Starting Over. Family Ties. Valet Parking.
Eating Around in Chicago.
Except for a few weekends in East Hampton with closest friends, I have not been away from home since Steven died in August, 2012. I have felt I needed someone to share the traumas of travel -- weather's sudden scorn, cancelled flights, foreign customs, unfamiliar airports with scheming cabbies at the other end. But who would I find compatible? Who could put up with me?
Friends keep asking if I have plans for the summer. I look at them blankly. Don't they see I am dependent on the kindness of familiar but unshared DNA? Finally, I decided I could handle a short solo trip to Chicago to visit my brother Jim and his wife Mary. I could even use my American Airlines discount coupon from the gift bag at Daniel Boulud's Citymeals dinner. A friend surprised me by arranging an upgrade. A two-hour trip in first class. Not bad. The chicken curry wrap lunch home-bound was actually pretty good. The steward bakes cookies for dessert - en route to Chicago they were good, returning they were awful. I accidentally picked white chocolate -- but the heady perfume of buttery batter filled the cabin and reminded me of my mom Saralee.
I loved seeing how devoted Jim and Mary were to each other. Not just civil. Not just polite. But loving. And to their two dogs, taking care to coddle and caress each equally because, not unlike children, the dogs are competitive. My brother and I went to a movie every afternoon and at night, the three of us went to dinner.
Chicago is easier than New York. That's a price we pay for being number one. But the Second City has a sandy beach just blocks from downtown. The justly celebrated architecture jumps out at you because the blocks aren't so crowded, and you can see whole buildings from a distance. They have alleyways behind their houses too. Even a modest home can have a two-car garage. Then there is something I've never seen in New York -- valet parking. There, it's a convenience. Here, I'm sure, it would be just another extortion. As Lincoln Steffens said: "Chicago will give you a chance."
Counting on Big Bull
It was a big deal when Steve Hanson and David Burke opened Primehouse in Chicago's James Hotel. They hogged headlines with their own breeding bull and a Himalayan salt-tiled aging room. With its grand space, big leather-covered tables, and rolling carts, it became a Chicago favorite for steak. Maybe it still is, although it's not very lively on this recent Tuesday evening.
I mellow out on a $16 Negroni. What are sticks? It's a new category on the menu for me. Mary and I agree on the Kobe corn dog sticks. Battered hog dogs. Fun. Very David Burke. We indulge in a Caesar floorshow tableside for the three of us. Then comes the 30 oz. rib eye delivered like a patient etherized upon the table. The steak could be rarer and amazingly, for all its Himalayan aging, it lacks flavor. The asparagus tastes as if it were first cooked a few days ago and then rewarmed. But the Asiago truffle-oiled fries say "don't stop."
I wonder how long it's been since Burke stalked that kitchen. I send back the ridiculous deconstructed rhubarb savarin after nearly breaking a tooth on a shard of something candied. But there is still the magic of David's frozen lollypop tree at the end. My brother and his wife savor two frozen chocolate truffles each and take what's left home. 616 N. Rush Street at Ontario. 312 660 6000.
"I give you Chicago. It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail."
--H. L. Mencken
RPM is Italian
I remembered liking RPM from my Chicago eating rounds in 2012. It has that easy Chicago air, black-and-white cool, good-looking people of all ages, service friendly, but not too. I also like the something-for-everyone menu with so many categories you order more than you mean to. I'd forgotten how annoying it is to pay for bread. But brother Jim doesn't blink if it's $6 for garlic bread.
I'm not tempted tonight by the category of cichetti. Never mind, the chef sends out sausage -- wrapped fried olives stuffed with mozzarella and Provolone-filled red peppers anyway. I'm not working tonight, just eating, so I plan to focus, sharing the shellfish fritto misto and just tasting a bit of Mary's burrata with sweet and sour spring onion jelly.
Clearly the chef knows we're here because crackling quarters of soft-shell crab dominate the fritto. Our waiter delivers Mary's carbonara -- breaking the egg on top and blending it for her. I share my own potato gnocchi with sausage, broccoli rabe and a kicky afterburn. For $31, Alaskan halibut naked on its plate, is a tad small. Even Jim, who is less fussy than I, finds it overcooked, but tonight, the asparagus tastes market fresh. Alas raspberry sorbetto is not sorbetto at all, but sherbet. In fact, if I close my eyes I might think I was eating raspberry ice cream. Why aren't desserts more seasonal? At home even my market is full of stone fruit you can actually smell. 52 W. Illinois Street between Dearborn and Illinois Streets. 312 222 1888.
I came across the April issue of Chicago in the guests' bathroom reading basket. (Mary is the consummate hostess.) That's where I found a guide to local burger excess. "Hyperbolic Burgers" -- the biggest, the messiest, the wildest, the fanciest and the porkiest. I asked Mary if we could cover three or four in an afternoon. But then it came to a choice between burger research or one burger and a movie. I craved Tom Cruise too. She chose the fanciest burger because it was just a shortwalk from the theater.
At Chef's Burger Bistro we went along with Chicago, choosing the Paris burger with onion jam, mushrooms, brie, candied tomato and a frisée frill. It was splendid but I liked the Iberico -- with a ranch egg, Serrano ham and garlic aioli -- even more. The fries were quite commendable, and I'm grateful that Mary's daughter Colleen ordered the fried pickles, so much superior to the buttermilk onion rings. Cruise had a lot of snap too. 164 Grand Avenue between N. Lower Michigan and N. St. Clair. 312 374 3092.
Who Did You Used To Be?
It wasn't easy getting a table at the last minute at Blackbird where chef Paul Kahan is a Beard Foundation "Best Chef in America" winner. Desperate, I gave my name but clearly it meant nothing to the reservationist. Shameless, I tried filling her in. Apparently she asked someone of advanced age because we got our table, next to the window, quieter than most. A fast glance at the menu suggested Blackbird had gone new Age. I was wary.
My brother had reverted to his usual discipline and decided to skip a starter. But it didn't matter since the kitchen was determined that we should taste everything we were too uptight to order. Spring pea panisse - a little cake with green garlic aioli and pea tendris -- was an innocent amuse. Then came four bowls with small clumps on the edge that scarcely moved when fennel gazpacho was poured on top. Anatomy of the clump: Mussels, sourdough crouton, cherries and mahlab (of course I hadn't a clue. I just looked it up. St. Lucie cherry pit powder. How did we ever live without it?). Many murmurs all around.
My tempura soft-shell crab came quartered, arranged on one side of a large white plate with chanterelle mushrooms and sooty bits of charred orange. Punctuation I would never think of trying, but that I had to admit added oomph. Of course, I snorted at the pretension of presentation, but then I tasted and wept a silent tear at having to share.
Our quartet had discussed and rejected the schmaltz-poached chicken. But now we had no choice, four portions arrived. Massed under a giant mushroom thin with green garbanzos and pistachios, the bird was a miracle of juiciness and flavor. Even the white meat. We discussed cancelling our entrée order but that did seem a little shabby after so many freebies. None of us expected to eat anything more. I'll just have one, I thought, snagging a fermented black bean agnolotti, then discovering a tasty morel and the odd texture of enchanted peas. Green is so good for me, I thought, finishing the hedge of pea tendrils on my pasta dish.
My companions shared kombucha-glazed pork ribs with chewy beets, beet greens, feta and peanuts and the grilled strip loin with blistered favas, walnut gnocchi and grated horseradish. I tasted everything. Then having been converted from disdain to amazement, I thought we should have at least one dessert. I picked the bittersweet chocolate pudding as the least offensive.
It arrived in a chocolate and white sand pile. But a spoonful of grit turned out to meld mascarpone cream, espresso crunch and hickory nut bits -- like a candy bar. And the other ridiculous slabs of debris were surprisingly edible too. I love when my narrow-minded expectations are wrestled to the floor. My family had no such preconceived notions. They loved the dinner and plan to come back. 619 West Randolph Street at Jefferson. 312 715 0708.