Chicago

May 27, 2010

In mid-May, I had to fly to ~CHICAGO~ for a couple days of work, which means I had two nights to eat out as well. Sadly, Alinea and L20 remain unchecked on my list, because I just didn’t have the time for a five-hour dinner each night. In fact, my first night there, I only had about 30 minutes since I was on deadline for tablehopper. So I figured it was time to finally experience the infamous “Chicago beef.” And after a little interneting, I discovered one of the better examples was just a five-block walk from my hotel (The James, by the way, is a fab place to stay).

Al’s #1 Italian Beef
multiple locations
alsbeef.JPG

I wasn’t at the original location—this one actually had tables and chairs. You gotta love a place where the first thing out of the counter guy’s mouth is, “What can I get for you, young lady?” (Mind you, he was my age. I heart Chicago.) Anyway, I ordered as I was instructed by a native Chicagoan: “I’d like a beef, wet, hot, and sweet, for here.” Yeah, it sounded filthy. Which is exactly what I got: a filthy, dirty sandwich. It was a soft roll stuffed with the most thinly sliced (and spiced) beef, topped with a mix of sweet peppers and a finely diced giardiniera in a chili flake-studded hot oil. And the whole thing was just dripping with roasting juices—you can order it wet or, for the full experience, dipped.

Sure, it’s been a while since I ate a dinner off a tray (the counter guy talked me into a combo meal with their skin-on hand-cut fries and a soda). But man, that messy-ass sandwich was crazy delicious. It definitely tapped into the reptililan part of my brain—I managed to wolf that puppy down, and practically had to unhinge my jaw in a python-like fashion to do so. I almost killed a forest with all the napkins I used. The tender meat was so juicy and relatively lean—I was way into the subtle spicing, and the acidity and crunch of the peppers and the “hot” giardiniera. While I won’t be craving a beef for a long while, it’s the kind of sandwich I’d love to see a San Francisco sandwich-maker do a twist on.

And in case you’re hankering for a Chicago beef right now, you can head to the Da Beef cart in SoMa and they will hook you up—although their Twitter feed is best for learning if they’re open or not. (Phat Philly in the Mission makes a good one as well.)

All aboard the meat train! Well, I was in Chicago, what did I expect? Vegetables? Riiiight. The next night I went out for a proper meal (with silverware) with a friend at:

The Publican
837 W. Fulton Market at N. Green St.
312-733-9555
publicansetting.JPG

This Fulton Market tavern (the area feels very warehouse-y/Meatpacking District) is from the team behind my other Chicago favorites, Blackbird and avec restaurants. As soon as we walked in, I was like, well hello there—I’ve never seen a restaurant like this one. There were three long communal walnut tables in a U-shape in the center of the room, with tall-backed wood chairs, and a soft glow from the suspended brasserie-like globe lights hanging overhead. I cracked up over the “veal pen” private tables along the wall, contained by a tall wooden fence of sorts—just like opening a pen door to get to your table. There were also some standing-room tables near the bar where folks could easily gather for a pint and a plate of aged ham with the wonderful crusty bread and goat butter. And my favorite: the three large canvases of big, fat, roly poly pigs on the walls. Here pig!

Executive chef Paul Kahan and chef de cuisine Brian Huston’s menu reads like a love letter to meat and all its various and sundry cuts; its offerings include cones of spicy pork rinds from Becker Lane pigs (chicharrones to us Cali-types), charcuterie plates, bollito misto, duck heart, and whoa, calf’s brain sausage. Whole animal in effect. There are also eight kinds of oysters, fried clams, a crudo… and fortunately about six seasonal vegetable side dishes (although some contain meaty items like, oh, ham crumbs). A vegetarian would just dissolve into tears here. publicanlittlegem.JPG

We started with the little gem salad ($8), topped with crunchy strips of pig’s ears, plus the kick of radish, the twang of basil, and a creamy buttermilk vinaigrette. It was a beautiful salad—such fantastic texture and flavor. Next was the lightly smoked char ($15) with fingerling potatoes, giardiniera (hey, we’re in Chi-town!), and fromage blanc, simultaneously rustic yet elegant—and rich. Everything is meant to be eaten family style, and I was digging the mismatched style of the large plates and silver (such big forks!)—the American-meets-European elements all conspired to have you feel like you were in a Boston tavern back in the 1800s—with, perhaps, a Belgian tavern-keeper (which is actually what a “publican” is, a tavern keeper). publicanbar.jpg

Let’s pause a moment here for the BEERS. Oh lordy, what a list. I’m not even going to begin to count, but it looked like at least 70, with 12 on tap, most from Germany and Belgium (and with the biggest sticks I’ve ever seen). As for the bottles, you could take your pick from Trappist to abbey to lambics to Flemish reds to micro-Belgians to Italian, even Swedish beers. We stuck with the saison section, putting back bottles of the Brasserie Dupont and Brasserie à Vapeur. (You can geek out on the list here.) The wine list was also full of some unique and quirky picks, but we were all about the suds.

So back to the food: truth be told, the sweetbreads almost put me over the edge; they came as two very large lobes, with barely any breading. Just too much gland for me. Our hands-down fave was the juicy and pink lamb saddle ($32) with bright English peas, shoots, and a nest of grits. Staggeringly tender meat—the dish was the essence of springtime. Oh, and the side of ramps ($10) with a super-garlicky romesco—hell, who are we to turn down some ramps while we’re in the Midwest? (Next time, and there will be a next time, I am so going to try the amazing-looking farm chicken, and the ham chop “in hay.”) We finished with the lemon tart with graham cracker, coconut, and brown butter ice cream—even though we were deathly full, we needed a fresh note to finish on. publicaninterior.JPG

More than anything, what I loved most was the sense of humor of this place, whether you wanted to “buy a six-pack for the kitchen” ($10) off the beer list, or the jaunty waitstaff uniforms, to the bathroom that made me feel like I was shakin’ the dew off my lily (as my cowboy country pal used to say) at the OK Corral—the wood restroom doors were tall and rancho-like, and you wash your hands at a faucet fountain in the center of the room. For once, a unisex bathroom that ended up amusing me rather than annoying me.

There isn’t a single place in San Francisco that pushes the envelope design- and concept-wise like this restaurant. I tip my cap to the entire team, and architect and interior designer Thomas Schlesser. It’s no mistake that it won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant Design in 2009.

We finished the evening with cocktails at:
The Violet Hour
1520 N. Damen Ave. at N. Wicker Park Ave.
773-252-1500
violethour.jpg

It was about a ten-minute cab ride away in Wicker Park. Fortunately, the bar is affiliated with The Publican, so we had the host call ahead for us. Yeah, it’s one of those no standing room (but no reservations) and slightly speakeasy-ish bars, but boy, is it a beaut. Once you enter through what looks like a plywood/under construction façade, and check in for a table with the hostess, you will have a glimpse of the breathtaking room. The décor is so glamorous, with a salon style that features a few separate rooms, tall-backed leather chairs, hardwood floors, crystal chandeliers, and dramatic floor-to-ceiling curtains. No old-timey music here—it seemed more like a Stanley Kubrick movie set. And yes, I was ready to move in.

We scored seats at the bar, where our barman extraordinaire, Henry Prendergrast (yes, his real name), proceeded to blow doors with his beverages (all drinks on the menu are $12). The back bar is full of vials and house bitters and a staggering selection of liquors. I requested he shake or stir up some custom drinks for me (“bourbon and refreshing” is how I usually call it), and it was like he had been making drinks for me for years—they were exactly my heart’s desire. No, I didn’t take notes—I was just having a good time. And at this place, you will. Until we meet again… And when we do, I want to try some of the snacks on the menu as well (hello country-fried pork sandwich on a buttermilk biscuit with hot pepper jelly—that’ll fix any damage you do with too many Spring Sidecars).

July 14, 2009



Eddie Lau is a chef and Boston native whose former kitchen experiences in San Francisco over the last two years include Orson and Poleng Lounge. He is the proud writer and owner of HotFoodPorn.com, to which he calls "a vehicle for all things culinary that are sexy, tasty, ironic, and or humorously pointless."

Currently he is working privately and hopes to realize his aspirations of creating progressive, sustainable, and sensible cuisine in his own restaurant in the near future. For that reason, he had high hopes to investigate and discover the creation and philosophy of what many have described as America's modern food movement in Chicago.


Thursday Morning: Hello Chicago, I Don't Think We've Met

I arrived in a gray and drizzling Chicago on Thursday at 12:30pm after a long flight that got me out of bed at 3am in the morning. Considering I didn't go to bed until midnight, I had more than good excuse to be irritated, tired, and/or strung out on caffeine. But this was my first trip to Chicago and the anticipation and hunger for the city's ample culinary opportunities shook me from my stomach to my loins.

You'd be surprised to know that I have either enjoyed a meal or lodged a night at different cities in 26 different states before I visited Chicago, Illinois. My mission in Chicago was simple: discover and devour a three-day sampling of what some talking heads regard as the most progressive culinary city in the United States. Lofty titles are sometimes too easily bestowed, but this one seemed well deserved.

For the skeptical, please understand that stories like Schwa (see GQ article on chef Michael Carlson), concept variety like the emerging Kahan empire (Blackbird, Avec, and Publican), notable new arrivals like Graham Elliott and L2O, pioneers like Alinea, and pedigrees like Charlie Trotter's and Tru are not cultivated just anywhere. They happened in Chicago. And sometimes I wish they happened in San Francisco, but that's another story for another time… (sigh).

Despite all my rhetoric about a progressive movement in Chicago, I think people recognize that the city's food has a very dynamic identity and duality. As committed as it is to its modern cuisine, Chicagoans are equally as enamored with their traditional Midwestern fare-or grub if you want to call it. Classics like deep dish and stuffed pizzas, Chicago dogs, superdawgs, and Old Style beer are all grub fare that many identify as uniquely Chicago. I think that if I didn't try to capture some of that magic, Chicagoans and transplants alike would probably be upset with me.

There was probably no place in the country I wanted to go to more than Alinea, and I knew that dining there instantly guaranteed that the trip was a success--regardless of whether I loved the food or not. But sadly, it was not meant to be and I had to go with my secondary choices. For three weeks, I fought tooth and nail about choosing between dinner at L2O or Schwa, but in the end I decided to dine at L2O with the hopes of satisfying the curiosity and fervent lust that had been repressed from a year of staring at the food porn from the L2O blog.

The other reservation I made for dinner was Publican. Publican is the shiniest, newest, and biggest Paul Kahan restaurant that happily serves fish- and pig-oriented gastropub fare. I was really looking for a comfortable and fun family atmosphere, which is difficult considering that my party included eight adults and three babies, but the reservation hostess assured me that that wouldn't be an issue.

So having made all the necessary reservations for the first two places, I left the rest of the decisions for my trip pretty loose. I narrowed the general focus down to a few key places including Avec, Blackbird, Gage, Ina's, Hot Doug's, Superdawg, BIN 36, Graham Elliott, and Mercat a La Planxa. I also made plans to visit a couple of cocktail landmarks, including the Violet Hour and the Drawing Room.

When I got to Chicago, I didn't get to my hotel until well after 2pm, so my original preference for lunch at Blackbird was gone, but I intelligently segued into a 4pm bar spot at Avec.

And so, the journey begins. I made two specific reservations for two meals and left the rest to whim.

Thursday Late Lunch/Geriatric Dinner: Avec [Moi]

Avec is a stunning little wood fortress opened by Paul Kahan and run by awesome chef de cuisine Koren Grieveson. You may have seen her in action on Iron Chef America. Considering that I was going to dine at L2O in a matter of four hours or so, I wanted to be very careful with ordering. I thought I went relatively conservative by ordering two small plates: chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates with smoked bacon and a roasted monkfish with tomato braised chickpeas and fideo.

When the dates came out, I got my first "you're in the Midwest" reminder when I was noticed that portions were significantly more generous than the East or West coasts. By the time I finished two enormous sweet and spicy dates, my stomach was close to hitting the wall. Soon after that, the roasted monkfish came out-the scent of which was unbelievably intoxicating. It was a dire situation it seemed, but I sucked it up, invoked my second wind/gut, and ate every tasty bite. Oh, the immensely stupid things that I do for food. I washed everything down with Verhaeghe "Echt Kriekenbier" (cherry ale) and paid my $35 dollar bill (included tax/tip). I left satisfied and completely happy. If I lived remotely close to that restaurant, I would probably walk in after work every day, order the monkfish and a beer, and go home completely satisfied.





Thursday Night Dinner: Diving Into L2O

That same night at L2O, I intently looked through the menu for 15 minutes before I decided to order. I kept trying to reason how much I could eat until I finally gave in and went for the full twelve-course spring tasting menu. Go big or go home, I guess, or go big and waddle home slowly. I'm not going to recap or criticize every dish (not a critic, "lover not a fighter mentality"), but I can tell you that two savory amuses, ten savory courses, two dessert amuses, two dessert courses, a cannelé, and two macarons later, I was in a full-on food coma.

The service was absolutely impeccable, which I much appreciated and somewhat expected. The highlights of the night for me were definitely the peekytoe crab with foie gras emulsion, halibut with corn emulsion and corn foam, and the otherworldly honey dessert amuse with honey crème anglaise, honey meringue via liquid nitrogen, and pollen. I would like to advise many people that for all the discussion and talk of the intimidating "molecular gastronomy" cuisine, L2O did not taste and feel synthetically produced at any point. There was a very good sense of the focus and harmony for each ingredient, each texture, their contrasts, the application of modern technique and corresponding texture manipulation.

Not everything works, which is true of all restaurants big and small, but I think the only requirement for understanding and enjoying something different is the ability to appreciate that the attention to detail, heart, ambition, and pragmatism is unmistakably apparent in each dish.






Friday Night Dinner: Grand Ole Party at Publican

The Publican was a beautiful and brightly lit restaurant with a matrix of spherical hanging lights, giant canvases of funny-looking pigs, and wooden pigpen booth seating on the side. The food was hearty and heavy as expected. My toddler niece, Maddy, instantly fell in love with the spicy pork rinds (wait until she tries 4505 Chicharrones), and everyone loved the fries (with and without egg) and the boar shoulder on the potée dish.

I really enjoyed the concept and probably should have been more intelligent with the ordering, but it was a good family dinner where everyone was calm and nobody was upset with my dinner choice. Sometimes the best dining experiences/situations are the ones where nobody complains-not even the babies. Vis-Ã -vis, the beer list is impressive, but it takes a while to go through. Bring reading glasses if necessary.

Friday Night/Saturday Morning Cocktails: Losing My Sense of Time at The Violet Hour and Wicker Park

For many who are unfamiliar with The Violet Hour, it is best described as Chicago's version of Bourbon & Branch. No signs, no standing, no cell phone usage, no Budweiser or light beers, and everyone gets seated (see rules here). If you appreciate a fantastic cocktail, go here. If you are looking for a meat market, go somewhere else.

I marveled at their cocktail menu--it read like a book, and listed historical descriptions as well as reasons for enjoying the spirits that they featured. Also, I really appreciated the local artisan spirits (local gin, yay!) they stocked, and the fact that they made many cool house bitters (including chocolate). Three fantastic gin drinks later, I met up with a friend at the fun dive bar Flat Iron, hung out until an ungodly hour, ate a Chicago dog from a street vendor, and went home.

Industry tip: they don't drink Fernet; they drink a shot of Jameson and PBR, which is equally abrasive and equally fun.





Saturday Lunch: Cold Doug's, Old Style, and Wrigley

It seemed for a while that almost everyone and their mom kept telling me to go to Hot Doug's for weeks. Unfortunately, my Hot Doug's experience can be summarized in one rambling line: I went halfway across the country, took a $15 cab, saw a two-hour line wrapping around the block, and ditched it to go to Wrigley. Take a look at the picture and you'll know what I mean. Depressing.

Do people in Chicago resent Tony Bourdain for doing this to Hot Doug's? Do people from Chicago even go there anymore? Dammit.



By the time I got to Wrigley, there was much hotdog eating that needed to be done, but I was resolute and came out on top. My scoring for a wonderful day at Wrigley Field: one Chicago dog, one brat, two Old Styles to wash it down, and one fantastic view of the Ivy to soak it in. The Cubbies lost, by the way (Chicago's got to be used to that by now, hehehe), but I got to sing Take Me Out To The Ballgame, so that's an even split in my book.

Saturday Dinner: Grand Lux Café Owes Me Fried Chicken Bones

Really not much to say about the Grand Lux except that it encompasses the dark side of the food scene in Chicago and the Midwest: corporate dining hell in the form of Cheesecake Factory. I ordered fried chicken and I got crispy fried chicken tenders, but I didn't bother worrying about it because everyone else seemed to enjoy their meal. For all the hoorah about Chicago's food movement, it does seem to have an awful lot of these corporate chain restaurants. The meal was a bit of an anticlimactic end to an otherwise fantastic food trip, but it unmistakably comes with the territory. Got to feed the masses…

Sunday Morning: Goodbye Chicago, Nice To Finally Eat You

On Sunday morning, I packed my bags and came home to San Francisco, sorely missing Turtle Tower for some odd reason. I didn't get to go everywhere I set out to go, but I think I did everything I wanted to do. I came back happy, inspired, and relaxed. I'm actually a little relieved I didn't get to go to Alinea or Hot Doug's. They can serve as my white whales of Chicago-something to look forward to when I inevitably go back.

Boston is where I am from, San Francisco is where I live, but I must say you are my kind of town, Chicago… Take it away, Frank.

July 24, 2007



When in Chicago for only one night and with maybe three hours to spare, where do you eat din din? SF chef pals gave me a chorus of ~AVEC~! Avec! Avec! (Not to be confused with Tora! Tora! Tora!) Blackbird, Avec's more refined and mod older sister, which is literally next door, also got high votes. It was clear I wouldn't have the time (unfortunately) to experience a multi-course extravaganza meal at Alinea or Moto. Avec it was.

This modern and minimalist restaurant is a like a long shotgun space, a wooden rectangular box sporting a Scando-sauna look: large slats of wood along the walls and floors, angular wood communal tables with bench seating, and a glowing installation of green wine bottles along the far back wall. There is a long stainless steel bar (like 50 feet or so) that runs like a ribbon along the length of the space, offering ringside seats right in front of the gleaming stainless kitchen and blazing wood oven that burns at 700 degrees where the pilot light fires away. There are some wickedly bright fluorescent light fixtures beaming down their merciless light on all the tables, but for some completely odd reason, it works.

The place smells delicious--like a country hearth. Chef Koren Grieveson's menu is built to share, and with the friendly communal table setup, you will most likely end up trading bites with your neighbors who are nestled right next to you (we did). The menu has all kinds of gutsy and hunger-inducing dishes, like the famed chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates ($9) that are wrapped in smoked bacon and rest in a deep piquillo pepper and tomato sauce. Scrumptious little buggers.

We ended up sticking with choices off the small plates menu, like the red pepper and tomato braised haddock ($12) with slices of caper berries, bits of bacon, and mustard greens on top--totally mopped up the delish sauce with the bread that's made in house. Our fave was our order of crostini ($8) topped with a hummus-like mash of English peas, and topped with a dressed mix of pea shoots, pickled lemon, red onion, watercress, and ricotta salata. So fresh, electric green, and gorgeous flavor.

The only clunker was the crispy chicken leg and thigh ($9) that had stunningly crisp skin, but the seasoning was AWOL. We did enjoy the accompanying salad of fingerlings, grilled scallions, frisee, and piquillos, however. Lots of dishes show a handcrafted touch, from house-made pork sausage to salumi to linguine.

Our neighbors were kind enough to share some bites of their crispy focaccia ($14) that was more like a pressed and flat sandwich with a thin exterior of crust that shattered just so (man, that oven is something special) and an interior of taleggio, truffle oil (I'll forgive it here), and fresh herbs.

Because so many piping hot dishes are sailing out of the oven (Hot! Don't touch!), Avec has some cool presentations, like casuelas with a pretty patina, cast iron mini-skillets, and petite All-Clad paella pans that are served on Japanese-esque little wood ledges.

We tried a couple desserts, but the cheese service is really where it's at, with your choice from a list of 15 formaggi (choose three for $15) and accompaniments like quince paste, date cake, and fig mostarda ($6).

And what to go avec all this bounty? Yes, fab wines! This food is built for wine pairing, and vice versa. Really enjoyed perusing (and drinking) off the list of wines from Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal. A bunch are available in 250ml pours, so you really get to commune with a wine for a bit, or share it with your friend for small DIY tasting flights. Cool Riedel glassware too (the wine glasses are stemless, and come poised over your carafina of wine). There's also a full bar that is open later, after the kitchen closes.

I totally dug this place, and would undoubtedly be a regular here if I could. Now I see why some chef pals love it so--it really feels like a chef's restaurant, from the food to the vibe to the look to the hours. Service was friendly and everyone was cool. Total hodgepodge of guests in the restaurant, from an older couple to our left to some chicas enjoying a (Monday) ladies night out to our right.

I can only imagine how slammed it gets on the weekend--it was totally popping late on the Monday night we dined there. I was also informed the outdoor seating is pretty coveted, especially when people get off work and come over for some liquid (and solid) sustenance. Oh, and no reservations are accepted, so be prepared to wait unless you are there on the early side, or later.


Avec
615 West Randolph St.
Cross: Jefferson St.
Chicago, Illinois 60661

312-377-2002
website

Mon-Thu 3:30pm-12am
Fri-Sat 3:30pm-1am
Sun 3:30am-10pm
Bar closes Mon-Fri at 2am, 3am on Sat, 12am on Sun

Small plates $5-$14
Large plates $14-$20



Other Chi-town places I wish I had time to visit/have on my list for next time:

Blackbird

Alinea

Moto Restaurant

Frontera Grill (although the website totally scares me--time to update their site, yikes)

Portillo's for a dog and garbage salad (I guess it's one of those things you just have to experience and not question too much)

Hot Doug's, The Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium (yup, that's what it's called!)--was told they serve duck fat fries on the weekend!

Mr. Beef at 666 N. Orleans Street for an Italian beef sandwich or the combo (with sausage and beef), double dipped

Garrett on Michigan Ave. for popcorn

The Violet Hour for Milk & Honey-esque style and drinks, 1520 N Damen Ave., Wicker Park, 773-252-1500

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