Long before wine bars popularized flights, ice cream parlors doled out spoonfuls of tastings to kids. Our adolescent sweet tooths may grow into sophisticated, adult palates, but our penchant for choice remains.
Hence the genius of food flights. Instead of rocky road and praline, Chicago restaurants have developed dishes that let us sample venison, beef and duck.
If variety really is the spice of life, then these flights, from entrees and dips to desserts and breakfast, will pepper your day with flavor.
Pancake flights at Orange
No one should have to stomach Fear Factor first thing in the morning, but when the TV show serves as inspiration to Orange's executive chef, it's a different story. The theme of Orange's pancake flight changes weekly but never skimps on creativity. Four stacks of silver dollar pancakes depict scenes from Michael Jackson's trial or pay homage to Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavors. For the Fear Factor Flight, crushed kiwi became bug juice and lychee fruit with a dollop of strawberry puree resembled eyeballs. Other flights, such as the pineapple flight that includes pancakes topped with pineapple- and coconut-infused cream cheese, use fruits in creative ways.
Mini-burger trio at May Street Market
Inspired by small-town diners, chef Alex Cheswick developed the comforting Mini Burger Trio of duck, venison and beef patties. The venison comes topped with Spanish goat cheese and plum chutney, its pate-like consistency offset by crunchy pancetta. Port wine mission figs and Maytag blue cheese complement the rich duck meat, and the grilled beef burger topped with truffle aioli and oven-roasted tomatoes makes for a fun twist on an American classic. Cheswick mixes up the meats, but the crisp pomme frites on the plate stay the same. MSM only offers minis at lunchtime, but that shouldn't stop you from ordering a glass of Cabernet to wash it downóbrioche buns and all.
Taco flight at De Cero
Tacos take an upscale turn at De Cero, where you can pick eight of the menu's 16 tacos with the Taco Combination Platter. With four vegetarian options and meats ranging from chorizo to catfish, the corn tortillas wrap around a wide variety of fillings, almost all of which include loads of fresh cilantro. Try the rich braised duck topped with sweet corn salsa, the skirt steak drizzled with a mild chipotle mayo and topped with tender roasted potatoes, or the ahi tuna accented with mango and habanero salsa. Three homemade salsas accompany the platter, and if you opt for the spicy tomatillo jalapeno or smoky chipotle dips, be sure to order a guava margarita to tame your tongue.
Cupcake flight at HB Cafe
Cupcakes, the birthday snack long favored by elementary school students, get dressed up and shrunken down at HB. The mini cupcake trio, each only slightly bigger than an espresso cup, change seasonally but are always varied enough to appeal to anyone at the table. On my visit, I found pumpkin spice, chocolate peanut butter and pomegranate, all topped with buttermilk and cream cheese frosting. To dig in, start with the mildest flavor and work your way up to the richest (in this set, the pomegranate, whose seeds as garnish added a crunch). Don't think twice about indulging your inner child one step further. Ordering a glass of milk will really take the cake.
Trio de guacamole at Zocalo
Guacamole table-side service's unsightly carts clutter nearly every "upscale Mexican" eatery; Zocalo instead offers three samplings to share. The mild tradicional follows a standard avocado, tomato, cilantro, red onion and serrano pepper mix, but its perfectly creamy consistency earns it top marks. The roasted ingredients and roasted red jalapeno salsa garnish give rojo, or red, its namesake and unique flavor. Since avocados are technically a fruit, they pair beautifully with tart, fleshy papaya and guava in the fruta, which also includes walnuts and chile manzano. An assortment of tortilla, plantain, malanga and boniato (similar to a sweet potato) chips come on the side.
Other food flight finds:
Nacional 27's ceviche sampling platters: For a party of two, opt for the small platter with three ceviches: shrimp and scallop, imported hamachi, tuna and watermelon. The larger platter, serves three or four, adds on oyster shooters and sashimi farmed bass.
Petterino's trio of salads: Perfect for Loop employees at lunchtime, the trio includes petite portions of Irv Kupcinet Chicken Chopped Salad, Pump Room Spinach Salad with bacon and Tobi Williams's Orchard Salad with apples and pears.
Joie de Vine's charcuterie flight: With a few sausages, pate and sopressata, an Italian dry-cured salami, it's called a flight but it should be defined as a delizioso diverse meat platter.