Chicago, Chicago – the city is so big and so fabulous you have to say it twice. Buildings are not just tall, they’re also as broad as entire cities. Alleyways are as wide as turnpikes. People are not built for bigness: they’re digitally enhanced for hugeness. Fittingly the portions on the giant plates in the vast eateries of Chicago are bigger than jumbo-size. They’re mega. They’re obscene.
An old-paradigm, European-size guy like me from San Francisco via Paris feels positively dwarfish in Chicago. On a recent trip, the balding pate of this European-Martian barely reached belly-button level in elevators. The Martian felt lost in a forest of fleshy Eiffel Towers.
It also became clear that extra-terrestrials seem like silly creatures in Chicago. They wear black socks with athletic shoes. They order single-shot small espressos and beg for drinks without ice. They ask for half-orders and doggy bags designed for Great Danes.
Martians also feel an extra-large burden of gluttonous guilt when eating out in Chicago. There is no way normal humans can finish a dish in the Windy City, which should be renamed.
San Francisco columnist Herb Caen once quipped that SF circa 1910 might well have been “the City That Knows How”: by the 1970s it was “the City That Knows Chow.”That title needs to be refreshed and shipped to Chicago; click on the city’s icon and you ought to read “Chow and Know-How.” The sprawling slaughterhouse Carl Sandberg dubbed “hog butcher for the world” has nothing to envy these days when it comes to the world’s dining scene.
Unlikely though it sounds, my wife and I started our culinary trawl of Chicago at the slender tip-top of the feeding ladder: Charlie Trotter’s hallowed temple of gastronomy. As invisible guests of honor – the modernist chef did not actually perceive our presence so glowing was his own – we feasted on Paris-sized nibbles of a surreal, sublime nature. They left us wondering where we were.
The names of Trotter’s dishes and their matched wines sent fellow diners into a gourmet heaven of bafflement: Charred Skipjack with Ponzu & Fava Beans paired with ethereal Cava “L’Hereu-Reserva” Raventos Blanc 2008. Skipjack, it transpired, was a kind of tuna and Ponzu is Japanese vinegar.
Next up, eel: Unagi Terrine with Grapefruit, Red Curry & Kaffir Lime. The whole slippery lot eased its way down my pulsing esophagus with Riesling Kabinett “Zeltinger Sonnenuhr” Selbach-Oster, Mosel 2010. Poetry!
Of the procession of main dishes served with hushed Rolls Royce smoothness I will limit myself to citing the Broken Arrow Ranch Antelope with Toasted Espresso, Crumbled Oats & Boudin Noir which, as everyone knows, is blood sausage. This gutsy work of edible art was worthy of Picasso or perhaps Salvador Dali. We savored the single exquisite bite of antelope with glasses of Rioja “El Puntido” Vinedos de Paganos 2006 that was inky and brawny yet entirely true to its subtle, bittersweet undertones and varietal character.
It would take the rest of the day to tell you of the Granny Smith Apple & Greek Yogurt with Pistachio & Tarragon or the Toffee-Glazed Banana Financier with Candied Hazelnuts, Date Jam & Frothed Pineapple, the Criollo Cake with Parsnip, Red Wine & Candied Vanilla, coddled with Samos “Anthemis” 1999 dessert wine, the chocolates & dainties, the house-baked bread, and more and more and more.
The meal might have been served in Paris by obsequious penguins. Here the waiters were more like English butlers a century ago. The spirit of Chicago manifested itself not in the posh premises, nor in the littleness of the dishes. Chicago was present in the number of courses and the slow, rhythmic cadence of what we ate: the lunch went on for over three hours. Even the stoutest Carl Sandberg Variety diners needed a snooze by the time things wound up.
How different, how ham-fistedly impressive and discus-like in size seemed the bacon cheeseburgers at Miller’s Pub, a Chicago institution not known for its culinary excellence but rather for atmosphere and a rough-cast wait staff. We loved it – the Giga-bite burgers, cooked dangerously rare, and the service, of rare good humor.
“There must be some mistake,” the Martian remarked to the waiter at Tavern at the Park, a cavernous, long-tusked establishment facing Millennium Park. “Is this a double order of mastodon ribs?”
Unused to extra-terrestrial humor the 7-foot-tall waiter chuckled. He seemed to wonder whether the Martian was complaining. Did the diminutive person in black socks want the entire hog? Perhaps the 2-foot-long section of ribcage was not enough?
Happily the ribs fed two of us for several days. They were not only abundant in quantity but succulent, perfectly cooked, moist and delicious.
Most disconcerting of all was the outlandish excellence of the “ethnic” food in Chicago, as if a mixing bowl of a place such as this could be anything but a smorgasbord of genetic material and cuisines, all of them ethnic, meaning totally American.
The salchichon, tapas and sangria at Café Ba-Ba-Reeba made me want to shout – a good thing: shouting was the only way to be heard in the roistering atmosphere. I’ve tasted salt cod fritters as great in a few places, but never so generously served.
And who ever would’ve guessed the best Indian food anywhere outside India might be served in Chicago, in the former meatpacking district? Such was the shock of exquisiteness at Jaipur Chicago, where the tikka and lamb Massala were fab but the most unexpectedly wonderful dish was made of humble lentils, spinach and ginger. It was not photogenic and as green as my gills! I wept with spicy delight, thanking Ganesh as we headed home laden with white cartons: no matter how good the grub, there was just too much of it.
Strange to tell, by the time the Martian made it to his flying saucer at O’Hare his wife no longer recognized him. He had begun to look less Martian. He wore elasticized shorts and white socks. He waddled, loosened his re-notched belt and wondered how he would fit into his third-class seat. The trick to surviving Chicago he knew was to grow tall and broad and carnivorous like a native, or collect vacuum-packed doggy bags and continue to eat Chicago on Mars.
Author and guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light.” His next book, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptical Pilgrimage on the Way of Saint James.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.