Friday, May 12, 2017
Deploy the big chicken
The restaurant business is tough. You need good food. A good space. Good service. Good publicity. And a big heaping serving of good luck. Over and over and over. It's a wonder any of them ever work, and most don't. The pudding never sets, the miracle never arrives. It's unfair to go to a place too soon, before they've worked out the kinks. But wait too long and it may be gone.
Who doesn't want a good restaurant a few steps from home? So I've been following with more than passing interest developments at the corner of Shermer and Walters in Northbrook, ground floor of a rounded brick office building just around the corner from where we live. Hope mingled with disappointment, rooting for something to work, invariably let down.
My Pie, a branch of venerable Chicago pizzeria, opened in 2009. The place had fans, though we were not one of them. We went twice. It wasn't bad, but Lou Malnatti's is practically across the street. I just wasn't willing to forgo a single Lou Malnatti's pizza in order to support this new place. Do that, and I'd always be short one Lou's pizza. I would never catch up. It lasted a little more than two years.
In 2015, Agave, a generic Mexican restaurant opened. I knew it was doomed right away before stepping foot inside, because the sign was mounted crooked. They didn't even bother taking down the Mi Pie sign brackets. Really. If you can't get your damn sign straight, what can you do?
Charitable soul that I am, I went anyway. Ate some expensive, utterly unremarkable Mexican chow, set down by an indifferent waitress, in a room that was nearly unadorned.
Kind soul that I am, I held my tongue, until after it failed. Which took about a year.
The spot is not even a block from my house. You have to have pity on your neighbors. Pity on restaurants. They're hanging off a cliff; don't jump on their fingers.
Then, six months ago, Drumstix. I immediately went with my younger son and we happily fed. Moist chicken. Homemade baked beans. Mmm. We were satisfied but then, we are boys and boys tend to like food that can be chewed and swallowed. I hurried back with my wife, a far more discerning eater than I. She pointed out that the friend chicken breast that I celebrated for being juicy was in fact soggy.
"Fried chicken is supposed to be crispy," she said. That wasn't a factor for me, because I scraped off the skin off before eating it. But I saw her point.
I was tempted to give the place another try -- sometimes restaurants take time to find their groove, and you need to give them a chance. Support the home team. But my wife was underwhelmed, end of story. There are many other places to eat. I almost pressed. But their signs are paper, tucked inside the windows. Really? Is that the best you can do? The My Pie lighting bracket is still up, illuminating nothing. I know I shouldn't, but I put an almost talismanic importance onto restaurant signs. They reveal the soul within. Months passed.
And that might have been it. But a couple days ago, this 7-foot-tall chicken arrived out front, set off by his own little wrought iron fence. "Did you see the chicken?" my wife said. Of course I did. Nothing more really needed to be said between us. We knew what we had to do immediately. You must respect effort like that. Particularly in Northbrook. I wish I had been at the zoning meeting where they finessed the chicken past the board. (Actually, it is on private land, the owner tells me, so zoning approval was not necessary. That explains its presence).
We saw the chicken Tuesday. On Thursday night we were at Drumstix for dinner. My wife liked her fish and chips far more than she had liked the chicken. I tried a half slab of ribs. And while it is no Green Street Smoked Meats, no Smoque, Not sweet, as I like ribs, but peppery, I also had no trouble polishing them off, sucking the bones. The place was sunlit and populated with diners, with families. The guy bussing our table was a kid we've known since kindergarten, and we caught up happily. The music was lively, trains passed by outside. We both felt pushed over the hump. We weren't smitten with the food, not yet anyway, but we'd give it another try. You sort of have to -- I mean, look at that chicken. It's a very big chicken.
Or is it a rooster? The saying "If it crows, it's a rooster, if it lays an egg, it's a hen" is not enormously helpful in this situation. I'm sticking with a chicken because, frankly, a chicken is funnier.
Either way, exactly the sort of thing Northbrook so desperately needs.
"Maybe I'll really like the chicken pot pie..." I said, hopefully. They also have red velvet cake on the menu. It is very hard to wreck red velvet cake.
Most people push at their dreams but feebly. A first draft, shopped around a few publishers and then consigned to a drawer forever. A half-assed effort, success fails to arrive immediately, then straight to collapse, surrender and bitterness. But some people roll up their sleeves, cock their heads, squint one eye, and deploy the big chicken. You have to respect that.