One of the great things about being on holiday is morning Martinis. I’m thinking this as I swizzle an olive round a perfectly-chilled glass while trying to act as if I’m the kind of bon vivant for whom this is just any other Tuesday morning. At the same time a man in a trilby has walked into Gibsons Steakhouse on North Rush Street in Chicago, where I’m perched on a high stool as part of a day-long eating and drinking stopover en-route home to England from the West Coast.
“How ya doin’ Frankie?” enquired the man to an acquaintance sitting at the table next to us. “Whaddaya think about the Cubs last night?” came the reply through mouthfuls of 7oz filet. It was not yet midday.
Chicago is a gourmet city like no other. It may not boast about its culinary offerings in the manner of New York or LA, but it should. At one end of the scale you’ve got chefs such as Alinea’s Grant Achatz, Acadia’s Ryan McCaskey and Grace Restaurant’s Curtis Duffy, all of whose Michelin-starred restaurants have waiting lists to match their stellar credentials. Then you’ve also got rib-sticking, Chicago-style pizza at Lou Malnati’s or Uno’s and hot dogs at Chicago's Dog House and Fatso’s Last Stand. Best of all, though, is the slew of places in between: spots that serve up amazing food, but where you don’t have to name-drop the Obamas to get a reservation or sell your family heirlooms to pay the bill.
Moreover, the city hosted the James Beard Foundation Awards earlier this month, the second year the Oscars of the American food world have taken place here after 24 years in New York City. The aforementioned Curtis Duffy picked up an award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region.
On a previous visit to Chicago, I had fallen in love with Mindy’s Hot Chocolate on North Damen Avenue during a weekend brunch – what’s not to love about French toast with chocolate crème, pretzel toffee and sausage? This time, my jet-lagged, early morning cravings were sated at Stephanie Izard’s Little Goat on West Randolph Street. The menu forces the prematurely ravenous to make hard choices from 7am: “This Little Piggy Went to China” (sesame cheddar Biscuit, eggs, Szechuan pork sausage, chilli garlic chive sauce and blackberries) or Breakfast Spaghetti with clams and crab, alongside eggs, parmesan, pork guanciale and bok choy. I plumped for Fat Elvis Waffles with banana, peanut-butter butter, and bacon maple syrup. Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen, my arteries have now left the building.
While pausing for my mid-morning Martini at Gibsons, I chatted with managing partner John Colletti about the Windy City’s food credentials. “The James Beard awards taking place here is finally putting Chicago on the map as a culinary town. The recognition has qualified what we’ve known about our city for a long time, that it’s a great destination for foodies.” He’s right, of course, so what else could I do but plough on towards lunch?
Choices, choices. Just by the local branch of Soho House on North Green Street, perhaps Green Street Smoked Meats for Texas-style barbecue? Or the basement High Five Ramen? There was the option to detour north to sample Parsons Chicken and Fish, where the fried Amish chicken and salt cod fritters certainly sounded tempting.
Dove’s Luncheonette on North Damen won out. It’s a counter-service diner delivering southern-inspired Mexican, with soul, blues and disco spinning on the turntable. I quickly devoured tender chicken-fried chicken, that’s to say buttermilk-fried chicken liberally doused in chorizo verde gravy with peas and pearl onions, and burnt-end hash, a scramble of crispy potatoes, brisket burnt ends, mild poblano peppers, aioli, creamy soft queso fresco, eggs, spring onions and thick-sliced toast.
There was no time or space for bourbon butter pecan ice cream, because just along the street is Big Star, a Mexican street food restaurant and bar with large outdoor seating for balmier days and a buzzing production line of home-made tortillas streaming from the small kitchen. It’s a good spot to while away time by the bar and share a plate of tacos that may include spit-roasted shoulder pork, grilled pineapple, onion and coriander or mole-spiced carrots, chipotle-date yoghurt, pumpkin, sesame seeds and almonds.
By now, with the chances of slipping into a sugar and fat-induced stupor becoming a distinct possibility, I moved over the road to Violet Hour, a cocktail bar with just the right level of dim lighting.
Outside, there’s no sign – just look for the light above the door; if it’s on, the place is open. House rules include no mobile phones, no baseball caps, no Jagerbombs and a plea to “not bring anyone to the Violet Hour that you wouldn’t bring to your mother’s house for Sunday dinner.” There’s a small list of cocktails, which is a good thing in my book: concentrate on a few things done well, and here, they are indeed done well. I decided on a “Big Leap”, made from Lady-Grey infused Citadelle gin, lemon, Lillet Rose, grapefruit-tarragon marmalade and Aperol.
There was time for a restorative snooze back at my hotel before heading to the up-and-coming foodie neighbourhood of Avondale for one last restaurant inspection, Parachute. The Korean-inspired eatery opened in 2014 after raising funds from Kickstarter and since last October the husband and wife-operated spot on North Elston Avenue has had the accolade of a Michelin star and a James Beard nomination. It’s a compact space, essentially dining by the kitchen table, with cookbooks and a LP player behind the counter. Service was knowledgeable and friendly. “I don’t like the term fusion” explained my geekily-hot server when I asked about the Korean angle. “Maybe we’re modern American with French and Asian influences. But what is American food? It’s just any food you make in America.” Small plates included udon, Dungeness crab, guanciale, fava beans and sabayon, and grilled swordfish, snap peas, sesame and rhubarb.
“Delicious” I commented, with heartfelt appreciation as plates were cleared away, and I tried as discreetly as I could to loosen my belt under the tabletop. It’s a good job I was only in town 24 hours. I’m not sure my will power or trousers could have taken a whole weekend here.
Will Hide travelled with American Airlines (aa.com), which flies direct from Heathrow to Chicago.
Thompson Chicago (thompsonhotels.com) has doubles from $363 room only.
James Beard Foundation Awards: jamesbeard.org/awards
Chicago Tourism: choosechicago.com
Visit the USA: visittheusa.com
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