High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Smoooke on South Water

It's 3 AM and I couldn't possibly write about Mamet right now (but I will . . . oh I will). I am, however, totally up for talking about food.

So we decided to go gently into that Mamet night. Literally---the 8:00 showing of Edmond was sold out, presumably on account of the WIlliam H. Macyness of it all. But with difficulty and for the low low price of someone else's first born, I was able to get ticketmaster to give me tickets for the 10:30 showing. This left us with time to contemplate dinner out in the loop.

As is my wont, I told Open Table that I was a doofus who wanted a table for 2 no later than 8:15 (it was then about 6:40) in the Loop, and it spit out my options. Much more efficient than trying to use The Reader's restaurant guide, which requires some serious crack to navigate. Open Table very kindly reminded me of the proximity of South Water Kitchen to the Siskel Film Center, and I soon had a reservation.

It's on North Wabash (near South Water Street), cheek by jowl with the hotel Monaco and within easy rock-hurling distance of the 17th Church of Christ, Scientist. From street level you walk into the bar (ouch!), which is a nice wood affair with fancy brass tap handles, and so on. There are a few tables up there, and I believe their "tavern menu" is available all day. You actually step down bit into the main dining room, which is quite lovely (the photo doesn't do it justice). We were seated at one of the banquets for two along the far wall in that photo, and if you continued past the brick pillar, you'd see the open kitchen.

We were greeted and seated by the Jimmy Olsen of hosts. That is not a complain. Like the rest of the staff, he was pleasant and professional. He just happened to be 12 years old and going through an awkward phase. It was also clear that he was the B-team host, because he was dressed in the all black of the servers, and there was a much more casually polished gentleman who seemed to be running hither and yon betwen the host station and one of the booths in the dining room. As it happened, he was facilitating the removal of a patron by paramedics. While that might sound dire in a restaurant setting, it was handled so smoothly and calmly, it would have felt rude to get het up about it as an on-looker. Also, M was reasonably certain that it was a young, obviously pregnant woman being removed, and I hear that most people tend to be happy when it gets to the going to the hospital part of the proceedings.

Anyway, that's not about me, my mussels, or my cracklicious entree, and in the words of Joss Whedon, I'm bored already. I didn't have a chance to explore the bottle wine list thoroughly, but the by-the-glass selections were a touch limited (and heavy on the cabernets---yeah, comfort food, I know, but some of us take great comfort in seafood and would like a red you can't skate on). I started with a nice pinot noir by buena vista, and I'd have liked something Shiraz- or Syrah-ish with my entree, but the only option was a Ravenswood, which I just didn't feel like. Woe is me, I had to suffer through a glass of a Seghesio Zinfandel. M had a Woodford Reserve Manhattan and then an Elliot Ness Amber Ale from the Great Lakes Brewing Company, an offbeat draught choice, and a nice one.

The menu is not overly large, but it's well chosen for the most part. M was probably a bit more out of luck in the appetizer arena than I was, having to choose between mussels and crispy crabcakes. He bit the bullet and got, and this is true, the best cheese garlic bread I've ever had. The secret---get this---is in the bread. I don't know if they make it on site, but their baguette had a nice crust that was neither too firm nor too prone to disintegration. Add this a liberal amount of garlic and some very fresh mozzarella and yum. My mussels with the spicy tomato broth and, again, lots of garlic, were incredibly fresh and very good (not quite as good as those at Tizi Melloul, but good). Also? The appetizers are not sized for a single human. The fact that we both finished ours is neither here nor there. Hire a friend, people.

There are only about eight entrees total, but again there's good representation: two fish dishes (salmon and trout) and the scallops; a ribeye; pork loin of some kind; spaghetti carbonara; a vegetable gratin; a chicken breast; and chicken and dumplings (I'm sure I've skipped maybe another pasta dish in there). M could not pass up chicken and dumplings with a gun to his head, so he was set. I had initially been drawn scallop-ward, but I was temporarily seduced by the jalapeno hush puppies that came with the trout. Alert spouse M pointed out that the hush puppies were one of the shareable sides offered, and there was no way he was not getting some hot hush puppy action, so scallops it was.

I would like to take this opportunity to urge you to accept the scallops at the South Water Kitchen as your Lord and Savior. No, seriously dude. They're served with a beautiful tomato, corn, potatoe, and pancetta hash in the center with dabs of pesto around the edge of the plate. The scallops were done perfectly and there was clearly crack in the hash (wow that's---not redundant, I guess---it's pharmaceutical dirty pool). I don't know about you all, but when I think of pancetta, I think of the wafer thin slices that will not peel away from the fucking wax paper and no they don't care if you have a Master's degree. Heather Terhune would never insult her patrons by offering them this pale imitation of pancetta. Her pancetta comes in big, fat, crispy, delicious chunks. That pancetta and those scallops may be the greatest romance of our time. I only tasted a bit of M's dumplings (ahem), but they seemed quite delicious.

On the issue of sides, the onion rings were great and came with a really interesting wasabi-honey mustard dipping sauce. The jalapeno hush puppies were quite flavorful, but very, very dense. Given that we'd eaten appetizer portions meant for, easily, 19 or 20 people, we cried uncle on the sides and had them box those along with half of my entree (man, I may need a pancetta fix).

The dessert menu doesn't do so well as the appetizers and entrees in covering the bases. There was a pineapple upside down cake, a butterscotch blondie sundae abomination of some kind, a chocolate creme pie, a devil's food cake (with mint chocolate chip ice cream, which I'm seeing more and more. Yeuch.), a strawberry-rhubarb crisp, and something else I'm forgetting. Both of us went way off script with M getting the horrible blondie thing (which he seemed to like, despite being surprised that---well---it had a blondie at its base), and I getting the crisp. I did not, of course, sully my mouth with butterscotch or the bastard child of the brownie, but my crisp was nicely tart, the oatmeal crisp topping was simple and not gluey with sugar and abominable cinnamon. It was adequate, but not the strongest part of the meal.

All the same, the place gets a pretty hearty recommendation from moi.

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