Chicago, my kind of town ~ Orderinny

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Chicago, my kind of town

As a student with a limited budget, I spent four years in college largely surviving on dorm food, take out from Hyde Park chinese joints and home cooked meals made by myself, my roommate or friends. Even when I did go out for meals with friends, we invariably wound up in Chinatown, where huge plates of roasted meat along with slushy and sweet bubble tea can be had for next to nothing, or to cheesecake factory along Michigan Avenue, to reward ourselves with cake after a day of window shopping. On those special occasions where pak and I did go out for dinner, I would yield to his francophile tendencies and we would test out the house's coq au vin and creme brulee each time. Hence, with the exception of an arsenal of knowledge around french bistros in chicagoland, my grasp on the local restaurant scene was a little less than desirable.
Without the tight budgetary constraints and with the absence of a certain escargot lover, TPS, ruoying, rosie and I set out to out-eat each other at various Chicago restaurants serving a myriad of different cuisines.
We went russian for lunch at the Russian Tea Time a block away from the Art Institute. With its dark wood furniture, chandeliers, oversized pots of fresh flowers and dark colored walls, the room exuded a faded glamour. And under the ministration of our charming server we noshed on a lamb stuffed blinchinki and enormous platters of assorted appetizers and meats. We washed down the sweet stuffed cabbage and dumplings with house flavored vodka. The black currant tea, slightly bitter at first sip but with a wonderfully fragrant aftertaste was a clear favorite.
Next stop is Cafe Iberico, an old favorite of mine. If you can endure the sometimes interminable wait during dinner time, you will be rewarded with potent sangria, luscious desserts and the tasty and big "small-plates". The tapas portions at Cafe Iberico are huge, and for less than $15 one can get full and/or roaring drunk and all have a great time. Between the four of us, we had my favorite tortilla espanola, a big plate of potatos in pungent and garlicky aioli, perfectly pan seared scallops served with saffron rice, more garlic in the generous bowl of shrimp and a big platter of paella. Throw in half a pitcher of sangria and we were only $12 poorer each leaving the place compared to when we got there. Unfortunately, the wait can be a trial to all, especially those with little patience. Thankfully Macdonald's is always nearby for a short respite while we endure the hour long wait.
Even though the crema catalana at Cafe Iberico's one of the best I've had so far, we saved our stomachs for the real treat of the night, a luxurious night-cap and dessert at Tru. Tru's one of the top restaurants in the city, and when I heard about its dessert offerings in the less formal lounge, I jumped on it and made reservations. I have had dinner a few years ago at Tru, and had shelled out an obscene amount of money for the caviar staircase in the multicourse tasting menu. Dessert was a high point then, and I was hoping it to be the same this time too. Unfortunately dessert this time was rather mundane and unimaginative. The cornbread topped with blueberries was really dry while the napoleon with chocolate mousse and caramel ice cream was merely passable. Luckily, at around $10 per piece, it wasn't too much of a heartache. The unimpeachable service and the after meal gift of moist banana bread helped soften the blow. But what really saved the evening and made it a truly memorable one was what happened post meal. We asked the hostess to help us hail a cab, and instead she offered us the use of the restaurant's towncar! So instead of having to stand unglamorously at the kerb waving for an elusive cab, we were whisked back to TPS's apartment in no time in a slick black limousine. That, my friend, is class.
The next morning, we woke up still full. Still TPS wanted us to try breakfast at Melrose Cafe, her favorite brunch spot, and so we dragged ourselves to Belmont for a spot of hot coffee, gigantic omelettes and a first class hash browns. The runners participating in the Chicago marathon was passing Belmont as we ate our fill and rubbed our bloated bellies. Talk about compare and contrast!
By the time we rolled out of Melrose Cafe, rosie and I were already planning our salad lunches for the rest of the week to pay penance for our gluttonous exhibition. But, we had still one last stop to make before swearing of cholestrol and calories. Peishan had been raving about a certain bread pudding at Rose Angelis, a really cute Italian restaurant that would be a sure neighborhood favorite had I lived in Lincoln Park. Walking by a bar in the front of the room, we were led through a short corridor to our table located in one of the multiple partitioned rooms. Walking through the restaurant reminded me of walking through Peishan's old house on Kimbark, the one she shared with Chuck and Amanda, where a similar corridor connected the living room from the dining area. Anyway, the salad with a peppery ceasar dressing and the chicken marsala wafting in a haze of steam and alcohol was sized with Midwest sensibilities. The pudding was also enormous, more like a brick than those dainty things you find in martini glasses in a New York eatery. The dense pudding was drenched in warm sweet, slightly salty caramel sauce and wow was that a potent combination. Even without wine, I was feeling heady with all that good food and that much sugar in the system.
While I dont lament my poor student lifestyle ( time in the kitchen did hone my culinary skills), am I glad I have another chance to check out what Chicago has to offer!

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