Thursday, June 27, 2013

Eating and Drinking in Chicago: Part II

We somehow concluded that we had to eat deep dish pizza in Chicago. Constantly drinking on vacation usually leaves me with a permanent bloat buzz and the idea of piling down butter crust was hard to rally around. But the front desk guy said Giordano’s, which was a five minute walk from the hotel. He said we had to go. He said he was glad we asked him, otherwise we  might have ended up at Uno’s or Malnati’s, and missed out on the real Chicago Pizza experience. Yawn. Thanks. We got there in no time and paced around out front. We weren’t really feeling it, either the necessary hunger or the vibe of the place. Plus it was still light out. And there were kids inside the restaurant. I saw a waitress walk by with a bundle of straws in her apron.  No, my wife said. But we’re here. No. Change of plans. We crossed over the interstate and headed back downtown, across the canal to South Branch Tavern. This was more the kind of place we were looking for. One with a good wine list. We shared a large high-top table with a friendly local couple. We stayed in the bar area and had a couple glasses of wine. We didn’t eat. Go to Wicker Park, we were told. According to these locals, it was the hip place to eat and drink. And it certainly did sound hip. Nothing cooler than patio furniture. I would go back to South Branch Tavern.

A cab ride later and we were walking the streets of Wicker Park, which was full of people and restaurants and nice looking bars. The plan was to hop around, eat a bit here, a bit there. Drink. We stopped in at the Blue Line Grill, which was packed with attractive youngsters, well dressed, mellow and modest. There wasn’t an empty table in sight, but we did score two empty bar stools. We order nachos. I’d noticed that Chicago is a real nachos town,  which was unexpected. British Columbia is the same way. Just tons of nachos, served aggressively on platters, sometimes elevated platters. And these nachos had braised buffalo. They were delicious.  The orders kept coming. I think every group at the bar had an order. So the food was great. The drinks on the other hand…well, I just should know better. Never order Mojitos just because they’re on special. Especially in a crowded bar. It’s a labor-intensive drink for a busy bartender, so they’re not made right. I ended up with a sour mouth and a bellyful of sugar. And a  guaranteed hangover. I would go back to the Blue Line Grill.

The next day. Another beautiful morning for cruising the city with a hot cup of coffee. We walked along the canal to the river, then along the river, along the famous corridor of massive buildings gleaming in the sunlight. We headed to River North for the elusive deep dish pizza. I was still skeptical about whether or not I actually needed this experience. But it was going to happen. There was a line at Malnati’s and we stood and waited. We were given the option to pre-order the pizza so we picked the Classic Chicago and waited until they called our name. It wasn’t long before a very nice girl leads us into the bowels of the restaurant. I was looking around as we twisted and turned through dining rooms. Where are the windows? What about air conditioning? I was getting less enthusiastic by the second, and almost suggested we just turn around and leave. To come out of this great city of tall windows and light, only to eat heavy pizza in some claustrophobic den seemed bad. Wrong. Wrong again! I wanted to go back to the airport and start over. Up the stairs we climbed, into the heat, into a small room with no windows and ten tables. I saw our destination, a tiny table next to the kitchen door, next to the tray of dirty dishes. No please, I told the hostess. So we went back down the stairs and waited some more. I started to worry that our pre-ordered pizza would be ready soon. But then I saw they were cleaning a nice bar table next to the window, a table with light and a view of the city streets. They called my name and we were led, not to the bar table, but back into the restaurant. The new table was fine. I was going to relax and enjoy myself, though I was already underwhelmed by Malnati’s. And then our waiter showed up. He was young and nervous, very, very unnecessarily nervous. And he was a comedian too. Awkward and tone-deaf, and bad at his job, the physicality of it, the movements and gestures. Oh lord. We ordered two beers and the house salad with crunchy blue cheese stuff and bits of cured meat, and the world was good again. Then the pizza arrived and it looked great. I hadn’t eaten since buffalo nachos. The waiter handled the hot pie pan with a clamp and set it on the table. He used a spatula to separate each slice. We watched. He shook nervously. He moved a slice onto my wife’s plate, cheese ribbons falling across the table, steam rising. This thing was looking great. Then the next slice came out of the pan, into the air, over to my plate…and then disaster! Titanic-grade disaster! The slice was somehow flipped on the descent. Upside down, it landed with a table-shaking thud, half on the plate, half on the table. Is this happening? Then this flunky of a waiter used his grubby fingers to pick it up, to pivot the glob of pizza-matter, and flip it onto my plate. I looked at this big mess of red gunk that was my lunch. Oh, sorry, he said. It’s my third day. Go away! I told him. That’s all I want is for you to go away. At this point we just had to laugh. I stole a fresh plate from an empty table and scooped out a new slice from the pan. What can I say? The pizza was damn good. Especially the inch-thick layer of sausage. This thing had density! Hungry as I was, I could only eat one slice. We got the check. The waiter asked if we wanted the rest boxed up and I told him no, he could have it. He thanked me. And thank you, world’s worst waiter ever. I would not go back to Malnati’s. But I might order it to go.

We strolled along random streets, moving along the river. We ended up on the Magnificent Mile. Tourist Central. This is the one place you can go in Chicago and basically find all the same stuff they have in your own hometown. We came upon an ingenious little place called Eno, next to a steakhouse owned by some famous Chicago basketball player. I forget his name. Anyway, Eno served wine, cheese, chocolate, and a few other small plates. There were lots of windows looking out on busy streets. This was the perfect restaurant concept to plunk down in the middle of a tourist shopping district. They offered several different wine flights from various countries, all reasonably priced. They also had chocolate flights and cheese flights. Are there any two words in the language that sound better together than cheese flight? “The cheese flight will be departing from gate 12 in fifteen minutes…” I was really regretting lunch at Malnati’s now, as this place was so much more interesting. So we drank wine. The building across the street had odd shaped bricks worked into the masonry. Everyone was stopping to investigate. When we left Eno, I checked it out. Some of the bricks in the building were actually taken from the world’s major architectural sites. What a clever idea, especially in this city of great buildings. There were bricks from the pyramids in Giza, from Angkor Wat, and the Coliseum in Rome. I would go back to Eno.

We briefly returned to the hotel and then took a stroll through the Fulton Market district. Eventually we met up with some friends and went to a late dinner at Macello. It’s a very good sign any time you have to walk through an Italian delicatessen to get into a restaurant’s dining room. The place was packed. It was dark and loud and there was a roaring pizza oven built into a brick wall. This was the place. This was the place I imagined I’d eat in Chicago. They quickly served up fresh bread with pressed garlic and Parmesan cheese, with vinegar and oil. I mixed it all up into my own tasty dipping sludge. Lots of wine was ordered . Then seafood appetizers were devoured. Then dinner came. I ordered some kind of cioppino hybrid, one of the daily specials. It was great. It had fish and clams and scallops and lobster in a light broth with some pasta too. Other meals looked delicious as well. My wife had pasta gamberi, which I didn’t even try because my own meal was so spectacular. The waiter, apparently, had messed up most of the other orders. But nobody cared, least of all the waiter. That’s really all I remember. It was the perfect meal, the perfect Chicago experience. Then we left and walked along Lake Street under the El train with no one else around. I would go back to Macello (as long as someone else is paying).

In the morning we went back toward Fulton Market. We stopped for breakfast at GEB on Randolf. Here, we got a different take on Chicago food. Instead of the dark, Old World charm of Macello, we got the Food Network hipster bistro. Yes, the staff is ignoring you. Yes, the bartender is no bartender, he’s a mixologist! The chef, who either has been, is currently, or will soon be, a contestant on Top Chef was perfect. Attractive and stern, she had the whole place on edge, which made me want a drink. I ordered a Bloody Mary, which took twenty minutes to “craft”, and came with a pastrami sandwich garnish. The restaurant just screamed make fun of me, please! I’ve put my menus in record sleeves! I’m playing seventies rock music because that’s totally not what you’d expect to hear (or is it?). It’s ironically ironic. It’s…really crowded…really expensive…and really good. I ordered eggs Florentine and my wife got the biscuits and gravy. I was emasculated in my favorite way to be emasculated when the waitress set the biscuits and gravy in front of me and I had to tell her I ordered the something Florentine.  I’m usually a little disappointed when I see a fancy small portion set down in front of me, especially at breakfast. But it does make me eat slower and savor each bite, and ultimately enjoy the meal without feeling (more) like a bloated glutton afterwards. The egg dish had Irish rashers and a toasted crumpet. The biscuits and gravy towered high above the plate and were topped with a poached egg.  The gravy was red-eye gravy, meaty and gooey and awesome.  I ordered a second Bloody Mary for dessert because they were not very tasty, not very strong, and they only cost ten dollars each. We were having fun. I’m not sure if it was fun fun, or ironic fun. But as long as the two guys cooking kept sulking and the chef kept up her scowling fascist micromanaging, as long as she kept screaming, “Service!” every fifteen seconds, I wasn’t going anywhere. Eventually, though, we had to leave. I would go back to GEB.

My wife had a meeting and I was alone again, in a part of Fulton Market that was completely shut down and abandon. But I checked the map on my phone. There was something called The Aberdeen Tap not far away. It sounded like they served beer. As I walked, I realized everything needed to have its picture taken: the railroad tracks, the weeds growing from a dirty puddle under an overpass. The highrise city in the distance. Even the cracks in the sidewalk. It had taken a few days, but now I was seeing the city. I was shocked the bar was actually open when I got there, since nobody was around in the neighborhood. Inside there were a few people sitting and watching baseball. Again I was confronted with an extraordinary beer menu and a bartender who really knew his stuff. But he was also torturing customers by literally playing the worst songs he could think of. It was an interesting and ineffective business strategy. I would go back to The Aberdeen Tap.

I wandered back through the empty streets, past Harpo Studios, past unfortunate  guys taking pictures of their girlfriends in front of the Oprah Winfrey Show sign. I spotted the Haymarket Brewery, a big, obvious place I was expecting to underwhelm (so why did I go in there?), but I found it to be quite nice. It was loud and busy, and the beers were all great. I had all of them.  I kept expecting these jaded city bartenders to have short fuses, but none did. Not in Chicago. No attitude, no seething. Just friendly faces and occasional free pints. I would go back to The Haymarket Brewery.

During that dinner at Macello we were told we must have a drink at RL. We, apparently, would not be allowed to leave the city if we failed to have this experience. So we cabbed it back to the Magnificent Mile and clawed our way through the crowd to a seat at one of the bar tables. We drank a couple glasses of wine, sat, and watched. It was certainly a beautiful space, but I must have missed something. The highlight of RL was the trip to the bathroom, past the rich old people, the dressed-up miserable kids with their forced hair-parts and cowlicks, the old wooden elevator, which was oddly sadistic. Every bladder knows exactly how long it has until the moment of voiding. Throw an occupied elevator into the mix and you’re got a lot of people standing around doing a little dance and humming to themselves. I would not go back to RL.

We were also told to eat at Gibson’s. On a Saturday night. Yikes. What lagging economy? Every inch of the place was stuffed with people. We hung out for a few seconds to see if a bar table would open up, and then we left. We wandered along North Rush, looking for any place with seats. We ended up at a French restaurant called Zinc. This being our last meal in Chicago we wanted to do something crazy. So I ordered the roast chicken and my wife had a grilled cheese (croque). We also had a special gnocchi appetizer with brown butter and sage and seasonal squash. Best gnocchi ever, according to my wife. Nothing snarky to observe, nothing strange, overly good or overly bad. Just a nice French restaurant like any other nice French restaurant. Good service and good coffee. I would go back to Zinc.

Our last stop was The Wit. I was done for the night but my wife had to meet our hosts for one last goodbye. There was a line around the corner to get into the rooftop club so we ended up at the sports bar next to the lobby. We had a quick drink and then we were treated to a driving tour of Chicago by night. A perfect end to another great trip.


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