Thursday, February 16, 2012


For many married couples, Valentine's Day presents a conundrum, especially for the husband, who feels pressure to come up with a gift for his wife that's equal parts meaningful and romantic. It can't be too cheap, nor too expensive. Lingerie can be a fantastic idea or a horrific one depending on how one's doing in that department at home. Flowers are nice or too ephemeral. Same with chocolates (do you want me to get fat? and besides, did you buy these just so you could have some, too?). What's a poor spouse to do?

In the Hackknife household, the solution is generally simple: there's an exchanging of cards (mostly of the "simply stated" variety), then we go out to dinner and everyone's happy. Mrs. Hackknife and I are quite aware that the pathway to each other's hearts passes through the stomach, so there's not much reason to deviate from this approach (at least not now - maybe someday I'll get called to the carpet for being insufficiently original, but I'm content to skate by until that day comes). This year, I really outdid myself and booked us a reservation based on a Groupon I bought (I know, ladies, how enchanting, right?) in December. The restaurant in question is called Cite and has a long history of hosting romantic dinners in the Chicagoland area, mostly owing to its location atop the 70-story Lake Point Tower, immediately adjacent to Navy Pier. I recall Mrs. Hackknife first mentioning Cite to me fairly early in our relationship when we were still foodie neophytes. Several years passed and our dining tastes became more sophisticated, but I had made a mental note that we needed to eat there eventually, and the Groupon naturally sealed the deal.

Mrs. H had to work on Saturday, so rather than take 2 cars into the city, I hopped on the train and headed over to Fox & Obel (F&O), a gourmet grocery store up the block from the restaurant, to kill time until our reservation at 7. I'd always wanted to duck in F&O to check it out and I'm glad I did - they have a great selection of cheeses, specialty meats, deli items, and chocolate (two dark bars of which I had to buy, one from Olive & Sinclair in Nashville, another from Mast Bros. in Brooklyn), plus a cafe whose offerings I had to poignantly decline lest I spoil dinner.

The missus became stuck in traffic after missing her turnoff; as a result, I hightailed it over to Cite to check us in. I was surprised by two things the minute I exited the elevator into the restaurant's lobby: 1) the view IS pretty amazing, especially on a cold, clear night and 2) I suddenly felt like I'd gone through a time portal back to 1987, what with the mirrors, gold decor, adult contemporary soundtrack, etc. A number of the patrons also looked as if they stepped straight out of the '80s, as did the menu, which was full of old-school offerings like steak tartare, French onion soup, duck a l'orange, and Bananas Foster (served flambe at tableside). Of course, there's a place in the local dining scene for eateries that have stayed with a once-popular format that's now past its prime; indeed, had Mrs. Hackknife and I gone through our courtship 20 years ago, I'm sure Cite would have been near the top of the list of romantic city dining for a couple of green suburbanites like us. Now it seems more like nostalgia, and not necessarily in a good way.

As far as the food goes, we had no complaints. Our waiter brought us an amuse bouche of scallop with avocado (which resembled and tasted like guacamole to me), followed by our appetizers of escargot in herb butter topped with puff pastry (Mrs. H) and crab souffle with bearnaise sauce (me). I had read many recent reviews warning of less-than-stellar service here and this is where we started to experience that, as a few of my wife's snails were cold. We moved on to the entrees, where I had the aforementioned duck (crispy breast and leg confit, served with fennel salad, very delicious) and Mrs. Hackknife ordered a filet mignon. An a la carte side of fries with garlic aioli was scrumptious, but another side of creamed spinach failed to materialize until the entrees were nearly gone, even after repeated inquiries (in fact, most patrons appeared to be waiting for food to show up at some time or another - I would charitably describe the meal's pace to be "leisurely"). For dessert, we opted for the obligatory cheese plate (a petit basque sheep's milk, a mimolette, and a bleu d'auvergne, served with fig cake and port gel) and a nice presentation of chocolate macchiato (gianduja chocolate mousse with salted caramel, sweet milk foam, and espresso gelato). All told, the whole meal stretched out to nearly 3 1/2 hours, so we had lots of time to savor that spectacular skyline view and outdated decor. On the way home, the missus and I reached the same conclusion - we're glad we tried Cite out, but felt no compelling need to return anytime soon.

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