John Curtas is …

My Kind of Town

If you follow ELV on Facebook and Twitter (and let’s face it who doesn’t?) you know he’s spent the last seven days reporting from Chicago — where he’s been shot (as in “filmed”) in all sorts of places as a pilot for a possible food/travel show with the Travel Channel. We can’t reveal the locations of those shenanigans, but our staff thought you’d enjoy some tasty snaps from some places we hit when we weren’t on location…going at it hammer and tongs with Al “Mad Man” Mancini.

The above tasty snaps were taken at Paul Kahan‘s The Publican — what many consider the joint that kick-started the gastropub revolution several years ago.

We found it far superior in atmosphere and intensity of flavor to Longman & Eagle:

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…. which we had hit the day before for a ho-hum brunch. Between the both of them, we gained some insight into the gastro-hip revolution that has spread from Chicago across the nation like a plague of under-dressed locusts, encouraging patrons to be too cool for whatever they need to be schooled in….like the proper way to dress and dine.

Haberdashery aside, suffice it to say that to be a proper gastro-pub, you must specialize in dishes topped with farm-identified eggs:

Another gastropub, another farm fresh egg

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…and 20-to-30-something patrons sporting either statement facial hair:

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…or ironic t-shirts:

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…or preferably both:

http://cache.gawkerassets.com/assets/images/7/2010/03/500x_hipstershirt2.jpg

Although we preferred the straightforward dishes of Publican (as opposed to L&E’s quirkiness – aerated Gruyere foam anyone?), there’s no denying the drive and talent in both kitchens, and the dedication to making top-shelf ingredients taste as good as possible was palpable in both places. (As opposed to Las Vegas, where counting the covers seems to be the over-arching concern of everyone in every restaurant.)

After hanging with all the hipsters (from the look of things, no one over forty eats out in Chi-town), it was time to return to our kind of civilized dining…and that’s how we ended up at Acadia, a restaurant opened for only six months on a forlorn section of the South Loop.

Unfortunately, we were headed to the airport, so all we had time for was a quick hello to Facebook friend Thomas Raquel (who just happens to be the pastry chef there), and to a sip or three of the best cocktail we’ve had in a coon’s age (a gin and tonic made with house-made lemongrass tonic and a cucumber/kaffir lime ice):

We remarked to Acadia’s mixologist/barmaster Michael Simon that we hadn’t seen a bad bar or beer list in the entire week we’d been in town. We then made a joke about there not being a bottle of Grey Goose in sight, to which he said, “Grey Goose couldn’t pay me enough to stock it at my bar.” From the sound of his voice, he wasn’t kidding.

Wolfing down Raquel’s superior sweets (honey parfait topped with osmanthus gelee; peach Melba with Moscato d’Asti ribbons and smoked vanilla(?) ice cream; and textures of chocolate five ways) with such a hand-crafted cocktail did a disservice to all, but what we took away from the experience was that Chicago’s food and drink scene is light years ahead of Vegas’ (at least at the neighborhood level), and any of the Chicago’s watering holes put most of ours to shame.

If you want any further proof, behold this concoction:

Drink this if you can figure out how to

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…beheld (but not drunk) by us on a quick tour of The AviaryGrant Achatz‘s kitchen-cum-cocktail bar next to Next — his of-the-moment-and-many-others-ever-changing restaurant. What you see above is a porthole-sized infusion glass, used to serve an herbal-tequila concoction of impeccable provenance. (Everything Achatz does is of impeccable provenance, thanks to his well-heeled investors.) Depending on how you feel about such things as bags of tarragon air and torch-smoked wood infusing the inside of your cocktail glass, you will either find this joint charming and innovative, or overwrought and absurd.

The way we at ELV see it, they may be trying way too hard to turn drinks into avant garde creations, but it sure looked like a lot of fun (for the imbiber) and none of these libations costs any more than a standard daiquiri at one of our over-priced hotel bars — none of which have “chefs” and alchemists working magic like this right in front of you.

Bottom line: The City of Big Shoulders has a gastronomic heartbeat composed of passion, innovation, a touch of craziness and a ton of tasty libations. With the possible exception of our murderer’s row of fancy frog ponds, nothing in Vegas comes within a rotary evaporator of what’s going on there.

Sorry boys and girls, but that’s the way we see it. You have a long way to go if you ever want to be mentioned in the same breath as the Windy City….and after a week there (and visiting over a dozen restaurants), the James Beard Foundation’s perpetual snubbing of our food scene suddenly makes a lot of sense.

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8 Responses to My Kind of Town

  • I look forward to reading which of our fair city’s eateries you visited. I’m glad your experience seemed to be positive.

  • Dear J.C., M.J., & A.M.

    Interesting commentary about Chi-town. Glad to see ELV’s web-page is once again operational. A slight aside here. Our family has picked up a choice property in the “bird” area of Vegas (is that Summerlin or Spring Valley?) and will be visiting Vegas much more regularly. With that in mind I also ordered and received your “Eating Las Vegas 2012″ What a GREAT little paper-back! Entertaining, informative and amusing! With something like 2100 restaurants in Vegas we need some sort of foodie direction. Considering that I could see ELV easily doubling if not tripling in size and content! Get to ‘er gents! *grin* THANK-YOU.

    Regards ……….. AL

  • I think its a bit crude of you to slap Vegas upside the head on your way back in from your reports of Chicago.

    You say Vegas Chefs basically dont stand a chance in hell and are second rate and you give no advice on getting forward, to place you deem as good.

    So why dont you start with the overall weak beer selections amongst strip and local drinking holes. Vegas needs more pubs with more small batch breweries from amibitious brewers in the NW, California, UTAH, Midwest. IPA’s galore, sour beers.

    You’re quite contradictory. what do you want, the best tuna tartar or awesome pig ear salad? You praise places like hash house that serve cardboard and calories.

    You snub at Al mancini types but in Chicago its cool to be hip.

    You want LV to be like Chicago, why dont you take responsibilty as a food critic and a member of the food community in LV (since you’ve earned it) and make Vegas a better dining scene rather than settle your palette on mediocrity.

    Where were you for lucky rice, seemed like a good event.

    Dont see you encouraging local bars to get inventive with news beers, drinks, simple yet good menu options.

    You are like a non encouraging father to a kid that gives his best, but its not good enough for you. Move to Chicago since its so great, enjoy the terrible weather. Maybe the other food critics will let you play with them.

    Vegas is a great place and has great chefs. There is more consitency on the strip than the whole of most major cities. As well LV has fostered many chefs that have moved on to become greater chefs, but Vegas always lives in their heart. For a guy that knows Vegas, you know nothing about about the soul of cooking.

  • hope you made the trek to Hot Dougs Sausage Superstore and encased meat emporium, if not you have made a colossal mistake!!!

    i kinda agree with ELV, but its not vegas chefs that lack the passion and forethought of doing innovative cuisine, its the un-evoloved dining public that will not eat pickled beef tongue or duck hearts, therefore chefs have to cook what the masses want. (unless they have deep pockets)

    if you want great gastropub food in vegas, your only real option is Public House, and their beer menu is far deeper then Publican

  • Best thought of the day from @has a clue…

    “i kinda agree with ELV, but its not vegas chefs that lack the passion and forethought of doing innovative cuisine, its the un-evolved dining public that will not eat pickled beef tongue or duck hearts, therefore chefs have to cook what the masses want.”

    i.e., the definition of a Las Vegas steakhouse.

  • Alinea, eh? When I first began traveling specifically for dining experiences, I went to Chicago, a city I hadn’t visited since the 50s. Food has improved since then. My host was a niece, a well spoken young woman (around Al Mancini’s age) with a PhD in linguistics from Northwestern who knew the city’s food. After a superb meal at Charlie Trotter’s, we went to Alinea the following day. The food was so spectacularly unpalatable my otherwise demure niece began swearing so vociferously I was afraid we’d be evicted. Grant came out and greeted every table except ours. I trust you had a better experience.

  • I’m probably speaking for myself alone here, but as much as I enjoy the “genuine article” restaurants in Chicago and NYC, they can be too big a pain in the ass for infrequent visitors like me. I can’t get in Babbo. I don’t know anybody at The Publican. I know that I won’t be getting the special treatment at restaurants like these.

    I may be sacrificing a little passion or authenticity, but I love the convenience of my food visits to Las Vegas. There’s no trouble booking a table, be it at Sage or Twist or wherever. There’s a refreshing lack of pretension. I’m within walking distance of all my favorites, and a couple even recognize me now…which is nice.

    I would love some better beer lists, though, and a bit more recognition that there are some diners who sometimes prefer a good saison to a pinot.

  • I am one of your readers NOT on FB or Twitter.
    TRH

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