Sky Full of Bacon

#33 Roof, #34 State and Lake, or: Adventures in Schmoozing

For me!  The first time I’ve ever been somewhere and the Reserved signs were not to keep me away, but to save a spot for me! Overlooking the city laid out before me.  I am Ozymandias, king of food bloggers!


When we last visited my conscience, I was expressing doubts about the need to have a formal code of ethics that foodbloggers signed onto (let alone wore a badge for).  When we visited it the time before that, I was debating whether or not to attend a PR event for a restaurant (as it turned out I couldn’t anyway).

And so Thursday night I went to a hoity-toity event arranged by a PR firm, ate and drank free and schmoozed.  Like a floozy!

What happened?  Several things.  One is, I’ve lately been to two freebie anniversary parties at restaurants where I knew, at least a little, the chef (Mado and Graham Elliott).  In both cases it just felt, I dunno, pretentious to even think about getting on the reviewer’s high horse and saying “Do not tempt me with the base gelt of charcuterie or buffalo wing sweetbreads, thou blackhearted chef thou, for I am… A REVIEWER!”  Partly because, well, I’m not.  (I write some capsule reviews for Time Out or the Reader on occasion, almost entirely of dives and taquerias and such.)  

But more than that, it’s not how the rest of Sky Full of Bacon works— I mean, I didn’t go to La Quercia to get their side of the story and then go talk to some critic to get his blistering attack on them.  I admire what they do so I made a movie about what I admire about it. The whole premise is personal and thus partisan in a way that a newspaper is not meant to be—which is why this is not a newspaper (among other reasons).  So really, all I aim to do here is be 1) hopefully, interesting and, 2) absolutely, straightforward about the circumstances, so you can judge for yourself how much I’ve been sucked in.  As I said before anyway:

the real temptations are not in gold or jewels but in flattery, in access, in the illusion of collegiality.

So anyway, the chichi places in a chichi new hotel:

had a meet and greet, or a Taste and Schmooze, and David Hammond invited me to come along on his invite from a PR firm.  Two more things that appealed to me about attending this were the fact that this is the sort of place I would never ever go on my own, I mean, the last place I’m going to go drinking normally is a posh bar next to the Leo Burnett building; and second, the opportunity to observe, anthropologically, the other members of the food media tribe.  For one thing I was just curious who actually comes out to things like this, since most of the food writers I know don’t.  For another, I was curious what the protocol was for such things, and how it would play out— would the PR people muscle me, flatter me, or stand back and let the chips fall for their client?

First stop was Roof, the bar at the top of the building. This is a very classy and glassy open space, some of it literally open to the outside, much of it modernist steel and glass, very white and cosmopolitan although I must admit, they may strike me off the PR schmooze list just for saying this, something about the high glass walls and the snaking colorful duct work and glass said… forgive me… McDonald’s Playland.  I was ready to take my shoes off and start climbing straight up the air duct, looking for a slide back down.

And no, it wasn’t the lamb burgers that made me think that, either. But hopefully for them, no one else will make that association (this very beautiful-people crowd looks mostly no-kids, or at least no trips to the McDonald’s Playland with their designer kids, anyway).  I had a couple of the signature cocktails— just a couple, hic— but I was fairly unimpressed with the design of either one— an allegedly peach one was more lemony-tart, an alleged tropical one (the Ipanema) was just orangey.  Still, I’m sure they make a fine gin and tonic or whatever the alcoholics at Leo are drinking these days.

The food, on the other hand, I found pretty good, definitely creditable for a bar.  The lamb burger was excellent, good strong lamb flavor mixed with a little herb butter or mayo.  Some thing involving cheese over an egg on bread— pretty much parmesan toad in the hole— was also quite tasty (though totally ill-suited for noshing at an event like this and arguably for any bar situation—going to be a lot of runny egg on little black dresses).  Some mozzarella cheese balls were heavy enough to use as buckshot, while some woodburning pizzas had nice toppings but the crust was fairly standard-issue.  Still, well above average overall for a bar, and I really might go back, as improbable as it might seem (or as I might seem to this crowd), for those lamb burgers.

Anthropological observation #1: food media know not to fill up on bread:

Afterwards we were summoned downstairs to State and Lake, the restaurant in the lobby of the hotel.  As with Roof, State and Lake is dressed to the nines, dark, leathery, techno:

Alas, if Roof managed to escape serving food that screamed “hotel,” State and Lake has not been so lucky.  Nice, pretty adventurous food for a hotel, but there was a little-of-this-little-of-that character to the menu that made it hard to see what it was aiming for, and most things were well executed but unmemorable (and I picked the one entree, pork shoulder, that was a little worse than that, although it’s not like I went hungry that night as a result).  Pretty much anything we had (short ribs, scallops, whatever), I could think of a tastier, more inventive and better conceived version I’d had recently somewhere else, like Avec, or The Bristol, or Avec.  And it usually came with some gloopy cheese-and-creamy side that was threatening to cross the line between Comfort Food and sheer Pander Food.

Again, within its genre it might be pretty good— though hotel dining has stepped up its game lately with places like Avenues and Mercat a la Planxa— and the desserts were very good (who knows where they’re made, though), but if someone asked me where to go eat that’s dark brown, hip and hopping, I’d be all over Sepia or Hot Chocolate long before I ever said this place.

So back to the anthropological stuff: how was the crowd?  How was being the target of PR?  I talked to several people from different kinds of food media—a magazine for chefs, for instance (she told me they did bacon last year and it’s so over; damn, I knew I should have called it Sky Full of Mangosteens), or a very nice lady who writes for a food mag aimed at the north shore (but was eager to hear about all our latest LTHForum city-divey discoveries).  That part was enjoyable and I did some PR-in-return by talking up Sky Full of Rainbow Chard (new logo coming soon).  As for the PR folks, they were friendly and easygoing, they know better than to push too hard for any one client, they’re in this for the long haul.  In the end, a restaurant has to stand on its own feet.  Roof does, State and Lake kind of doesn’t, at least to my standards and needs.  They can create the opportunity for a place to shine, but they won’t go nuts trying to convince you there’s starlight where there isn’t.  Or at least they didn’t.

I thanked them for inviting me and then took the train back home to return to my life, not as a mover and shaker, not Vettel 2.0, but just a guy.  Who has a food blog.

Roof/State and Lake
The Wit Hotel
201 N. State, Chicago

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