Doggie Bag Heaven: A Martian Chows Down In Chicago

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.

Eiffel would never have been allowed to build an underfed, skeletal tower in Chicago. It dawned on me on our first day that Chicagoans must be unbearably hungry when in Paris.

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.

Discovering Nonna Nina’s Kitchen: minnow heaven on the Italian Riviera

Just north of Portofino on the Italian Riveria, on the Genoa side of the Monte di Portofino Regional Park, is a perched hamlet called San Rocco di Camogli. This is the best place on earth to devour the marvelously flavorful minnows that come from the Gulf of Genoa, which the locals call rossetti – little red things. And little red things they are: about an inch long, thin as a thermometer, translucent, and with a little red dot near the gills. You don’t just pop rossetti in your mouth whole – you fork in dozens of them at a time. And the best place to do this is on San Rocco di Camogli’s single street, at the venerable restaurant La Cucina di Nonna Nina – Grandma Nina’s Kitchen.

You will not find Grandma Nina in the establishment: she left her corporeal essence behind some years ago, and never set foot in the place anyway. She also left behind many delicious regional recipes from yesteryear, recipes transformed into exquisitely delectable dishes by the elusive, retiring, shy Paolo Delpian and his wife, Rosalia, Grandma Nina’s natural heirs.

Paolo says little and works a lot: he’s not a super chef and doesn’t like “super” anything, including wine. He’s an excellent cook who makes everything from scratch, fresh, using local ingredients. Rosalia runs the show. A bona fide grandmother, she doesn’t look the part. She’s fashionably turned out and has little of the plump, flour-dusted Italian nonna of yesteryear. The restaurant and its food reflect the owners’ personalities: quiet, discreet, tastefully simple.

Tasteful simplicity is the root of the best Italian cooking. Paolo gets his minnows squirming fresh – they’re too small to flip. They’re fished along the jagged coast below the restaurant – whose dining room is blissfully unequipped with a distracting panoramic view. Into boiling water go the minnows, and mere seconds later, they’re slid onto a warm plate, then onto your table and into your watering mouth. Purists eat them this way, naked. Others dribble their minnows with the lightest, fruitiest local Ligurian olive oil: full-bodied oil would spoil the delicate flavor. A minnow-sized pinch of salt is also allowed. And then: piscine heaven.The first local decree regulating the fishing and devouring of rossetti was drawn up in Genoa in the 1300s. At about the same time, a Genoese proverb, often unfairly attributed to Dante Alighieri, ironically declared that Genoa’s bay was a “fish-less sea.” And yet to this day local fishermen keep pulling up little spiny, unmarketable fish-the most flavorful and delicious of fish-and zillions of minnows. The fishermen are careful about how and when they fish. Over 700 years after that first wise decree, the hedonist insiders of the Riviera swim by the school to places like Nonna Nina to savor this minuscule bounty.

Naturally, Paolo Delpian also transforms guppies into fritters – golden knishes studded with glinting little eyes. They’re flash-fried in olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and are too exquisite to describe.

Nonna Nina offers more than mere minnows. The place also happens to serve the best traditional Genoese air-dried cod-soaked, softened, then slowly stewed with pine nuts, potatoes, tiny local Taggiasca olives and that same olive oil pressed from them-anywhere, period. So having dispatched a few thousand minnows, washed down with the region’s finest white wine, I tucked into the cod.

This was a full-sized specimen of fish, yet I felt a moment of hesitation before being subdued by the simple, healthful, tender, deliciousness of the dish. Cod has been a specialty in the region for over 1,000 years. But it doesn’t come from the Mediterranean. Hereabouts what is served is from Iceland, mostly (that’s why Iceland has an embassy in Genoa). My worry suddenly was and remains: how sustainable are cod-fishing practices? The massacre of minnows doesn’t seem to bankrupt the Genoese fish bank, but those giant factory ships flying global flags pull up nothing but immature cod these days.

So it was with somewhat guilty pleasure that I mopped up the last drops of the flaky cod essence and the olive oil. But guilt-free was my amazement at the perfect match made by the pale yellow Pigato from the Western Riviera. Crafted by winemaker Azienda Agricola Bruna, in the village of Ranzo, this bottle of single-vineyard “Le Russeghine” seemed genetically engineered to accompany minnows and cod to digestive paradise.

The Pigato also flowed easily in the company of Paolo’s homemade semifreddos and rustic hazelnut tart. Though not necessarily an adept of fish, I felt no envy watching other diners enjoy land-based dishes of veal or rabbit or poultry accompanied by luscious Ligurian red wines.

Yes, the reds too are good, some excellent. They’ll never be as big and flowery and popular as Tuscan reds. Like the olive oil, the tiny olives and the ethereal cooking, things Ligurian are small, delicate, and quiet. They don’t export well. The ham-hankering, spice-loving, sugar-and-alcohol adoring crowd will never embrace them. And that suits people like Paolo, Rosalia and their customers. The tables at Nonna Nina are always full, even in deepest winter, when the Riviera empties of its speedboats and backpackers. The sun of Tuscany, the herbs of Provence, the over-loved beauty of the Cinque Terre and the glitz of Portofino-just over the hill-feel like they’re those proverbial million miles away.

[flickr image via Jeremiah John McBride]

Author and guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

Paris postcard: Savoring the subversively seductive splendors of the Marais

French star architect Jean Nouvel once gave me a ride home from his studio in Paris’ edgy 11th arrondissement. I chuckled to discover that the guru of transparency, glass and steel lives around the corner from me in a 1600s building on the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, the spinal column of the Marais. Old is better?

I was amused but not surprised: after 40 years of blanket gentrification the Marais has reportedly become theplace to live for a mix of fashion designers, artists, architects, auctioneers and other professionals–plus droves of bobos, meaning bohemian bourgeois. It’s so desirable that it’s practically unlivable.

Luckily you don’t have to move here to enjoy the Marais: wandering its patchwork of streets from the 1500s-1800s is still a magical experience.

For one thing, super-rich celebs and bobos aren’t the only ones drawn here. Trawl the gay district around Rue Vieille du Temple, the Rue des Rosiers Jewish neighborhood, or the Place des Vosges-the Marais’ centerpiece square-and you’ll discover a global festival of hip hedonism.

What’s the attraction? The Marais’ storied streets spread on the Right Bank between Beaubourg (the Pompidou Center) and the Bastille, the Seine, and the dowdy Place de la République. They’re home to enough boutiques, museums, art galleries, trendy restaurants and cafés stuffed into landmark townhouses to defeat even those born to shop (the French call such people “window-lickers”). This is a safari park for people-watchers, a study in how to preserve and gentrify a unique historic neighborhood.

The penurious few who wound up here before the Marais became trendy do what we can to appreciate the hallowed atmosphere without sounding like party-poopers. Truth be told each time I step out I discover something new and wonderful in my backyard. But I always find myself at least once a day in the Place des Vosges.Often overrun, the Place des Vosges is breathtaking no matter how many sour-sounding, faux Dixieland bands invade its symmetrical arcades, and no matter how many gawkers show up to see where Dominique Strauss-Kahn and other celebs and politicos live like pashas. One of France’s swankest Michelin-3-star restaurants is here (l’Amboisie), not that I would recommend it. So is the HQ of Issaye Miyake. The parade of human peacocks never ends.

With its 400-year-old, slate-roofed aristocratic pavilions, compact park and power-elite feel, the square has always been a microcosm, the quintessence of what makes the Marais special-love it or loathe it.

Four centuries ago Madame de Sévigné-the queen of French epistolary literature and high-society gossip-was born here, then moved nearby to the sumptuous Hôtel Carnavalet (now Paris’ historical museum). The Duc-Maréchal de Richelieu, with a pavilion at number 24, seduced a catalogue of lovers that reportedly included every noble lady then resident on the square. Does similar debauchery continue today? Such is the gossip.

It must have been exciting to be here during the first great French Revolution of 1789, when the debauched aristocrats were expropriated and exiled or lost their heads-literally. Afterwards, in came wild men like Charles Baudelaire (The Flowers of Evil). They hung out in the Marais’ dicey dives and lived in the square’s rundown flats-and turned literature and poetry upside down.

The reluctant revolutionary Victor Hugo rented a corner pavilion: his apartment is now a house-museum, one of my favorite places in Paris. From his perch he witnessed the Revolution of 1830 and penned subversive books, trying (but failing) to stop the tyrant Louis Napoleon Bonaparte-better known as Napoleon III-from taking over.
Even when the Marais bottomed after World War Two, the gloomy arcades and crumbling courtyards of this sublime square were subversively inspirational, providing the backdrop for Georges Simenon’s crime novel, L’Ombre Chinoise-also a cult movie.

So now it’s the star architects, plutocratic politicians, bankers, movie stars and moguls who grace the Place des Vosges, while the other 99.99 percent of us watch the show. That’s okay. Nothing beats sitting on a bench in the center of the square and gazing gratis at the parade or sipping a coffee-still affordable-at a plebian café. This will be the ideal spot from which to watch the next French revolution unfold. I can’t wait.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/parisand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[flickr image via piermario]

Christmas in Paris: ’tis the season to be feasting

It’s not that Paris doesn’t have Nativity Scenes or Christmas trees or even Santa Claus-lookalikes called le Père Noel-Father Christmas..

It’s not that Parisians don’t string blinking lights, buy extravagant gifts, throw parties, ring bells, and sing “noel-noel”. Isn’t noel French for “Christmas?” A few French faithful even attend ceremonies, light candles, observe Advent Lent, and fold hands in drafty sanctuaries that echo in emptiness the rest of the year.

But somehow in this militantly secular republic, where freedom from religion is a religion in itself, Christmas really isn’t about Christmas. Not the way “les Anglo-Saxons” seem to celebrate it.

Noel in Paris is a time for worshipping the true French cult: food and wine, la grande bouffe. It’s pagan, it’s druidical, it’s not just pre-Revolutionary, it’s possibly pre-Roman or prehistoric and thoroughly ancient Gallic, meaning totally contemporary French.

Christmas in Paris is a fattening tale of extreme Thanksgiving-like gourmandizing, gluttonizing, gobbling, gnoshing and every other imaginable variation on the theme of snarfing up and scarfing down fine edibles and nectarous potables.

Holiday food markets and an extra rasher of farmer’s and neighborhood markets mushroom in squares across the land and sometimes even fill bridges that cross the Seine. The Champs-Elysées, Trocadéro, Notre-Dame, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Place de la Nation and other history-soaked sites swarm with humanity drawn like flies to rustic stands groaning with goodies from the provinces.Stationed on a thousand sidewalks outside bottle shops, cheese shops, and gourmet specialty boutiques legions of svelte Parisian Santas-most in spiffy civvies without a trace of cotton beard-tempt you to taste or swill something seasonal and irresistible-and part with your precious euros.

On Paris radio stations it’s not sleigh bells or Christmastide jingles that delight your ears. Non. It’s nonstop advertising for les produits nobles-the French nation’s notion of upscale produce and ingredients. The list stars, of course, Champagne, Sauternes and hoary wines from mossy chateaux, foie gras, oysters, scallops, smoked salmon or sturgeon or duck’s breast, caviar, truffles, runny Mont d’Or cheese, catwalk chocolate and extravagant pastries.

Pastries!

In Paris a buche de noelisn’t a yuletide log to burn in your fireplace. It’s a dangerously caloric, creamy log-shaped cake that comes in a mind-boggling variety of sizes and flavors. Millions are consumed in the holiday season, rolled out by every baker in town.

This glad season of weight-gain actually stretches from La Fete de la Saint Martin-November 11-to Epiphany-January 6, reaching paroxysms of hedonism at Christmastide.

Saint Martin’s feast day is dedicated to — guess what? Not a holy man! It’s the official festival of foie gras, and opens the hunting season for France’s many marchés au gras, which continue into the New Year. Only in France can the concept of “fat markets” make mouths water. The French Ministry of Agriculture has a web page dedicated to this artery-plugging phenomenon but not much about the forgotten saint. The separation of things spiritual and comestible into sealed compartments is deliciously watertight.

Like foie gras, pastries bridge the holiday season. When the yuletide cake logs have burned through they are swiftly replaced in January by les gallettes du roi-“the king’s flaky pies.” They look like pork pie hats but are filled with delicate marzipan. Included in the price of your gallette you’re given a folded golden crown of paper. Whoever finds the fève hidden inside the pie-literally the fava bean, though it’s usually a ceramic token-is crowned king or queen of the day. That’s a ritual that goes way back, past the various King Louis all the way to Augustus Caesar.

Who knows how many Parisians are aware of what the gallette and fava tradition springs from, and how many care? In Paris “Epiphany” is either a revelation about a fashionable new restaurant or a slice of the king’s marzipan pie. Rarely are the arriving Magi invited to share it.

No, Santa definitely drives a refrigerated truck when he hits Paris. Maybe that’s why I decided to stay all these years.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.comand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[flickr image via thskyt]

David’s Discoveries: Portofino Perfect

Portofino’s horseshoe-shaped harbor and plumb-line cliffs are among the more actively gorgeous places on the Italian Riviera, as Italians call the boomerang-shaped region of northern Liguria. And Liguria is one of my favorite regions in the world for hiking, eating, dreaming and wandering.

A picture-postcard faux fishing port, Portofino is the Riviera’s most glamorous time warp: the villas of the super-rich perch on pine-studded promontories jutting into the Mediterranean. Billionaires like Silvio Berlusconi spend precious leisure hours here. “Precious” is the operative word.

Five hundred years ago one irreverent overnight traveler noted that in Portofino “you were charged not only for the room but the very air you breathed.”

Paying for the atmosphere is still what Portofino is all about.

But my wife Alison and I have a novel way enjoying Portofino for free. It includes some of the greatest views on the Mediterranean seaboard, plus lots of fresh air, and exercise. Naturally on either end of our “Portofino Perfect” walking experience (and even halfway along it) you can drop a few euros for a cappuccino, or spend $200 per head for a snack at a fashionable ristorante.We live much of the year in Paris, but spend several months-usually in fall and winter-in Liguria. Childhood attachments and more–call them elective and professional affinities–draw us back.

Why fall and winter (and spring, for that matter) and not summer, when you can swim and sunbathe? The easy answer is we prefer the low-season peace and ease of access. And I am not a lover of heat
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Our fall-winter ritual is to trek to Portofino from the neighboring resort of Santa Margherita Ligure. This is an unwise proposition in summer, when the traffic on the narrow, serpentine coast road flies thick and fast. Until recently it was not only unwise, it was downright suicidal. That’s changed.

So to ring in the autumn, we laced up and marched toward Portofino on foot, marveling at the scenery: a jigsaw of conglomerate boulders and cliffs, offset by those patented Italian umbrella pines and deep blue waters, where sailboats, fishing boats and motorboats splashed and spluttered.

What’s refreshingly new on this walk is that cars, buses and trucks were unable to molest us.

A skillfully sprung boardwalk now runs from Santa Margherita Ligure a couple of corkscrew miles toward Portofino, via the oligarchs’ hamlet of Paraggi. It’s hunkered down in a hairpin curve a few hundred yards west of Berlusconi’s turreted castle.

The boardwalk ends at Paraggi. A steep, curving, perfectly paved forest pathway leads the remaining mile or so to Portofino.

We scrambled up it, amid the pines and strawberry trees–arbutus to a botanist–and drank in the scent. The wisteria and jasmine were having their third blooming, and the arbutus trees were covered with spiky orange fruit and tiny, sweet-smelling, bell-shaped blossoms.

Instead of battling summertime crowds to reach Portofino’s stone-paved harbor and airborne, black-and-white church of San Giorgio, we were practically alone. A garrison of cats guarded the Castello Brown-the hilltop fortress-mansion where Enchanted Aprilwas filmed.

Back down in the quaintly costly village, there were no lines at the fashion boutiques-not that either of us could afford to or wanted to shop. Shop for designer clothes in Portofino? That’s what the sun-bronzed vacationers who roll off the 200-foot motor-yachts do, before hitting perennial Portofino hangouts and glam, chic-issimo Lo Strainer, on the wharf.

More important to us, there was no wait for the onion focaccia at the sole bakery in Portofino. No, it is not the best focaccia in Liguria, but it’s not bad, and it won’t bankrupt you.

This year my understanding and appreciation of Portofino and of “Enchanted April” deepened as never before: I actually read the novel and was enchanted. Enchanted April, the book, is better than the movie. Read it, take this leisurely seaside stroll, and you too may understand why, back in the 1840s, Portofino became Italy’s first full-blown resort. You might also appreciate why it’s so popular today. Granted, “popular” isn’t the right word. In its peculiar, pretentious, gilded way, Portofino still manages to distill the essence of the Italian Riviera.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.comand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[Flickr image via Valentina_A]