My latest trip to Chicago almost didn’t happen.
Originally, I was supposed to go in late February, on business. But that trip got canceled.
Thankfully, my prepaid hotel and airline reservations were moveable. So, I emailed a few of my friends to see if they could meet me in Chicago in March for an early birthday weekend instead.
And that is how I lost four of the last few days of my thirty-third year to sleepless nights of hijinks and hilarity. I have the best friends.
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They left the eating itinerary up to me, save one request. My friend, Mango In The Sun, who was flying in from New York, really wanted to eat at an Achatz restaurant. Although neither alinea nor next was on my list for this trip, how could I argue with her when she came back a couple of days later with a reservation at David Beran’s remounting of elBulli?
I had just visited Chicago in early February, so I hadn’t expected to get another chance to explore the city’s restaurants with abandon so soon again.
This time, I leaned heavily towards restaurants I hadn’t visited, like The Bristol, where we had brunch, Big Jones, where we ate Southern, and Big Star, where I ate twice. At Maude’s Liquor Bar, I witnessed a French bistro repositioned in the Prohibition era. It was an odd coupling, made strangely sane by hipster zeitgeist. We ordered the grand plateaux – a tower of seafood on ice – steak tartare, and gnocchi à la Parisienne. And we ate it all in the moody, candlelit gloom of a second-story speakeasy, on leatherette couches with a view of the kitchen.
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We had hoped to eat at Ruxbin, a hot new restaurant in Wicker Park that doesn’t take reservations. But, by the time we arrived, just past 6:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, the hostess had stopped taking walk-ins. They were full. So, we headed to the West Loop, to the five-block stretch on West Randolph Street that is now Chicago’s restaurant row.
There was a two-hour wait at Girl and the Goat, people hanging from the rafters. We left.
The forty-five-minute wait at avec was much more palatable. So, we penciled in our names and went around the corner to Sepia for a drink and a nosh to kill time. My, what a handsome restaurant that is. I almost didn’t want to leave.
Back at avec, the hostess gave us the two best seats in the house by chance, perching us at the counter in front of the cooks, right next to a fire engine-red Berkel slicer. We ordered a plate of prosciutto just to see it go. I hadn’t been to avec since 2005. It was good as I remembered it.
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I hadn’t been to TRU since 2005 either. Between now and then, Rick Tramonto left and Anthony Martin arrived. Last time, I ate in the small, private dining room in the kitchen, which has now been annexed by M Burger, Lettuce Entertain You’s new patty and bun concept next door. This time we ate in the restaurant’s generous dining room, at tables separated by wide boulevards through which our server, Harrington Murphy III, drove the cheese cart and the petits fours trolley with panache (ask for him if you go). Richter, Warhol, Halley, and Fuss, you’ll find them all hanging on the walls here. To match, Chef Martin sent out a modernist’s museum of plates, whimsical and colorful.
I ate at blackbird twice on this trip. The first time, I went with my friend Piña Colada, who had flown in from New York for the weekend. Piña Colada was named one of Food & Wine’s inaugural Best New Pastry Chefs this year with Bryce Caron, the pastry chef at blackbird. So, the two connected and Caron arranged a small dessert tasting for us late one night, sending out some of his favorites. I had the pleasure of revisiting them the next day at lunch, when I returned to blackbird with the Sheerin brothers, Patrick and Mike, who are putting the finishing touches on their new restaurant, The Trencherman, in Shawn McClain’s old spring space near the Damen-O’Hare stop.
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Pipsqueak flew in just for a day, to join us at next elBulli, where David Beran sent us thirty-one courses from Ferran Adrià’s book, a few of which I had last year at the mothership in Cala Montjoi, Spain. Despite my hesitation going into this meal, I left impressed. (Should I write about it? I think I’ll write about it.) Halfway through our meal, Grant Achatz appeared, fresh from the kitchen at alinea, towel still tied to his apron, to say hello. Afterward, he took us on a tour of his West Loop empire, down into the basement, through The Office (an exclusive underground cocktail bar), and up into Aviary, which was closed that night.
Bobby Schaffer, once pastry chef under Curtis Duffy at Avenues, is currently working at Acadia, Chef Ryan McCaskey’s culinary ode to Maine (yes, the state) that just opened on South Wabash Avenue. Mango and I stopped by after dinner one night to try his desserts, the best of which was a bright, tangy passion fruit toffee with banana coffee cake and cardamom meringue. There also appeared a scoop of boozy beer ice cream on a shortbread cookie, a petit four that I wish he would reincarnate as a full dessert in the future.
A couple of days later, Bobby took me to Hendrickx Belgian Bread Crafters, where we had white chocolate bread (a sweet loaf studded with rock sugar on the outside, with a white chocolate tunnel running through its center), chocolate cake, and a caramelized waffle Liégeoise. You should go.
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With all of the eating, it’s hard to imagine we had time for much else. But we did.
The weather was perfect. An early spring had arrived. So, I took the Purple line all the way up to the Davis Street stop, just like I had done a hundred times before as a college student. I dropped by my dorm in the South Quad to say hello. I softened at the sight of Annie May Swift Hall, now gleaming after a good power wash, and I bristled at the sight of our ugly, ugly library, and our student union too. I cursed them both, blights on our otherwise beautiful campus (note to the administration: please tear them down and start over). I paused outside of my old apartment on Church Street, just around the corner from the old Trio, where Tramonto, McClain, Achatz, and Duffy all once cooked. And I relished a sunny walk along Lake Michigan, with the city waving at me from the South, and my happy youth suddenly beside me.
In the city, we looked up Marilyn’s skirt and played funny faces in the Cloud Bean. I went for a run up the Gold Coast, and down to Navy Pier and around.
I rendez-voused with a friend on a random street corner on my way to lunch one day. She had some foietella and smuggled meats from Singapore to pass to me. Life doesn’t get any better than this.
And, somehow, I managed to watch my fellow alumnus Seth Meyers interview Paula Deen (played by Kristen Wiig) on Saturday Night Live about thirty times that weekend, replaying it over and over again. Hot booter an awl, I just couldn’t get enough of it.
Thank you to everyone who eased me into my thirty-fourth year with a laugh and some good food.* I am blessed.
When I catch up on sleep, I’ll try to tell you about some of these restaurants:
blackbird (once, twice)
Big Star (once, twice)
Hendrickx Belgian Bread Crafter
Maude’s Liquor Bar
* Thank you: Mango In The Sun, Piña Colada, and Pipsqueak, for taking time out of your busy schedules to fly to Chicago to celebrate with me. Thank you for your gifts and your friendship. Belinda Chang, I was sorry to hear at the last minute that couldn’t join us, but I congratulate you on your new position as Beverage Director at Culinary Concepts Hospitality Group; I look forward to hearing about your amazing travels! Thank you for the blingy bottle of bubbles. Grant Achatz, David Beran, and the staff of next, thank you for reviving elBulli, and for your immense generosity. Bryce Caron, thank you for the tacos and the sweets. David Posey and the staff at blackbird, thank you for your warmth and hospitality. Bobby Schaffer and the staff of Acadia, thank you for the desserts and for taking such great care of us. Patrick and Mike Sheerin, thanks for the laughs; good luck on The Trencherman! Tanya Boswell, it was great to see you – I’m glad you called! Carla Siegel and Lauren Pett, thank you for delivering those chocolates! And Charlotte Tan, thanks for being my secret pusher.
Photos: “Flight” by Thomas Masters, Aviary; expediting tickets at next elBulli; Big Star; Mike Sheerin and David Posey at blackbird; Grant Achatz at Aviary; “Cloud Bean,” Millenium Park.