First Taste of Spring in Chicago
It seemed like it would never come, but spring is here. After the endless winter we endured, I thought I'd have to resign myself to butternut squash soup and pumpkin lattes for the rest of my life. But at long last, winter ebbed and in its place: rhubarb, peas, morel mushrooms, asparagus, and a sense of joy. Spring menus are sprouting all over Chicago, laden with vibrant, life-affirming ingredients that make arduous winters worth the strife. Almost. Here's your bucket list for preeminent spring dining in Chicago right now.
(Spring-y mussels at Bread & Wine)
Watercress soup with creme fraiche, caviar, and rhubarb is a nice departure from the heavy chowders and stews we've been plying our bodies with the past several months. Morel mushrooms, the funnest of the funghi, pops up in a ricotta gnudi dish along with peas, mint, and Grana Padano, as well as an arctic char dish with asparagus, almonds, and sauce vin jaune. And sometimes you just want straight-up, full-force vegetation. Case in point, grilled asparagus with miso hollandaise, a nice riff on the steakhouse staple.
Spring preserves and pickles are resplendent at Vie, offering a nice, tangy alternative to typical spring dining. Expect braised Burgundy snails with pickled ramps, steak frites with pickled asparagus, and blue cheese fritters with strawberry jam and pickled fennel.
At Vie's sister restaurant, Perennial Virant, the multi-tasking chef Paul Virant serves spring on a plate in the form of grilled Caveny Farm lamb merguez with buttered peas and pickled asparagus, crispy Carnaroli rice cake with pea shoots and spring onion vinaigrette, and a housemade herb ricotta tart with pea puree and shoots.
Not all of spring's cultishly adored ingredients come from soil. Soft-shell crab, smelts, and Alaskan halibut are as indicative of spring as the most bulbous stalk of asparagus. Get your fix at Shaw's Crab House, where Alaskan halibut in a lentil crust is now available through November, along with cracker meal-crusted smelt available through mid-May, and of course soft-shell crabs, on deck May through October, available as a sandwich or platter.
Baby artichokes and ramps ramp up the spring menu at Bread & Wine as part of a seasonal steamed mussels preparation. P.E.I. mussels are adjoined by the spring sensations, along with giardiniera and toast.
While most folks sensationalize The Drawing Room for its venerable cocktails, and rightfully so, the food program by chef Thomas Sheean should not be overlooked. Especially now, what with his new spring prelude menu laden with items such as chilled pea soup with lavender biscuit crumble, ricotta gnocchi with creamed English peas, and Coulotte steak with asparagus Milanese.
From appetizers to desserts, Cafe des Architectes does it all. Start with a spring risotto brimming with morels and English peas. Move on to venison with creamed morels, English peas, and huckleberry gastrique. Finish with a rhubarb and raspberry tart or strawberry mousse. Or both.
(Ada Street's asparagus-poblano soup)
Crispy lamb scrumpets with minted pea puree. Scallops with grilled ramps and chimichurri. Asparagus-poblano soup. Eat all of this at Ada Street immediately. 'Nuff said.
No better way to kickstart a spring morning than with strawberry rhubarb French toast. Eat it for brunch, then come back for the spring bibb salad at lunch or dinner, a pea-tastic medley of sweet peas, pea shoots, sugar snap peas, Boston bibb lettuce, bacon, mushrooms, and green goddess dressing.
You can always count on The Bristol to up the ante on fascinating seasonal eats. For example: flash-cooked halibut with minted peas and charred spring onions; New York strip steak with green garlic-miso butter and green garlic bulbs; and braised pork shank with glazed knob onions and mustard-scented lentils.
The special April risotto at Tortoise Club embodies spring to the core. Likely one of the springiest dishes in town right now, this decadent creation includes spring peas, fresh fava beans, asparagus, and ramps.
Steakhouse-style vegetable preparations are always a fun way to experience seasonal cookery. Get thee to Del Frisco's to partake in their lamb with fava bean puree and roasted green garlic chimichurri, their Parmesan truffle spring pea and corn risotto, and the rhubarb sorbet topped with spiked whipped cream.
Pinstripes rolls a strike with some pretty stellar spring plates. Pappardelle ragu alla Bolognese is made with slow-braised lamb, beef, pork, and morel mushrooms, topped with mascarpone cheese and basil. Then there's the pan-seared scallops with sweet pea puree, watercress, and saffron-caper sauce.
It's a taste of spring in Paris right in the heart of River North thanks to Paris Club Bistro & Bar. Dig into the blanquette de veau with roasted veal loin, veal sweetbreads, morel mushrooms, and sweet peas.
- Matt Kirouac