Monday April 4. I’ve flown to Chicago, working as a vendor for a trade show. No one with me this time, need to make friends or explore on my own.
As I sit in the hotel café for lunch (standard issue marinated vegetable wrap, good but unremarkable and crispy fries) the table nearby is sat and starts to review the menu. The server approaches the table and reviews the specials. Suddenly the woman at the table erupts, “Cauliflower Soup, that’s disgusting! Who would eat that! There must have been a lot of leftover cauliflower!” This repeats each time she is joined by someone else in the party and continues the duration of my lunch. The entire table complains that there is nothing worth eating here because everything is too fancy. Please note there were two chicken sandwich options, a couple of burgers, salads and deli sandwiches. I vow at that point that I will no longer dine where others are forced to (hotel restaurants or cafeterias), as they will not appreciate what they are being served.
Later that evening I’m mingling with the other vendors and attendees at the opening reception. A quick trip around the room, I say hello to a few of the vendors I’ve seen before at other shows. I join a vendor I met at the same show last week. The reception is wrapping up and we realize we still need dinner. Plans to throw on jackets and hit Chicago on foot are carried out within 5 minutes and we are walking through the Greek town. We pass around a dozen self-proclaimed authentic Gyro restaurants and my heart leaps – this is my go to, anytime food. I’m thrilled but not yet hungry so we keep walking, after all I did have a gyro two days ago. We walked to the Willis (Sears) tower, over to Union Station and found ourselves back in Greek town (yay!). We chose the most lively, open looking bar and saddle up.
We both order the Gyros Sandwich with fries, I order my fries extra crispy. A larger platter is available for a few dollars more but we are pretending to be ladies. Our plates arrive with the distinct smell of lamb and onions. My co-diner takes one look at my plate and says she should have ordered her fries crispy as well. Not that her fries didn’t look good, but most forget what a truly crispy, golden brown french fry can be. I always order my fries and hash browns crispy. The meat appears to be the same large cone of lamb based gyro meat you find at most Greek places but here they have cut thicker pieces. These thicker pieces hold in the juice better while getting caramelized edges on the flat top – I approve. The pita was perfectly chewy and warm and the tzatziki was good and cold with a healthy dose of garlic.
Walking the streets of Chicago warmed by lamb I take note of the local cafes available for those living here and think of the hidden treasures back home.
Tuesday, April 5
Starbucks treated me well this morning with a venti Earl Grey, fruit cup and bagel. Simple, familiar, I rarely pass the opportunity for fresh produce. My co-worker (who lives in Chicago but was stuck in traffic) appears later that morning. Lunch was your standard trade show fair. If the vendors are allowed to eat it is only after the attendees have gone through. None of the entrees were left so I nibbled on lettuce, tomatoes, pasta salad and green beans. Then as we have a break I get to know my co-worker a bit better. CT reveals himself as a foodie and we chat about places to go in Cleveland when he comes to home office and he makes recommendations for my next few meals in Chicago. CT mentions a small plates spot nearby he always wanted to try as well as a favorite brunch spot for tomorrow morning before my flight out. While the show is having their breakout sessions we look over the menus online. He has to leave right after the show so I’m on my own. The small plates place seems really excited about their chorizo stuffed dates and so is everyone else on random review sites.
Dinner – Avec www.avecrestaurant.com
I walk by myself enjoying the freedom of being semi-lost in a strange city. The building is small and unassuming. I find the entrance and push open the heavy wooden door. The restaurant is only 20 feet wide and maybe 5 times as long. I’ve been in hotel rooms bigger but the room is buzzing with old friends, first dates and city hipsters. The left side of the restaurant is a clean lined bar and the right is one row of intimate tables. The hostess is charming and happy – a welcome change from your usual snooty greeting. A 5 minute wait and there is a spot at the bar for me. The first spot – right next to the hostess who replaces the daisy in her hair as often as she smiles at her regulars walking through the door. She checks my coat and offers some water. We have a brief discussion about city tap water around the country and she helps me debate my beer options. The two beers that stand out to me are unfortunately served in 750 ml bottles and a bit much for me. She recommends the bar’s favorite Atomium Grand Cru. I review the menu and realize that the star jewel in the menu (those dates) might be like the beer – a bit much for just me. The server to the rescue! (Befriend your server and bartender they are there to help). The server announces that the dates are not to be missed and that they will be happy to make me a half portion! I choose a shaved fennel salad to join the dates and sip my beer in anticipation.
The Grand Cru is mild, a friendly golden color with a subtle sweetness and a light hoppy aftertaste. The salad arrives first. Shaved fennel, white asparagus, red wine soaked manchego cheese, grapes and walnuts. The salad was beautifully bitter and acidic, the grapes and cheese cut the bitterness with bites of creamy and sweet. The dates arrive chorizo-stuffed, smoked bacon wrapped and sitting in a spicy tomato sauce made with piquillo peppers. The half order was two dates but with the meatball of chorizo topping each one this is plenty. The dates are everything they promised, chewy smoked bacon protecting this little package of spice and sweet. Though not greasy at all they have the feeling of richness. The bitter salad and the fatty dates are good friends, and then I remembered the beer. The friendly, unassuming beer was the perfect balance between the dishes rounding the meal together. The sauce was sopped up with conveniently placed crusty bread and I was stuffed. This feast was $20 and a steal at that.
Saying goodbye to the daisy wearing hostess was hard, like I was now a member of her family. She assured me I would be back and that there would be a place for me. I believe her whole heartedly.
I am quickly becoming a fan of walking the streets of Chicago in the evening.
Until we eat again,