Chicago was good to us. It rained and it snowed, but it never dipped too far below 30 degrees. We ate very well, and the people were so friendly. It’s the Midwest, yeah, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from this big city.
While waiting for lunch at Antique Taco, we were given free chips and salsa because Danny’s mushroom taco was taking a little long. The chips went really well with their rosemary margarita. The tequila warmed me up and made me happy that we were off the plane and finally exploring the city.
We saw a DeLorean in a coffee shop. I had many lattes, my caffeinated drink of choice while on vacation, apparently. We slipped into Myopic Books and read about pancakes and Chez Panisse. I watched rain become snow, which I hadn’t seen in more than 10 years. We quickly bought umbrellas.
Our first dinner together in Chicago was at Lula Cafe. That first picture is our view from inside. It was cozy and romantic with a little tealight candle lighting our table. Our waitress told us about her upcoming trip to the Everglades and offered some more recommendations around Logan Square.
We shared a spaghetti squash salad to start. It was poached in hazelnut oil and served with thin slices of pear, trout roe and crispy trout skin. It was killer. This was the kind of place where menu descriptions aren’t enough, and the dishes that come out are so much better than you could’ve imagined. Danny had a rutabaga polenta bowl with a poached egg, and I ordered a pan-roasted chicken with kale and fingerling potatoes.
And dessert? I can’t believe I nearly missed it, foolishly thinking I was too full for dessert. We were adventurous and ordered kaffir lime sponge cake instead of dulce de leche pie or carrot cake, and we were rewarded for our curiosity. The sponge cake looked like pulled-apart pieces of sponge over a kind of chocolate dirt. It was served with a dollop of greek yogurt ice cream, I think, and topped with grapefruit confit and baby cilantro. It was completely surprising, delicious, refreshing, and new to us. It was a perfect end to the meal, like a well-placed exclamation mark.
Our waitress also asked how we ended up at Lula, and this is where I need to thank Tim for all his wonderful recommendations! Everything was great.
While I waited to meet up with Danny the next afternoon, I had some time to walk around Lincoln Park and wander. I enjoyed a pistachio croissant and latte at Floriole, and took a crispy pecan cookie and caramel with me for later. I walked into a snooty Parisian clothing store and quickly walked back out.
It did start to get cold so I went into a campus clothing store and was greeted by two happy little dogs at the door. I browsed the Hawkeye and Gator sections for a few minutes before talking to the owner, Reza. He left Iran for Chicago more than 30 years ago to attend university. He fell in love with a local girl and stayed. He has a second home in northern Wisconsin. He explained to me the best way to make rice (which I should probably email him about soon for a proper recipe).
He couldn’t believe I came from Florida in February. We talked about religion, we talked about his friend’s great Persian restaurant, and we talked about his grandkid and what his son ate growing up. We talked for what was probably an hour.
Like I said, Chicago was so friendly. Soon, it was time to meet for lunch. At Pequod’s, Danny and I shared a deep dish pizza with their famous caramelized crust (it was great!) and ended up with free beers. The waitress said she forgot to add them to our bill so, happy Friday. Whaaat?
Danny’s parents, Rich and Kathy, arrived from Iowa City that afternoon, and we headed for The Violet Hour, which asks that you not bring anyone that you wouldn’t bring to your mother’s house for Sunday dinner. Ha! We nearly missed it, as it’s hidden behind a nondescript door (see first door picture below). Inside, it was spacious, lovely, and barely lit by a fireplace and candles. It was the kind of place that I imagined could be really pretentious with oh-so-serious servers, but ours was so sweet. She had a big smile and was also incredibly friendly.
Danny’s parents ordered their most popular gin cocktail, the Juliet and Romeo. It was a seriously delicious blend of Beefeater gin, mint, cucumber, and rose water. Danny ordered their Old Fashioned, and I had a sort of wintery Manhattan called 5 Points and 6 Corners.
One drink each and we were off to try and get a table at Ruxbin. Open cookbooks lined the walls, and they have the most interesting bathroom door I’ve ever seen. Their grilled octopus with roasted grapes and fried chickpeas was fantastic, and for dinner I had probably the best cod I’ve ever eaten. It was BYOB, like quite a few places around there.
On Saturday, we went to Nana for brunch before our highly anticipated afternoon watching Book of Mormon. The food at Nana was excellent, organic, and local. Kathy and I ordered the nanadict, which brought poached eggs and chorizo over pupusas (crispier and quite different than the ones I’m used to) with poblano cream and home fries. Rich ordered the huevos rancheros and Danny had the garden omelet, though I still think he should’ve tried the orange brioche fresh toast (!!) We ordered dessert after brunch. Boozy beignets with chocolate, bacon, and whipped cream.
And then we took a nap. Just kidding! We got ready for Book of Mormon, and then laughed for the next two hours until our cheeks hurt. The musical was hysterical. There are too many inside jokes I’d now like to type up here, but I won’t. Go see it!
That night we went to another favorite, The Publican. For the second or third time, we got lucky and were seated without a wait. We sat at a communal table, and shared a brussels sprout salad, suckling pig, an impressive bone marrow, a wonderful boudin blanc, and the best oysters of my life.
For the mollusks, we ordered the chef’s selection and I found the descriptions amusing. The island creek oysters were described as firm and beautiful while the ones from peter’s point were plump and virtuous. Others were buttery or silken or full-bodied. And you know what? I honestly could tell the difference between some of the oysters. Not to the point where I could sound off these descriptions sounding like a kind of sommelier of oysters, but some were definitely more briny and salty than others.
Portraits of fat pigs decorated the walls, and their booths looked like boxed-in cars on a train. It was busy and lively, and I wish we had time to stop at their market across the street.
For dessert, there were ice cream cookie sandwiches with candles and the best cheesecake with hazelnuts and burnt honey ice cream. Danny also had something called Kyle’s after-pork digestif. Besides the amazing food, it was also my most memorable experience at a communal table. The girls next to us chatted with Rich and offered me fries and compliments on my lipstick. They asked us how we liked our food. The guys on the other side of Danny wished them a happy birthday and chatted with Kathy.
Then we went to Scofflaw, where the world’s nicest “bouncer” checked our IDs and later wished us a safe trip home. We didn’t stay for the midnight cookies (next time!) but the cocktails were great. Then there was something called the Boiler Room, and a bar serving Malört. One night there was a bar offering craft beer and free arcade games. There was Terminator. There were aliens. There was kung fu (and old WWF matches on TV).
And then, there was a stop at a Polish grocery store to pick up kielbasa on our way to the airport. By Sunday evening, we were home.
But oh Chicago, there was so much more to do. Thanks to all our friends who came and hung out with us! I can’t wait to go back.