It’s been a few weeks coming, but I finally found some time between travel and work to post on my recent trip to Chicago. The weekend jaunt was just me and some friends – my brother Thomas, my pal Brian, and a few hundred NATO protestors.
Yeah, that was going on while we were there.
After catching a day game at Wrigley (Sox smoked the Cubs), we sat at Sheffield’s having a few beers, where the TV’s were all tuned in to the surreal coverage of the police line, shield to face with dissidents, with the occasional fool-hardy soul on the receiving end of a billy club beat down. This was all going down only a few blocks from our hotel.
The protests certainly put a damper on the regular Chicago-in-summer liveliness. During the day there were cops on every corner and streets were continuously shut down for political motorcades, each with an endless procession of black Chevy Suburbans. At night large groups of police were in full riot gear, aggregated near potential hot spots, with many streets shut down at length in an effort to thwart the demonstrators’ movement. At one point when we turned onto a closed street of potential conflict, our cab driver caught a blisterring earful from a police officer.
Yet, we managed to eat well, in a city where it’s quite easy to do so. Only my second foray into the capital of the Midwest, this was really my first chance to do some damage. Let me begin.
First up was The Purple Pig, the swine heavy, Mediterranean tapas style restaurant which has earned significant praise since opening a few years ago. Deservedly so. What a great spot to sit outside on Michigan Avenue. And the pork liver pate was fantastic.
I wasn’t quite as enamored with the razor clams, which tasted mostly of butter, but it still a nice dish to share at $12. The famous fried pig’s ear salad with kale and egg was also pleasant, though quite greasy. I would prefer the kale be raw or slightly braised. But fat was at its most welcome when we had the delectable Iberico lardo on crusty bread, soft and beautifully melted like it were Gruyere.
Lunch #2 was at Hot Doug’s. Though a crowd pleaser, and there’s nothing new I could possibly report, places like this earn their reputation and I had to visit. We got there at three in the afternoon, and were barely through the door seventy-five minutes later, after they had technically closed. But Doug, whose postitve demeanor was amazingly pleasant by the time we placed our order, ensured that everyone in line was served. Doug’s friendliness, a hearty welcome and kind smile for each customer, was refreshing, and one of my favorite parts of the experience. Besides the encased meats.
From left to right: Foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage, the Fire Dog known as “The Anna Kendrick” (formerly the Keira Knightley, the Jennifer Garner and the Britney Spears), and the regular Chicago dog.
We mostly shared, also sampling the bacon sausage with creme fraiche, caramelized onions and Montboissie cheese, and a luingica version. The overtly rich foie is nice for one bite, and the others are interesting, but for me it’s tough to beat the fire dog, which had the traditional Chicago toppings with a lasting heat.
Luckily, our dinner reservation at Blackbird wasn’t until 9:30, so we had time to nap off the calories from lunch. We were a bit early and hit up Avec next door, having a few nice beers outside on a pleasant evening. I wish we had more time to explore their menu, they certainly had some good looking beer and wine.
To begin with the end, our meal at Blackbird was impeccable. The food was as clean and pristine as the space, and the service was effortless and warm, despite the cool aesthetic. I wish I had my real camera to do these photos justice. My apologies to the chef.
Our meal was creative and interesting, executed precisely, with varied textures (I love when the crunch of oats or quinoa are used, Eleven Madison Park’s signature move), and a combination of raw and unadorned ingredients with more technical creations. But there are no “tricks”, no fancy gels or provocative combinations, any inkling of the so called modernism was restrained, and I found it to be an appropriate use of creativity and elevation of product through technique. Which is to say, I found it to thankfully be as tasty as it were interesting.
left: roasted quail and green garlic sausage with ramps, smoked tofu and citrus granola
right: kombu-cured fluke with spring mojo verde, spruce tips and lardo
roasted rabbit saddle and confit leg with barley risotto, broccoli, egg yolk and yuzu
We also sampled a sheet of shaved confit suckling pig, strewn across smoked dates like a blanket, and my brother’s confit of octopus appetizer was tender and perfect, as was his halibut.
Also to mention, the cocktails were excellent, and I thoroughly enjoyed a Scholium project Sauvignon Blanc from their varied wine list.
left: unknown, unfortunately.
hay-honey semifreddo with strawberries, quinoa, and chamomile
To go in another direction, the award for most (and the only) disappointing meal goes to Gino’s East. We weren’t even that hungry after the previous day’s marathon, but we hiked it over to the famous deep dish pizza joint, which was mostly empty. Despite the lack of clientele we waited at length anytime we needed our server, and waited even longer for this soggy mess of a pizza to arrive. I enjoyed the hot layer of sausage, but the tomato sauce was sweet and unpleasant, and the crust was terribly dense, dry, and flavorless. My expectations were much higher; I’ve made much better deep dish at home.
Our grande finale was at the Slurping Turtle, the relatively new spot from local restauranteur Takashi Yagihashi. I can only speak for lunch, but the menu is comprised of a variety of mostly smaller dishes – dumplings, izakaya style snacks, sushi, and of course, noodles.
The duck fat fried chicken is a popular item, for reasons easy to decipher. Crunchy, fatty, tender – we ordered two.
We sampled a number of other small plates – shu mai (good enough), skewered chicken and mushrooms, and the “pork belly snack”, which were do-it-yourself steamed pork buns.
Finally we ended with a bowl of tonkotsu ramen – I love ending meals with noodles, and this dish provided a finality of sorts for the eating on the trip. The broth was quite nice, if not a little flat. I like to feel the liquid fat on my lips. The noodles were well done, but the gelatinous pork was sublime.
It was a fun weekend with great friends, and I apologize to them if I pushed for too much food. This is a restrained version of my eating epics, I promise. We did see some sights, walked the windy streets, and caught a ball game, so it was a fairly well rounded excursion.
And to the readers, I’m sorry this was yet another strenuously long post, I thank you for making it this far. Until the next eating marathon, my friends…