Sunday, December 4, 2011

My Kinda Town...

Yeah, I know... corny opening. Can't imagine how many times that line has been used as an introduction to an article about Chicago. But it is my first trip, wanting to visit since the early '90s. Finally, 20+ years later, my brother invites me to the windy city for his bachelor party, and I have the opportunity to visit the city that has affected me with both it's cocktail and culinary influence. So please allow me this one trite opening and read on...

Through Priceline I was able to book flight and hotel for 2 nights for under $300, and I was on my way.

First night there was regular bachelor party fair. I arrived at 9am (after working 'til midnight the night before and catching a plane at 6am) and met up with my brother and his friends. We drove to Wicker Park for lunch and after much searching and indecisiveness we settled on a barbecue spot called Lillie's Q.
Offering a nice selection of all the barbecue greatest hits, we stumbled upon a highly rated barbecue joint that also specialized in Moonshine cocktails. And, as this was a bachelor party, we decided to start imbibing at lunch. I had a the Morning Lillie to start with, a version of Bloody Mary made with moonshine. The moonshine added a subtle sweetness to the drink that worked well with the contrasting spicy and savory characteristics.
Second round was a M&M&M which stood for moonshine, Maker's Mark and mint syrup. The mixologizing at this small pub was evidence of how the cocktail culture was becoming entrenched in even the simplest bar set-ups in Chicago. Another well balanced delicious cocktail, as was the next one Lillie Q Rita; Margarita with moonshine and barbecue smoky sauce added. Finally, I had to try the Lillie's Oyster Shooter. That was just the pick-me-up on-your-way closing act I needed to help me forge ahead into the evenings festivities; moonshine, bloody mary mix, fresh oyster shooter.

After lunch we regrouped at the hotel room. Drank some Bud Lite, played some caps and readied ourselves for Bachelor Party Battle. The evening was typical bachelor party fare; bars, pool halls, Guinness, Harry Carey's for dinner, a bottle of Chapoutier Le Bernadine 2008 Chateauneuf-Du-Pape, Maker's Mark on draft at our own private table.
Amid the calamity of a bachelor party, there was a bright spot when we visited my friend Fred Sarkis at Sable, a glorious new cocktail bar in the heart of Chicago that was dedicated to the art of mixology. While the V.E.P. Green Chartreuse shot was happily accepted, the stop off was bittersweet. I did not have the opportunity to fully engage this amazing temple built to the gods of carefully crafted cocktails. Walls of liqueurs, liquors, bitters, and bourbons greeted us, but our destiny, if only for this one night awaited us elsewhere.

After the pool halls and Irish pubs I bid adieu to my companions, ending the night with a drunken subway ride back and forth, completely lost in the city, riding the rails by myself at 2am, finally finding my way back to my hotel overlooking Grant Park and a restful night, to gather my strength for the following day.

My brother and his friends had left early the next day, but I had planned my trip to take in more of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this city which had so long eluded me, by booking another night at the Chicago Essex Hotel. I woke up around 10 and made a few calls to friends who were living in the area. Most importantly my good friend Claire who was a dear friend from college and even a bridesmaid at my wedding. I wanted to revisit Wicker Park, after having spent a few hours there the day before and seeing all the great places to visit. So I was back on the train and headed west.

The day before as we looked for lunch, I had texted Claire for recommendations, and so I used those recommendations today, as I wandered around Wicker Park area. First stop was Big Star a taco bar that's part of One Off Hospitality Group (kinda like the Big Burrito Restaurant Group of Chicago) There stellar family includes Violet Hour, Blackbird, Avec and more. I just wanted a taco. Which apparently everybody in Chicago on that Sunday morning wanted as well. There were no tables and an hour long wait. So I moseyed up to North Ave and walked around for awhile, did some window shopping, priced some Mallort, before returning to Big Star. Still a wait, but at this point I was getting hungry so I headed to a place I'd seen that interested me called Piece.

It was a pizzeria and brewpub emulating the '60s hippie counter-culture. I found a spot at the bar and ordered a single pie and some house brew. The Red Sox were playing the White Sox on the big screen TV, and as I was in enemy territory I silently rooted on my home team and enjoyed my lunch. As much as we love our wives and husbands, there is a secret thrill in traveling alone, and being able to order that green olive, garlic and pepperoni pizza that your wife will never let you eat at home.

That and a cold glass of Piece's Top Heavy Heffe Weizen made for a perfect lunch. Piece has a limited back bar selection, but why would they need it when the beer was this good? Tattooed staff and chalkboard menus adorned the walls and I was sad to leave, but there was so much more to experience.

I headed to Big Star again, and yes, again, they were on an hour wait, with no room even at the large circular bar which was the centerpiece to the restaurant. So I was back on the train and headed downtown.

I retraced our step from the previous night and took a walk along the river, and was about to head back to the hotel when Fred Sarkis called. Wanted me to meet him for a late lunch/early dinner. Back on the train.
I met Fred at a restaurant called Avec, which was right next to the also famous Blackbird. Fred was seated at the end of the bar. I was still a little full from lunch, so wasn't expecting to eat much. I ordered a glass of wine, a Spanish white, and Fred went ahead and ordered some food to share. As I said, I was not particularly hungry, but when the food came out and I had the first bite of each dish, well, a second and third bite soon followed.

We had crispy pork belly crostini with peaches, marinated kale and white beans. We got marinated hangar steak with summer squash, asparagus, apricot and bone marrow. Fred got an octopus special which was cooked as tenderly as I'd ever had octopus. And the star of the set was chorizo stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and pequillo pepper-tomato sauce.

The sweetness of the dates combined with the spicy chorizo and smokiness of the bacon, acid from the tomato-pepper sauce... my mouth waters thinking back to that dish. The location was very utilitarian, one long bar (or dining countertop) stretched the entire length of the restaurant, with long communal tables opposite the bar. 3 people worked the kitchen which was exposed and shared space with the end of the bar. It was impressive how few people they needed to put out such mind-blowing dishes.

After Avec, Fred brought me across the street to Sepia, which he said is one of his favorite bars in Chicago (he may have even said "favorite"). Sepia had a lot of exposed wood and antique varnish with numerous photographs throughout the restaurant which were all... you guessed it sepia toned. The space was warm and inviting but also winked an eye at modern craftsmanship through it's use of space. Apparently it had been a print shop in a prior incarnation. We were full from Avec, but the Manager insisted on sending out a cheese plate,
which we could not pass up. I needed a strategy for choosing what to drink from the massive cocktail lists I'd been presented at every stop. So I started my strategy of picking cocktails that had Green Chartreuse in them. I figured I'd get the most varied results by sticking with one modifier liqueur. And the strategy paid off immediately at Sepia. I got the Boston Martha to complement our cheese plate, a terrific blend of magnolia and oolong tea infused Bushmill's Irish whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse, honey, lemon, egg white and orange bitters. Great mouthfeel, just the right amount of sugar vs. bitter, with some subdued floral notes. The whiskey was definitely the work horse, though.

It was time to meet Claire. We had originally planned on going to Aviary, Grant Aschaltz new cocktail kitchen. I had been excited to try it out, as I'd heard great praise from both the media and from friends, but apparently in the last few weeks they had discontinued Sunday service. I was disappointed, but that only gave me an excuse to return to Chicago at a future time.

Fred had offered to drive me back to Wicker Park, where Claire and I had settled on Violet Hour as a place to meet. Violet Hour was a destination for me on this trip, and while Claire had had reservations about going, due to a past poor experience, she complied and we were to meet up soon... after 12 years of not seeing each other!

Fred knows everybody! So it was no wonder he knew the doorman at Violet Hour and we chatted outside for awhile before gaining access to one of the premiere cocktail lounges in the world. Violet Hour is directly across the street from Big Star (which was still on a 2 hour wait). The front of the building looks like a long brick factory wall, painted yellow, with a tiny doorknob for an entrance. No signage, no logo, no windows... nothing! And if I hadn't been with Fred, I no doubt would have missed it completely. We entered the door into pitch blackness. A sign hung on the inside of the door which I neglected to see which read, among other things "no cellphones... no baseball hats... proper attire requested". I was in violation of 3 of the basic house rules. Cocktails and munchings at Avec & Sepia had cut into my planned sprucing-up-before-the-big-night-on-town. So I showed up at Violet Hour in my fanciest Green Lantern t-shirt and a classy Pittsburgh Steelers ball cap adorning my shiny scalp. Later I would break out my phone and start snapping photos of the cocktails we consumed. Fred was too much of a gentleman to point out my egregious faux pas.

Once we passed down an unlit hallway, through velvet curtains, we entered into an enormous warehouse that was redesigned into a luxurious house of cocktology with beautiful large backed chairs in circles around short tables, the length of the old storage house seperated by large velvet curtains as the ones we'd passed through to enter, and fully stock bar running the length of the building housing every obscure potable you could find under one roof. The entire lounge lit only by candlelight, it took awhile for our eyes to adjust, but once they did it was amazing how well we could see in the dimmest lighting I've ever been engulfed in.

Finally Claire arrived and we ordered some cocktails. I stuck with my Chartreuse strategy and firstly ordered the Fang's Out; a blend of Junipero, Antica Carpano Formula Vermouth, Green Chartreuse and Cynar. The Green Chartreuse stuck out alongside the sweet vermouth and bitter Cynar, while the gin gave a solid foundation for which the other components could build upon. The next cocktail was my favorite of the two: The Pusher Man, Lunazul Blanco tequila, pineapple, egg white and Green Chartreuse. Something about tequila, pineapple and Chartreuse... it really does work so well together. Sweet, herbaceous, smoky, peppery all frothed up and made lighter and heavier at the same time with the egg white. Claire had the famous Juliet & Romeo, and it changed her opinion instantly about Violet Hour. The bartender shared a shot of Chartreuse with us and again we were moving to a new location. Claire mentioned Big Star and I laughed out loud.
But, sure enough, as one of the premiere yoga instructors in Chicago, Claire also knows everybody, and the hostess at Big Star was no exception. We were seated within 15 minutes! Claire was a regular at Big Star and recommended a few dishes which followed our cokctail deliveries. I started with the Pine Belt Punch; Lunazul Blanco, Green Chartreuse (again?), cucumber and lime. Light, refreshing and perfect Chicago patio cocktail.
Then, I made the switch. I was off the Chartreuse, and I went for the Rio Bravo. While there was no Chartreuse, this cocktail had other enticing ingredients that I could not pass up; Sombra mezcal, Lunazul Blanco tequila (remember I said that Big Star was part of the One Off Hospitality Group, which explains why I was drinking so much Lunazul Blanco), strawberries and Gosling's ginger beer. It was a good choice (could've been made better if Chicago had access to Natrona Bottling Company's Jamaican Ginger Beer) that pared well with Claire's food choices; Taco de Pescado and the almost famous
Taco de Huitlacoche: roasted corn, corn truffles, fresh oregano, chipotle, avocado and cojita cheese. Even Fred had mentioned thus earlier in the day when I had told him about my numerous attempts to eat there. It was well known and the praise was well deserved. At $3 a taco I could have eaten a dozen if I hadn't already gorged on Chicago cuisine all day.

The night ended, Claire and I said "goodbye" and I was back on the train to the hotel. I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, as well as an overwhelming sense of satiation. In one day I was able to visit Piece, Avec, Sepia, The Violet Hour and Big Star. I was able to revisit old friends, and spend some time with my brother before he takes the great leap into marriage.
Chicago is an impressive city, on the cutting edge of culinary and cocktail culture. Every corner seemed to boast a unique, enticing kitchen, a knowledgeable bartender plying the trades of his exotic well-stocked back bar. Innovative, enterprising, experimental... Chicago truly is my kind of town, and I can not wait for the next visit.