Tasting Chicago–Michael Manley and The Dave eat the Windy City!

Intrepid readers–I live. All appearances otherwise, I have not fallen off the face of the earth, nor met my untimely demise.   The same cannot be said of my Toshiba laptop, which partly accounts for the lag in my posts.  I dusted off the spare which is very buggy and very slow…a gentle reminder to my virtual comrades: first unplug headphones from laptop jack THEN get up and walk away from computer…but enough of my excuses, on with the post!

Tasting Chicago

Cloud Gate, aka “The Bean,” Millenium Park, Chicago

Spending Memorial Day Weekend in Chicago has become a tradition for me, when time and money permit.  I have been pretty faithful since 2005, aka “the year I flew to Chicago to have dinner.”

As astute readers may recall, I have always been a Casual Foodie, which was kind of a job hazard from spending years touring.  When you live out of a suitcase, dining is one of the few pleasures you can indulge in.  But it wasn’t until I was off the road that I became an Insane Foodie.  The exact moment was December 2004, when I lost my Molecular Gastronomy virginity at Wylie Dufresne’s wd-50 in lower Manhattan.  Much of that meal remains vivid in my memory and it was a really transforming experience.  Like discovering a new language, or seeing the ocean for the first time.  Not to get all Marianne Williamson about it.  But it did have that affect on me.  What can I say?  Chef Dufresne had me at Toast Ice Cream.

After this initial inspiration, I quickly discovered that Chicago was becoming a center for molecular gastronomy.  Grant Achatz had just left Trio around this time, and was set to open Alinea in the spring of 2005.  And there was this other guy, Homaro Cantu, who had a placed called moto that looked pretty trippy too.  In February, I decided that if I could get a reservation at Alinea the month they opened (May, 2005), I would fly to Chicago and essentially eat my vacation.  Not only did my Memorial Day weekend reservation work out, but I was even able to score a table at moto for the evening prior.  So one plane ticket, two meals and 35 courses later, I had spent the equivalent of my NY rent on one incredible and unforgettable vacation.

Where the Bears Are

An added bonus:  Memorial Day weekend in Chicago is home to both International Mr. Leather and Bear Pride. This first is not a pageant for cobblers, nor is the second a symposium on the self-esteem of the grizzly. They are simply reasons for thousands of gay men to gather and socialize to various degrees of intimacy and inebriation.  Facial hair and cowhide predominate in the festivities, with half the guys look like they just left the Bass Pro Shop, and the other half are on their way to the Harley Davidson Café. It is possible that lesbians also attend—but why would I notice?  Sorry womyn sistahs, couldn’t resist.  Anyway another good non-dining excuse to enjoy Chicago.  If that’s your thing.  And if it’s not, well I am telling you, you will NOT be bored by the spectacle.

Anyway, I have several friends from around the country who gather there that weekend, so my annual trip to Chicago is a great chance to see them.  Hell I’ve even persuaded a few to enjoy a fantastic meal or two.  Not Alan The Bear from Dallas, however.  I realized my best bear buddy and I were never meant to be when I heard Alan utter the four words every foodie dreads: “What’s wrong with Applebee’s?” Intrepid readers brace yourselves: these words were spoken with feet firmly planted on the island of Manhattan, New York.

Well there are plenty of bears in the forest.  Aren’t there???

Michael and The Dave Eat Chicago

This year, none other than The Dave himself joined me, for 3 days of food and drink, and hopefully some no further comment with names redacted thrown in for good measure. And great retro shopping—the Chicago Ragstock rules.  So after Thursday’s show on the Memorial Day weekend eve, The Dave and I boarded a red-eye for the Windy City.

We arrived tired and hungry, checked in to the Swissotel and headed to its restaurant Geneva for breakfast.  The Dave wisely ordered the culturally appropriate cured salmon, which was quite good, while I ordered, for no apparent reason, corned beef hash and eggs, which were corned beef hash and eggs.  I only regretted this because everything was pricey, and the ROI on hash and eggs wasn’t very high in this instance.  However, great service and an elegant experience.  Not a fan of the Swiss coffee, however, as they seem to enjoy a very smooth cup that for me lacks any character or real flavor.  The Dave and I shared an order of Muesli—the wonderful Swiss apple/granola/cream/yogurt concoction that is one of the few adult foods with the consistency of baby food that is, against all odds, truly delicious.  It’s ten bucks, and worth going back for.

We then crashed for a few hours, then headed over to the Hyatt next door—which was hosting the IML cowhide enthusiasts—for a pre-dinner cocktail.  I was psyched about trying any of the Rick Bayless places—Topolobompo, Frontera Grill, or the new tacqueria Xoco, all nearby.  But we struck up a conversation with a Chicago native cowhide enthusiast who turned out to be another Insane Foodie, who insisted we try a hot new place instead.  Several Manhattans and gin and tonics later, we were all headed down the street to The Wit, a  trendy hotel with a very cool roof lounge/restaurant appropriately named Roof:


The view/scene at Roof.

Because of the aforementioned cocktails, there is little of this meal I actually remember, except for a beautiful apple and bacon pizza, and wonderfully gamey lamb sliders. All I know for sure is it was 45 bucks a person (clearly the drinking continued), the view was great, and I was hungry when we got back to the hotel.  Naturally, we drank more.

Saturday morning was all about coffee and amnesiac regret. But that evening we were going to moto so we had to sober up and get serious!  Finding ourselves in Boystown in the afternoon, I thought we could  enjoy some light tapas at the unassuming but often great Arco de Cuchilleros, but they do not open until 5pm.  So we grabbed some tacos and sopes at a Mexican joint that were unremarkable, but held us over until our orgy of gastronomic excess.

Dinner at moto—what to say?  Plenty, but that is for a separate post.  But shout-outs must be given here to chef Ben Roche, General Manager and Sommelier Matthew Gundlach, and chef Richie Farina, for giving some special TLV love in the form of a kitchen tour (look for my first video soon…).    I was so glad The Dave joined me; it’s a big investment of time and money, one few of my friends will indulge in.  I’ve been alternating between moto and Alinea on my annual Chicago trips, and it’s been a real education to eat at both restaurants a few times.  They share a common philosophical approach–in terms of deconstruction, surprise, and manipulating sense memories and expectations—but their dishes could not be more different.  Alinea is like a Miyazaki anime film; moto is more Pixar.

Sunday, we headed to Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinders, a place The Dave had fond memories of, and a Chicago institution. It is home to the Pizza Pot Pie, a wonderful concept that takes Chicago’s famous deep-dish pizza to its logical conclusion, wherein a cheese-lined bowl is filled with sauce and toppings, and the whole thing is domed in pizza dough.  The upside-down plating yields a sort of bread-bowl pizza:

“Pizza Pot Pie,” Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co.

We ordered the sausage version, and I wish it had tasted as good as it looked. Unfortunately, everything between the cheese and the crust tasted like it came straight from a Ragu jar to me.

The Grinder was more successful:

This was a basic Italian sub that was enlived by an excellent house-made roll.  It had been lightly toasted so the cheese was just melted.  I’m not a fan of cold cold-cut subs; heating brings out the spices and sweetness of salamis and bolognas, and just takes it to another level for me.

We also tried their famous flatbread, a fluffy, herbed round that was larger than a dinner plate.  A house salad was fine as well.

We trekked up to Ragstock, the MN based used/vintage clothing chain of stores.  Sale item of the day:

How much are gorillas in Las Vegas? Pretty sure that’s a steal.  Several cool shirts later (I am now #18 on the Daiichi baseball team…) we were headed to the bars of Boystown for some late afternoon beers before dinner.  This put us back in Arco de Cuchilleros territory, though again we found them closed (for vacation, I assumed).  A few doors down we stumbled on HB, short for Home Bistro.  Packed to the gills—sigh.  But chef/host Joncarl Lachman said it would only be about 10 minutes for a 2-top, so we were in luck.  HB has a BYOB policy, but luckily the 7-11 was open across the street.  Can good wine be had at 7-11?  I know that cheap wine can.  I grabbed something whimsical in the ‘animal on the label from Australia’ genre (yellow tail, blue penguin, pink wombat, blind zebra, etc).   The big, cheap red worked well with our hearty fare.

The room at HB is all ochre and shadows.  Were it not for the view of 7-11 across the street, we could be on a Parisian side street.

The food at HB was a revelation, the polar opposite of moto in every way, and a nice contrast after that experience.  We started with artichoke and edam fritters, then moved on to ribbon pasta with a hearty pork ragu,  And a duo of smoked quail on a bed of barbecued lentils. The quail is a must-order if you go–a home run in every way.  An apple crumble for dessert rounded out a bistro experience so transporting that The Dave and I were practically speaking French afterward…

While I never made it to the Rick Bayless joints (they are closed Sundays and Mondays), Bayless is not the only Chicago chef to offer his twist on Mexican street food.  Paul Kahan, of Blackbird,  Avec, and the recent Publican, just opened Big Star Taco in Wicker Park, where we had lunch on Monday:

Big Star Taco, Wicker Park, Chicago (but for the rain the patio would be packed I’m told!)

The former garage space is the perfect environment to sample Kahan’s recession-friendly taco joint.  Decent margaritas were just seven bucks, and most tacos were in the three-to-five-dollar range.  Is the taco-truck/bar mash-up the new pork belly?

The bar at Big Star Taco.

The Al Pastor tacos were excellent, with nicely caramelized pineapple balancing the porky goodness.  Fish and lamb varieties were equally good.  No radical twists here just tasty, straightforward food at a great price.  This is the kind of place we need more of in Las Vegas—food that is sophisticated but mid-priced, from real chefs.  One cannot eat at Raku and Bachi Burger alone.

It was finally time for The Dave and I to bid farewell to the bears and cowhide enthusiasts and head back to Las Vegas.  At the airport, The Dave and I decided to grab a snack.  We weren’t really hungry for dinner,  but didn’t want to go four hours without something.  What had we missed?  Why the loaded Chicago Dog of course:

As authentic as this looks, gentle readers, it proved not to be ideal pre-flight food.  The peppers for one were quite hot, and ended up doing Pilates in my stomach the whole flight.  For two, the bun makes a big difference with a true Chicago dog.  As does the dog. The only thing halfway on the mark was the array of toppings—the dog and bun could have come from a theme park, homeless shelter or prison.  Lesson learned–next time I’ll head to Hot Doug’s.

Perhaps not the best culinary send-off, but it was a trip filled with some great meals and memories.  Until next year, plant life, precipitation, and buildings having lights only on the inside! As far as Chicago dining goes for 2011, I’ve already shortlisted Schwa, The Bristol and a return trip to Alinea. Or moto. Or both…??

Michael Manley is a musician, writer and technilogical retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.  He can be followed on twitter @TLV_Michael and is also on Facebook (Michael S Manley).

Published in: on June 7, 2010 at 4:26 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. makes me homesick.
    avec is my favorite restaurant on earth.
    can’t wait to check out big star.
    similar to a concept i’ve been itching to do here in vegas.

    • Hey John, have yet to try avec–went to blackbird for lunch years ago. But Avec was highly recommended by the moto folks as well…Big Star was great, but my fave taco joint remains “Tacqueria Victor’s” on E Twain…try their al pastor sometime!


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