The proprietors of May St. Cafe, located in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, describe the establishment as a cafe featuring Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and traditional American foods with an eclectic twist. As Aaron and I entered the restaurant late on a Saturday night, two obviously drunk middle-aged couples exited, raving about the food. “Oh, is this your first time here?” Darla Drunkface inquired of me. “Yes, we’ve been looking forward to it for a while now,” I hesitantly replied. “Order the pineapple boat thing! Ohmygod, that squash soup was to die for! Blah blah, blah blah! This place rocks!” sputtered Smashed Sam. You get the point. We were excited about May St., and were energized by this strange spectacle.
Enter Chef M*, May St. Cafe’s Executive Chef! Now, I generally think it’s a positive sign when the chef comes to your table to introduce himself and recommend his favorite dishes. Its a personal touch that can set a small restaurant apart from the rest. However, recommending favorite dishes does not mean that the chef should read the entire menu aloud to his patrons. For the love of God! M stood above us for a good 10 minutes…”The beef is the best in the city. All organic. The fish is also the best. I get many compliments on my shrimp. If you like chicken, ours is outtadisworld. I have been in business for a long time, and my customers always tell me, ‘M, this pork! This lamb! This steak! Those shrimp! The best in the city!!’ Blah blah!” And so on, and so forth.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m a weirdo eater these days, limiting my dairy and meat unless its something like FOIE GRAS (see a previous post for a soliloquy on my fondness for foie). But Aaron’s got another thing going altogether: he’s allergic to dairy.
Aaron always informs the server (or in this case, chef..?!) of his affliction, using the same schpiel: “I would prefer to order something from the menu that normally doesn’t contain dairy, so I don’t have to miss out on any flavor.” That makes sense to me. But apparently, not to M. When Aaron explained his dietary restrictions, M said “We give all of our customers a first-rate experience. That’s why we put all of our sauces on the side. (Huh?) You’re being difficult for no reason.” Wow. With all of the bravado, we expected phenomenal food.
Our starters included “made to order” guacamole and a salad composed of field greens, dried mango slices, goat cheese, caramelized pecans and balsamic dressing. The salad was quite good, despite the fact that the goat cheese/pecan/balsamic dressing combination is tired, in my opinion. Since we could specify the components and spice level of the guacamole, we requested ‘extra spicy’ and with cilantro and lime. Unfortunately, when the guacamole arrived, it lacked any spice and tasted pre-made and over-blended. When I asked the waitress to send it back for more spice, she returned with essentially the same dish with a few extra chips thrown on top.
For our main courses, I ordered the grilled Mahi Mahi with a lemon caper sauce and grilled vegetables on the side. The fish was not bad, but I didn’t really understand the side dishes of sauce and of mushrooms. The vegetables were over salted. There was too much emphasis on presentation, and not enough flavor to back it up.
Aaron ordered the Allen Brothers steak special, also served with grilled vegetables and also presented on an unnecessary banana leaf. Again, the vegetables were over-salted and the meat seemed to be marinated in salt.
Despite the fact that our over-hyped food was over-salted, we wanted to enjoy it quietly at our private table. Apparently, this would not be the case. M squished himself between myself and a woman sitting beside me on the same banquette at the next table. Quite literally, the entire time we were “enjoying” our meals, we had the immense pleasure of listening to M brag to this table about his relationships with top Chicago chefs, his fame and notoriety, and his fabulous, fresh, unique food. When our waitress came to take our coffee and dessert order, M coincidentally mentioned to his friends that they carried Intelligentsia, “the best coffee in the world.” I’m surprised my eyes didn’t roll straight out of my head and into my over-salted fish. We did decide on a poached pear dessert, which was non-dairy and the best dish of the evening.
All in all, the meal was marred by Chef M’s running commentary. The food could have been great but I still would have given May St. a negative review. Humility, class, and manners go a long way, especially when you’re dealing with me.
May St. Cafe
1146 W Cermak Rd
Chicago, IL 60608
*M’s identity and image redacted…I’m still a lawyer, people!