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Wednesday, October 20

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Chicago Gourmet Mon Sep 28 2009

Chicago Gourmet 2009

Chicago GourmetWhen I first heard about Taste of Chicago many years ago, I envisioned it as big block party where you could just meander from fancy restaurant to restaurant and sample their best dishes. Probably on tiny forks. And that it would all be free. Obviously, neither the real Taste or its younger, more upscale cousin Chicago Gourmet quite achieve that dream. But in its second year, Chicago Gourmet seems to better evoke the feeling of that festival in my head than the Taste has ever managed. With an improved lay-out and better selection of food (even though drink was still more heavily represented), the Pritzker Pavilion was transformed into an open pasture for gourmet grazing, from the tone set by the complimentary wine glass at the door to the security check for pilfered booze on the way out.

More thoughts on this year's event after the jump.

Cognacs, Liquers and Gins, oh myThe tag line of the event should really be reversed, as alcohol took center stage for the second year in a row, returning purveyors joined this year by a new influx of spirits. The folks at the Pierre Fernand cognac table mentioned they'd heard last year's attempts by the Chicago Gourmet team had fallen pretty flat, but that this year seemed well-run and patrons were largely positive about the changes. SakeOne returned with its signature "g" sake, as well as two new infused varieties, which were by far the most refreshing drinks I tried. Plum Sake was sweet without being cloying, while the Moonstone Coconut Lemongrass infusion was, as promised, like a crisp piña colada in a bottle, drier in character from the rice base. Worlds better than the tiny taste of Lucid Absinthe, which sent me immediately into the arms of the Layer Cake Malbec six feet to the left. I've missed out on tasting absinthe until now, despite the growing trend of small-batch, wormwood-free distillations. I may never taste it again. It was like ouzo on a sugar high, and the clever name and attractive decanter at the table couldn't do anything to improve the flavor.

Prairie organic vodkaThe best drink I sampled was the dirty (filthy) martini made from Prairie vodka, an organic Minnesota brand that's taking steps toward becoming the first sustainable vodka, as well as one of the only high-end brands made stateside. (Plainfield-made Smirnoff didn't even get a tent.) A sweeter finish comes from the 100% corn base of the vodka, harvested by a collective of local farmers--the leftover mast from the corn is used as fuel for the distillation process. In a few years, Prairie may be a totally sustainable operation.

Old Town Social, Gastropub Pavilion"Tasting Stations," where groups of alcohol were made available in abundant shade and stocked with baskets of crusty rolls, cheese, and various salumi--a great, thoughtful and probably wise addition this year. As were the five "Gourmet Pavilions," each focused on a particular theme (French food, Gastropub, Desserts, etc.) and featuring several different dishes doled out by their chef creators. The difference this made to both the logistics of the event (cutting down on last year's endless lines for the all-too-few featured snacks) and the variety for diners. By aiming at a particular tent, one could try a few variations on a single culinary theme.

Duck Confit, Tavern on the ParkI strolled past the Gastropub pavilion for the afternoon shift of chefs, and sampled dual rillettes of duck and rabbit from Tavern at the Park and The Paramount Room, respectively, both garnished with their own versions of a corn fritter. Paramount's rabbit had an earthy but still acidic flavor boosted by pomegranate seeds and tiny cubes of pumpkin, and maybe would have been better a few bites after Tavern's much more straightforward juicy duck confit and rich sweet corn cake--but the similarity of the two tastes was also a nice point of comparison. Old Town Social was serving up a porchetta slice with pepper piccalili on the next table anyway, which added an appropriate contrast of hammy saltiness and sweet pickle flavor. While I overheard some diners near me praising their plates at the expense of some other taste they'd encountered that hadn't quite lived up to their standards, everything I tried at the pavilions was certainly worth the five minute or less wait in line.

Jack Binion pork bellyChicago steakhouses did a nice job elbowing their way into the mix this year to bring some much-needed substance to the open field of booze. Gibson's Restaurant Group used their collective resources to stake out a large tent serving up Kobe beef miniburgers, an avocado and crab salad, and mini fillet sandwiches next to Luxbar drinks--as well as an inexplicable display of health and beauty products. Perhaps not the best juxtaposition, but here (as with all the tents I visited), the food didn't seem to suffer from either the heat of the day or demand of the crowd. Morton's teamed up with Jim Beam to create a mega-tent completed with round bars and plush red velvet circular seating, passing out small, meltingly flavorful fillet sandwiches next to bourbon and tequila mixers. Jack Binion's stood on its own, leaving burlesque-clad Amazons and plates of generous cuts of pork belly (and I mean generous--a couple next to me poked at it and marveled, "It has its own layers. Like a cake.") to draw the crowd.

Art SmithThe events interspersed throughout the buffet of tents were also much better managed than in the inaugural year, with announcements occasionally interrupting the soundtrack of French music and 1950s standards to direct patrons toward book signing and cooking demonstrations. I sat in on two demonstrations, by Dirk Flanigan of The Gage and Tony Priolo of Piccolo Sogno (who have a lovely, combative relationship that goes back 15 years and several pairs of long tongs), and Art Smith of Table Fifty-Two and Michael Altenberg of Bistro Campagne. Watching the chefs banter was almost more entertaining than watching the food they were preparing, and a glance around the Pritzker Pavilion Stage showed there were almost as many spectators with "Talent" badges as mere civilians. The camaraderie, mutual respect and playfulness of the presenters was contagious, and made the small final products seized upon by the front rows more than forgivable.

Overall, the event was a much better representation of Chicago cuisine this year, and a much better-run affair from start to finish. While $120 for an all-access one-day pass to Chicago Gourmet may fly in the face of the economic climate, grazing (and drinking) were unlimited once you plunked down the money. Compare that to Taste tickets at $8 for 12 (which can buy maybe three tastes) and the usual $5 per drink that most Chicago summer festivals charge, and it starts seeming a lot less exorbitant. Granted, you may have had to listen to pale women with heavy jewelry talk (loudly) about their recent microderm abrasions, or striped-shirt men regale the Nathan Lion USA wine representative with the story of studying his brand in business school as an example of a failed strategy. But you also might have overheard passionate discussions of meals past, remembrances of a particular chef or dish lovingly recalled over a new combination of flavors. As Art Smith put it, "Food is memories." Even if one of those memories is having security escort you down the Millenium Park steps after a few too many croquettes and Cosmos, at least you had a good time getting to that point.

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Absinthe_Drinker / September 28, 2009 11:38 AM

You are right about Lucid! These American "absinthes" all taste the same i.e no wormwood (or very little) and lots of anise/ licorice flavour. Yuk! The European stuff is so much better.

Dewey / September 28, 2009 1:24 PM

It's an honor to hear you enjoyed the Moonstone infused saké from our Kura. Feedback is always so greatly appreciated. Kampai!

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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