Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Food Vacation in Chicago.

I love going to restaurants, especially ethnic, to taste what other cooks do with vegetables and grains. If they don’t feature several vegetarian dishes, I don’t go there.
I especially like to check out the cuisines that I am less familiar with – like all the Asian possibilities: Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese or Indian.   There always seems to be something vegetarian or which can be made vegetarian.  Of course another mother lode of vegetarian treats occurs in the Mid-East, with similar but distinctly different cuisines from Greece, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey.  Morocco and Ethiopia hold treasures to taste and learn about.   And so when I hear about, for instance, a new Thai restaurant opening in Bridgeport, I try it out of course. I am particularly interested in the places opened by recent immigrants, who are cooking for others in their own community, and not catering to an American palate.
Around here examples are the new Ruuthai’s Kitchen (Thai) on Beechwood Ave in Bridgeport, Pho Saigon (Vietnamese) in Bridgeport, Navaratna (Indian) in Stamford, Jolo’s Kitchen (Rastafarian) in New Rochelle, N.Y., and Hajime (Japanese) in Harrison, N.Y. which boasts a significant Japanese population.

So it should not be surprising that our vacations are always intensive food/restaurant hunts. We research the city to which we are headed and try to find really good vegetarian food. This was true of Oaxaca, Mexico; Montreal and Vancouver, Canada; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Istanbul, Turkey; Austin, Texas; and this year, Chicago, Illinois.
I had read Windy City by Scott Simon some years ago and was interested in the city’s ethnic neighborhoods.  We were told, “…don’t go in February”, but that’s when we close Bloodroot, and can travel.

Guide books provided me with a list of restaurants; the internet allowed me to peruse each one’s menu. And so choices were made.
We knew we wanted to go to Girl and The Goat Restaurant, where we had a great waitress, Allison.  We enjoyed the Kohlrabi salad and had onion bread with tarragon butter and sweet pepper confit. We went to Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo and his Frontera Grill. There were many highly rated Mexican style restaurants in Chicago – who knew? One puzzled me: Bien Trucha is an hour’s drive out of the city to the town of Geneva.  Zagat gave Bien a 29 for food quality, a very high rating.  Was it worth going so far? Yes! The food was perfect; Appetizers were a row of small tacos filled with vegetables. A salad of arugula with jicama and candied pecans. Guacamole with pomegranate seeds, and a delicious corn cake soaked in syrup for dessert.

The Northeast corner of Chicago (Andersonville) boasts a superb Vietnamese restaurant, Tank Noodle, where the kitchen omitted the meats from their dishes for us without a problem or loss of flavor. 

A simple stir-fry of chives, scallions and mung bean sprouts came in a delicious sauce, with sticky rice, and Banh Xeo crepes and summer rolls were better than those we tried in other Vietnamese restaurants here or elsewhere.  In another nearby neighborhood, we had lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant, Ras Dashen, where there were salads and other vegetable combinations besides the

 pulse purees, on a beautiful  Injera platter. Like everywhere else in Chicago, we were pleased to be treated in such a friendly manner as we were at Ras Dashen and Tank Noodle.  Food at Naha, an elegant “New American” restaurant with Mediterranean roots pleased us with appetizers of a wild mushroom pureed soup, and handmade pasta Strozzapreti.

Our terrific waiter Tiago, at Topolobampo told us to go to Lula Café in Logan Square, in the northwest corner of the city, and indeed the food was up to his praise. We had a wonderful granola, a farro casserole, and a spinach salad.

I was delighted to meet and talk with young men like
 Jason Hammel at Lula Café 
 and Rodrigo Cano from Bien Trucha, both with no formal culinary training, but who each had their own vision of what good food should taste like, and were able to implement this vision.
It was impressive how much our waitress, Allison, at Girl and The Goat, admired Stephanie Izard, the owner/chef. And how much the staff at Topo/Frontera appreciated Rick Bayless, who takes a group of 24 of them to Mexico each year.  I took a tour of the Topolobampo kitchen with Andy, the head chef, who made it clear that sharing know-how is important to them. Rick Bayless is constantly stretching to explore origins of Mexican food and to interpret it to match American ingredient availability.
Taxim served upscale Greek food, delicious, but too crowded and noisy for our comfort.
It took a lot of searching to find a Polish restaurant for pierogi. The Polish community seems to have left the city. Still, the pierogi and potato pancakes we found at Podhalanka were very good.

We stayed in the Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen (once Czechoslovakian) and were grateful for the Oaxacan Mexican coffee at Nuovo Leon on our street. (We were disappointed with the coffee served elsewhere.)
On Sunday, we had a lovely brunch at Nightwood, in our Pilsen neighborhood. Another “new American” restaurant owned by Jason Hammel, the owner of Lula Café.  A lovely comfortable space with an open kitchen.
We were surprised at the condition of the streets. City officials don’t seem to believe in plowing after snowstorms and the number of potholes would rival those of a third world country.
But the skyline!
I never imagined skyscrapers could be so exciting and beautiful. I have always loved going to NYC and coming off the Cross Bronx expressway onto the Westside Highway, to see the Jersey side Palisades. But after traveling along Lakeshore Drive by Lake Michigan, our homecoming trip to NYC paled in comparison!

And the museums. Truly wonderful museums. The Art Institute of Chicago, Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium are all situated near each other on the edge of the lake.  All are beautifully designed and impressive in their politics.  At the Art Institute, I surprised myself by becoming tearful when seeing an original of
Monet’s Water Lilies.                                                                                                                                            

Respect was demanded for peoples’ cultural differences at the Field Museum;

 at the Shedd Aquarium…..it was for us to save ecosystems by eating less meat.
In our Pilsen neighborhood, the Mexican Museum was smaller, but also well done.

Other pleasant surprises – Andersonville, with Tweet for breakfast, a craft galleria, a Swedish bakery, a feminist bookstore: Women and Children First whose owners are retiring, However, there is much interest in purchasing it so it will surely continue.

On Logan Square, where Lula Café is, City Lit
 is another woman owned bookstore which benefits from the weekend lines outside Lula. They are now carrying our cookbooks.

My daughter, Sabrina, asked what I learned that I could bring back to Bloodroot. When I reflected on this I realized that the most exciting ideas were inspired by the most unpretentious restaurants. The Polish restaurant that served us pierogi used a filling of mashed potato, dried porcini bits and sauerkraut. The too-noisy, too-crowded Greek restaurant used the most delicious olive oil we had ever tasted – from single olive variety, Koroneiki. (We found some here at Steve’s Market in Norwalk.) One of our least favorite restaurants, Urban Belly offered a squeeze bottle, which contained a combination of thick soy sauce and balsamic vinegar. Delicious! Unfortunately, the food needed a lot of help and there was very little choice for vegetarians

I’d love to be able to duplicate Frontera Grill’s banana leaf tamales, served with rajas. And we would dearly like to find (or make) better tortillas. We will see what other inspiration makes itself known from our experience in vibrant Chicago.