Why the Chicago Gourmet Dinner Series Trumps Restaurant Week

The other night, I had one of the more enjoyable dinner I’ve had recently, thanks to great food, fabulous company and a dinner series that, until then, I hadn’t been aware of: The Chicago Gourmet Wine & Spirits Dinner Series.

The meal was at South Water Kitchen, and Chef Roger Waysock led us through a delicious dinner of “fire and ice,” pairing hot/spicy with cool counterparts. As an added bonus, Waysock, himself, came out and introduced each course, explaining the inspiration behind it. Through the five, wine-paired courses (for $55), we cursed ourselves for having walked by South Water so many times without ever stopping in for dinner.

Set at a long table, we relished the meal with a group of people we’d never met. As it turns out, that was one of the highlights. Over a refreshing watermelon carpaccio with habanero vinaigrette, we began chatting with our neighbor, a lovely woman who samples wine dinners across town, solo. Over the smoky bourbon braised pork belly with peach BBQ glaze, she told us that for her birthday last year, her husband told her that he’d treat her to any wine dinner in town she wanted to go to until her next birthday. “He didn’t know how seriously I’d take him,” she winked. Over the fresh-as-an-ocean ancho seared tuna with pickled jalapeño and jicama slaw, she explained that he never accompanies her, because the only restaurant he likes is Red Lobster (and who doesn’t love those Cheddar Bay biscuits?). Over the tenderest of tender grilled beef tenderloin with barley risotto, we asked if, among her wine dinners, she would recommend a place for a special upcoming 70th birthday celebration we’re planning. She couldn’t say enough about Wildfire. “Heavy pours!” she smiled. And over an oh-so-craveable ginger flan with honey poached pear, we considered asking her to be our adoptive grandmother.

Group dinners are a funny thing. You never know who you’ll be  seated with, and that can be a very good or a rather uncomfortable thing. That night, we won the lottery with our adventurous dinner companion, discovering a wonderful restaurant in the process.

Every year, people all across Chicago get excited for Restaurant Week, when they take advantage of multi-course menus set at low prices (and, in my experience, suffer sub-par service and food, compared to the usual full-price offerings, in the process). I’m pretty happy to have discovered the Chicago Gourmet Dinner Series, where you get all the perks of Restaurant Week (great prices and multi-course meals, plus interacting with chefs and the potential to meet new and interesting people), without the drawbacks (crowds, impossible reservations, cynical servers convinced Restaurant Week diners don’t tip, etc). Following my South Water experience, I’d recommend it to anyone.

Plus, the dinner series means that Chicago Gourmet, itself, is just around the corner (September 28 and 29), and that, to me, is on par with Christmas. But better, because there’s no threat of fruitcake. (Unless it’s carbonated fruit cake, or fruit cake cronuts or some such thing.)

To whet your whistle, here are photos from last year’s Chicago Gourmet.

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If you’re interested in tasting what some of Chicago’s great chefs are up to, and meeting potential adoptive grandmothers, here are the upcoming Chicago Gourmet dinners:
A five-course farm-to-table meal at Quay, July 25, $65.

Lockwood, Aug. 8

Deca Restaurant & Bar at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago, August 14

Hearty Boys, August 28

Vermilion , Sept 25

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