Chicago: The Future Is Now

A mere two hours away from home, I have hit upon a place of confluence of futuristic trends. Architecture, cocktails, food, coffee, art, you name it. I am an impressionable type, and this was my first time in Chicago :-)

 

 

 

Let’s face it: Chicago is home to some of the most exciting restaurants in this country, including Next, Schwa, Alinea, El Ideas, etc… Unfortunately I did not manage to get into all the restos I wanted to visit, – Chicago proved to be the hardest city for reservations that I have ever encountered. Silly me – I had thought reserving a month and a half in advance would get me everything I desire…

Still, I was pretty pleased with my weekend line-up: Topolobampo, the Art Institute of Chicago, L2O, Intelligentsia, futuristic landscapes of the city, the Girl and the Goat, the whimsical Aviary/The Office, Avec, Sable… I was fortunate to explore and experience the efforts of such restaurant moguls and weather-makers as Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz, and Paul Kahan.

 

 

Many of those experiences were light-years beyond your average resto experience. I could certainly delve into the imperfections of each place, but I think this time (for the most part), I will focus on their refreshing originality, innovation, and playfulness.

Chicago clearly packs a ton of food knowledge and passion, most of which is delivered with a very flat Midwestern accent. The general theme is subtlety and purity of ingredients (with the exception of Girl and the Goat, who made it their calling to cater to the American palate with in-your-face flavors, while encouraging their patrons to eat and drink more through use of loud music). Here are some comments on just a few places we visited:

Avec: Ironically enough, the decor makes it look like a sauna, except that it is actually quite chilly inside. If you show up in early afternoon, before the hordes descend upon the restaurant, you can enjoy delectable dishes such as their chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo-pepper tomato sauce in peace, and drink fun obscure stuff like the grassy, assertive biancolello from the island of Ischia and a mouthwatering pecorino from Abruzzo.

Aviary/the Office. One word: molecular mixology. I have heard it aptly described as one-fourth chemistry lab, one-fourth theatrics,  one-fourth “How the… and WTF?”, and one-fourth blur. The theatrics are certainly hokey, but all-in-all, this crazy cocktail is pretty balanced. If you have an occasional need to feel important (I do!), perhaps you can score an invitation to the Office, a VIP-style underground speakeasy, inaccessible to the uninitiated. There, one can quietly enjoy a well-crafted pre-Prohibition-style cocktail, such as a rum, green tea, blood orange, pu-erh, and lime concoction. Accoding to Chef Achatz, they have about 30 different syrups, 165 different tinctures, eight different fresh juices, and five different fresh herbs to complement their drinks, as well as house-made custom ice that is hand chipped and/or molded in Japanese press molds. Pretty cool stuff…

I will venture a few random personal predictions about the future (hopefully, this will catch on in the rest of the country):

  • stuffed morels are in; they are tasty little devils.
  • succulent and pure seafood (this time of the year, ceviche from Topo alone will make anyone happy, with choices like Ceviche Fronterizo (lime-marinated Hawaiian albacore with tomatoes, olives, cilantro, green chile), Ceviche Yucateco (steamed Mexican blue shrimp & calamari, lime, orange, habanero, avocado, jcama & cilantro), or Coctel de Atun Tropical (sashimi-grade Hawaiian yellowfin tuna, avocado-tomatillo guacamole, tangy mango-grapefruit).
  • cubed food is in :-)
  • in the coffee realm, stunning springtime centrals have arrived. It is all about seasonal coffees, such as the gorgeous El Machete from Panama, or La Tortuga from Honduras. Another favorite: Ngogomo Burundi – funky and floral, bursting with flavors of cola, pecans, and dates; perfect as cafe solo.

I yet have to find a shop that would match Intelligentsia’s quality and skill level. They meticulously select the perfect method (V60 pour-over, cafe solo, chemex, espresso, etc.) for the best quality beans money can buy.

Lest anyone think of me as a person who only eats cube-shaped food, I wanted to mention that one of our culinary highlights in Chicago was lunch at Spoon Thai (we ordered from the unpriced Thai menu at the back, of course). Rustic and inelegant in its presentation, the food was to die for: Isaan-style lightly fermented rice and pork sausage, shrimp and lemongrass salad with scallion and lime juice, preserved egg salad with garlic, peanuts, ginger, and lime juice; and lightly sour fish soup with lime leaves and lemongrass (tom khlong plaa chawn).

And finally, our architectural tour on our last day in Chicago confirmed something for me that I already knew: I am a child of the postmodernist era.

The movement of Postmodernism began as a response to the perceived blandness and the perfectionism of the Modern movement, which was focused on the pursuit of an ideal, and attempted harmony of form and function, through dismissal of “frivolous ornament”.

My idea of postmodernist contextualism (check out the earrings purchased at the Art Institute of Chicago!)

Postmodernism openly challenged Modernism as antiquated and “totalitarian”, favoring personal preferences and variety over objective, ultimate truths or principles. This is how the modernist “Less is More” is replaced with the postmodernist “Less is a bore”, and I hope this trend really does catch on…

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24 thoughts on “Chicago: The Future Is Now

  1. I’ve been to Chicago many times for business between 2000 and 2005. Great city! Made some friends there, so I still have a reason to stop by now and then. Hoping to get into Alinea for our 1-day stop-over in September…

  2. You got me thinking (as you usually do) that I have been all over the world and never had a reason to visit Chicago– not even on a layover. What’s a boy to do in these Post-Modern times?

    • I am with you! I never have a reason to visit Chicago, and thus this little gem remained undiscovered by me far too long. This is precisely why I had to arbitrarily decide that we were going for the Memorial Day Weekend without any reason (I kept getting asked if I was there for a conference, or a tango festival).
      Zigging while others zag is indeed a very postmodernist thing to do, but in this case I do suggest you zag (i.e., book a trip).
      P.S. If you are a theater fan (I am), it will give you one more reason to go.

  3. We really enjoy Chicago every time we go. Great food. Great sites. Great city. While I love Rick Bayless’ TV show and many of his recipes, Topolobampo was very unimpressive when we went.

    • I can easily imagine having a less than stellar experience at Topo (and plenty other places) when they get overwhelmed or something else goes wrong. We were lucky, and the stars aligned just perfectly for us to enjoy a leisurely lunch with the freshest ceviche, stuffed morels, etc., and very tasty drinks (The Bitter Truth with 3 kinds of bitters, and a rhubarb-cassis margarita). Had a great waiter, too.

  4. I’ve sent this on to my niece who is currently studying in Chicago and my sister who will likely be visiting there again soon – great photos and wonderful food suggestions!

  5. Holy cannoli, I love food, but am at a significantly lower echelon of dining; I just paid about 7 US dollars for a delicious lamb souvlaki wrap (I’m in Colombia at the moment) and it felt like splurging. One of my primary criteria for restaurant selection is cockroach population. So I will enjoy reading your blog, dealing with the resulting saliva overflow, and seeing how the other side of restaurants can be.
    Smakelijk eten!

    • I am a big fan of lamb wraps, and other delicious comfort food, and I have had a fair share of very memorable simple inexpensive meals. Everywhere we go, we search for the best food, both humble and refined.
      Thanks for reading, and have a blast in Colombia!
      Cheers,
      Natasha

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