Death Row Restaurants

Michael Nagrant / 01.01.07

Whenever I interview chefs, I always ask them, “If you stabbed your sous chef and ended up on death row, what would your last meal be?” This might seem fantastic, but endless fourteen-hour days of sweaty labor over a hellfire of steaming pots and sweltering grills will break people.

Besides, chefs like Rick Tramonto of Tru and Graham Elliot Bowles of Avenues already have a prison cell’s worth of tattoos between them and goateed Michael Carlson of Schwa and his band of Mohawk-coifed sous chefs look like the culinary division of the Satan’s Disciples.

Murder or not, the bargain of life is that we’re all facing a death penalty, and whether we know it or not, there will be a last meal. Assuming you can avoid an IV feed of glucose, nursing-home applesauce or dying suddenly and unexpectedly, what would you choose to eat?

Sometimes it’s about comfort. Shawn McClain, the chef/owner of Green Zebra, Custom House and Spring says French fries and Chef Dean Zanella’s (of 312 Chicago) mother’s meatballs.

Sometimes, it’s about gourmet excess and the ultimate pig-out. Doug Sohn, the chef/owner of Hot Doug’s says, “A corned-beef sandwich on good fresh rye bread with a good brown mustard, a plate of the duck fat French fries, a plate of fried chicken from Gus’ in Mason Tennessee and choucroute from Chez Yvonne in Strasbourg France.”

Sometimes it’s just about recapturing your youth. Bowles, a military brat who spent time in the Philippines, craves those years of lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) and adobo. Of course, sometimes it’s just about guilty pleasures, because he also says he might go down with “a whole wheel of Laughing Cow cheese.”

When asking these chefs, I never had an answer for myself, until I ate at Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon. I subscribe to the “nothing says excess like excess” rule of last meals, and at Cochon, Chef Martin Picard serves a pig’s foot on an island of garlic mashed potatoes whipped with cheese curds, and then stuffs that foot with braised pork shank, wild mushrooms and foie gras. After what I’d seen in Quebec, if some unsuspecting parliament minister even suggested a foie gras ban, he’d probably end up at the bottom of Lake Champlain.

The problem with death, though, is that you don’t always have time to hop on a plane, and so I’ve started to do some more thinking about last meals in Chicago. Cochon is perfect, not only for its excessive comfort food, but also for its come-as-you-are mentality, the blonde wood walls, the diverse boisterous clientele and incredible beer. Cochon is a restaurant masquerading as God’s tavern.

The first place that comes to mind locally is Avec, 615 West Randolph, (312)377-2002, with its own woody confines, communal tables, house-cured meats and affordable fare. On the other hand, the place is perpetually packed, and with its no-reservation policy, unless I die at 4:30 in the afternoon on Sunday or someone develops a Make-A-Wish foundation for ailing gourmands, it’s likely I’ll have a tough time getting in.

Almost as busy, but slightly easier to negotiate, is Hopleaf, 5148 North Clark, (773)334-9851. Serving up the best frites in town with a side of garlicky aioli, goat-cheese croquettes and oven-roasted duck, the menu is a study in La-Z Boy comfort, and they also have one of the greatest beer lists in hops history.

But the crowds are still crazy at Hopleaf and it’s occasionally overrun with stuffy beer geeks, and so it’s Kuma’s Corner, 2900 West Belmont, (773)604-8769, that ultimately wins the Goldilocks award as being “just right.” Named after the owner’s 8-year-old Akita, Kuma means “bear” in Japanese, and as their Web site says, “We like to think of Kuma’s Corner as a cozy refuge, kind of like a bear’s den.”

The beer list isn’t quite as deep as Hopleaf’s, but you can only drink so much before you die, and should I want to channel Au Pied de Cochon, Kuma’s has the entire lineup from Quebec’s Unibroue craft brewery.

The crowds are truly eclectic: bikers rub up against bankers and the beer geeks may be nerdy about their suds, but they’re also downright intellectual about their Harleys and their tattoos.

Foodwise, the Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in Allagash ale, garlic butter and chilies are served with a crusty bread island to soak up the spicy puddle of broth rimming the bowl. There are also huge Angus burgers served on pretzel rolls, and spot-on pan-seared scallops.

Acording to Kuma’s menu, the ambitious bar food is the handiwork of “Executive Chef-Jose.” While I haven’t met him, I bet when I finish that last meal, step out from confines of Kuma’s and walk on up to heaven, Jose will be right there to greet me.

This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago.