Serendipity. It’s a word that Red likes a lot. Me – I usually don’t think that there is any particular order to the universe. However, on nights like tonight, I do enjoy the random synergy that happens to occur from time to time.
I travel for work. In fact, I travel quite a lot. As with all Road Warriors, I take my solace where I can. One of my guilty pleasures is pulling up Google Maps and typing, “gastropubs near by” and then sampling the local delicacies. More often than not, I am disappointed with mediocre food and barely passable beer. Tonight, my ritual paid off.
I had done my usual routine and there was a ‘brew pub’ close by, but upon closer inspection it was a national chain. I immediately nixed it from my plans. The weather was looking to turn foul and I had no desire to spend my hard earned cash at a conglomerate that would then have me walking home in monsoon type weather. Despondent, I walked back to my hotel and Google informed me that there was a gastropub about a half of a mile from my hotel. The name was The Side Door.
Interesting. It sounds like a speakeasy. “What the hell”, I thought. It’s either that or hotel food and I was not about to let a minor typhoon dissuade me from some potential deliciousness. So, off I went and I wasn’t disappointed.
The Side Door is a side restaurant to Lawry’s Steakhouse. I was bummed. The last time I went to place like this, I could not get my Manhattan properly made. I have never been so happy to be wrong. The food was delectable. I had come in looking for a sandwich and I wasn’t disappointed. I smartly ordered the housemade pastrami – apparently a staple of this establishment since its inception – and was handsomely rewarded with the best pastrami sandwich of my life. This is nothing to say of the duck comfit poutine that accompanied my meal. It was delectable.
However, while delicious, it was not the highlight of my night. After having a couple of delightful local beers, I was settling up my tab and a couple next to me started talking about beer and I – of course – couldn’t help but interject a few tidbits of information and the bartender says/asks, “Are you a beer guy? You seem like a beer guy. You should talk to Jeff.”
I come to find out that Jeff is the restaurant manager. We are introduced and it is readily apparent to me that Jeff is hungry to make his establishment better and I am sucked into the epicurean vortex that is Jeff. I planned to leave at 7:30pm. As I write this blog at 12:42 local time, I am still surprised how much time has elapsed. I talk to Jeff on how from time to time I will brew my own beer and he is intrigued. He wants to make The Side Door a beer aficionado destination and asks me to try some beers with him.
Jeff is no slouch. He knows his stuff. We drink Ogden from Goose Island and then a Blackheart from Three Floyds Brewing Company (Bourbon notes in an IPA!) and then a cheese pairing with Opal from Firestone Walker Brewing Company. Then…oh my science, then we have what is quite possibly the best pairing of alcohol and food I have ever had in my life. Jeff brings out his toffee pudding and Very Mad Cow by Revolution Brewing Company. Words fail me. The lactose in this imperial stout blends into sublime joy as the toffee of the pudding melds with the beer. As the night progressed, we both talked about sitting for out Cicerone exam and the terrors and challenges that are involved, as would any sane person. With that said, Jeff already gets it. I have had some crazy pairings in my life from certified sommeliers that worked beautifully, but few times compare to the toffee pudding and the Very Mad Cow delightful pairingCertification or not he is a maestro. This isn’t to say we agreed on everything. I thought his cheese pairings with Firestone Walker’s Opal that were off, however he had a reasonable justification for his decision citing immature palates and given the current clientele with whom I spoke, he knows his audience.
It seems that Jeff lives to educate and that is my type of barman. Over our multi-hour discussion, we talked about how to approach the proper audience and make The Side Door a place to be. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. Chicago is a funny place. The Midwest simultaneously loves and hates trends. What I do see is the Side Door keeping with the times. Jeff understands the evolving needs of his clientele and will strive to keep it a go-to place for visiting-late-30s-dignataries and hip 20-somethings alike. The only problem, perhaps, is The Side Door straddles both and I wonder if that will be its undoing…