I’m recently back from a trip the US to visit a friend who was directing a play at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (if you happen to be in Chicago before June 6, try to catch the Taming of the Shrew, it’s very funny and deals with the mind bogglingly unacceptable subject matter in a witty and ingenious way. Anyway.) I started in Boston, where I had a not especially accomplished but serviceable clam chowder (clams a bit chewy, potato lumps a bit huge, but thick and warming and enormous) at Stephanie’s on Newbury Street. The location, on the main fancy shopping drag with table outside affords priceless people watching, and is better than the food, which is ok but doesn’t quite get where it’s trying to go. In Coda, in the South End, I also tried a surprising little starter of steamed parsnips with dried cranberries, pine nuts, parsley and sultanas. It sounds like a side, but there’s no real reason why that should be the case. It would also work, I think, with the addition of squash, and of course, chopped bacon (as is usually the case with practically anything).

Then, Chicago, to which I had never been and was enchanted. Sitting on the top of the Hancock Tower, you get the most superb view, which really brings home what an architectural marvel the city is, and how modern it was when it was built. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that you would build skyscrapers in the Mid-West, bar a simple determination to make your city the most modern in the world. There’s no need to go up, if the Mid-West has anything at all to offer, it’s space. It is the flattest thing I have ever seen. It stretches forever into the distance without so much as a bump to interrupt its ballerina-chested flatness. Extraordinary.

These are some of the places I ate on my wanderings around this beautiful blip on the landscape. There’s one other to add, the name of which I failed to write down, but will repost later. 

Russian Tea Time, East Adam Street, Chicago

You can’t miss this place, as you pass the old-fashioned porch awning, you’re regaled with vaguely Eastern European music piped from within. The menu is huge, but if you’re familiar with Eastern European food it’s pretty clear that a lot of it is fairly similar.

They bring you hot tea, which has a faint raspberry aroma, and I ate a cup of borscht, followed by pelmeni, Russian dumplings. The borscht wasn’t the usual clear broth with ravioli-style dumplings that I’m used to from Polish restaurants in London, this was a busier proposition altogether – delightfully oily (with that weird orange rim you used to get on school spaghetti Bolognese) and full of chunks of purple-stained potato and cabbage. It was sweet, sour and warming. Borscht always makes you feel as if you’re doing yourself good.

I was a bit taken aback by the pelmeni – they came naked and unadorned, just a circular plate with twelve pale little parcels arranged rather forlornly around the edge and in the middle had been gravely piled a small mound of grated carrot. This was delightful – aromatic with cumin and coriander seed, sweet and moreish. There wasn’t quite enough of it, and rather too many dumplings. Pelmeni consist of a thick dumpling pastry, rather like a very heavy fresh pasta, filled with minced meat, onion and parsley, and served with sour cream and garlic yoghurt on the side. Simple but effective, rather like a punch in the head. I was completely defeated after six. Though it was very tasty I was quite relieved that I didn’t sample the yoghurt – my onion mouth lasted quite long enough (like, all afternoon) without the enhancement of raw garlic. The urge to fall asleep then and there was almost overwhelming, and I didn’t even sample any of the vodkas, though it wasn’t an especially exciting selection, fairly standard. They do ‘flights’, so if flavoured vodka is your thing then you can happily anaesthetise yourself on all sorts of concoctions, like the four adults at the next table who were merrily handing them round under the suspicious gazes of two rather picky small children.

Café Iberico, North LaSalle Street at West Superior, Chicago

I came early (well, early for a European, just before 7pm) but this well-known place was already filling up with early-onset dates and groups of girls. Brilliantly awful Spanish language soaps on the TV (silent) and boisterous, vaguely Spanish music complete the slightly touristy but good natured atmosphere. You can sit in the massive main restaurant (it’s evidently good for groups later on in the evening, the enormous sangria jugs lined up above the bar must make the place go with something of a swing) but as I was alone I sat at the bar to people watch, and was surrounded by pairs of women. Tapas is perfect for women because you can order a ‘small’ number of ‘small’ plates and then gorge while pretending that you’re having a light meal. Also, there’s no chance that your treacherous companion will do that awful thing of suddenly ‘just’ ordering a salad, making you feel both greedy and aggrieved, an unsisterly act of aggression that women inflict on each other all the time out of competitive instinct.

I had the chorizo plate, a selection of chunks of sausage at varying stages of incineration, some slightly weird but most of which were fine, and included a very nice black pudding, which was a bonus. In the spirit of enquiry I also tried the goat’s cheese – all over the US I see this dish:  baked, oddly tasteless goat’s cheese in a puddle of overcooked, oversweet tinned tomatoes, occasionally utterly unimproved by a lacklustre scattering of dried oregano. Don’t order it, it’s ghastly, and the fried garlicky bread I got with it on this occasion was a weird green colour and a bit chewy, as if it had been microwaved before frying. What made this all utterly worthwhile however, were the prawns (which the Americans call shrimp). Hot, fresh, juicy and bursting with flavour, they were perfectly cooked with tons of browned chopped garlic, chilli flakes and parsley. They’re divine and for the hungry shopper, definitely worth the short walk from the main shopping drag North Michigan Avenue (known at this point as the Magnificent Mile. There are various other ‘honorific’ street names in Chicago, denoted by slightly weedy brown signs, but none of them except the Mag Mile have really stuck, ‘Today’s Chicago Woman Way’ being a good example of why).

Earwax Café, North Michigan at Damen (Wicker Park), Chicago

I really liked this place. It has a fun and colourful, somewhat shonky interior (the door is the thing that says ‘animal exhibit’ on it. It took me a little while and some skulking, peering through the window of Myopic Books across the road to figure that out). It’s a big room but is divided up with individual little wooden booths placed in a row down the middle, which seat maybe four each, as well as tables at the sides. The booths are tall and wooden, like pews and decorated with cut-outs of fleurs-de-lis and four-leafed clover shapes. The interior theme is sort of circus/freakshow – hand-painted banners hang on the wall with pictures of knife throwers and an intriguing attraction called Ostrich boy. The staff, two men when I visited, were extremely amiable, the music hip. This is clearly a genuinely hipster place but without the annoying addition, at least at 11 in the morning on a rainy Thursday, of too many hipsters. I had a fabulous espresso milkshake – 2 shots blended with icecream and topped, rather unnecessarily it has to be said, with whipped cream. Bad for the heart yes, but good for the soul. I’ve probably said that before. I also had an unusually perfect, hot, fresh 3 egg omelette with spinach and feta – the filling was properly mixed through and generous. I’ve generally found before that Americans don’t really understand the delicacy of omelettes, tending to tread rather heavily with eggs, so this was a very pleasant surprise. Rye toast with fennel seeds was ok, though I always expect something different from rye, having a more Germanic sensibility when it comes to bread, and you never quite get enough butter to start out (if, like me, you tend to load up your toast with trowel). They usually serve it with home fries (chipped potatoes, cooked not quite enough to be crispy, usually), but for some reason I never fancy potatoes at breakfast, so I swapped them for a fruit cup of melon, grapes and strawberry, which looked a bit dusty but was actually perfectly nice.

Wicker Park is a very cool little area with a passing resemblance to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury – the road is peppered with cute little boutiques and just across the street from where I sat at my window table I could see a shop touting ‘Mystic Tarot’ and ‘Energy Stone’s’ (freedom for apostrophes!) next to a venue advertising a gig by a band named Trampled by Turtles.

Crofton on Wells, N. Wells St, Chicago

Ok sorry about this but I didn’t take notes here because there was a lot of serious discussion going on about the theatre production (it was first preview) and it didn’t feel entirely appropriate, but this is absolutely one to visit. It isn’t cheap, by a long way (though they do have a prix-fixe for about $38 which is pretty good value) but it’s a very nice fine dining experience. I might repost about this one when I’ve dug out the menu, which I pinched.

It might sound somewhat off message but bear with me. After sitting in the cinema on my own barely breathing, I had to post something about this new film with Tilda Swinton I Am Love.

SPOILER ALERT. 

It’s the story of a woman, the Russian wife of a stiff Italian industrialist, who embarks on a passionate affair (obviously. Aren’t they always? Isn’t that the point?) with a young chef. Entirely, as far as I can see, because of the way he cooks a prawn. The moment when she tastes the dish he makes for her, slowly sliding her knife (a fish knife, incidentally, the continued use in swanky restaurants of which item of cutlery fills me with red-tinged rage, but that’s another post) through the flesh of the glistening prawn while all the sounds of polite conversation and tinkling china around her fade into the background, is the most evocative expression I have ever seen on film of what happens when you taste something that completely blows your mind. It made me want to go out and find myself a chef, immediately.

On a cultural note, it’s the sort of film that appeals to all the senses. It looks glorious, the sound, especially the music, bypasses your brain and grabs at your heart, and you can practically smell the food, the countryside, the sun-drenched city.  It should be added very close to the top of the woefully short list of great foodie films (another favourite is La Grande Bouffe, though that’s a rather different proposition, I admit). It is understated but heart-stoppingly dramatic at the same time – there’s an operatic quality about it, without the singing or the improbably large women posing as flighty ingenues. Go and see it.