My son and I spent a weekend last December in Chicago. It was cold and wet. We saw some sites and walked around a lot but mainly we ate. On Friday night we showed up unannounced at the Russian Tea Time restaurant on Adams across from the Art Institute. The Nutcracker was in town and all the tables were filled with theater-goers. However there was one spot just next to the kitchen. We took it. It was also next to the speaker blaring out Russian folk music. Good thing we like Russian folk music.
Black bread and a bowl of salad appeared on our table. The salad had lettuce and finely shredded carrot in a light sweet dressing. It had an Asian feel to it. My son said carrots prepared that way were called “Korean Carrots”. I figured it must have been some kind of Far East connection to Korea through Vladivostok. We ate it all.
The menu was more Soviet than Russian. There were dishes from Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and others. For appetizers we chose an Uzbek lamb samsa, a lamb meatball surrounded by puff pastry, and beef blinchiki, a blini or Russian pancake filled with spicy minced beef.
Uzbekistan is known for its shashlik, a lamb or mutton kebob that has been heavily marinated. The menu had a chicken shashlik on offer and we ordered it. It was a little dry and not what we had hoped but it was still good and came with rice pilaf and a couple of other side dishes we could not identify but were delicious.
Of course several shots of vodka were in in order, chilled to perfection. We had apple blini and ice cream for one dessert and three layer chocolate mousse for another. Both were very good.
The following day I hunted for the Frontera Grill. I had known about Rick Bayless and his Mexican cooking for a while and I was determined to find and taste some of his food. He lived and traveled in Mexico and claimed to cook “authentic” Mexican. I didn’t have time to go to his actual mother ship but he had an outlet in Macy’s and we went there for lunch. It was worth the trip. The chicken tacos were everything I hoped they would be.
Saturday night dinner was Italian. We chose La Cantina, one of three restaurants at the Italian Village, a traditional old style Italian restaurant established in 1927. We went down a flight of stairs to the basement of the old building and came into a long narrow room covered in wood paneling. It was warm a cozy.
Bread and parmesan cheese appeared on the table. I chose manicotti with half red and half white sauce. My son had the veal Bolognese with hand cut pappardelle pasta. If you like old-fashioned Italian pasta, it was the real thing.
The next morning, our last day in Chicago, we decided to forgo the hotel bland-o-meal and go get a real breakfast. We found the Wildberry Pancakes and Café right on Millennium Park. It was packed on Sunday morning and we had to wait. Of course there was a good reason. The food was good. We had banana bread French toast and bacon and eggs and excellent hash browns.
One thing we noticed all the restaurants in Chicago had in common was our water glasses were always full. We never once had to ask for more water. Quite a novelty for us coast dwellers.
I know we just scratched the surface of the culinary world of Chicago but we came away happy and satisfied.
Kathleen Gamble was born and raised overseas and has traveled extensively. She has a BA in Spanish and has worked in publishing, printing, desktop publishing, translating, and purchasing. She also designs and creates her own needlepoint. She started journaling at a young age and her memoir, Expat Alien, came out of those early journals. Over the years she has edited and produced an American Women’s Organization cookbook in Moscow, Russia, and several newsletters. Her first book, Expat Alien, was published in 2012 and she recently published a cookbook, 52 Food Fridays, both available on Amazon.com. You can also follow her blog at ExpatAlien.com.