I'm old enough to know that birthdays will be what you make of them. So for my birthday every year, I coerce my 4 best friends to meet me in another city for a weekend of food adventures and being cold. This year, low airfares and a famed shiny bean were enough to persuade the squad to book tickets for Chicago. Illinois is a state I hadn't before visited and the only parameters I had set were "let's go to a city I haven't been to before and eat everything." They agreed.
The email thread leading up to the trip nailed two things down: 1.) holy sh*t we're adults now, who plan things via email and not text message. Is this what your late twenties are like? 2.) "where are we eating?" is probably the only question that needed answering after "where are we sleeping?"
A list was rounded out. With help from one of account managers, Allie, we cobbled together a list of restaurants and bars that were "must-sees." Lots of animals in the names - goat, cheval, dove, chicken. Next? Make some reservations... shout out to Open Table for making that a process that required a few clicks and no calls.
March 10th rolled around and we were off. Imagine departing a freakishly sunny Los Angeles and landing in jeans, a Richer Poorer tee and a wool coat thinking "What does 30º feel like again?" and being reminded as I stepped off the plane and the gap between the plane and the jet bridge delivered a breeze that made me understand "freezer burn."
The Los Angeles contingent consisted of my friend Joe and I and we arrived to the Airbnb to balloons and donuts from the Doughnut Vault. A knock on the door announced the arrival of our "quinessential Chicago dinner" which included Italian Beefs, Chicago dogs and of course, a deep dish from Pequod's. As a native Angeleno and a big proponent of pizzas everyday, I have to confess... I don't get it. There's so much bread. It reminded me of elementary school and those french bread pizzas. Lots of carbs, very filling. If loving NY-style thin crust is a sin, call me a sinner.
The next morning found us completely bundled up - think heattech undershirt tucked into thermal leggings tucked into my wool socks. I don't ever recall FEELING my clothes on me until that day. We piled into a Lyft and pulled up to our first reservation spot - The Publican.
The car door opened and it hit me like a wave. The air smelled like chocolate. Chocolate. The air. Smelled like chocolate. Heady and saccharine, whatever it was wafted freely between the brick buildings and none of the locals seemed phased. It was like the episode of How I Met Your Mother with the apartment in the neighbourhood of "Dowisetrpla" except that instead of a sewage treatment plant, it must have been a chocolate factory. Did Willy Wonka take up residence in the Windy City? Staggering through the candied street, I was shepherded into the hallowed hall of The Publican. Greeted by massive paintings of heritage pork breeds, we were seated at the dining table that intersected the dining room. Tall-backed wooden chairs the reminded me of church and an eclectic European menu that mingled with hearty midwest sensibility. (Cold weather, hearty foods.) A round of oysters, Wellfleet whenever possible, accompanied by weisswurst, soft pretzel, pork belly, potato hash, crab scramble and an endive salad because we're from LA and for appearances sake at least, a salad of some kind needed to hit the table. And of course, french fries topped with an egg. Because it was an option. Why isn't it an option everywhere? Potatoes are in almost every restaurant. So are eggs. Answer me, America!
After lunch, in a carb coma, we stumbled over to Publican Meats and marvelled before making our way towards that mysterious chocolate smell. On the way, we stumbled across a leaking, frozen fire hydrant.
Upon closer inspection, we found a set of car keys. It was rather unsettling and to this day, I wonder if that poor St. Paddy's Day parade goer ever found his keys...
Our noses led up to Blommer Chocolate Factory. We stocked up and made our way, following the green-clad crowds to the green river. A visit to the shiny bean was followed up by a recommendation from our Lyft driver. Cindy's. A rooftop bar that overlooked Millennium Park. The inside resembled a greenhouse meets beach house and we settled in with cocktails and a bottle of Le Seul Vi Elderberry wild ale. A needed respite from the cold and an amazing view. We stopped downstairs at the game room of the Chicago Athletic Association before heading off to dinner, Nico Osteria in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood.
There we were saddled with a huge tray of bread which we gawked at, then readily devoured, fighting over the slices with the whole olives hidden like tiny Baby Jesus's in the bread. We stuffed ourselves with crudo, grilled octopus, stuffed papparadelle, orecchiette, and osso bucco. The flavours were beautiful - light but hearty, the perfect balance of acid and fat. We slept soundly that night.
The next morning was breakfast at Dove's Luncheonette. A fantastic name that let's the food creep up on you. Pleased to find incredible Mexican flavors in America's heartland, served with a southern slant. I also spotted some apron squad members working the line, always a good sign! The ceviche was a must and Joe, being allergic to shrimp, still participated. There was also a runny egg topping carnitas. The pozole was so good I honestly can't remember what else we ate. Be sure to order it. Warm ya right up.
More meandering before drinks at Violet Hour. Incredible ambiance, intimate yet bustling. Our server explained confidently each of his favorite cocktails and the experience was entirely welcome, paving way for great conversation and debates. We left with just enough time to get to our dinner reservation, amazed at the sudden blanket of snow that ascended on Wicker Park as we sipped at our drinks.
Girl and the Goat. Our final dinner in Chicago. We popped shishito peppers like they were chips and chased them with a roasted beet salad. (Always say yes to anchovies.) The flavors were bold and braided together seamlessly. I had never had duck tartare before that night. The pig face was succulent and so well balanced I wanted to cry. I appreciate the use of tamarind, harissa and piri piri. Funky. Brilliant.
We were the last diners and went off into the snow, Chicago's first of 2017.
Now, without intending to, we had visited five of eight One Off Hospitality Group joints. And finally I have a place to sing their praises. The common thread of wholehearted hospitality (read: incredibly knowledgeable and warm wait staff) and a "notch above cool" ambiance (read: utterly comfortable in their own skin and vibe) ran through all the places we dined/drank at. The Malin + Goetz soap and Dyson hand-dryers were a "hey, we care about design and aesthetics" while still allowing each place to do justice to its own brand identity. The menus were expansive but not overwhelming, giving guidance without actually saying a word to the diner. Cohesive without being boring, I highly recommend someone just plan a trip to Chicago and eat at ALL of the One Off restaurants and report back.
Ipsento - Best coffee in Chicago. Cute baristas who bring you croissants and offer bar suggestions. Thumbs up.
Honey Butter Chicken - Don't know what's better, the chicken, the honey butter or the pimento mac-n-cheese. Get all three. They also have beer. And bloody mary's.
Speaking of, I had a bloody mary at every opportunity. Chicago, you spoil me.
Wish I had a chance to eat at Parachute. I love that Chicago has such diverse culinary cultures intermingling.
Forgive me for the lack of food pictures. I'm hardly that person anymore and combined with the fact that I usually have the first bite in my mouth before the waiter even leaves, my photo roll was quite lacking this time around.
How about you? Any must-haves in Chicago? What are your thoughts (non-Chicagoans) on deep dish? Am I missing the point? Teach me how to live!
-- Diane is Hedley & Bennett's Brand Manager and was not paid by One Off Hospitality for this sparkling review. She's just a huge nerd with a passion for good soap. And design.
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