Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thoughts for the Season

posted by Richard Gill

Last Wednesday, I rode an early morning Amtrak train to Mendota, Illinois, to work with some friends on a magazine that they publish. Mendota, about 85 miles west of Chicago, is a small farm community. Sprouting seasonally from the ground are seas of corn and soybeans. Sprouting year round from the ground is a sea of wind-power generators.

I planned to return on an afternoon train called the Southwest Chief that comes from Los Angeles. As it turned out, the Chief was running six hours late because it was delayed by a freight train derailment Monday night in California. Ok, I figured, I'll hang around, we'll go out to dinner in Mendota, and I'll get on the train when it gets here. No, said my friends, we will drive you to Chicago, we'll all go out to dinner and then we'll drop you off at home. Thanks for the offer, said I, but why would you drive a 170 mile round trip just to have dinner? They said I'd understand if I had to eat out in Mendota. Based on my experience, they had a point. The fare there is dull.

My friends mentioned that it's nearly impossible to get lamb to eat where they live, so I suggested we go to one of my favorites, Cedars of Lebanon at 53rd & Woodlawn. Did I suggest right, or what? My friends thought the babaganooj, pita and olive oil was manna from heaven, and they raved about the lamb dishes they ordered.

During dinner they mentioned that the produce sold around Mendota is not very good, nor is there much variety, and in general, grocery shopping there leaves much to be desired. I wanted to take them to Hyde Park Produce, but it was already closed, so we headed for Treasure Island. They took full advantage of the store's offerings and bought enough to load up the car. As for me, I had not previously been in TI at 9PM and was pleased to see it was rather bustling at that hour.

So, based on this brief tale, here are a couple of thoughts. First, although Hyde Park has a long way to go in the area of commercial development, we really do have some pretty good eats, and (post Co-op) some pretty good food marts. Count your urban blessings, Hyde Park.

Second, flexibility seems like a good idea when booking a ticket for the final 85 miles of a train's run if the train first has to cover 2000 miles. The train ultimately was seven hours late into Chicago. (Amtrak did refund my return $8.50 fare).

PS: Re urban variety, a really nice French Market opened last Thursday at Clinton & Washington Streets, at street level under the Metra station. There is a global variety of cheese, bread, pastry, meat, fish, produce, prepared food, you name it, plus an area with tables and chairs. The target market is residents of West Loop condos and apartments, as well as commuters. And with trains rumbling overhead, what ambiance! Gare Metra.


Aaron said...

Speaking of counting our blessings for urban dining options, I'm surprised that there's been no mention here at HPP about the big changes going on at (the restaurant formerly known as) Orly's. Seems to be closed, and ready to reopen under entirely new management with a new menu. Or is this all a put-on?

chicago pop said...

We've noticed the paper up on the walls, at least, but it's still far too soon to count our blessings as far as any changes at Orly's go. When it comes to that particular location, the proof will be in the pudding.

Anonymous said...

I'll believe Orly's when I see it. The owner is a nice guy but very flighty... how many times has he renamed that place over the years? I think there was a post about that a while back.

I can attest to smaller, more rural communities often having a poorer produce selection than urban areas. Where my parents live, they complain endlessly about the lack of variety and tough meat at the only grocery story in town that isn't Wal-Mart. We have some pretty awesome stuff here and it's easy to take it all for granted.

Richard Gill said...

I believe the proprietor of Orly's has subleased the facility to a restauranteur who is remodeling it and will offer new fare. One can only hope it's an improvement.

susan said...

Now you're talking! People in Hyde Park are always complaining as they compare our offerings to Lakeview or the South Loop. But you don't have to go as far as Mendota to count your blessings. Just go to most of Chicago.

By the way, Chant on 53rd St continues to have a great musical lineup. I don't eat meat in restaurants so I can't speak to most of their food, but the bar looks fun and the vegetarian choices are good, though limited.

Aaron said...

Just FYI since I brought it up here earlier this week: the new restaurant in the Orly's space is called "the Big Easy" and they are running a preview this week through Friday night, allowing you to sample items up and down the menu. The wife and I went tonight and really enjoyed every single item they served to us. I haven't been inside of Orly's in years, so I can't speak to their renovations, but it's really worth any HPP reader's attention if you're looking for something to do tomorrow between 5 and 9.

Elizabeth Fama said...

But, honestly, there are newspapers taped inside the windows! How is anyone expected to know the place is up and running?

jmogs said...

I work by the new French market and have been eating lunch there daily for the last two weeks. It is a delight. A concept that I hope will be replicated elsewhere. Nice variety of cuisines (Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, raw veggie, sandwiches, crepes, Mexican) with high quality produce, bakery goods and butcher shops all under the same roof.

That said, it is pricey as all get-out. The area of the loop is devoid of many decent lunch options, so bully for them...but I will revert to bringing lunch soon...

Stacey said...

Sorry folks, I think the same gentleman owns "The Big Easy". Aaron, I am not sure what you had for dinner, but the night I went, not only was the service horrendous, they attempted to pass off a lobster and crab bisque as chowder with faux meat. The crab cakes also had faux crab mixed with canned lump crab. I think the owner should just toss in the towel!

Jesse said...

A bunch of us figured we would take some time off from hitting the books and decided to try out The Big Easy since its close by. As soon as we walked in, the aroma hit us in the face and I think my friend Sam was drooling. The place looks really cool - lots of color and jazzy vibes. And then we saw it! It was like the world stopped spinning!! Yes, my friends, micro brew on tap!!!! Evidently it was just installed and we are the perfect bunch to break it in. Nobody knows good beer like we do. We decided to sit in the bar area and give the beer our total undivided attention before having something to eat and we were not disappointed. The brews are AWESOME!

The food is just as good as the beer. This Hispanic dude who knows the menu upside down and inside out gave us the low down on the food and we ordered a whole bunch of stuff and told him to make some of the stuff extra spicy. I don’t remember the last time I had to fight another guy over a rib, but no way I was letting him take the last one. We were mopping up thick gumbo and barbecue sauce with hot cornbread and we wiped those plates so clean, they won’t even have to wash them. I have eaten jambalaya loads of times and it is one of my favorite dishes, but the stuffed jambalaya that we were served is like comparing a major league star to a pee wee league rookie – NO COMPARISON WHATSOEVER. This jambalaya hit it way out of the ballpark. I also have to mention the Louisiana cornmeal catfish, cause it was the best fish I ever tasted. The outside was crisp and crunchy, while the fish inside was moist and tasty. During the whole meal, we were scarfing down the FREE cornbread and sweet potato biscuits – I don’t know how that place made any money off of us with the amounts we were packing away.

We were too stuffed to eat dessert – NOT!!!

Chocolate, and lots of it, is our motto. We had the 6 layer chocolate fudge cake and the chocolate capachino mousse pie. This is when I decided that “too much of a good thing” is just a story your parents tell you to try to keep you in line. One thing is certain, me and the guys will soon be part of the permanent fixtures of The Big Easy, so keep those bar stools warm for us. For all of you out there counting your pennies, you can stop worrying. We were surprised to find that we still had a lot of bling left even after making sure the Hispanic dude got a good tip.

The Big Easy ROCKS!!!