Vincent: Mr. Congeniality

I was walking around my apartment Wednesday morning, brushing my teeth and looking bemusedly yet uneasily out the window at the unholy mess falling from the sky/blowing around my building/overtaking the entire city with its arctic chaos. I’m a traveling tooth-brusher; I like to mosey as I brush. So it took me a few extra minutes to get to my phone to see the text from my coworker, informing me that the day’s training had been cancelled and that I could take the day off.

After a triumphant victory dance session to my very favorite cotton candy jams for about 10 minutes (AHEMjustinbieber), I stood, staring out the window, wondering what I was going to do with this Glorious Surprise Day Off. I could go straight back to bed! I could go outside and build a snow man! I could bake cookies! I could make soup! I could watch piles of Seinfeld DVDs! I could read one of the two food-geek books I had recently purchased, or one of the three gorgeous cookbooks I got for Christmas! I could clean my apartment! I could bury my dying houseplants in the rapidly-accumulating snow and give them a very strange and dramatic farewell!

Overwhelmed by the possibilities, I went with an old reflex: I called my mother.

Mom: So, what are you going to do today?

Me: There are about fifty things I could do, but I can’t decide what’s the best, or most important.

Mom: You could blag.

Me: I could what?

Mom: Blag!

Me: I’m sorry, what?

Mom: You know, write in your blag!

Blag. Like the first part of former Governor Blagojevich’s nickname. Blago. Blag. I’m a blagger.

God, I love Chicago.

Mom: Well, whatever you do, you should call Grandma. She’d love to hear from you.

What my mom might not realize as she reminds me to dutifully call my grandmother is that I have a really great time talking to Grandma Eleanor on the phone. Eleanor is a chatter. Eleanor likes to hash it ALL out. I can tell Grandma Eleanor stuff that would make anyone else yawn, roll their eyes, change the subject, claim they have a sock drawer to organize, or any combination thereof. I like to talk about the minutiae, and so does Grandma.

So I call Grandma and we chat. She talks about the neighbor who is supposed to visit her driveway with a recently-downgraded snowblower, and expresses doubt as to whether he and it will be able to get the job done. She suddenly interrupts herself, almost as if she’s had an epiphany that I might have had a more important reason to call on my newly-awarded ain’t-got-jack-to-do snow day than just to chat. She asks if I’m engaged yet. She’s started doing this lately, which is mostly funny, because although things are kind of headed in that direction, I have as vague an idea as she does. I tell her as much, and she continues her story as if nothing happened. I love this about her. We talk about the goings-on in Egypt and agree we are both relieved that my brother is escaping the fray and coming back to Chicago, safe and sound. We talk about the weather, this blizzard and blizzards of yore, and then circle it back to snow blowers. We both take that as a sign that we’ve covered every possible topic, and that we’ll talk again soon.

I watch about 4 consecutive Seinfeld episodes (season 2, when things get weird with Elaine & Jerry for a minute, but then everything is hunky-dory and mundane and wonderful again). I’m snuggled under a large blanket and about every 20 minutes or so, I burrow, contentedly, further underneath the blanket. I also sigh and grin a little with pure satisfaction.

I think about a conversation I had a few years ago with a friend in grad school. We were talking about the beautiful burden of synonyms in the English language; that there are about a thousand words for “pleasant,” each with its own different shade and connotation. We talked more specifically about the academic’s penchant for familiarizing himself with every last one of those synonyms, and his (our) pride in deploying them in just the right situation. His very favorite example of this is the proclamation of one professor who was hosting a visiting professor in his house: “The guest room is a bit small, but I think you’ll find it quite congenial.”

That was my day: congenial. Hunkered down (up) in my snug, wee apartment, with enough provisions to keep me fed for the day, a little smartphone to keep me connected, and all the books, blankets and tea I could ever want. This was congenial. This was livin’.

Later on, after the snow had stopped and the sun sort of came out, and I saw figures down on the street venturing back into the world, I began texting with a friend, Danielle, about meeting for a celebratory we-lived-through-the-Blizzard-of-2011 cocktail. We were both very much behind the idea, but realized that, much like our places of employ, not many places would be open on a day like this. So she checks around and LO: one of my very favorite places in the whole city is open.

Vincent. Have you been?

I looked at the clock, then looked outside, then called Danielle.

“It’s still daylight out there and it looks sort of magical. I kind of want to be out there like, righthisecond. How quickly can you be ready?”

We agreed we could meet in about 30 minutes at the corner of Bryn Mawr and Broadway, near where she lives, and walk over to Clark & Balmoral, where Vincent is tucked away in all of its cozy and chic and warm and delicious glory.

We walk in, and we’re greeted by Mike, the bartender for the evening (and the server I’ve been lucky enough to have each time I’ve gone in). Not two seconds later, Joncarl pops out of the kitchen, and “HIIIIIIIIII!!”s and hugs are distributed. Danielle had been in there recently with her mother, and since both are ebullient and memorable, Joncarl also remembered her. (I think this is how he works – you go into his restaurant with your parents, and it’s like you’re cemented in his brain for life. Or maybe only if your parents are lovely. I need to research this more.)

The guys explain that they are a staff of three that evening, and that they look forward to another surprisingly busy night. Apparently they had quite a few people stumble in from the storm the night before, and that night, much like the one that brought us in, was one of almost giddy triumph in the face of the most ruthless and inclement weather.

Sure enough, signaled by a small cold gust as the front door opened, the face of each entering patron held an almost expectant, surprised glee – as if they had been tromping through snow drifts for hours solely on a mere rumor that, somewhere around here, there’s a lovely, warm little restaurant that will take you in and make you a nice cheese plate and a gin drink. “Wow!! It really is true! It’s all here!” their faces seemed to say.

Between congratulating ourselves and other guests on our victorious and safe arrivals at the bar, we ordered some drinks (both with marvelous Dutch gin), and some salads and frites. Danielle and I talk to each other, to our new friends, to Mike, to Joncarl… and suddenly, Danielle and I look at each other, eyebrows piqued, then we look around the room.

Something. Smells. GORGEOUS. What is that what is that what IS THAT?! Our eyes settle on Nick, the third musketeer on staff, swanning about the room holding a pan and smiling coyly.

“It’s just cinnamon,” he says. So apparently you warm it up in a pan and it gets supercalifragilistically fragrant.

Not that this is shocking. Danielle and I both comment that we actually feel kinda dumb for not having figured that one out on our own.

By this time we are pleasantly sated and a little sotted. The music is good, and playing at the level I like to think of as “fun loud.” Nick turns on a Florence and the Machine song (yes, That One. It’s the jam, and I won’t apologize.) There are about 9 patrons in the restaurant, and 7 of whom are in the front bar area, talking and laughing. I’m ogling the St. Germain and before I know it, I’ve been handed a champagne drink with a glug of St. Germain and some lemon peel. Joncarl comes out of the kitchen with two wee tiny forks, each with a small piece of steak on the end. He hands them ceremoniously to Danielle and me and we take them as he explains that flank steak really is one of his favorites. (Mine too!) Danielle orders a beer – her nightcap – and asks for a Hollandia. She is informed by a pleased Joncarl that it is, in fact, “a total Dutch dockworker’s beer” and that she is awesome for having ordered it.

So I’ve painted the scene. All of this happened. And all of it, despite the zillion more ways I could describe the evening, calls to mind only one word. Yes, it’s congenial.

God, I love Chicago, part 2: Its restaurants. Not all of them, of course. Because not all of them are congenial. Some are cozy, some are comfortable, some produce thoughtful but approachable food, some are priced for normal people, some have wonderful and warm staff. Very few of them, though, are all of those things.

On my way out, I try to explain to Joncarl why I love his restaurant so much. I like HB, too (his other restaurant, and a BYOB), and for many of the same reasons. However, I love to cozy up to the bar sometimes for dinner, and if that bar is mirrored, so much the better. I’m a sucker for an interesting cocktail list. And for gin. And for bartenders that hand you a plate of housemade pickles, even though you certainly did not order the pickled herring shot. But mostly it’s because I’m convinced each time I go that the food at Vincent is from someone’s very deepest, most earnest heart.

So I don’t know what I’m telling you. I’m telling you I got a snow day, and that I talked to my grandma, and rolled around my apartment watching old sitcoms and reading books, and that I went out later and had a rollicking wonderful time during which I was quite pleased to have survived such a gnarly storm. Yesterday almost felt like another New Year’s Day. (Except without the debilitating hangover and marathon episodes of Dog the Bounty Hunter.) So maybe happy New Year. Maybe congratulations to all of you for pulling through. Here’s a toast to congeniality, and to all of the things that, just one month in, still await us in 2011.


  1. awww, you're the peachiest of peaches. i'm glad you texted me and we merrily trudged our way to vincent. happy saturday tomorrow! i'm still thinking about snowshoeing if you want to come!

  2. i love this story

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