Thursday, August 12, 2010

Chicago, Chicago You're My Kinda Town - Restaurant Roundup

I recently traveled to Chicago for a training at work and had enough time to take in some of the sights and check out some of the restaurants around the downtown area known as the Miracle Mile.

Armed with a new Android-powered phone, I was able to track down some pretty good grub in the short three days that I spent there. Let's start with the one that everybody knows about...

You probably recognize the Top Chef Master Season winner Rick Bayless - traditional Mexican fare is his niche and it all started with Frontera. On a Tuesday night the wait for a table was 1 hour, that's how popular this place is. We waited patiently for a spot to open up and the the bar; if it hadn't been for the kindness of a pair of British tourists who allowed us to claim their spot before they got up, we would've been waiting at least 15 minutes more.

A friend of mine and his wife regularly visit Chicago and always make sure to stop in here for a meal - in fact, he's the one who gave me the tip to forget the table and order from the'll get the full menu without the wait and the hassle. What you've got here is a good collection of Mexican flavors - the sopes, fried discs of masa dough topped with slow-braised pork were excellent - the spicy shrimp & corn soup was unusual and refreshingly spicy - in the foreground was a tortilla topped with black-bean mash, pork belly, avocado and a heap of cilantro..another contrast between deep, umami flavors with a clean, green & herbaceous finish.

The wait isn't for everyone and the crowds can be discouraging but the I'm glad we tried some of those flavor combos - it reminded me alot of a meal at Xochitl with attention paid to the layering of flavors.

This place belongs in Philly. It's focused on three things....Oysters...Excellent Beer...and nose-to-tail cooking, preferably of the porcine variety. The restaurant itself is decorated like an upscale barn, with diners sitting in penned in booths like livestock or seated around large communal tables farm-style.  The lyrics for the Beatles song Piggies kept popping into my head when I saw happy diners tucking into massive plates of food
Everywhere there's lots of piggies 
Living piggy lives 
You can see them out for dinner 
With their piggy wives 
Clutching forks and knives 
to eat their bacon 

This wasn't bacon or pork belly or tongue or any number of interesting cuts on the menu - this is a lamb neck that is slow-braised then dusted and fry-crusted before being served in a broth alongside lemony potatoes & yogurt.  A little heavy for August, but unctuous and rich with flavor, a sweet dark meat being braised for so long right on the bone. 

This is my favorite fun dish of the trip...fried spicy pork rinds.  These were still hot from the frying oil and coated with a spicy, cheesy powder coating...think Cheetos meets chichirrones. I found out later that this dish was featured on the schlocky "Best Thing I Ever Ate" time-filler show on the Food deserves better.

I found the Purple Pig online in a search for tapas on the Miracle Mile. The website & menu looked pretty good and I'd even considered it for a dinner, but as luck would have it, we got to Chicago early so we chose to go there for a late lunch.

I was a little worried as we approached the place - what had looked like a gastro-pub/tapas bar online had all the appearance of a ladies-who-lunch/post-shopping trip wine bar - the kind that serves up $15 glasses of chardonnay to go with uninspired bruscetta.

The Purple Pig was somewhere in between the two expectations - the food was clever and had a few interesting flavors. I especially enjoyed the chorizo-stuffed fried olives.  Some of the food was on the edge of being too oily or salty.

Always looking to compare Chicago to Philly, we decided that the Purple Pig was similar to the small plates from Amis, albeit a cut below in terms of execution. This dish was the most evocative of Vetri's Italian tapas - a mousse of mortadella spread on delicious crusty bread and topped with pistachio, arugula and quality balsamic vinegar.

I'm glad we went there for a late lunch - I think I would've been disappointed with a dinner there as the menu seemed to promise flavors that never seemed to peak on the plate.

Speaking of ladies-who-lunch, another meal the next day took us deep into the so-called "Viagra Triangle" - a term for the high-end shopping/restaurant/bar district that sat just off the north end of the Miracle Mile. I'm guessing the large amount of middle-aged shoppers and diners strolling about contributed to the moniker.

Welcome to the Luxbar! Take away the D&G clad grannies pecking away at their chicken salads and you could see the bones of a decent gastropub here - a smattering of decent craft beers and options like truffled fries and sliders had me thinking I was back in Philly sitting outside Varga watching the the world go by and 10th & Spruce.

Objects on the blog may appear larger than they are on the plate! Luxbar had a mix of sliders to choose from - here's a lineup of the mini-dog, BBQ, Kobe and Fried Chicken sliders. Nowhere near as good as the Varga sliders - the Kobe was dried out and the BBQ was disgracefully sweet and without a smidge of heat or tartness.

Again, decent lunch option but I'm glad that we didn't spend an evening in the Viagra Triangle.

Located several blocks away from the Triangle and closer to Loyola Law School was the strangest Spanish restaurant I've ever eaten at - Cafe Iberico.

Now, don't get me wrong, I really wanted to like this place but everything about it was cringe inducing to the poor sucker like me whom after reading several online reviews, was expecting something closer to Amada or Washington D.C.'s Jaleo.

Was it the laminated accordion-like menus that displayed a washed-out photo of every dish on the menu? Was is the cavernous interior, designed to simultaneously feed 300+ people in one sitting which made me worry about the attention to quality that inevitably goes out the window when you're hitting that many covers a night? How about the TVs on an endless loop of sports-news-weather, just like the airport terminal we'd left behind at O'Hare?

Well, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. This was tuna cannelloni, tuna wrapped in pasta and topped with a thin 'white wine' sauce which resembled yogurt.  Assembled together, it looked pretty much like more of the same goofiness we'd witnessed, but the taste was actually spot-on...the tuna was flavorful, not a mushy paste, and the tomatoes were fresh and vibrant in a dressing of olive oil and lemon.  Looks like a case of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole here.

This dish just had me in stitches - I chuckled when our served delivered the Pulpo a la Plancha - a pile of grilled octopus & french fries...yes, french fries....about as Spanish as the french fries you find at Chinese buffets. I joked with Elizabeth that this was Sandra Lee's recipe from some never-aired episode...a 'Spanish Siesta' complete with a paella made with Uncle Ben's and kielbasa braised in Sunny Delight.

Again, the saving grace for Cafe Iberico was that I'll be darned if the octopus wasn't cooked perfectly. And the fries, also perfectly done, actually worked in the dish. When I asked the waiter about the dish and the odd inclusion of fries, he kind of sighed and said 'American-style'. I was not lying when I told him that I enjoyed it and the octopus was perfect.

So to summarize - Cafe Iberico is a great deal for decent a chips&salsa on-the-table 'Mexican' restaurant for Spanish themed dishes.

OK, if you've made it this far, you really must be interested in some of the dining options in Chicago so I've saved the surprise favorite for those of you that have scrolled your way through to here.

We arrived at Quartino very late in the evening, just as the restaurant was winding down. having been hopping from place to place all night, we were in the mood for a late-night snack before headed back to the hotel and I had notived Quartino came up in nearly every search I did on the Droid for wine or tapas.

We had a seat at the bar and chose from an excellent selection of charcuterie and accoutrement - we opted for some olives, speck, and a slaw of pickled fennel. 

In another Philly comparison, not only is the menu similar to the Garces Trading Post, but the decor also has the same retro butcher/soda fountain/general store feel, with white subway tiles, reclaimed wooden timbers and a gargantuan bar.

The polenta fries were over the top in late-night bar snack - served piping hot, still crunchy and without any gumminess, these were another one of those dishes I hope will appear on a menu in Philly sometime soon...perfect replacement football-friendly finger foods like fried cheese sticks. We had them, along with a marinara veal meatball slider.

Looking back on all this great food I suddenly feel the need to take the stairs instead of the elevator at work for the next 2 months. Overall I was impressed with Chicago and I look forward to going back for more good stuff as we missed out on a few places due to the the timing of the trip.  The problem with having an early-week trip is that many of the restaurant were closed Monday & plan your trips accordingly.

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