Fourth of July: slightly better than you think

So they do the big community fireworks show in our exurb the night before the Fourth of July — that is, today, the third — presumably so they don’t have to compete with the real fireworks shows, the mega-extravaganzas detonated by the nearby big cities. Makes sense. Can you imagine if every town and city shot off their arsenals at the same time on the same night? The skies would be pyro pandemonium. (Would that be so bad?)

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For our country-fair version of neon-blooms and sky-borne booms we’re granted largish park space, hot dog and churros stands and only slightly embarrassing cover bands with names like The Rolling Clones doing their best not to asphyxiate classics by CCR, the Beatles, Journey, Foreigner and scads of other woolly ‘60s-‘70s supergroups. The music and fireworks are free. The hot dogs are not. Parking is combat. There is no alcohol. 

This is not a recipe for delight. The Fourth is kind of a dead-end holiday to begin with. Perfunctory plastic flag-waving and high-school-band parades aside, I don’t think many Americans are actually reflecting on the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. You might be, but really you aren’t. It’s all very patriotic, in a face-painty kind of way.  

th-1.jpegThat said, it’s a good summer holiday, sort of the kickoff to the season (which happens to be my least favorite season, just saying), that is strangely rife with hot dogs. They’re all over the joint.

A good holiday, but not the best. That honor goes to, well, just about every other American holiday. Easter, with its gobs of chocolate, is almost better than July Fourth. Thanksgiving is better. Certainly lawless Halloween and the gift-bloated Christmas surpass it. Hell, even my birthday beats out Independence Day, which is kind of like the special little brother of holidays. Sacrilege? Sorry.

But we settle. The Fourth has its fun. Fireworks, especially from the stance of this recovered pyromaniac, are glorious. Even the rinky-dink version in the ‘burbs, with rampant children, grassy blankets, hot dogs, snow-cones and long-in-the-tooth bands belting out “Don’t Stop Believin’” casts a pleasant spell — and gundpowdery smell.

Away from the park, beer flows and barbecues flame. Small gatherings happen in backyards. Kids squeal and peal and dogs slalom around bare legs and sandaled feet. (Those dogs want … hot dogs.) The occasional dancing sparkler is unveiled to the astonished eyes of youngsters.

I have indelible memories of the holiday as a kid on the beaches of Southern California. It was magic: illegal firecrackers, smoke bombs and Roman candles, lit from inside huge sand pits we dug that sat four or five friends. We were there all day until the city’s big fireworks show unfurled in the night sky, over the ocean, popping, bursting, crackling, streaming. And there we were, watching below, aglow in a thousand sizzling colors.

* Update: The local fireworks shebang was rained out on July 3. They rescheduled the big party for, get this, July 13 — a wee late. And it’s Friday the 13th. Isn’t that its own wild holiday?

Ambling across Amsterdam

Amsterdam prevails.

Weighing Budapest against Amsterdam for my next trip, the Netherlands won out ably after effortless contemplation that sprung to mind peerless European art, worldly cuisine, cobblestone, canals and cannabis. 

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Compared to the striking Hungarian capital, there’s more to see and do in one of Europe’s most bristling cradles of culture, a smallish, quintessentially Old World setting marbled with a pungent contemporary tang. (And naughtily dubbed Sin City for its legal prostitution and lax marijuana laws.)

Once, in the 1600s, it was the world’s richest city; port-centric commerce flourished. Now, it’s a reservoir of humanistic riches — art, food, style, architecture. Friends of mine are so taken with the city that they’re moving to Amsterdam from Manhattan ASAP.

It’s been years since I’ve visited Amsterdam, and those times had the brevity of stopovers. Budapest’s Gothic spikiness and post-Soviet chill can wait. My destination offers popping pastel charms, including an iconic fretwork of canals lined by trees and spindly, leaning houses that seem to be jostling for room on the banks. And now there’s a lot more time.

No tulips or bicycles for me (and, alas, no Anne Frank House: tickets are plum sold out during my stay, though I’ve been there twice before), but I’m all about the hazy gold and brown Rembrandts, those Vermeers and the cornea-sizzling Van Goghs gracing the majestic Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, plus the spread of classic modern art — Haring to Kruger — at the recently reopened Stedelijk Museum. 

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Gourmet stuffed pancakes, Indonesian bites (of which Holland is a hotbed), Dutch dishes, frites with mayo, pickled herring, European lagers and gin, or, in Dutch, jenever — that’s my menu. Cafes, pubs, maybe a sooty “coffeeshop” — those are where I will recharge. 

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Museum Vrolik, grisly, glorious.

Out of touristic obligation I’ll trot the tawdry and corny Red Light District, which stings the nostrils with damage, despair and possibly disease, and get out fast to catch a 90-minute canal boat tour run by the cheeky Those Dam Boat Guys, who encourage you to bring whatever ingestible vice you’d like. “Bring all the wine you have,” they exclaim. “Sure, it thins the blood and will kill you quicker, but I’ll be damned if it don’t make you forget the nippiness. We’ll provide the best cheap, shitty, plastic cups not very much money can buy!”

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After that, a heady spin through the Heineken brewery seems mandatory, as does the Museum Vrolik, a shuddery repository of the “normal anatomy of humans, but also pathological anatomy and congenital malformations.” Meaning, contorted skeletons, chubby jarred fetuses, outlandish taxidermy and all things squishy and wrong. 

I blush at how this reads like a breathless brochure by a lackey at the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce. Part of the unseemly boosterism, the unbridled optimism, comes from the vim of nailing down a destination and the kick of anticipation. Of the simple notion of travel and gulping the exotic. Of being able to finally say: Amsterdam. Yes.

A scoop of nostalgia returns in its seasonal glory

Day-five of spring, it’s 50 degrees out and there it is (no, not already): the tinkly, telltale tune of the ice cream man and his ramshackle, rainbow-colored truck, plastered with cartoons and photos of the products he’s pulled up to peddle.

He’s making the rounds, up and down streets and avenues, Pied-Pipering children to chase his truck until he stops, the chugging engine idling in the middle of the road and kids, some on tippy-toes, pressing at the sliding glass window, jostling for a sweet treat.

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This is tradition in action. Didn’t we all have an ice cream man tooling around in a boxy little mail truck or van, delivering Drumsticks, Push Ups, Choco Tacos, Fudgsicles and snow cones? One assumes it all started with the folkloric Good Humor Man in the 1930s, but who really knows.

And who cares when sprinkles-dipped delectations await? (Even if they do average a swindler’s $3 to $4 each. In my day …) At the window today is a globe-shaped man with a ruddy face and hairy arms. He’s as nice as can be without being creepy.

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But back to that tootling, anodyne jingle we all know and loathe. That unmistakable melody that, in some grade schools, has become the innocent singalong “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” (Another popular truck song is Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” aka the theme to the classic film “The Sting.”)

Here’s where things get ugly. That song, the one our local confectionary vehicle and thousands nationwide blare as a Pavlovian call to calories, is actually a 100-year-old minstrel ditty that’s aggressively racist. I don’t want to plunge into that swamp here, but you can read all about its malignant history at NPR. It’s shocking; the story even comes with a reader caution.

So if lawn mowers aren’t quite buzzing yet — last week’s season-flouting snow is still busy melting — other sounds are filling the air, those of yelping children by turns asking for money from tall people and chirping orders for Bomb Pops, as well as some questionable earworms swirling out of megaphones atop Skittles-hued trucks and vans.

It’s a bi-seasonal symphony — just wait for the clamor come summer — that I’m a bit old to partake in. (The last thing I bought from an ice cream truck was a Diet Coke.) Still, the view from afar is fine. One delights in forbidden treats vicariously, observes the joy of mass satisfaction, and maybe takes a sweet nostalgic journey all the while.

The rising OK-ness of a table for one

“We love our single diners!” gushed the genial manager at Girl & the Goat in Chicago on a recent Thursday night. I believed her. She was sincere, direct and almost giddy.

I was eating alone, again, as I do when I travel solo, which is 99-percent of the time. Have no pity. This is something I relish, the quietude and solitude of dining companionless. Not that I don’t like eating with others. I do. But solo is its own sensation — cool, uncluttered, zen.

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Look at this guy. He’s dining alone, and he still looks suave.

I’ve eaten alone in restaurants around the world scores if not hundreds of times. What once might have been a mite squirmy and self-conscious is now a cinch, and a joy. Like going to the movies alone (the best way), eating singly is woefully underrated. (Haunting bars solo is a lonelier proposition, but it’s still totally doable, at times even rewarding.)

Eateries have evolved and they are now equipped, ready and happily accommodating of the one-man show. I have no, er, reservations about making a reservation for one, and the staffers on the other end never pause, hiccup or flinch when they hear that some weird single guy is coming. Nowadays a table for one is entirely normal. Any uncomfortable vibes are coming from your end only. I’ve never felt strange or alienated dining out with me and myself.

9Go. Relax. Be seated and order a cocktail or a glass of wine. I used to bring reading material to the table, a magazine or travel guide — like the hapless fellow in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” — but no more. (For one, it’s invariably too dark to read anything. I’m at the point where I have to use the light of the table’s feeble candle to read the menu.) And I’m not one to obsessively tap, scroll and stare hypnotically at my smartphone. So I instead observe, look around and listen — the time-honored sport of people watching.

When it’s early, well before the dinner crush, I’m known to sit at the bar with my laptop and have a small bite and a beer, which I did last week at Longman & Eagle in Chicago, a winsome gastropub with a kicky, rustic flair. I emailed ahead for the best hours to pull out a computer and to confirm the place has free Wi-Fi.

Any stigma attached to the idea of lone dining is dated and moribund. At Avec in Chicago I sat at the bar with an unbroken row of single diners. A few chatted with the stranger next to them, others (me) kept to themselves and saved conversation for the empathetic, fiercely attentive server who coddled me just enough that I didn’t feel fawned over.

There are perils to eating out alone. Servers tend to have the urge to rush the meal, so if I’ve ordered three courses, instead of staggering them leisurely, the server will pile them on, and I wind up with three full plates waiting to be tackled at once. I call this shoving food down your throat and shoving you out the door (this has happened to me at least three times recently). Rushing the plates, it’s as if the lone eater cannot be left without something in front of him, lest he perish from loneliness.

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View from the bar at Frenchie in Paris. Close to the action, with great, personalized interaction. That’s owner, head chef and all-around mensch Gregory Marchand. I had the best seat in the house.

Tip: Sit at the bar. Servers tend to be more attentive and personalized and there’s less of a chance of a plate pile-up because the area is busier and service slows somewhat. Communication, from illuminating details about the menu to cordial chit-chat, reigns.

Plus, the scenery at the bar is superior — a stool with a view. If you’re lucky, there’s an open kitchen, where you can witness the artful commotion of chefs in the tentacled frenzy of culinary creation. Bodies swerve and dodge, flames lick the ceiling, delicacies are chopped and seared and tossed, plates are decorated as meticulously as a Buddhist sand mandala. Art happens. For the wide-eyed foodie, it’s the frisson of salivating spectacle, a bonus main course, with extra dessert.

Eating, walking, rocking, Chicago style

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View from the 95th floor bar-lounge in the John Hancock Building.

The first thing I did in Chicago was get a drink. There for fun from last Thursday to yesterday, I took the elevator in the famed Hancock Building (at a clip of 22 mph), which was smack next-door to my hotel in the lake-kissed Gold Coast, and landed in The Signature Lounge on the 95th floor.

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My hotel abutting Hancock Building.

It’s all about the eye-popping view. But after the hassles of airport travel, it was as much about a decompressing dram. Like the view, the drink prices were waaay up.

The catch: Going one floor higher to the official observation deck costs a smidge more than a Signature drink. So it works out: same view, less money, plus a cocktail and a seat at the window. My blackberry gin and tonic, mighty fine, cost a few cents less than $19, pre-tip. Ghastly, sure. But again, a better deal than what the higher (and dryer) chumps upstairs got.

It was a refreshing and dazzling beginning to the trip, which would take me on a three-hour walking food tour (very good, but too many sweets), Millennium Park, the International Museum of Surgical Science (shoutout to blogger Jessica — you would love this place), the Art Institute of Chicago (boo — no “American Gothic”; it’s on loan), Frank Lloyd Wright’s world-famous Robie House, an exhilarating play about teenage-girl soccer players called “The Wolves” (it was a Pulitzer finalist), an iffy concert of all-female punk bands at legendary dive bar The Empty Bottle, and a superlative array of eateries running the gastronomical gamut.

Yes, I did, as sworn, order and devour the fabled roasted pig face — and it was amazing. That was at the charming and bustling Girl & the Goat, where I also ate calamari bruschetta and grilled broccoli, all of it savory and spectacular.

Chicago is like a cozier New York with a tang all its own — a little Midwest, a little metropolis. It’s thronged and noisy, but contained and sleek, despite ragged edges any city worth its urban bona fides possesses.

The “El” trains will deafen you, while its uber-original hot dogs and pizza will soothe and sate. It’s got a lake so big it looks like an ocean and it’s steeped in cracked-leather tradition that makes so much of it seem early-20th century old school. Like Al Capone old school. Like lots of restaurants called Joe’s. But it’s also ever-changing, of course, with farm to table bistros, elegant bars, hip cafes and cutting-edge art. Its modernity is palpable.

It is, in its sneaky little way, deeply seductive.

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Roasted pig face, succulent layers of meat with potato crisps under the runny egg. This signature dish at the adamantly popular Girl & the Goat was the highlight of the night, and perhaps the trip.
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Calamari bruschetta (clam baguette, goat milk ricotta, goat bacon, green apples) at Girl & the Goat. Perfectly firm yet silky squid with the creamiest, velvet-like ricotta. Kaleidoscopic flavors, sweet, tart and savory — a tastebud tango.
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Pricey drinks, priceless views, 95 stories high.
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Anish Kapoor’s glistening Cloud Gate sculpture, aka the Bean, in Millennium Park. People swarm the ginormous orb, gazing at the skyline and themselves in its curved silvery skin.
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Same, in the Loop district of the city, Millennium Park.
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Butcher steak at the phenomenal Avec, a massively in-demand Mediterranean-tinged joint that hit every note just right, with music to spare. The must-have dish, which I had and almost wept over, is the chorizo-stuffed dates. Divine. Meanwhile, this steak, piled with tender fennel, was marvelously otherworldly.
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Frank Lloyd Wright’s elegant Robie House was finished in 1910 and is part of the iconic architect’s Prairie period. It’s simple yet granular in its considered details that only Wright was doing at the time — from windows and furniture to lighting and rugs. It’s one of the most important examples of residential architecture in America. Undergoing renovations, it can be a little musty in some rooms, but the informative tour highlights what makes the building a grand marriage of form and function.
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The sublime Art Institute of Chicago boasts one of the largest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world, as well as such masterstrokes as Seurat’s giant pointillist gem “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,”  Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and a flotilla of other indelible works by Degas, Magritte, Dali, Warhol, Giacometti, et al, not to mention exhibits of African and Asian art and a large spread of Chicago’s specialty, architecture. Huge and handsome, the venue is like a combo of NYC’s MoMA and The Met — a magnificent aesthetic amusement park.
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The perfect classic Chicago-style hot dog, or “red hot,” that’s been, as they say, “dragged through the garden.” It overflows its poppyseed bun with celery salt, a dill pickle spear, peppers, tomatoes and onions. For three bucks at famed Portillo’s, it was a thoroughly delicious snack.

Getting my Goat, Chicago style

A couple of blogs ago I rhapsodized about two fine-dining dishes I’m already swooning over before a March trip to Chicago: crispy duck tongues and wood-oven roasted pig face.

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Roasted pig face.

Served at the acclaimed Girl & the Goat, they sound so marvelously disgusting yet so tantalizingly tasty that my anticipation surges. My only fear is that the plates are so popular they’ll be out of them the night I order. I have no backup. It’s either fowl and swine or nothing. Keep your hamachi crudo and seared yellowfin tuna — I want barnyard animals! (Well, there’s always the titular goat. I ate goat once in Jamaica, with a complex of reactions.)

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This is about Girl & the Goat. This post is then, in its adorable naiveté, free advertising. But let’s not forget: I’ve never been to the restaurant, never tasted its food. I’ve only read about it, drooled over photos of dishes (XXX food porn), watched Anthony Bourdain sing its praises and learned a bit about its chef and owner Stephanie Izard in the press. If I go and it even slightly disappoints, I will return here with a retraction, grumbling umbrage, quibbles and caveats. I am fair. And ruthless.

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Stephanie Izard

But back to our hopes and dreams. A Chicago native, Izard is, famously, the fourth-season winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” where she was also named fan favorite. She opened Girl & the Goat in 2010 in the West Loop, followed by Little Goat Diner across the street and the Chinese-themed Duck Duck Goat around the corner. She’s become a mini-industry in Chicago, and G&G was nominated best new restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 2011. Izard won the Beard award for Best Chef Great Lakes in 2013 and was tapped one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs in 2010.

I have meals planned at other admired restaurants in Chicago — Avec, Frontera Grill, Piece, Au Cheval — but for some reason Goat has me giddy. On paper, the menu’s a doozy, mouthwatering morsels and paradisiacal plates that can’t miss. I quipped before that I will only eat duck tongue and pig face. Not true.

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Calamari bruschetta.

The calamari bruschetta (clam baguette, goat milk ricotta, goat bacon, green apples) will be sliding down my gullet, as will the wood grilled broccoli (rogue smokey bleu, spiced crispies) and, if I don’t erupt first, escargot ravioli (bacon tamarind sauce, escarole and celery, crispy onions). (Please, god, let there be doggie bags.)

Girl & the Goat is but one more event in my ongoing daredevil dining excursions. It’s not that crazy, but its exoticism feels just right, and its menu is much more ambitious than those of the other eateries I’ll visit in the Second City.

Deep-dish pizza is great. Potato-goat sausage pizza is divine.

Dining out should be a thrill, a mini adventure. Not to get dopey or too obvious about it, but what’s the point of forking out for food that’s not extraordinary? When I buy a burger, I want that slab of beef to sing. I want the crispy Platonic ideal of fried chicken at The Wooden Spoon in Bloomfield, NJ, or the extravagant, inspired dogs at Ruffhaus Hot Dog Company in El Dorado Hills, CA, or the amazing mazeman at Ani Ramen in Montclair, NJ, and anything at Frenchie in Paris, France. I want my eyes to roll back in my head at each bite.

Girl & the Goat looks promising, and this will be the end of my unsolicited promotional pamphlet for the restaurant. Perhaps I’ll follow up with a report on how it all — duck tongues, pig face and all — went down.

I will follow in this little guy’s hoof-steps. He looks like he knows how to dine with panache.

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Girl & the Goat mascot. How I intend to enter the establishment.
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The little fella after enjoying dinner. How I intend to exit.

Quack, snort and other adventures in dining

I’m a relatively adventurous eater — I’ll nosh bone marrow, chicken hearts, snails, frog legs, foie gras, raw oysters, sea anemone, roe, goat, buffalo, pigeon, octopus — but, like most of us, I cleave to a less exotic, much less expensive daily diet. Those delicacies are for singular occasions, mostly while I’m traveling and living a bit high on the hog. (Hog, too, I eat that.)

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My grilled octopus, Barcelona.

Mulling a trip to Chicago, I’ve made a short list of restaurants offering casual to fine dining, from Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill (Mexican) to Paul Kahan’s Avec (Mediterranean). Squeezed between those is Stephanie Izard’s popular Girl & the Goat, an ambitious family-style spot located in the city’s Randolph Restaurant Corridor in the West Loop.

I always scan the online menus before I make a reservation. Pushing past the goat plates, two dishes at Girl & the Goat had this fledgling foodie hooked: crispy duck tongues and wood oven roasted pig face. After a flinch, I promptly decided I’m having both.

These delicacies are inarguably a vegetarian’s writhing apocalypse. I know. We must move onward.

I have of course never had duck tongue. Beef tongue, perhaps. No idea what to anticipate, so I’ll allow the gustatory gurus at Serious Eats explain the specialty:

“Surrounded by a faint hint of meat and papery thin layers of cartilage, duck tongue is predominately a vehicle for juicy pockets of fat. At barely two inches in length, the tongue may seem small and insubstantial, but its flavor is intensely duck-like. When freshly fried, duck tongues are positively addicting with a crisp surface and a creamy, slightly fatty interior that melts in your mouth.”

This …

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… becomes this:

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Duck tongue with tuna and black bean poke, crispy wontons and piri piri.

Like duck tongue, no appetizing euphemism masks what pig face actually is: the meat and fat sliced off the face of a pig. I may have eaten pig cheeks before, but this is different, a full facial. Again, Serious Eats explains:

“It’s the multitude of harmonized flavors and textures that make the roasted pig face of one my favorite dishes ever. From the succulent wood-fired pig face patties, sweet maple gastrique, and tart tamarind vinaigrette, to the crispy potato sticks and gooey sunnyside-up egg, it’s clear why this is one of Girl & the Goat’s signature dishes.”

This …Cannon-and-Cannon-Meat-School-pig

… becomes this:

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Wood oven roasted pig face with sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro, red wine-maple, potato stix.

As I momentarily salivate (daub, wipe), it strikes me that both meals are commendable for their use of animal parts that might otherwise, and usually are, thrown out with the beaks and snouts, offal rejects. This is mindful, sustainable cooking, but it’s also, let’s face it, delicious, deeply indulgent cooking, sinful, decadent, irresistible. (It’s a lot like the bone marrow I adore, seen below from my recent Russia trip.)

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Right, I haven’t tasted the duck and pig yet — maybe I’ll gag into my linen napkin — but my experiences with exotic, zany foods comprise a solid track record of gastronomical daring and concomitant success. In other words, I enjoy this kind of food, and I’m not only amenable to it, I’m beguiled by it, too.

Omnivorous by nature and choice, I will pursue my culinary escapades for the foreseeable future — that is, a very long time. Vegetarians may scowl and harrumph, and I get it. I can only respond with a lusty chomp and gulp and the thrill of tasting whole new worlds.