I have always thought that the Garden Restaurant was a gem, and rather a somewhat hidden gem at that, nestled in the center courtyard of the Art Institute of Chicago.
During the summer months, it becomes a cool secret oasis from city heat. You can dine alfresco next to the cool blue "Fountain of the Tritons" by Carl Miller.
In the shade of cool aqua umbrellas in McKinlock Court, your spirits are refreshed as you sip a bubbly prosecco and listen to the gentle gurgling of the water while the city heat and noises recede.
But on this grey and cold winter day, I was wondering how the Garden Restaurant would provide a similar form of comfort. My dining companion and I were not disappointed in either the ambiance or the food.
Although the outdoor courtyard is now covered with its protective winter tent, the indoor restaurant was warm and inviting. We were seated on curvaceous Weng wood chairs with comfortable cream-colored velvet cushions amidst sparkling glass and silverware and a sea of pristine white linens tablecloths.
The room had an elegant, feel but not stuffy nor intimidating.
There were splashes of rich russet and crimson flowers in jadeite vases at each table and there was a calming gurgle of an indoor fountain. I felt as though I was in the Victorian era that was known for indoor gardens, but with a contemporary spin.
I had previously reviewed this restaurant and the food for The Travel Channel, iExplore and IgoUgo, but that was before Chef Brian Williams came from New York’s Tribeca Grill to become the Executive Chef at the Garden Restaurant. Chef Williams worked to restructure the culinary point of view of the offerings and present a seasonal menu of globally influenced contemporary American food.
Prior to Chef Williams, the food took second place to the venue and I had eaten here often since 1999. Now the menu lives up to the world-class status of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In simpler terms...
the food went from ”not bad” to OMG I can’t believe this is so good…!
These were our choices from the winter menu :
My companion ordered a Cauliflower Bisque drizzled with Thyme Oil as her entrée, which she pronounced as out of this world. I asked one of the servers for a spoon so I could taste the dish. The server said that she would be more than happy to bring me a tasting portion of the soup. Now that is what I call obliging service.
Her choice for the main course was a creamy Organic Carnaroli Rice Risotto with Butternut Squash, Roasted Pear, Pecans and Parmesan Cheese.
Carnaroli rice is a type of short-grain Italian rice sometimes used in risotto dishes.
While Arborio rice is the best-known type of rice used in risotto, particularly in the United States, many cooks prefer Carnaroli. Carnaroli rice, like Arborio, contains more starch than other rice varieties. It retains liquids, holds its shape better than Arborio rice.
Having a larger grain, the Carnaroli rice makes for a more textured dish.
Since I already had my tasting portion of the Cauliflower bisque as my entrée, my main course was Shredded Duck Confit on Chestnut Purée with a winter salad of julienned Pears, Celery, dried Cranberries, candied Walnuts and a perfect supreme wedge of an orange.
The duck was succulent and delicious and captured that fifth taste called Umami that is often described as savory, brothy or unctuous. The richness of the duck was offset by the sweet-tart of the ingredients of the salad. This was a filling, yet light meal that was a combination of the long, slow cooked meats of winter and the delightful promise of Farmer’s Markets spring salads.
Over our northern versions of Southern Sweet peach tea, we debated about a dessert course. Rationalizing that we would spend the next few hours walking and window shopping along Michigan Avenue from La Perla to Chanel, we decided to allow ourselves to be seduced.
My companion ordered a Caramel Apple Crumble with Vanilla bean Créme.
It was warm and spicy, with the perfect balance of crunchy and soft, healthy spicy warm apples and decadent cool vanilla bean crème. This is not your grandmother’s apple crisp...think apple crisp on the runway during Fashion Week in Milan or Paris.
My weakness for the vanilla-chocolate combination as these two flavors enhance each other, prompted me to order the Chocolate Cream Tart with Vanilla bean Créme and Chocolate Straws.
I am very particular about tartes having had consumed so many perfect tarts from so many superb patisseries in Paris over the years.
But, this dessert tarte lived up to all my expectations.
The tarte shell was crunchy perfection, still warm and toasty making the rich chocolate filling warm and almost pudding-like on the exterior and cold and dense in the middle.
I am also a skeptic when it comes to a crème topping on any dessert.
Yet again, this one did not disappoint. It was a real whipped cream dream peppered with enough vanilla bean to add a pleasing crunch to the perfectly piped peaks of pleasure.
The curls of dark chocolate and chocolate tuile straw were just additional perfect bites to add to the overall enjoyment of this perfect dessert.
After our lovely late lunch, we were fueled for shopping on Michigan Avenue and brave the winter weather, but not weighted down.
I highly recommend the Garden Restaurant.
It is a classic gem made a contemporary classic gem by Chef Brian Williams’ culinary magic.
The Garden Restaurant at the Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60603-6110