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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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
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.
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!
River Architecture Tour
Get tickets from booth at Navy Pier (Ph: 312-222-9328)
GT Fish & Oyster
531 N Wells St, Chicago, IL
OpenTable: Look for reservations and points here
619 West Randolph. Chicago, IL 60661
Girl and the Goat
809 W Randolph St, Chicago IL, 60607
111 North State St., Chicago, IL 60602
18 South Michigan Avenue Chicago, IL 60603