My Kind of Town

Travel September 20th, 2011


My roommate at Georgetown was the ultimate Chicago girl. Her family’s stunning apartment in the Gold Coast (designed by her late mother, a noted decorator) was a very short walk from the Playboy mansion and almost directly across from the Ambassador East hotel, which housed the legendary Pump Room. On my first visit, we had cocktails in the jewel box of a bar in the apartment (it had been Nora’s mother’s one concession to Nora’s father, Ace) before Ace took us across the street for chateaubriand with a decadent béarnaise and lots of very expensive red Burgundy. Before the weekend was over I’d decided that Chicago was indeed my kind of town.


In those days Marshall Field was still the place to shop (for Nora’s deb party, I bought some gold Chanel sling-backs which I still have) and the Drake was the place to stay.  But in the 30 years since, Chicago has grown into one of the chicest shopping meccas in the world, and is home to some of the country’s best hotels and restaurants (last year it rated its own Michelin guide, one of three in the entire U.S.) Then, of course, there are its great museums and gorgeous Millenium Park. The Ambassador East didn’t fare so well during the city’s renaissance, but just last week, it officially reopened as The Public, having been given a much needed facelift by uber hotelier Ian Shrager, who promises to keep prices down and service up. Shrager has also teamed with Jean-Georges Vongerichten to pep up the Pump Room menu—but he promises to keep some of the classics (fingers crossed for chateaubriand), as well as Frank Sinatra’s favorite booth, intact. I look forward to dining there with my cousin Frances, a realtor who owns her own swell apartment in the former Ambassador West.  In the meantime, I’ll recount my recent long weekend trip below.


Pictured above, top row, from left:


I said Chicago was home to some fab hotels and the Elysian, part of the Mr & Mrs Smith stable of unique hotels, is no exception. An opulent boutique among the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago (11 East Walton Street), it’s walking distance from all the best shops and has its own lavish spa, restaurant and bar, not to mention a stunning lobby (see above). Created by well-traveled locals, the hotel enforces a strict no-tipping policy, which means you don’t have to stay on the hunt for grubby spare bills in your pocket and the staff can focus on paying attention to your every need. To check in or get more info about the Elysian, go to Mr and Mrs Smith, below.


Paul Kahan is one of my very favorite chefs cooking anywhere, and I never come to Chicago without a visit to his Blackbird (619 Randolph).  The almost all-white space is totally modern and spare—the only piece of art in the whole place is a small collage that was a gift of the artist, Tony Fitzpatrick, a local whose work I love and who can usually be found next door at Avec, Kahan’s slightly more relaxed venue (it has a wine-centric Mediterranean menu and communal seating). Unlike the décor, the service at Blackbird (as at all Kahan’s restaurants) remains thoroughly warm and old fashioned.  Stars on the current menu include wagyu beef tartare and a duck fat poached elk loin with bergamot cream (of course it sounds weird—so did my husband’s delicious lamb with cherries—try it anyway).


Kahan and some partners also own The Violet Hour, a sexy, velvet curtained prohibition-era inspired speakeasy in Wicker Park (1520 North Damen). Named for a Bernard de Voto quote that alludes to “the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow again and valor is reborn,” the bar is home to some excellent snacks and serious cocktails constructed with an array of house-made tinctures. I was pretty partial to my Gunshot Old Fashioned until I tasted my husband’s Baron’s Brew, composed of Lady Grey infused Beefeater’s, lemon, neroli-violet syrup and house tonic. This is a place in which to sample and linger, luxuriously.


Bottom row, from left:


You could spend a whole weekend in the Art Institute and still not see a fraction of its treasures. Home to some iconic American paintings (Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Martin Johnson Heade’s Magnolias on a Light Blue Velvet Cloth), it also boasts impressive collections ranging from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Art to Impressionism (see Van Gogh’s The Bedroom, above). I could stare all day at a trio of Whistler’s seascapes including Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Waters. But I’m also pretty happy ogling the Meissen porcelain King Vulture or the 13th century Indonesian Simian Mother and Child. Don’t miss Renzo Piano’s amazing new modern wing or the delicious Italian restaurant on its third level, Terzo Piano.


Cerato (3451 N. Southport Avenue) is not only one of Taigan’s newest shops, it’s a true Chicago treasure. Named after the Bach flower remedy that heightens trust in your own judgment, the store serves as a showcase for talented local designers, as well as a few fresh faces from further afield.  Pictured above is a dress by Sophia Reyes, a local designer known for sophisticated silk pieces.


Bill Kim’s restaurants, Urban Belly (3053 N. California Ave.) and Belly Shack (1912 Western Ave.) are often compared to David Chang’s Momofuko empire in NYC, and it’s no wonder. Both men are Korean, they are wildly fond of pig, and their restaurants are mostly off the beaten path.  I visited Urban Belly on my last trip at the suggestion of some discerning chef friends and was immediately in love. There were amazing dumplings (lamb and brandy, duck with pho spices), all manner of noodle bowls, the best homemade kimchi I’ve ever had. But while Urban Belly is essentially a great take on a noodle shop, Belly Shack is a whole nother animal—with a menu that fuses Kim’s innovative Oriental cooking with his wife’s Puerto Rican heritage and not just a little Chicago thrown in. There is even a take on the famous Chicago dog, topped with egg noodles, pickled green papaya (a riff on the weird neon green relish that is de riguer in these parts) and accompanied by Togarashi spiced fries with a curry mayo. I’m a purist in the dog department (see far right for a photo of the iconic local dog, complete with tomato, sport peppers, kosher pickle, the aforementioned relish, chopped white onions, yellow mustard, and a dash of celery salt). But the Asian Pork Meatball Sandwich is not to be missed, nor is the Korean BBQ beef with the same excellent kimchi as at Urban Belly. The most interesting dishes are, not surprisingly, the ones where cultures clearly collide—and prosper. The somen noodle salad with shrimp was accompanied by tortillas which had been smeared with some kind of yummy tomatillo paste.  The hot and sour soup was a rich Asian spiced chicken broth, but departed (thankfully) from the takeout Chinese version with south-of-the border additions of hominy, big chunks of chicken, chopped cilantro, and touch of jalapeno. Finally, there is the soft-serve ice cream for dessert whose toppings reflect allegiance to only one culture, that of indulgence. Go for the version with crumbled homemade chocolate chip cookies and bacon. You will not be sorry.



About Julia Reed

Julia Reed is a columnist at Garden & Gun magazine and a contributing editor at Elle Décor. She also contributes to The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, and The New York Times, and makes frequent appearances on MSNBC. She is the author of five books, including But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria, Adventures in Eating, Drinking and Making Merry and One Man’s Folly, The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood.

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