Smoked salmon and quail egg on a potato pancake from Calihan Catering
Hors d’oeuvres, wedding planners will tell you, set the tone for the rest of the evening. “If presented beautifully, they create a sense of excitement at the beginning of the party, an immediate impact,” says wedding planner Marina Birch, of Birch Design Studio, one of the city’s high-end event producers. Two of the caterers we interviewed reported that cocktail receptions serving hors d’oeuvres only—typically lasting three or so hours—have become popular recently.
With that in mind, we arranged comprehensive tastings with six top caterers serving the Chicago area who have the wherewithal to pull off a large-scale wedding. After making selections from a large menu of choices, we tasted, took notes, and picked the caterer’s best entry in each of six categories: meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, vegetarian, and “wildcard,” a free-for-all grouping meant to capture a particularly novel dish. For each pick, we give a “yes” or “no” rating (Y or N)—based on presentation and taste—to indicate whether we would order it if actually planning a wedding, then explain why. Assuming a three-hour cocktail reception for 100 guests, we also asked the caterers to calculate the cost per person for the six passed hors d’oeuvres (all prices include necessary serving dishes, forks, and trays, as well as cooking and serving staff, tax, and delivery). The results:
833 W. Haines St.; 312-587-3553, calihancatering.com
THE PITCH A high-end boutique caterer, Calihan is the choice for couples who want their food to deliver visual excitement. Chef David Danielson, in collaboration with owner John Calihan, excels at coming up with novel presentation styles for hors d’oeuvres that also happen to push the culinary envelope.
COST $65.60 per person
MEAT (pictured) Rabbit agnolotti with parsley purée Y This stuffed pasta is a two-biter off a ceramic spoon. Awkward but worth the trouble
POULTRY Cured Long Island duck breast with quince purée and fig glaze Y Tender, fatty duck set against garnishes with bite. Sophisticated and substantial
FISH Smoked salmon and quail egg on a potato pancake Y Adorable, sunny-side-up quail egg, plus caviar and crunch
SHELLFISH Lobster bisque shooter with black-truffle foam Y An ultrarich, intensely flavored mouthful. People will say “Wow.”
VEGETARIAN Roasted butternut squash, blue cheese, and fried sage pizza N A good blend of toppings, but the thick, doughy crust lost us.
WILDCARD Apple and foie gras beignets Y Who doesn’t love a doughnut? Extra illicit with foie
1640 W. Walnut St.; 312-829-2800, entertainingcompany.com
THE PITCH Owner Wendy Pashman and chef Shawn Doolin enjoy turning ethnic classics into small bites that work logistically and sometimes taste better than their authentic inspiration. Doolin, an alum of Les Nomades, can do flawless macaroons and chocolate truffles.
COST $44.20 per person
MEAT Beef tenderloin on garlic crostini with arugula sauce Y The arugula-infused cream sauce smartly updates this familiar catering stalwart.
POULTRY (pictured) Duck and potato samosa Y Duck, beautifully complemented by true Indian spices, in a greaseless envelope
FISH Tuna tartare in miniature ice-cream cones Y An eye-popping and delicious culinary pun
SHELLFISH Spicy crawfish with Anasazi bean on a grits cake Y One tomatoey and spicy crawfish shares a platform with one perfect bean.
VEGETARIAN Italian “sushi” (risotto cake with caesar chiffonade) Y The cake is lightly crunchy on the outside, creamy and cheesy on the inside.
WILDCARD Ginger-cured salmon nori napoleon with pickled ginger and caviar N This layered stack was hard to handle and too gingery.
Food for Thought
7001 N. Ridgeway Ave., Lincolnwood; 847-982-2608, foodforthought-chicago.com
THE PITCH In business for 25 years, Lincolnwood-based Food For Thought, owned by Nancy Sharp, is one of the city’s major catering operations and strives to bring inventive, restaurant-quality food to private events. The vibe is classic elegance.
COST $63.18 per person
MEAT Smoked venison with port-poached figs and dark-chocolate shavings Y A surprising pairing of chocolate and venison. It works.
POULTRY Roasted quail with spiced quince and honey lavender Y The tiny bone-in quail breast is sweet, tangy, and tender.
FISH (pictured) Opah ceviche with avocado mousse on a cucumber slice N Cucumber waters down the delicate fish and ethereal mousse.
SHELLFISH Caramelized bay scallop and coconut velouté Y Coconut harmonizes with the silky scallop.
VEGETARIAN Miniature mugs of tomato soup with grilled-cheese-and-mushroom sandwich N The grilled cheese sandwich was too large to dip into the accompanying mug.
WILDCARD Spicy shrimp corn dog on a stick Y A great idea—shrimp mousse battered and fried, on a stick—well executed
1103 W. Grand Ave.; 312-666-4466, gregchristian.com
THE PITCH Recently, says owner and executive chef Greg Christian, this 16-year-old catering business has turned its focus, at least behind the scenes, to supporting sustainable farming and offering organic choices to anyone who wants them.
COST $34.55 per person
MEAT Lamb chop with wild-flower honey dijonnaise N The chop was tender, the dijonnaise fine. Still, we could live without it.
POULTRY Crispy roasted duck in miniature pancakes with scallion hoisin sauce Y Wrapped up beggar’s purse-style, this crèpe-based nibble is a fun take on moo shu.
FISH Hot Mama spicy tuna maki N The rice looked manhandled, and the fish was lost under a glop of sauce.
SHELLFISH Hawaiian red salted-shrimp with tangerine guajillo sauce Y A tangy bite on a sturdy crisp.
VEGETARIAN Brie and rosemary crostini with apple compote and candied walnuts Y Simple, but a blissful flavor combo.
WILDCARD (pictured) Buttermilk fried chicken with avocado tomatillo salsa on Chihuahua cheese biscuit N The chicken was not the battered nugget we were expecting, and the biscuit was disappointingly unflaky.
3819 N. Broadway; 773-244-9866, heartyboys.com
THE PITCH Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh rose to national fame by winning a reality-TV game show on the Food Network. Back at home, the duo’s catering business, Hearty Boys, specializes in elevated takes on recognizable comfort food.
COST $42.04 per person
MEAT Wagyu beef burger with curried ketchup and housemade pickle N We liked the curried ketchup, but the burger, on a huge wheat bun, took ten bites to finish and wasn’t juicy enough.
POULTRY (pictured) Seared duck breast with apricot gastrique N A slice of duck breast under an apricot sauce, a fried oregano leaf, and a strip of candied dried fruit. Too much snazz to little effect
FISH Seared ahi tuna on won ton crisp N Fresh and pretty, but sadly lacking in flavor
SHELLFISH Lobster crab cake N Tasting more like crab than lobster, these cakes were heavy and a little salty.
VEGETARIAN Pumpkin sage bisque shooter Y A classic soup, velvety and just the right size
WILDCARD Savory cupcakes N The concept is clever but the truffled “frosting” cloyingly rich. The thyme-lemon muffin was dry.
2000 N. Racine Ave.; 773-883-3080, limelightcatering.com
THE PITCH Offering a smaller, seasonally driven selection of hors d’oeuvres, Limelight (owned by Rita Gutekanst and Marguerite Lytle) positions itself as the edgier boutique choice for food that is creative but not bizarre. Its chef, Brian Shustrick, is a vegetarian.
COST $36.61 per person
MEAT (pictured) Braised BBQ short ribs on Taleggio cheese polenta Y Fork-tender shreds of beef over rich, creamy polenta napped with a deeply flavored demiglace
POULTRY Artichoke leaf tempura with duck confit and fig conserve N Tasty but too small, almost insubstantial
FISH Jalapeño soufflé bite with citrus tuna tartare Y The soufflé cake melts in the mouth. The bright-tasting tuna tartare knocks it out of the park.
SHELLFISH Jonah crab on corn chive brioche pudding Y Sweet and rich, times two
VEGETARIAN Butternut squash risotto cake with caramelized shallots N Flavorful but ultimately too staid. Great presentation atop lighted Lucite pillars
WILDCARD Bite-size BLT with Kalamata olive on a rosemary skewer Y The classic BLT flavors nestled within a perfectly tiny ricotta-rosemary roll