Posted with permission And feel free to visit Zola's website at www.dinnerwithzola.com
Where to Eat Before it's too Late...
You people are an inspiration. Sometimes you write me to ask for recipe ideas. Sometimes you just write to say hello and let me know how a column affected you or made you laugh. And then there are times when you write to me about something that makes ME think. This column is about one of those emails I received last week.
The email started off with a reader who said she and her group travel to Chicago every year and they always struggle over which restaurants they are going to eat at while here. This is when I know I have a real group of "foodies" on my hands. Most people come to a conference and either eat at the conference or just wander out of the facility and find food.
Not these people. They want to dine. They want to soak up the atmosphere. They want to enjoy the authentic Chicago. I commend them.
In the email the woman asked me to recommend some restaurants. They figured that if Zola lives in Chicago she ought to make a pretty good restaurant recommendation source; comprehensive even. And they would be right! I used to tell people I've eaten my way from one end of this city to the other. I used to say that when I was skinny. Now I don't think it sounds so good, but I still feel the emotion. I am proud of so many things Chicago has to offer and I'd put our culinary prowess up against even the most highly touted food centers in the world. News Flash!: Chicago's Stephanie Izard just won America's Top Chef competition! Stephanie used to own a little bistro down the street from my place. It was called Scylla, and my husband and I were big fans.
Anyway, back to the restaurants. I wrote back asking her to narrow her request. I could spend an afternoon giving restaurant recommendations. I could do it by cuisine type. I could do it based on budget. I could do it by neighborhood location. I could do it by featuring the newest or even the venerable. You get my drift. I needed to be narrowed down. Then I'd be prepared to shoot off a list.
Her email came back later that afternoon. She asked for American steak houses and Italian. Chicago used to be the "butcher capital to the world" so beef made perfect sense. Italian, as she pointed out, is universally loved, so everyone would be happy with Italian restaurants. Then she added the kicker that really made me think. She said, "Zola, if you found out you had to move and you could only eat at three Chicago restaurants before you had to ship out and never return, which places would you pick?"
I was blown away. No one had ever set me up with a challenge like that one before. I really had to think. My easy way out was to answer her steak request and then her Italian request so that was 7 or 8 restaurants that I could type up in a flash. I was stopped dead by her last request. I realized it was one of the most difficult food-related decisions I could make. I interpreted it to be, "If you could only eat three more dinners in your life, and you had to eat them in Chicago restaurants, which ones would you pick?" It sent me into a tizzy.
My brain went into overdrive. First I focused on the ones I had already given her in the Italian and steak categories. I had to ask myself, if I were picking the last three, would any on those lists make my final? Then my mind started racing all over town. As my brain settled on each restaurant, the menu came into focus and I tried to factor in what I'd order so I knew if that was a perfect choice.
I realized a couple of things that were new to me. I decided, that as a good cook myself, I could get lots of good food. What was going to be a deciding factor in the myriad of good, and even fabulous, Chicago restaurants was going to be the atmosphere. My mind started conjuring up the smells, the music, the lighting, how comfortable the seating is , the service- all of these things more than the food. Interesting observation for a food writer, I thought. The creativity of the menu was important, and did they branch out beyond things that I'd cook in my own kitchen? Or did that matter?
What I wanted was all of those things clustered into one restaurant. Or at least three.
And you know what? In the final analysis and the time allowed, I couldn't do it. I gave her three and gave her my reasoning but I told her I really needed time to visit about 50 or I was always going to feel like I had left something behind.
Then I took it another step, and I'm going to invite you to do this too. I took my internal conversation to cocktail hour. I had a few minutes with my husband before I had to head off to a business dinner. I was sitting with him on our roof deck as the sun was fading and I told him the story of the email and I followed it up with the question, "Which three would you pick?"
Right away he turned it back on me. "Which did you choose? He wanted to know". "You're not getting off that easy", I said. "You give me your list first and then I'll share mine". Dead silence. Then he started trying to guess mine instead of being forced to pick his own. It was the funniest thing to watch. Very interesting. No giggling. I had to just let him fight with it. And oddly enough, his list didn't match mine; although just about every restaurant I've eaten in, I've eaten in with him. He knows my tastes and I know his, but our lists didn't match.
So here's my challenge to you. At the dinner table, or even better, at a dinner party with friends, pose the question. Unless your town only has three restaurants, I bet this will make for interesting conversation. It's not politics, but it's a conversation that can generate some passionate consideration as each person lobbies for their favorite restaurants and why they've chosen them.
Good luck and feel free to report out at: Zolacooks@gmail.com
Where would you eat, in your home town or favorite city, if you could eat 3 final meals?
My 3 would be Ruth Chris's Steakhouse, The Melting Pot, and Chez Jean.
Ruth Chris: Filet mignon
Melting Pot: Surf 'n Turf and fondue. YUM!
Chez Jean: Fabulous French restaurant! Ate there a couple of years ago on our anniversary, and it was an incredible taste bud experience:)
Post yours in the comments. I'll post my favorite Zola recipe tomorrow.