Sweet Home (from) Chicago

April 24, 2012

I do love Chicago. City of broad shoulders, meatpacker to the world, and all that stuff. I love Wrigley Field, the Magnificent Mile, the Gold Coast, the Water Tower, all of which I’ve ambled through/by/around in the past couple of days.

Charlie-the-Tuna never had it this good.

Because Chicago, in addition to work, means food. Chicago has some of the best restaurants on the face of the planet, and I did manage to sample two or three of them on my quick up-Monday-back-Tuesday trip from which I have quite recently (as in 6:45 p.m. tonight) returned.

But I got in three good meals, plus a hot dog, sans bun, at Wrigley Field, while I was gone.

It was a short-notice kinda trip, tagging on to a state delegation because I had a business appointment crop up at the same time. I got up at 0h-early-30 and awakened a drowsy Child C to take me to the airport in Little Rock, because, Glory, there is a 7:30 a.m. direct flight from Little Rock to Chicago Midway.

As an aside. Is it just me, or is it that any time you fly into Midway, you come in like a hot grounder header for short? I’ve NEVER had a smooth landing there. I’m just hoping someone’s out there with a real  big fielder’s glove waiting for me.

So, I get to Chicago well ahead of when I need to be there, on account of leaving so early. Miraculously, the hotel has rooms ready, and after a quick unpack and e-mail check (on very reluctant wi-fi, I might add), a couple of my compadres and I are ready for lunch before my afternoon meetings.

“Shaw’s Crab House,” one of them proposes, and I begin to drool.

My first experience with Shaw’s Crab House was probably 15 years ago, and I’ve never looked at seafood the same way. It’s one of my must-visits on a Chicago trip, and I really hate it when I go there and don’t “do” Shaw’s. Not sure how a place in the middle of the continental land mass manages to have such astounding seafood, but they do. There’s a gracious plenty of Great Lakes fish (mostly Lake Erie, for whatever cause), but there’s also 12 different varieties of oysters, three or four different clams, the classic shrimp cocktail, tuna, salmon, halibut, and on and on and on. I’ve had a bunch of it over the years. It’s all good.

I had a serious issue at lunch Monday in deciding between the halibut (I LOVE me some halibut) and the Asian salad with tuna sashimi. Went with the salad/tuna combo.

Sweet Baby Jesus. What came was a heap of shredded lettuces, cabbage, carrots, etc., in a just-perfect sesame oil/rice vinegar dressing, accompanied by, not tuna sashimi, but tuna nigiri (fish over the rice, not by itsownself), AND a spicy tuna roll. And not just any nigiri. I had to cut these babies up into three bites apiece. I shared the roll with my dining companions.

Now, let me explain. There are a ton of animal proteins that make me swoon. Barbecue. A good steak. Prime rib. Grilled chicken. Cajun boiled shrimps.  But if I had to pick one single one for my last meal, it’d be sushi-grade toro tuna. Raw. Fresh. Preferably in Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo at 6 a.m., about six hours after it swam its last stroke, but Shaw’s runs a close second.

I have no words to describe just how excellent this very simple lunch was. Not to mention it was way more than I could eat, but damn, I tried.

Dogs at Wrigley that night. Good ballpark dogs. I’m always entertained by the Chicago specialty neon green relish. I swear before God, that stuff glows in the dark. And probably has a measurable half-life.

Then this morning — out of the hotel and across the street to the Original Pancake House, which is the reason we always stay in the Sutton Place hotel on Bellevue. I had the corned beef hash with two over-easy eggs. It was, quite purely and simply, the epitome of corned beef hash, that is, the corned beef was To Die For, although there could’ve been a bit more evidence of potatos. But once again, the portion was enough for me and y’mama ‘n ’em; I manfully (womanfully?) made my way through two-thirds of it  before I was absolutely satiatied.

One of the crew breakfasting with me had an omelet with spinach. It came out looking, as another tablemate noted, “like a loaf of sourdough bread.”

It was, in a word, freaking huge. (OK, two words. Don’t quibble.) She had asked for an egg-white omelet (healthy person that she is), but it had a distinct golden hue, filled with approximately a half-bushel of spinach, and it was 3 1/2 inches high and filled half a dinner plate.

There was significant discussion about children starving in China. We hated it for ’em. And breakfast for four was barely over $40. Can’t be beat, I tell ya.

Then there were more business meetings, adjourning in time for significant shopping (I still mourn the demise of Filene’s Basement, dammit), and I had time to grab a quick lunch at Le Coloniale, a white-tablecloth Vietnamese place on Rush between Chestnut and Bellevue.

White tablecloths and Vietnamese cuisine do not go togother for one who got her intro to Vietnamese food on Summer Avenue in Memphis. But the pho — Dear Sweet Baby Jesus, the pho  — the pho would’ve kept a Mekong Delta peasant plowing his water buffalo all day long. Marvelously lighy oxtail broth, plumb filled with green onions and mint, spiced with a combo of chili sauce and hoisin, over a pint or so of rice noodles, and, oh, yeah,  three or four slices of exquisitely tender beef tenderloin.

I could’ve had the pho and been replete. But I’d effed up and ordered the bi cuon chay, vegetable spring rolls wrapped in rice paper, with peanut dipping sauce. Have mercy. They brought six of ’em. I managed two. I wanted to weep when I abandoned the other four.

A glass of Grgich fume blanc, and life was good, even if my feet did hurt.

I try not to dwell on the places I missed — Hugo’s Frog bar, Lawry’s, Giordano’s, Carmine’s. Askenaz Deli.  Or the places I want to go and have never tried, like Alinea or the Violet Hour. I can only say it’s a damn good thing I don’t live in Chicago, or I’d weigh a ton.

But I am home, and the Cards are within a piece of an inning of redeeming themselves from a ninth-inning walkoff loss last night. You and y’mama and them let me know when you’re going to the Windy City, and I’ll map out a cuilanary tour for you.


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