Chicago’s Eats

By Leo E. Martin:

“Hog butcher for the world,
Tool maker, stacker of wheat,
Player with railroads and the nation’s freight handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the big shoulders.”
-Carl Sandburg, Chicago, 1916

Whether referred to as the “city of the big shoulders,” the Windy City, or Chi-town, Chicagoland is a city of a thousand nicknames. Perhaps the most controversial of these numerous cognomens is “the second city,” a disparaging label given to the city by A. J. Liebling in an article he penned for the New Yorker in 1952.

Mr. Liebling’s scandalous story focused on the cultural shortcomings of Chicagoas compared to the Big Apple. However, after my recent visit to the “Parison the prairie,” a name bestowed upon Chicago by architect Daniel Burnham in 1909, it is clear Mr. Liebling did not consult a crystal ball while researching his now infamous column.

In May 2009 the much-anticipated Renzo Piano–designed 264,000-square-foot Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago opened, another feather in the cap for a city already the de facto home to Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, the influential Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and the incomparable Field Museum. Suffice to say Chicago is no slouch when it comes to cultural significance. And in terms of food culture it might just be the most dynamic epicurean destination in America today.

Kick-started by Charlie Trotter with his eponymous restaurant in 1987, Chicago’s gastronomic legacy was further cemented with the momentous arrival of Alinea 18 years later. But Chicagoans don’t only lay claim to the best modern cuisine in the country; they also dig into the most soul-satisfying comfort food in the land. With this in mind I planned my annual winter sojourn to the “city on the lake” as a whirlwind eating tour, hitting all the high notes from haute cuisine to haute dogs with a few surprises along the way…

THE HOTEL
Affinia Chicago
I only had two days to squeeze in as many meals as possible, so convenient quarters were paramount. Equally as important was securing reasonably priced lodging, as my budget was nearly entirely devoted to meals. I settled on the affordably smart and centrally located Affinia Chicago. Just steps from the Magnificent Mile and the Old Water Tower, the Affinia is a stylish hotel kept from being cookie cutter by a clever collection of customized perks.

I was offered a choice of Experience Kits free of charge with my stay; among others I could choose the Walking Tour Kit, with a pre-loaded iPod Shuffle programmed with a concierge-recommended tour of Chicago, a city guidebook, and a pedometer, or the StayFit Kit, with a yoga mat, stretching bands, wrist and ankle weights, and workout DVDs. I also had my pick from a late-night menu of cupcakes and warm cookies, a well-edited pillow menu, and a selection of complimentary toiletries—an often overlooked but tremendously useful amenity.

My room was quite large and modern, with a double-sided flat-screen TV viewable from the h bed or the comfy sofa in the sitting area. Decor throughout the hotel is typical of a hipster boutique property with lots of white on white and a mixture of mid-century-inspired furniture, contemporary art, and well-placed orchids. Service was friendly, if not completely informed, and all in all it was an ideal place to call home.

THE RESTAURANTS
L2O

My first stop, literally with bags in tow as I came into the city from Midway International Airport, was one of the nation’s hottest restaurants, L2O. Designed to evoke the sensation of walking under a boardwalk and into the sea, L2O’s deftly decorated dining room is a study in stylized simplicity, and the sublime seafood is an ideal match. Opting for the four-course tasting menu, I was dazzled by chef Laurent Gras’s crustacean creations.

I started with an elegant plate of peekytoe crab paired with avocado, kaffir lime, and lemon oil. Bracingly tart, yet altogether sweet and creamy to taste, the combination was a well-positioned starter. From there I dipped into a toothsome chestnut-inflected lobster bisque with an impossibly light lobster dumpling floating in its midst. All along the way there were little extras: an amuse-bouche of thinly sliced raw tuna with a sweet granite topping, another of kampachi and lime foam, and a puff of cream applied to the soup tableside.

Finally making it to the main course, I was greeted by a glorious filet of Arctic char dressed in a champagne sauce. Accompanying the dense filet was a study in variations of zucchini: a gel-like block, a purée, and a zucchini elixir of sorts…. Each was a work of food art. From there it was a sprint to the finish line with a passion fruit–marshmallow palate cleanser, a towering praline soufflé for dessert, and a final surprise plate of house-made chocolates.

M. Henry
On my first morning, with the imaginative cooking of L2O still swimming in my mind, I ventured about 20 minutes north of my hotel to M. Henry, a homey local favorite tucked away in Andersonville, an eclectic neighborhood of funky restaurants, bars, and boutiques, and home to the egg sandwich of the gods, Fannie’s Killer Fried Egg Sandwich. And I’m not overselling it.

Get there early, patiently wait on line, have a seat in the convivial dining room with barnyard art lining the walls, and order Fannie’s very killer sandwich. Sure, the french toast is top-notch, and the sour cherry “bliss cakes” (M. Henry’s incredibly dense version of pancakes) are a delightful study in gluttony, but the egg sandwich is what sets this buzzing restaurant apart.

When written out, the ingredients of the sandwich don’t jump off the page: A toasted sourdough roll, two fried eggs, applewood bacon, plum tomatoes, Gorgonzola cheese, and thyme. Simple.

But while L2O knocked me out with its inventive preparations, M. Henry’s wildly simple sandwich dished up the perfect combination of straightforward ingredients for a gooey, salty, smokey, and slightly sweet peerless breakfast sandwich.

Sometimes simple is best, or in this case, “killer.”

Murphy’s Red Hots
I just can’t visit Chicago without getting a hot dog. It’s a strict rule, and one I suggest you adopt as your own. So after a long post-killer-egg-sandwich stroll, I popped into Murphy’s Red Hots, a landmark for Chicago hot dogs for more than two decades.

Red Hots, all-beef hot dogs made exclusively with Vienna Beef brand meat, were first introduced to Chicago at the World’s Fair in 1893, and since then have become synonymous with the city’s food culture. A Chicago dog is unlike any other hot dog you’ll ever have. It is a carefully constructed creation and can be appreciated as much for its sense of proportion as its snappy bite.

At Murphy’s they adhere to tradition and serve dogs properly “dragged through the garden”—meaning piled high with the classic toppings, including chopped white onions, fluorescent-green relish, miniature jalapeño sport peppers, a dill pickle spear, a tomato slice, and celery salt. All of this is lovingly served nestled in a steamed poppy-seed bun and topped with yellow mustard.

Is this architecturally styled hot dog the forerunner of Chicago’s inspired culinary landscape? Perhaps, but who can concentrate on such lofty allusions when you’re chomping on pure zesty-goodness?

Alinea
Chef Grant Achatz’s temple to inventive American cookery has probably garnered more accolades in the past four years than any other fine-dining establishment in the nation, and for good reason. Molecular gastronomy—a less-than-elegant label given to chef Achatz’s style of cooking—is a tough trend to wrap your head around or sink your teeth into.

The first thing to do when trying to “get” Grant Achatz’s amazing cooking is to ignore the molecular gastronomy designation. Yes, there’s some high-tech wizardry going on in the super-slick kitchen, with bespoke gadgetry like the “anti-griddle,” a massive chiller that cools food to 30 below zero in an instant, but chef Achatz is less a scientist and more a culinary rebel.

My meal was 24 courses, many devoted to one- and two-bite dishes, with a handful of larger plates mixed in. One course was served on top of a pillow of juniper air, releasing an intoxicating whiff with each bite. The black truffle explosion was a razor-thin ravioli served on a tiny spoon balanced on a round plate the same size of the ravioli; when placed in your mouth the ravioli burst open and released a warm shot of black truffle and parmesan. Finally, one of my favorites was a dessert featuring a caramel tempura with Meyer lemon zest served on the tip of a long cinnamon stick and spritzed with cinnamon perfume.

The food at Alinea challenges conventions in terms of composition and presentation, but it also pushes the envelope with daring ingredients, flavors, and aromas, the building blocks for any chef, even those without the benefit of an “anti-griddle.” At the end of the day chef Achatz can flat-out cook…. Science be damned.

RL
After a day and a half of gorging on Chicago’s finest high-brow and low-brow chow I had one more meal to go: brunch at RL, the restaurant in the flagship Ralph Lauren store on the Miracle Mile.

RL was a bit out of line with my other choices. It is not hip, nor is it under the radar. Its menu does not push any boundaries. It is not tied to the particular ethos of Chicago in any discernible manner. But I adore dining there.

There may be no other mass-market brand as well curated as Ralph Lauren, and RL restaurant is a microcosm of the brand’s fastidious attention to detail and uncanny ability to translate Americana into an all-encompassing lifestyle. With one step through the door you feel part of something altogether more genteel than you could ever be. You’re immediately welcomed into Mr. Lauren’s personal bar and dining room, his cozy club, and all of this with open arms from a doting staff.

What’s this? No brash doorman, secret phone number, or hidden entrance? These of-the-moment and incredibly tiresome indicators of what’s cool in the modern age of dining don’t come into play at RL. And that’s what makes it so enjoyable. You can truly be yourself while still enjoying interloper status into Mr. Lauren’s seemingly private world.

The mahogany-paneled walls are covered with black-and-white photos set in gorgeous ornate frames. There are tufted leather chairs in the lounge and bar area, red leather banquettes in the main dining area, and perfectly placed zebra prints here, antique steamer trunks there. And I’m very happy to report the food is good enough to not distract from the scene. The burger is juicy and properly covered with melted cheddar; the oysters are fresh and briny; and the club sandwich is exactly what you imagine a club sandwich to be: crisp bacon, off-the-bone turkey, sweet tomatoes, and crunchy toasted white bread.

It’s good to be Ralph, if even just for brunch.

THE SPA
Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago
Before heading to the airport and leaving such fond food memories (and a large portion of my savings) behind, I made my way over to the newish Trump International Hotel & Tower for a spa treatment and some much-needed R & R.

The Trump is a sleek, modern skyscraper soaring above the Chicago River on an unparalleled plot of real estate in the heart of the city. I took my time finding the spa, meandering around the myriad of public spaces and having a peek into Sixteen, the well-regarded restaurant perched, not surprisingly, on the 16th floor.

The Spa at Trump is located just a bit south of Sixteen, comprising the majority of the 14th floor and with stunning views over the city. I was greeted warmly at the check-in area and whisked to the very pleasant men’s lounge and locker area. I changed into the h robe and slippers and made my way down the hall, where I was ushered into a massage room and treated to 60 minutes of pure bliss with a classic Swedish-style massage.

To top off the experience I spent a good hour, post-massage, in the serene and wonderfully appointed relaxation area, enjoying a quick snooze and some wildly fragrant herbal iced tea. Nirvana, it seems, is attainable, and just 14 stories above the Chicago River.

IF YOU’RE GOING
Affinia Chicago

166 East Superior Street
(312) 787-6000
Rates from $129/night

L2O

2300 North Lincoln Park West
(773) 868-0002
$110 prix fixe menu, $165–245 tasting menus
*A less expensive lounge menu is also available

M. Henry

5707 North Clark Street
(773) 561-1600
Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner

Murphy’s Red Hots

1211 West Belmont Avenue
(773) 935-2882
Open from 11 a.m. 7 days a week

Alinea

1723 North Halstead Street
(312) 867-0110
$150–225 tasting menus
*Make reservations far in advance

RL

115 East Chicago Avenue
(312) 475-1100
Open from 11 a.m. 7 days a week

The Spa at Trump, Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago

401 North Wabash Avenue
(312) 588-8020
Treatments start at $150


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NOTE: This trip was sponsored by  & 

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