From the air, Chicago in late winter looks like a giant crepe sprinkled with crushed peppercorns and minced scallions: a brown flatness textured with bits of black and white and wan hints of green. It’s a cold crepe, of course; you land and you can see your breath, though within a day or so the temperature will have risen into the malarial mid-70s, and the sky will be filled with purplish green, swelling clouds right out of The Wizard of Oz. Summerish heat in March suggests (apart from global warming) the imminence of tornadoes, to be followed by a blizzard, though not mosquitoes.
One evening we wandered west through River North to Scoozi, the Rich MelmanLettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant that turned 20 last year. The place was something of a pioneer when it opened; the neighborhood was still slightly sketchy, and the setting a remade temple of heavy industry, with an enormous barrel ceiling supported by wooden cantilevers so as to leave the dining room clear of pillars gave some sense of what imagination could do with grand old spaces that hadn’t been built with food and restaurants in mind. I thought Scoozi was spectacular when I first visited it, soon after it opened, and it seems to me none the worse for more than two decades of wear; in San Francisco, only LuLu begins to compare in the category of warm spaciousness. Even Scoozi’s big, red, and curiously flattened tomato still hovers, cigar volantestyle, above the front door.
The metro-rustic food too was or is as good as I remembered it. We particularly liked the grilled artichoke hearts, which seemed not merely to have been marinated in lemon juice and garlic but to have been braised or parboiled in that combination before hitting the barbie. Clue: the potent pair was present throughout the vegetables, making the flesh tender, moist, and fragrant, rather than being just a surface phenomenon. And I am not particularly an apostle of artichokes.
Chicago is underrated as a food city, as in so many other ways. Its reputation is one of rust, Al Capone, Vienna beef sausages, and the clattering El but that is the old city. The new one is, like our own, a forest of cranes and high-rise apartment buildings whose residents want something interesting for dinner. Excuse me, did someone say crepe?