Tuesday, July 28, 2009

When in Naperville...

I've been to Naperville, Illinois three times for work over the past 9 months; I even started a Naperville dining entry after my last visit but for whatever reason ("whatever" being the decreasing level of interest I had in writing about Naperville the longer I was away from it) I never completed this entry.

After yet ANOTHER trip to this Chicago suburb, I feel once again inspired to share my experiences in discovering the hidden culinary world of Naperville, Illinois. And I must admit, with each visit my experience becomes a little more enjoyable, and I always discover at least one hidden gem which I had not discovered before. My first trip was wholly unadventurous and uninspired; I've learned my lesson well since then and have embraced all that which Naperville has to offer the overly-critical gastronome such as myself...and found that it was a whole lot more than I would have expected.

Naperville is by and large a nightmare of suburban sprawl. Route 59--best comparable to the M-59 Eastsiders know and love (west of I-75 it just simply isn't the same steering-wheel-pounding experience)--is a non-stop nightmare of slow traffic, congestion, lack of turn-around opportunities, and never-ending mega-malls. Driving down this road at a slow-and-steady 35mph (this is the fastest you will ever travel on this road, regardless if it is day or night), you pass by an ample array of uninspired chain restaurants: Friday's, Applebee's, Chili's, Olive Garden, another Applebee's, On the Border...as well as chains unfamiliar to us Michiganders, such as Boston Blackies, Houlihan's, and Culver's. You could lift the whole stretch up and plop it down anywhere else in the Midwest, and it would look pretty much the same as every other suburban landscape.

But interspersed amongst all the city block-sized super-stores, strip malls, and the big shopping mall in the middle (the reason I'm even there, after all), there are nondescript sushi lounges, wine bars, and ohdeargod pizza.

There is also a very cute, quaint little downtown area, very Birmingham-ish, with lots of cute, quaint shops and restaurants and even a cute, quaint riverwalk (think more creek than river). Regrettably I admit to spending more time downtown back in January in the middle of a week-long blizzard than I did during the 5 warm, sunny days I spent there this month...but did I mention how annoying the traffic is? Seriously. It's bad.

This time around, I ate a lot of pizza. Which, okay, might have been the easy way out but hey--I love pizza, and it's an equally valid approach to charting a city's culinary landscape as hitting all the 5-star joints (of which I believe there is exactly one in all of Naperville). Besides, I can only charge so much to my corporate expense account. But between my last two sojourns I've discovered quite a bit about Naperville cuisine, and I find myself liking it. Liking it enough, anyway.

Thanks to a great new website called simply "Naperville Dining" (and where were you on my last trip???), I was able to navigate my way through some of Naperville's most noteworthy locations, and discovered what ended up being total serendipity: a wine bar.


When I arrived at the Distinctive Cork, I was not in a happy mood. I pulled up to its faceless strip mall location in a big empty parking lot in my rental Yaris with the GPS system aglow and found myself facing 6 people outside drinking wine and smoking cigarettes and previously full of merriment until they were surprised (and perhaps a bit unpleasantly) by me, the 11th-hour customer (or 23rd hour in military time).

At this point I was dejected. Clearly they were closed, and I was interrupting. I made a desperate plea for a glass of wine (something about killing someone), and was given a glass by the fabulous Fred Gore, one of the co-owners of the restaurant-slash-wine bar.

In Mr. Gore I found a foodie after my own heart. We started by talking about politics (suffice it to say that the views we share are in the minority), and agreed that Chicago's food really isn't all that great, and talked about different restaurants in New Orleans where he worked and I briefly visited, and different chefs, and writing, and more about restaurants, and travel, and socioeconomic crisis, and we agreed about EVERYTHING, and I really forgot just how nice it is to talk to someone who agrees with me about everything. It's really nice. More people should be right all the time about everything like me and Fred Gore.

I learned something else that night as well: four glasses of wine on an empty stomach is still not a good idea, and probably never will be.

But I must say, this was a great night and the most fun I've had in Naperville to date. Not such a great morning, though. For me or the hotel's maids.

For other visitors, I highly recommend checking out the Distinctive Cork for both the food, the wine, and the ambiance. The walls are decorated with art for purchase from the Naperville Art League, and the menu is wide range of tasty offerings from tapas to artisanal cheese plates (with wine pairing suggestions) to fresh seafood and risotto to decadent specialty desserts. It's contemporary American (i.e., a multi-culti fusion for an American palate) and some of the most gastronomically ambitious in the 'burbs. (Where else will you find veal meatballs with goat cheese in a vodka tomato sauce?)


I learned something else, too: pizza in Chicago is WAAAAAAY overpriced. Even foregoing the infamous "Chicago-style" pizza (deep dish crust in which the ingredients are baked inside with the sauce covering the top--a preparation which I detest, and I LOVE PIZZA), you will still pay about $13.00 for a regular hand-tossed or thin crust pie just big enough to tide you over for a couple of hours. $20.00 will fill you for the night, with a little leftover to get you going in the morning. $5.00 Hot-'n-Ready's to feed a family of 4 this is not; granted, they definitely don't taste like $5.00 pizzas either.

A quick run-through of various Naperville pizza outlets:

Chicago Pizza Authority: They just opened the Aurora location (next to Naperville) and they really really really want business. I tried the thin-crust Margharita pizza--toppings good, crust BAD. Thin, flavorless, and dry as cardboard. Otherwise the olive oil soaks the crust under the toppings and makes it edible; just eat right up to the edge of where the cheese stops.

Giordano's: Voted Chicago's best stuffed pizza/best pizza in America by a variety of networks, I opted for a more traditional pie, sampling the garlic cheese tomato bread and a thin-crust spinach with mozzarella and parmesan pizza. The garlic bread was like the kind you might make at home; the pizza was tasty even if the crust lacked flavor (at least it wasn't bone-dry). Apparently Chicago, being known only for their deep-dish pizzas, has yet to master the art of thin, pan, or hand-tossed crusts. You can find a Giordano's in all corners of the greater Chicago area, not unlike metro Detroit's National Coney Islands.

Connie's Pizza: I took a toll road and paid $10.00 for a mouthful of pizza. Yes, it was a tasty mouthful, but really? I also only discovered this place because they used to cater a restaurant called "Pizza to the People," a hippie-era-inspired pizza joint on Route 59 that has since closed but still has a sign up. They've got three locations throughout the 'burbs including a "lodge" in Naperville--take advantage of their daily specials because menu prices are high.


I've also discovered a little place called Le Chocolat du Bouchard. Chocolate lounges (or "chocolate cafes") are becoming quite a popular trend across the nation, and we do have a few here in metro Detroit: Chocolate Gallery Cafe in Warren is more a cafe/restaurant, but they offer a range of homemade chocolate confections made by co-owners Cathy LaBash; the Chocolate Bar Cafe in Grosse Pointe is more like an old-fashioned sweet shop and also serves Illy espresso and Alinosi ice cream. But perhaps the most comparable to Le Chocolat is Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe, with locations in Twelve Oaks Mall and Partridge Creek, which offers pastries, coffee, and a wide range of gourmet chocolate beverages.

While I am typically not a "sweets" person--preferring my beloved cheese over chocolate any day of the week--I do find something inherently sexy about chocolate. The way it smells, the way it tastes, the way it triggers the same chemical response in your brain as heroin...just to say the word, chocolate, to picture liquid chocolate being drizzled on top of an elegant dessert, to see the colorful displays of molded chocolates shining under the bright lights of a display case, like little edible works of art in an array of colors and flavors and quality...yes, there's definitely something sexy about it. Cheese, by comparison, is always stinky. So good stinky, but stinky just the same.

Le Chocolat du Bouchard is a colorful chocolate boutique, selling an array of gorgeous pastries, clever candies, rich chocolate bars and sinful cocoas, even chocolate-scented candles and lotions. Owner Cathy Bouchard emphasizes the healing aspects of pure, quality chocolate--how it can help alleviate pain, lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and more. She teaches workshops and lectures on chocolate's many benefits, based on her own history of chronic pain relief via the cocoa bean (and her inspiration for opening the cafe). The crown jewel of this cafe is the large chocolate "bar"--peruse the "drink" menu (a variety of dozens of cocoas, chocolate "martinis," and more gourmet chocolate beverages) and experience the exotic nature of internationally-inspired chocolate. Twice I've been here, and twice I've walked out with a beverage so wonderfully decadent it can only best be likened to something sexual. The Mayan Hot Chocolate was filled with exotic spices and a dash of peppery heat, completely unlike any hot chocolate I've ever had. The Belgian Chocolate Malt is rich and creamy and blended so smooth, so...oooooh. If you don't believe in the healing power of chocolate before you enter this place, you sure will when you leave. And they put Godiva's Chocolixers to shame.


Next up on the Naperville hit list: generic Eye-talian places.

Rosebud of Naperville: This family-run "Eye"-talian restaurant used to serve up hot platters of traditional Italian-American family-style foods--think big, big platters of pasta and entrees like Chicken Marsala, Eggplant Parmesan, and the like. Detroit equivalent: Roma Cafe. Wholly uninspired, fairly generic, but the portions are large and the food is hearty. Since I was last there, this place has transformed (in an effort to attract more budget-conscious clientele) to "Rosebud Burger & Comfort Foods"--at a tremendous remodeling expense and, from what I understand, not much of an improvement. (And the $10 "Blue Ribbon Burger," which isn't even USDA Choice Black Angus which is should be for that price, is hardly economical.)

Luigi's House & Jillian's Piano Bar is located right off highway 59 between my hotel and Fox Valley Mall, and every time I would pass by it I was taunted by the tantalizing smell of garlic. On my last trip I stopped in (during a blizzard, because everything I did that week was during a blizzard) and tried some of their pizza with a glass of wine. Their wine selection is--icky. The pizza was okay. More generic family-style Eye-talian fare (Chicken Marsala, Eggplant Parmesan), but damn if it didn't smell amazing.


And now, tapas madness:

Meson Sabika: A Spanish tapas-style restaurant in a 150-year-old mansion. The mansion was beautifully restored for the restaurant to open almost 20 years ago, and is an amazing location for parties, weddings, etc. (Think the Whitney with a totally different kind of menu.) The interior was beautiful in the way that only a restored mansion can be, and the tapas menu hands-down the most extensive and the most authentically Spanish-style menu I've seen anywhere (granted, I've not been to Spain). Endless choices of meat, seafood, and cheeses abound, but there is also a full paella menu to sift through as well (after Costa Rica, the last thing I wanted was chicken and rice, but the paella is a traditional Spanish dish and is certainly as wonderful as their tapas dishes...admittedly I was actually there in January, so the Costa Rica thing isn't really an excuse...I'm just really sick of chicken and rice). While there I had a duck loin dish with an Amontillado sherry; their wine and sherry list is SOLIDLY Spanish and as extensive as the tapas menu. Rioja lovers will rejoice! (As will lovers of the Ribero del Duero, and Priorat, and any of the big, bold wines coming out of Spain that can hold up blow-by-blow to their Italian and French counterparts.) This is also probably the most extensive list of Spanish wines I've seen on any menu, which makes Meson Sabika both a foodie and a wine enthusiast's dream...tucked away in often surprising Naperville.

Tango Argentinian Grill: As I am a die-hard Sunday brunch fan, I spent a good amount of time scouring online menus and user reviews to find a good place for brunch in Naperville. After discovering Tango's Champagne Brunch ($15.95 includes a wide range of breakfast and lunch foods served buffet-style including made-to-order omelets & crepes and seafood paellas, as well as--and this is unconfirmed--bottomless mimosas???) I was sold, and headed there straightaway...only to find that they had closed the buffet a half an hour early due to slow business (this was on my last trip, during the Great Four Month Long Blizzard of 2009). Wah-waaaaah. But since I was there already and had no backup plan, I figured, what the hell? Why not sample another tapas menu? It can be a theme!

While there was little distinctively Argentinian about this Florida chain with this one random Napervillian outpost, Tango Argentinian Grill (though they do promise the "World's Longest Steaks," which is apparently an Argentinian thing), the bruschetta and the bacon-wrapped scallops were very enjoyable and I would certainly visit this place again. The wine list is also agreeable, with a good cross-section of North and South American wines.


Sushi, please:

Bento Zushi: It's a kiosk in Fox Valley Mall. I tried it and didn't die. That pretty much covers the finer points.

There's always next time:

Sugar Toad: I suspect this is may be the gastronomic epicenter of Naperville, but have yet to make it out to the Hotel Arista to discover for myself. I also suspect that I had loose dinner plans with my new BFF at Distinctive Cork, but that was into the fourth glass of wine so you can't really blame me for my spotty memory. Chef Jimmy Sneed has garnered rave reviews for the regional contemporary American cuisine at Sugar Toad, which gets its name from an ugly little blowfish that Sneed serves tempura-style as a complimentary amuse bouche to diners. The menu focuses on highlighting the local, seasonal flavors of the region and it is said to be "worth the drive from Chicago." I guess I have a reason to go back, then.

While intially I was adverse to the whole idea of Naperville (a suburb--bleh--of a city I don't even think is that great to begin with), after several visits I have warmed to it nicely. Much like our own little Detroit, it might not smack you in the face with its culinary savvy but if you give it a chance, it might surprise you. (The traffic really is awful, though.)