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  • Writer's picturethe_maestro

Cabra – Chicago, IL

The fam and I have done our best to be exceptionally conscious of and careful with our behavior during this tough period in our shared history. As you might guess, for me the past few months have been marked by the loss of something I love most of all, and something I tremendously value for my general joie de vivre: going out to enjoy good food. This may seem a superficial and silly thing to care about these days, and of course, consistent with my careful behavior over the past three-plus months, I take the pandemic very seriously; far more seriously than my "need" to enjoy a meal out.

For me, a meal out is more than just a chance to go somewhere and fill my belly. Food is intensely personal. Cooking for someone shares a piece of your soul with the person you feed. Dining on food prepared with care and dedication is communion with another human being in a way that is uniquely shared between all human beings––our common reliance on food as nourishment. And chefs put their lives into this art, and have had the rug summarily pulled out from under them, not just financially, but also in terms of their sense of being and purpose. As I wrote about recently, even very successful restaurants are having to shutter permanently due to the losses of the pandemic. I miss the communion that dining out provides, and the ability to support these small business owners and artists.

At the same time, I am deeply concerned with the hasty re-opening that has occurred in many places in the country; this concern seems to be legitimate as we witness cases sharply rise in many states where restrictions were already lax and the re-opening process has been haphazard and all-too-quick. From all my research, however, it seems that outdoor dining is something that can almost certainly be done safely, assuming all parties take best-practice precautions.

Georgia has been forced back to the US due to the virus, and her and I, like most people these days, are getting some serious cabin fever cooped up at home. We started discussing some small, safe trips we could take as a tonic, participating only in outdoor public activities so as to keep ourselves and those around us safe. We settled on a little road trip up through Madison and Milwaukee, on down to Chicago, and then to Traverse City to experience Michigan's exciting and up-and-coming wine country through some tastings on winery patios.

Downtown Madison

Once we got to Milwaukee, however, we realized that Georgia's purse had gone missing somewhere, and we had to cut the trip short lest we risk going to Michigan to taste wine without her ID and getting turned away. However, we still got to complete the Chicago leg of the trip, which included with the first dinner at a restaurant since March for the both of us. Patio dining is now allowed in Chicago, and while most restaurants are still shuttered, several have opened patio-only areas with strict social distancing and cleanliness protocols to protect guests and staff. A far cry from some states, where restaurants are now allowed to operate at full capacity indoors with no mask or distancing requirements (words fail me).

Riverfront beers in Milwaukee

I'd written about Cabra briefly before in a post from this past November when I visited Chicago for a mere 18 hours to see a piece of mine performed, yes, but more importantly to get the hell out of Iowa for a short while. I stopped there for a quick brunch on my way out of town, and was absolutely taken with the food, beverages, and setting. While I normally avoid any compulsion to write up the same place twice, and certainly twice within a single year, this meal was much more complete, and also provided insight into how the restaurant industry is adapting to our new reality as things begin to re-open. If you've read this far, I assume that's interesting to you in some way!

Perched atop the very new Hoxton hotel in the hip Fulton Market District west of downtown, Cabra is the latest in chef Stephanie Izard's lineup of Chicago establishments. Izard was the first woman to win Top Chef, and has been a fixture of the Chicago dining scene since, most notably with her flagship, Girl and the Goat (review here!), still the jewel in her crown. Her Little Goat Diner (diner fare, obvs) and Duck Duck Goat (Chinese cuisine) are mere blocks from Girl and the Goat, and have been just as successful, teeming with people every night of the week (before the pandemic, of course!).

Cabra, meaning "Goat" in Spanish (duh), is her latest venture––a bright, inventive Peruvian spot serving some of the best food in the Fulton Market area. When I was planning the trip to Chicago, I recalled that Cabra had a rather significant patio area, and was happy to see that they were serving food again, with excellent safety protocols in place. I knew that Georgia would love this spot, so I grabbed a reservation on their patio.

View down the shore of Lake Michigan from Northwestern University

Spending the day in Chicago, the third-largest city in the US, was pretty surreal––even on a Monday afternoon, I would expect the areas surrounding popular attractions downtown to be packed with locals and tourists alike, particularly in the summer months. Instead, the streets were nearly empty in most places; parking was plentiful and traffic minimal, and foot traffic was present, but sparse. We noticed something similar, but even more severe, in Milwaukee, where we wandered around the downtown area on foot for over an hour without seeing more than a dozen people walking about. It was at once refreshing, since we both have a general aversion to crowds, and rather spooky.

Outside the Milwaukee Art Museum

Baha'i Temple in Evanston, IL

Even the Cloud Gate Plaza in Millennium Park, perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in Chicago, was empty; roped off, the dozen-or-so visitors to the area were relegated to picture-taking behind a fence. This allowed fairly surreal photos of "The Bean" with not a single individual underneath or within 50 feet of the sculpture.

"The Bean" in June 2020

For contrast, back in December, there were easily over 100 people milling about when Georgia, Jonas, and I visited. And it was 25 degrees instead of 75.

"The Bean" in December 2019

Wandering around the Fulton Market area, normally one of the most bustling quadrants of the city, was even more stark––almost all businesses were shuttered, and only a few residents walking dogs could be found on the sidewalks. Cabra is one of the few places open in the area, and we made our way over there for an early reservation on their breezy patio before our journey back to Cedar Rapids.

Staff were all masked and gloved, and the hotel itself still completely closed except for the restaurant's patio. We checked in on the sidewalk and were led to the elevator, one party at a time, to take us to the rooftop and our socially-distanced and disinfected table on the patio, the only place where we were allowed to remove our masks. The new menus were disposable, and server interaction intentionally distanced and minimal.

We went for several shared plates, starting with my favorite thing from my last visit––an avocado dip topped with tomato-yuzu jam, cotija cheese, and cilantro, and served with taro root and sweet potato chips for dipping. Just as good as before––bright, but creamy, and the delicate taro chips are still one of my absolute favorite things. Being both hungry and taken with the dish, we devoured it quickly.

Cocktails arrived, and we both chose a frozen pisco slush, made with vodka, pisco (Peruvian grape-based spirit), guava, a bit of Peruvian pepper, and lime. So tasty and refreshing, especially after walking around the city on a humid day, and way too easy to drink quickly.

Cabra normally has a robust menu of ceviche and other raw fish dishes, but has pared down the menu, particularly the raw dishes, significantly in this early phase of re-opening. The sole raw fish plate was next––thinly-sliced tuna tiradito served with a dressing of serrano pepper, cilantro, and passionfruit, with some tiny cubes of jicama atop for a nice textural contrast. I absolutely loved this dish and considered ordering a second plate. The dressing had the glorious tropical sweetness of passionfruit, one of my favorite flavors, with a vegetal spice from the peppers and cilantro, all rounded out by what I think was a touch of salty, funky Thai-style fish sauce. Scratched a particular itch of mine for raw fish, as well.

I couldn't resist ordering the thing with "crab" in the title, and we were next served a little bowl with fresh crab over sliced avocado and mashed Peruvian potato. Simple, fresh, and delicious, but lacking the mind-blowing complexity of the tuna dish. The most forgettable dish of the meal, but still quite enjoyable.

The next course was the one I was least jazzed about when we ordered, but turned out to be a major hit––a take on "solterito," a traditional Peruvian salad-like dish, this one served with all manner of delicious, wonderful ingredients, including tiny tomatoes, strawberries, green beans, olives, aji peppers, and candied quinoa. The complexity and nuance of the dish was incredible, and then pushed over-the-top good with the addition of cubes of hot, fried cheese. "'Hot cheese' was my nickname in college," Georgia joked, stone-faced "more cheese than hot these days." Same girl, same.

More cocktails were in order for our next course––I ordered one of their traditional pisco sours, served with a bartender's choice of pisco, lime juice, and egg white foam atop. Simple and delicious, and swiftly turning into one of my favorite drinks. Georgia ordered a cocktail made with Glenmorangie scotch, grapefruit, and other South American goodies, which was at once weighty and refreshing.

The heftier courses were en route next. First to emerge were goat empanadas served with huacatay (a sauce made of Peruvian black mint). Goat is a staple ingredient at all of Izard's places in Chicago, as you might have guessed, and I never visit one without ordering something goat. These empanadas were delicious, and the sauce really exciting and fascinating, and providing the perfect tangy and herbal accompaniment to a dish which can become overwhelmingly fried-and-bready.

Two skewers of chicken thigh, which is swiftly earning a spot among my favorite proteins, were next, served with a peanut-based chimichurri, yuzu, and cilantro. I appreciated the many entanglements of culinary traditions in this dish––the grilled meat with the chimichurri were undoubtedly South American, but the yuzu highlighted one of my favorite components of Peruvian cuisine and history––the influence of Japan. The addition of the peanut was even more interesting, evoking something like a Thai peanut satay. And of course, the chicken thighs were beautifully cooked and about as tender as chicken can be. Deeeelish!

I also enjoyed the next dish, steak saltado, last time, so I knew Georgia would love it given her penchant for steak. Skirt steak was grilled and dressed in a salty (almost too salty) saltado sauce with fajita onions and peppers and some very tasty cassava (tapioca) tater tots. The brunch version I enjoyed in November was essentially identical, but with a pair of eggs atop. I would love to learn how to make this saltado sauce at home––they also do a version with salmon, but Georgia wanted steak, so I will have to try a salmon with saltado sauce on the grill one of these nights!

Despite my desire for another cocktail, we were getting stuffed and more booze was not advisable given the four hours of highway ahead of us, so we moved on to dessert, ordering one of each of their limited offerings. The first was a soft serve "swirl" ice cream with mango and lucuma flavors combined, lucuma being a sweet, butterscotch-tasting fruit from South America, served with fresh berries and mango. Scrumptious.

The second dessert consisted of sweet potato donuts with very sweet dulce de leche and crispy rice. Though tasty, this was rather cloying for me, but Georgia has a sweet tooth and particular love of sweet potato and really enjoyed it.

Once the meal was over, all payments were handled contact-free over my phone on the same system used to make reservations. Pretty handy! On the trip as a whole it was pretty interesting to see how places used technology, particularly phones, to minimize physical contact and maintain distance; in at least three establishments, for example, a QR code was used to bring up an electronic menu in place of a physical menu. So interesting to see how much this virus has changed our everyday lives!

Dinner at Cabra was a perfect way to get "back" into dining out, though I doubt I'll be doing too much of that too soon! I felt comfortable and safe on the breezy patio, and it was clear that the protocols for keeping guests and staff safe were well-conceived and meticulously executed. It will be very interesting to see how things evolve and even change permanently in the service industry as things "re-open," though I do hope that my dear readers will be extremely conscientious and well-informed about their behavior and choices going forward. We are all fatigued by all this, and weary of the new reality, but stay the course, and you will find you can get a taste of pre-virus life while still being safe, just like Georgia and I did in Wisconsin and Chicago this week!

And if you do find yourself lucky enough to be able to go eat or drink somewhere, remember to a) support small business by eating at local, bespoke restaurants, and b) exercise compassion and help people out who must work by tipping handsomely!

I will have a new "summer grilling" recipe for you this weekend! Sadly, I won't be able to bring you the writeup on my anticipated trip to Michigan wine country due to our shortened trip, but I do have some surprises in July. Stay tuned, and stay safe!

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