Is Chicago? Is Not Chicago?

OK, I’ll admit it: I judge every city against NYC. To me, NYC is the ne plus ultra, the pinnacle, the über and the ür — even when it drives me crazy (which is most of the time).

Now that I’m back from my first-ever visit to Chicago, I realize that it’s not fair to judge it by an East Coast barometer. It’s completely different from NYC. For one thing, I didn’t expect it to be so welcoming. Or quiet. (NYC, with its teeming sidewalks and incessant rush-rush-rush, is NEVER, ever quiet. I don’t think the city even has a pause button.)

By contrast, Chicago takes its time. It’s happy to let you discover its charms at your own pace.

Which I did. I didn’t even see one thousandth of the city, but I like to think I got a real glimpse of the real Chicago. No, I didn’t have any deep dish pizza. (Don’t tell, but I’m a thin-crust girl all the way. Rhode Island represent!) And no, I didn’t go to a Cubs game.

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Aberrant Periodicals and Weimar Decadence
A friend I hadn’t seen since college road-tripped in from Wisconsin with her husband. We all made a beeline for Quimby’s, self-described “specialists in the importation, distribution, and sale of unusual publications, aberrant periodicals, saucy comic booklets and assorted fancies.” (Wisconsin being a bit culturally deprived of such things.) The store is pure evil from its Chris Ware signage to its dusty, crammed-floor-to-ceiling shelves. Evil I say! (Plus I used to sell my zine there! Aww.)

After a Zen Noodle interlude, we drove (and drove, and drove) north to the no-man’s land where the Portage Theatre resides. This enormous, gorgeous relic —a former home to the silents scarred by too many slap-dash renovations— was the perfect setting for Nitrates and Kinogeists, a two-day celebration of Murnau’s Faust, McKean’s Mirrormask (and short films) and German silent movie posters. Talk about a match made in heaven.

A jet-lagged but chatty Dave McKean tirelessly signed and doodled his way through the piles of books, comics and ephemera that fans brought. (Missing was my own copy of Cages there was no way I was going to lug it through airport security and back again.)

McKean’s short films were a mixed bag, but culminated in the visually stunning “The Week Before,” a sumptuously imagined and wry look at God’s fraught first attempts at Creation.

Afterwards, we got ice cream at the wholesomely retro Oberweis outpost near Wicker Park. Butter pecan for the win!

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The Natural World
Sunday was a day to wander. Luckily my hotel was near the Art Institute of Chicago, where the new Renzo Piano wing just opened. I made a beeline for the Steve McQueen installation, Girls, Tricky, an intimate fly-on-the-wall portrait of Tricky in the studio. Thanks to McQueen’s use of available light and Tricky’s mercurial, agitated performance style, this made for an unsettling, abstracted, intense fifteen minutes.

The small but perfectly-formed Cy Twombly exhibit, The Natural World was exquisite. Nothing compares to seeing Twombly’s paintings in person: the colors are luminous, the brush strokes at times chaotic yet graceful, even languourous. It’s easy to get lost in the sense of light and movement, which is broken up by little impastoed blobs of paint, wax smears, and pencil squiggles. By contrast, his sculptures seem leaden and reductive, although his series of photographs of one sculpture in particular, Untitled, have a transformative effect, rendering the earthbound ethereal.

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I ended up in Wicker Park (again!) and wandered by The Bluebird purely by happenstance. This is one of those places where the ambience is keyed so that you miraculously feel right at home: exposed brick walls, rough industrial touches like salvaged lighting and reclaimed wood (the bathroom doors apparently came from a shuttered Catholic girls’ school), and chalkboard menus above the bar. A gastropub with an emphasis on wines, whiskeys and small batch distilled spirits, the leather-bound drink menu was far more time-consuming to negotiate than the one-pager of savories.

A Tree Grows in Wicker Park
After some consultation with our very helpful server, we ordered a bottle of German Scheurebe, the 2005 Kruger-Rumpf Kabinett. Clunky name, but the wine was lovely — a hint of sweet with mineral, floral and herbaceous notes. It was the perfect complement to my plate of fiery chicken wings and grilled citrus fruit, but it didn’t pair quite as well with Mike’s milder ale-braised rabbit leg with saffron, english pea and bacon-studded risotto or Kate’s mussels in blanche de chambly ale with shallots, chili flakes and garlic. Ah well. We enjoyed it nonetheless.

By then we were too full to even contemplate dessert. It was a beautiful night, so we wandered around the neighborhood for a little while. I spent a lot of time in Wicker Park while I was in Chicago, and ultimately it reminded me of a more refined Williamsburg, with its squat brick row houses and hipster enclaves. It was also more appealing, with a slower pace, less attitude, and more trees.

We ended the evening with rich Greek coffee and desserts at Taxim, a new restaurant over on N. Milwaukee, next to the Double Door. We split the orchid-root ice cream (oddly chewy but delicious) with orange blossom and pistachios, and the phyllo with walnuts, pistachios and clotted cream. (Mmm, clotted cream. So wrong, yet so right.)

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Robber Barons, Mies and Me
I started Monday with the Chicago architectural tour by boat. I recommend this to ANYONE who has even a few hours in Chicago. The weather was perfect —sunny and pleasant, with not a trace of humidity. And it was beautiful out on the water.

If only you could see NYC’s architectural highlights this way. It’s really so special.

I knew I wasn’t going to make it to Urban Belly, Bill Kim’s much-fêted new Asian restaurant tucked away in an unassuming strip mall. Oysy was my second choice, and it didn’t disappoint.

I made sure to snag a table, rather than sit at the sushi bar, and ordered off the pricier a la carte menu. Highlights: tender garlic-and-miso glazed flank steak; tuna tartare with chili dipping sauce; and the exquisite summer roll, with tuna, yellowtail, slivers of green pepper, cucumber, avocado, cilantro and lime juice.

I enjoyed my meal at Oysy so much I went back for a final lunch before heading off to the airport. This time, the place was much busier and I ended up sitting at the sushi bar. With time of the essence, I ordered the prix fixe bento lunch, which included miso soup, salad, california and spicy tuna rolls, shrimp tempura and the aforementioned garlic-miso steak.

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Shockingly, the quality was completely inferior to what I’d had off the a la carte menu. The steak was tough and gristly, the rolls totally blah. (I hate California rolls to begin with, but the menu specified “No substitutions.”) I was so disheartened that I ordered the summer roll again, just to make sure that the first meal hadn’t been a fluke.

When it turned out to be as good as before, which made me wonder: why the totally schizoid shift in quality? A restaurant with good word-of-mouth reputation (as Oysy seems to have) should aim for consistency in everything they do, whether it’s a $12 lunch special or a $13 hand roll.

Back to Monday: my colleague and I skipped out on the open bar and headed back to Wicker Park/Bucktown to try our luck at the super-hot Bristol. They don’t take reservations, and we were running late (we got stuck in rush-hour traffic getting there). Incredibly, we were seated right away.

In Which I Wax Rhapsodic About the Bristol
The Bristol has a number of similarities with The Bluebird: the dinner menu is dwarfed by the leather-bound wine, beer and top-shelf booze list. Chalkboard specials: check. Industrial/rustic interior with exposed brick: check. I would say the food proved more consistent and polished than at The Bluebird, although I preferred the laid-back vibe of the latter. Both were incredibly good value given the quality of the presentation and freshness of the ingredients.

I also appreciated the honesty of the service at the Bristol. Greg and I came very close to ordering duplicates of the same salad; the server stopped us with, “It’s plenty large enough to share.” And he was right. The salad was an abundant mélange of green and red leaf lettuces, herbs (parlsey, tarragon, chervil, chives), and thin slivers of radish and fennel, all tossed in a light buttermilk-peppercorn dressing.

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For my entrée, I had the raviolo, a single, giant, perfect pocket of pasta dough filled with a mixture of ricotta and herbs, with a runny egg yolk in the centre. The raviolo was brushed with clarified butter and chopped herbs. It was chewy, buttery, decadent perfection. (Greg, whose mother is Italian, declared it the best he’d ever tasted.) He loved his burger, too —especially the duck fat fries.

I coveted those duck fat fries. Throwing caution (and my HDL) to the wind, I ordered a batch. Oh my god, these were the best fries EVER. Paired with a garlicky, addictive aioli (the less said about the dullsville house-made ketchup, the better), the fries were simply heavenly. Served piping hot, they were dusted with a gremolata of lemon zest, sea salt and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I’m going to try this at home as soon as I can.

Afterwards, we decided to walk around the neighborhood. This time we went in the opposite direction down Damen, window-shopping as we went.

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Last Night in Town (So Make It Count)
Tuesday night was my last dinner in town. I met up again with Mike and Kate at Perennial, a chic, sprawling place near the lake.

The décor was an odd mix of minimalist and organic Orientalist —faux-bamboo, real bois and shiny surfaces trying in vain to coexist. The food was, thankfully, more consistent, albeit miniaturized. (I was surprised when entrées didn’t arrive with their own tiny magnifying glass.)

We started with cocktails: an Amaretto-touched Manhattan for Mike, an elevated Cosmo for Kate and a Perennial (gin, St. Germain, lavender simple syrup and grapefruit juice) for myself. All perfectly mixed and chilled. And strong! (I sipped slowly and held onto the table for dear life.)

When it came to choosing a wine that would complement the small plates, our waitress suggestedTorrontés, an Argentinian wine known for being a) cheap and b) having an O Henry-ish ability to evoke the sweetness of a Muscat yet hit the palate with a light, aromatic crispness. (And did I mention it’s cheap?) I totally fell for this wine and intend to track some down ASAP.

We started with the tuna crudo with citrus and basil oil. (A perfect summer appetizer —so clean and refreshing.) The chicken lollipops with Asian slaw and soy glaze didn’t quite top the Bluebird’s crisp, fiery wings, but still disappeared toot sweet.

Entrées were more problematic: my semolina gnocchi were dry and un-gnocchi-like (although the intense black truffle reduction and mixed vegetable accompaniment were both good). Mike’s hamachi was flavorful, in a light soy broth, but Kate’s salmon was just okay.

We ended the meal with 10 year tawny port (lovely) and the cheese plate, which was a bit on the fussy side. Each sliver of cheese came with its own amuse-bouche, essentially. For some reason I found this distracting and unnecessarily flashy; I would have preferred the cheese to stand alone, with more traditional nibbles —quince, fig paste, nuts — on the side. The cheeses were all excellent, however: an aged gouda, Ewe’s Bloom, Lincoln Log and a marvelously stinky and gooey cheese, the name of which currently escapes me.

Afterwards we walked down to the lake and talked while looking out over the incredible city skyline, as sailboats disappeared off into the direction of Michigan.

All in all, a perfect last night in my favorite new city.

PHOTOS BY ANDREA FELDMAN

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1 Comment

  1. You need to start writing about food proh-fesh-uhl-knee!

    Incredible tale of seeing Chicago on one’s stomach — the boat trip notwithstanding. Thanks!

    Steve, “sitting-thinking-we-picked-the-wrong-city”

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