Philadining Home

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Catching up...

It's been a crazy Fall, with various projects, travels and general business interfering with the blogging... But I've managed to squeeze a little eating in around the margins, and will try to catch up with some new posts.

But right before we get there, a few of the distractions. I had about 24 hours to myself after a conference near Chicago, on days when many restaurants were closed, so I wandered and grazed.

That's a Char Cheddar Dog from Gold Coast Dogs in Chicago. Chicago-style hot dogs are not routinely char-grilled, but Gold Coast offers them, and I like them much better grilled. The real appeal is the totality of the package: the florescent-green relish, chopped onion, "sport" peppers, slice of tomato, pickle spear, a dusting of celery salt, all on a soft poppy-seed roll. It's a bit of a mess, and I think I'll skip the fake cheeze next time (I mostly just liked the sound of a "Char Cheddar Dog") but the collage of flavors, textures and temperatures really works. I'm a fan.

Another Chicago specialty is the Italian Beef sandwich, and "Al's Italian Beef" seems to be a favorite. It's thinly-sliced hot roast beef on an Italian roll, wet with an herby jus, usually dressed with giardiniera, or sautéed peppers. Just as I was about to order a straight-up sandwich, I noticed a variation that seemed like sheer genius: Italian beef on top of an Italian sausage!

Indeed, it was pretty delicious. I was actually not all that impressed by the beef itself, it just didn't seem to have a whole lot of flavor, especially when compared to a Philadelphian Roast Pork sandwich. But the combination of the juicy beef and crusty grilled sausage was very nice, I think it's a great idea. The roll was OK, but not sturdy enough to withstand the juicy meat, so it fell apart before I was half-way through. So, I enjoyed it, but did not find it to be a perfect sandwich. I think Philadelphians could really run with this concept...

I tried to squeeze in a meal at the newly-opened Publican, a gastropub-ish project from the folks behind Avec and Blackbird. But I was jinxed - I went twice, but each time managed to miss the times when they were serving the main menu. Looks like a great place, with many things I was eager to taste, but this time, I had to console myself with a good local beer (a Goose Island "Matilda") and a plate of exotic ham.

That's Spanish Iberico down front, Benton's country ham to the left, and La Quercia Rossa to the right. Very good rustic bread and goat butter accompanied. I liked the opportunity to taste these three hams next to one another, although I suppose it would have been better to have someone to share this plate with! The Iberico was a clear winner for me, with a deep nutty flavor, silky texture, and mild salinity. The Benton's is great, but almost violently salty, and much drier compared to the other two. It was excellent placed on a slice of bread with some butter, though! The La Quercia, aged using traditional prosciutto-making techniques with domestic pork here in the states, was delicate and refined, but didn't have much flavor compared to the other two. It would be lovely when not overshadowed by other hams.

The highlight of my Chicago visit was spending a few hours at The Violet Hour, for some cocktails that were every bit as interesting and delicious as anything I've had at renowned bars in New York. I was lucky enough to get there right at opening, and have the bar to myself for a few minutes, and so was able to chat with the bartender a bit, and zero-in on the right drinks. I really enjoyed the smoky, prickly Autumn Old Fashioned; the Woolworth's Manahattan, spiked with rootbeer bitters; and an improvisation by my bartender Henry, involving tequila, strawberry, hot pepper and bitters. All three were fascinating, and more importantly, delicious. This place will be my first stop next time I get to town, probably on my way in from the airport!

I'm eager to get back to Chicago, and hope to set aside a little time to do more than snacking. But then, the quick bites I managed to grab were pretty great. Chicago is rightly known for some high-end innovative restaurants, but the everyday food is pretty enjoyable too. I got a deep-dish pizza from Lou Malnatti's last time I was there, and I haven't felt the need to do that again, but next trip, I'll certainly get a char-dog, maybe an Italian beef, with giardiniera. Hopefully Frontera Grill will be open on the days I'm there, and maybe I can track down some of the city's fabled Thai food.

Oh, and cocktails at the Violet Hour for sure...


  1. Anonymous10:02 PM

    I love Chicago, but haven't been back for a good 20 years. The Violet Hour makes a compelling case for renewing the acquaintance...

  2. INdeed, The Violet Hour is a good incentive all on its own! But there's a ton of great food in Chicago. There are cutting-edge modern tasting menus At Alinea, Moto, Tru, Avenues, and others; great hot dogs and beef sandiwches; a wide range of Mexican, from basic taquerias to upscale modern gourmet places (I always try to get to Frontera Gill, but it was closed on the days I was there this trip...); there's great Thai food there, and lots of little chef-driven creative places.

    The Violet Hour is a great addition to the cocktail scene, I'll be back there whenever I get to town for sure.The good news for visitors is that it's barely a block from an El stop on the Blue line, so it's easy to get to even if you don't know the city really well. And yes, you can even easily drop by on the way to or from O'Hare!

    So yes, go to Chicago, and come back and tell us how it was!