Wildfire, 159 W Erie St, Chicago
It’s been my experience, Fellow FoodBeest, that if you go nearly anywhere in the world and tell someone you are from Chicago, they will do one of two things:
1. They will grin, put their hands up on an air-Tommy gun, and say something akin to “bang-bang. Al Capone.”
2. They will grin, put their hands up on an air-basketball, make a free-throw gesture and say “Michael Jordan.”
Americans who think of Chicago and food, do something similar. They will think or say “meat.” Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle about immigrants working the the Chicago stockyards more than a century ago, but it is still what comes to mind for many people when they think of food and Chicago. Even Frank Sinatra sang about “The Union Stock Yards – Chicago Is.” The reality is not the same as the myth.
While Chicago, like every other major city in this country, has its share of fine steakhouses, the city of Big Shoulders hasn’t been the world’s meat capital of the world in decades. Chicago’s meat packing district, which processed more meat than anywhere else in the world beginning in the Civil War, has been closed for nearly 60 years.
Still, when my cousin and her partner came to town from Vermont and wanted to join us for dinner, it was meat that they had in mind. So we went to Wildfire, a carefully designed nostalgic throwback to those thrilling days of yesteryear by the Lettuce Entertain You Restaurant Group which is highly skilled at creating sentimental simulations of restaurants from days-gone-by.
Wildfire is a tribute to an Old Chicago steakhouse. It describes itself as a 1940s supper club. I am not old enough to attest to the authenticity of that claim, Fellow FoodBeest, but it seemed mostly on-target. The prices are totally well below most current steakhouse standards and if the food isn’t brilliantly memorable, it is totally familiar to our palates and acceptable to the standards of those days it is emulating.
We walked in and, in perfect harmony with both reality and the created ambiance, a real live Chicago cop sat at the bar talking on his iphone. Perfect. Thank you Central Casting.
I ordered a pomegranate martini (I know – just don’t go there, Fellow FoodBeest) and got a martini glass that was filled with a Barbie pink liquid that tasted like cross between a floral perfume and a floor cleaner. After a few sips, I abandoned it. Mixologist? Not here.
Our out-of-town guests arrived, we were seated in the “Ellington Room” (of course) and our waitperson immediately brought us bread: two loaves – an onion bread and a black bread with raisins – impaled together on a knife. Mr. FB dug in.
Our dinner was fine. It was more than fine. It was a dinner that my parents or grandparents might have enjoyed on a night-on-the-town.
The highly recommended chopped salad (more a throwback to the ’70s or ’80s than the ’40s) was a little overdressed, a little soggy, but exactly what we had expected. It was time to bring on the meat.
The menu offered a roast prime rib of beef, something that had once been a special treat for me, but not something you see everywhere these days, so I ordered it (the “small” 10-oz size) with a creamed spinach. It was “fine,” not really what memory had evoked, but memory can be both elusive and misleading.
All three of my dining companions ordered the bison steak, which was really very good and definitely not something that would not have been offered in the 1940s, but hey, who’s complaining?
Our waitperson brought a tray of fake desserts to our table (it is possible that they were real desserts that had been preserved and shellacked – it’s hard to say). Still, we were tempted by a Door County-looking cherry pie and a trio of little tastes: Key lime pie, a brownie with official Snickers ice cream and both caramel and hot fudge sauce, plus (for the healthy and virtuous among us) berries.
All-in-all, it was clear that we have trained ourselves – or been trained – by the food Mecca this city is in the second decade of the 21st century, to expect much more international, more creative, more unexpected food combinations and even some of the benefits of molecular gastronomy.
Still, nostalgia did its job. I was carried back to special dinners out with my parents as a child. Portions sizable. Prices reasonable. Food decently prepared. Nothing to rave about or remember over time. But it did include the warmth of sharing with family.