My parents came from Chicago, and my brothers and I were brought up to believe that practically anything worth having, certainly everything worth eating, existed only in the magic land that lay between the forest preserves and Lake Shore Drive, between Northwestern University and the Indiana border. Until the day he died, my father considered California, where we lived, a culinary desert, a ravished land without deep-dish pizza, without decent corned-beef sandwiches, without a specific kind of sparerib that used to be served at a Rush Street bar called Singapore's. Many of my childhood memories involve long trips around Los Angeles in the family Studebaker in search of an acceptable Chicago-style hot dog. Pop had kind of a one-track mind.
When my mother cooked for company, she'd make the green noodles served at Riccardo's, or the cannelloni she'd eaten at some restaurant up on Clark Street, or the baked alaska made famous at the Pump Room, where she had sold flowers as a teenager. Even her banana cream pie, which I'd always assumed had been passed down from her Southern grandmother, turned out to be a relic of a Chicago cookbook.
So I dreamed of Chicago as a gastronomic wonderland eclipsing Paris, Hong Kong, and Milan, dreamed of soda fountain Green Rivers and black cows, of shrimp de Jonghe and seeded kaiser rolls, of deep-dish pizza and spaghetti joints that happened to serve ribs, of pierogi and hot dogs—real hot dogs!—sometimes clustered three stands to the block. And although few of the restaurants my parents loved best survived beyond the Eisenhower administration, Chicago is still a real good place to eat.
Meat Under the El
Gibsons Steakhouse may have a better wine list, and Morton's inspired a national chain, but Gene & Georgetti (500 N. Franklin St.; 312/527-3718; dinner for two $50) is the essential Chicago steak house, a battered old place under the El with blood-rare strip steaks the size of catcher's mitts, baked potatoes the size of footballs, and the best martinis in the world. Beefy, happy men tuck into huge platters of garbage salad—a time-honored Chicago thing not unlike a great antipasto run through a paper-shredder—and croissant-size shrimp with cocktail sauce. This is also the place to try shrimp de Jonghe, a great, neglected thirties Chicago dish of shrimp sautéed with oil, bread crumbs, and an immoderate quantity of garlic.
Gene & Georgetti has a reputation—not entirely undeserved—for being undemocratic. The men who eat in the elegant main-floor dining room do tend to wear thousand-dollar suits, and suburban guys in Blackhawks jerseys are pretty much shunted upstairs to Siberia. But while Gibsons entertains the likes of Dennis Rodman, Gene & Georgetti is a favorite of Saul Bellow's. Any questions?
Last Night a DJ Saved My Entrée
Milwaukee Avenue as it courses through Wicker Park is an anti-Magnificent Mile, the sort of shiny, gritty, multiculti welter of clubs, posh restaurants, and smoky neon bars that half the urban planners in the world are trying to install in their warehouse districts.
Okno (1332 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773/395-1313; dinner for two $60) lies at the exact nexus of street cred and the Platinum Card. The space is a techno album cover brought to throbbing life: all bright, swooping ovals and space-age chairs, performance-art lighting and subliminally pulsing disco. And for once, the chef, who seems to have been inspired by every culture that might conceivably be represented on a Tricky CD, is as creative as the DJ. Spinach salads are sprinkled with smoked tomatoes and tiny, crisp croutons, dressed with a goat-cheese emulsion. Slabs of pistachio-crusted rack of lamb stand upright and interlaced on a bed of dolma-fortified couscous, like a bizarre tableau out of Francis Bacon. And for dessert, there's fruit "sushi"—Okno's own fruit roll-ups wrapped around bits of rice pudding, garnished with sesame cookies in the shape of chopsticks and marzipan formed into a green lump of "wasabi."
Just down the street is the dark, ultrahip Soul Kitchen (1576 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773/342-9742; dinner for two $50), where chef Monique King has concocted the downtown answer to Nuevo Latino cuisine: the cooking of the New World's black diaspora. Here are country-fried quail with molasses-baked peaches; pecan-crusted catfish with black-eyed peas and collard greens; Herbsaint-inflected shrimp and grits such as no Louisianian has ever dared to make. King's brand of bold, confident African-American cooking could make her the Lauryn Hill of New American cuisine.
At the height of the railroad era, when every transcontinental journey included a layover in Chicago, the Pump Room in the Omni Ambassador East Hotel (1301 N. State Pkwy.; 312/266-0360; dinner for two $100) was the most notorious restaurant in the United States. A watering hole for every celebrity who ever set foot on a train, it was also famous for entrées served on flaming swords. My grandmother ran the flower concession in the hotel for more than 30 years, and I've been hearing about the glories of the Pump Room for as long as I can remember. The vast array of pictures on the handsomely paneled walls—of Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland among hundreds of others, mostly taken in legendary Booth One—can seem as resonant as a family album. The bar is a swell place to sip champagne cocktails and listen to crooners.
Until recently, the Pump Room was as stale as the pound cake in a baked alaska. But new proprietors have spiffed the place up, at a cost of several million dollars, and installed Martial Noguier, a gifted protégé of West Coast chefs Joachim Splichal and Michel Richard. It does sometimes seem incongruous to nibble on expense-account Los Angeles cooking in this most Chicagoan of dining rooms: tidbits of hamachi carpaccio with marinated seaweed, rare duck breast with figs, perfect cubes of hazelnut ganache. And the customers sometimes seem to be the grandparents of the people who hang out at Okno. Still, the Pump Room once again exemplifies Chicago glamour
Just south of the Loop and only 50 years behind the times, Manny's Coffee Shop (1141 S. Jefferson St.; 312/939-2855; lunch for two $18) has been a Chicago fixture since the forties, a bare-bones cafeteria-style delicatessen more haimish by half than the famous delis in Manhattan (not to mention the upstarts in Chicago's own burbs) and militantly quality-obsessed.
Manny's dining room has all the élan of a Marine Corps mess hall, though an autograph from satisfied customer Winston Churchill (a fake) lends the place some "class." But the chicken soup is nonpareil, the latkes unsurpassed, the Friday special of braised short ribs with horseradish more luscious than anything the swells are eating at Everest. Corned beef—you can get pastrami, but corned beef is more of a Chicago thing—is carved right in front of you, as fat or as lean as you'd like it, by wisecracking deli guys who flip briskets around as if they were hotcakes, then pile prosciutto-thin slices of the meat high on solid rye.
"C'mon, c'mon, I don't got all day," barks a counterman, waggling his giant blade at a customer.
"Him?. . . Him?" says another counter guy, winking. "It's all right, buddy. This one's got all day."
Pure Jewish soul.