Anthony Bourdain said of Chicago “in my opinion it is the only other real metropolis in America.” That stuck with me as we boarded the famous “L” train blue line from the airport to the heart of the city. Houston is not much smaller than Chicago but Bourdain is right, there is just something different about it.
Below you'll find some pictures I took while I was there as well as some thoughts on all the amazing food we ate. For just the full resolution album and prints, click here.
As a tourist in Chicago, it's important to look at the building so I’m told. Even though I know almost nothing about architecture. I, like anyone, can feel good buildings. The draw of the geometry or the pleasing sense you get when everything has come together in an intersection between good design and my particular sensibilities. But architecture, like opera, is something I just don't quite appreciate. I’m sure I could if I knew a lot more about it but the desire to do so has never presented itself as an itch I’ve been compelled to scratch. But when in Chicago.
So it was with an open mind, and an eye on the forecast that we boarded one of the boats docked at the riverwalk, each with some impressive sounding claim to fame (ours was the only one with volunteers from the Chicago Architecture Society, for whatever that's worth). Staking out a prime location on the upper deck on the railing I was ready to see what the guidebooks were talking about. That's when it started to rain. It was the kind of rain that cooks a frog: comes on slowly enough to where you think you can just tough it out … until finally you admit defeat and run. Run down to the lower decks of this boat. This lower deck was a luxury as many of the other tour boats had no such shelter, but that safety came with the price of being able to see nothing of what the guide was talking about.
But thankfully the shower was short lived and before long I was back up on the top deck taking pictures as a lady who loved nothing in life as much as the Chicago skyline told us more details about each individual passing building than I had ever known there to be details about buildings. And by the end of it I had forgotten almost all of what was said but did have a better appreciation for the art of it all. The way the buildings were a conversation amongst themselves or a statement on the egalitarian society the architect wished for.
Every place has a draw, a reason to go. And when we decide to go anywhere, many of these reasons come together to push us over the edge to committing to visit one place rather than all the other places in the world we might want to go. If I’m honest, the reason my family spent a week in Chicago was because of the food, and one restaurant in particular: Alinea. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s well known that the food scene in Chicago is one of the best in America. As the epicenter of the modern gastro science movement, it draws adventurous chefs who are looking to make a name for themselves. But it's so much more than just the top billing. We were only in Chicago four days and I had every lunch and dinner planned out and many more that had been bumped due to lack of space on the dance card.
What impressed me so much though, happened on our first day there. We had planned to eat at a famous Mexican restaurant but when we walked up, a sign on the door informed us that the staff was on their yearly pilgrimage to the birthplace of their food to bring back new flavors. So off the bat my carefully laid plans were off the tracks. But we were hungry and with Mexican on the brain, decided to eat at a place we’d passed on our way to our intended target. When we walked in, it was somewhat busy but not overly so. Looked like a lot of professionals on their lunch break. I was doubting, I had no doubt there was some good Mexican in Chicago but for as hard as it is to find in Atlanta, stopping into a random place was probably not going to yield a meal that would impress my Houston upbringing. And yet, it was some of the best Mexican food I’d had in a long time. And that's what sets Chicago apart, I didn't have a bad meal while I was there. Even when stopping into a random restaurant.
As a Texas native I know what real BBQ is and I’m not afraid to tell people that pulled pork is not it. Brisket is king, long live brisket. Dont get me wrong, pulled pork can be very good and I cook it myself now and again. But it doesn't fight you like brisket nor, when conquered, does it reveal the taste within quite like brisket does. So when I go to a BBQ restaurant, brisket is the high bar. I was not expecting to be impressed by any Chicago brisket.
But this was not the first time Chicago had surprised me. Not only was the brisket really good (not Lockhart competition winning but still very good), but the place was awesome. I felt like I’d walked into a barn where they’d been up all night smoking meat. They know BBQ and I would definitely go there again.
This place wants a Michelin star, like an actress taking a role where her head gets shaved wants an oscar. Which don't get me wrong is not a bad thing, it makes them hungry. Pretty hipster, very Chicago food scene.
One problem with all this good food and eating it all so close to one another is that truly great food starts to feel normal. When thinking back on the Girl and the Goat there wasn't one thing that defined the experience for me, something that would lodge into my brain and refuse to leave. It was a whimsical place with incredible empanadas. In a normal month it would have been the best food I’d eaten all month, but it's hard to stand out in a room full of giants.
Fine dining can get a bad wrap of being pretentious and uppity and elitist. And since fine dining has strong roots in France, I can't say I’m altogether surprised it has garnered such a reputation. Longman and Eagle is the antidote to such a reputation. It's a Michelin starred restaurant with a prolific whiskey bar and you wouldn’t be out of line to confuse it with a hole in the wall. Everybody there is super friendly and down to earth and wants you to try their favorite dish on the menu. And those dishes are incredible. I would say it was our crews favorite spot in Chicago. And it's out in this really cool not quite suburb area which has a ton of character. I can't recommend it enough.
As I mentioned, the precipitating event for us ending up in Chicago was this video I’d seen a while back about Alinea. It intrigued me, I too felt like these places couldnt be that good. But then I’d had my first Michelin starred meal in California and it was, without reservation, the best meal I’d ever eaten. And that was just a one star. So what could the pinnacle of American modernist cuisine offer? Could it deliver? Well yes, yes it can. I was blown away by Alinea, all parts of it. But I was the most enthusiastic of our group (I’ll address their reservations below) but first I’d like to make my case.
There are many ways to tell a story. And none of them are ostensibly better than others. They are just different. We love us some This American Life, listen to it almost every week. They craft stories in a way that is very approachable, a more traditional approach to weaving a yarn. But we also love movies. Se7en is one of my favorites. And there is no denying that Se7en represents greatness in film. Watching that movie evokes fear, compassion, suffering, and many great questions. It is a great film. But when you’re watching it you don't realize cinematographer positioned the camera angles to represent the characters power dynamics in the scene or that the props guy filled multiple notebooks with psychopathic rants. The designers chose colors, the mixers chose levels, the costumers chose fabrics all to support the story and the emotions the viewer feels when watching the film. But you don't think about any of those things when you’re watching, they just wash over you and all come together to form this really complexly beautiful story. That doesn't make it better than This American Life’s episode #468, it just makes it more calculated. I love my grandmothers buttered egg noodles, thats good food. But Alinea is different. Every step of the way, from the serving pieces to the creepy entryway, is designed to convey emotion specific to the goal of the meal. And it comes together in a way that I never expected possible for the institution of dinner.
So yes, some of the ingredients and textures and tastes were aggressively foreign. Pushing the boundaries in way some of the films on AFI’s Top 100 did. All of our party was very happy they went and loved the experience but several felt the food was a little too weird. And I understand that sentiment. But that's what they said about 2001 a Space Odyssey, that's what they said about Strangelove. For me it wasn't just the experience or the novelty or the service, the food was incredible. And it makes you think outside the box. To what dinner could be if we were intentional about treating it with the design it deserves.