We didn't run into Sadhu Johnson during our recent Chicago dining binge. Still, connections to Greater Cleveland were everywhere.
We hadn't been in town more than a few hours, for instance, before we stumbled across former homeboy Blake Gilbert, now working as part of the polished service team at Tru. Chef-owners Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand's svelte little dining room, just off Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile, has collected enough culinary awards to fill a walk-in cooler; as expected, our seven-course prix fixe meals -- the $100 Grand Collection and the seasonal $110 Tomato-Tomato-Tomato Collection -- were artfully conceived, playfully presented, and intensely flavorful. (In particular, lobster-lobster bisque, served in a gilded Versace teacup, and sided by a spoonful of tangy lobster ceviche -- and seared Hudson Valley foie gras, on a drift of salsify purée, with tissue-thin slices of caramelized peaches and a custardy blueberry-vanilla "jus" -- left us reeling.)
It wasn't until the mignardises arrived -- with pastry-chef Gand's signature bergamot lollipops -- that Gilbert, 27, revealed himself as a Greater Clevelander. The 1999 KSU grad and former waiter at Akron's Piatto came to Chicago in 2002; eventually, he hopes to open his own restaurant in Cleveland.
Next day, it was off to Topolobampo, Rick Bayless's acclaimed Mexican restaurant on North Clark Street, where the celebrity chef works wonders with exotic moles, marinades, and salsas, combined with seasonal, sustainable, locally grown meats and produce. Lunch -- especially the lush duck breast in a mole of pumpkin, sweet spices, and ancho and morita chiles -- was such a hit that we made a return trip to his next-door Frontera Grill for dinner. Somehow, knowing that Bayless had once toiled in Cleveland Heights' former Lopez y Gonzalez made everything taste a little sassier.
Our final stop was Vivo, the 12-year-old Italian restaurant on Randolph Street credited with turning that shabby market district into one of the city's trendiest dining destinations. And whom should we find there but Todd Stein, executive chef and manager of Cleveland's own downtown Vivo (located at the Euclid Avenue entrance to the Old Arcade).
A good deal smaller than ours, but every bit as hip, the westernmost Vivo offers a similar collection of precisely prepared Italian dishes; we happily scarfed down a ravishing seafood mélange, in spicy tomato broth, and a seared swordfish, with the texture of rare filet mignon. Turns out Stein was in town to provide menu consultation to his Chicago brethren and to toss around ideas for a possible third Vivo location.
No denying it: For local foodies, Chicago really is the next best thing to home.