So I had some ups and downs in Chicago, but I’m glad to say that after some mediocre meals to start, I finished strong.
The Oak Tree Room is in the same building as the Four Seasons, at 900 N Michigan Ave. I had read that they offered excellent cranberry-pecan pancakes, and I wanted to get some exercise, so I walked up there â€¦ and was disappointed. The pancakes were dry and flat, and the dried cranberries tasted more like candied fruit than dried.
Vong’s Thai Kitchen on Hubbard (near the Billy Goat Tavern) was another disappointment, not least because the service was comically bad. I still have no idea who my server was, and I ended up waiting about ten minutes to order (past the point where my menu was closed) and ten or fifteen minutes for someone to realize I was done and offer me the check. A waitress, maybe “my” waitress, did eventually come and ask if I wanted to try one of their “mini” desserts (which are apparently about $1.50) each, but by that point I was annoyed enough to just want to leave. Plus I had a gelateria in my sights for the afternoon.
Anyway, the food at Vong’s was also disappointing, since it’s not so much Thai food as haute cuisine served on a bed of Thai food. I skipped the pad thai, my usual bellwether dish for Thai restaurants, fearing it would be too sweet – let’s face it, there were no Thai customers in the place, and that’s not a good sign for the authenticity of the food. I ordered panang curry with “pulled” chicken, and the chicken part was very good, still moist and indeed resembling pulled chicken. But the peanut-dominated sauce was heavy and slightly bitter, and there wasn’t much else in the sauce besides the chicken and some peas. The complimentary salad of shredded daikon and carrots in a “Szechuan” vinaigrette (can we just call it a sesame vinaigrette? Is that so freaking hard? And why would I want a Szechuan vinaigrette in a Thai restaurant?) was very good, but a poor harbinger of what was to come.
Just across the street from the Oak Tree Room is an Italian deli called L’Appetito that purports to sell gelato. They don’t. That stuff is ice cream, a claim I can support by pointing out that I couldn’t get my plastic spoon into the stuff. Next.
I had dinner with a longtime email correspondent and regular on Baseball Think Factory, who goes by the handle “Shredder.” He suggested La Creperie on Clark, which is close to Wrigley Field without being right on top of it. Their savory crepes are all made with buckwheat, and I went with a chicken, goat cheese, and tomato crepe. It was delicious; the goat cheese was the dominant flavor, and it worked nicely with the bÃ©chamel sauce that filled the crepe. The chicken was white meat, a little overcooked (I assume it was cooked first before it was added to the crepe), but since it was sitting in the sauce it wasn’t a big deal. The tomatoes were fresh, but really, I could take or leave tomatoes. This was about the goat cheese, and the crepe itself, which was delicious, slightly nutty but not overwhelmingly buckwheaty.
Thursday’s breakfast was at Lou Mitchell’s on W Jackson St, near Canal. They’re known for their homemade pastries, so I asked the waitress what one pastry I should order, and I got this answer: “They’re all good.” Yeah, you’re a big help, sweetheart. I can see why you’re not in sales. I went with a coconut donut, which was one of the daily specials; it was a cake donut, very moist, but the glaze was sickeningly sweet and I only ate about a third of it. The Greek bread that came with the meal was a much bigger success, almost like a challah bread with a soft interior and a very crumbly exterior. As for the meal itself, I went with my usual EMPT, going for two eggs scrambled with bacon. The “two eggs” bit is a joke; the meal came in a seven- or eight-inch skillet, and the scrambled eggs took up half the skillet, which has to be at least four eggs considering how thick they were. They were cooked through, a touch dry, but good overall. The potatoes were sliced very thinly and appeared to be cooked solely on the flat-top in a pile, so that some were just steamed while others were nicely browned. Total $10.42 before tip.
Lunch was at the Frontera Grill, accompanied by Jayson Stark. I went with the tacos al carbon, and asked the waiter whether I should get the skirt steak (traditional) or the duck, and he said it was a coin flip but he’d take the duck. Thank God for someone with the cojones to answer one freaking question. Anyway, before the meal came we had some chips and two salsas, one green, the other a dark red with some sort of roasted peppers in it, and both were outstanding, with the red salsa spicy but not at all hot, and both boasting gorgeous bright colors. The tacos al carbon ($15) came with a delicious and clearly fresh guacamole that had never seen the inside of a food processor, with good chunks of avocado still in it and hints of garlic and cilantro that didn’t overwhelm the fresh avocado flavor. The duck was delicious, but unfortunately had some gristle in it, something I haven’t encountered before, although to be fair I usually go with duck leg rather than breast. The meat was medium-rare, but more rare in some parts (where the gristle was) and medium in others. The best part of the dish was something I can only call a Mexican version of baked beans (frijoles charros), with red beans perfectly cooked (soft but al dente) in a reduced, smoky-sweet sauce redolent of bacon. Jayson ordered a shrimp dish ( camarones en salsa verde con hongos) that he said was one of the best things he had ever tasted.
My last meal in Chicago was probably the most interesting of the trip, mostly good, some less good. The place is called Twist, and it’s a tapas bar (tapas here meaning “small plates,” not Spanish food) down Sheffield, a block or two south of Wrigley Field. Overall the food was good, made from fresh ingredients and prepared right in front of anyone who sits at the bar (as I did). I ordered three dishes: braised beef tenderloin on a corn cake with feta and a spicy aioli, dates wrapped in bacon, and grilled “vegetables” (zucchini and yellow squash, as it turns out) on crostini with goat cheese. The last dish was the biggest hit for me; the bread used for the crostini was delicious, and there was just a dab of goat cheese sitting on a small spread of roasted red pepper purÃ©e sitting on the slab of squash. It was perfect, with accent flavors from the toppings complementing but not overwhelming the flavor of the squash, finished with a nice crunch.
The dates wrapped in bacon were excellent, except for one thing: the dates themselves were sugared, making for a bizarre, sweet note to finish the dish, not a flavor I’m used to experiencing in a savory dish. The bacon was perfectly cooked, and the dish came with a thick balsamic-based sauce with a gravy-like consistency, although I couldn’t tell you how much it contributed since “sweet” was the dominant flavor.
The big question mark for me was the beef tenderloin. The beef was marinated in something strong and acidic, most likely a red wine concoction, and was served shredded in a mound on a corn cake (very soft, with a consistency more like grits than polenta, and oddly enough, no actual corn kernels), with large hunks of feta cheese, chopped red onion and tomatoes, and then lines of a spicy “aioli” that was really mayonnaise with chili oil or hot sauce added. (True aioli doesn’t have egg yolks in it, but this sauce did.) Think about that flavor combination: the beef, cheese, onions, and tomatoes are all acidic and tangy, pleasant flavors in small doses but overwhelming in large doses. The only other flavor in the dish is the heat from the spicy aioli. The corn cakes weren’t sweet, and weren’t really salty, although it’s possible that all the sour/tangy/spicy numbed my mouth to the point where I couldn’t taste what they offered. The shame of it all is that the ingredients in the dish were good and the concept was as well: a piece of braised beef tenderloin, preferably served whole, on a sweet corn cake with corn in it, with a spicy aioli or mayo would have been perfect, simpler, cheaper to make, and less of a mess on the plate. There was a good dish hiding in here, but I couldn’t make it out because they went overboard with the additions.
All that said, I’d definitely recommend Twist as a pre-Cubs game hideout. At 5:40 on a Thursday game night, there was no wait, and the place wasn’t full when I left. The food was good, the place is nice, and you don’t have to deal with Cubs fans or tourists who view the game as an excuse to get hammered. I’m just hoping that the Twist chefs simplify some of their dishes to let the clean flavors of the ingredients come through.