First Taste: Grand Tour Chicago Restaurant

I compare places to Epcot a lot. Eataly is the Epcot of Italian food, the Chicago French Market is the Epcot of West Loop lunch fare, Navy Pier is the Epcot of awfulness, etc. But Grand Tour really is the end all-be all of Epcot analogies. Much like Epcot's expansive international food court melee, Grand Tour takes guests on an international tour with a menu that trots around the globe from Ireland to Jamaica, with plentiful stopovers in between. Each dish is wildly different, inspired by a distinct region of the world, and a meal at Grand Tour makes for an exciting adventure for the senses.

Sweetbreads a la Thailand at Grand Tour Restaurant Chicago
(Sweetbreads a la Thailand)

The Food

Grand Tour cites itself as an "international culinary journey," a lofty proclamation that lives up to its own hype thanks to chef Roger Herring, previously and preciously of the shuttered Socca. Every item on the menu is thoughtfully contrived so as to represent a different country. Sometimes the connection is a little less overt, but half the fun and adventure is in discovering the cultural connections via your taste buds. The U.S. is represented with some classic Southern fried chicken adjoined by sriracha honey and warm crumpets, a refreshing change of pace from biscuits in that they taste like the doughy hybrid of doughnuts and English muffins. An octopus derives inspiration from Jamaica thanks to some dutiful jerk spices, crackly plantain chips, yam puree, kumquats, and habanero-citrus vinaigrette. Some of the most eclectic sweetbreads I've ever tasted give a nod to Thailand with a melange of spicy peanut butter sauce, Thai chiles, and roasted peanuts, giving way to a nutty nugget-like heap of glands. Herring does a masterful job with Italian fare as well, turning out a toothsome spread of squid ink gnocchi as black as sin but as light and vivacious as the finest of pasta preparations, thanks in part to the accompanying whipped housemade ricotta and preserved lemon. This is just the tip of the international iceberg too, with many other dishes bouncing around to Mexico, Turkey, India, Iceland, and more. Don't miss the Chinese-inspired pig head, a braised and crispy head chiseled at the table by the chef, to be heaped into tender bao buns for maximum, porcine face-stuffing.

Squid ink gnocchi at Grand Tour Restaurant Chicago
(Squid ink gnocchi)

The Passport

Grand Tour makes reputable use of its name and philosophy with the implementation of passports. Not like actual passports, though, so don't try to breach airport security with these things. But it's a laudable effort, allowing guests to check off different countries in their very own passport booklet throughout the year as Grand Tour showcases various countries on tasting menus each month. For March, the featured country is Ireland, naturally. This means that guests can take part in a special degustation of Irish food for the month, checking Ireland off in their passport when they partake. As diners eat their way around the world with different themed tasting menus each month, they'll earn restaurant rewards. It's basically The Amazing Race, but without the hassle of having to finagle with foreign taxi drivers.

Octopus at Grand Tour Chicago Restaurant
(Octopus a la Jamaica)

The Space

Walking into the airy, comfortable Grand Tour, you'll likely be struck with how akin to a Hogwarts dining hall it is. I sure was. To get specific, it feels like what I imagine a Hufflepuff enclave would be like. What with all the international, colorful flags and decor strewn about, the light din of sports television, and the Grand Tour branding, which looks like something out of J.K. Rowling's imagination. A huge circular bar serves as the focal point of the main dining room, abutting a small stage for musical performances, a slightly open-ish kitchen, and a whole slew of seating options. There's another medium-sized bar along the side of the restaurant, followed by a foosball table and a private-ish dining room in the back, large enough to house the most ample of dinner parties. And there's shuffleboard. Come spring (fingers crossed), Grand Tour will unveil its rather massive patio, which essentially runs the length of the restaurant on the eastern sidewalk. Large televisions fill the space, streaming with international sports, just to really drive the message home that Grand Tour is all about the international.

- Matt Kirouac