Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Windy City Cooking: Week 8

(Ed.'s Note- Every Monday (but this week, Tuesday), Chicago's amigo Jason Hissong writes Windy City Cooking, a column about eating and preparing food in the City of Neighborhoods. Enjoy! -Max)

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Uncommon Ground
By Jason Hissong
22 September 2009

       There are, without question, places of a special quality here in the Windy City. I had the great privilege of having dinner with a close friend on Thursday at one such place. At one point during dinner she asked what, of all the places I’ve been to in Chicago, is my favorite place to eat? After finishing my bite of sweet potato French fries I looked at her and said, “We’re there.”

       She then asked me why. And the answer to that question is numerous and complex. In the end, though, I can boil the why down to one word: relationships.

       Let me explain. First and foremost is the relationship between the restaurant and the world. They rely on “seasonal, locally produced, family farmed & organic products whenever possible.” That’s important, and will continue to be so as knowledge about our current oil-fueled food economy continues to grow into something new and better. The new Uncommon Ground location in Edgewater even has their own rooftop garden from which they harvest some ingredients for their dishes.

       Uncommon Ground has a long history of promoting and showcasing local artists- both of the musical and visual variety- since the beginning. There is a constant rotation of local artists on the wall. And a little part of the restaurant dedicated to small, intimate sessions with musicians. Every year the restaurant hosts a “Jeff Buckley Tribute” two-night performance. Buckley played a show there in December of 1994. The Chicago Tribune’s music critic, Greg Kot, wrote that it was the best show of the year. He has since added that it’s one of the best show’s he’s ever seen. This constant support of the local art community is a vital part of the relationship Uncommon Ground has with its community and one of the components that sets it apart.

       The Buckley connection is important to me on more personal level as well. I share Buckley with one of my best friends, true lover of music in the same way I am a lover of food. I would not know some of my favorite music if not for him. I would not know some of my favorite moments of the past decade of my life if not for him. For example, one night in the dying summer of 2008, after seeing an okay show at the Metro, we walked to Uncommon Ground for a night cap. Sitting there, at the end of the bar in the nearly empty restaurant was the perfect end to the night. We chatted about work, and Chicago, and Ginsberg, and beer. And the Olympics. And at some point, one of the wait staff talked to us. He mentioned that he had the soundtrack to the 1984 Olympics. On vinyl. The three of us laughed for a long time after that comment. The waiter trying to justify this item’s existence. My friend and I enjoying the little extra pour the bartender gave us to “empty the keg.” It was a perfect moment, and one I cherish.

       I had dinner at Uncommon Ground last October with two of my close friends from college. I hadn’t seen either of them for a while. I hadn’t talked to either of them for even longer. And it was the start of new beginnings, really, for all three of us. It cemented our relationships to one another as important, and necessary, and relevant. And since that moment almost 11 months ago, those two women have become such an important, cherished part of my life.

       This is all to say nothing of the food, which is excellent. I’m addicted to the chicken sandwich and sweet potato fries. I’ve dined on the chopped salad and the pesto pizza. I’ve gone there just for the coffee. I’ve had the hangar steak and risotto, and a bite of my friend’s butternut squash soup. The dishes are so intense and vibrant. It’s just enough to satisfy and then a little leftover to satisfy the crave. The beer list is epic. The menu changes with the seasons, and it’s never dull, never stagnant, never unsatisfying.

       Perhaps the most important relationship Uncommon Ground has is with itself. The name of the restaurant is so perfect in its simplicity and exactness. It accurately describes the space, the dishes, coffee and beer. It stands out as an aberration in the context of its Wrigleyville neighborhood. It is, for me, a classic example of what sets Chicago apart from other cities.

       I wish I could cook like the chefs at Uncommon Ground cook. I wish I had that level of sophistication. When I go there I’m never hurried, and always calm. It’s the perfect place to go on those cool, crisp fall nights when the air has just a hint of the bitter bite to come, and smells of changing leaves and transformation. It’s always exactly where I want to go. It’s always a blessing to go. It’s always uncommon in its ground.

Where I Ate, What I Cooked, What Others Cooked For Me

       I ate out a lot this past week. The chicken sandwich and sweet potato French fries are the standout. Otherwise it was a week of Corner Bakery Caf√©’s chopped salad, Jimmy John’s club sandwich and frozen pizza. Yes, sometimes I slum.

       On Saturday I did go to the Apple Barn Orchard and Winery in Wisconsin. I came home with some tortillas and onion salsa. I also ate on site a caramel apple. And my friends shared their to die for cider doughnuts.

       Because I ate out a lot I didn’t cook much. I made a simple risotto one night, with onions and bacon. That’s about it.

       Thanks to the people I spent my weekend with in Wisconsin for a delicious three meals on Saturday. Scrambled eggs with cheese and fruit for breakfast. Deli style sandwiches and chips for lunch, and a delicious pasta vegetable dish with a small salad and ice cream sundae bar for desert. And finally, thanks to Kate for a lovely dinner for sausage-stuffed acorn squash with roasted green beans.

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