Monday, February 1, 2010

A town so smart, it's spelling starts with: C-H-I....

....CHIC! - "Chicago, Illinois" from Victor/Victoria

So this past weekend I did a little jet setting to the Midwest. The first half of my trip found me in Chicago, Ill. visiting my good friend and roommate, Steph, for her birthday. Having not really spent much time in Chicago other than some trips as a kid and an overnight a few years ago, I was really excited about doing some exploring. Steph used to live there so I had the perfect tour guide for my whirlwind of a trip. And being it birthday weekend, I knew we would hit up some great places.

My only request was that we have Chicago style pizza. I remember having it on one of my trips and liking it, but I'm so used to the thinner New York style, that I wanted to give it another go around. Luckily, being that Chi-town is not the warmest place and also known for the wind, there was a place directly across the street from where Steph lives, Giordano's, home of the world's most famous stuffed pizza. For those not familiar with Chicago style pizza, let me inform you. It's DEEP dish, we're talking like 3+ inch crust, and generally the sauce is on top with with cheese and toppings underneath. Now with stuffed pizza, there is another layer of dough on top of the toppings creating a pocket. This is not for anyone on the Atkins diet. After some discussion of what additions to our pizza we would like, we decided on pepperoni and green peppers (always a favorite of mine). Since it takes about 35 minutes to make, we started with some spinach artichoke dip. I've had better, but it was nice to have something to munch on while our pie was in the oven. It helped minimize the anticipation.

After an exact thirty five minutes, out came our lunch. WOW...we even went with a medium and it still was daunting. Piping hot and oozing cheese, I knew that I was gonna love it. Our lovely waitress served us each a slice, steam billowing and the cheese stretching like dough being pulled. My mouth was watering. Too thick to pick up and eat, and there was no possibility of doing the "New York fold" (a term I use where one folds the pizza in half length wise in order to not make a mess...I had never seen this technique until I had moved to NYC), I opted for knife and fork. As I cut through the slightly crisp crust, pepperoni, green peppers, mounds of cheese, another layer of dough and the sauce, I opened my mouth to take a bite of this town's signature dish. Exactly what I remembered. The sauce was sweet and full of spice, the peppers cooked but still added crunch, the cheese melty and creamy, and the edges nice and crusty. Even our fellow diner and toughest critic, a three and a half year old from London named Joe, said "this is the yummiest pizza I have ever had" (cuter when read with the British accent). I'd say Giordano's lives up to it's reputation.
The rest of my time in Chicago brought many other dining options, some better than others, and nice idea of the different neighborhoods and good "weekend feel" of the town. Steph's birthday dinner was at Las Mananitas in Boy's Town. Not the best Mexican food I've ever had, but I'm also a tough Mexican food critic. I have to say, the guacamole was the perfect combo of creamy and chunky and also great margaritas!

After dinner, we asked some locals where the closest wine bar type place would be. We had more celebrating of Steph to do! A table of very nice guys pointed us across the street to The 44th Ward Dinner Party, named because it's in the 44th Ward Police District. It was a cute place, almost like you were in someone's library and parlour, although I was a little confused as to where the "dinner party" takes place. A little louder than we had planned and they could use a much better beer selection, but filled with locals all having a good time. We all opted for wine, toasted our dear friend, had some great chat, and then called it in night.

We did Sunday Birthday Brunch at Wishbone on Lincoln. This place was HUGE, we don't have spaces like this in NYC. They call their food Southern reconstruction cooking. Very extensive menu and MANY options, almost too many as I had a problem deciding which direction to go in. I opted for steak and eggs. It was just ok, but my cheddar grits were awesome. Great texture and great flavor. I forgot how much I like grits.
Our walk thru town took us first to Sweet Mandy B's, an old fashioned dessert shop. SO CUTE! I think they had walls in every pastel color possible. The staff was very friendly and the desserts looked awesome. Their cakes were so adorable. I had to try a cupcake, of course. Yellow cake with green icing. It appeared at first that the cake was a little dry, but it tasted great. It's hard to compare to all of the amazing cupcake options we have in NYC. I wished that I could have sampled a few more of their treats, but alas, Daddy was full from brunch.
Our walk thru all of the charming neighborhoods lead us to into a lot of local retailers and eventually we needed a beer so we found ourselves bellied up at The Tavish Bar. Only one other small group there, which was actually quite nice as we could delve into a heart to heart. After we threw back two pints and watched some ice skating, we were on our way back out into the cold to head to Bucktown for dinner.

Steph had found this place called The Bristol, which offers a locally-sourced and seasonal menu with Mediterranean roots. The menu includes bar snacks, daily specials, a rotating chalkboard menu (which I highly enjoyed since I just did my own chalkboard wall in my kitchen) featuring nose-to-tail cooking, charcuterie and 5th Quarter offerings focusing on sustainable foodstuffs. PEOPLE! This place was amazing! From the minute I walked in, I know I was gonna like this place. Exposed brick walls adorned with local art, low lighting all done with Edison bulbs (I'm obsessed with them and need to bring them into my own home), the chalkboard wall, big chunky wooden tables, and a warm, cozy and rustic vibe. YES!
The menu, one single sheet of card stock printed (in all lower case, which I love) on both sides, was not overwhelming yet had several options in each category. The cocktail list gave hand crafted classic and contemporary options, both of which provided with some very intriguing concoctions. You could tell there was a mixologist behind these drinks. We opted for red wine, being it so cold outside we wanted something to warm us up. Steph chose the Vesevo Benevanto Aglianico, which I had never had before, but will definitely be looking for at the wine shop.

For our meal we decided we would split a few different things. Our server, who was very knowledgeable and very helpful, suggested a few things and thought we chose wisely. We started with the apple salad. Slices of green apple, shaved fennel, manchego cheese, and hazel nuts all tossed in an apple cider vinaigrette was the perfect start. Crisp, cool, tart, sweet, full of texture and such a great combination. The creaminess of the cheese paired nicely with the refreshing green apple, the hazelnut added an earthy crunch, and the dressing provided a little bite. Our next dish was a raviolo. No, that was not a typo. We concluded, once the dish arrived, that a raviolo is just one and is quite large. This could be totally wrong, but we liked our definition and I'm sticking with it. So, said raviolo was stuffed with ricotta and egg yolk and topped with a brown butter sauce. First of all, if top anything in a brown butter sauce, I'm sold. It's just SO good. We cut into our large pillow of goodness and the egg yolk and ricotta came oozing out into the sauce. A quick swirl around of the fork and into my mouth my bite went. I had died and gone to heaven. I'm not really even sure how to describe it other than it being fucking awesome (pardon the language, but sometimes you gotta just drop the f-bomb). I need this dish in my life again very soon. Our entree, a half chicken topped with a crunchy salad was served over a bed of mustard spatzle. It smelled amazing. The skin was perfectly crispy, the chicken moist and full of flavor, the crunchy salad was indeed crunchy and crisp, and the mustard spatzle was very savory (you put grainy mustard on anything and I'm happy). The flavors danced in my mouth and made this boy very happy. For dessert, I let Steph choose, as it was her birthday. She went with the spiced panna cotta with pumpkin jam. After singing Happy Birthday and her blowing out the candle and making her wish (which I hope was that all meals can be like this one), we dove right in. Delicious! I don't have much experience with panna cotta so I wasn't sure what to expect. The texture was creamy yet firm, the flavor was full of vanilla and with the pumpkin jam, we had a match. I felt like it was one of those challenges on Top Chef where they have to take an everyday dish and give it a modern twist. This would have won that Quick Fire Challenge.

We sat for a while discussing how fantastic everything was, how fresh and flavorful each dish tasted, and how obsessed we were with this place. I took a peak at the brunch menu on my way out and I was bummed that I wasn't going to get a chance to try it, but The Bristol, I'll be back, don't you worry.

My final meal in Chicago was Monday lunch. My friend, and fellow foodie, David told me I had to get a sandwich at Pastoral. This darling little store sells artisan cheeses, breads, wines, and sandwiches. After spending some time choosing, they were like 20 options, decided on the Canard Balsamico. Herbed duck confit, balsamic cipollini onions, what grain dijon mustard (a selling point as noted earlier), field greens, and Fromager D'Affonis served on their local handmade baguette. Party in my mouth! My only complaint was that I wish the duck had not been so cold. I didn't need it hot, but room temperature would have made it even more amazing. But who am I? The duck was so savory, the onions marinated in the perfect amount of tangy balsamic and very crunchy, grainy mustard, and the creamy cheese were a perfect end to my stay in Chicago. And this place was SO cute.
I hope to blow back into The Windy City again very soon!

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