The more things change, the more things stay the same. Sometimes the simplest explanation IS the explanation. Sometimes, you have to leave to go home. Or come home to leave. Thankfully, the winter of my homecoming last year has not been repeated. Chicago is bright and cool and BRISK. The skies are stunningly, vividly blue. I’ve worn my boots just once. And my down coat — its buttons lost somewhere between last year and this year — also just once. Everything is lovely, but it makes me feel like we are on the cusp of something. On the cusp of something big. Something huge. Something terrible.
I am frightened.
So, um, I’ll just keep going out to eat then. Here’s where I’ve been lately:
Boiler Room, 2210 N California Ave: I loved the vibe of Boiler Room. I loved the loos. (Chicago Transit doors and, even, sound effects.) I loved the beer selection and I thought our service was pretty good too. But the pizza? Undercooked, and while at least the pepperoni had some taste to it, The Purist (mozzarella, basil, balsamic reduction) was pretty tasteless. The Verdict: Meh. So much promise, but not fully realized.
Keefer’s, 20 W Kinzie: My NY Strip Steak was good. The creamed spinach was good. The potato croquettes were excellent. But our server took FOREVER to take our order, and then he claimed we didn’t order calamari to start (we did) and then at some point, a fist fight broke out between other tables. ??? Oh, and I should mention that my friend who made the reservation is a very dependable, reliable person and I was there when she called Keefer’s and booked the table. Upon arrival, they had no record of our booking. They worked things out which was good of them, but still all very odd. Oh!! And then, when the bill came, we asked for it to be divided up amongst credit cards and that was one of the most complicated conversations I’ve ever had, for what was a basic math thing. The Verdict: I’d go somewhere else before I went back here, but I did like the vibe of the room with the radios in it.
Nori, 954 W Diversey: I dropped in here for a quick dinner after getting a haircut at Salon Blue on Sheffield, a place I’ve been going to since 1998! (Go see Amy. Tell her Krista sent you. Funnily, Chicago Food Snob has been going to Amy forever too!) Amazing. Anyhow, obviously Penny’s isn’t doing as well as it used to because this used to be part of Penny’s next door. I sat at the bar and had the Red Nori (spicy tuna, spicy shrimp, and avocado covered with tempura crumbs, red tobiko, and unagi sauce) and it was pretty enjoyable. But then I had the Crunchy Spicy Tuna maki and it was so depressing, it made me cry. There was no crunch. It was like they forgot a step. Roll the maki in raw tempura crumbs and…sigh. The Verdict: OK. Not great. I will keep searching.
Roka Akor, 11 W Illinois. I dropped in here for lunch with some colleagues this past Wednesday during Restaurant Week. The restaurant was curiously empty. Apparently, no one in The Loop wants to go north of the river, because Petterino’s is freaking PACKED every single afternoon. And Petterino’s is just good. And not as vibe-y as Roka Akor. Fascinating. Well, I had the restaurant week special and although I thought the Wagyu beef and kimchi dumplings were pretty luscious, the rest of the meal — the butterfish roll and the barbecued pork loin — were uninspiring. At $22 though, this was a very good value. The Verdict: Good. And the bar area seems good for solo dining.
So there we are. Some recent tries in Chicago. Until next time! Let’s hope it doesn’t snow like crazy in between.
So many places. I really need to stop eating for a while. Or I need to only eat vegetables. Or do something about the flat tires on my two bikes. Or I need to start walking to/from work like every day. (I say this because today on my way out of work, I ran into my colleague and neighbor who has been walking home from work every day for the last year or so and he has lost so much weight…sigh.)
Bar Toma, 110 East Pearson. So firstly, I need to give them props because their location is huge (both in size and the perfectness of location) and if I were a tourist and stumbled in here, I would be very very happy. It’s casual. There’s a bar. And look…I ate some vegetables! We LOVED the charred carrots with Capriole goat cheese, almonds, and Acetaia San Giacomo balsamico. Also loved the beets and gorgonzola. Our pizza was just good, but we weren’t very creative. Just a Pizza Margherita. I tried to get my friend Aileen to have some Prosecco and she demurred. Who says no to Prosecco??? I think she’s preggars. The Verdict: Fun. Cheap. Casual.
Lula Cafe, 2357 N Kedzie: I dragged my friend Amy here one afternoon after New Year’s and I think she hates me now. Lula’s was packed. We got two seats at the bar and were promptly ignored by anyone and everyone. We eventually placed our order and we were promptly ignored again. And then we ate our food — my butternut squash soup and salad were good but not swoon-worthy — and we asked for our bill and (surprise!) we were both promptly (or impromptly) ignored again. It was all rather tiresome, and we left very tired and very grouchy. The Verdict: Hard to focus on the food when the service was so terribly terribly terribly abysmal. (You can imagine my Madonna accent — yes the UK one — as I’m saying that.) I liked the decor though.
The Southern Mac & Cheese Store, 60 East Lake Street. Even though my one and only experience at The Southern in Bucktown was nothing to write home about, I really liked my Artichoke Spinach Mac & Cheese at The Southern’s newish retail outlet. Crispy where it needed to be crispy, with plenty of artichoke and spinach, only two of my favorite things. I was surprised the shop wasn’t more crowded on the day we were there. Personally, I think they need to offer half portions because of the perception of mac & cheese alone. A lot of mac & cheese is NOT good for the waistline. Somehow a sandwich of the same caloric value doesn’t have the same perception. The Verdict: I liked this, but I can’t eat like this all the time. I’ll be back once a quarter.
I think I still have more to catch up. The more I eat, the less I write. I’m okay with that.
Ooh, I’m way behind. I blame the airlines. And Design Star on HGTV. And my cousin George, who was in town for all of six days and managed to completely redecorate my apartment, rearrange my kitchen cabinets, and fix anything and everything that has bugged me since I moved into this damn place nearly exactly a year ago. (Who knew the top rack of my dishwasher was adjustable?) Exhausting, all of it.
I tried to entertain George food-wise, but here’s what I learned: he’s a picky eater. He likes Red Bull. And cookies. And pretzels. And could happily survive on all that for breakfast and lunch. I think he also likes Chinese food, but I denied him his second take-out in the hopes I could convince him to go to Ruxbin. Denied. More in a bit.
Paris Club, River North: I made reservations ages in advance at Paris Club, and the charcuterie — for two — was pretty damn amazing. However, it should have been labeled “For two very large Americans” or “For four plus-sized French people” because it was really way too much food even for our table of four to do justice to. Our server was fantastic: I spilled a glass of wine all over myself (Long Island girl, talking with her hands) and he brought me a replacement glass, no problem.The atmosphere at Paris Club is very lively, but in a “What? What did you say??” kind of way. Finally to the food…my ahi tuna main dish was pretty disappointing. Too salty.
I’ve been thinking about salt lately and have to list it out as one of the main differences between eating in the US vs. eating in the UK. Everything in the US is sooo disgustingly salty. And we wonder why we have high blood pressure. (I’d also say it’s because we don’t walk enough.)
Randomly…I went to use the ladies’ room at Paris Club on the main floor and there were six girls in line. For one toilet. Good times. About 10 minutes in, a staff member told us that there were more loos downstairs, but by that point I was next. I ended up using the men’s room, and you know what that’s like. The Verdict: Out. There are things I want to like, but that salty main dish was just too much. Oh, and my cousin George would like you to know that he and my friend Matt were two of the only men in the dining room at 8 pm on a Friday night. Odd.
Gilt Bar, River North: I went to Gilt Bar nearly exactly a year ago when I first arrived back in Chicago, but for some reason never wrote about it. Although I would like it better if I could see my hand in front of my face while I’m eating (flashlight, anyone?), I do love the food here. My truffle pasta was the dish that kept getting passed around the table. I also really like the music at Gilt Bar; they played The XX, only one of my fave albums of 2010. (OK, OK it came out in 2009 but still.) Great cocktail bar downstairs…all very chill and mellow.
Feast, Bucktown: I asked my cousin what he likes to eat for breakfast. He says — and I quote –“I’m not really a breakfast person.” You can guess where this is going. Every morning, I would wake up, make breakfast for myself, eat it, and then he would say, “What are we doing for breakfast?” Ahem. As we were up abysmally early on Saturday, so I thought we’d try for The Bongo Room. Let me point out two things. It was Saturday — not Sunday — and we arrived at 9:15 am. 9:15! They had been open 15 minutes!! And told us that we’d have to wait 30 to 45 minutes for a table. 30 to 45 minutes! So we went to Feast instead and had some pretty luscious peach and blueberry challah French toast. This place totally needs a lick of paint and our table was too wobbly for its own good, but those are minor quibbles in the face of a breakfast this nice.
The Boundary, Wicker Park: George wanted to eat outside, so I pulled up along Division and suggested Prasino. He ix-nayed it because it “looked too healthy” so instead we made our way to The Boundary, where we watched the cars go by as we snacked on some burgers and tomato soup. Everything was fine here. PS Did you know there are no parking meters on the main stretch of Division? (OK, not meters but that green machine ticket-y thing. You know what I’m talking about.)
Pizza Metro II: I wanted to go to Ruxbin. George wanted Chinese. We compromised on pizza because I wanted a salad. Hah! This place is more a take-out place than anything else. We brought home our 1/2 potato (him) and 1/2 pepperoni (me) pizza, along with my salad, and enjoyed it in front of HGTV. George said, “Yeah, this wasn’t really that great.” I would concur. Fine, nothing special. Could have used a better more bubbly crust.
I have more coming up…Blue 13, GT Fish & Oyster, Prasino, and um I decided to go to London for the weekend last week so there’s that too. Brace yourselves.
The Damage: I put in $35 for my $8 soup and my $14 ravioli and my Arnold Palmer that had to have been less than $4. So let’s say $26. Plus 10% tax and 18% tip equals $30.68 max. $33.28.
The Background: It’s nice to get out of the office. And NOT talk about work. We’ve been trying to do that, so last Tuesday’s field trip was to The Florentine, the newish Italian in the downtown Marriott.
It’s one of those things…I work in The Loop, but I rarely stray more than three blocks from the office when it comes to lunch. And I rarely if ever go south of Monroe. So to go to Adams…WOW. Big news.
The Entrance: The Florentine is on the 2nd floor of a soulless cookie-cutter US Marriott. Hey, I’ve stayed in a lot of Marriotts. They’re fine. People who probably don’t stay in a lot of hotels probably think they’re great. For me though…they’re big and soulless. So I’m somewhat surprised when we enter The Florentine and it’s LOVELY. It does have soul. The light is entering the windows JUST SO and there’s a happy buzz about the place.
The Food: It took us a while to flag down our server and place our orders, but after that, things went remarkably quickly. Almost too quickly. My tomato soup was HUGE and very good. I should have just had this. But no, I had to order a main as well.
I had the ravioli…English Pea Ravioli with oil cured tomatoes, garden peas, and fiore sardo. Sounds great, doesn’t it? And looks pretty too, right?
Too bad the pasta was served practically RAW. As in crunchy. I really should have sent it back. Really.
The Verdict: Liked the setting. Liked the soup. But the pasta…meh.
The Background: Do you remember where you were when Michael Jackson died? Me, I was slightly over-served and heading home on the 56 bus in London’s Clerkenwell. Twitter for iPhone (or maybe it was Tweetie at the time) was saying how MJ had kicked the bucket. I announced this to my fellow passengers on the 56 bus and they all looked at me with that “Poor Yank. Overserved now, isn’t she?” sort of look. No response. Just glares.
Haters gonna hate, huh?
You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this.
So within 10 minutes of getting to the airport in Kuwait the other Thursday night, my voicemail beeps and I get one of those United Airlines “Easy” Updates. “Hello. This is United. Your flight from Kuwait City to Chicago has been canceled.”
Bummer. Totally. (But I kinda already knew this was going to happen. The Bahrain => Kuwait pre-leg of my flight had already been canceled, and United Cargo–my secret weapon in analyzing United on-timeness–was already saying that my Chicago flight was under “Decision.”)
But there I am in Kuwait City with my iPhone–underserved this time because KUWAIT IS A DRY COUNTRY–and I announce to my fellow passengers that our flight has been cancelled. They all look at me like I’m crazy. Like big time crazy. “How can you possibly know that?” one man asks me. I play back the voicemail–on speaker phone–and he looks away. Goes back to reading his newspaper. Stays in the queue as I step out of it.
I call United. I rebook myself on the next flight out. 24 HOURS later. I again tell my fellow passengers, “Hey guys, the flight’s been canceled.” Everyone just looks at me like I’ve just announced that Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, is dead and they’ve just seen him in concert.
“Well, they haven’t made any announcements,” says one woman.
“Sometimes technology is faster than announcements,” I say. “And I just called United. And they confirmed there’s no flight and they rebooked me. Because the flight is canceled.”
No one moves.
I take my luggage and leave the airport. No one follows. I repeat the entire process 24 hours later, but I get upgraded to business class! (How you feeling now, haters?) I finally arrive back in Chicago Saturday morning around 10 am. I pass out cold but rouse myself just in time for dinner with Theresa and Amy.
We start with a fresh and crisp arugula salad. The world needs more salads like this, and after a dearth of vegetables while traveling, I’m eating this with my hands.
I’ll start with the better of the two pastas. The gnocchi with fried sage was amazingly good. Satisfyingly dense gnocchi pared with disturbingly good fried sage. This made me want to come home and fry up some sage. This never happens.
Antico prides itself on its seasonal menu, and we were sold on the idea of a soft wheat pasta with mushrooms. (Although long-term readers will know that I am more down on mushrooms than up.) Um, can we talk about presentation here? It’s pretty crap. What were they thinking? It’s all just too wet and messy.
We finish off with a plate of short ribs and polenta. It’s really hard for me to dislike polenta. The short ribs were rich and tender. My only complaint, again, would be presentation. But for tasty food, I will put forward that there are far worse things.
The Service: Totally annoying. Would hover and interrupt, and always when one of us were at the denouement of some very important story. To the point where after this happening three or four times, he said, “Gee, I always seem to be interrupting you when you’re in the middle of a big story.” That’s a sign, my friend. A sign.
The Sound: LOUD. Way too loud. It’s a small space, but with no soft coverings. We were in the very back and I could still barely hear myself think.
The Verdict: On the fence. Like that it’s BYOB. Liked the gnocchi A LOT. Did not like the service and felt that the presentation was a bit slapdash.
Date of Last Visit: Sometime in January. I forget the exact date and my camera battery died so the photos aren’t dated.
The Victim: Michelle
The Damage: $10
The Background: Michelle and I have been trying to have lunch forever, but the stars just haven’t been aligning. She is a social media maven–she’s on a panel at SXSW if that gives you any indication–and an original blogger and WordPress aficionado. She is also a vegetarian. Chicago…not an easy city for vegetarians.
She’d already been to The Oasis Cafe (why I haven’t written about The Oasis, I don’t know), so I was struggling to pick a new place. Luckily in this instance, Michelle came through for me. It was she who suggested the local pizza chain Mista, a chain I’d never heard of before she sent me the link.
The Entrance: Mista in the Loop is small and compact. This creates a problem because you want to get a pizza, but you also want to sit down. And there are very few seats. Mista solves this by having a gentleman on staff who saves your table for you while you go get your pizza. Good thinking.
Mista bills itself as a fresh, organic, and natural pizzeria. I opted for the Florentine–organic baby spinach, ricotta, mushrooms (none in sight), and organic garlic. Eight or so minutes later, it was ready.
This is a very crispy pizza. As a New Yorker, I am definitely a fan of all things thin-crusted, but part of me felt this was just a bit too thin and crispy for me. The ingredients themselves were top notch, but I couldn’t stop thinking that I was eating a big cracker with pizza sauce on top. Hmmm.
The Verdict: Different. Not bad. But maybe not for me?