My friends Natasa and Olly invited me out to lunch over the weekend. This means they paid, which they shouldn’t have. It was too nice of them. Very nice of them. I know Natasa from my old job. Amongst other things, we’ve hit Prague, Budapest and Moscow together, revolutionizing investing all the way. We make a good team. Her husband, Olly, is a man with many lives. (Next time you see a dangling participle, send it his way.) Maybe I can convince Olly to edit my autobiography.
I make the long journey down to Clapham to have lunch with them. Oddly, I have an entire tube car to myself. If you’ve been reading the press lately, you know that London’s population is at an all-time high. So this is kind of amazing. Also, frightening.
Ah, Clapham. I haven’t been this far south on purpose in a long time. 2008? 2009? I am not kidding. (But before you get all offended, new visitors should know that I was absent from this fair city for a few years and am only recently returned. So don’t be hatin’.)
I get to The Manor and because I am a few minutes early, I ask to use the loo and am shown the way. The loo is crazy. Someone is having a laugh. After all the peacefulness and beauty and light and air and softness upstairs, I am no less than shocked and appalled downstairs. I cannot forget these loos for the rest of my meal. We talk about them throughout. “Have you been to the loo yet? You should go to the loo. So you’ve been to the loo! What did you think of the loo?”
And while the small plates of chicken skin at The Manor are pretty damn fantastic and I actually ate the better part of not one but two kale salads — so good were they — I cannot forget the loos. I really can’t. (Cue a discussion of the American “can’t” vs the British “can’t.” Can’t for me rhymes with ant or pant. Can’t for the British rhymes with want or font. Remember I have been blessed with the vowels of a New Yorker though so this could all be in my head.)
After polishing off a respectable number of starters between the three of us, I opt the The Manor’s pork belly and try to concentrate. It’s very good.
But I still can’t forget the loos.
I have some sort of lovely-doubly chocolate ganache-y thing for dessert — pudding, right Olly? — and I can’t forget the loos.
I try to blind myself with alcohol and order a sweet wine with my dessert and…I can’t forget the loos.
Let me make this clear. What I can’t get over, what I can’t stop thinking about, is that they really don’t have the money for a nice paint job and some soft lighting. A lot can be forgiven with soft lighting. Are candles legal in loos? Candles. How about candles? OK, maybe the tile work isn’t the greatest — they are flowered tiles from the 70s or 80s. But a little high-pressure water hose, a lick of paint and some nice art on the walls and maybe some fresh flowers and you’d be done. I promise. I know they’ve tried to tie it all together with the graffiti behind the bar but…meh.
Now, 27 hours after my meal at The Manor, what I remember more than the wonderfully nice food is, unfortunately, the loos.
The Verdict: Go. And hope that they’ve done something with the loos by the time you get there.
P.S. Yo, I’ve got a bit of a backlog from the holidays. More to come, soon I hope.
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.
Just like I’m not entirely sure how I’ve been able to dine at Next not once but three times when everyone else is so valiantly clicking refresh on their browser, so too am I unsure how I was able to get into EL ideas so quickly and with such a minimum of fuss. (EL ideas, for those of you not in the know, is a micro-restaurant. Seating just 10 people. Open just Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Located at 14th and Western. It is run by Phillip/Josh Foss — formerly of Lockwood, now of the Meatyballs Mobile — whose food I had never experienced before this evening.) Maybe I was able to get in because of my e-mail requesting a reservation…
per your instructions…
table for 4 should suit us adequatELy
ELigible for any date in July and August at this writing, most definitELy.
absolutELy no allergies. Except to cats. But we assume they are not on the menu.
sincerELy hope we are ELigible…
I brought Meredith and her friend Megan along. (Our party of four became three.) We each brought a bottle of wine. And I brought some dessert wine. (EL is BYOB.) In hindsight, this was a very bad idea as it relates to this here Web site. Because you see…I kinda didn’t take many pictures. Nor did I take any notes. In short, this meal is mainly remembered as “INCREDIBLE! So FUN! AWESOME. DAVE THE FORAGER!”
And, um, I remember the parking lot on Western, around the corner from EL ideas. Because after we learned about Dave the forager (and stand-up comedian) who had sourced a number of the ingredients used by EL like the wild garlic and the pollen and some berries, my running joke became, “And did Dave find this in the Union Pacific parking lot?” This probably became annoying after a while. For that, EL has my profuse apologies.
Also remembered…the bar on the corner. And the way they abbreviated coffee and what I can only assume is “breakfast.” Water Hole…the name seems to be missing a gerund or something.
I photographed this dish though — the haricots vert — because the sphere of chopped green beans was whimsical and lovely, and I liked the combination of granola and green beans.
Also photographed…the croquette. I didn’t eat this fast enough and let the liquid escape too soon.
One of our favorite dishes of the night…the duck. With blueberries. This was a more traditional dish — less inventive than the others I think — but lovely just the same.
Fun surprise of the night…EL uses Square to process your credit card via iPhone, right at the table. Love Square. And I’m hoping more restaurants in the US switch to at-table credit card processing.
The Verdict: Run, don’t walk. And lay off the booze so you can have clearer memories of what will, I’m sure, be a lovely evening.
Least favorite question? What’s your favorite restaurant. I hate it. Because you know what? I don’t have one in Chicago. (Yet?) I’ve yet to walk into a place here where I can say to myself, “Oh now here…I’d eat here all the time.” But I did walk into Mana Food Bar on Division the other weekend and think…”Ah, now this is interesting.” I liked the decor. I liked the smallness. Chicago doesn’t do SMALL so it’s refreshing to be in a place with only about 24 covers where the server can’t possibly ignore you.
The only factor preventing Mana Food Bar from being a true favorite? Sigh…it’s vegetarian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I like a little pork belly now and then.
Yup, no meat on this menu.
The small vegetarian chili was surprisingly hearty. I barely missed the meat. Only complaint? Too small!
Bi Bim Bap is one of my all-time favorite dishes. This too was a surprisingly hefty dish, but I did miss the marinated beef. Still though, I felt virtuous with all this veg inside of me.
At Mana Food Bar, they leave the tap water on the table so you can serve yourself. I like this. A lot! I hate it when servers fill up my water glass every two minutes, even when the glass isn’t anywhere near empty. I want to see more bottled water on the table in Chicago. More.
The Verdict: I really like Mana Food Bar. I’d go back again and again and again some more. (I’d probably have a turkey sandwich for lunch though.)