With Valentine’s Day around the corner, it’s a tempting time to partake in aphrodisiacs, those romance-inducing ingredients found everywhere from oyster bars to bakery shelves. Here’s a handy guide to these coveted delicacies in Chicago, for purists and modernists alike.
For the purist: One of the best seafood destinations in town, GT Fish & Oyster has a particular penchant for oysters. If you’re feeling lavish, order a seafood tower brimming with the fresh raw bivalves, plus shrimp, crab, clams, lobster and ceviche. Aptly, the restaurant also recently unveiled an oyster tasting menu, only available at the boomerang-shaped table by the oyster bar, which includes oyster shooters, a spoonful of oyster and poke, roasted oyster with horseradish butter and Parmesan, and an oyster po’ boy slider.
For the modernist: Grilled oysters are the name of the game at Chicago Oyster House, where along with a bevy of raw and classic preparations, newfangled items have developed a renown for the South Loop restaurant. A classic dish of oysters Rockefeller is on hand, along with a few novel options like the namesake C.O.H. with garlic, cilantro and Parmesan, or the zesty ichi with jalapeño, scallions, ginger and soy.
GT Fish & Oyster: 531 N. Wells St.; 312-929-3501
Chicago Oyster House: 1933 S. Indiana Ave.; 312-225-8833
For the purist: When you're craving a full-bodied red, Humboldt Park’s quintessential wine bar is a good option. Not only does Rootstock boast a cozy, romantic atmosphere, like something out of an old mansion parlor, but the wine list features numerous reds by glass with ample, helpful descriptions — and at quite affordable prices too.
For the modernist: For something totally offbeat, head to Bread & Wine for a mug of red wine hot chocolate. The unusual combo combines Pinot Noir with semi-sweet chocolate, whole milk, half and half, vanilla and a pinch of cinnamon. Like the love child of mulled wine and hot cocoa, the result is a richer, fruitier chocolate warmer that’s perfect for winter sipping.
Rootstock: 954 N. California Ave.; 773-292-1616
Bread & Wine: 3734 W. Irving Park Rd.; 773-866-5266
For the purist: The most time-honored confection calls for a classic bakery. Chocoholics should probably add Bake to their speed dial in that case, because Bucktown’s utmost destination for sweet Americana does chocolate desserts like no other. If you’re lucky, the bakery will have slices of fudgy chocolate cake for an indulgent afternoon snack. Otherwise you can rest assured the jaw-dropping pastry cases will be stocked with other staples like chocolate cupcakes, brownies and chocolate chip cookies.
For the modernist: If your sweet tooth skews contemporary, look no further than the dessert menu at RPM Steak, whose 14K chocolate cake is far from average. Indeed, it’s as rich as the title suggests, a dense, delicious cake made with both milk and dark chocolate — plus a smattering of edible gold flakes that's the figurative icing on the cake in this case. Along with actual chocolate icing.
Bake: 2246 W. North Ave.; 773-384-7655
RPM Steak: 66 W. Kinzie St.; 312-284-4990
For the purist: Traditional banana desserts come in a variety of forms, from banana bread to bananas Foster. But perhaps nothing taps into that iconic American nostalgia quite like banana pudding, something that Sweet Mandy B’s excels at. The adorable Lincoln Park bakery is one of the few places in town for banana pudding parfaits, great for both dine in or to go. True to classic form, it’s a simple and satisfying striation of vanilla pudding, banana slices and wafer cookies that soften in the pudding and make for a cakelike texture.
For the modernist: Bananas aren’t all that uncommon in cocktails, particularly in smoothielike tipples, but what’s not typical at all is a banana-based cocktail adorned with a dolphin-shaped banana garnish. One of the most famed drinks at Three Dots and a Dash, the banana daiquiri is far quirkier (and cuter) than the name suggests. It’s made with rum, lime, coconut and banana, all blended together into a creamy, dangerously drinkable concoction. The crown jewel is the banana garnish, wherein half a fruit is sliced and pierced with cloves and pineapple leaves to resemble a dolphin leaping out of the cup.
Sweet Mandy B's: 1208 W. Webster Ave.; 773-244-1174
Three Dots and a Dash: 435 N. Clark St.; 312-610-4220
For the purist: Avocado dishes don’t get any more classic than a well-made bowl of fresh guacamole. For the good stuff, head to Pilsen’s Sabas Vega, a timeworn family-run spot renowned for its succulent carnitas. The piggy morsels are ideally accented with a platter of cactus salad, queso fresco and guacamole, which gets mashed on the spot and boasts a nice chunky texture and a splash of acidity to contrast with the avocado’s innate richness.
For the modernist: In recent years, avocado toast has swept the nation and become all the rage for fruit-loving modernists looking to branch out beyond chips and dip. River North’s Latin-accented Cafe Integral, tucked inside the Freehand Hotel, offers a standout version that layers smashed avocado over sourdough bread with shaved radishes, pickled shallots for a bit of tang, sunflower sprouts and a dose of heat from chile oil.
Sabas Vega: 1808 S. Ashland Ave.; 312-666-5180
Cafe Integral: 19 E. Ohio St.; 312-940-3699
For the purist: Few cultures maximize honey’s wholesome sweetness quite like the Greeks. Which means few neighborhoods in Chicago are better honey destinations than Greektown. Classic desserts like baklava and loukoumades are popular standouts at Artopolis, a bustling cafe and bakery in the heart of the 'hood. Flaky baklava features layers of filo dough and crumbled walnuts glazed with honey and vanilla. Meanwhile, loukoumades are the kitchen's donutlike honey fritters flecked with sesame and cinnamon.
For the modernist: Honey can play handily with savory too. In fact, it’s the perfect accompaniment to fried chicken at Avondale’s aptly dubbed Honey Butter Fried Chicken. Before the restaurant opened, few would have thought to smear honey-infused butter on fried chicken, but it turns out it’s a match made in comfort-food heaven. As the butter melts into the crispy nooks and crannies of the hot chicken, it adds a welcome layer of heady sweetness, similar to how butter enriches a warm plate of pancakes. Since adding honey butter to things is par for the course here, the sweetener comes with everything from crispy chicken sandwiches to French toast too.
Artopolis: 306 S. Halsted St.; 312-559-9000
Honey Butter Fried Chicken: 3361 N. Elston Ave.; 773-478-4000
For the purist: Luscious, eye-catching and ripe with antioxidants, pomegranate really shines through in the Persian dish fesenjan. The preparation refers to a walnut-pomegranate sauce, a complex paste of nutty and tart flavors commonly used to accompany chicken and lamb in Persian kitchens. For a taste of tradition, head to Pars Cove in Lincoln Park. The family-run institution is particularly known for its chicken fesenjan, a stewlike medley of chicken breast simmered in the fruit-laced sauce.
For the modernist: Pomegranate takes the dessert spotlight at Beatrix, where the crunchy seeds add a pop of color and bite to chia pudding. It makes for a pretty stunning finale to any meal here, with the chia seeds lending a tapiocalike creaminess, awhirl with coconut milk and a sprinkling of pomegranate.
Pars Cove: 435 W. Diversey Pkwy.; 773-549-1515
Beatrix: 519 N. Clark St.; 312-284-1377 and 671 N. St. Clair St.; 312-642-0001