A Whole New World...

Given my interest in food, one of the distinct joys of my new job is its West Loop location, conveniently located in the midst of some of the hottest restaurants in the city. Though my lunch break is a mere half hour these days, that is plenty of time to check out the unique take-out options in the neighborhood, and there is always dinner if I want to check out some of the sit-down locations. The options feel limitless, and I am in foodie heaven.

Though I've only been here a month, there are already two serious contenders for my neighborhood favorite: J.P. Graziano's and Publican Quality Meats. J.P. Graziano's has the advantage of being the closest to my office, though its Italian sandwiches would be worth the walk even it it wasn't. It also happens to be one of the oldest establishments in the neighborhood, as it was founded XX years ago and has remained in the same family ever since. When they started, they operated more as a grocery and delicatessen to the Italian immigrants who lived and worked nearby. Now they focus on selling sandwiches using their top-quality imported meats, cheeses, and condiments. Though I have to eat around 11:00 to avoid the long lines around noon, I've yet to sample anything there that isn't totally delicious, and the family members running the shop are friendly and welcoming. It certainly beats Jimmy John's or Subway any day of the week.

The lovely Mr. G: prosciutto, salami, sopressata, provolone, truffle mustard, artichokes, balsamic vinaigrette, fresh basil, and lettuce.

Snob that I am, I think I prefer Publican Quality Meats (PQM), however. Opened by chef Paul Kahan as an ancillary to his earlier project The Publican, which operates on a nose-to-tail carnivore philosophy, PQM is an honest-to-goodness butcher shop that does a side business in sandwiches and soups. They produce their own charcuterie as well as smoked and cured meats that they put between locally-baked bread with house-made condiments, and they also send their wares over to The Publican. I loved both of my experiences dining at The Publican but can't afford to be a regular, so getting to eat lunch at PQM is sort of the next best thing.

They have a killer muffuletta, which, though nontraditional, has pickled vegetables so tasty that I could practically eat them on their own. Their chicken Parmesan sandwich is reliably good, though it doesn't push the envelope as much as their other creations, but with an ever-changing, seasonally-influenced menu, there will always be something new for me to try. Heck, I even like the spicy Asian slaw that comes as a free side to all their sandwiches, and I am certainly no fan of cole slaw, or cabbage in general. I'm starting to wonder if they can do any wrong...

Is it weird that one of my favorite things about PQM is the perfectly shaped Ziploc bag for the pickle? You can squeeze it up from the bottom without getting pickle juice on your hands.

Plus, tonight we had our staff holiday party at Girl and the Goat, the restaurant helmed by former Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard. I think it was selected partly due to its proximity to our office, but picking a great restaurant in our neighborhood is like shooting fish in a barrel. After four years of either no holiday parties due to budget constraints or parties held at whatever establishment was willing to donate one for free, the prospect of getting to dine on the company dime at a restaurant that is so in demand that I've never been able to secure a reservation kind of boggles my mind.

The meal that we were served far exceeded my expectations, and made me a little bit sad that I had waited this long to experience Izard's cooking. We were served no less than 15 courses, all of which came in the form of small plates that were meant to be shared, but there were so many plates of each course that there was still a ton of food. I made a point of trying everything that we were served, even the things that I don't ordinarily eat, because these kinds of opportunities in life are rare. It turned out to be a good policy, because many of those dishes turned out to be eye-opening.

Since our CEO is a vegetarian, our tasting menu included a large number of vegetable dishes, and I found myself waxing poetic about the heavenly chickpea fritters (this coming from a girl who has only started to eat hummus in the last six months), kohlrabi salad, and green beans so divine that I came home and looked into buying Izard's cookbook just to see if it contained a recipe for them (it does not.) I even forced myself to try the fried oysters, which were surprisingly good and not as texturally challenging as I was expecting, based on my experience with oysters in the past.

I truly cannot believe my good fortune that I was able to have such an incredible food experience through my new job. Izard is allegedly soon to open a diner concept across the street from Girl and the Goat called Little Goat, and I can't wait to give it a try. Being so close to so many great dining venues is dangerous, not only for my waistline but for my wallet, but for now, I am too giddy over all these new opportunities and experiences to mind all that much.

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