The restaurant week dinner menu features dishes from each region of Vietnam, including banana blossoms salad, stuffed squid with broken rice, oxtail pho and BBQ eggplant with broken rice. Broken rice in Vietnamese dishes is nuttier and sticker than whole rice and gives the food a distinctive flavor.
Nacional 27: Latin America
Full disclosure; Nacional 27 is one of my favorite Chicago restaurants and I recommend a visit during restaurant week or any other time. The concept behind the restaurant is the melding of the culinary details of the 27 South and Central American countries for an explosion of flavor and spirit.
With white banquettes and a circular bar, there's a festive ambiance at Nacional 27 that includes salsa dancing after 9 p.m. For restaurant week, the options include chorizo empanadas, suckling pig and salmon with salsa verde.
I also recommend that you carry your suitcase along while you're traveling through Chicago Restaurant Week, because you're going to need a change of looser clothes.
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