Thursday, November 18, 2010

Eating Chicago

I’ve been away on business for most of the last two weeks, but don’t feel bad for me because I drew the lucky straw. I spent time in two of the most culturally and culinarily happening cities in the country: Chicago and New Orleans. As our fair city continues its methodical, intentional transformation from General Motors’ bastard child to a college town with a more diverse economy and a burgeoning food scene, Flint should pay close attention to these two metropolitan gems. (By the way, with more than 33,000 college students in the Flint area—a third of the overall population—the college town moniker is more a reality than a fantasy).


The more interesting of my two trips was the one to Chicago, and instead of driving or flying, I took the Amtrak train. I highly recommend the Flint to Chicago train ride because a) the train leaves from the MTA headquarters right off Dort Highway and I-69, b) round trip tickets average fifty to sixty bucks, and c) the train pulls into Union Station in downtown Chicago, which is close to almost everything. This is without question my favorite Midwestern city. Between the art, the architecture, the music, and the food, Chicago deserves its place as one of America’s great cities.


On my recent trip, I met up with and spent time with my friend Shaunanne, who is one of my favorite peeps on the planet. We share a love for good food (and good wine) and, bless her heart, Shaunanne did a bunch of research ahead of time and found some stunning restaurants. Two in particular are worth noting. The first, where we had dinner on Friday night, is MK on North Franklin. It’s billed as one of the top ten restaurants in Chicago. The prices are steep, but for a high-end restaurant they’re pretty reasonable. And the place isn’t half as pretentious as I expected. Their website is a pretty good sign that they don’t take themselves too seriously. They say,


we believe:
at our core, we're just a mom and pop establishment.
that food is a metaphor for the good things in life.
there's no substitute for live charcoal.
that ingredients are more important than recipes.
in honoring thy farmer.
in sauces and history.
forced formality is for fakers.
our wine list rocks.
if you're not enjoying yourself, neither are we.
that a room full of people dressed for dinner is a thing of beauty.
that visual art makes great foreplay.
in understated elegance and sensual minimalism.
that excellence and consistency are our middle names.
we believe in withstanding the test of time.


How can you go wrong with a philosophy like that? If you’re into Italian and French cooking (I just finished Julia Child’s memoir and now I’m stumbling through French cooking at home), and if you like good wines (the Sonoma Valley Zinfandel is quite good), and If you like stunning atmosphere complete with great art and tasteful, minimalist décor, then you’re gonna love this place. (Check out some great photos of the food and dining room at www.mkchicago.com).

Our server was the newest member of the staff, and she’s been working at MK for almost three years which, I think, is a pretty strong endorsement of the restaurant. Still, our server, while attentive and polite at first, totally dropped the ball after our entrees were delivered, and we barely saw her for the rest of the stay. I’ve said many times before (geez, I sound like my dad) that if any one of the three standards of a good dining experience isn’t up to par, it could ruin the whole experience. Even after enjoying some pretty great food in a pretty stunning setting, we left with a pretty bad taste in our mouths about the whole evening, thanks to a pretty unprofessional server.

The following night, however, was mostly completely different. The place we chose is called Gilt Bar, and it’s located north of the River on West Kinzie Street. Less expensive and more casual than MK, Gilt is a little slice of foodie heaven. Their website bio says, “You should probably eat here. We have lots of ingredients paired with a bunch of flavors, expertly combined via kitchen magic and a little touch of what we like to call…um, chefery…”

With its low-lit, earth-toned dining room, including a small area adorned with a coffee table and a couple of love seats for a super relaxed dining atmosphere, Gilt was dripping with an unpretentious trendiness. The busy chefs worked their “kitchen magic” in a well choreographed mix of control and chaos, which customers can see through the large opening cut into one end of the dining room. Watching the chefs work with such synergy and focus was a bonus addition to an already electric atmosphere.

The wait staff experience was pretty different than the night before and mostly in a good way but, oddly, none of our servers—at least three staff members took care of us—introduced themselves or offered any introduction of their presence at all. They appeared. They took care of business. And they disappeared. It was a queer approach to customer service, but they were neither intrusive nor un-attentive, and overall I quite liked it.
But the food is why you absolutely have to come here. Gilt isn’t listed as a top ten Chicago, though in my book it certainly should be. The menu was simple, the choices mouthwatering, and the prices astonishingly reasonable (the full menu is on their website at www.giltbarchicago.com). I loved the minimalist approach to the major choices: ON TOAST; SALAD; PASTA; MEAT & SEAFOOD.

The ON TOAST section was the most intriguing and is the section we ordered most of our dinner from. We ordered the Foie gras mousse, served with thick pieces of char-grilled bread that managed to be crispy and soft and warm and sturdy enough to hold the mousse. That’s a hell of a lot to ask from a bread, but the “chefery” at Gilt astounded us even on this level. The foie gras, which is made from the liver of a goose that’s been specially fattened—a practice that’s so controversial, foie gras was banned from restaurants in Chicago until just a year or two ago—was creamy, slightly earthy, and ever so buttery. At one point, I just fell back in my seat and reveled in the taste.

We also ordered the tenderloin steak tartar with slow poached egg yolk, shallots & capers, another knockout selection. The fat level of the steak was just enough to give the meat a smooth, wet texture that, combined with the distinct fresh beef flavor, the fresh cilantro, and the heat of some fresh peppers made this dish every bit as good as the foie gras. We added a pear and candied pecan salad that was accompanied by the best piece of Bleu cheese I’ve ever tasted (it was better than any cheese I’ve eaten from the Flint Farmer’s Market, and those guys set a pretty high bar). This Bleu was as creamy as a good brie with the all of the Bleu cheese flavor you’d expect.

We almost went for the wine list at Gilt but at the last minute decided on their signature IPA. It wasn’t too hoppy, had a good sweet after taste to it, and best of all it was the perfect pairing for our food. Gilt has only been open since February, but the early signs point to a real winner. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and if you go I’d recommend going online for a reservation to make sure you get a table. I’m going back to Chicago in March and Gilt will be the first restaurant on my list.

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