In most areas of my life, I am a creature of habit. I repeatedly take the same routes to regular destinations. It seems like I wear the same colors; the same styles over and over.
But when it comes to food, I am an adventurer. “Get what you can’t get at home.” So I am always on the lookout for unfamiliar foods, new offerings and certainly new restaurants. And I am blessed – or cursed – to live in one of the food destination cities of the world.
Alinea, widely believed to be the best restaurant in the United States is here. So is Tru and Spiaggia and L20 and Charlie Trotter. And just a step down there is MK and Naha and North Pond and Topolobambo and Café Spiaggia, and literally too many to name. But that’s only the top end.
In this town – in every town – there are amazing dumps and holes-in-the-wall and just unassuming places that do astonishingly good food. Pizza (deep dish to cracker-crust) and Mexican and burgers and regional Chinese and Vietnamese Pho and Thai (northern and southern) and Indian and fried fish and breakfast places and even little fusion joints. It is hard to go wrong at almost any price point. But go wrong we did.
I love restaurants and chefs who do what they do well, no matter how simply. I love when they do it honestly and without pretension. But more and more often pretension is the name of the game. We saw in Mexico and it’s true here.
In a funny way, it’s like people who are inauthentic. You know, when someone pretends to be something he or she isn’t. Smarter than you. Or too important to be bothered. Or nice when you know they don’t like you. When if they were just who they are, they’d be great and you’d love being with them.
There is so much good food to be had in this city that I expect everything to be great. I think what undoes restaurants more than anything else is overreaching.
Prasino, 1846 West Division, Chicago
We went out for lunch over Labor Day weekend. We were headed to Jerry’s on Division, a totally reliable and superb sandwich shop in Chicago’s Wicker Park. As we drove around looking for a place to park the vehicle, we noticed a crowd around a Prasino, a new place a couple of blocks east of Jerry’s.
“Oh, let’s try that,” we said.
According to the website, Prasino is a Greek word that means “green.” The restaurant uses reclaimed wood and light fixtures made from old wine bottles and corrugated cardboard boxes. The kitchen, they say, is set up to reduce energy and water use (but don’t say how). They say they support local sustainable organic farmers (but don’t say who). “Eat green. Live well,” they say. All the “right” green stuff. All the right, trendy buzz styles of food (mostly Asian and Mediterranean) on the menu. Prasino even brews its own kombucha. Not being kombucha fans, we didn’t try it.
We walked in and gave us our name and were told the wait would be about 30 minutes so we sat down in the lounge/bar with one of those flashing plastic alarm devices to let us know when our table was ready. The place was new. It was clean. It was pretty. Open environment and contemporary. Promising.
Of course you can’t eat the decor. And you can’t eat the menu so the only real proof is in what gets put on the table. And how it gets put on the table.
While they bent over backwards to please during our wait and even comped our drinks (juice and iced tea), the overall experience was being in a very nice white bread suburban chain in the heart of the city. Well, it is a suburban chain. The other outlets are in St. Charles and LaGrange, two suburbs west of Chicago.
We ordered a Greek flatbread that was feta cheese (salty), sundried tomatoes (salty) and Greek olives (salty) on a soggy crust. “This would be better with something sweet,” said Mr. FB. He was right. Even some caramelized onions would have helped balance the overwhelming salt.
I ordered the half-avocado stuffed with lobster. But something is wrong. The lobster meat on my plate is flaky. Isn’t lobster thick and chunky? What’s wrong with it? I wondered what part of the lobster it was from. It tasted ok, and was surrounded by large puddles of a very mild mayonnaise-based, Remoulade-like sauce that the menu called a “chili beurre fondue”. Call it what you will, a mild pink mayo is just a mild pink mayo.
Mr. FB had a seared ahi tuna sandwich that was fine but essentially unmemorable. The farro salad side dish was a very nice touch.
I am clear that Prasino works hard to be contemporary and “with-it,” and it was fine. But is fine enough in this city? Prasino doesn’t have it quite right. It is capitalizing on food trends with a homogenized, watered-down hand and going for a “green” tone. It is trying for an urban feel but has no edge; nothing that made it unique or commanding.
No one is more pop-culture than I am (just ask Mr. FB).
But one of the reasons we moved into the city and out of the suburbs was that we came out of an 8:00 movie one evening, wanted something to eat and there was nothing open but The Cheesecake Factory. And while I will eat – and yes, totally enjoy – an occasional meal at Applebee’s or Chili’s or The Cheesecake Factory, the predictable vanillaness of those options and the desire for something more adventurous are what took us into the city.
With so many unique and excellent restaurants (large, small, plain and fancy) in town – even in the neighborhood – it is very unlikely that we will return to this one.
Silom 12, 1846-48 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago
Silom is Bangkok’s Wall St. – at least during the day when it is home to businessmen, major financial and legal institutions, luxury hotels and condominiums. At night it turns into a rather bizarre, sleazy and hedonistic playground.
Silom 12 is Wicker Park’s newest “authentic” and trendy Thai (BYO) restaurant in the space that Cafe Matou used to occupy on Milwaukee Ave. I’m not sure if the name is intended to represent its namesake neighborhood’s character during the day … or at night. Like Prasino, Silom 12 looks the part: brick walls, sleek minimalist design. It, too, is pretty.
We were there early in the summer and it was mobbed. We waited out on the sidewalk for a good half-hour to get seated.
Last week we made reservations – but didn’t need them. The place was half-empty.
We sat down and were handed menus. Almost immediately our young attractive Thai waiter approached the table. We weren’t ready to order.
The menu is tricky. What is called Por Pia Sod and described as: “jumbo lump crabmeat | bean sprout | tofu | eggs | cucumber | plum sauce” is a spring roll with snow (not lump) crab piled on top. Por Pia Tod is a fried eggroll and is described as “fried | veggies | spicy sweet chili sauce.” So there are surprises.
We ordered the Por Pia Sod to share and six minutes after it arrived, as we were still eating it (I had a spring roll piece held aloft in chopsticks at that moment), the waiter approached our table, pushed the appetizer aside, and put our entrees in front of us. Oh.
From the time we walked in until we got our check for dinner was about 40 minutes. Great for a workday lunch. No so great for a leisurely weekend dinner.
I had a rather tasty sweet Panang shrimp curry (“coconut milk | green bean| bell pepper | basil”) and Mr. FB ordered the Chilean Sea Bass (“steamed | jumbo crab meat | veggies | spicy garlic reduction”). He asked for “a little” spice. Sadly the sweetness and delicacy of the sea bass was overwhelmed with heat.
Compared to Sticky Rice or Spoon Thai, two very gritty and authentic and totally unassuming Thai restaurants in town, Silom 12 offers a patina of glossy class without fulfilling the promise with the great food or knowledgeable service that would justify it. Not surprising that the crowds have thinned.