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Take A Chance On Me

Michael Nagrant / 07.16.18

The world is pretty fucked up right now. Because I’m a lib, this means that certain ideas like arming children don’t really resonate with me. But, maybe you are different. Maybe you are mad because Purdue pharma worked really hard to misrepresent the safety of certain opiates, and you’re stuck in a vicious cycle of fear and loathing that you’ve channeled in to a crippling and destructive fear of the other. Either way, for both of us, the world is not working the way we expected.

So, what to do? Because I am a bleedin’ heart, I like to forget by drowning my sorrows in things like foreign wine and food. And toward that end, I can think of no better place to do that than Aba, a new restaurant located in Chicago’s West Loop.

You protest, ‘Hold up! I do not like Swedish people! This is a terrible idea.’

Don’t worry, I almost thought the same thing, but Aba is not a theme restaurant celebrating the kitschy disco-tinged schlock promulgated by Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Fältskog, and Björn Ulvaeus. That, my friend, is Abba. And for a second, wow, what a glorious opportunity. Imagine. Dancing Queen daiquiris, Mamma Mia lasagna, and Fernando filet mignon.

Still, I’m not gonna lie. You’re gonna have to be ok with eating food that likely originated from Muslims and Jews. But, in the spirit of Abba, take a chance on me, alright?

Again, I know how you feel. Because of Sabra’s global propaganda, hummus is somehow on its way to surpassing salsa and ketchup as the dip of global choice. They pair it with unholy things like pretzels, which is an affront to everything I believe about America too. It’s hard to believe this popularity, because let’s be honest, no one likes hummus. What people like is garlic and salt and tahini (sesame butter – kind like peanut butter that’s been dropped by its girlfriend– it’s very bitter). Don’t believe me? Boil some chickpeas, mash them up and eat them without any of that other stuff and see how that goes. In other words, hummus is popular because it is a blank canvas which is defined by what adorns it. And what would both you and I, red blooded Americans really yearn for to obliterate our bland chickpea paste? Big bold crispy charred beef short rib dripping in gravy with a side of sweet grilled onion. And that is exactly the miraculous opportunity we get from chef CJ Jacobson. This is surprising, because he’s a former pro volleyball player, and therefore, likely a hippie, and was probably once a vegetarian.

Then again, maybe your cardiologist has suggested, after putting in stent number sixteen, that you should give up meat. If that’s the case, you’ll like the red beet tzatziki bursting with horseradish spice and the tangy spurt of finger limes (it’s like fruit caviar). I’m assuming you’re of European descent, and if like me, you’re Polish, you will recognize this dish in the form of that ubiquitous jar of hot pink mush stuffed in the back of your babcia’s fridge. Except Jacobson’s stuff is better, if only because it wasn’t brought over from Poland in 1941 (I swear I’m not trying to trigger you – even white people gotta migrate).

If you are going vegetarian, stay away from the falafel. While it’s better than take out or delivery falafel, it’s still on the dry side.

If you’re looking for more balance and less red meat, you will love the sesame shrimp. They’re encrusted and flaky like Rip’N Chick’N from Popeyes. I know you like hot sauce, which here is called green chili harissa, and you can douse the shrimp in that great herbaceous heat .

Even though it’s more tender than a Yankee pot roast, I know no matter how effusive I am, you will not touch the braised lamb. You will be tempted. It floats in a haunting tomato sauce perfumed with sweet spices that waft like a mall Cinnabon kiosk, but the juicy eggplant wrapper is probably going to trip you up. That’s ok, more for me.

You’ll want to finish with the crème brulee pie. If that sounds too fancy, it’s basically velvety cheesecake with a BBQed sugar crust, which is to say only a half-step below the glory of brown sugar-lacquered bacon. As a food writer who loves fancy things, but hates culinary cliché, this is a smart revival of the classic. Just stay away from the stone hard nectarines served on the side. Then again, one man’s trash…you may actually recognize these nectarine slices as being similar to the ethylene-gas ripened rocks available at your local grocer and prefer them out of nostalgia.

Beyond the food, Aba’s main attraction is its glorious open terrace overlooking downtown. I like the idea of meeting you here, because it affords a breathtaking view of downtown skyscrapers, and you’ll be able to see clearly that Chicago is not a murderous war zone requiring occupation by the armed forces. The terrace is the very essence of Chicago summer. Glasses of rosé sweat on side tables while Lake Michigan breezes rip through the air. The environment is so intoxicating that we will forget how bad things are right now. In fact, as a food writer, I’m supposed to pay attention to details about the dining room, but I was so mesmerized by the outside I may not have done my job. I think between the wood paneling, the creeping ivy and the huge tree (not sure if it was alive) growing in the middle of the room, the interior was kind of a cross between a posh country club and a Hobbit warren.

If none of this works for you, I bet you like to drink. I will order the Domaine Skouras Moschofilero, which is basically like the wine equivalent of Budweiser in Greece. It’s refreshing, has high acidity, and pineapple and mineral notes. You will think I’m a big poof. That’s ok, I know you like beer, and the list here is pretty crafty. You’re going to love the weed-like notes of the Pipeworks Lizard King American pale ale. After a few sips, you will likely agree the world isn’t as bad as it seems.

Aba is located at 302 N. Green St., Chicago, IL