My Ten Memorable Dining (Including One Drinking) Experiences of 2007

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After meticulously reading TimeOut Chicago’s annual 100 Best Things We Ate this Year and bemusedly perusing the top ten lists of the passionate Chicago foodies at www.lthforum.com, I thought that my closing out of 2007 would not be complete if I didn’t put together my own list of most memorable dining experiences of the year. Again, as I did with my list of memorable arts events, I selected experiences that have stayed with me throughout the year; and these were experiences that were shaped as much by the food, bursting with flavor, creativity, freshness, or surprise, and also as much by other pivotal elements such as flawlessly evocative settings, seamless service, or the joyous conviviality and intimacy of the company of loved ones. I wanted to focus on Chicago experiences, since the city has such a thriving and exciting food (and foodie) culture, but I managed to sneak in a couple of truly exciting experiences outside of Chicago. Here then is the first annual From the Ledge list of the most memorable dining experiences of the year:

  1. Savoring the luxurious originality of the Alinea experience. I took New York-based BFF Rene and his partner Johannes to Alinea in the spring for one of the most jaw-dropping, mesmerizing, over-the-top boundary-pushing food experiences ever. And despite all the razzle-dazzle and drama, the food, truly, gloriously, tasted good. We only had the palette, time, and budget for the 14 course tasting menu, but the wow factor was still high. My favorite dish? The duck course which was done in three perfect ways and which came on a pillow of lavender air (as you consumed the duck, the dish became lighter and sunk into the pillow releasing the lavender fumes which you could then slowly inhale- wild!).  I am so glad, by the way, that Chef Grant Achatz is on his way to recovery.  He is an essential figure in our Chicago food life.

  2. Attending the Sunday Dinner Club “underground restaurant” dinners. As a food lover and as a seeker of extraordinary life experiences, these invitation-only underground dinners have been a much welcome addition to my life. I’ve gone to three (including a phenomenal New Year’s Eve dinner) so far, and each have been indelible, not only because the food is always exceptionally made and freshly and organically sourced (and I’ll plant acres of corn, milk cows, mix feed, and do all kinds of crazy things my lazy ass normally wouldn’t do, if I could only keep Chef Josh at my house making fresh pasta for me every day), but also because I’ve met many fascinating, impressively smart, full-life living people who prove that the best conversation revolve around diverse interests and points-of-view. Check out my earlier blog post here.

  3. Making the pilgrimage to Momofuku during every New York City trip. Chef David Chang has been deservedly acclaimed for opening this post-modern noodle shop, and it’s sibling, Momofuku Ssam, a, uhmmm, post-modern ssam (Cambodian sandwich) shop. Momofuku is the unapologetic shrine to pork, where cholesterol is a made-up word, and where pork belly livens up every dish including mixed greens. The open-faced steamed bun (for my Filipino readers, this is very similar to the Chinese-Filipino dish, cuapao), full of hearty flavors, is the one thing that could make me give up wild sex and sidecar binges (not that I have had much of either recently! But that’s another matter.)

  4. Celebrating a birthday during the first formal weekend at Sepia. Before Sepia became the hottest new restaurant in Chicago, BFF Debra had her birthday dinner here in one of the semi-private rooms way back in July. Our table of eight heartily agreed then that it did not feel like the first weekend of a new restaurant – service was accomplished, frenzy was invisible, and excellent cooking was readily apparent, especially the fabulous charred octopus in fresh tomato sauce, and the take-no-prisoners Berkshire pork chop.

  5. Turning people on to the one-bite salad at Spoon Thai. One of the single best food dishes I had this year was the one-bite salad at this much-raved-about Thai restaurant (and it could only be found on the Thai menu). The one-bite salad is really not a salad, but rather, a huge platter of many lettuce cups, with each cup filled to the brim with toasted coconut, red onion, dried shrimp, and diced lime slices, to be eaten well, in one bite, after being dipped in a sweet tamarind sauce. The crazy combination of flavors is astounding and I have been encouraged to spread the gospel of this wonderful creation to a wide variety of BFFs, who all didn’t realize what hit them, but craved for more!

  6. Having a pre-or post-theatre meal at the BOKA bar.  I go to a lot of theatre by myself, so it is always very comforting to sit at the bar of BOKA right across the street from the Steppenwolf theatre, have the terrific and imaginative mac-and-cheese with truffle oil and edamame created by Chef Guiseppe Tentori, pair it with a nice Cava, and talk with others seated at the bar, who more often not, would happen to be fellow Steppenwolf audience members. In addition to the mac-and-cheese, Chef Tentori’s menu was notable to me this year for a mind-blowing (as well as Lipitor-screaming) grilled pork belly as well as a wonderfully cooked salmon on soba noodles.

  7. Brunching at Sola. I love Sola, not only for its delicious Hawaiian inspired menu but also for its high energy during the dinner hour (which transforms the North Center neighborhood into a mini-Bucktown). This year, however, I discovered the pleasures of Saturday and Sunday brunch at this restaurant, where the pace was unrushed, the room was half-full, the fireplace was roaring, the menu contained gems like Black Forest ham and cheese omelette, chilaquiles, and banana macadamia nut pancakes, and rabid Top Chef fans (well at least the ones who were not shyly but unabashedly ogling him) could actually engage runner-up Dale Levitski (who works front of the house for now) in friendly banter .

  8. Having authentically greasy Chinese food. Two of my most memorable meals this year took place at hole-in-the-wall-Chinese-packed-with-Asian-people-slurping-their-noodles-joints. First, after the crazy Joanne Akalaitis-directed Thyestes at the Court Theatre, dear straight-guy buddy Alex and I ended up at my favorite Chinatown restaurant, Shui Wah, at ten o’clock at night, hungrily devouring fantastically oily head-and-shell-on salt and pepper squid, bone-in beef ribs, and peapods in garlic sauce, with bootleg Tsingtao beer provided by the owner, talking about theatre, art, food, culture, and travel. Second, on my birthday, which, trust me, was as scary as a Joanne Akalaitis-directed play, BFF Debra took me to Silver Seafood, my favorite Chinatown North (technically it’s south of that) restaurant, to partake of fantastically oily (and sodium overloaded) salt and pepper Dungeness crab, long-life noodles, and peapods in garlic sauce, with no bootleg beer in sight, talking about growing older, managing expectations and disappointments, and second chances.

  9. Eating a midnight meal at 112 Eatery. I go to Minneapolis a lot since it’s the city where I went to graduate school and where many of my friends still live. Minneapolis-based BFF and classical music wunderkind Joey and I have shared a couple of midnight repasts this past year at the great 112 Eatery, the one restaurant in this almost-sleepy town whose kitchen is open till 1 am. The American Medical Association will probably read us the riot act for chowing down on gourmet cheeseburgers, bacon and harissa sandwiches, and most especially ridiculously tasty Chinese-style fried eggs (smothered with soy sauce and scallions!) at midnight, but hey, you only live once!

  10. Spending a sultry summer night at The Violet Hour. The cocktail lounge The Violet Hour was the sensation of the summer in Chicago. It’s unmarked doorway and Alice in Wonderland ambience complete with unbelievably huge straight-backed chairs, blue light, and heavy drapes, made it the must-check-out spot of the season. The hype has died down a little, fortunately, but still I could not think of a better place to have spent that very sultry, in more ways than one, August night, with people who shall remained unnamed (since they are regular From the Ledge readers) when the Sidecars and Southsiders and Negronis were flowing, conversation was no-holds-barred, and the very tasty devilled eggs well, maybe put a little too much of the devilish, in all of us.

Photo:  Alinea restaurant

4 Responses to “My Ten Memorable Dining (Including One Drinking) Experiences of 2007”

  1. tom sherman Says:

    Of course you know that I share your opinion on the one-bite salad at Spoon Thai. Soo good!

    Also, I like the top 10 list format (a staple of blog posts). Don’t be surprised if you get some good incoming links to this post. :)

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Tom! Yes, I am so glad you are a disciple of Spoon Thai’s one-bite salad. So I have been thinking about this, and I know we’ve talked about this in the past, but I think I really do prefer Spoon Thai to that other mightily authentic Chicago foodie haunt TAC Thai, although just barely. I like Spoon’s more far-reaching and diverse menu, which is likely to yield more outstanding surprises like the one-bite salad than the more limited menu at TAC Thai. But the latter is wonderful too, and I think we are very lucky to be living in a city that has so many fine Thai dining options, we can wean our palettes away from pad thai! Thanks for the feedback too on the top 10 lists, I am very excited to hear what people think.

  3. Esther Says:

    Oh wow, I’m thrilled to see 112 Eatery on your list! Steve and Doug took me there when I visited them in Minneapolis a couple years ago. We had a wonderful dinner. Great food and great conversation with dear friends.

  4. francis Says:

    Hi Esther. I love 112 Eatery! It’s also been nommed for a James Beard, so I guess they love them there at foodie headquarters too!

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