The American Midwest, on the southwest shore of great Lake Michigan.
Monumental works of architecture practically everywhere you look, some of America’s finest museums and cultural institutions, chefs pushing the limits of modern gastronomy, and an ascendent bar and cocktail scene — all served up with typical Midwestern humility, at low Middle-American prices.
It’s a long but easy trip into the centre of the city from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD), one of the largest American hubs, while Chicago Midway (MDW) is less well served but closer to downtown. Interstate 90, the northern U.S.’s main east-to-west artery, also passes through the city.
With so many towering buildings, many of them hotels, Chicago has an impressive number of rooftop bars. Many of them make great vantage points on one of the great American skylines. Oh, and just as a friendly reminder, it has indeed been known to get a bit windy.
My mother grew up on the North Side of Chicago in the ‘50s, and she likes to tell this story about a field trip she and her classmates took, as middle-schoolers, to the cattle stockyards on the outskirts of town. The story boils down to a lowlight and a highlight. The low was when all the children lined up to watch some cows get slaughtered, one cow after another meeting its death in some grisly conveyor-belt fashion. The high was when, after the tour, the kids were all served enormous, hot steaks, each portion branded by iron with a particular boy or girl’s initials. To my mom, the moral of the story was that people had different, less precious ideas about food, and coincidentally about the fragility of the twelve-year-old psyche, in those days. To me, the message was simpler: Chicago must be a backwards place — Middle America, cow country.
Meat-eating in Chicago has come a long way. Today, you can dine at a restaurant such as Longman & Eagle, where Jared Wentworth serves what he calls traditional American fare: venison pâté, buffalo sweetbreads, lamb tartare with quail egg and black truffle, escargot with shaved foie gras and ham hock, marrow bones, pig tail (especially au courant) with chanterelles, or a wild boar sloppy joe. At Wood, from the Alinea-trained Ashlee Aubin, they butcher the meat in-house before seasoning it with herbs from their private garden and cooking it in a wood-fired oven at the center of the restaurant. There are combination nouveau chop- and cocktail-houses (Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf), temples to pork (The Publican), restaurants that make their own charcuterie and pickle nearly everything they can (Perennial Virant at the Hotel Lincoln), plus one place, Trenchermen, that redeems fried chicken livers with egg yolk jam and treats pork shoulder, successfully, with milk and bubble gum. And this only accounts for the notable meat-centric restaurants that have opened in the past year or so — probably not even all of them.
Then there are the steakhouses. Of the newer ones, the best may be Primehouse at the James Chicago. Primehouse is a little bit old-school, a little bit new. In this era of the ubiquitous communal table, the restaurant has booths — wide, decadent red leather ones, where you may be seated even as a party of two. Many of the tables are occupied completely by men, whole happy groups of them in business suits.
What most restaurants would call beef carpaccio is listed at Primehouse as wagyu sashimi, the latter being no less accurate but presumably chosen because sashimi is slightly less intimidating to a finicky diner. While it’s an outstanding restaurant, even a stylish one, it’s still a hotel steakhouse, not always the first place to look for the culinary zeitgeist. Yet today even the hotel steakhouse, at least an ambitious one like this, does well to have some farm-to-table bona fides, and here chef David Burke offers up an unusual one: he owns his own bull.
More importantly, Primehouse’s steaks are dry-aged on site for up to 75 days. You can see for yourself. If you ask in advance, someone will find your party at dinner and lead you out of the dining room, down the stairs and through the narrow staff passageways beneath the hotel, past the laundry and supply rooms and offices, to the place where they age the meat. It’s a strange behind-the-scenes field trip to accompany your dinner.
But here’s what counts: the steak is good. After all the pageantry — and in classic steakhouse fashion, there is pageantry — the steak is very, very good. By the time it arrives, several battalions of servers and clearers have come and gone with any number of monologues and specialized sets of tableware and cleverly presented courses, like lobster spring rolls with long, spindly tentacles sprouting from their tops. But the steak itself is presented simply — an unadorned, fifty-dollar hunk of meat on a big round plate. The portion, depending on what you get, is sort of pre-historic, like a much prettier version of what you’d have if you took hold of a haunch, tender with age, and tore a greedy handful with a twist of the arm. It comes with a very large knife, delivered separately from the other cutlery, and the presentation makes it almost confrontationally clear that you’re eating an animal, which is both a little weird and deeply satisfying.
The steak — perfectly cooked, marbled like a tiger’s eye — is both all the more delicious and all the more clearly an animal because it’s rendered funky, in the best way, by age. Eating it, you almost forget the table’s endless accoutrements and the battalion of servers and the sniffing of the wine and all the rest — almost, but not quite. You can worry about these things — the pageantry, the privilege of eating such a thing, what your Chicagoan mother would say — or you can just eat the steak. Seriously, it’s delicious.