January 3, 2017 | About Gael
Exploring Chicago Eats with My Local Guru
Mary's mac'n'cheese is browned and crusty from a last minute under the broiler like Mom's used to be.
In his crowd my brother Jim, who lives in Chicago, is seen as a restaurant guru, fussy about where he dines. He has a favorite destination for steak, a landmark for ribs, a new discovery for pizza. But, of course he treads lightly around me, the Restaurant Critic with all of the Emerald City on my route.
Kids and grandkids come by for Christmas but Mickey the rescue dog gets daily attention from Jim and Mary.
When I asked if I could visit Christmas week, he sounded pleased. He called a few days later to discuss where we would eat. Jim is a careful eater, I might even say, compulsively vigilant. He doesn’t eat lunch and he does a strenuous run on the treadmill seven days a week. He hasn’t gained a pound in 35 years and he doesn’t take many pills because he controls his cholesterol by healthy eating. Obsession runs in the family, it seems, but not delicious excess. He nominated restaurants, some new, some I’ve loved in the past. Here’s where we ate.
When soft shells are not in season, I'll probably get the crab cake at Shaw's Crab House.
Since they’re regulars at Shaw’s Crab House, the manager always saves brother Jim and wife Mary their preferred table. I’m a fan of Shaw’s now, too. I order the soft shell crab in season, but Christmas is not the season. Tonight we’re seven at a big round in the front room.
Since they're regulars at Shaw's Mary and Jim usually sit in the front room. That's where we are tonight.
Our server marches up to the table and announces herself with the brass of a one-woman off-Broadway performer. Ethel Mermanlike. She’s pushing the oysters, $18 for six. My brother, his son Gabe, and I each order a cup of New England clam chowder to start. I eat too many crackers waiting for our order to arrive.
Almost always, brother Jim orders the Parmesan-crusted George's Bank haddock with lemon butter.
Jim chooses his usual entree: Parmesan crusted George’s Bank haddock with spinach and lemon butter. He doesn’t ask to have it any special way, as I might, ever fussy, because I want my fish lightly cooked. He offers me a forkful. It tastes fresh and certainly not overcooked.
Some order oysters tonight but the three of us will start with a cup of New England chowder.
I must have crab because it’s a crab house. I consider the stone crab and the steamed king crab, “Our specialty.” And then chose the 6-oz. jumbo lump crab cake with red pepper mayonnaise, not sure why it is $32 when the Maryland crab cake appetizer is just $15.
Jim orders hash brown potatoes with and without onions for the table. He likes his without onions. I know better than to point out how onions add flavor. These are good, better with onions, of course, though I like my hashed browns more crusted. Next time he’s in New York, I plan to wow him with the crusty beauties at Porterhouse.
Shaw's has an assortment of pies. Tonight I'll have the raspberry pie warmed and with ice cream on top.
Jim will have Shaw’s iconic peppermint stick ice cream with chocolate fudge syrup, a brilliant combination. I’ve tried it. But for me, it will always be pie. Tonight I’ll have the raspberry pie with berries from Mike & Jean’s Berry Farm in Mt. Vernon, Washington. My neighbor asks for his warm, so I do too. And à la mode. Shaw’s Crab House. 21 East Hubbard Street. 312 527 2722.
This thrilling truffle-scented pastry greets us after a friend calls RPM Italian to say that I'm coming for dinner.
What I like about RPM Italian is its spiffy and elegant chiaroscuro design and a menu so full of temptations that it takes us forever to narrow the choice down to a sane dinner for three. Tonight a friend has called to alert the kitchen that I’m coming so we’re in the same big booth we sat in last year. The server is trying to be welcoming, but he doesn’t know where to draw the line. He’s overly intimate and really annoying. But the perfume and crunch of the kitchen’s gift, savory pastry oozing truffle scent, is instantly diverting.
RPM Italian, With Its great black-and-white look, is almost always packed, the crowd in sequins and jeans.
I’m tempted by the prosciutto-wrapped dates, robiola crostini, lobster caprese, Bigeye tuna bruschetta on garlic toast, RPM Caesar wedge, fritto misto and mushroom agnolotti, any and all of those, but I don’t want to seem pushy. Mary wants balsamic glazed beets, and is wavering between pasta or a steak.
We couldn't order everything that called out to me from the menu because, let's face it, Mary wanted beets.
Jim has chosen garlic toast and sea scallops. I’ve already insisted we try the chef’s burrata “in carrozza.” And Mary is willing to share rare bone-in ribeye with me. Agreeing we could use something green, we settle on zucchini fritters – Chef Doug Psaltis’ puffy balloon chips. They are scarcely the healthy green our mom Saralee would have had in mind, we all agree with a let’s-go-to-the devil air.
I encouraged Mary to get the hand-cut pasta Bolognese and trade with me for half my bone-in ribeye.
The little fried burrata balls don’t have quite the ooze of an old fashioned mozzarella carrozza, but they’re amusing. The garlic bread lacks garlic. And the steak could be rarer. If they didn’t know it was me, I might send it back. I have sent back steaks and burgers that weren’t really rare after one bite. But I don’t want to go on record here as a bitch.
I would never have ordered scallops but I must admit they were perfectly cooked, flavorful on butternut squash.
Basically, we’re happy. The Painted Hills Ranch steak is good enough. The scallops are almost celestial. I can’t stop eating the fried zucchini pillows. That truffled pastry giveaway still haunts me. The Chianti I’ve ordered is big and fruity, good with everything. Jim and I give the dessert nod to Mary. The bomboloni donuts to dip in Nutella that she chooses, take a while to arrive. Cooked to order, the menu has warned.
Fried zucchini puffs are not exactly the green vegetable we tried to order but virtue isn't everything.
The house was full when we arrived and we’ve been here so long that there’s been a total turnover. The captain who stops by for our approval of every dish and wants to know what we’re doing for New Year’s Eve is finally distracted. Just when I’m eager to check out. A host sees my arm waving and takes my credit card. Celebrating Jim’ birthday and mine belatedly, we’ve managed to rack up a $500 tab. RPM Italian. 52 W. Illinois. 312 222 1888.
Noodles are the name of the game at Imperial Lamian, so I insisted we should get some. Best dish of the night.
Jim and Mary are excited about introducing me to a new discovery, Imperial Lamian. Apparently, they’ve finally found a Chinese restaurant they like. We’re seated in a booth a foot from the noodle master. Lamian means noodles. And these are tossed and pulled all evening. I’ve seen more theatrical noodle tossing in my time, but, never mind. It’s the taste that counts. My boozy East Meets West cocktail is putting me in a positive mood.
A half dozen assorted dumplings come into the steamer. The color of their skins make them look lethal.
They agree to try the shrimp-stuffed chicken wings I spy on the menu. Quite edible, they’re a modest version of the cosmic shrimp-stuffed duck at Red Farm. Assorted dim sum in a covered steamer are marketed as Shanghai dumplings. I worry that the exotic colored wrappers could be lethal. At least there is no red dye #2.
The ribs are definitely better than the soft shell crab that tasted like last week's leftovers.
Alas, the stale soft shell crab tastes like it was fried last week. Scraggly pieces of stringy London duck with a pale imitation of hoisin sauce are a pitiful stand-in for the Peking bird, though the crepes piled into another steamer are remarkably thin. Four jasmine ribs for $28 are good enough, I suppose.
But the noodles, skimpily tossed with a few slivered vegetables, are great. Can this really be the best Chinese Chicago has to offer? With drinks and beer, we’ve spent $208 for three. 6 West Hubbard Street. 312 595-9440.
Everything about the apple hazelnut salad with crisp lettuce strikes me as perfect, fresh, a bit vinegary.
We’re going all the way downtown for pizza tonight, so I’m guessing it must be pretty special. We’re ridig Lyft there and will grab a taxi home. I like pan-pizza and I’d probably succumb to a boutique deep-dish Chicago pizza, but Robert’s Pizza Company is neither Roman nor Neapolitan nor what we used to call Greek in Detroit. And yes, it is very good pizza.
As unlikely as it seems, Mary and I both agreed on the huevos rancheros pizza. An excellent choice.
Much bigger than plate size, two pizzas are more than the three of us can finish. Mary and I share a very elegant toss of crunchy lettuce with apple thins and hazelnuts while waiting for our Huevos Rancheros pie to arrive. Granted, it's hardly classic. I surprise myself by agreeing with Mary to try it, but it seems like fun, and it is delicious, with islands of egg still meticulously runny.
Jim chose pepperoni, mushrooms and caramelized onions for his create-it-yourself white pizza.
We each take a triangle of Jim’s “Create Your Own” –- tomato-free with studded pepperoni, mushrooms and caramelized onions. That’s good too. The dough cannot compete with my favorites at L’Amico, Marta, and Covina in New York, but it’s good enough, not bland, not too thin, not rubbery. Impossible to even think of dessert. 355 East Ohio. 312 222 0905
Mary is an excellent cook. Her braised short ribs, zucchini tart and apple pie on Christmas day were exceptional. I’ve been putting leftover apple pie on my zero calorie Greek yogurt and All-Bran at breakfast because calories don’t count when you’re out of town.
I suggest we cancel our dinner Friday and stay home for her macaroni and cheese and Caesar salad. The macaroni is richer than Mom ever dreamed, and it’s browned and crusty from bread crumbs and grated cheese topping toasted under the broiler at the end.
Jim boasts that her Caesar is fiercely garlicked. “You can’t scare me,” I respond. I notice she uses garlic croutons by my advertiser Fresh Gourmet. I finish the last scrape of the big salad bowl. Something green, just in time. I find a truffle from Jim’s birthday stash and we meet downstairs for three hours of Breaking Bad. We’re deep into the second disc. I’m addicted now.
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