Photo by: Naveen Dasa '14
If New York City restaurants could self-reflect, they would sound like John Adams when he berated himself for occasionally acting too proud: "Good treatment makes me think I am admired, beloved, and [my] own vanity will be indulged in me. So I dismiss my guard and grow weak, silly, vain, conceited, ostentatious."
With their celebrity chefs, sexy interiors, and exotic ingredients, New York City restaurants lure you in with sultry coquetry. Unfortunately, the collective admiration of 10 million usually turns their service silly smug. Thus, moving to Chicago was an exciting change for me. The new environment promised to capture my attention for want of a life as full and vibrant as the one I lived in New York. Above all else, I was excited to try new restaurants. No longer would I be at the mercy of Open Table for dinner reservations. A no-show wouldn't result in my picture being plastered on a blacklist. I wouldn't need to wait 2 hours for standing room at a brunch venue like Clinton Street Baking Company. I was finally going to be treated like a customer.
I wanted my first restaurant experience in Chicago to develop organically. I wanted a suggestion that came from the life and experience Chicagoan—not from a Yelp filter or Open Table search. I reasoned a native—familiar with the dos and don'ts of ChiTown—would be able to suggest a natural, authentic entrée into the restaurant scene. Thus, when a squad mate recommended West Town Tavern, I knew where to start.
West Town Tavern, aptly named for its location in West Town, serves contemporary comfort food. While the long, sturdy, antique oak bar helps buttress its haimish interior, the most comforting part of my experience involved the courteous hostess service we received from the restaurateur herself, Chef Susan Gross. A reservation for 8 turned 4 and then 5 half way through dinner was met with the most accommodating gestures: place settings and seating removed and then added back without the slightest hint of surliness. The restaurant is, according to its website, housed in a 1880s building that retains the original tin ceiling, exposed brick walls and hardwood floors.
Our first course of the evening was gnocchi. With a menu as diverse as West Town Tavern's, (everything from fish tacos to duck confit was in play) I was a bit hesitant to let a newcomer totter my appreciation of this sumptuous and supplying Italian pasta. But, in deference to a dinner companion, I allowed the order. Within minutes of tasting these spool-sized dumplings I discovered that my prior appreciation for gnocchi had been decomposing in dangerous al dente shackles. The strength in the chef's preparation comes, quite simply, from the delicacy in his preparation. They were soft, pliable and plump. The dumplings were mixed with a pine nut and parmesan peso that, thankfully, was not brimming with oil in an unrefined attempt at luxurious indulgence.
My main course was a Zinfandel-braised short rib roast. This is the kind of meat a Booth student needs and shouldn't be afraid to have. A soup for the soul to nourish and preen a battled-hardened exterior calcified from braving hyperboreal Chicago weather and vitriolic banking interviews. The pot roast was a thoroughly well-prepared and updated classic. The centerpiece of meat of glistened and rested effortlessly over an airy cumulus of roasted garlic mashed potatoes. The roast was so supple that ordinary green beans off to the side appeared intimidating. With just a bit of encouragement from my fork (I was not given a knife—for lapse in service or sound confidence in their meat, I wasn't sure), the lamb crumbled into fibrous, meaty morsels. The pot roast was draped in a sweet, dark, cerise-colored Pennsylvania Dutch Black Vinegar sauce. As if the clear and sonorous voice of the sauce wasn't enough, a few raisins to the side reminded me that this wasn't your traditional pot roast.
When the dessert menu arrived, my inner child screamed for a helping of banana cream pie and my inner hotelie thirst for a tawny Port; but, I feigned satiation because my friends were stuffed. Overall, the meal was fantastic. Rarely do I remember service as much as I do food, but on this occasion, I will remember both. And next time I come here, I expect to indulge my inner self a little more.