14 February 2004

In case of fire: looking for sex in Cicero

Two more clueless fucks we could not be at this point in the evening. We are going to look for trouble, but we have no idea where we are going. Instead of coming into the city from the 'burbs, Frank and I are just two guys doing research going the other way. We are hoping trouble will be looking for us, too.

How much more contemporary can you get? Get a few guys together with a couple of twenties and some singles burning in their pockets. Do they know where they're going when they're a) hoping to objectify and ogle a few edifying female forms; b) trying to determine the cost of the more essential sexual transactions, only for the purposes of setting a market price, of course; and c) wanting to be humiliated and quickly taken for the entirety of one's meager roll by a disdainful, exceptionally unkind female whose standards you will truly never know?

We figure our whole-hearted lack of research will pay off. We're not looking for Gentlemen's Clubs, because we are not gentlemen. Most guys now expect flesh pits to be franchised offerings-McDonald's-of-sex to take your Big Mac to; brightly lit, squeaky clean, adequately bounced for troublemakers wholly unlike yourself, being the well-upholstered pillar of the community who would wake in the morning with a hangover but no regret. But that holds no savor. Not for us Chicago's translucent pasties. We are going to Cicero.

We plot strategy at the press feed for Iron Mike's Grille. Ditka shimmers past, notably slim, face redder than a Maine lobster, clutching a beer and stogie. He is an inspiration to us both. We refuse the temptation to ask Da Coach for names, numbers, jock-taught stripper bonhomie. Still, we have not brushed up on proper store-front cathouse comportment. We figure to wing it. Worse, we realize, sampling the hooch, neither of us has the number of the joint that An Esteemed Elder had suggested as a fine and proper ground zero from which to begin. (That night, we learn it was bulldozed several years ago over its intermittent bursts of civic bad manners.)

We whip down the Eisenhower toward Roosevelt Road, further back among dead presidents. But we're sniffing out a different dead man's legend, the enduring Capone-era rep of Cicero as the frontier town just across the city limits. We move into an all-embracing, invisible pillow of cornstarch reek.

Cicero looms in the most industrial way. We pull over for a moment so Frank can use his cell phone to 411 the numbers of some likely joints. Nope. Nope. Doesn't exist. No listing. Sorry.

More deeply uninformed, we head the other way and soon pass a promising joint. First, however, we want to check out a bar that's been recommended by a local, who assured us all questions would be answered within. Craning his neck back, Frank asks, "How much sexual heat can you invest in a place with the sign, 'Ample Parking in Rear.'"

At the bar we've been directed to, we have to buzz and be examined through a one-way mirror. Our goateed faces pass muster, tall thin Mutt and shorter, not-so-thin Jeff. As we pass under the bar's neon sign, Frank observes, "You notice the 'Good Food' part is burned out."

We order beers and I reminisce about the bar just up the road, The Midnite Hour, where, about ten years ago, I had been in my last major bar fight. I feel nostalgic. It was the room where I realized that if I were a truly large man, I'd probably be in jail somewhere in Tennessee today.

This bar's not just blue-collar, it's blue-collar just-after-getting-off-work. Instead of mingling, we continue to plot. "Whenever customers would complain about paying their girls up front," I ask Frank, "Do you know what madams used to tell them?"

"No, what?"

"'Why, darlin', in case of fire, of course.'"

In the men's room, I find a "novelty" machine and click in a couple of quarters.

When I return to the bar, Frank says, "The red light over the register went off."

"What do you mean?"

"You bought a condom. It went off when you bought it."

"You're lying," I say.

We examine the package together-"Evening Magic... The modern pre-shaped condom in four colors." We don't open it to see if it's like Neapolitan ice cream.

"Here's the part we should worry about," Frank says, turning it over. "Store at room temperature. Avoid excess heat."

No one cares that we're here. We proceed to have the kind of warm-belly, weak-minded conversation that leads brothers-in-law to drink more and plan hunting expeditions on which one will be grievously, unforgivably wounded. We are bonding when we are supposed to be on a wild cooch chase. The bartender leans against the Craftsman Tool calendar on the side of the cash register.

"Tuesday is usually bad weather because it's my day off," she says, barely mustering the energy to reminisce about the day before.

"Whenever it rains or snows on Tuesday, you know Judy's not working," a patron interprets. Another of many long pauses fills the room. A customer who entered after us says in a musical Russian accent, "I have this bakery delight, Judy, this bread, you want to try it? I just came from the factory."

When he goes to his car to fetch it, the interpreter lights up a cigarillo, says, "Yeah the pita bread, whatever it is."

The Russian gives Judy the fresh staff of life. "That's not Greek bread," the interpreter laughs, "It says Chihuahua! That's a torta-jero!"

We finish the suds and move next door to peek into The Awesome Midnite Hour Lounge Open Until 6am. A small crouch of a hunch of a sorrow of a man makes a solitary display of terrible posture, agleam in the dim yet glassy blue light suffusing the bar.

We return to the club that Frank had spied. The room is strangely silent and still. Girls mill. On a couple of televisions, a toupeed man forms words that are lost to the strains of Madonna's "Borderline."

We sit at the bar and are approached by a five-foot, middle-aged Chinese woman, dressed in white shirt, black pants and vest. From her stern expression, I expect her to say, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Ilsa." There's not an ounce of subtext in her makeup. We are pigs and we must pay. We must order drinks.

We are two copacetic smiles anxious to be told the happy lies. Two goatees ready to be mistaken for properly heeled goats.

"Genuine Draft or High Life?"

"High Life," Frank says, grinning.

We are approached by a woman who shows us her Bubble Yum while she chews. We envision her doing a performance-art project: "Suzanne Somers Is Chrissy Snow." She tells us the rules. She recites the prices. Now we know: $150 in the backroom for forty-five minutes. We've never danced that long before.

The ample ebony thighs of a woman in a too-small nightie are being traced by the pale, yet hairy wrists of a large, baritoned man. We call him Turtleneck Tommy. "You must be my lucky star," Madonna sings, "Because you shine on me wherever you are."

The liquor is sequestered in a thoroughly illumined broom closet. Another stern woman--think Frau Blucher from "Young Frankenstein"--is riding herd on the Jack, Chambord and Grand Marnier.

I wonder if a fleshstress will press her case in the men's room that has no lock.

"Are you guys in a band?" is the usual query. "You don't look like the usual guys we get in here." And that's basically what Jocelyn says when she walks up. She has that essential Polish-Russian-German look, a lanky, coltish art-babe type. Blonde, patrician. We discover a bit more by the verbal quotation marks as well as raised eyebrows she displays at her stage name.

"So why's there no stage show in Cicero?"

Seems the mayor keeps issuing a series of two-week bans on the up-front dancing, although the backroom boogie seems to be in full flourish.

"Why not turn Cicero City Hall into a strip club instead?" I venture. "That heritage is a blessing."

Turns out, she's in a band. We have mutual acquaintances. "How's business?" Frank asks. "I'm still stripping," Jocelyn says. We settle in for a nice long chat about the music scene, how Chicago acts generally find better treatment on the road. Here we are three city folk in a titty-winkum bar in a nearly be-legended 'burb, none of us bothered that we are somehow failing to exact the expected transaction. We pay for the eight-dollar drink that goes only to the house, ready to pay for more.

"So, uh, would you like to go into the back room?" she asks. We smile, squint, bite our fingernails.

"I guess that would be a little weird at this point," she agrees.

I slip Jocelyn two fives as we say goodnight, in a way the eagle-eyed shouldn't be able to see. "Close your eyes and think of music."

07 February 2004


Talking simplicity with Spring's Shawn McClain

BUCKTOWN'S SPRING RESTAURANT is one of the most celebrated of the past year's openings. Seven months in, it's exceeded the expectations of partners Sue-Kim Drohomyrecky, Peter Drohomyrecky and 34-year-old chef Shawn McClain. After seven well-received years as chef/partner at Evanston's four-star Trio, McClain wanted to expand on what he knew as both manager and a chef, and to work with innovative cuisine in a more affordable setting. McClain believes in simplicity, and we talked on a snow-slushed Friday afternoon about all that is crisp and cool, and the meaning of three-star reviews.

PRIDE: Is there a school of Chicago cooking right now, with simplified cuisine emphasizing freshness and quality?

MCCLAIN: Yeah. Absolutely. I'm sure it's going on all over, but I think Chicago had a definite gap, a need for it. You had your high-end restaurants that started back with Charlie [Trotter]. Very high-line and very oriented around the presentation. Then you had your true, blue-collar solid Midwestern food on the other side. Blackbird is the pre-eminent example [of how] you can put out tremendous food with a lot of heart and a lot of style and not do it in a way that intimidates people, that it's very approachable.

PRIDE: You mean, the quality shows, but it isn't incomprehensible, it's not, "Oh this is good for you." You understand it in the first bite.

MCCLAIN: Yeah. [Blackbird] also incorporated a lot of the smaller markets and farms into the menu, things like that.

PRIDE: But it's also hand-in-hand, isn't it? More restaurants using local, specific produce means more farmers can subsist or succeed. Is that important to you?

MCCLAIN: Absolutely. I think as you get farther along in this business, you start to realize different things. In my case, as I get older and more mature in my cooking, the old adage of going back to the fundamentals, the basics, really grows more important. When you look at those fundamentals, you want a new purity is those products. You meet these farmers who have that same kind of passion about what they do—these products of the earth, like vegetables—it inspires you to support them. Just today I had an interview with a guy from Indiana who's part of the Green City Market, he's one of the farmers, he's smaller, but he wanted me to go through his seed catalog. He really wants to grow something that we can use. It's a great relationship.

PRIDE: There's that great romantic image of the chef going to the green market or the meat market at dawn, deciding the day's special—aha!—in that moment. But the seed catalogue, it's like you're getting to browse for what you'll have in twelve weeks—

MCCLAIN: —Sometimes forty weeks. We're talking all the way through to the fall. The old romantic, go-to-the-market and pick tonight's meal [image] is an idealism, and everybody would love for that to happen, but in reality, you serve a lot of people every day and you have to have some food available every day of the week. Mike Altenberg at Campagnola in Evanston is 100 percent organic and political-minded about it, which I have completely respect for, but that's a hard business decision to follow through. For me, it's finding a balance, doing as much as I can to support the smaller guy and independents.

PRIDE: The ideals sound great, but how do you deal with volume when you require these micro-produced ingredients? Is your turnover of meals higher than it was at Trio?

MCCLAIN: The volume here, we're doing three times the amount of sheer people, four times as many as at Trio. That changes the whole dynamic of everything down to preparation of single ingredients, to producing enough for keeping your menu. We did a lot of tasting menus there; we have yet to start that here. It's a learning process every day.

PRIDE: How long have you been open?

MCCLAIN: Seven months.

PRIDE: The kitchen didn't seem be-grimed and aged like a long-term kitchen, lived and cooked-in but walking in, my eye was drawn to how every corner seems to have something stuffed in it, different things above and around every station, as if things had found a place that at least one person knows why it's there.

MCCLAIN: Oh, I hope so. We're in a very tight spot back there. The geography of the space itself forced us to put the kitchen there. It has to be, has to be efficient. For an organization of a business, it also means better productivity and I like to be organized on top of that.

PRIDE: There's two kinds of acclaim. Folks writing about the hot new flavor, then the customers who come back. Which is more gratifying? What's the virtue of each? You have a successful business, that's a start, you get to keep your job, you get to keep working at your cuisine.

MCCLAIN: That's an interesting question. Because there's an image of myself, and I've opened the restaurant with Sue and Peter, it's a shared partnership. We had very modest expectations. Our plan and our goals were for the business to be profitable, to create an environment for our employees that we'd all enjoy. Restaurant communities have a lot of family-oriented things around the business. It's taken off quite a bit and a lot of the focus is on me. I'm not real comfortable with that. But what I enjoy about that part is what it does for the staff. It makes the staff very proud of the restaurant, and they're proud to say they work here. Not because people are writing [about us], but that helps. It helps people who are learning the business. On the other hand, which is much more important to me, we're learning our first business. We are succeeding thus far. And it's very early in the scheme of things, but that, to me, takes the pressure off day to day so that we can put more emphasis on creating an environment where people want to work. That's always been our goal. It's never been money, it's never been fame and acclaim and all that stuff. But in this day and age, in the restaurant business, you open a restaurant and you need public relations. It's unbelievable. It's really important how you market to get your name out there.

PRIDE: I'm always gratified to linger around a restaurant bar during the National Restaurant show and see all the chefs schmoozing, the booze in front of them, and after the round of Chef Paul this is Chef Dave from Cleveland, this is Chef John from Kansas City, it gets down to talking about meals. Just food. Nothing about the business, the press.

MCCLAIN: Yep. Yep. Yeah. It's, y'know, it can be glamorized by the Food Network, but the true people doing the craft are just that, craftsmen who are interested in what they're doing, passionate about what they're doing and they try to do something different, and make their own niche. We thrive so much on our contemporaries. We get so much information from each other. It's very hard to stand alone and take credit because there's so much that you take from people and you borrow. You make it your own, but...

PRIDE: Then you're back up again the next day at some god-awful hour doing it all again. Another day taking the heat.

MCCLAIN: That's good, though. That's the good part of it. If it was just a matter of just coming in and cooking? That would be a nice day. It's all the other stuff that gets thrown in that kind of takes your day for a ride. Being an owner for the first time, a principal owner, all that other stuff comes in quite a bit!

PRIDE: The desserts are your own. Isn't that unusual for a chef to take on? Looking over the menu, it seems like you're worked flavor complements through the entire meal. Why is that important to you?

MCCLAIN: Since I've been in Chicago and formulating my own style, say, in the last five to ten years, I noticed a lot of restaurants with outstanding food, across the board great service, and then really putting the last emphasis on dessert. Creativity-wise, they went by old standards, which are fine, some of the classics are great. But I felt like a lot of people were just like, "Aw, it's just dessert."

PRIDE: We've got some chocolate, we've got some berries—

MCCLAIN: Right, right. It is challenging in that way to create something different, but you have so much room to do things with flavors, whether they're savory flavors or dessert. Chefs I've worked for and with put a lot of effort into creating interesting things out of savory food, but I just couldn't figure out why they didn't spend the same amount of time on their desserts. I thought, when I do have my own restaurant, I want to make the desserts different. I want to try different things. Another thing I don't see on a lot of menus, is our desserts are printed on the regular menu. So you get a chance to see them, which I think—

PRIDE: As a diner, you get to consider how it all fits together instead of, this is an afterthought.

MCCLAIN: Exactly. You go to a restaurant, "Are you ready for dessert, or would you like dessert," I wish I had known, that sounds good, I wish I had known. Different menus are presented for dessert, but [we give] you a chance to have a sneak peek. It fits the overall theme of the experience from start to finish.

PRIDE: You used the phrase "mature cooking." Define that. And where are you headed?

MCCLAIN: I went through a time where I worked for chefs, in the late eighties, early nineties, who were more about presentation, more about the Wow effect. There was that whole eye candy, sensory overload that first started. The focus was much more on presentation. As I grew up and took some more time in the cooking, I think your priorities change back to the simplicity of flavors. Now I just look for: how can I make this as simple as possible, still present well, have some color contrasts and maybe I use a different kind of plate with a different kind of food, but I want the food to be the focus. I want to look at the individual ingredients now. Say instead of buying carrots from a high-line producer, [buying] mass-produced carrots which are genetically altered, which a lot of vegetables are, which are fine, they look great but they don't taste like they should. These are vegetables I've grown up on. But I'd like to get back and understand what food can taste like.

[Newcity, 7 February 2003]