We usually go to Chicago once a year to see my husband's family. We rarely get into the city since they live in the suburbs, but this time around we got the chance to spend a few days downtown, much to my delight. However, we didn't have a lot of tourist time because we had volunteered to help friends of ours pour their wine at the Windy City Wine Festival, which was a 2-day, all day into the night affair. We had one free lunch, so to speak. After watching Rick Bayless on Top Chef Masters I wanted to go to one of his restaurants, but once he won I knew getting in would be fairly impossible, especially on our tight schedule. However, it's because of him that we went to Terzo Piano. I follow him on Twitter and one of his fans asked where he likes to eat in Chicago and this modern cafe located in the Art Institute was one of his favorites. I figured if the Top Chef Master likes it, it had to be good. It's location made it perfect since we had already planned on visiting the Art Institute – a must see when in the city – to check out an exhibit about the History of Wine. I know, I have a one-track mind.
Terzo Piano is open for lunch daily and dinner on Thursdays when the Museum is open late. With so many people visiting the Institute and few food choices onsite, I'm glad I made reservations. Though open to the public, it was mostly filled with museum visitors like us who just needed a place to sit down and ponder all the treasures we'd just seen. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, the space is all white and open, bright and clean and more welcoming than I thought it would be. I think the lack of color or grand architectural details was soothing after being bombarded by art for two hours. I'm not usually a fan of modern anything, but there was something immediately classy and likeable about this space. Despite being packed the noise level was also pleasantly subdued. No shouting across the table to be heard. We had a few hours to kill and it looked like we came to the right place.
My husband, a.k.a. The Mayor, instantly befriended our waiter Neil, who gave us great service and never once tried to rush us out the door. The fact that we bought a bottle of wine probably helped. Within in minutes we learned that he had just moved to the city from Alaska, where he used to fly helicopter tours and had worked just blocks away from my husband when he lived in the South Bay. (I can't stop him.) It was just such a nice change to be waited on by someone who was friendly and engaging and who cared more about our experience than their tip or their potential future career as a model/singer/actor (the trouble with dining in LA).
The menu was created by James Beard winner Tony Mantuano (who also leads the kitchen at Spiaggia) and the wine list is developed by his equally successful wife Cathy Mantuano. Together they've put out a couple of cookbooks and now that I've had their food, I really want to own "Wine Bar Food." The food at Terzo is fresh, local and organic, the prices affordable and the portions just right. They also have a cheese cave stocked with some of the best artisanal cheese, mostly from the MidWest. Not only was the food delicious, it was vibrantly displayed without being too pretentious. Appetizing and approachable, yet still thoughtful.
We started with the Antipasto plate which had some of the best meats I have ever eaten – La Quercia prosciutto and coppa and Russo spicy soppressata. We weren't big fans of the marinated vegetables, but that's just not our thing. The Man, of course, went with the Trio of sliders – a Midwestern Piemontese beef burger with Wisconsin Colby Cheese, a Pinn Oak Farms lamb burger with Capriole Indiana goat cheese and a Shrimp Burger with Calabrian pepper spread. Neither of us were initially too excited about a burger made from shrimp, but I have to admit it turned out to be completely amazing. The other two were equally good, as were the fries. I stole more than a few. My homemade spaghetti with Nueske's bacon, egg, brussel sprout leaves and sheep's milk cheese was light and flavorful, though I have to say not as impactful as the burgers. It's what I thought I wanted until I tried his food. Though I had no trouble eating and enjoying every last bite.
The desserts looked good when they were delivered to nearby tables, but we're not sweets people so we ended our meal with some cheese. How could I resists? They have their own cave. We also still had some wine left and didn't want to ruin our palates with sugar. Speaking or which, the wine list is small and a stitch pricey (when buying by the glass), but well-chosen with interesting bottles from around the world. It touches all the bases, but not in an obvious way. If you're going to be taking your time, I'd order a bottle as you'll get more value for your money. While not our first dining choice – I'll get to Bayless' Frontera or Topolobampo on one of these trips – everything about Terzo Piano made our lunch first class. Thanks for the suggestion, Rick.
Lisa Dinsmore is a writer, web programmer, movie and wine lover. She currently runs two review websites to share her passions: www.crazy4cinema.com and www.dailywinedispatch.com. She is also the Managing Editor of One for the Table.