“How was it?” everyone asked upon my return from the National Restaurant Association (NRA) tradeshow last month in Chicago. In short, it was exhausting, exhilarating and exciting – maybe not in that order. I’d never been to the Windy City, so George and Trey thought it would be a good idea for me to attend.
Where to eat was a pressing matter considering my coveted list is pretty long. Yusho, Lula Café, MK, zed451, Paris Club, Avec, Xoco, Blackbird, 16 at Trump Tower and Moto were all recommended to me, but I had to make some tough choices. Knowing I would never get in to Next…even if I sold my soul…I spent 45 minutes of straight calling, getting a busy signal, hanging up and dialing again before I got a coveted reservation at Alinea, then Publican and Girl & The Goat. I left one night open to wander.
Flying to Chicago was a bummer. My flight was delayed and I missed my reservation at Publican. Fortunately, Trey was able to help by calling in a favor to Paul Kahan, so I only had to wait 20 minutes. This place defines hipster cool – in a good way. The uniforms are old-school gas station shirts. The booths are hard to describe – like a ride where the host opens the high doors, you step in, and she closes you in; it’s private yet open all at once. They had a great beer list including 312, a local beer, which my husband, Rob, enjoyed while I opted for a Leth Grüner Veltliner. We started with oysters, chef’s choice from the 10 varieties listed. They arrived accompanied by a sheet of paper indicating which oysters were which, along with perfect house-made saltines. We had some from Duxbury Massachusetts that I hadn’t tried before. Seriously delicious. From there we shared Halibut Crudo from Fort Bragg, La Quercia Rossa from Iowa, Little Gem Salad with Pigs Ears from Michigan, and wonderful “Farm Chicken” and Suckling Pig from the Slagel Family Farm in Illinois. We left happy and full.
Saturday I was intent on plotting our course at the NRA show before we went to a Cubs game. That’s when it hit me that this show is monstrous – 800 plus vendors! Before coming to Chicago, I asked my colleagues which exhibitors they wanted me to check out, so I began the search through the book, adding another 30 vendors to the list. I felt good about our game plan for Sunday, so we headed to the game. What I quickly realized is that Padres attire is not Cubs attire. I was freezing in my shorts and flip flops, but a quick stop at Nordstrom fixed that and kept me from looking like an idiot from California. The game was fun and we spent time afterwards walking around between sports bars by the field, leaving time for a nap before our much-anticipated meal at Alinea.
For the sake of space, I’ll just give a brief overview of our experience at Alinea. If you’re interested in a more exhaustive review written more cleverly than I could ever dream of composing, check out the ulterior epicure’s blog.
Alinea is a super high-tech space with doors that automatically slide open when they sense you are there. It is understated and very quiet in a serious way. We were early and they suggested we go next door to Boka for a cocktail, which was lovely. They have a very good mixology program with all the right glassware and a Hoshizaki ice machine.
Back to Alinea my expectations are high, not just because the rest of the world who live in reality told me nice things, but also because chefs, picky food bloggers and critics all agree. We began with a large block of ice on the table with purple liquid trapped inside. When asked what it was, they said they would tell us when it was time. Turns out it was a mocktail of beets and hibiscus. We were given straws to sip the purple blobs from the melting ice sculpture.
At least eight to 10 people came to the table to serve us throughout the meal. Some of the highlights of what was a very entertaining evening are as follows:
- They brought out a Bunsen burner and heated up herbs and flowers that served as broth for the dish. It was extremely fragrant and tasted like the thought of flowers, but was not overly floral.
- Wooly pig was on the menu presented alongside a baby squid that was sitting on a metal stick and placed at mouth’s height.
- There was a perfect presentation of lamb three ways on a huge piece of smoking bark.
- Dessert was the most interesting. We literally ate balloons – yes, balloons. Green apple taffy balloons to be exact. Check it out on YouTube.
The grand finale was the last dessert course. Chef Grant Achatz came to our table and wrapped it in a silicone mat. He brought a white chocolate globe to the table and placed it in the middle like a centerpiece, then artfully decorated the table with powders and sauces and creams describing each as he set it down. He then smashed the white chocolate globe all over the table and abruptly walked away. It was unforgettable.
The wine pairings were superb (I never say that). Although there were a few well-knowns in the mix (Araujo ‘Eisele Vineyard’ Syrah Napa, M Chapotier La Sizeranne Hermitage, a beautiful Valpolicella Classico Superiore TB Bussola, Veneto, and Baroli Barolo Chinato), I was most impressed by the amount of red wine that matched each unique dish. When Nolan and I pair wine with TBL3 we end up with mostly whites. This pairing inspired me to look at pairing differently – which is a great thing.
Sunday morning we arrived at the NRA show in the rain. There were cabs for blocks waiting to drop folks off at the entrance – it was a site to see. We wandered the aisles and spoke to vendors about the exciting parts of the business: ice chillers, pagers, china, flatware, digital signage, iPad wine lists, placemats, dishwashing systems (the guys at Ecolab were relentless), cheese, reservation systems, scheduling technologies, etc. After more than two hours of that, we headed over to see former president Bill Clinton’s speech. The line was amazing, five or six people wide and probably a mile long. It continued to go around the corridor, and then another one, and that is when people started laughing. Folks were filming this line it was so long. Twenty minutes later we got to the end of the line, which by now had wrapped around past the front of the line. Needless to day, we did not get in, so it was back to the show. I lost steam at this point and spent way too much time in the Bernardaud booth drooling over gorgeous china while my husband found the ice cream and hot dog booths. We left shortly after to have dinner at a friend’s house. (I was looking forward to a comfortable meal in someone’s home.)
Monday we were back at the show. My Type A personality got the best of me and I mapped all the rest of the booths I wanted to see. This was power-NRA – ultimately, the way to go. We were fast and efficient, finishing finished in about two hours. Rob and I headed to Millers Pub, an old family restaurant/bar for an aperitif. Their marquee read “Smelt is Back.” It’s the kind of place that looks and feels like Cheers in Boston.
Our final dinner was at Girl & The Goat. There are mixed reviews out there about this place, as there always are about celebrity chefs. It is a nice, rustic space with a great vibe. We had our reservation time mixed up so ended up sitting in the lounge area when I realized every single person in the restaurant, maybe in the city, was there for the NRA show. We met food and beverage directors from Dubai, a hotel owner from Cabo, the director of operations for The Starr Group in Philadelphia, and a few freestanding restaurant owner/operators. We were all exchanging stories and sharing food and wine. It was the definition of communal dining.
On the way back to hotel Rob decided he wanted to see live music. After about an hour of a great house band, Buddy Guy himself showed up, had a glass of cognac, and performed for thirty minutes. What a quintessential way to end my trip to Chicago.