It’s been one of those days that inevitably seem to happen around the holidays. I’m scheduled to spend about 10 hours in Chicago. It is considered a quick day trip – if you’re insane.
Arriving at LaGuardia airport at 5:45 a.m. I am greeted by the sound of “Sleigh Ride” blasting from the shoe shine guy’s boom box. At least six people sitting around me on the flight have respiratory infections. And, I probably won’t get home until close to midnight. I could use a little holiday cheer.
Yet, despite my frenetic agenda, my pal Zany actually has time for a culinary adventure before I fly out. This is my version of a Christmas miracle.
After completing my work, I dial the special hotline number provided to me. A businesslike voice answers, "This is Zany," and dissolves into laughter. I receive further instructions.
Moments later, I locate Zany standing at just about the same spot where we met up on Michigan Avenue last summer, but this time she’s wearing a sweater and wool coat. There’s a big hug, we grab a cab and she hands me a pack of gum for the ride. We head for Chicago’s French Market. “It’s my favorite thing to do in Chicago,” she explains and I recall that lately, she’s been exploring her inner Julia Child. We hop out of the taxi. Zany turns her head down slightly against the wind and heads with determination towards the market entrance.
The first thing I notice is that the French Market is located in a commuter train station. We seem to have this obsession with food and transportation. Let me tell you, the Long Island Railroad looks nothing like this. The French Market promises some good eating and a PEAK round trip to Winnetka if we feel adventurous.
We enter an open indoor market dotted with cheerful canary-yellow bistro umbrellas.
We are momentarily dazzled by a stunning array of gastronomic treats that include glistening fresh produce, pastry, cheese, gelato and French macarons:
The sound of pop Christmas carols fills the air and I feel the rumble of departing trains beneath our feet. I keep expecting a conductor to shout “All tickets please!”
Zany sighs. "I honeymooned in Paris. I've wanted to go back for a long time."
We case the joint completely before determining our dining strategy. Zany recommends that we start with crepes at Flip Crepes. Given that she is now the Queen of Crepes, I agree and we select a Ham’n Cheese Classic to share filled with baked ham, Parmesan, tomatoes, mayonnaise and 4 peppercorn garlic. It is kind of a 21st century take on the enduring Croque Monsieur, and we even get to watch as the crepe – the size of a large placemat – is prepared:
The dish has a lovely balance of tender crepe and salty ham. We are now feeling tres French and agree that a tasting of cheese is in order, so we move along to the Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine Shop and request a selection of French cheeses that will complement our next choice of nibbles:
Before taking our seat at a dining area that resembles the base of the Eiffel Tower, we stop at Frietoken Belgian Fries & Beer. We order an enormous cone of fries – enough to feed the entire City of Lights – and a couple of malty Belgian beers with some slightly crazy gnomes depicted on the labels.
Zany lays out the condiments. There is ketchup, mayonnaise, bleu cheese sauce and truffle mayonnaise. She notes that she can’t perform her usual ritual of mixing up mustard and ketchup into one convenient dipping sauce. I am immediately addicted to the truffle mayonnaise.
Zany takes a long draw on her beer, sits back and smiles with satisfaction. "This is what people do in France on Mondays,” she says. “They leave work and drink beer and eat fries."
She packs up the cheese and remaining fries and places the container in my briefcase for a snack on the plane.
“Do you think international customs will allow this?” I ask, momentarily forgetting that we are really in downtown Chicago.
One cannot go to Paris without a stop at a patisserie, so our final visit is the Vanille Patisserie where we pick out a lively selection of buoyantly colorful French macarons with flavors like Coffee, Earl Grey, Pumpkin and Red Velvet.
Zany points to a café table in front of Track 8. "Shall we take a seat by the side of the Seine to enjoy our macarons?" she asks. Zany is really good at suspending disbelief. The rush hour is on and scores of commuters are now hurrying past.
We eat most of the macarons, even though I am supposed to save one for her husband Luigi. Alas, my time is up, and I must now think about heading home. Where has the time gone?
"In Paris, you forget time," Zany reminds me.
We venture outside where it has become noticeably colder. We manage to find a taxi that takes us to the place where I will catch a train to the airport. We hug and Zany wishes me a hearty "Bon Voyage!" as I jump out of the cab.
I turn back to wave, but the taxi has already vanished into the crush of holiday traffic. For just a second, I swear I hear the hearty chuckle of a jolly old elf and the sound of jingle bells. But then, I am forced back to reality as the Blue Line train roars into the station and I am whisked back to O’Hare International Airport for the return trip to New York.
©2011 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved