While I abhor Cosmopolitans, the one thing I do love about those ladies from “Sex and the City” is their camaraderie. I suspect their daily meetings, however, are nothing but TV mythology. There’s no way anyone with a real job and life has time to meet with their friends so often. Still, their gatherings duly represent my aspirations of whiling away endless afternoons over drinks, food and banter to celebrate life. And so I do. Since I moved to Chicago, my best friend Aamir and I have made it a pretty regular habit to decompress at various downtown establishments after work.
Almost seven years ago, I started working with Aamir at an industrial-supply company in the Western suburbs. For about six months I never said a word to him. He was a big silent dude with a fierce long goatee made not so much of hair but sharp porcupine-like quills (I’ve seen his stray beard hairs stick in his finger like a fishhook) that would make most Hell’s Angels jealous. Frankly, I was scared of him. Then one day, he noticed I had an Ella Fitzgerald CD, and asked to borrow it, thus launching a beautiful friendship. Ironically, he being a lover of jam bands and no female singer post-Vaughan/Fitzgerald/Holiday, and I, an unapologetic indie and pop aficionado, we’ve never agreed on music since.
One thing we do agree on is that we’re passionate students and lovers of Chicago history. As such our post-work Alcoholics Synonymous meetings often take place in ornate old-school Chicago hotel bars. We figure it’s always good to have something beautiful to look at and a story to be told. And, at least for me, the strange energy of happy-go-lucky tourists and hunkered-down regulars is an inspiring mix.
Our favorite spot used to be the lobby bar in the Hotel Intercontinental on Michigan Avenue. The Intercon inhabits the old Medinah Athletic Club and holds the legendary fourteenth-floor swimming pool where Olympian Johnny Weismuller, aka Tarzan, used to train, under a still extant terra-cotta fountain of Neptune. More importantly the bar used to make a killer double Bombay dry martini served on ice in a crystal decanter for $10. That was until some bean-counter figured out the hotel bar didn’t have to be a loss leader and revoked the crystal decanters and encouraged parsimonious pours.
And so we moved on. There’s been the peanut-shell-sullied floor at Monk’s Pub, the wainscoted womb of the Berghoff and the magnificent carved relief-encrusted ceiling of Potter Palmer’s Hilton. Then about a month ago, we decided to hit the red-leather-banquette-lined confines of the Coq D’ Or at The Drake Hotel. Though we expected to drink, I’d been ashamed that as a chronicler of this city’s eats, I’d never had the famous Bookbinder soup, and so that was our real mission. I was a bit skeptical that it would be any good, as I’ve been disappointed by most of the classic restaurants, finding the pasta at Italian Village or the German plates at the old Berghoff to be relatively mediocre nostalgic tourist fare.
Reinforcing my fears was the fact that even though the Coq first allegedly served drinks to guests before the 8:30pm call announcing the repeal of Prohibition on December 6, 1933, outside of the martini, our bartender didn’t know how to make a classic cocktail (nyet on an Old Fashioned, a Moscow Mule and even a more modern Dark and Stormy). On the other hand the Coq’s spicy nut mix was incredibly addictive.
And the soup…well, it’s named after the restaurant of its provenance, Bookbinders, which opened in 1865 at 125 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. There are two stories how the recipe came to The Drake, both based on the idea that both Bookbinders and The Drake catered to entertainers, royalty and political dignitaries, and having the dish was a matter of cachet (President Taft allegedly hired a chef specifically to make the soup while he was in the White House). Either Edwin Brashears Sr., the second owner of the hotel (after the Drake brothers), got the recipe directly from the owner of Bookbinders in the 1930s or The Drake’s original architect Benjamin Marshall, finding the Bookbinders owner uncooperative, took their chef out for a few drinks and wrangled it from him.
Somewhere along the way the tomato-and-roux-based soup infused with sherry evolved from using “snapper turtle” meat (as it’s still served at Bookbinders) to “red snapper” fish. I haven’t been able to find exactly when the change was made, though the recipe definitely called for fish at The Drake as early as 1952.
As for the actual taste: my first bowl was distinctive and revelatory. The Drake version is served with a crystal decanter of sherry, which you pour into the broth as you slurp. The nuttiness of the sherry roils up in your nostrils along with the vegetal perfume of tomato and celery, both which also mingle on the palate. It’s definitely not only for tourists. Rather, it’s the perfect bowl of tradition suitable to meet old friends over.
Drake Hotel, 140 East Walton Place, (312)787-2200.
Bookbinder Soup recipe
I took two recipes, one alleged as the original, and adapted this recipe to taste based on what I ate at the hotel.
• 10 oz of red snapper fillet
• 2 tablespoons butter
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 4 tablespoons flour
• 2 medium carrots, rough diced
• 2 medium celery ribs, rough diced
• 1 large onion, rough diced
• 1 medium green bell pepper, rough diced
• 8 white peppercorns, crushed
• 2 cloves garlic, rough diced
• 1 bay leaf
• 3 tablespoons tomato paste
• 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
• 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
• 2 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro
• 8 cups fish stock (I use the house-made from Dirk’s Fishmarket on Clybourn)
• 1/4 cup sherry
• 3 dashes Tabasco
1. Add olive oil to a Dutch oven over medium heat and sear and cook snapper fillets until done, about 3 minutes a side. Remove fish and let it rest on a separate plate.
2. Melt the butter in the Dutch oven then saute carrots, celery, garlic, onion, and green bell pepper for about 4 minutes.
3. Add the flour to the Dutch oven, and stir the mixture for about 5 minutes or until the flour/butter/oil mixture is a peanut butter color
4. Stir in peppercorns, bay leaf, tomato paste, cilantro, thyme, and rosemary; cook 2 minutes.
5. Whisk in the 8 cups of fish stock until smooth; heat to boil. Then reduce heat to a low simmer for 30 minutes.
6. Add 3 dashes of Tabasco at the 15 minute mark, and salt to taste along the way. Adjust salt to your liking at the end of 30 minutes.
7. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer; discard solids and return broth to pot.
8. Flake reserved snapper and add half of the sherry and stir both into the broth.
9. Serve in bowls, with the remainder of the sherry served tableside for pouring at the moment of eating the soup.