Leña Brava is the ninth Chicago hot-spot from chef and author Rick Bayless, who apparently can do no wrong. His popular 1996 cookbook Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen and TV show Mexico: One Plate at a Time have promoted Mexican cuisine beyond its most popular dishes for years. So yeah… I had unrealistic expectations going in, but am happy to report those were surpassed by what became my favorite meal of 2016.
Leña Brava carves out a unique niche along Chicago’s bustling Restaurant Row, where you can get everything from the legendary burger at Au Cheval to Crispy Pig Face at current it-spot Girl and The Goat. Like those places, Leña Brava manages to invent it’s own version of comfort food. The menu explodes with Baja California inspired dishes that sing from their plates whether kissed by fire or served raw, complimented by a dizzying array of smoldering mezcal.
Starting with raw shrimp in uzu and sunflower seeds set the tone for a night of unexpected texture and flavor. We bounced across the menu enjoying everything from fresh and delicious ceviche to perfectly charred octopus. And don’t ignore the meats. The short rib was spectacular, enjoyed within house made tortillas with a side of buttery plantains worth the price of a plane ticket to Chicago. And I have it on good authority that the glazed chicken is out of this world.
The menu explodes with Baja California inspired dishes that sing from their plates whether kissed by fire or served raw, complimented by a dizzying array of smoldering mezcal.
Surrounded by wood burning stoves and a busy bar, it’s a foodie fantasy for sure. A beautiful atmosphere, spectacular flavors, attentive service, and strong drinks. Leña Brava was the best recommendation I got this year and I’ve been preaching the word ever since.
We strolled leisurely down 11th, avoiding the tourist-infused High Line, toward a chef’s counter reservation at Toro where we happily ordered a step beyond what might be considered reasonable.
We also found the Hell’s Bell Pepper to be just the right amount of savory – tequila, mezcal, yellow bell pepper, agave and bird’s eye chili.
Now we’re diving headfirst into an expensive plate of Paleta Iberico De Cinco Jotas – a dry cured boneless Iberian ham that delights and is gone before you can say “twenty eight dollars.”
Some addictive Maiz Asado con Alioli y Queso Cotija followed – a dangerously convenient version of grilled street corn, and a nice foil for the Setas, a bowl of deliciously unctuous mushrooms set beneath a sexy chivy yolk.
Then things got heavy – in a good way. Unable to choose between bone marrow and foie gras, we picked both. I’m more of a purist when it comes to bone marrow, so the Asado De Hueso with guajillo and chorizo XO, Brussels sprouts and escargot – perhaps has a little too much going on. Yet I ate it happily.
We opted for the Foie Gras Tonkatsu – a crispy foie sandwich with strawberry tomato jam and pickled daikon. Kinda perfect bar food if you’re OK with foie taking second billing. Nice marriage of textures, too.
“Hey man, that’s probably delicious, right?” asked a stranger at the bar – flanked by two liquored up and leathery ladies of a certain age. I smiled and snapped a picture of his seared foie.
For dessert we had hamburgers.
Ok, not dessert per se, but our last course were a pair of delectable Hamburguesas, mini dry-aged burgers with a spicy kick on a potato bun.
In a nutshell, Toro is the perfect place for you and your overpaid friends to meet up, get buzzed, and eat decadent small plates while ignoring a world gone mad.
Prospect Heights restaurant from chef-owner Greg Baxtrom packs them in for dinner and recently rolled out brunch. Expect twists and turns, like a breakfast of Carrot Kathi Rolls (Carrot Pulp Falafel, Cilantro Stem Raita) or the Duck Duo, crispy duck sausage with scrambled egg and maple flatbread. And don’t leave without trying their bacon, egg, and cheese Egg Rolls, as delicious as they are adorable.
The tight and thoughtful dinner menu includes a scrumptious Duck Liver Mouse, a clever Beef Tartare, Heritage Pork with Raclette, and other seasonal curve-balls. Toss in a playful cocktail menu and you’ve found the perfect spot for those who like a dash of quirkiness on the plate.
What To Do: Paris
On your fourth trip to Paris, you take less pictures and enjoy more actual moments. Best to live like a local. We rent an apartment and stock up on breads from Poilâne, french butter, various cheeses, some fromage de tête. Good coffee. And the inevitable bottle of Orangina.
The Google Map below has more restaurants than you could see in any one trip. I wound up having super memorable tasting menus at Frenchie and Ellsworth, and a nice meal at Ore in Versailles. But we also had excellent low key bistro meals, enjoyed Pizzeria Popolare, and some cocktails and charcuterie at aveK.
There’s always next time.
Between the historic sites, architecture, museums, churches, parks, and restaurants… there’s a whole hell of a lot to do in and around Paris. Check out our Google Map for some ideas.