When I left my twenties, I went to Chicago to mark the passing of that decade, and to welcome the next. In the five years since, I’ve kept the tradition, choosing a different city with each new birthday.
Last year, due to a canceled event that I was supposed to attend in Chicago, which left me with pre-paid lodging and airfare to that city around the time of my birthday, I decided to cut my losses and return the Windy City to celebrate once more.
Beyond spending an unforgettable week with dear friends, that trip reminded me of just how much I love Chicago.
If travel were dating, and cities were prospects, I’d admit to being a shameless playboy. With few exceptions, I’m always having a hot affair with whichever city I’m in at the moment. One week, I’m on the verge of abandoning everything for Copenhagen, the next week, I couldn’t imagine being happier anywhere other than San Francisco, or Santiago, or Oaxaca, or Carmel. And still, I remain convinced that I’ll live in New York one day. And Paris. And London. And Stockholm. Yeah, it’s a problem.
This post is as much a love letter to Chicago as it is a summary of my latest trip there in March.
Chicago is the first city that made me want to leave home. As a child, I traveled there at least once a year to visit my cousins. I spent hot summers there running around in flammable terry cloth of unspeakable colors, eating ice cream out of trucks, and developing a lifelong love affair with cracker-crust pizzas at the circus-themed Barnaby’s (is that chain still around?).
My annual visits became more permanent when I moved to the north shore of Chicago for college. There, I recorded four happy and truly meaningful years of my life.
And when, in my second year of law school, I had the opportunity to work in a grown-up law firm, with a grown-up salary, I chose to return to Chicago, where I irresponsibly spent the lion’s share of my summer earnings in restaurants. And boy, did I have fun doing it.
In the years since, I’ve made Chicago a habit, more out of instinct than design. Outside of Kansas City (where I live now), it truly is my second city, my home away from home.
Decades of fond memories – a disorganized mix of family, friends, classmates, restaurants, late night omelets and milkshakes at Clarke’s Diner, early morning runs along Lake Michigan, sticky summers, bone-chilling winters, Frango mints, happiness, sadness, love, and almost every shade of emotion in between – rush at me every time I hear the rickety clack of the El. There is no sound or comfort like it. I miss it. I crave it.
So, when my friends and I batted about possible destinations for my birthday trip this year, I didn’t dismiss Chicago as an option just because I had celebrated there the year before. In fact, as time ran out, and all of our schedules rapidly filled up, Chicago became an easy choice.
Since I was familiar with the city, there was very little planning involved.
And, more importantly, there are always plenty of restaurants to visit and revisit.
My friends and I covered a lot of ground in the few days we were in Chicago.
In Wicker Park, we shared tacos and beer at Big Star. Since it’s located between O’Hare and the city, it has become a convenient meeting place for my friends and me when we first land.
Nearby, off a different spoke of the Six Corners in the same neighborhood, we had brunch at Trencherman, Pat and Mike Sheerin’s new restaurant in Shawn McClain’s former Spring space. They’ve done a nice job of revising the interior. Among the dishes we had, I especially loved the kale salad, tossed with fluffy, torn pieces of carrot-quinoa bread.
In Logan Square, I returned to Matthias Merges’s yusho, for a quiet, Monday-night dinner. The fish collar here remains a favorite, served with nori wrappers and condiments.
At The Aviary in the West Loop, I caught up with two college friends, whom I hadn’t seen since their wedding. That was eight years ago. They’re expecting their second child, now. I didn’t know that when I made the reservation. Thankfully, The Aviary’s non-alcoholic cocktails are just as great as the fully loaded ones.
And, a few blocks away on West Randolph Street – now, Chicago’s restaurant row au courant – a few of us gathered at Maude’s Liquor Bar for drinks before dinner one night. We started downstairs in the bar, and migrated upstairs, where we found a guitar and accordion duet covering oldies but goodies.
I rarely eat breakfast. But in Chicago, I almost always eat breakfast.
Dave Beran, the chef at Next, is, apparently, a method cook. In preparation for the vegan menu at Next, he switched to a vegan diet as soon as he returned from Europe in early February. So, he recommended Flying Saucer – a restaurant in Humboldt Park that’s as quirky as its name suggests – for its vegan breakfast options. The restaurant is owned and operated by a small Kiwi, who, that morning, was wearing jeggings, glasses the size of bread plates, and a ski cap. The only one taking orders, he was admirably efficient. Beran had a vegan breakfast burrito, stuffed with beans and vegetables. Out of curiosity, I ordered the vegan pancakes. Beran described the cakes as tasting like blueberries. I thought they tasted more like yellow box cake. Either way, they were fluffy and light, and mysteriously good.
Another morning, a few of the cooks from Curtis Duffy’s Grace met me at Lou Mitchell’s, an old-school diner in the West Loop (the label on the maple syrup bottle declares it “A Chicago Institution Since 1923”), where everything’s served with a hearty side of sass. Lou Mitchell’s is known for its hot donut holes, which are offered to customers as they wait for tables. We didn’t get any donut holes that morning (though I saw a whole wicker basket full of them at the front door). But we did get a wedge of orange and two prunes to start our meal (our waitress warned us about the pits, thankfully), and a little Dixie cup of vanilla soft serve afterwards (which we were encouraged to dress with some of the restaurant’s hand-chopped orange marmalade to create a “creamsicle”).
The food at Lou Mitchell’s is good enough. But it’s not the main attraction at this diner. One doesn’t simply go to Lou Mitchell’s for waffles (mine was crusted with bits of pecans and bacon) and pancakes, steak and eggs, coffee and orange juice. One goes to Lou Mitchell’s for a slice of Chicago tartare: a raw, chopped mix of the city’s heart. Here, you’ll find off-duty cops eating next to hungover college students eating next to an immigrant family of five eating next to two blowhard businessmen eating next to a blogger and three cooks, all being yelled at by cranky waitresses, any one of whom won’t think twice about guilt-tripping you for switching sections (that would be us). Yes, enjoy your donut holes and prunes, but go for the sass.
A big group of us descended upon Giuseppe Tentori’s GT Fish & Oyster in the River North for lunch one day. I especially loved the Caesar salad, which replaced croutons with fried oysters. I can also recommend the buttery lobster rolls, and the platters of assorted crustacea, bivalves, and shellfish, spliced on ice, to share.
Back in the West Loop, I had lunch with my friend Mango In The Sun at Publican Quality Meats, a butcher-eatery with a short but delicious menu. Everything we had was great, especially a frisée salad with faro and pecans, and a buttery green garlic soup with large-format brioche croutons. Cosmo Goss, the charcuterier here, sent out an assortment of cured meats for us to try, and then took us downstairs to tour his butchery, where sausages hung from the rafters, and blocks of meat aged on shelves. It’s an amazing operation.
And in the South Loop, I was introduced to Eleven City Diner, a modern Jewish deli-diner. On the menu, there’s pastrami, and smoked salmon, and chopped liver too. We had all of that, with half a cantaloupe on the side for scooping. To finish, we barreled through a gigantic wedge of red velvet cake and a boatload of ice cream lined between a split banana (with whipped cream with cherries on top, of course). The pastrami might have been a bit dry, but I really liked the feel of this place. I’ll be back.
Mango In The Sun had never been to alinea. Having worked with Grant Achatz as the director of events for the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, for which Achatz has served as a coach, she really wanted to go. She offered to secure the reservation if our friend Viet Pham, who also came along to celebrate my birthday, and I agreed to go with her.
I had been to alinea thrice before – first in 2005, again in 2007, and lastly, in 2010. Although I have always admired and respected Achatz’s talent and seemingly endless appetite for innovation (and still do), I didn’t care for my first two meals at alinea. And I was pretty vocal about it (and, I’ll note, somewhat alone in my criticism).
I thought the experience was too much of a show, focused more on technique and dazzle than deliciousness, or, quite frankly, the diner. And, as a matter of preference, his food skewed too sweet for me.
At my meal in 2010, however, I noticed changes that made alinea more likable. Pared down to sixteen courses from two dozen (or more), the menu felt tighter, strained of excessive frills and distractions. More significantly, I noticed (and this might have just been me being me) a maturity and a self-awareness to the experience – references to the past that justified the present – that made it more weighty and worthy. You can read more about that meal in a previous post.
So, I was anxious to get back to alinea for a fourth time. I agreed to go, and so did Viet.
Some might not think it fair of me to write about my latest meal at alinea, in part because my friends and I were shown favors beyond the norm, and perhaps more so because we were refused a bill. Chef Achatz even intercepted our server on his way to run a token tab for a tip at our insistence.
But, I think it is fair of me to write about this meal. Briefly, this is why (I really need to devote a longer post to this topic): I have notified you that this meal was not representative of a normal meal at alinea. More importantly, notwithstanding the fact that I believe I can remain honest and objective about my experience, I have disclosed to you factors that might compromise my ability to do so. Knowing that, you are free to assign or deduct from my opinion as much worth as you deem appropriate. If you are still unsatisfied with this reasoning, then treat the following as an account of what can happen at alinea, as opposed to what will or does happen at alinea on a daily basis. Or, don’t read it at all.
All of that being said, here is what I thought of our meal: I had more fun at this dinner than any of my previous dinners at alinea. Part of this was certainly due to the company – I ate with two good friends full of humor and hijinks. But the lion’s share of the fun I credit to Achatz, who personalized the experience for us.
In his restless quest to redefine the culinary proscenium, Achatz orchestrated for us a grand show in three acts, which unfolded across three different tables in three different parts of the restaurant.
With lights off, candles lit, a table set, and rows of cooks squinting over their stations, there, in the silence of Achatz’s kitchen, the curtain went up on our dinner. A tin of caviar alighted, and with it a retinue of trimmings. Vodka, iced, was poured. And cloud-like potato blinis arrived, literally on a two-minute rotation, fresh from a griddle seemingly dedicated solely to our cause. If they weren’t buttery enough, a silver terrine of drawn butter begged: come, take a swim. I ate as many as I could.
Then, we were moved upstairs, where a skyscraper city of seafood awaited us – nearly a dozen different bites, some cold, some warm, and one that required us to perform a little table-top cooking. Thereafter, a half dozen more courses followed.
We ended our meal at yet another table, one last stage upon which Achatz, his then-chef de cuisine Matthew Chasseur (who just left alinea this week), and then-sous chef, Mike Bagale (who is replacing Chasseur as the new chef de cuisine) delivered a sweet finale in silence: dessert (watch the video).
From top to bottom, the food was consistently and flawlessly executed. And, although I can’t say that I loved everything, on balance, the food was more delicious (and seemed less sweet) than I’ve known it to be. My favorite dishes included a crispy shrimp head impaled on the rim of a glass, “bleeding” a tomatoe-y pinçage. I also loved the duck course, which presented that fowl in eight different preparations. From tongue to heart, wing to liver, each part of the duck was so flavorful and well-cooked that the sixty condiments that accompanied the meat were more of a distraction than a complement.
And, of course, I loved the candlelit caviar service that started it all: classy, showy, and timeless.
If dining is theatre, Grant Achatz is an impresario. This meal proved it to be so. Thanks for the high-pitched giggles, chef.
On the merits of cooking and creativity alone, “The Hunt” was, perhaps, the most impressive of the four meals I’ve now had at the Next (Paris 1906; elBulli; and Kyoto are the other three). Yet, the restaurant’s first run – Paris, 1906 – and the restaurant’s fourth menu – elBulli – remain rivals as my favorite. Those two meals both capitalized upon the most compelling aspect of Next’s potential as a restaurant: the ability to not only transport diners to a different place, but also a different time.
But Next: “The Hunt” was delicious and satisfying in ways that the others were not. (Disclaimer: this meal was a gift from Beran and the restaurant. My friends and were not allowed to pay.)
Able to define the perimeters of this menu with more creative license than with previous menus, chef Dave Beran explored the hunt, from the primal – squab served with its own blood – to the playful – caramelized maple syrup lollies rolled on an ice trough (watch the video here). The Hunt menu also focused a lot on the concept of preservation – one of my favorite courses was a plate of roasted carrots that had been cellared for months, buried in sawdust to prevent both dehydration and spoilage (sawdust has about the same amount of water content as raw carrots).
From what I have witnessed, and from conversations that I’ve had with Beran, whom I have befriended over the past year, I can tell you that every menu at Next is the product of a lot of research, thought, and care. It is for this reason, primarily, coupled with the restaurant’s consistency and precision, that Next has quickly become my most frequent destination in Chicago.
I ended this birthday trip with two, quiet meals with Mango In The Sun.
I had eaten at Café Spiaggia years ago, but I had never eaten at Spiaggia. So, I finally went.
The pastas were the highlight. I had a row of velvety agnolotti filled with ricotta di bufala and Pecorino Toscano, over which chef Sarah Grueneberg generously shaved black truffles. There was also a wonderful bowl of squid ink tagliolini – each strand taut, but tender – in broth of olive oil-cured tomatoes, garnished with mint, breadcrumbs and nuggets of lobster. The fact that Lady Gaga came to celebrate her birthday the same night was just the icing on the cake.
And, finally, I had dinner at graham elliot.
I will not hide from you my friendship with Graham Elliot Bowles, whom I first met when he was executive chef of the now-closed Avenues at The Peninsula Hotel. Neither will I keep from you the fact that he graciously took care of my dinner, denying my offer to pay for it. But, having disclaimed all of that, I will tell you that my latest meal at graham elliot was very good. In fact, it was the best meal I’ve had there yet.
Having been witness to so many seminal moments of my life and having tracked so many of my milestones, Chicago has, strangely, become the fathom by which I measure myself. More than in any other city – my hometown of Kansas City included – in Chicago, I see my reflection strung in a series of snapshots from the past to the present. It is the city of my childhood, my adolescence, and my adulthood.
The fact that Chicago also has a lively restaurant scene is just a wonderful coincidence. So, I shall return, and return, and return, to record many more meals, moments, and minutes there.
Here is a list of the restaurants that I visited on this latest trip to Chicago. Each entry is hyperlinked to the photos from that meal.
alinea (Lincoln Park)
Aviary, The (West Loop)
Big Star (Wicker Park)
Eleven City Diner (South Loop)
Flying Saucer (Humboldt Park)
graham elliot (River North)
GT Fish & Oyster (River North)
Lou Mitchell’s (West Loop)
Next: The Hunt (West Loop)
Publican Quality Meats (West Loop)
Spiaggia (Gold Coast)
Trencherman (Wicker Park)
yusho (Logan Square)
Photos: Two squabs ready for the press at Next: The Hunt, Chicago, Illinois; the Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois; “Cloud Gate” at Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois; a guitarist and accordionist play a duet cover of “Earth Angel” at Maude’s Liquor Bar, Chicago, Illinois; oysters on the half shell at GT Fish & Oyster, Chicago, Illinois; beef dry-aging on the shelves at Publican Quality Meats in Chicago, Illinois; caviar service in the kitchen at alinea in Chicago, Illinois; Monica Bhambhani and Viet Pham surveying our table of desserts at alinea, Chicago, Illinois; Jason Carlen, wine director at Spiaggia, presents two bottles of wine at Spiaggia, Chicago, Illinois; and pickled vegetables at Yusho in Chicago, Illinois.