Monthly Archives: October 2016

New York: A lot of song and dance

Two servers came to the table. One stood holding a tray; the other placed a small pot, leveled off with a rich, cream-coloured filling, precisely right of centre on the tablecloth. In silence, he twisted back, then straightened with a larger ramekin in his right hand while his left spooned an half-inch of crumble onto the small pot. Both spoon and ramekin settled back on the tray. He turned back once again holding a paper envelope tied up with string which he placed table centre with both hands. I blurted out, “Very mysterious!” and both men laughed. The main guy said in a normal voice, “This is just a lot of song and dance. It’s bread and butter.”

But of course it wasn’t just bread and butter. Not at Eleven Madison Park, a 3-star Michelin restaurant voted the third-best in the world — for which I had woken up at 6am and slept on hold for 36 minutes to get one of the last reservations for 5:30 pm exactly 28 days later.

Three stars in Michelin-speak means “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” In 1900, when the Michelin brothers started the guide in France, there were fewer than 3,000 cars in the country and they figured starting a travel guide would encourage people to buy more cars and hence more tires. They added restaurants in 1926, and then critics to review the restaurants. Fast forward 90 years and there was me, making a special journey to NY to spend $200 more on one dinner than I got for selling the first car I ever owned. Completely worth it.

There’s the food, of course. A parade of “exquisite, tiny courses” as one friend put it although I was thankful for their petiteness by the time we got to the 10th course. And that isn’t counting the amuse bouche or the fact that the first course alone comprised four little dishes. These kind of fancy restaurants typically offer a tasting menu where you might choose Flora vs Fauna, or Sea vs Land, but mostly you eat what you are given. 11Mad provided options at almost each course, and sub options within those. “Would you like the foie gras or [something else as I’d stopped listening at foie gras]? … Foie gras? In terrine or pan seared?” We jumped at the chance to add wine pairings (old world, local region or reserve), neither of us willing to tackle the 195pp wine list. I found myself throwing back the 4oz glasses (8 in all) like I was doing shots, just to keep up. As a kind of party favour, 11Mad presents you at the end with a caviar-sized tin with an round paper accordion customized to list all your menu choices paired with the wine you drank. I was thankful since my hastily scribbled notes got more incoherent as the dinner progressed, with phrases like “rice-crackery-thing” and “tarty-bits.”

But it isn’t just the food, which is creative and flavourful and artfully presented. The maitre d’ emailed me a friendly note a few days before, asking how he could make the evening even more special than just getting in. My words, not his. I took Maitre D’ Matthew (Matt to me by the end of our correspondence) at his word and explained it was my friend’s milestone birthday and she’d love a surprise champagne cocktail made and named for her.

We walked in at 5:30 pm on the dot having squandered our lead time by an inability to find the restaurant despite the its name also being its address. Matt welcomed me and turned to my friend, greeting her by name and wishing her a happy birthday, much to her delight. His best wishes were echoed by those of the server who led us to the table, the sommelier who explained every wine in great detail and the guy who walked by periodically to put down course-specific cutlery. All done with class and no singing, but enough attention that a few courses in, one of the guys sitting at the adjoining table leaned over and also wished her a happy birthday. And after he and his buddy had downed four bottles of wine, he leaned over and passed us each a bite of his whole trout on a fork. 

A whole team of servers is assigned to you but the handoff is so smoothly done that you suspect a dossier has been compiled. We asked if there were a chance to go into the kitchen, as our table buddies had done. The woman in charge of checking on us towards the end let us down gently. She’d love to but everyone had asked and most, weeks ago. We shrugged good naturedly and after we’d signed the papers mortgaging our places to pay for the meal, we got up to leave, completely satisfied. Our chairs barely pushed back, and she was at my elbow, leading us to the kitchen. It was like the final edible flower placed with tweezers in the negative space of nouvelle cuisine well-plated. That’s the song and dance way of saying the cherry on top of the sundae.

Land of the smelly onion

Welcome to the land of the smelly onion: Shikaakwa, Illinois. Chicago, as it is now known, no longer smells like the onion-garlic ramps it was named for, it smells like chocolate.
The Chicago River flickers from rich teal to Rio-diving-pool green. Edged by buildings of varying architectural styles, it floats boat after boat to show them off. The cruises pass under 23 stubby iron bridges that look solid but crack open like a seesaw snapped in the middle when tall sailboats pass.

Our cruise of choice, by the Chicago Architectural Foundation, was narrated by a volunteer docent named Shelley, Shirley? Sheila? who could project personality through the mike like a Pixar voice actor. She squealed in surprise halfway down the river, attention caught by a wildly-waving group on the bank – her family. Our narration took a backseat briefly to Shirley’s increasingly high-pitched and still-miked conversation directed at her little granddaughter who’d come to see Nana at work. The boat collectively grinned in appreciation. We were close to the Blommer Chocolate Company factory at this point, the largest cocoa processor/chocolate supplier in North America, responsible for the mouthwatering smell in the air. I guessed the little girl had picked the ambush spot for that reason, although I once lived upstairs from a bakery and smell is torture when not followed by something you can eat.

Sheila had a natural patter, describing alternate buildings, then filling in the blanks as the boat turned down different spurs and circled back home. 

We learned how some buildings are contextualized, with a wide curving front following the sweep of the river, or shiny two-toned green glass mimicking its colour and reflecting the towers around it. Others, traditional modernist buildings, stand soldier-straight and perfectly rectangular, with exoskeletons to optimize internal division of space while wasting no effort on outside decoration. One has a truss on top that somehow holds up half the building, “like your arm does for your leg,” an explanation that brought me no clarity. Another neo gothic building is top-and-tail’d with lacy stonework that merges at its middle into art deco with dark recessed windows and flat ornamentation. There are nods to Greek columns and temples, and the Jewelers Building has an impressive cupola that back in the day was Capone’s private speakeasy. It also boasted a car elevator to provide jewelers a fighting chance of moving merchandise from car trunk to office without getting hijacked. The buildings go on and on: one with windows pinched at the corners into little pillows, two circular ones petaled to look like sunflowers from above but to my eye look like a spirograph drawing. My favourite is named Aqua, a residential/office/hotel tower with balconies that wave in and out from 2 to 12ft, and shiny glass windows that create the illusion of water streaming and puddling down the side.

Shelley didn’t only talk architecture. After she covered the whole garlic/leek origin story, she explained the Chicago River flows backwards away from Lake Michigan. This was an engineering feat designed in 1900 to reduce the outbreaks of cholera and typhoid from having a heavily polluted river flow into the main source of drinking water. It reversed to flow south past St Louis into the Mississippi and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. Presumably Missourians suggested at some point that cleaning it up might have been another way to go.

Starting with the river cruise meant the rest of the weekend I exposed my tourist status by walking around, eyes to the sky, staring at towers that disappear into the afternoon fog. Oh, and also by taking the Chicago Crime Tour.

The Crime Tour was a “bus-limousine” (which means bus) that drives around to sites related to mobsters, various serial killers or other criminal stories about Chicago. The guide’s enthusiasm was well intentioned if a bit off-putting, ranging from jokes he laughed at himself to prove they were funny, to putting on voices and doing a full-body reenactment of the capture/assassination of John Dillinger. But while we blinked at the empty lot that was once the site of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, he also added some more unusual facts:

– Chicago was established in 1837 and had built its international reputation for crime by 1840.

– John Dillinger acid-washed his fingerprints and got plastic surgery to evade police in 1934. The surgery was limited to removing some moles and filling in his chin dimple, which was apparently enough to foil the cops.

– There is a group called The John Dillinger Died for You Society that recreates his last few seconds once a year on July 22. They live by the slogan “Lie down on the floor and keep calm,” which doesn’t seem as universal as you might hope for as scriptures go.

– Al Capone opened up soup kitchens and ran school programs before that whole unfortunate Feb 14th massacre thing. At his peak, Al was making $123k/yr, or about $1.5m. Between that, the syphilis, and going crazy from the mercury treatment, he had a rough go of crime.

– It was four times easier to get a drink during prohibition in Chicago than it is today.

The most unexpected sites we passed included the Walgreens of the 1982 Tylenol scare that caused 7 deaths from cyanide-laced pills + 270 copycat cases, and the McDonald’s where three workers sold crack from the drive thru if you said the magic phrase. They were caught when police inadvertently ordered more coke than expected.

But there is so much more to Chicago than architecture and gangsters. There are neighborhoods like Hyde Park, with ivy-covered brownstones on tree-lined avenues, and bookshops that are like the best kind of maze you could get lost in forever. There are top places to eat, like Alinea, and Girl and the Goat, and Grace that we couldn’t get into, and just as great restaurants like Roister and Wildfire Chicago and STK that we could. Plus Navy Pier with its Centennial Wheel and Millennium Park with its Millennium Bean. And theatre and comedy and museums and art galleries. And best of all, rivers that smell like chocolate.