Travel editor Neil Sowerby travels to Chicago to be wowed by the architecture and finds the food culture every bit as towering...
HOT Dogs and Deep Pan Pizza. Chicago on a disposable plate. Trust me, though, you can spend an entire week in the melting pot metropolis on Lake Michigan and feel no constant craving for the city’s most famous culinary creations.
My encounters were brief. On a deliciously themed foodie tour in Wicker Park I did accept perhaps the best hot dog I’ve ever tasted. Cafe owner George’s family have been making them since 1948, using the best Vienna beef and allowing no ketchup (definitely no ketchup) – according to the maxims set at the 1893 Chicago World Fair when Austro-Hungarian immigrants introduced the “red hot dogs” to the Windy City.
The only pizza that crossed my lips in Chicago was a thin crust, washed down by a German Kolsch style ale at a brewpub on the same guided walk. Another myth flattened: only a third of pizza consumed in the city is deep pan.
The friendly natives certainly have an appetite for every other foodstuff known to man. Or so it seemed as I, an awe-struck first-time visitor, assembled a memorable array of culinary experiences.
These started in my first hotel, The Drake. You’ll recognise the place from movies. From a Julia Roberts rom-com whose name I forget to Mission Impossible, the Drake has often served as a lavish set since it was built in the Twenties. When they point out Marilyn Monroe and Joe di Maggio’s initials carved into the bar of its Cape Cod restaurant you realise the stars stayed as well as played here.
Cape Cod’s a seafood restaurant and has taken its themed decor from Moby Dick’s Nantucket. What’s not to like about a large plate of lobster thermidor served under a mounted, stuffed marlin?
Maybe it wasn’t a marlin. Maybe I just imagined it. I was losing my sea legs after a shot or three of bourbon in the hotel’s penumbral but cosy Coq d’Or bar. This was the only SECOND bar to get a liquor licence after the repeal of Prohibition (Al Capone’s enforcer, Frank Nitti, had his “office” in the hotel, which may have helped).
Completism, of course, saw me high-tailing it off to the FIRST – the characterful Berghoff tavern in the old downtown commercial area called the Chicago Loop. It’s on West Adams Street in the shadow of the CTA elevated railway. It was founded in 1870 by immigrants from Dortmund. The fare today reflects this – sauerkraut, strudel and their own beer (go for the Bock or Genuine Dark, not their own non-alcoholic root beer).
Round the corner at the junction of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue the legendary Route 66 begins. There appeared nothing to mark it. Maybe I was distracted by a hotel sign that announced “The Smelt Have Arrived”. These are small silver fish, akin to whitebait, that are netted out of Lake Michigan only in April. It’s a lingering tradition, but the waters are muddied. Googling, I discovered he Chicago Smelts are “Chicago's mostly gay and lesbian Masters Swim Club”
Polish and German immigrants dominated Chicago as it grew into a world city, but unless you are aiming for stellar dining experiences today (the city has over 20 Michelin-starred restaurants including the 3-star Alinea) Italian-influenced food is your best bet.
I dined at two radically different Italian-led restaurants – equally satisfying. Filini is the restaurant of the city’s newest hotel, the Radisson Blu Aqua, occupying the first 18 floors of Jeanne Gang’s undulating 80-storey Aqua Tower – the highest building in the world designed by a woman.
Filini’s Bergamo-born chef Christian Fantoni is not as innovative as his surroundings (the open plan kitchen/dining area is exquisite), but his credentials from some of America’s top kitchens shines through in his classic menu. Costolette (pistachio-crusted rack of lamb) and Garganelli (prosciutto, peas, mascarpone, truffle oil and chives) were stand-outs, while the wine list was very affordable tour round Italy.
GT Fish and Oyster, latest venture by celebrity chef Giuseppe Tentori is a whole different bowl of minestrone. Not that you’d find anything as straightforward as soup there, clam chowder apart. At this 115-seater fish-centric cafe he has swapped Michelin-starred intricacies for a small, sharing plates format. Most of these plates are between $10 and $16 dollars, so it can mount up, but it’s worth it for the culinary ingenuity transcending his Italian roots.
Foie gras and shrimp terrine with apricot chutney, pickled onion and szechuan pepper was just pipped by the amazing Oyster Po’Boy slider with kimchi (Korean fermented cabbage) and peanuts. I’d started with a selection of six different species of oyster, three from the West and three from the East coast. GT deservedly had a huge buzz about it, fuelled by an equally ingenious cocktail list.
An equal buzz was to be found at The Purple Pig, off “The Magnifient Mile”, Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s glitzy main-drag. Wine’s the priority here, Old World Stuff accompanied by cheese plates, home-made charcuterie and Mediterranean tapas. despite its casual set-up, it was voted one of the 10 best new restaurants in America by Bon Appetit magazine in 2010.
There’s a theme developing here. Leopold, in the ungentrified West Loop area, is equally casual, majoring in Belgian cuisine and appropriate beers from that country and America’s amazing craft beer roster. No Belgians are involved in the running of this operation. Co-owners Christy Agee and chef Jeffrey Hedrin visited Belgium to check it out and were inspired by the cuisine to launch their own individual take on it. Very Chicago.
I ate a large bowl of moules et frites, naturally, but also smoked rabbit leg with lambic cherries, fava beans, pork belly and toasted almonds (like most mains heading towards the $20 mark) after matching rabbit and duck rillettes with kriek jelly. The wine list was beautifully chosen, but I chose to sample tipples such as Two Brothers’ Domaine Dupage, a French-style biere de la garde from Warrenville, Illinois and the powerful (9.4 per cent) North Coast Brother Thelonious, a jazzily labelled Trappiste monk style beer (geddit).
Starriest name in the Chicago beer firmament is Goose Island. I strongly recommend their IPA and Honkers Ale from a terrific range. They taste best at the original brewpub on North Clybourn, Lincoln Park. Goose Island has just been bought for $39million by Budweiser, so the future might just be blander. We shall see.
Nothing bland about Piece Brewery and Pizzeria, which has won a clutch of awards i its 10 years in existence, including Champion Small Brewpub in the 2006 World Beer Cup. It’s a raucous all-American barn of a bar with a bit of hippy about it. Who else would brew a beer called (with apologies to the great Warren Zeavon) “Roland The Headless Assistant Brewer”. At 7.5 per cent, a couple of percentages dearer, Capn’n Kickass did, I can confirm.
Hot Dog King GeorgePiece was one of the stop-offs on the Bucktown/Wicker Park Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour, which took in that great hot dog joint, chocolate, Middle Eastern meze, a gourmet deli and designer ice cream ... as well as fascinating history about an area, once a mecca for East European immigrants, later an affordable hang-out for boho artists, today a pleasant antidote to the bustle of downtown with a great second-hand bookshop, Reckless Records and cheap places to eat (try Big Star, the Mexican on Damen Avenue).
The tour, which I highly recommend is just one of several from Chicago Food Planet. Chinatown’s another. I just loved wandering round looking at the architecture and hearing the domestic history.
Architecture figures large in my second report from Chicago. Don’t miss it. http://www.planetconfidential.co.uk/Abroad/Chicago-Hitting-The-Heights
Purple Pig www.thepurplepigchicago.com
Cape Cod www.thedrakehotel.com/dine/cape-cod/
Goose Island www.gooseisland.com/pages/clybourn_brewpub/65.php
Piece Brewery www.piecechicago.com/flash/index.html
Chicago Food Planet Tours www.ChicagoFoodPlanet.com
The Drake Hotel
140 East Walton Place, Chicago, Illinois, 60611-1501, USA 1-312-787-2200 (www.thedrakehotel.com).
Rate from $159 a night (special offer).
Radisson Blu, 221 North Columbus Drive Chicago, IL 60601
+1 (312) 565-5BLU www.radissonblu.com/aquahotel-chicago. Rooms start at $199 in the summer months, and $250 in the autumn/winter.
From Manchester, United Airlines offers daily non-stop service to its hubs in New York (Newark Liberty International) and Washington D.C. (Washington Dulles International). From both hubs, United offers conveniently timed connections to its Chicago hub, Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Return fares to Chicago in United Economy start from £626 including taxes. For everyday low prices, visit www.united.com or call 0845 8 444 777.
For further information about Chicago please visit www.choosechicago.com.
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