January 16-18, 2015
Walker Brothers Original Pancake House-Glenview, IL
Au Cheval-Chicago, IL
Girl & The Goat-Chicago, IL
It was warm in the City of Broad Shoulders, much too warm for mid-January…business was good. I was on the case of a prominent business man being shaken down by some low level mob goons and just to add to the mess he had the feeling his wife was running around behind his back with some other less than savory characters. I stopped by the local joint to knock down a few, lit up a smoke and then I saw her walk through the door. She was a tall sultry dame with long flowing………..wait a minute-what the Hell’s going on here and how did I get dropped into the middle of a Mickey Spillane novel?!?
It been more than a few years since Al Capone and company menaced the streets of Chicago. While never losing all of its gritty past, Chicago is a city of great across the board diversity and the culinary world is no exception. After the obligatory airline delay in New Jersey (mechanical issues-I guess on such a clear day blaming the weather wouldn’t have cut it), I was picked up at O’Hare by a local friend and lifelong Chicagoan. As we like to do we headed straight to the “imbibatorium”. At this point I can’t remember the name but it was something like Hennessey’s, Shaughnessy’s, Ryan’s or O’Toole’s-yes, the always enjoyable neighborhood Irish pub. Never fancy but always pouring a stiff drink with simple tasty eats. This place made a more than respectable Old Fashion and damn good loaded potato skins. Time to go as we headed to hear his daughter’s school band concert-a house guest’s job is never done. Concert complete, grab his son and his son’s friend and head to place called Vinici. Billed as Rustic Italian, the non-descript front belied what was inside. A well-appointed but casual space a bit reminiscent of Tuscany. The menu offered a wide variety of predominantly hardy dishes including excellent thin-crust pizza.
Yes, the three junior diners all made that same decision. My friend and I split deeply flavored Sautéed Lamb Meatballs with caramelized onions, soft polenta, Marsala sauce. The rich sauce was a perfect complement to the meatballs and polenta which had that often missing combination of not being too firm or soft. While being quite tasty the meatballs could have been a bit moister but nevertheless the dish is something I’d order again. My friend followed with Marinated Hen grilled under a hot brick, roasted potatoes, balsamic glazed grilled radicchio, natural juices. He said the bird was right on the money and from my taste I’d agree.
Well-seasoned, succulent and a still crispy skin. It’s amazing how few places can cook foul properly but these guys can. My choice, Grilled duck breast with sautéed Tuscan kale (I substituted wrinkled green beans), polenta, oyster mushrooms, balsamic reduction. As requested the meat was medium-rare with the reduction acting as a nice foil to all the items on the plate. All the evening’s dishes were washed down with a modestly priced ($40.00) juicy bottle of Primitivo. This close cousin of red Zinfandel held up well to all the big dishes. I had no expectations good or bad as we entered Vinici. Without hesitation I’d return. The food satisfied, the prices were reasonable (most entrées running between $15.00 and $29.00) and the service was excellent with a big bonus of an extensive gluten free menu.
As much as I’m a big breakfast guy I rarely eat it in a restaurant unless I’m traveling. Since that was the case, my friend told me we’d be visiting a Chicago area classic. We pulled into the parking lot and I immediately recognized the sign. It was the Original Pancake House whose New Jersey branches I’d been to probably thirty times over the years. However, this was not just another location of the franchise, it was Walker Brother’s Original Pancake House. To quote their website, “In 1948, my father, Victor, and his two brothers, Everett and Dick, began what was to become four Walker Bros. Snack Shops in Evanston. By 1960, Victor and Everett continued to expand as one of the first franchisees of The Original® Pancake House from Portland, Oregon. It was founded in 1953 by Les Highet and Erma Hueneke.” After eating at the Original Pancake house in four states, I’ve never had a bad meal. Obviously there is a lot of vetting before anyone is sold to a franchise. A giant baked omelet which I’m guessing contain about a half-dozen eggs, seriously smoky bacon and crispy hash browns covered my side of the table. If you want something that you’ll remember for a long time try the gut expanding, food coma inducing Apple Cinnamon Pancake-An Original Pancake House tradition! Filled with fresh apples and complimented with a Sinkiang cinnamon and sugar glaze. Just the smell of it makes you drift off into a magical land filled with……snore, snore, snore………………oh, sorry.
After an interesting afternoon spent on a tour by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, cocktail hour was near. It’s nice when the out of town guy takes the local to someplace he’s never been. Au Cheval is best described as a hip diner with warehouse like décor. Tunes emanating from a real live reel to reel player-God, I’m dating myself- and a cool laid back vibe that wants to make you hang for hours which is exactly what we did. Two or three or five perfect Bulleit Bourbon Old Fashions later at least as many beers for my partner in alcohol, we were getting pretty hungry. Unfortunately time was running short and we had leave. Too bad as Au Cheval is purported to have one the best burgers in Chicago. Not to mention the “Limited Availability” 32 Oz. Porterhouse Pork Chop with roasted apples and foie gras. Two times at Au Cheval and two times without trying the food. That will have to change on my next visit.
Time take a power nap in preparation for dinner. However, first a stop at Firecakes, the Holy Grail of donuts. This tiny take out shop crafts a wide variety of flavors from the traditional Classic jelly and Honey glazed to the more unusual like Maple glazed pineapple bacon. Not to mention an Apple fritter without equal. Never greasy, never too sweet. Just perfect. Remember, this isn’t a national chain. When they run out of a variety, it’s done for the day. Get there early!
Nap time had come and gone which could only mean dinner time was near. As one of the hotter restaurants in Chicago, getting into Girl & The Goat was a crap shoot as best. Good luck prevailed. After somehow arriving at the bar just when a couple was leaving we were able to find two seats, the host then came by and said unexpectedly there was an open table. After being seated our server, Taylor, introduced herself. Lively, attentive and very informed about the menu she took great care of us the entire evening. Being a devotee of Tapas style eating I was looking forward to trying as many small plates as my stomach could absorb. Hamachi Crudo-crisp pork belly, chili aioli, caperberries. The interplay between the clean fresh fish and the rich pork belly actually worked very well. The flavor of the fish was not at all lost. The tartness of the caperberries and the heat of the aioli served to balance the disparate flavors and bring them together. Challah Back-smoked salmon cream cheese, malted red onions. A lot of Jewish bakeries could take a lesson here. Sweet, moist, delicious pull apart bread. My grandmothers are probably turning in their graves. Confit Goat Belly-bourbon butter, lobster n’ crab, fennel. The sweetness of the goat and the seafood blended perfectly with the fennel providing a nice contrast in texture. The bourbon butter was evident without overshadowing the other ingredients in any way. Ham Frites-smoked tomato aioli, cheddar beer sauce. As a French fry fanatic I was looking forward to this although I was thinking, would it be another over the top preparation that saw the frites disappear among other flavors? Let’s be honest, pretty soon we may see high altitude Peruvian potatoes fried in desiccated camel fat that’s been reconstituted in Himalayan yak blood. No, not the case here at all. Perfectly crispy with just enough flavor from the pork fat that they were tossed in after frying. The sauces were pretty addictive. Pan Roasted monkfish-three sisters’ pecans, romesco. Like the dishes before it all just worked. As a strong flavor, the monkfish did not get lost in the very well made romesco. Wood oven roasted pig face-sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro, red-wine maple, potato stix. The flavor bomb of the night.
Moist, tender meat that soaked up the essence of everything else on the plate. If that weren’t enough the addition of a runny egg and the crunchiness of the potato made it insanely good. I’m glad this came last as I’m sure I would have ordered a second plate of this porcine deliciousness. Yes, we saved room for dessert. Miso—butterscotch budino, bacon toffee, glazed pineapple, candied cashews. The butterscotch was a nice foundation with the other flavors seeming to come through in layers. Very interesting mouthfeel from the contrasting textures. A great finish to the evening. As to not be accused of an omission, we accompanied the meal with a 2012 D. Ventura 100% Mencia form Ribeira Sacra. This wine from northwestern Spain was aged in 100% stainless steel with no oak. Bright, fresh, with cherry and raspberry on the palate. Some slate and licorice in the background with light tannins. A very food friendly 12.5% alcohol wine. Yes, Girl and the Goat was all I expected and more. The dishes were cooked properly and a lot of care and thought went into blending items that on the surface might have seemed contradictory. Creativity, technique and attentive service. I look forward to another visit soon.
Unfortunately my weekend in Chicago was coming to a close. To end on a high note we visited a legend, Superdawg. I know I’m going to take a lot of body blows for this “blasphemy” but Chicago has better hotdogs than NYC or New Jersey. To be honest, for a guy who grew up in Jersey a short 30 minutes from New York this was a difficult admission to make. Pull into the 1950s style restaurant and treat yourself to old school carhop service. The slightly smoky dogs on a poppy seed bun are made even better when accompanied by a dill pickle and the obligatory nuclear green relish. The crinkle fries are a must too.
Just when I thought-next stop O’Hare- we pulled into a sports bar for one last drink. I needed “proper pH” for the plane trip my friend said. Not unexpectedly my flight was on time until I reached the airport. But I guess they’re always “on time” until you check in. Perhaps a ploy to have you stuck with no choice but to buy overpriced food and drinks…..