It has been a big year for the Chicago dining scene. With some brilliant new openings, Chicago restaurants making all sorts of “Best Of” lists (including Grant Achatz and Alinea ranking the highest of all US eateries on the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list), and now the Michelin awards finally making their mark in this city, Chicago is finally being recognized as a major player on the world dining stage.
Of course, Chicagoans have always known this. I think we excel at good quality, neighborhood fare – many of our best restaurants are casual enough to not enforce pretentious dress codes, cheap enough that we can eat there more than once a year, and yet good enough to bring friends with the most distinguished of palates. Always at the top of my list of restaurants meeting this criteria is The Bristol.
Last month, Michelin announced the Bib Gourmand award winners, a prestigious honor that goes to restaurants offering affordable, high quality food. These restaurants, according to Michelin, are often reviewers’ favorites that deserve mention but aren’t necessarily worthy of a star…yet. I was happy to see Bristol on this list, if not a little surprised they weren’t in the running for a star (Bristol and Ann Sather on the same list?), so with a reservation through Foodie the App burning a hole in my pocket, I made my way to dinner on a Sunday evening before the masses start pouring in. Below is a brief recap:
We started dinner with a couple Bristol classics: scotch olives and monkey bread. I order the olives every time I eat here – salty olives covered in ground pork, breaded, and deep fried. A perfect bar snack or appetizer. The monkey bread, in short, it was divine. Buttery, chewy, and almost a bit flaky, the pull-apart bread was good enough to eat alone even though it was served with an equally delicious dill butter.
The Bristol is also known for outstanding charcuterie, so we ordered a salame Toscano with olives, sunchokes, pear, and tempura-fried sage. Unfortunately, our server could not tell us where the salame was made (she knew it was not made in house, but by a friend of the chef’s, apparently), but it didn’t matter. The thin slices worked perfectly with the toppings, and the accompanying sage was so good, we were fighting for the last piece.
For entrees, we split a selection from the hand-made pasta menu and the crispy goat. Hand cut noodles with chiles, spaghetti squash, and parmesan was easily one of my favorite bites of the night, even though I could not identify one strand of spaghetti squash (it was either missing from the dish entirely, or my dinner date snagged it all). The chiles flavored the chewy al dente pasta while adding a perfect amount of heat.
As for the crispy goat, this is one of those dishes that just gets better with every bite. The goat went through multiple steps of preparation before finally hitting our table as a crispy, pan-fried triangle of meat heaven. Our server described the process in depth, but I was already half way through my Victory Storm King (a dark stout beer) at that point. I remember there was braising and pan frying and pulling involved, but you’ll have to go there to get all the details. The point is, at first bite, I found the flavor to be good, but maybe a little dry. The second bite was a little better and the flavor started coming alive. By the last bite, I didn’t want it to end. It was served with a chestnut puree, grilled cipollini onions, and greens that looked like perfect fall leaves. All in all, a great dish.
With a new pastry chef in the house, we could not pass up dessert. Perhaps for the first time, the entire dessert menu looked all too enticing. I am not generally a big dessert fan – while I like something sweet at the end of my meal, often a creamy coffee will do the trick. But with options like Basque cake, a creamy, moist cake served with apple sabayon and walnuts, or the sweet potato pot de crème with dolce de leche and a whoopie pie on the side, we had to make a choice. We chose the chocolate sabayon served with house-made nutter butters to share. It was fantastic.
One thing I did not mention was the fabulous cocktail menu. Like the dinner menu, it changes often and is expertly crafted by a resident mixologist. I was looking forward to trying the Pomelo Fizz, made with Death’s Door gin, Campari, lime sour, basil, and egg whites, but with the absence of basil that night, I chose a beer instead. All that means is “next time” will have to come sooner than later – before they change up the drinks again.
2152 N. Damen
Chicago, IL 60647
P. (773) 862-5555
Dinner for two costs around $80, not including drinks, though you can easily order less food and feel satisfied. The Bristol offers both communal seating and private tables, though you likely won’t have a choice if it’s busy, and it’s always busy. They do not accept reservations, except through Foodie the App, which offers reservations nightly at 6:30pm. Registration is free, and you have to be a member to enjoy the perks.