The early morning humidity didn’t stop me from taking a 30 minute walk to West Randolph, an interesting stretch known for an array of restaurants of all shapes and sizes. After the first wave of high end places (including a few touting Michelin stars), you hit a block of empty, spray-painted buildings, cut in half by a highway running underneath. Shorty after, the street becomes vibrant again, filled with microbreweries and eateries slapped with celebrity names like Graham Elliot.
The apex of this West Randolph landscape is a cute spinning goat overlooking the street. This was destination number one.
Stop #1- The Little Goat Diner
This Stephanie Izard spin-off offers a bit more versatility than the flagship Girl and the Goat. You can grab a quick breakfast, feast on a hearty dinner and everything in between. You can buy of loaf of bread or drink on the roof. This particular visit was of the breakfast variety. It was about half full and we were seated quickly at a booth. The place had a definite diner vibe. I felt like John Travolta in Pulp fiction. The waiters and waitresses were current and hip and bad-ass despite donning trendy yet old school diner uniforms. There’s something about raven tattoos and dainty dresses that works for me. Coffee flowed, served with smiles and poured from old school pots into mugs stamped with that cute, smiling goat.
The menu is equally dichotomous. One can simply grab bacon and eggs or venture into the creative realm of a number of more exotic options. I didn’t come to Chicago to eat standard fare, so I did what any warm-blooded Irish dude would do; I ordered spaghetti. Presented like a cross between a seafood pasta and an omelette, it was boldly flavoured and sat in a delicious broth. I asked for some hot sauce and was offered a housemade smoky chipotle and an apricot flavoured option which had a little more bite. Both were delicious although I feel the former more suited for the dish. It’s not for everybody, but I’d shelve the home fries any day to dig into this seafood medley.
My colleague went for the bull’ s eye french toast, a crafty demonstration of Korea meets chicken and waffles meets toad in the hole. The sweet dueled with the savory in every bite to create a stimulating battlefield on the tongue. Underneath the chicken, two slightly overcooked eggs stared up from the comfort of the thick brioche. In the end, the savory prevailed, so don’t order it if you need to satisfy your sweet tooth. Otherwise, It’s delicious.
My Take: With so many choices, I’ll have to come back whether it be breakfast, lunch, dinner or sucking back drinks on the rooftop. It’s full of innovation and choices that only makes sense when you read them on a menu. Plus, I enjoy feeling like a Chicago gangster as I sip coffee in an old school diner surrounded by tattooed staff and riffraff such as myself. Don’t expect diner prices, however. It’s not a cheap, unless you come for the experience and settle for one of the daily breakfast specials.
Stop #2- Naha
A lunch appointment kept me downtown for a trip to Naha, a Michelin star restaurant with a bit of a middle eastern flare. It’s spacious and modest, reminiscent of a Moroccan villa. The waitstaff were courteous, although many were wearing these oddly large uniforms that just didn’t seem to fit. A full lunch menu is offered in what seemed to be Chicago fashion: a prix fixe menu for $22. After consuming the Little Goat breakfast earlier that day, I was sort of hoping for Blackbird type portions sizes to save the embarrassment of the ramifications of overindulgence. When asked if I wanted a beverage, I found that the beer selection was quite lame…..a bit of a cardinal sin in the heart of the craft brew craze which consumes the Midwest.
I started with the cannelloni which was stuffed with housemade ricotta and garnished with snap peas, jerusalem artichokes and a bit of fregola (small pasta balls). Nothing like some pasta on pasta action. It was a very delicate, had great texture contrast and fresh flavour….an ideal lunchtime starter.
For the main, I opted for the sea loup de mer (sea bass) which wasn’t much bigger than the starter. It appeared to be a twist on a bagna cauda( a dip with strong Mediterranean flavours) which served as a salad dressing on romaine lettuce instead of being served in the typical vessel. The fish was a bit dry and the flavours reminded me of a well-disguised ceasar salad. It was a little bit of a yawn.
My colleague opted for a mezze (ie sampler) of Mediterranean goodies which included hummus, babaganoush, string cheese, spiced beef etc. It offered a true experience minus the salt water smell one might experience if eating the same thing in the homeland itself (I don’t think the smell off of Lake Michigan could mimic…even if the windows were open).
The dessert menu incorporated concepts from this side of the ocean, ignoring the expected tiramisu and baklava and replacing with American classics such as ice cream, malt and caramel corn. I went with the sundae, served with with porter ice cream topped with a crackling chocolate topping and a bit of European infusion with the use of toasted hazelnuts and a couple of triangles of nutella panini. The other choice at the table was a chocolate pave with the aforementioned sprinkles of Americana and a gold leaf as a tribute to capitalism. Both were a fitting end to a meal. There were no surprises…just well constructed and executed desserts which would be deemed delicious by anybody on the either side of the ocean.
My Take: Naha offers a well-executed lunch by fusing strong Mediterranean flavours and techniques with beloved elements of Americana. For the most part, the execution was on the mark and the portion sizes were acceptable, at least for lunch. The North American inspired desserts were the star, an irony for a place whose concepts are rooted in elements of the Middle East. The meal was well paced, the service was decent and the decor was spacious and fresh.
Stop #3- Billy Goat Tavern
Between the Billy Goat curse and the famed SNL appearance, it’s a foregone conclusion that one has to drop by this tavern during a trip to Chicago (especially on the heels of a visit to Wrigley). I won’t go into the details of the curse (you can look it up on the website, wikipedia etc.) but it involves a goat and a bunch of men….enough said.
Basically, it’s a place with the burgers, coke, beer and a spattering of other snack foods. The walls are plastered with faded newspaper articles and signed pictures and accolades from generations past. The grey-haired bartender looks like he’s won a trivia contest or two in his time and courteous staff pan the floors looking for empty steins to refill.
I ordered a burger for three bucks and change and a beer for about the same. The thin, pre-made patty is served on an oversized bun. The condiment station has the standard toppings, although I found the onions two ways rather intriguing. You could choose finally diced or thick (and I mean thick) rings. I loaded up with a pile of pickles as well. It was exactly was I expected and exactly what I wanted; a burger which brought me back to the days when it didn’t cost twenty bucks and wasn’t served with pineapple, mango, fried egg, short rib, pulled pork, bone marrow, avocado or housemade BBQ sauce. It’s just a freaking $3 burger.
Neither the burger nor the beer will win any culinary awards, but I consider the $6 cost the price of admission for a small bite of Chicago history.
Stop #4- Topolobampo
I’ve been eying Rick Bayless’ Michelin star Topolobampo even since I ate tortilla soup at his place in the airport a couple of years ago. Plus, I’ve been mesmerized by his soothing voice while watching “Mexico: One plate at a time” and even attempted one of his moles as well as a short rib recipe, both with good success and a lot of sweat. I routed for him on Top Chef Masters and follow him on twitter. Ya..maybe it’s manlove but I was longing to experience Mexican in an environment other than the numerous taquerias which have appeared throughout Toronto.
Showing up was like entering a busy Mexican market…buzzing people all over place and busy servers navigating nachos and guacamole through the streaming crowds. I was very loud and I wondering how I would hear myself think I was went to the desk to check in. I was greeted by two gentlemen who barely looked twenty; dressed in bright colours, trendy ties and the look of either a beachfront Tommy model or a member of One Direction. They confirmed the reservation I had 4 months before and we were notified of the token short wait as they got the table ready. With the announcement, I was prepared to deal with the abundant noise that was in store for the evening. Instead, a magic door open and we were whisked into a room with half the decibels of the waiting area. We were seated, the door was shut and it felt as if we were transformed in to a secret VIP space. Water was immediately served in large, heavy blue glasses and the night began, but that’s another story…..