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 timeâ¦ (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 massesâ¦
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, Chicagoâ¦ Take it away, Frank.