Sometimes a girl just has to get out of Dodge. Thankfully four day weekends and a major city just an hour and half train ride away allows for that fairly easily. Throw hospitable high school friends into the mix and you've got yourself a fabulous night out in Chicago.
I have to give the friends bonus props as they apparently drank their Thanksgiving dinner, plus some, the night (and day) prior. Luckily they were still up for taking me out as planned.
After all, I have been trying to meet up in Chicago with Sheila and Monica for five years, give or take. Our friend Timmi started med school in Waukegan this semester and our friend Ryan decided to come visit for the holiday week, so plans could not be set aside because of the after effects of our two-faced friend alcohol.
We started our night off at a restaurant called The Publican (surprisingly this place doesn't appear to have its own website) in the West Loop, fairly close to Sheila's condo. I enjoyed a delicious cider selected from the extensive beer menu, while Sheila, Timmi and I waited for Monica and Ryan to arrive. From the moment we arrived the service excelled. Add to the mix that Monica is friends with the manager and we were treated like absolute royalty.
I guess the best way to describe the vibe of this place is "communal chic." From the seating to the food presentation to the bathrooms, the emphasis is all on shared experiences.
Because that bathroom reference may have confused/grossed you out, I'll describe those first.
You walk into the restroom area and initially only see the giant round sink, which is a hybrid of a fountain in the town square of a European village and the sink in your elementary school bathroom (but instead of that pink chalky soap, they have some fine French hand wash and body lotion). Another diner and I discussed watering our goat here and we communally washed our hands. Surrounding the fountain sink are six imposing doors -- three labeled women and three men. Each toilet is enclosed in its own individual room -- don't fret, the sharing does stop somewhere!
At any rate, enough about the restrooms, back to the main attraction -- the dining.
We were seated in the interior ring of the dining room at a section of string of long wooded tables forming a hollow rectangle in the center of the restaurant. The outer ring consisted of enclosed booths resembling hog pens. The simple and linear wood decor definitely hit the "European farmhouse" look on the mark. To style it up, the entire room was softly illuminated by rows of spherical ceiling lamps. The one drawback, Monica warned, is that as the place fills up it gets quite loud. There is no fabric to soak up the acoustics.
That's okay though, as our later conversations turned into mere oohs and mmms as the food came out dish by scrumptious dish.
The ordering method and delivery of food as it came up, versus all at once, reminded me quite a bit of La Merenda, one of my favorite Milwaukee eateries. There was also an emphasis on locally-produced foods, and even if not local, each menu item was labeled with its geographic origin. I really wish more places would do this. I certainly care more about sustainability-focused labeling more than nutritional facts.
I did feel a bit bad throwing a kink into the communal ordering with my no red meat or pork rule, but we made due just fine.
Following a serving of homemade sourdough bread with goat butter, we began with a plate of oysters from a variety of locations (clearly these weren't local). I tasted one from Prince Edward Island (Anne of Green Gables oysters, as Monica called them), accurately described as "lettuce-y;" one from Rhode Island (briny); and one from Oregon (I don't recall the description or taste).
After tasting Timmi's, I ordered a Kriekbier (cherry beer) to accompany my meal. A wise choice, as the cherry emphasized the flavors of each plate.
Next in the line up came a heirloom apple salad. Quite possibly in my top five salads of all time. Thinly sliced apples accompanied by pomegranate and pistachios tossed lightly with some sort of tasty greens and a spicy vinaigrette. I don't know how they did it, but there was the perfect amount of dressing. It was also drizzled with some type of warmed, creamy cheese.
During this course the rest of the gang munched on fresh made pork rinds, which I was told were crunchy, salty and tasty.
Up next were our two entrees--a roasted dover sole and grilled farmhouse chicken.
The sole was topped with perfectly seasoned and cooked cauliflower. The fish itself was light, but filling -- again done "just right." The chicken adorned a bed of frites, its juices soaking into the crisp potatoes. (Summer sausage typically balances out the plate as well, but my friends and the kitchen staff were accomodating to my dietary restrictions and it came out separately.) Grilled until just black, the slightly spicy marinated chicken danced on tastebuds (and not the chicken dance).
After the feeding frenzy ended and we began to digest, three desserts magically appeared. A belgian waffle topped with butter, powdered sugar and cherry preserves; a shortbread brownie with a scoop of chocolate ice cream; and brandied date bread pudding with maple sugar ice cream. Normally I am a chocolate gal, but the bread pudding was divinity in a ramekin.
By this time we were sufficiently bursting and Ryan's friends, Max and Porter, showed up to meet us, so we hopped a cab and headed to Danny's Tavern (which also apparently lacks a web presence -- what's up Chicago?) on Dickens (which caused many a giggle) in Wicker Park. Danny's was a GREAT bar. Reasonably priced drinks (I chose the "bang for your buck" route with Unibroue's Chambly Noire), low-key vibe and fantastic music. It definitely got crowded later when the hipster dance party started to the funk and soul. General vibe reminded me of the Riverhorse, which reminded me that I need to go out in Riverwest more. We danced for a bit, Ryan's friends left, Monica's gentleman friend arrived, and we headed out to the last stop on our list.
The California Clipper in Humboldt Park proved to be hipster central, although most of what occured there is very fuzzy. I know Sheila and Timmi left at this point, I know I had a grasshopper, and I know there was some sort of lounge band. I also know that while very groovy, this place could not hold a candle to Bryant's.
Ryan and I made it back to Sheila's in a cab and I promptly passed out on the couch. I managed to wake up by 9 AM and catch a cab to the train station without waking up the sleeping masses (although I think Sheila was up and in the shower). I also must say each time I'm out in Chicago though, I appreciate not reeking of smoke the next day.
I'm so glad I went down there and my Chicago friends were able to show me their town. Hopefully they will make it up to Milwaukee one day so I can show them our hip hangouts.