Saturday, October 31, 2009

Second City -out and about in Chicago

What a boring week I expected. The call came asking me to journey to Madison, Wisconsin. In my 43 years, not one soul has ever mentioned a reason I should visit Madison, Wisconsin. I know it’s a college town but since I’m not of college age, I saw no intrigue in this trip. Oh well, after the previous week in New York, a little down time in a boring place was welcome. I guess I could try some cheese. I landed late on a Monday night and grabbed a quick hotel next to the airport. Tuesday morning, I was at work at sunup. By noon, my phone was blowing up about an emergency in Chicago and I needed to get there ASAP. Chicago… Madison… Chicago… Madison… Chicago it is. Showing my geographic ignorance, I had to look at a map to see where the hell I was. Turns out, it’s only a 3 hour drive but if you’d have told me it was a 4 hour plane ride, I’d have believed you. By early afternoon, Madison, Wisconsin was clearly in my rearview mirror. If I missed any wonders that town had to offer, I’d have to settle for some dining experiences in Chicago as a consolation.

After a few hours getting some work done, I found myself in a downtown Chicago hotel on State Street. Everything was in walking distance, it seemed. Some short steps from my door was a restaurant I’d driven or walked by on previous visits. I’d always said I wanted to eat there but never had. Tonight I was going to the Weber Grill Restaurant. Chicago is famous for its steak houses and Weber is famous for its grills, so the marriage of the 2 has to be the perfect gastronomic love affair. Deciding to give this place a try was not an easy call though. Also in walking distance were Gino and Geogetti’s as well as The Chicago Chop House. Both of these restaurants set the bar pretty high for a great steak in the city of great steaks. Still, I wanted to stay true to the commitment of trying something new and the opportunity was ripe.

Usually the experience of a great Chicago eatery comes with an aura of dining in a 1930’s backdrop. Dark, hardwood walls with dim protruding sconces and dark paintings of men in suits. White tablecloths and crystal glasses with middle aged men having late night business meetings over a porterhouse and baked potato. That’s the Chicago I think of. You can toss that idea out the window at Weber. The clientele on the night I visited was a mix of youth and tourist. The room was large and open. The length of the restaurant is an open kitchen and the back wall is a row of stainless kettle grills under massive ventilation fans.

Conversations were loud, beer seemed to be the drink of choice and wait staff were running fast to keep up. The bar where I wanted to eat was packed 3 deep so I ordered a drink and proceeded to wait. I would not be deterred. Once I finally elbowed my way into a seat, I got a menu and ordered the French onion soup and a hand cut, dry aged New York strip. The soup was exceptional with a rich blanket of Gruyere cheese hiding the luscious, sweet onion laden broth below. My steak followed. It was perfectly seasoned, perfectly medium rare and perfectly unpretentious. There’s something about steak in the Midwest. As the cuts are being shipped to butchers shops around the country, there must be some clandestine gatekeeper whose job it is to reserve only the best beef for Chicago. While they did provide me with a steak knife, a butter knife would have done the job. I had a fantastic meal at a fraction of the price I’d have paid at one of the aforementioned steak houses.

On the second night, I strode out into the blustery wind that gives the city its nickname. The day had been unseasonably warm for October, but after the sun set and the wind picked up, fall was making its presence known. My plan for dinner was to find a corner bistro or pub or whatever looked good without looking too hard. I walked a few blocks down Rush Street then doubled back toward State Street. I walked by an Italian place with no intention of stopping in initially but the wind was beginning to wear me down. Ok, at the very least I would have a cocktail at the bar at Osteria Via Stato. The décor was slightly haughty and perhaps a bit pretentious but the bar was warm and inviting. I asked to see a menu while sipping a Manhattan –a bartender recommendation since they make their own sweet vermouth. I was blown away by their inspired offerings. This was one of those places that I wanted to try everything and I almost passed it by. This is not your typical family style Italian fare of lasagna and manicotti. While there were traditional dishes on the menu such as classic carbonara and pappardelle with a signature 3 meat ragu, there were less conventional dishes like a hunter’s stew made with quail, rabbit and housemade sausage or the slow cooked pork shank with Tuscan kale and white beans. This was a fortuitous find.

With too many wonderful choices, I asked the bartender if the kitchen could present a few small plates in lieu of full entrees. That way I could taste more. She checked and it was no problem to get a side order portion of anything –so to ordering I went. Grilled baby octopus with roasted fingerling potatoes was first.

Exquisitely tender and bathed in butter and lemon, the octopus had that ideal texture and flavor and the potatoes were an unexpectedly wonderful accent. Great dish. I’m going to have to try to work with octopus. Next plate was the special for the night: beef short rib risotto. Need I say more? Decadent, creamy and rich are the only words that come to mind. I’m rarely speechless when it comes to food but this is close.

Last was the cavatelli. There are several different pronunciations for this, none of which sound like the spelling. “Gav-a-deel” is the one I’m most familiar with. Hand rolled pastas about an inch and a half long made with ricotta cheese then sautéed in butter with a wild mushroom broth, these are the best cavatelli I have ever eaten.

Simple and sumptuous with a pan roasted rich flavor, these were the star of my dinner. I can’t imagine a better meal. I left this almost-passed-by restaurant completely satisfied.

Chicago is a city full of life and wonders and the great food is only one of its draws. If you pass through town, I also recommend The Green Mill –Al Capone’s old hangout, which looks much like it did in the 20’s. The booze is legal now, there’s usually some live blues playing and the atmosphere is engaging. Kingston Mines is a one of a kind blues bar where the artists are always noteworthy and they have two stages so that when one band ends, another begins. Passing-through-town celebrities frequent this unique bar and I’ve had some great times here.

It wasn’t such a boring week after all.

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