Sky Full of Bacon

Hellacious rain Saturday morning meant that I was trying to think of something indoors to take the kids to. Unfortunately since it’s early September, that means we’re just coming off of visiting every kid-oriented museum for 60 miles around, so flailing desperately, I even checked the Museum of Contemporary Art. Bingo. A Jeff Koons show—I figured they’d at least like the giant chromed inflatable toys—and an Alexander Calder show, in case they hated the Koons show.

I’m pretty suspicious of Koons, I saw his last MCA show when I first moved here in 1988 and there’s nothing about basketballs in aquarium tanks or vacuum cleaners in fluorescent-lit display cases that has improved with age and the Saatchis’ money. That’s the kind of London art scene shock-stuff that can only be described with a blunt, pithy “shite”— cynical art for cynical buyers wishing to show off how completely free they are of boring old notions like quality and meaning.

That said, I’ve always thought the chromed inflatable bunny, turning the cheapest of all supermarket toys from the lamest of kid holidays (Easter) into a luxury good or even an idol, is one of the scariest, most brilliant bits of conceptual art ever made. There’s nothing Koons does that isn’t descended either from Duchamp putting a urinal in a gallery or Warhol/Rosenquist treating anonymous advertising graphics with the gravity and scale of the Sistine Chapel, but every once in a while he hits that joke so perfectly on the head that you can’t help but be wowed by the epic, lush irony. The bunny, the gilted-up lifesize porcelain figure of Michael Jackson and chimp, the statue of a policeman with a cartoon bear from some godawful public safety campaign of the 70s—I could show you pictures, if you haven’t seen them, but there’s no substitute for being in their awesomely beyond-taste presence. They’re like the lawn jockeys of the gods.

Then, like Mario’s ice after Al’s Italian beef, Calder’s innocent delight cleanses all of Koons’ art-biz cynicism away. The mobiles fill only two small alcoves, but everything in them is so light and cheering and buoyant that it instantly dissipates the mood set by Koons’ bombastic irony.  He’s downstairs clomping around like Frankenstein, and upstairs Nureyev is dancing.  There’s also an interesting bit of hand-drawn animation by a South African artist named William Kentridge, a darkly foreboding but never heavyhanded bit of nightmare about apartheid, that is well worth stopping in a small 3rd-floor screening room to see.  If you only go to see Koons, you’re missing the real show.

*  *  *

To be honest, there has been a single, one-line mention of the Wolfgang Puck-managed cafe in the Museum of Contemporary Art at LTHForum, and under many circumstances I might think that that was all a concession like this deserved. (My last LTH experience with a Puck concession was mocking the closing of the one in the history museum.) But in fact it’s an estimable place, and deserves a serious take, so I’m going to mulligan it into my 50 restaurants previously (almost) entirely unwritten about at LTHForum.

After all that it was still raining heavily, so we gave up on my original plan to try Wow Bao and went into Puck’s cafe for lunch. One side is sandwiches, the overpriced lunch stuff I mocked at the Historical Society, but the other side has white tablecloths and a chichi lunch menu.

Service seemed a bit lackadaisacal— the very long room doesn’t help, at one point our waitress broke into a sprint to cover the distance to one of her tables— but I was impressed the moment the bread plate, with its side of goat cheese and tapenade, arrived.  Two of the four lunches we were served also impressed me that this was a serious place well beyond the needs of serving upscale food to tourists.

First, the downside.  I was impressed that a Caesar salad arrived with visible anchovy filets on top, but the dressing was bland and even a little sweet, way off for this iconic dish.  The kids’ menu probably serves a better burger or grilled cheese than the average, but that’s certainly stale thinking about what kids can/should eat in this kind of setting.

On the other hand, older son’s steak salad was elevated above the provenance of its standard greens or even its trendy purple fingerling potatoes by a housemade oregano-based vinaigrette that sang of fresh herbs:

Best of all was a striking quinoa-couscous salad, which seemed to have been plated by Donald Judd, full of vegetable surprises down its length (including those purple fingerlings) and a honey-mint-herb dressing that, again, sang of the freshness of the season (even if one of the hidden vegetables was locavore-disapproved September asparagus):

To judge by the tables around us, a lot of folks are taking the easy choice and having the burger (which looked very nice), but there’s a lot more to this menu than just standard museum cafe fare, and it deserves more than the high-profile anonymity it has enjoyed to date.  You’re no chromed supermarket bunny when you can make salad dressing dance brightly in the air like that.

Puck’s at the MCA
220 E Chicago
Chicago, IL 60614

(What’s the number in the title? This is #11 in my quest to visit 50 restaurants that haven’t been talked about on LTHForum and are generally little known in the Chicago food community/press. To find more, click on “Restaurant Reviews” in the right-hand bar.)

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