Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Windy City Comfort.

My colleague, Splint McCullough is a mess.

We’re on assignment in the Chicago area and he’s looking a bit like the travel companion from hell. Splint’s allergies have invaded and are doing a shock and awe number on his head, leaving him a pitiful mass of sniffles and snorts. On top of that, he’s penniless. A moment of confusion back home means he’s without his wallet forcing us to rely on my fragile credit line to temporarily bankroll all our expenses.

We sit in snail-like traffic on route 90, pointed in the general direction of Chicago, but going nowhere.

“You’d hardly qualify for road warrior of the year,” I point out, somewhat unsympathetically.

“Just shoot me,” Splint moans.

“You need comfort,” I suggest, softening a little.

“Would that be Southern Comfort?” he asks, perking up.

“I’m talking about a square meal, the kind of comfort that only comes from Mom’s home cooking.”

“Brilliant idea, but my mother lives in Texas,” Splint snaps peevishly.

We finally arrive in the city, and Splint perks up a little, referring to points of interest like a double-decker tour bus guide.

“You’ll notice that traffic is not so bad here and the roads are much wider than what you would find in New York,” he points out. “That’s the benefit of having the city burn down and having to rebuild all the main roads. What was the name of that cow, by the way?”

Despite this surge of energy, Splint is still a bit surly. Our quest for the restorative powers of food lead Splint, me and a young colleague we’ll call “Babs Gordon” to the South Water Kitchen on N. Wabash Avenue. The restaurant’s slogan – “Reminiscent of a day when the kitchen table was the cornerstone of American cooking.”

We descend a steep and dramatic staircase worthy of Norma Desmond, to a cavernous sunken dining room that is about ten feet under sea level. There is warm brown paneling, copper highlights and charming sepia murals of old time Chicago on the walls. The decibel level is manageable, and accented by an occasional baby screeching. Oversized ceramic salt and pepper shakers are the size of bell clappers.

We settle into a booth and are given light and tangy cheese bread as a starter. Splint orders an Olympic-sized bowl of tomato soup, while I request the winter beet salad, and Babs gets the Caesar salad. Splint says his soup is so rich it tastes like a pasta sauce. My beets are swabbed with horseradish and buried under a mountain of peppery watercress. Babs is pleased with the generous shavings of parmesan that accent her salad.

The main courses arrive and Splint is beginning to seem like his old-self again. He dazzles us with stories of his culinary triumphs in the kitchen, from that ‘extra special something’ you can achieve by adding a dash of dried basil to scrambled eggs, to the time he accidentally added cumin to his oatmeal instead of cinnamon. (“I was sleepy,” he protests.)

Our entrees arrive and Splint revels in his Chicken and Handmade Buttermilk Dumplings with Peas and Carrots. “It looks like a pot pie that exploded,” he chuckles with glee. Indeed, the dumplings are the size of hockey pucks.

Babs orders fresh duck breast from Indiana with a bright orange peak of whipped sweet potatoes. I dig into a stack of roasted salmon and shitake mushrooms in a rich balsamic glaze balanced atop a cake-like slab of sweet cornbread. The flavor combination is satisfying and sublime evoking the ocean, the forest and the heartland. For a little over-the-top indulgence, I sample a side of creamy baked mac and cheese and the kitchen table symbolism is all but complete.

For dessert, the usually mild-mannered Babs opts for a chocolate banana martini, with a dramatic curl of banana garnishing the rim of the glass.

Splint acknowledges that he is now full of comfort, to the point where the buttermilk dumplings are weighing a bit heavy. Yet he still finds room for a serving of blueberry sorbet, because blueberries are a good source of antioxidants. Still there comes a point where all that comfort and healthy ingredients can overwhelm even the most seasoned of diners.

“I’m so stuffed, these antioxidants are killing me,” says Splint.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

What's better for restoring equilibrium than good friends/colleagues and a chocolate banana martini?! I'll make a note of this restaurant for future visits to Chicago.

Anonymous said...

I love that last statement Splint said! Man you all are having too much fun. All your dishes sound divine but I think I'm seeking some comfort food right now too because the most appealing to me from all your dishes is that sampling of creamy baked mac and cheese!

Anonymous said...

The unnamed cow belonged to a Mrs. O'Leary. And it has recently been cleared of starting the famous fire--turns out it was more likely drunken neighbor Peg Leg Sullivan who kicked over a lantern. But Splint was right that this terrible disaster turned into the huge urban renewal project that took Chicago from being a cowtown [how's that for irony] to becoming a major city.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing like good home cooking when you just need a hug...looks like you found the spot. (and I know all about comfort foods!)