Letter from Birdland | Fine dining in Chicago: Great food, great time

Letter from Birdland | Fine dining in Chicago: Great food, great time

A heavy drizzle is falling on Chicago, and traffic is crawling on Lake Shore Drive. The sky is muffled in low clouds like damp cotton wool, and the lake to our left is a flat greenish-gray.

Sailboats rock gently in the harbor, blue sail covers wrapped around the booms. But far out to the north, a stripe of blue shows where the cloud cover ends. We don't mind the rain or the slow traffic. We are reliving last night's dinner with our middle son, Dylan, at Lula Cafe in Logan Square.

You might think that after cooking all day in one restaurant, Dylan would not want to go to another, but he was game. The evening was pleasantly cool, and we sat at a sidewalk table, right up against the planters.

I recognized a few kitchen herbs, dill, basil, some mints, and flowers like calendula and nasturtium. I asked Dylan what a feathery green was, and whether it was edible. He said he didn't know its name, "but it's all edible. They're not going to plant something here that you can't eat."

Just as grocery shopping with our youngest, Ellis, while he was in college was our weekly date and family bonding experience, we eat out with Dylan. He acts as our guide to the artful cafes of Chicago, carefully curating our dining experience.

We usually keep to a budget by selecting appetizers rather than full meals, but tonight was Monday, Lula's Farm Dinner night. The farm dinner is a prix fixe, or fixed-price meal. It's more of a commitment to and trusting of the chef's vision; you surrender yourselves into the kitchen for the evening.

Last night Dylan surprised us by offering to treat. "And we can save by not drinking any alcohol," he said, anticipating our objections to his spending his kitchen wages on our dinner.

The plates are small, but lovingly prepared. Is it too corny to say that savoring each course is like listening to a concert, each song a perfect balance of various melodies and rhythms?

Our first plate was hummus with cherries, peppers and pecans, served with a crisp flatbread encrusted with fresh herbs. As we ate, a young man appeared on the other side of the planter that divided the dining room from the sidewalk. He leaned over the herbs, and then, suddenly conscious he was in our space, apologized, before snipping a couple of stems of dill into a stainless steel bowl.

"How's it going, man?" asked our own Dyl.

"We're running out back there." Dylan nodded as the cook took his bowl back to the kitchen.

Our next plate was a pappardelle, a broad ribbon of pasta, with planks of zucchini sliced lengthwise, in a sauce of caramelized tomatoes and sprinkled with chunks of salt-cured olives. As delicious as the food was, the main course was really our time together.

While we did pause in our conversation to swoon a little over each plate, eating as a family we traded news and plans and passed our phones back and forth to share pictures.

A photo of both dogs, Ursula and Cullen, reminded Dylan of a request he had. "If I get a truck and travel around the country for a while, can I take one of the dogs to be my Chewbacca?"

We talked the merits of each pup as a co-pilot. Ursula is an enthusiastic traveler, but also a thief. Dylan would need to lock up all the food. Cullen is more obedient and trustworthy but sometimes gets nervous in a car ride.

As we ate and drank and visited, the food kept arriving, and we felt enveloped in hospitality, which was then augmented by a special aspect of restaurant culture. Dylan had been recognized as a brother-in-aprons, and our server arrived with a couple of unexpected salads.

"This is a gift from the kitchen." He placed two fresh vegetable plates on the center of the table. Dylan took it in gracious stride, and explained to us how tight-knit the restaurant culture is. "We take care of each other."

When the dessert came (figs and a silver-dollar-sized olive oil cake topped with a dollop of anise ice cream — these little plates, like small jewel boxes, made me think about the origin of the word "sweetmeats"), there were more dessert gifts. Eating this way — small portions prepared with the freshest ingredients and the utmost care — is deeply satisfying.

The evening stretched out before us, filled with generosity and sharing, spilling into the next morning as we drove through a Chicago drizzle in our reminiscence.

Curate beauty; share in peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. Which dog should Dylan take as his Chewbacca? You can follow Birdland on Instagram (@BirdlandLetters) and Twitter (@BirdlandLetters). Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of this newspaper.

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