Escape From Iowa – 18 hours in Chicago
I have largely been bound to the "sprawling metropolis" of Cedar Rapids in the past several months, biding my time and saving some money while applying for college teaching jobs. It's been serene, but... stifling from time to time. Imagine my joy when friends Jocelyn and Bryan, a soprano and cellist duo by the name Juxtatonal, informed me that they'd be performing a piece of mine that they've been touring around the U.S. and Canada on a mini-tour of the midwest, and a few performances in Chicago were a part of their schedule. Chicago is a mere four-hour drive from me, so I jumped at the excuse to get the HELL OUT, even if it was just for 18 hours. Add to this the chance to snap photos for a blog with my snazzy new iPhone 11 Pro camera, and I was primed for some good eats and good music in the windy city.
Chicago is a wonderful place––one of my favorite cities in the US––and has a sprawling culinary empire that grows by the day. I'd put Chicago third on the list of "Big Foodie" cities in the US, well behind the SF bay area and just behind the NYC area, and it just gets better and better. The biggest rockstar of Chicago cuisine is the old kid on the block, three-Michelin-starred Alinea, where I had the chance to dine last minute last time I flew north in the winter (like a confused goose) to see Jux perform the same piece. I've got a waitlist request in with them for this December. Thoughts and prayers, please!!
I failed to take any photos of the city itself this time around, so here's one with the Maestro and sister maestro from last March!
It seems every time I go to Chicago, the city looks newer and more modern than the last time, while still maintaining its classic grungy, midwestern "working class" vibe. There are constantly new areas to explore and new restaurants to try. Despite my fervent desire for an incredible sushi omakase, which I haven't been able to enjoy in Cedar Rapids for reasons that should be fairly obvious, I pulled a classic "Steve" and made a gametime decision on reservations, which meant I was on the waitlist for about eight restaurants and had to take the first restaurant that opened a time slot. That happened to be Lincoln Park's new Israeli-Middle Eastern joint Galit, and I am glad it was, even if I had to delay my much-needed feast on a few beautiful pieces of salmon sashimi.
Zach Engel, who relocated to Chicago after launching his wildly successful Israeli restaurant Shaya in New Orleans––a project that earned him a James Beard Award––is the mastermind behind this buzzy establishment nestled in an old neighborhood pizzeria in Lincoln Park. The former-pizzeria aspect of the space serves him well, because he and his team create hundreds of handmade pitas nightly for customers in the old wood-burning pizza oven to serve with their insanely delicious hummus. This restaurant's concept is indeed Israeli, but a bit more expansive than Shaya. Inventive takes on classic middle eastern fare are dished out from the boisterous open kitchen. An open fire is the preferred cooking vehicle for most of the main dishes, which I love––reminds me of the concept of Saison or Angler in San Francisco.
I took my spot for one on this PACKED Saturday evening at the chef's counter, with a direct sightline to Engel (I assume anyway?) guiding his goslings at the pass. The menu is broken into three sections: hummus, salatim, and "(mostly) over coal." There is also a prix-fixe menu for parties larger than one, but since I seem to dine by myself most of the time, this wasn't an option for me. The hummus options have some staples and some that change, while the salatim is a selection of five ramekins of various middle eastern bites served with the house pita, an homage to the vast array of dips and spreads, salads, and veggies that are served with a traditional Israeli meal. I remember my first meal in Israel, where they proceeded to place about 20 different little plates on our table for a simple falafel lunch. Now I know why! The bottom plates are generally "tapas"-sized, with a few bigger options at the bottom. My hope was to have the chance to sample all three sections of the menu, but the server pretty strongly cautioned against that move due to volume of food, so I settled on hummus and three dishes from the bottom section.
The wine list is very interesting, with a healthy selection of middle eastern and eastern European wines alongside those from the old world and new world staple regions. Naturally, I decided to follow the non-beaten path, and opened with a glass of bubbles from an Armenian producer, Keush, appropriately called "Origins" owing to the native Armenian varietals that make up the wine, voskehat and khatouni. Never had either, but the little tagline after the wine, "she's nutty, cheesy, and peachy, but still proper," intrigued me enough to snag a glass. Made in the traditional méthod champenoise, it definitely had some nutty funk, but the bright and tasty peach was most present. The issue was the glass I was poured had almost no bubbles left, but of course I was too non-confrontational to insist they re-poured from a new bottle. When shall I grow a spine?
The hummus I selected appealed to me as soon as I saw the word "mushroom." It was served with king trumpet mushroom cooked over the fire, some braised collard greens, black harissa, and "gribenes." Wait... where have I heard "gribenes" before?
Oh RIGHT! Mrs. Doubtfire, when Robin Williams is trying on one of Harvey Fierstein's various creations to make him "into a woman," says "I should never buy gribenes from a moyel, it's so chewy!"
Well, there it was, but decidedly NOT gross––hummus topped with gribenes, which turned to out to be fried chicken skins. The hummus was served with a warm, freshly-baked pillow of pita. I've never had hummus so incredibly smooth and delicious, although I will say there were a LOT of things going on, so next time I'd be compelled to try their less "dressed up" versions. It brought me back to Israel, where I could not stop raving about the hummus (much to the confusion of my Israeli host family, who informed me it was, in fact, pronounced "hoomoos.")
I kept observing the salatim exiting the kitchen ahead of me, and happened to inquire with the server if I could get just one of them, since the idea of braised cipollini onions with oregano and Bulgarian feta sounded a little too good, but was rebuffed. Alas. Next time I will bring a group.
Well then, wine? Returning to the middle east, I selected an Israeli pinot gris from Galilee, and was immediately transported back to my time looking out over the Sea of Galilee from the verdant grounds of a Greek Orthodox church. The Sea is not actually a sea, but an inland lake, with beautiful green countryside surrounding. I'd had Galilean wine before, but nothing too memorable. This one, memorable indeed, from Assaf, was driven by stone fruit and a slight saline minerality, and worked well with all three of the dishes to come.
I was surprised and more than a bit dismayed when all three of my small plates came out at once, but they looked rather lovely and appetizing. I selected the things that my server said I couldn't leave without trying without stuffing myself beyond repair. I was instructed to eat the halloumi, a seared middle eastern cheese, first, so it would stay a little melty. This was served with sunchokes (appropriately identified as "Jerusalem artichokes" on this menu), a sort of caramel-y reduction, ribbons of thinly-shaved kohlrabi, aji chilis, and pecans. Dee-lish. I mean, it's cheese... what can you fuck up?
The next dish also recalled several memories from Israel: falafel. And yes, as promised, the best falafel in all the land. This was perfectly crispy with a warm, soft center and served over a bed of labneh (essentially thick spiced yogurt-cheese), pickled Persian turnips, "funky mango" (though I'm not sure what this was in the dish), and cilantro. Simple and delightful, this brought me back to countless lunches al fresco dining in Jerusalem's old city.
Finally, we moved to a Mesopotamian dish––a ground lamb fritter surrounded in saffron rice and fried, best known as "kubbeh" or "kibbeh." The fritters sat over a sweet and rich golden raisin and almond puree and were served with what looked like entire branches of dill. This was very good, and I am glad I got a meat dish, but as with many middle eastern dishes I've tried recently (see my review on Mourad), it was just really heavy, and it was difficult to get any dill on the dish (a critical component to break up the heft a bit) without manual labor to address the intact sprigs. He was right, as well, that I would be very full by the end as a result of my effort to sample as many different flavors as possible. As I was finishing up, I came to understand that this restaurant is best experienced by two or more people, and isn't really designed for one diner (like most restaurants in the mold of "shared" small plates).
I was feeling worn out from my drive, and definitely wanted to be able to stay up to have a drink with Bryan and Jocelyn after the concert, so I downed a glorious cup of "Bedouin Campfire" green tea alongside an irresistible strawberry sorbet. Armed with the warmth and caffeine of the tea, I ventured forth into the cold, forgetting to take any photos of the wonderful concert.
Bryan, Jocelyn, their performing companion Nick (a MONSTER sax player, like holy moly this guy is amazing), a fellow composer, a friend of Jocelyn, and myself made our way out for some food and bev after the concert, only to find most things in the neighborhood closed, and we wound up at this hilariously awful Mex place that also inexplicably served breakfast fare. I stuck to a Corona.
Despite my intentions to stay up a while and explore a cocktail bar or two in the west loop, I found myself rather exhausted, and melted into my very comfy hotel bed shortly after entering it. The next morning, I was dismayed to learn that there would be a snowstorm in Iowa and Illinois starting early afternoon, which meant I couldn't really spend any time in the city on Sunday. Oh well... back to Iowa. But first, let me try to park at Fulton Market (nearly impossible, I tell you) and get some brunch.
Fulton Market is THE spot in Chicago right now. Restaurants, hotels, shops, and galleries galore dot this once-industrial district. Aviary, the venerable cocktail bar (also owned by Alinea) and the Girl and the Goat (reviewed here!) as well as Momotaro (here!) are also in this area. I was hoping to get a reasonable rooftop view and photo of the city to break up my Instagram "dry spell" of Iowa photos, so I headed to the restaurant at the top of the brand-new swanky Hoxton hotel, where the rooms are called "Bedrooms" (ooo how fancy). The place on offer up here, Cabra, is another tentacle of Stephanie Izard's culinary empire in Chicago (the woman behind Girl and the Goat; an icon), this time focusing on fresh, bright Peruvian cuisine. They even have a ceviche bar which dishes up rotating and seasonal ceviche selections at dinner.
I didn't end up springing for ceviche, but sat myself at the bar looking south on the dreary Sunday sky, with the buildings to the east shrouded in low clouds, and ordered a cocktail, forgetting about an Instagram update. The recommended drink was called "Alpaca my Bags," which made me laugh, and was lovingly prepared by the fabulous and hospitable bartender. It consisted of a London dry gin, banana and coconut liqueur, and lime, with a splash of ginger ale. Refreshing and delicious, though not necessarily suitable for a dreary November day (although, the whole restaurant clashed with the weather!)
The bartender recommended to me a dip of avocado, yuzu, and tomato, served with taro and sweet potato chips. So good. Just write "taro chips" and I'll probably order it. Could have done without the sweet potato. Just give me taro. ALL the taro.
I was skeptical of her choice for a larger course, since I was eyeing the octopus on the menu, but I acceded to her jurisdiction. The steak and eggs were a hanger steak marinated in a bit of a mirin and soy marinade, served with bright fajita veggies and tomatoes, topped with sunny-side eggs, and garnished with cassava tater tots. She was not wrong, this was incredibly delicious, although perhaps a shade salty on the marinade. I felt like I could have landed on something much more quintessentially "Peruvian" had I searched harder––steak and eggs is wonderful, but can be found in many an establishment!
I closed my brunch with a second cocktail, a classic Peruvian pisco sour, before hitting the road to avoid the snow. Good thing I did, too––it snowed a good four to six inches all along the I-80 corridor!
It was nice to get out of town to a "real" place and have a taste of a vacation. Iowa isn't so bad, but I am definitely ready to be back on my career trajectory again and get back to a more adventurous, fulfilling lifestyle. I have to say, though, despite how much I love feasting on all this wonderful stuff, I do wish I didn't have to dine alone so frequently, and fear that most of the rest of my life will consist of tables for one.
I have a busy travel schedule ahead (finally!), so do keep your eyes on the blog. I'm scheduled to be in Phoenix next week, Salt Lake City in mid-December, Chicago again (twice!) in mid to late December, Austin for NYE, and NYC/Princeton/Philly and San Antonio in February. I'll be sure to highlight something of culinary significance in each of these places!