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Restaurant Review (Chicago): Blackbird

One more thing I didn’t mention about our Chicago weekend was the amazing dinner we had at Blackbird. I’m not quite sure how I picked the restaurant, but somehow I read about it, found it intriguing, and was able to make a reservation.

As it turns out, our meal at Blackbird will be displacing one of the current placeholders from my “Top 5 Meals Ever” as mentioned in another post.

Blackbird was across the river from our hotel in an area called the West Loop. The restaurant itself was very stark. It was mostly white, with a little bit of black, but no other real color to speak of. The meal added the spark. I knew I was in for a wild treat when I didn’t even recognize some of the ingredients listed on the menu.

We started with the server’s recommendation of an endive salad with crispy potatoes, pancetta, and a poached egg. The salad arrived encased in an upright tube of fried potatoes, a spectacular presentation. The server cut the potato container up, which transformed the plate into a riff on the classic French frisee aux lardons salad..

For our entrees, Howard had a slow-cooked halibut with a brandade made from more halibut pureed with broccoli rabe. I chose grilled sturgeon with snails served with pickled Napa cabbage and other pickled vegetables. Both dishes were really unusual and quite delicious.

Finally, we ended the meal with the most beautiful presentation of a cheese plate that I’ve ever seen. I don’t like to take photos of my food in restaurants, so, unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures to share. There were five cheeses, and each cheese had its own accompaniment: We also enjoyed a vintage tawny port (from 1977) with the cheese.

  • California goat cheese served with pickled rhubarb
  • Illinois sheep’s milk cheese served with apricot pate de fruit
  • Cowgirl Creamery ‘Red Hawk’ served with mustard genoise (which was funky, but worked)
  • 8 year cheddar from Wisconsin served with oat and almond granola
  • Bleu d’Auvergne served with honey comb

As a parting sweet, when they brought the bill, we enjoyed little dark chocolates filled with rum.

To top it off, in the latest of the twice-weekly emails I get from Food & Wine listed their picks for the 10 Best New Chefs for 2010, to be featured in the July issue (which didn’t arrive yet). Mike Sheerin, the chef at Blackbird, is one of their choices. Here’s a link to one of his recipes along with a video where he talks about his philosophy of using locally sourced ingredients at his restaurant.

This was a meal that we’ll remember for a long time. It was so unexpected that we picked a restaurant that turned out to be something so special.


Chicago: It’s All about the Architecture

Howard had to go to Chicago to attend a conference (ASCO), so I tagged along. I hadn’t been there in 20 years. In fact, twenty years, we were going to move to Chicago, though, in the end, we didn’t. Other than dinners, I barely saw Howard. In spite of that, I really had a great time.

We flew out on Friday morning, arriving just in time for lunch. First stop was an outdoor art fair. I even bought something, a hand-printed bag that will make a great summer purse. Then, I wandered through Millennium Park and admired the fountains and the sculptures. Next was a stroll down Michigan Avenue, and the Magnificent Mile, with a mini-shopping spree at The Gap (not very original). I also spent a while checking out the Tribune Building. I think it is very cool that stones or other adornments from famous buildings from around the world are embedded into the exterior of this building.

The highlight of the afternoon was the Architectural Boat Tour down the Chicago River, run by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. I sat on the sunny top-deck, and a docent talked for 90 minutes, pointing out dozens of buildings built throughout the past century, as we went up and down the river. I learned that architecture of Chicago was very innovative from the start. The bedrock is 90 feet below the surface, unlike New York, where it is more like 30 feet. This means that the architects and engineers have to use structural devices to spread the load in ways that doesn’t rely on being connected to the bedrock. We saw quite a lot of trusses.

Saturday was packed with more architecture. I took a bus tour (also run by the Chicago Architecture Foundation) that went out to Oak Park, one-time home of Frank Lloyd Wright and his studio. Docents gave us walking tours in three different neighborhoods in Oak Park and River Forest where Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built homes around the turn of the 20th century.

On the bus ride out to Oak Park and during the first walking tour, the weather treated us to torrential rains. I wore a jacket with a hood, but it was more “water-resistant” than “water proof”. My jeans and socks were soaked. I left most of my belongings on the bus, carrying just my camera and wallet. The money in my wallet is still wet, almost a week later.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s house designing started in the 1890’s while he was still working for Adler and Sullivan. He was soon fired and started working on his own. Earlier houses were reminiscent of other style fashionable at the time, such as Queen Anne or Tudor-style houses, but he experimented by adding details that became well-know as his trademark Prairie style. These included deep eaves, strong geometric shapes, native building materials, and lots of horizontal lines. It was fascinating to see how the Prairie style evolved over this period. He left Oak Park in 1909 under a cloud of scandal and didn’t really return.

Before the bus returned to Chicago, they gave us the option to stay and tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio before taking the El back downtown. I was really torn, as the visit seemed incomplete without this last stop. However, I really wanted to spend some time at the Art Institute of Chicago, so I took the bus back.

For the rest of the afternoon, I spent several hours roaming every gallery at the Art Institute. What an incredible museum! I especially enjoyed the Impressionist galleries for the paintings and the Decorative Arts galleries for the furniture, art glass, and pottery. In an upper lobby, there was also a display of architectural fragments taken from buildings around Chicago that had been dismantled or demolished. In the basement, there were a series of miniature rooms showing furnishings from around the world through many centuries of history. I walked until I couldn’t go any more. I was so happy to return to the hotel to sit, relax, and take off my still-wet socks.

The final day was about friends. One of my closest friends since 7th grade lives near Chicago. Her family moved there when we were in college. Though we manage to visit each other with some regularity, it always feels like a special occasion. I was very excited to spend the day with Tracy, Bill, and Haley. As an extra bonus, I also saw Tracy’s mom, Nan, who was like another mom to me when I was in junior high and high school. I hadn’t seen her in almost twenty years. They made a delicious lunch, which we shopped for, prepared, and enjoyed with gusto as we talked about old times and new times for hours. I was sad to say goodbye when they dropped me off at the airport.

I had forgotten what a wonderful city Chicago is to visit. I hope to return there before another twenty years pass. Maybe next time, Howard can share in the sightseeing and other diversions.