Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Another day in Chi-town (Cont.)

After leaving the most oppressive public library since the Lubyanka Kremlin-Approved Book of the Month Club, we jumped back on the Red Line to continue our trek down to Chinatown. There wasn't much further to go, but it was far enough that we were able to experience first hand the metamorphosis of our mechanical pupa as it emerged from the protective cocoon of the subway tunnel in order to spread its new wings and fly above the busy roads. Oddly enough, though, our conveyance still bore a much stronger similarity to a caterpillar than it did to a butterfly. Still no wings, alas, which really buggers up what I had hoped would be a clever metaphor. In any event, all I'm saying is that the subway turned into an "el" train. Pretty cool!

It's a shame that the metaphor didn't work out. You can't win them all, I guess. I'll just have to settle for having compared the Chicago Public Library to the KGB headquarters (and prison) made famous in novels about the Cold War. The CPL probably doesn't even keep those books in the Popular Library.

It was only a few stations from the library down to Chinatown. If the name of the station (aptly: Chinatown) wasn't enough to convince you that you had embarked at the right place, the view from the train platform would have:

When I was here last time, we arrived from a different direction since we had come by water taxi. We could have done that again, but the subways are more convenient and much warmer. From the direction we came from last time we ended up right where we needed to be, which was at the head of restaurant row. We would want to end up there again today eventually, but our first order of business was to go through the gate into "authentic" Chinatown. We were on a mission, you see.

A mission? Well, the thing is, you can get fairly decent egg rolls at the grocery stores in Columbus, but you can't get the sinus-clearing super-hot mega-mustard that the restaurants bring out with their egg rolls. There are bottled mustard products that purport to be hot Chinese mustard, but we have tried them all and none were capable of causing even the slightest sweat. In my opinion, if a mustard doesn't singe the back of you eyeballs, it's too weak. The plan was to go deep into authentic Chinatown and find a grocery store that would have the mustard powder that we needed.

You can't get into the heart of Chinatown without passing a few gift shops, and being tourists and all...

Hmmmm. Probably not our style.

Well, long story short, we tried three grocery stores and could not find any mustard. We saw dried squid, octopus, and sea cucumber. There were cans and bottles of sauces and vegetables of all forms. There was fresh (and fragrant) fish, and there was meat. There was even a tray of chicken fingers, albeit in a very strictly literal sense. More accurately, I think they'd be called chicken feet. Those wouldn't sell well at McDonald's, I'll bet.

But no mustard.

Having failed on our initial quest, I sought to come up with a Plan B. Ah-ha! We would find our way over to restaurant row, go to the restaurant that I went to last time I was here, and ask the waitress to write us a note that we could hand to a grocer to have him find our mustard for us. It was an intricate plan, a plan that would require us to order food that would come with mustard so we would have an example of what we trying to find. Not that that was much of a sacrifice - we sure do like our crab rangoon!

We waited until just the right moment: obviously having sampled the rangoon with a little of the provided mustard, the waitress seemingly caught up on her tables and with a moment to spare...

"Could you do us a favor? We're trying to find where to buy this kind of mustard. We've been to three Chinese grocery stores and the closest thing they had was a tube of Wasabi."

"Oh," she replied, "we buy that mustard at Costco."

[stunned silence]

Well, I'm glad she didn't write something down for me to take back to the grocery store, only to have "Go to Costco" read to me by an irritated grocer!

It wasn't an entire waste, though. I really like the food at the Lao Shanghai. Hey, I'm practically a regular there! I was sitting in the same chair at the same table as the first time I had been there. I took a little different tack on my food selection, though, opting for the Salt & Pepper Scallops which were a bit more spicy than anything I would have wanted when I was up there with PapaGolf. Those hot, bumpy afternoon flights can be brutal if you aren't careful with what you eat.

The Travel Director selected a very nice Sesame Beef. It was even better after being spiced up a bit with chili oil:

From Chinatown we rode the subway all the way back up to the Magnificent Mile to do a little shopping before returning to the hotel for an afternoon rest. That gave me a little time to poke around on the internet to decide on a dinner destination. We're trying to strike a balance between "easy to walk to," "more interesting than a franchise," and "not too snobby, but not too seedy." That's not awfully easy to do when working with nothing more than internet maps and reviews, but I thought I had come up with just the thing right around the block from out hotel.

Here's what I was able to find out about the place:

"The room is simply beautiful, and casual enough to fit in with jeans and a nice shirt with people who were in suits and ties."

"I had the pleasure of experiencing Balsan last night with two of my friends. The staff, food and service were great! Recommendations from the chef were perfect and the food was excellent! And it won't break your wallet... It was a great experience and I will be coming back with family and friends."

"This casual breakfast, lunch and dinner spot on the third floor of the Elysian Hotel sports an antique European look, with a marble-topped bar, antique mirrors and etched glass."

The Bing map had a little pop-up that said it was best described as a pizza place. I was visualizing something like a cross between Pizza Hut and Max & Ermas.

I should have known something was wrong when we walked into a courtyard that looked like something you'd find impressive even at Beverly Hills standards. We were ushered in by a doorman who passed us off to another finely coiffed fellow whose sole purpose was apparently to push the elevator button for us. I think we could have handled it ourselves, actually, since the only choices were Lobby, Bar, Restaurant, Spa, and God. There was another clue that we should immediately reverse course in there somewhere, but I missed it.

We were seated in a nice, quiet, dark corner which suited me just fine, although I suspect it is normally reserved for jeans-wearing rubes from small towns in Ohio. Best to keep them out of sight! It was definitely a gorgeous room, but without any sleds, skis, milk jugs, washboards, Budweiser-emblazoned Nascar car hoods, or eclectic decorative junk of any kind, I started to really think we were in the wrong place.

The menu removed all doubt.

The only word on the entire thing that I recognized was 'prosciutto', and only that because I've seen it at Sam's Club. I needed to buy us some time to decide what we were going to do, so I tried to order a beer. Naturally, there was no Miller Genuine Draft or Bud Light to be seen on the list. Everything was an import from some far-flung place. Except one: an Ohio import! From Cleveland!! That would do, although it still felt a little odd to be ordering an Edmund Fitzgerald, a beer named after a ship that sunk in Lake Superior. Ominous, that, but appropriate. My spirits were pretty much headed the same way.

While the waitress was off getting my beer for me, I asked the Travel Director what she wanted to do. She was every bit as lost in the menu as I was. I came up with an idea: perhaps we could adopt the approach we had taken with the subway information lady and just plead our ignorance, sip our way through a beer, and beat an ignominious retreat. Honesty have once again proven to be the best policy and all that.

The waitress? She was having none of that! I explained that we were just plain, simple folk from a small town in Oh-hi-yah and that we were completely befuddled by the menu and would just be shuffling along once we had finished our drinks. Was she down with that plan?

No. No she was not. She was going to explain the menu to us.

Now here's the thing: no amount of explanation is going to make head cheese more appealing.

In fact, quite the opposite is true. The more you learn about it, the worse it sounds! Frankly, I didn't know that people actually eat those parts of the animal; I thought those were the bits that went into store-brand dog food and ballpark hot dogs.

Look, I did my part. I tried to meet her halfway. I even asked if they had a children's menu. They did, but the tone with which she answered my query was quite enough to kill that line of questioning. There was nothing to it: bring us the check, please.

As she handed us the check, she felt compelled to quite directly tell us that an 18% gratuity had been added on our behalf. I hate it when they do that. I am perfectly aware that we had occupied what should have been a far more lucrative table for her, and I had intended to tip accordingly. It would have been well in excess of 18%. The temptation was to just pay her what she asked and leave. I suspect that's what the Travel Director would have agreed to. But I couldn't let the snobs get the better of me; I slipped another fiver on the table as we were leaving.

That'll show her!

Having made our escape, we still had a problem: we hadn't been fed. As we were walking back to the hotel completely without a plan, we saw a pizza place just across the street called Pizano's Pizza. Possessing the awesome advantage of having nothing more to lose, we walked in and gave it a try.

It was fantastic! Great service, yummy pizza, and a friendly atmosphere. Exactly the place we were looking for in the first place. A perfect bookend to our breakfast fiasco.

We shared a salad because the owner warned us that a pizza could take half an hour or so, and I had a Blue Moon to keep me company while we waited. After we had eaten and were getting ready to go, I noticed that the waitress hadn't gotten the salad on the check. I called her over and pointed it out to her and she went to make the correction. When she came back, she sincerely thanked me for my "great honesty."

That, if nothing else, pulled our evening up from a travesty to a stellar, memorable success.

Thank you, Mr. Malnati!

1 comment:

  1. You found the best pizza in town (other than Lou Malnati's) by accident?! Haha, a stroke of luck definitely. Hope you got buttercrust... pure heaven.