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Postcard from Chicago

photo 1

I spent the past few days visiting my nephew in Chicago. It’s not a city I know well at all, so it was fun for me to walk around and get a sense of the different neighborhoods. One day we rode bikes from Logan Square, his neighborhood on the city’s west side, straight east through Bucktown and Lincoln Park before turning south and riding along the lake shore bike path to downtown. This is a phone snapshot from where we turned around just before the Navy Pier.

photo 2

Caldo de camaron, Frontera Grill

I didn’t want to make this an eating vacation, but of course that’s what it became. We were dining out most every meal, so it was hard not to want to try a few of the places I had heard about.

Late one morning we stopped by Xoco, Rick Bayless’ new fast-casual spot right next door to his celebrated twofer, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo (which serves a higher-end menu in a less-boisterous back room). Xoco specializes in tortas (Mexican sandwiches), churros and hot chocolate. After waiting in the slow-moving line for 20 minutes and staring at the looming blackboard menu, my nephew slipped next door to see if we could snag a table at Frontera. Success.

Tamal Azteca

Tamal Azteca

The one thing we tried that was really knock-your-socks-off good was the caldo de camaron (above) — a shrimp soup made with lobster stock, dried shrimp and guajillo chile. The spice burrowed as deeply as the sea-funk flavor. The texture was fascinating — velvety with micro-particles of (I’m guessing, but pretty sure I’m right) ground shell held in suspension. We liked our other dishes — chicken enchiladas in mole poblano and this vegetarian tortilla stack (left) — well enough. By the way, that’s a fried kale leaf on the side. Very fun.

We twice went to a fine neighborhood restaurant right around the corner from my nephew’s apartment called Lula Cafe. The Monday night three-course farm dinner is a steal at $28, and just the kind of smart pricing and portioning that makes a weekly special sing.

photo 5

Duck posole, Lula Cafe

We snagged the last table in the house at about 6:15 and were eating our first course of black bass crudo with nectarines in a flash.

On another day, we got fortifying bowls of duck posole (right) topped with slow-cooked farm eggs for a late brunch. I love the fact that brunch is served every day (but Tuesday, when the restaurant closes) at this place, and it’s always packed. Other nearby diners were eating kale strada, cauliflower omelets and a breakfast burrito that has a passionate following. It all looked great.

photo 4The best meal was without question at Avec — the stark, wood-paneled corridor of a restaurant next to its big brother, the stark, all-white restaurant Blackbird. (The relationship is a bit like that of Holeman & Finch to Restaurant Eugene.)

The well-edited menu features only a dozen small plates, a half dozen large plates and loads of cheeses and salumi.

We ordered a quartet of stunningly good small plates. One was a rusk of bread heaped with lima bean puree, shredded beets and kohlrabi in a sharp mustard vinaigrette. Another hunk of bread came heaped with the weird, weirdly perfect pairing of crispy duck and sardine fillets. Lots of red onion and parsley helped make the case for this unusual, unforgettable surf and quack.

A small portion of seared hanger steak came with a fattoush-like salad of radicchio, roasted tomatoes and dried cracker bits — all of it with just the right heft and acidity to answer the fatty richness of the meat. There was no leaving without the signature dish of chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon and set on a piquillo pepper and tomato sauce Four fat bites of love.

photo 5

The strangest and worst meal we had was at the buzzy new sushi place called Macku. Fans have followed head chef Macku Chan from a previous restaurant to this spot near Lincoln Park for his creative ways with flavor combination.

photo 3

Yose nabe, Macku

We sampled a $75 omakase, which brought a generous amount of food. I won’t go into all of it, but we did love the spicy yose nabe (fish soup) that kicked off the meal. Kawagani (small, fried whole river crabs) come with a fun sweet curry dip, though the portion was cumbersome. Two people don’t want to eat 8 or 10 fried critters.

But the raw fish? Not so much.

The various preparations of signature sashimi come as little piles of fish with all kinds of heavy-duty sauce and toppings. The best was madai (sea bream) with toasted pine nuts, fried shallots and balsamic reduction. The drippy, black intensity of the sauce would make a BP executive shudder.

But that sushi, pictured above, was head-scratchingly weird, silly and poorly made. Any time the fish is warmer than the rice, you know something is amiss. There’s white tuna with a squiggle of banana-wasabi puree, bonito with fried garlic and tomato-mushroom puree, squid with an oily orange slick of spicy tobiko and salmon with truffle oil and mushrooms. I kind of understood the pairing of flounder with foie gras and shiso, but it was in the context of warm greasy fish and competing flavors.

I don’t think I’m headed back to Macku but look forward to exploring Chicago more when I return later this summer.

21 comments Add your comment

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ajcdinecritic and Louise Mulherin PR, John Kessler. John Kessler said: Postcard from Chicago http://bit.ly/b6H3IQ [...]

steph

July 23rd, 2010
2:34 pm

good to know now… after I went over the 4th;)

just wondering

July 23rd, 2010
3:07 pm

Do you ever eat any “normal” food?

biskuit

July 23rd, 2010
3:27 pm

i’ve been doing my best to recreate that stunning Avec lima bean and beet toast ever since I had it about a month ago, tip: go heavy on the mustard in the vinaigrette. Here’s a photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kaplanbr/4731327297/

Food Fan

July 23rd, 2010
3:41 pm

John – I second the Avec being the best restaurant in Chicago. Went there when I was up in Chicago over the summer last year and was blown away by the simplicity & quality of ingredients. And it was very reasonable as well.

Baltisraul

July 23rd, 2010
4:00 pm

Did you try a SuperDog?

RK

July 23rd, 2010
5:22 pm

And I just got (red) beets and lima beans in my CSA…

Baltisraul

July 24th, 2010
3:33 pm

John, it sounds like you had a great time in Chicago. When you go back, make sure you try some of the more traditional fare. Some great polish, irish, italian and bo-hunk places that I am sure you will enjoy. Great town, great food.

Kapoonka

July 25th, 2010
12:51 am

What? No deep dish loaded pizza from Giordano’s or Reggio’s thin crust pizza with turkey italian sausage? ? No Vienna beef polish sausage or hot dogs with tomato and cucumber on a black seeded bun? No Italian beef or beef hot links drenched in sauce?? No Garret’s popcorn? Yeah…you definitely need to go back, and try Harold’s Chicken Shack too if you want the real Chicago experience. I’m sure the food you had was fine, but it’s not a real reflection of Chicago. I’m just saying…..

Baltisraul

July 25th, 2010
8:14 am

John, Kapoonka makes some fine suggestions. May I also add, Lou Molnatti’s deep dish pizza to that list.

Jsa7405

July 25th, 2010
9:04 am

Was just in Chicago with a big group and went to Avec. We tried every dish on the menu…Amazing!!! Not one thing was less than stellar. No reservations so go early, but definitely go.

Fred

July 25th, 2010
10:19 am

The shrimp soup looks awesome. I wish more quasi mexican places here would make some freakin’ soup. Sopa D’ Mariscos is awesome. Garcia’s used to serve them when he was in Lawrenceville, but when he moved to Sandy Spring he became “Gringo-ized” and dropped many of his authentic Mexican dishes………

Is the duck posole a yuppified version of Mexican Pozole?

Art

July 25th, 2010
5:01 pm

John, I agree with Kapoonka… You’ve got to go back and taste what Chi-town became famous for…. I love the Italian beef and a Chicago dog gives the venerable Varsity a run for its money. How’s it goin’ Fred?

Melissa

July 25th, 2010
9:13 pm

Hey, John didn’t go for work, he went for a visit with family. Just for fun, he sent us a “postcard.” He should be able to go and eat what he wants, right?!

John Kessler

July 26th, 2010
9:19 am

We actually are heading back with our kids in a few weeks, so I’m sure there will lots more “normal” food on the menu that time. But (and I say this running for cover to duck flying objects) no deep-dish pizza. I really don’t like the stuff.

Baltisraul

July 26th, 2010
12:24 pm

John, thats ok on the chicago style pizza. I am about burned out on all the yose nabe. Glad Ruby Tuesday’s took it off their menu. A Super Dog is a must. Just don’t ask for ketchup. They refuse to put it on the Dog!

Son of Puerquito

July 27th, 2010
10:45 am

Chicago style Pizza is not really Pizza. It’s a casserole…

Baltisraul

July 27th, 2010
1:56 pm

Son of Puerquito….Oh I must disagree. Chicago Style is pizza, pizza pie like it was intended.

N-GA

July 27th, 2010
2:38 pm

I’m with you John. Chicago deep dish “pizza” doesn’t really work. Just a bunch of useless carbs with some toppings. Having visited Italy several times, I have to say that Antico Pizza comes closest to real Italian/Napoli pizza. Try the San Gennaro…amazing! You never want to try any other pizza EVER AGAIN!

Baltisraul

July 27th, 2010
7:17 pm

N-Ga…Yea, lets all hop on that bus to Italy. Name dropper. That went out years ago. Useless carbs with toppings…is that not the definition of pizza? San Gennaro/Lou Malnatti, same thing, forget about It!

TJ

July 30th, 2010
9:45 am

Enjoyed the article. Sounds delish!

Random: Did they really fry the kale leaf? One doesn’t need to do that, if you roast it in an oven, it’ll come out crunchy crisp.