Monday, October 14, 2013

1MB Travels: Chicago: Epic Eats & River Architecture Tour

Where there's a river, take the cruise.

That seems to have served me well in the cities I've been lucky enough to visit, that feature a watery jugular: Paris, Singapore, Chicago.  A great way to get a quick survey of the city's landmarks and history, within a limited time - from there you can choose which sights you want to explore further up close / more in depth.

My first time to Chicago was for another work trip, and I only had a few hours before the start of a conference, to take in what I could of the city.  So I headed to Navy Pier, where I was excited to find that the river architecture tour was available just in the time that I needed - the cruise was just an hour long, and would leave in 15 minutes.  Perfect!

A lot of the experience of these cruises depends on the quality of your tour guide.  And ours really made the whole experience amazing - he clearly loved the city, and its history, and sharing it with us tourists. The River Architecture Tour ($35/ adult) gave us great views of the city's iconic skyscrapers from the Willis (formerly, and forever to Chicagoans: Sears) Tower, Tribune Tower, Wrigley Building, to Trump Tower.  Our tour guide explained the different styles of architecture, and the care architects paid to every detail to ensure the city's buildings had a cohesiveness, and/or worked with the river (e.g. angling a building and 'squiggling' its balconies, to allow a good view of the river from any unit).  I'm not normally a history buff, but loved hearing about the origins of some of the city's landmarks - like the expansive old Chicago main post office, that was built largely to service Montgomery Ward back in the boom of America's oldest mail order business - it was also used in the filming of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises! 

One of my favorite buildings from the tour were the Marina City "corn cob" towers - you can see where their nicknames came from, from the photo!

It was also interesting to learn more about the river itself: apparently a century ago, it became so polluted that the natural flow of the river endangered the city's drinking water supply (and the pristine Lake Michigan), so a multi-million dollar civil engineering project was put in place to reverse the flow of the river. Apparently the river flow can now be re-reversed as needed in response to severe weather (floods / drought); it's also dyed green for fun on St. Patrick's Day.

Our tour guide was also big on Chicago pride, which is an awesome thing to behold: in telling about the great fire, and rebuilding efforts thereafter, he said that it's part of the DNA now of Chicago, that phoenix-like strength of character and fortitude: that Chicagoans will take a challenge head-on, and not let anything dissuade / discourage them - not even utter destruction.  Some may take that as dramatic, but I liked to see that Chicago pride.

After the tour, my next priority of course, was to go on an expedition for foie gras. Chicago being hopefully a role model for California, where foodies are still reeling from the law banning sale or production of foie gras going into effect.  Chicago was able to overturn the ridiculous (and what I view as culinary censorship!) law - hopefully California will as well.

My only meal that day where I could 'get away' and do my own thing - was at lunch.  And lunch menus often service the office crowd, so are not that adventurous or decadent as to feature foie.  But luckily, one of the places sinosoul recommended was able to make an exception to serve up a dinner menu item for me at lunch: GT Fish & Oyster in the River North neighborhood, a spot that feels in decor a lot like Caulfield's in Beverly Hills back home, but with a bar that's easy to sidle up to.  Hearing that I am from California elicited an immediate look of sympathy from my server, and she was very kind in coaxing the kitchen into bringing out early their Foie Gras & Shrimp Terrine with apricot chutney, pickled onions and szechuan peppercorns for me. Loved the vibrant colors on the plate, and they were generous with the ratio of foie to shrimp.  Textures and flavors were also skillfully balanced as well, with the smooth, dense earthy richness of foie balanced by the lighter, yet robust crunch of firm slightly sweet shrimp, the bright acidic crunch of pink pickled onions, tender juicy bursts of sweet apricot punctuated by ground up szechuan peppercorns.  So happy to have foie at all, any time I'm out of state - but I so appreciated the creative fun delicious prep / presentation of foie here. 

On recommendation, I also went for the Clam Chowder ($11) with nueske's bacon, house made oyster crackers. Presented in a mason jar.  This may have been one of the best clam chowders in recent memory, for texture as well as taste - actual whole clams in here, and I loved the drizzle of Serrano pepper hot sauce on top which gave it a nice kick.

Finished lunch off with a Lobster Roll with pickled vegetables and fried onions.  The chunks of lobster were generous, and the pairing with fried onion strings and pickled veggies for contrasting crunch was brilliant.

Girl and the Goat

On another trip, I was able to get in the night before, in time for dinner at the much raved about Girl and the Goat.  (Though Alinea and Next are both on my bucket list, unfortunately the ticketing system requires that I find at least 1 other person to dine with - unless I wanted to pay double, when I can barely afford my own way in...and there were no other foodies on my trip :(.  But I was glad to be able to check out some of the other amazing restaurants in the city.)  I actually made a reservation in advance, but opted last minute to sit at the communal table at the bar, the better to meet hopefully interesting people (which I did, a doctor visiting from NYC for a job interview) and scope out other dishes even if only visually.

Though the menu was relatively limited, there were many decidedly not-run-of-the-mill items that made it difficult to choose (drat human limitations on stomach capacity!).  I finally went with the Goat Carpaccio with smoked trout roe and olive-maple vinaigrette, which was one of the best sliced raw meat dishes I've ever had!

The texture of the goat was smooth and felt fatty, so that you could almost mistake it for toro sashimi (fatty tuna) - except that it tastes, of course, meaty.  This made the addition of smoked trout roe, totally make sense - the little orange orbs looked like salmon roe, another staple of Japanese cuisine.  Who would have thought to pair goat with roe?  But it works incredibly well -loved the fatty sashimi-like texture of the goat, punctuated by delicate burst of brine from the caviar.  The other toppings also sent this experience through to foodgasm - the counterbalancing crunch of greens and fresh fried chips was perfect with the other elements of the dish.  Olive made me think Italian and Maple pointed to Canadian - the two together added a nuanced sweet-savory that worked surprisingly well with everything else on the plate.  If I had had time to get away for another dinner, I would have gone back for this.

I knew as soon as I read the next item that I could not leave without trying it: Duck Tongues with tuna and black bean poke, crispy wontons.  The prep of this was a really interesting, almost rebellious mash-up of different cuisines: the duck tongues were lightly fried, but super juicy and tender inside, so that the texture reminded me of mongolian beef; the tuna poke had American Japanese influence, while the black beans with crunchy 'chips' made of fried wonton skins for some reason made me think Tex Mex.  But this too, all worked together.  I couldn't stop eating.

Their menu apparently is constantly changing - so not sure if these dishes will be available again - but given my limited taste of the menu, I will definitely head back to Girl and the Goat the next chance I get!


One of the best meals I had in Chicago was squeezed in last minute - literally before I left for the airport. I had to get another foie fix before returning to draconian California.

But where to find foie at lunch, besides GT Fish & Oyster?  The bartender at Henri saved me (I heart you food-loving Chicagoans!) by being yet another friendly force that convinced the kitchen to serve me a dinner menu item at lunch. The Roasted Foie Gras ($28) with burnt peach panna cotta, foie gras mousse, pecan butter, gooseberry, and currants was not only beautiful, with creative pairings of textures and flavors, but pretty much so foodgasm-inducing that had I not been sitting among reserved corporate power lunchers, I would have picked up the plate and licked it clean (blame my near lack of decorum on PETA and spineless California lawmakers).

Out to maximize on every bite of foie I could get my hands on, I also 'found' an item from their lunch menu that allowed diners to add "cured foie" to it as a topping. The Stone Oven Pissaladiere ($14) with Salt Roasted Pear, gruyere, lardon, pistou (add $16 for cured foie gras) was one of the best pizzas I'd ever tasted, mainly because the toppings wre so amazing together.

I was so engrossed in the foie filled meal that I ran out of time to check out Millennium Park, which was right across the street. 

As someone who normally doesn't like to bring leftovers to the airport, especially while trying to get through security - I had to make an exception with this one as I couldn't bear to part with any morsel of this.  I savored the rest on the plane, on my way back to foie-less California, while brushing back salty wistful angry tears.

Rick Bayless' Frontera Fresco

Sometimes, good food is found at the top floor of a department store, in a gourmet food court.  In this case, the top of a historic building housing a giant, 7-story flagship Macy's.  For some reason Rick Bayless' endeavors in LA did not really hold that much appeal for me - but while in Chicago, I was glad that a colleague led us on a quick excursion out of the conference venue to check out Frontera Fresco, which had an awesome casual vibe befitting the venue.
I immediately liked that they didn't take themselves too seriously here, but they took the quality of food seriously. We started at the fresh guac bar - where you could choose toppings (as if this was a sundae!) - for your bit of 'butterfruit' heaven.

We opted for no toppings though as we expected the rest of our meal to be super flavorful.  The avocados in the guac were absolutely flawless.  None of us enjoyed the chips though - which were too thick and too salty for our tastes.  We wanted a light, crispy, crunchy chip to just be a vehicle to showcase the fabulous guac.

The Handmade Chipotle Chicken Tamale with stone ground corn and chipotle chicken served with chipotle salsa ($4.50) was delicious - it was good that they put the salsa outside the wrap so that it wouldn't soak into the tamale before you were ready to eat.
Cubana Torta ($8.95) Roast pork, Chihuahua cheese, applewood smoked bacon, black beans, cilantro crema, chipotle mustard and avocado.  We might have just been starved for non-conference food, but this was one of the best sandwiches we thought we'd ever had! Bread perfectly panini-grilled, yieldy warm cheese, super tender roast pork, flavorful crema and chipotle mustard.

I had wanted to try the Roasted Corn and Poblano Chowder too, but they had already sold out of it by the time we arrived.

If you miss out on the chance to eat at this location, FYI they have a counter at the American Airlines departure terminal at the O'Hare airport!!!

Definitely need another fix next time I'm in town or on layover.

Willis Tower 103rd Floor Deck
We also got a chance to make it up to the top of the Willis (formerly Sears) tower one night - the view was definitely spectacular.

But the coolest part is the glass bottom observation deck, where you can stare down the side of the tower to the buildings and street below, and grab your photo opp for your souvenir from the Chicago architectural icon.

More to come: recaps of my meals at Blackbird, The Publican, and other Chicago greats from subsequent trips!



Shoreline Sightseeing
River Architecture Tour
Get tickets from booth at Navy Pier (Ph: 312-222-9328)

GT Fish & Oyster
531 N Wells St, Chicago, IL
Ph: 312.929.3501
OpenTable: Look for reservations and points here
GT Fish & Oyster on Urbanspoon 

619 West Randolph. Chicago, IL 60661
Ph: 312.715.0708

Girl and the Goat
809 W Randolph St, Chicago IL, 60607
Ph: 312.492.6262
Girl & the Goat on Urbanspoon

Frontera Fresco
111 North State St., Chicago, IL 60602
Ph: 312.701.4483
Frontera Fresco on Urbanspoon

18 South Michigan Avenue Chicago, IL 60603
Ph: 312.578.0763
Henri on Urbanspoon

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