Continuing back to the Windy City, we continue with a beverage to commence our concluding Part II from Chicago.
Cocktail of Chicago: The Office: Rum, Ginger, Bonito, Wasabi, Sesame, and Mint
Don’t make me choose between The Aviary and The Violet Hour, Chicago’s pre-eminent craft cocktail bars that are deservedly on every “ten best cocktail bars in the country” list. So, I chose a cocktail not really from either.
Looking at my list of cocktails from this trip, I can’t believe I managed to run a half marathon in Minneapolis during my brief stay in the Twin Cities book-ended by two half weeks in Chicago. What a champion! Or such is the life of a runner-food writer?
Chicago is a great cocktail town. The Aviary gets the headlines around the country for being the cocktail circus extravaganza of Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas (Alinea, Next). Charles Joly now runs the show nightly at The Aviary, named in May by the James Beard Awards as the country’s most outstanding bar program.
Is it really? Well, it’s probably the most fascinating. And the drinks are both eye-opening and almost always excellent. But you’ll go to The Aviary as your neighborhood bar like you’d visit your local neighborhood bistro Alinea. It’s an experience. What an experience it is.
What to have at The Aviary? First, the elegant “The Avenue” with Calvados and Bourbon served in a flute, with a touch of grenadine and a smashing passion fruit sorbet gradually melting into everything. I adore both the “Tropic Thunder” in its slowly mixing “Porthole” contraption with mescal compressed pineapple, hibiscus, and bitter anhui lime, as the tequila infusion grows more and more voracious, along with “The Luau,” a carbonated soda bottle of pineapple, matcha green tea, Chartreuse, and Gin.
Pedro Ximenez 1985 and Scotch mix for the enchanting rendition of a Rob Roy, served in a vacuum sealed bag full of lavender air. Unrelated, it sure makes your hand smell great. I use the word “enchanting” too often, but it is the perfect way to describe this Rob Roy. The signature at The Aviary is an inside-out Vieux Carré called “In The Rocks.” The second edition of the cocktail (first was a Manhattan) fills a spherical rock that is knocked open by the drinker using the accompanying sling shot. It’s worth having for the chance to channel your frustrations at the rock.. But, it is a very faithful and stiff Benedictine-heavy version of the drink that has never been my favorite. I appreciate it, though.
The Aviary is the Tim Burton fantastical, whimsical culinary drinking lab. The Violet Hour is the classic Jazz age speakeasy; pitch black, pitch perfect. Everything was terrific: a bourbon “Penicillin” called “The Clapless Belle” to the delicate as two pure teenage lovers James Beard award winning “Juliet & Romeo” with Beefeater Gin, mint, cucumber, and the critical few drops of rose water.
Scofflaw is the Gin specialist in town with an excellent “Wrinkled Tie” using Martin Millers Gin, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, escorial, and rhubarb bitters.
Mezcal fans like yours truly adore the Mezcal Corpse Reviver at Maude’s Liquor Bar that is even better than it sounds. Maude’s makes some excellent vintage cocktails, including a beautifully mixed Boulevardier. In a town without The Aviary or The Violet Hour, Maude’s would win the “best of” accolades.
Longman and Eagle’s Manhattan with their own special edition Knob Creek Bourbon is a modern classic. Over at Sepia (not easy to be the cocktail bar I visited before The Aviary, but it held its ground well), Bourbon is mixed with Rye, falernum, and barley for the “Breakfast of Champions” as if Cinnamon Toast Crunch mixed with a Manhattan. It’s a trip, heavy on the toasted cinnamon. Manhattan-wise, Sepia also is serving the “Cat’s Pajamas” with Old Weller Antique Bourbon, the allure of Averna, some Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth, Maraschino liqueur, and a dash of cherry vanilla bitters. Meow.
That’s barely skimming the surface. A cocktail visionary in the city also implored me to visit Billy Sunday from Yusho’s Matthias Merges, Sable, Red Door, Gilt, The Barrelhouse Flat, Three Dots and a Dash, and The Drawing Room.
Just don’t get a cocktail at The Palmer House. More on that later.
Interestingly, the premier cocktail of Chicago was not at The Violet Hour and only sort of at The Aviary. The Office is the hidden, exclusive speakeasy within The Aviary, located behind an unmarked door on the restrooms level for The Aviary and Next. Inside it is every bit the English hunting lodge, supreme luxury gentlemen’s clubhouse you’d expect.
A cream colored smoking jacket would fit right in. Unlike the circus concept of the drinks upstairs, cocktails downstairs are every bit creative in content, but much more restrained in presentation. They’re listed by ingredients rather than names. Classics are also welcome. If you’d like a Negroni, that’s no problem here like it might be upstairs. Drinks are also stiffer in general. “Scotch, Bonal, brioche, macadamia nut, and white truffle” was straight up Scotch. If you’re into fragrant herbs, “Gin, green bean, Fino Sherry, tarragon, and chimichurri” was refreshing and certainly a change of pace, though could’ve used a few dashes more of the Fino.
The winning drinks sounds like the offspring of a “Dark and Stormy” with a sushi dish. It is truly marvelous from the searing notes of wasabi and the bracing ginger, soothed by the rich dark rum, and rounded out by the cool wind blast of mint. The bonito (fish eggs) adds just enough of a salty umami quirk to raise eyebrows. You don’t just create this at home.
Beer or Wine?
Old Style! Eh, no. But yes, let’s have some beer. Then wine with dinner.
It’s hard to find a more thorough craft beer bar than The Hopleaf, located on the bucolic main street of Andersonville, a neighborhood to Chicago’s far north. You can start local with the Egyptian-style wheat beer brewed with Muscat grapes from Five Rabbit or the Rosa Hibiscus Ale from Revolution Brewing in Logan Square. Then get very exotic with 961 Lebanese Pale Ale brewed with za’atar, sumac, anise, and a host of other spices. For the hop hearted at The Hopleaf, Zombie Dust is a must from Three Floyds in Munster, Indiana.
Great beer bars are abundant in the city. Check out The Sheffield, The Fountainhead, The Old Town Pour House, and The Map Room among many worthwhile stops. The Map Room seems exactly like the fit for a globe traveling craft beer lover like myself. Alas, I never made it.
Local breweries with tap rooms are a little harder to find. There’s the aforementioned Revolution and Five Rabbit, along with a handful of others like Atlas and Half Acre.
Then there’s the behemoth of Midwest craft beers: the polarizing Goose Island. Once the adorable craft brewery- that- could when founded in 1988, Goose Island was bought by global mega corporation InBev two years ago. The original brewpub on Clybourn remains and makes some highly sought after small scale beers still.
After a tasting of a dozen beers there, it’s crystal clear that the rewarding beers remain the ones brewed on-site and aren’t mass-distributed. Belgian ales like Sofia and Matilda, and rock stars like the Bourbon County Stout remain gold standards. Mass produced beers brewed off-site, such as the 312 Wheat Ale, Honker’s English Ale, and the IPA are not even middle of the road. The tasting’s winners were the pleasantly dry All Purpose IPA, the smoked malt Prairie Smoke Munich Helles Lager, and the Outfoxxed American Brown Ale.
Actually, the best beer in Chicago was from Goose Island, except served at Longman & Eagle. Go out of your way for the Ram Eagle, a Baltic Porter aged in Willett Bourbon barrels. The Aviary’s sublime “Stalk You Like a Hurricane” burnt cornhusk Porter collaboration with Evil Twin and Louisville’s Against the Grain, wasn’t far behind.
When it comes to wine, you’ll find plenty of adorable wine bars across the city. Not to sound repetitive, but the wine lists at avec and Blackbird should certainly be highlighted. I was particularly enamored with Blackbird’s exclusive focus on wines of California, Oregon, and France, featuring many of the under the radar gems of each area.
Shall We Grab a Coffee?
Definitely. Chicago isn’t quite a Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, or Seattle, but it isn’t far behind by much.
Every discussion of high-level coffee in this town starts and ends with Intelligentsia. Long before third wave coffee was a know concept, Doug Zell and Emily Mange started Intelligentsia on Broadway on Chicago’s north side. The roastery is now elsewhere, but a recent visit proved that the original location still pulls superb shots of single origin espressos. Frankly, this is probably the only town in America where a boutique coffee roaster has a stronger presence than Starbucks. The Broadway original for Intelligentsia had the same gravitational pull as the original Starbucks in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
There are now seven Intelligentsia “coffeebars” in Chicago, along with outlets in Los Angeles and New York. It was the Venice, CA location of Intelligentsia that turned me into an espresso fan as a young food writer in Los Angeles.
Yes, Intelligentsia (at least in LA and now New York) is more often known for its hipster culture and coffee extravagance that borders on being The Aviary of coffee houses. You almost expect a bouncer outside these cafes. But they know they’re coffee. I’ve never had anything less than stellar at any Intelligentsia. I’m now partial to the Millennium Park coffeebar, but that might be because I timed my stop for a single origin espresso from Mexico perfectly as a cloud burst 30 seconds beforehand. Then again, the original on Broadway had the cannelés from Floriole Bakery. Tough call.
Smaller roasters and cafés are popping up everywhere. You’ve got Bridgeport, Ipsento, Dark Water, Metropolis, Halfwit at Wormhole, Coffee Studio, Gaslight, and Bow Truss to name several.
That’s not counting the excellent coffee houses that also serve these new wave beans (most of the roasteries do have at least one café they own). One of the trip’s best espresso shots was pulled at the student-filled Dollop Coffee in Streeterville using Metropolis beans.
The best shot in Chicago? A single origin Yirgacheffe Ethiopian one from Bow Truss in River North. Fragrant, spicy, and full of kaffir lime. The iced coffee is also excellent here. Bow Truss today seems like Intelligentsia 15 years ago: the little roaster that could and will. I visited the River North outpost of Bow Truss, but their flagship shop and roastery happens to be…right next to Intelligentsia’s North Broadway flagship. Coincidence?
Sweet Home Chicago: Mindy’s Hot Chocolate
I didn’t get the chance to sample any ice cream spots or many bakeries. However, I got the hot chocolate duo experience, strange for late June/early July. Rick Bayless’ hot chocolate at Xoco is beautifully spiced with cinnamon and ripe fruit, though a touch too thin for me unless in the deep dark dipping shot form. The churros don’t even need the chocolate shot. Then again, everything in life could use some chocolate shot.
Mindy’s Hot Chocolate in Wicker Park is the real deal with a superior Mexican hot chocolate. The one to get is the “Black and Tan,” with 1/3 hot fudge below 2/3 medium bodied hot chocolate. You get the point. Mix and match. Savor. Don’t be like me and think Mindy’s isn’t just about sweets. Their quiche is one of the best I’ve ever had. Pastry chefs of Mindy Siegal’s caliber know sweet and savory crusts. Now don’t forget about non-hot chocolate sweets of course. In the hands of such a gifted pastry chef, get another dessert. Make it the warm doughnuts coated in cinnamon sugar, with terrific housemade raspberry preserves. What can’t Siegal do? I mean, the Bloody Mary was only fair if you want me to really be the stiff critic.
Cookies-wise, those cannelés from Floriole are worth snacking on. The macarons at Slurping Turtle, especially the white chocolate sesame, are worth a trip even if you don’t want noodles.
No, I didn’t try the famed sticky buns from Ann Sather’s. I’m sure they’re excellent.
But I did enjoy some formidable cookies from a non-brick and mortar bakery. Wallish Wonders Unrivaled Cookies happened to pop up at Bow Truss River North the morning of my visit (get the “Smobrero” with pepitas, Turkish apricots, lime zest, cayenne peppers, and Guittard dark chocolate chips.) They must share my thoughts on soft, chewy cookies full of salt, spice, and dark chocolate. Cookies should follow the Wallish Wonders style.
Skip It: The Purple Pig
Initially I was going to incite controversy and say deep dish pizza. However, you do have to have it once. In fact, this trip I truly enjoyed my rookie deep dish experience at Pequod’s in suburban Oak Brook. O.k., yes Pequod’s (and the nearby Burt’s Place) doesn’t actually serve deep dish officially. Their heavy pizzas are pan pizzas with caramelized crusts where the outer crust is sprinkled with cheese and looks charred. Per the great insight of Nick Kindelsperger at Serious Eats Chicago, the caramelized crusts also have a thicker base than deep dish versions. Otherwise they’re pretty much the same.
But, I still don’t get it. It’s all crust that doesn’t have much in the way of taste with some equally flavor-less cheese under a clunky tomato sauce. With so much else taking your attention, toppings become an afterthought (get the spinach- basil- garlic at Pequod’s). I know I’m being a bit harsh here. It’s not that deep dish doesn’t taste good. It’s just a one note casserole after three bites, a stomach brick after ten. With all due respect, I’ll take my puffy charred Neopolitan pie most days.
When it comes to the lackluster experience of the visit, that honor goes to The Purple Pig. Chef Jimmy Banos Jr. garners raves left and right for his porcine temple right off the Magnificent Mile in a land traditionally vacant of decent eating. It’s really now a tourist spot. My seat at the communal table literally was a fire hazard, where I was sandwiched between other diners and a wall. It was a major commotion the one time I left the table.
The Purple Pig’s motto is “Cheese, Swine, and Wine.” I enjoyed a Croatian red and didn’t sample any cheese. Yes, every dish I sampled involved swine. Most dishes weren’t so divine.
Food-wise, nearly everything was overly greasy, lacking enough spice, and unfulfilling. Bone marrow was decent and so was the signature pig’s ear with crispy kale, pickled cherry peppers, and a fried egg. Strangely, the pig ear tasted more of a bread crouton than the gelatinous funk many of us love. Unfortunately, the pork neck bone gravy with ricotta was like a bland tortilla soup and almost atrociously fatty, blubbery pig tails paired with a cloying mayonnaise heavy grated egg parsley salad. It was below average pub grub. All of these heavy, rustic dishes could have had character. Instead they were just sloppy and poorly executed. The one excellent dish was a bowl of spring peas vivid with spearmint…and bacon.
As far the week’s mis-fires, the glaring dish was Sepia’s halibut. It’s no longer on the menu fortunately. A perfectly cooked, moist fish had no support from tortelloni stuffed with a neutral brandade filling. Mint pesto? Barely detectable. Now that artichoke barigoule that was ceremoniously poured in the plate-bowl is the real guilty party.
You can’t team a beautiful piece of halibut with what is essentially a clear broth and as exciting as Baskin Robbins vanilla. For $35 too. Unacceptable to say the least. Fortunately, everything else soared. Just look at those pristine scallops working the surf and turf duo with boudin noir. I have tremendous faith in Sepia, unlike The Purple Pig.
I’m a Negroni guy, but the Negroni slushy at Parson’s, a chicken and fish joint from the Land and Sea Dept. behind Longman & Eagle, lost any of the usual excitement by being blended in the ice. All of the sharp bitterness of the Campari was zapped. Indifferent bartenders didn’t help. As much as I loved every One Off restaurant (Blackbird et al.), Big Star’s al pastor tacos needed more achiote flavoring to liven up the slightly fatty and dry nubs of pork, plus, non-stale tortillas.
The real clunker of the trip? A Margarita at our hotel The Palmer House Hilton. It’s as if sink cleaner replaced the simple syrup. I have a new candidate for possibly the worst drink I’ve ever tasted.
Restaurant of Chicago: Blackbird
I think our review last month of Blackbird explains in many ways why Blackbird deserves the grand prize.
Right now, Chicago is really having its breakout innovative moment. The first wave came two decades or so again when the likes of Charlie Trotter, Arun Sampanthavivat (Arun’s), Rick Tramonto (formerly at Tru), Rick Bayless, Jean Joho (Everest), and Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia) worked ambitious wonders in upscale ways with cuisines across the globe.
Then came the next generation where technology and pork were the headliners, sometimes together. Think Alinea, Moto, The Publican, and The Girl and the Goat.
Of course, Chicago is still a steakhouse town. Gibson’s, Morton’s, and Gene & Georgetti are still de rigeur for massive prime bone-in rib eyes and even heftier key lime pies than deep dish pizza pies.
Chicago’s Big Three would be Italian Beef, deep dish pizza, and snappy hot dogs coated in everything except ketchup. Don’t forget the celery salt and tomato slice. Superdawg and Weiner’s Circles are the stops for traditional hot dogs. Hot Doug’s has the lines for excellent traditional dogs, or intriguing combinations like a “shrimp ‘n’ grits’ one with a smoked shrimp and pork sausage, Creole mustard, hominy grits, and goat cheese. The foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage with truffle oil, foie gras mousse, and fleur de sel seems to always be on the menu now.
Deep dish? I chose Pequod’s, but Gino’s East, Pizzeria Uno’s, and the distinct butter crust at Lou Malnati’s are best known. Italian beef is a showdown between Al’s on Taylor in Little Italy and Mr. Beef in the Near North on Orleans. I thoroughly enjoyed the giardiniera heavy, juicy Italian beef mess at US Cellular Field.
The newest wave of the past year or three is really where Chicago has blended the Trotter and Bayless lessons of creativity and devotion to ingredients, with a younger fan base. We’ve learned about Kosher barbeque and perplexing names from Milt’s BBQ for the Perplexed. Fat Rice has taught us what the heck Macau cuisine is and its elaborate arroz gordo. Yusho changed what we consider a yakitori joint. Curtis Duffy at Grace is revolutionizing haute tasting menus with dual meat and vegetarian options, where the vegetarian one seems to now be the favorite. Bill Kim’s Urbanbelly in a middle of nowhere strip mall was one of the first to make ramen and dumplings much more than we thought.
To me, Blackbird is still the restaurant of Chicago. Even at almost 16 years old, it has the spark of the new age with the maturity of the old guard. Every town needs a Blackbird.
Symbol of Chicago: The Bean at Millennium Park, Willis Tower and Wrigley Field (A three way tie)
Finally, a parting note from Chicago: