Chicago is home to culture, a rich history, and some truly amazing food, as I would come to learn.
It had been many years since my last visit, which included a whirlwind day, yes DAY, of three museums and the Sears Tower (now called Willis). Thankfully this visit was much more leisurely and filled with some phenomenal food.
My travel day began that morning at 5:30 with what should have been about a half hour drive from Crockett, where I had spent the night, to the Oakland airpot. Instead, it took me over an hour. Harried and stressed that I wouldn’t make my flight, I basically ran to the gate without coffee or food. Bad idea. Luckily, I boarded with a few minutes to spare and hoped I could purchase some kind of sustenance on the flight.
Though always aware of where one is, I’d never been forced to make use of the “barf bag.” Well, I am a barf bag virgin no more. So not on my bucket list, but there it is. The flight attendant was a dear and he checked on me a few times to make sure I was okay, after hearing me puke in the lavatory.
I had eaten just a couple bites of an Otis Spunkmeyer banana nut muffin that I’d bought on the plane and a Kind bar, so when I finally arrived in Chicago, I was famished. Famished, but also exhausted. So instead of going out for a fancy multi-course extravaganza, I opted for a quiet and quick meal at The Windsor, which was near to the hotel. Their small plates menu was quite impressive. My culinary adventures in Chicago were got kicked off with crab toast, spaetzel mac and cheese, and smoked trout dip. I apologize for the lack of photos. I had barely enough energy to lift the fork to my mouth.
The next morning was a late breakfast at the famous Lou Mitchell’s, where they greet you with a donut hole, drop you off at your seat with a mini-box of Milk Duds, and leave you with a small scoop of vanilla soft serve. Rumor, or Lou’s lore rather, has it that these sweet traditions are mired in a culture of deep hospitality with a dash of mid-century chivalry… apparently, Lou loved the women!
After much debate, I settled on the broccoli and cheese omelet that arrived in its own adorable serving skillet with wooden trivet. Now, before I continue, they tout their omelets as being “fluffy” … and fluffy they are. It’s actually quite impressive. I swear they must inject air into them. I’ve never experienced an omelet this fluffy. I mean, you could’ve tossed it into the sky and replaced any cumulus cloud. From their fresh-brewed coffee and wide selection of teas, to their variety of pancakes, omelets, and baked goods, you will NOT be disappointed with Lou Mitchell’s.
As for the sightseeing that day, I took a swiftly moving elevator up 103 floors and gazed down at all the little people (literally). Well, actually, I’m not sure I could clearly see people from that far up. Did you know that from the top of Willis Tower you can see into three states? The best part was walking out onto the Sky Ledge, which is an enclosed box that juts out about four feet from the building, allowing you to feel like you’re floating above it all.
Something I was unaware of was how into popcorn this city is. A friend of mine who is a former Chicago denizen recommended a post-vertigo stop at Garrett’s. On her suggestion, a bag of “Garrett style,” not to be confused with animal style, was ordered. What’s Garret style you ask? It’s a mixture of cheese and caramel corns, although I’m unsure if there is a specific and required ratio of the two. I’m not a big connisseur of popcorn, so I don’t know how Garrett’s stacks up. I mean, my exposure is limited to Orville Redenbacher’s microwaved in a brown paper lunch bag (how my dad used to do it in the 80s), and Cape Cod from the grocery store. But, despite my lack of popcorn education, I can say that Garrett’s is saturated in flavor, and retains its crunch. I’ve had flavored popcorn with a texture of watered down crackers that had a crown-breaking core. I also didn’t feel like I was ingesting a large amount of dyes and chemically manipulated powders trying to mimic cheese.
As for dinner that night, I was lucky enough to get together with a close friend I met in grad school who lives outside the city. We took a short cab ride to the gayborhoood of Boys’ Town (I most definitely want to return) and a unique spot called Home Bistro. HB was clearly a small bar in a previous life. We were seated “on stage” which turned out to be a fabulous spot; you have a view of the entire restaurant, plus an open window to the goings on outside on the street.
It’s BYOB, and we were prepared with four bottles of wine, three of which, we made quick work of! Their menu is just about the perfect size, with a selection of shareable starters, substantially portioned salads, and just the right amount of fish and meat dishes.
We started off with sautéed garlic and escargot. Now, if you know me, you know I’m not a big fan of escargot. In fact, some of you may be familiar with my requirements of food: It can’t be pre-reproductive (no veal or lamb), it can’t look the way it did when it was alive (exception: oysters, of course), and it can’t leave a trail of slime after it. In fact, I think a “no slime” rule is a good thing for food! However, I am pretty much always game to try one bite. And, I tend to be more lax on the vegetarian/pescetarian aspect when I’m on vacation or trying new places.
So, back to the food. I had some of the garlic from the escargot, but none of the escargot itself. Its appearance was rather off-putting. It kind of looked like someone had hacked off chunks of the dark part of a geoduck. Gross. I know. But, luckily, there was an HB Caesar for me to try, which was delightfully anchovy-ish and not dripping in dressing. The lettuce was cool and crunchy, just the way a Caesar salad should be, with a small handful of garlic croutons to finish the salad.
For my entree, I chose rainbow trout. Wow, is all I have to say. Cooked to perfection, with a crispy skin and perfectly flaky, it lay on a bed of horseradish creme fraiche and fingerling potatoes, with picked red cabbage, a delightfully delicate bacon gastrique, and topped with a fried egg. Put it all together and the one perfect bite is absolutely sublime.
Also at the table that night was the Spicy Lamb Ramen, Braised Pork Cheek Chili Verde, and Pan Roasted Duck Breast. All were very pleased with their selections and we left full and happy. However, we still needed dessert. So, we returned to The Windsor for their famous 3-shot bourbon adult milkshake. This thing is surely filled with something criminal. Creamy, cold, with a bit of caramel and the nice flavor of some bourbon. I might mix up the bourbon with something like kahlua or Bailey’s, but since I don’t drink much bourbon, I have no idea what that would do to it.
Sunday was “culture day.” A quick, rather underwhelming room service breakfast of lox and bagel, and fried eggs with bacon, we were off to Millennium Park to gaze at “The Bean,” Chicago’s famous sculpture.
Across the street is the Art Institute of Chicago. Known for being its own character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, this museum is filled with collections that span years, places, movements, and civilizations. Their new Modern Wing houses contemporary art, including a film exhibition, which was, unfortunately, closed at the time. To see everything, plan on spending an entire day, from open to close, pretty much. I speed walked through the European Art to make it through the final thing I wanted to see, and ended up making the complete loop back through to the Impressionists. In fact, I saw a Rosetti, which was very cool, as I’d never seen one. I believe it was one of two that were made of that particular image.
Dinner that night didn’t come as a recommendation, but just happened because I had spotted a sign that boasted “Oyster bar”on the route to the train station. Naturally, I had to check it out. The best part is that they have half off bottles of wine up to $100 and 25 percent for the more expensive bottles on Sundays, plus an impressive amount of happy hour selections for $7.
After putting the bar tender through his paces trying to find a non-domestic wine I liked, I settled on something that I believe was French. For food, the small plates options did not disappoint. Lobster bisque, lobster mini-rolls, and a small selection of the day’s oysters filled me up. But, since it was still early and I knew I’d be hungry soon, we stuck around, sipped wine, let the “first course” settle a bit. I’d had a hankering for crab legs, so a pound and a half of cracked crab legs were soon on their way! Holy moly, these things were good… and I forget how much easier (and less messy, though not as much fun) it is to have them cracked for you. Accompaniments were green beans and satueed mushrooms with truffle butter. After everything else, those sides were not given nearly enough love, but they were most definitely delights in and of themselves. Definitely go to Devon!
Monday started off with a rather disappointing lunch at the hotel – unfortunately, I was very not impressed by the food at the hotel. The garden salad and portabello with goat cheese panini were in dire need of some flavor. However, there was no time for an hours long lunch, as the Shedd Aquarium was calling!
This is one of the best aquariums in the world with rescue, rehabilitation, and education at the forefront of their activities. We were able to take in the Aquatic Show, a 4D experience of “Ancient Monsters” (if you happen to attend this show, sit on the edge of your seat… literally. You get poked in the back), and all the animals that call the aquarium their home… minus the penguins and sea otters, unfortunately, who were out for drinks or something. The Aquatic show featured dolphins and a well-trained seal!
Instead of taking a car to Navy Pier, we saw a water taxi stand and opted for that. It was great fun to see the city from the water, an angle you don’t usually get. Plus the sun was starting to go down, so the light cut through the buildings at interesting angles.
The midway at Navy Pier was closed for construction… in fact, pretty much everywhere we stopped had some portion of the building or facade under construction, the hotel included. At any rate, we walked around the interior and stopped at the bar in Harry Carrey’s, but a sudden change of plans meant I would be denied the soft pretzel sticks I was craving in order to get in front of the crowds at The Purple Pig.
The Purple Pig doesn’t take reservations, so the best thing to do is stop there early, put in your name, and wait for their phone call notification that your table is ready. We had tried to get in on Saturday, but the wait at 6:45 for a table for four was a whopping three hours.
Thankfully it wasn’t that bad Sunday at 6:30, though there was still a wait. They do know what they’re doing though, by giving people bar service outside on the patio while you wait. The Purple Pig is all Mediterranean-style food, and that includes their wine. Everything is from Italy, France, Greece, Crete… you get the picture. Food is served family style and meant to share. It resembles tapas, but without the feeling of never being full that I get when I eat tapas! The plates principale are brawny enough to be a small entree, and the starters are meant to stand on their own, without playing side fiddle to the larger pates. With a name with the word “pig” in it, you’d expect there to be lots of pork, right? And there is. But that’s not all they’re known for. They have a burrata cheese cannnoli, which I so wanted to try, but lacked the stomach room. Their bone marrow “schmear” and rabbit roulade are also popular dishes.
After much deliberation between the roasted broccoli and charred cauliflower, the latter won out. You’d think cauliflower would be boring, right? Well, you’d be wrong. I so want to try to recreate this. It seems pretty simple, with just a few ingredients of cauliflower (duh), parsley, sliced cornichons, olive oil, toasted bread crumbs, and lemon (I think). The key is getting these things blackened and crispy without scorching them beyond recognition, which is probably what I would end up doing.
With 25 cheese on the menu, we beseeched the server to select three for us. She chose Perlagrigia from Italy, which is a rich and nutty medium to hard cheese, a super stinky (and I use this in the best possble way) Polkton Corner from Indianapolis, and Blue Bonnet from Massachusetts, whose rind turns completely blue. These are served with crackers and a chutney.
Having never heard of it, I was curious about the Prosciutto di san Daniele and how it varied from prosciutto de Parma. There was also a duck version, which I found intriguing, but not enough to order it. So what’s the difference? It’s subtle, but the flavor to me seemed a tad richer and more complex. I’m not sure if that’s generally how it varies, but it seemed to me to be that way.
The two “mains” on the table were pork shoulder, and red snapper. The pork shoulder was the most tender I’d ever seen, cuttable with a spoon. Seriously. It was served with a spoon. It sat atop a small portion of mashed potatoes, with nary a chunk in sight, and the perfect amount of au jus gravy. If I thought it would have agreed with me, I would have eaten the entire dang thing.
The snapper was also expertly cooked. The varied and different flavors combined to make it a delight for the taste buds. The most interesting aspect of this dish were the carbonated grapes. Don’t ask me exactly what that means. But when I took a little part of everything on the dish, the flavors combined into something out of this world, while the texture of the fish with the crunch and coolness of the grapes was a great sensory feel.
After all this, we needed dessert, naturally. When we saw what sounded like donut holes (Loukoumades), we were in. I mean, come on… Fancy shmancy donuts FTW, people. These were done in the style of Greek donut holes. I mean, you really can’t go wrong with deep fried balls of batter, right? Drizzled with honey and dusted with a bit of cinnamon, these little balls of heaven arrived hot and filled with crack (I’m convinced!).
They bring out the dishes as they are ready, allowing for a leisurely, memorable dining experience.
The server was an expert in selecting wines based on what very few specifications we gave her, which was good, since my knowledge of wines of that region are rather limited. They also do pours, full glasses, or bottles, allowing for more variety and better pairing. Each wine we had was delicious and paired well with whatever it was we were eating.
Tuesday on the way out of town, we stopped at Giordano’s for a slice of stuffed pizza. This was my first experience and I have to say, when the menu says a “Small” will feed 2 people, they must think we all eat like Joey Chestnut, because I could barely finish one slice. And, unfortunately, this could not get on a plane and travel back to Sacramento with us.
If you’ve never experienced stuffed pizza, you are missing out. I need to figure out how to make this. First, you need a high-walled dish that will make the crust brown and crunchy without burning it. Then, line the dish with one of the crusts, put whatever you want on it, starting with pepperoni and then load it with about fifteen tons of cheese, put the other crust on top, top it with a layer of sauce and a sprinkling of parmesan, try to get the two doughs to like each other by smooshing them together, and bake it. I think it may best be served with a steak knife.
I have to say, Chicago is a pretty cool city. Easy to get around on public transportation, but with lots of taxis, plus Uber and Lyft, and more than enough fabulous eats for the hungriest of visitors.