Sunday, May 31, 2009

Chicago, the eating part

Our recent trip to Chicago was rich in many ways. Looking over our more than 800 photos (digital, fortunately, otherwise we'd need to rent storage for all the developed pix), it's difficult to figure out which ones to share. We all KNOW how much fun it is when someone wants to show us every freakin' photo they took on vacation, complete with running commentary, right?! So these are just a very few highlights.

Vosges: If God eats chocolate, this must be what they stock in Heaven's commissary. Chicago is the home of this most amazing confectionary. We stopped in one of their stores for a couple of hot chocolates, served up in what essentially looked like bud vases. Andy's was a sassy, Mexican-inspired drink, the Aztec Elixir, while mine was a smoother, European concoction called La Parisienne. Ooh-la-la!

Two foods typically spring to mind when most people think of Chicago: hot dogs and deep-dish pizza. We didn't have deep-dish, because, well, none of us--not our hosts and not Andy and me--actually LIKE deep-dish pizza. Seemed like it would have been a waste of a good meal opportunity. We did, however, have lovely thin-crust, Neapolitan-styled pizza at Spacca Napoli.

This tomatoey (not tomato saucy), garlicy pizza didn't have a bit of cheese on it...oh, but the others had enough to make up for it!

While America long ago hijacked pizza and made it its own, Naples is where pizza was actually born, so theirs is the most authentic pizza you can find it. So with its thriving Italian community, Chicago seemed like a good place to enjoy it, Neapolitan style (and no, Neapolitan pizza doesn't have layers of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream on it, although it sounds like a winning idea to me ...)

As for hot dogs, we didn't go just anywhere for just some generic Chicago dog, but to one of the most extraordinary places in town. We walked from our friends' house to Hot Doug's, which brands itself as "the sausage superstore." As usual, their dawgs were imaginative, well wrought and sublimely yummy. I ordered a pheasant sausage hot dog with garlic aioli and white truffle cheese. Andy got the Salcisson Alsacienne, a bacon sausage dog with grilled onions, crème fraîche and triple-creme brie. Too bad the sauternes duck sausage dog topped with foie gras wasn't on the menu that day. That would have been a great--if deadly--double header. Since we were there on the weekend, we were able to get our fries cooked in duck fat, which is better than it has any right to be. Definitely worth the hour-and-a-half wait to place our order.

Hmm, decisions, decisions...Yes it DOES say curry lamb sausage!

Those duck fat fries in the background are possessed of a crispitude all their own.

It took a good half hour to walk to Hot Doug's, so an hour of walking and an hour and a half of hanging out in line more than justified our indulging in those duck fat fries. But let's face it, even if we'd driven, we still could have found a justification. After all, we're talking about duck fat! One of life's finer indulgences that not enough Americans know about.

While the trip was rich in food experiences, we didn't make the pilgrimage to Charlie Trotter's or Rick Bayless' or to any of those other gotta-eat-there places. You don't have to hit every high-end restaurant in a city to become acquainted with what it does best. In fact, the notion that we DO have to tick off the to-do list of restaurants often distances us from experiencing those truly enjoyable, truly memorable food moments.

Note the hogshead in between the hogs' heads...nyuk, nyuk...

Instead, we went to Publican, not because it was Beard Award-nominated, but because our friends said, "Hey, sounds great!" and we looked at Publican's menu online and said, "Hey, sounds delicious." Situated in Chicago's historic meat-packing district (remember your Carl Sandberg from high school?), Publican is in a big cheery room with long, communal tables and a few booths enclosed not unlike livestock pens around the periphery.

While Publican does some fine things with seafood, we were most wowed by the more fleshy offerings, so that's what I'll share with you. After all, they don't carry that pork theme through the signage and throughout the restaurant for nothing. And most of the meat is sourced locally--our carbon footprint getting to Chicago was significantly larger than that of the critters we enjoyed.

Potted rillettes with rhubarb compote & sourdough:
Essentially melted pig you schmear on your toast. I could live on this stuff!

Potee: Toulouse sausage, pork tenderloin and veal breast, with baby brussels sprouts and cornichons.
Two days after we were there, the
New York Times did a big splash on Publican and singled out this dish for special praise. Little wonder--it's a seriously tasty and satisfying array of meat.

After wandering all over downtown, one evening we discovered lovely and inviting Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread and Wine (no secret about what they sell!) on the way back to the El. We picked up a couple of cheeses, one blue and one sublimely stinky and runny, along with some olives, pickled garlic cloves and a loaf of rustic bread. That night we had an indoor picnic, with our fav picnic foods. A few strawberries, a bottle of wine, some good chocolate and even better conversation capped our evening nicely.

There was no shortage of good food during our visit: Turkish, Thai, gelato, (my previous visit to Chicago included Chinese, Italian, Thai and Polish food, along with Swedish pastries, and at this point I fall apart in the remembering...). I may need fizzy water just to aid in the digestion after simply mulling over these pictures and words.

I'm ready to go back now!

Note: If you want to go to Hot Doug's, get there by 11 a.m., bring cash and be prepared to wait. It's worth it. If you want to go to Publican, be sure to make reservations. And ask to be seated at the long communal tables. They're more fun.

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