Let’s all agree to begin: Chicago is no second city when it comes to eating and drinking. It’s first tier all the way. With all due respect, we’re talking Michael Jordan here, not Scottie Pippin. Is Chicago better than a San Francisco or a New York or a Tokyo dining scene? Yes? Maybe. No? Maybe. That’s not important.
What is important is to acknowledge the sheer breadth of this city’s options. Heck, you could just spend a three day trip eating nowhere but Hot Doug’s, never repeat a dish, never get bored, and never do much other than stand in line, eat, sleep, and return.
Chicago is much, much more than hot dogs, deep dish, and Italian beef, although for any unseasoned visitor you should not ignore the city’s iconic trio. If there’s a trend Chicago has become known for, it’s probably the gastropub. But, you can’t really call Longman & Eagle, The Bristol, or The Publican merely a gastropub.
It’s truly my kind of town. From the vast lakefront park land to the endless treasures of the Art Institute to the good ol’ friendly confines of Wrigley Field to an endless array of dining options (Want goat tacos? Go to Birrieria Zaragoza in Archer Heights. Interested in Costa Rican? Visit Irazu), enjoying this city isn’t very hard to do.
For architecture-hounds such as yours truly, Chicago is Candyland. Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan were two of the initial Chicago designers who made the skyline the iconic one it is today. One of the city’s most highly recommended tourist attractions, the Chicago River Architecture Tour, actually lives up to its exalted height (pay extra attention to any building from Loebl, Schlossman, & Hackl, partly owned by my step great grandfather Norm Schlossman). The riverfront architecture ranges from elegant sublime (The Wrigley Building) to magnificent corporate 20th century (Willis Tower, better known as the former Sears Tower) to the Stalin-esque atrocity The Merchandise Mart, to the downright bizarre twin curving parking garage “corn cobs” in River North called Marina City.
Out west in the suburb of Oak Park and south at the University of Chicago, home of the Robie House, the great Frank Lloyd Wright had a unique influence that only a master like Wright could behold.
Like any major city, Chicago has its very distinct neighborhoods. The south side still is very edgy and has its fair share of headlines for the wrong reasons. Inside The Loop or on the Magnificent Mile you’d think you’re in the midst of the Manhattan jungle at rush hour or amidst the luxury of Park Avenue. Outer neighborhoods of Bucktown and Logan Square have the artsy-hipster vibe that we food writers now recognize are where the majority of exciting dining can be found.
The center of Chicago dining revolves around the West Loop industrial area and the Fulton Market, a former meatpacking area. Instead of becoming nightclubs like New York’s Meatpacking District, this former meatpacking area has The Publican, arguably this country’s foremost example of the idyllic pairing of new age butchery and gastronomy focused beer hall. After a few days in town, I stayed with family in the North Shore suburbs that still retain their wholesome Frank Capra Americana (at least it seemed that way to a world weary visitor). They seem a world away from Fulton Market.
Chicago seemed to pull out all the stops during my recent summer visit. In the heart of summer, the only rain came via a downpour on my first day while standing on a train platform with no cover. The other rain started while I was on my plane at O’Hare back to California (very fitting). Somehow there was never any oppressive humidity.
The mood was celebratory in Chicago with the Blackhawks’ victory parade and rally to celebrate their second Stanley Cup championship in four years. The Cubs fans were celebrating…eh, never mind. Still, it was great fun to visit Wrigley Field despite the horrid beer selection. Shockingly the Cubs won both games I attended.
Yes Chicago is the “Second City,” but it’s really the third city population-wise at nearly 2.8 million, behind New York and Los Angeles. President Obama calls Chicago home and the city’s mayor Rahm Emanuel used to be the President’s right hand man as White House Chief of Staff. The Daley Political Machine days are history. Corruption probably isn’t history, but it isn’t as clearly apparent. In its place is a civic rejuvenation that is palpable from charming Andersonville to Streeterville.
Chicago isn’t perfect. The weather certainly isn’t always like it was for me. Chicago has the same problems any major city has, except they might even be more challenging here with its sheer size and diversity.
For dining, the only challenge is how in the world to choose where to go. We know Alinea. We know Italian beef. We know hot dogs without ketchup. We know Chicago’s “signatures.” And we had a marvelous time eating without trying any of those aforementioned three.
Five Best Dishes:
1. Blackbird, Aged duck breast with broccoli, potato granola, sesame, and raisin cream.
Really I could’ve picked anything at Blackbird, especially the bittersweet chocolate torte with burnt honey ice cream, toasted sesame, cumin, and tangerine marmalade. From the review:
Blackbird’s duck preparation isn’t too complicated. The centerpiece is the breast cut into three very generous hunks, far more like a forceful steak than the usual mere medallions. The middle achieves a perfect rosy rare to medium rare, while the exterior is a crisp Miami tan with the thinnest layers of fat providing the same meat-salt pop of chicharrones. A sesame based sauce provides just the right amount of sweet and moew umami to accent the duck, without coating it. Tender broccoli lays alongside the meat, coated in a fascinating textural contrast of potato granola and raisins.
There is a creative vision on display here. The crunch meets the fruit meets the spice meets the meat. In the end, it’s about that meat. The duck has an astonishing depth. Duck’s usual gaminess is easily recognizable here and yet every edge is so smoothed out, while the power of the meat is amplified exponentially. I could say maybe I tasted some hints of dark cacao or notes of alba truffles. Really, this is just the most duck tasting duck I know of.
2. Girl & The Goat, Roasted cauliflower with pickled peppers, pine nuts, and mint
As much as I had heard the raves about the vegetable preparations from Stephanie Izard, I didn’t think anything would trump the fabled wood oven roasted pig face. Boy was I wrong. Cauliflower really is a vegetable filet mignon with a meaty interior and sweet exterior. Then the spice and saline character of pickled peppers plays beautifully off crunchy pine nuts and cool, refreshing mint. This is a vegetable dish to be reckoned with. So are the sautéed green beans with fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews. Let’s give a shout out to the “Not Campbell Bread,” a housemade cheddar and broccoli sourdough with a mushroom butter and tomato oil for dipping that gives a tongue in cheek nod to our favorite comfort soups.
Also, the escargot ravioli with bacon and a tamarind-miso sauce is easily the most novel use of escargots I’ve seen this side of the Atlantic.
3. The Publican, Spicy pork rinds
This is best dishes or bites? Well, hey, what beats bacon for pork fat intensity? Pork rinds. Then add spice and forget about it. Pretend they’re kale. They’re good for you, full of Vitamin C. Or P? For something substantial, the porchetta with broccoli and chili is a must. Bonus points for having non-porky Island Creek oysters available. Across the street at Publican Quality Meats, the braised pork belly, raita, and Calabrian chili orange vinaigrette “Return of the Gyro” is high art sandwich making.
4. Sepia, Foie gras Royale with sour cherry gelée, hazelnuts, and brioche
Like the spicy pork rinds, this isn’t a real creative pick. But also factor in I’m coming from foie gras deprived California. Somehow Chicago got their act together in 2008 after outlawing foie gras in 2006. What a foolish law. In the hands of Andrew Zimmerman at the gorgeous West Loop supper club and suave cocktail den Sepia, foie gras has never had it better. It’s the classic combo of smooth slightly funky foie with a sweet fruit element in a jar, a nut component, and buttery bread. Except every part of this picture is several levels above the norm. The same can be said for Zimmerman’s duo of Wagyu bavette steak and steak “pastrami,” as if Peter Luger’s and Katz’s worked together on one powerhouse plate.
5. Xoco: Torta Barbacoa with braised goat, Oaxacan pasilla-tomatillo salsa, avocado, onions, and cilantro
A perfect sandwich from Rick Bayless. I’m no fan of the cramped room or the strange ordering style at the celebrity chef’s informal tortas and churros spot in River North, but I couldn’t get enough of the messy Torta Ahogada or the warm churros with a dark chocolate shot (skip the watery chocolate espresso). The barbacoa was easily the prize-winner, elevated by its strong earthy salsa with just the right spice, and goat meat even more tender and robust in gaminess than any meat I know of. I couldn’t figure out whether I prized the goat, bread, and avocado bites on their own or dunked in the smoky salsa more. Such challenging decisions in life. Plan accordingly, this torta is Saturday only.
Concept of Chicago: The Gastro Gastropub/ Bar/ Beer Hall
After my initial itinerary was made for dining in Chicago, I realized almost every restaurant was in the “gastropub-informal-meat heavy” category. That’s not a bad thing. It just meant I would be waiting at lots of no reservations spots and probably wouldn’t be very hungry by the trip’s end.
This breed of restaurant in Chicago is a pioneering sort that isn’t a restaurant, but isn’t even a gastropub. They’re comfortable without making you want to linger THAT much longer. They focus more on the gastro than your typical gastropub. They’re definitely not ignorant to the quality of beers on tap or cocktails being poured. They probably bake their own breads and desserts, and most likely churn their own butter. They focus on pork without neglecting vegetables.
The Girl & the Goat probably is the best known of these, where pig’s face and goat liver mousse mix with superb cauliflower and green bean dishes. Longman & Eagle isn’t far behind. It’s dark, the food is heavy, the noise is a concert, and the wait is long. However, the pretzels with welsh rarebit are worthy of their Michelin star and the best dish I sampled was a fully accomplished and light octopus confit with charred ramps and the fascinating addition of grilled beef tendon bolstering a lick worthy black olive caramel. The Publican isn’t subtle about its love of pork. You can have a beautiful little gem salad too…with crispy pig ears. The Purple Pig isn’t close to any of these quality-wise, but certainly fits the description bill when it’s on its A game (which it definitely wasn’t during my lunch visit).
Then you borrow this concept from other cultures and make it something new. Takashi Yagihashi is best known for formality at his flagship Takashi, but the noodles are mostly terrific at his River North noodle shop Slurping Turtle with a top notch sake list in a space age meets Banana Republic space. Next time I’d pass though on the one note roasted garlic- clams-mussels ramen in favor of the cold soba or spicy salmon donburi bowls. Yusho in Logan Square brings together the elegant art of Japanese cocktails and not-so elegant Japanese “drinking food” that anybody can enjoy without a drink. It’s all from Matthias Merges, former chef de cuisine at the very different Charlie Trotter’s. Bok choy, beets, tofu, and sambal? Yes please. In theory Yusho is a yakitori joint. That’s like calling Spiaggia a pasta trattoria.
Kuma’s Corner may have started the concept of head-banging loud music with a head-banging good burger. Au Cheval does cocktails and bold traditional French food, a combination I never saw living in Paris. The Trencherman sounds like a pub, but you can enjoy pickle tots and aged duck breast with chanterelles. The list goes on of what a great gastro-gastro bar really can be.
Even though we never even talk about the food at The Aviary, the sublime “chocolate brioche” with smoked sea salt, the myriad lollipops, and the lobes of foie gras on pumpernickel with rhubarb and charred onion would fit right in next door at Next or up the road at Alinea. Pricey? You bet. Spectacular? Absolutely. This is a cocktail bar with great food? Well, this is The Aviary. It’s its own genre. You won’t make a meal here.
The point is we want to drink thoughtful booze without forgetting the food and atmosphere elements. We also don’t want to just eat well or drink well. We want to eat and drink really well in perhaps slightly civilized conditions.
Stay tuned later this week for Part II from Chicago.