If there is a central axiom for visitors to the American Midwest it is avoid the peak of summer and the peak of winter. Having failed to obey the former, I endeavored to spend as much time as possible within the air conditioned premises of some of Chicago’s best eateries and wine bars. The results were an interesting mix of styles and approaches, with a consistent theme of very high prices (for a U.S. city). My trip to Chicago and Madison increased my appreciation of the Pacific Northwest, where great food and wine is in great abundance for reasonable prices in comparison to most places in North America. Nonetheless, there were a few gems in the great Midwest.
The wine highlight of Chicago was Webster’s Wine Bar in Lincoln Park- a completely unpretentious space (more like a comfy living room / bar than a chi chi wine bar) – which is an institution in Chicago, having been around since 1994. Their list was eclectic, fun, and full of wonderful surprises, including the 2001 Courbis Les Eygats Cornas I drank for around $80 and a tempting 2001 Marcel Deiss Pinot Noir. The by the glass list was also impressive and contained a few gems. My favourite was the Domaine de la Bongran Cuvee E.J. Thevenet Vire Clesse 2004, a slightly oxidative and extremely complex Macon in the savory style of Domaine Vallette rather than the puffs of cream that wine drinkers tend to associate with the region.
Telegraph Wine Bar in Logan Square, started by ex-employees of Webster’s, had an excellent list, including many interesting natural wines. In particular the 2005 cotar ‘penina crna’, karst, slovenia was an amazing dark red sparkling wine with a ton of fruit but also earth, minerals and deep savoryness on the finish. Perhaps the most exciting wine discovery of the trip. The julien frémont, réserve calvados was a revelation and one of the most intriguing spirits I’ve had. Telegraph has more of an upscale vibe to it, but the by the glass list is filled with gems and the glassware is excellent. I highly recommend attending. It also happens to be a 2 minute walk from one of the best restaurants I ate at during the trip: Longman and Eagle. This is a one star michelin pub, focusing on decadent versions of pub fare. We had Kentucky Fried Quail with foie-gras infused cornbread, deep fried soft shell crab, and porchetta steak over turnip risotto. All of the dishes were exceptional.
Other eateries included Cafe Floriole in Lincoln Park, Blackbird, Girl and a Goat in the West Loop and Purple Pig on the Mag Mile. All of these were very good, with Purple Pig standing out for its mediterranean influenced tapas, Blackbird for the best duck I’ve ever had and Girl and a Goat for its down to earth but innovative menu. Floriole has some serious baking prowess and I highly recommend it for its pastries and tarts.
Perhaps the highlight of the entire trip was cocktails at the Aviary. Despite its early 2000’s trendy yuppy decor, these cocktails set the bar for all other cocktails. Not only are they playfully theatrical (an old fashioned served with a slingshot to break the ice, a “sou vide” Rob Roy cocktail served in a plastic bag opened upon serving to release an explosion of aromas, and a raspberry infused cocktail prepared in a boiled flask before the drinker’s eyes), but they were inventive, fun and insanely delicious. Reservations are required to get in here and those are hard to come by. Drinks are also $18-$20 so budget accordingly. However, if you have any interest in the art of mixology, the Aviary is an international destination.
On to Madison
Madison is dairy town. I ate more dairy in my 3 days in Madison than I would in 3 months in Vancouver. If you are ever in town, Fromagination is a must see cheese shop, with a great selection of fantastic local cheeses and amazing ice creams. Another essential for Madison is deep fried cheese curds. The curds at Graze were fantastic, albeit after eating a basket of 30 curds you may question your body’s capacity for saturated fat.
I was in Madison visiting a close friend. One of our traditions is to share beer we have been collecting and cellaring. He has an advantage living in the U.S. and so on this trip I tried some of the rarest beers in the Midwest, including Surly’s Darkness, the Founder’s Nemesis (bourbon barrel aged wheat wine), and New Glarus Reserve Series Saison. While Surly’s darkness disappointed being overly sweet, the “Plead the 5th” Imperial Stout from Dark Horse Brewing Company was one of the best stouts I’ve had and the Nemesis was an ideal example of how to build a barrel aged beer for long term cellaring. I also highly recommend the Ale Asylum Bedlam – a locally brewed belgian IPA that is focused entirely on explosive tropical and floral aromatics rather than the bitterness of hops. More IPAs need to be like this.
We finished our visit with a stop at the Old Sugar Distillery, which makes some excellent well-priced local spirits (and cocktails to show them off), including a dry rum, ouzo, an interesting sorghum whisky and, my favourite, the honey liqueur. The idea of an urban artisanal local distillery is a great one and is becoming more and more popular. I think Vancouver is ripe for a copycat.
The Midwest is a fun place to visit – just don’t do it in the middle of summer. In terms of food, it is clear that there is a huge variety of excellent quality ingredients available for chefs to play with. In particular, the produce in Madison and around Chicago is excellent, which provides a solid ingredient base for most dishes. Chicago is also clearly a foodie city. However, I found it to be expensive compared to the best of the Pacific Northwest and you will be hard pressed to find better food and wine deals than in Portland. Chicago, however, has something for everyone and a huge range of styles and experimentation. It would take quite some time to eat through the city – one that is alive with art and innovation and well-worth multiple visits.