Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Geja's: Not so sexy or romantic to us.

When my husband and I first moved to Chicago, we looked up the top romantic restaurants in the city in our trusty “Zagat Survey.” We wanted to make an effort to visit each restaurant on our list before we head back home to Boston in two years.

Listed among eleven other restaurants was Geja’s Café, an apparent fondue treasure in Lincoln Park. On a damp, wet, mild, rainy night, my husband and I ventured off towards Armitage and Lincoln. The roads were a bit slick and reflections of street lights coupled with headlights made the visibility as little less than ideal. Neither of us could remember the last time it rained

We veered off in our conversations about our own reasons of why we love the rainfall. We both agreed that the sounds can be peaceful and soothing, acting as a lullaby for some. But, for others, it’s invasive, dreary, and impedes on everyday life. My husband shared his dream of sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of our Vermont country home when we’re older watching and listening to the teeming rain. The sounds of the rain hitting gutters and puddles enlarging on the ground became so vivid in his mind, he almost forgot he was just in his first year of business school and we had years before this country home would become our reality.

The short drive over Geja’s was strangely intense, filled with drivers being too patient or not patient enough. Cars initiated turning around in the middle of Lincoln Avenue with bumper to bumper traffic, apparently oblivious to the world around them. Our brakes vibrated and pulsed quickly to catch up with themselves as we almost hit one of them. We were relieved when we found parking a short block away from the restaurant, trusting our feet more than the skittish drivers on the road in the rainy weather.

When we walked inside, the contrast between the worlds we had just left and the one we were entering became glaringly apparent. Warm hues of golden and mahogany combined with low ceilings and the background noise of a gentle flamenco guitar eased us instantly.

The restaurant seemed tight in space but still filled with inviting scents and the soft colors. One of the first things that I noticed wasn’t that each wall was lined with wine bottles or that each table consisted of couples looking dreamingly into each other’s eyes; it was the sounds of gurgling oil. After being seated, my husband joked that some of the wine bottles must be doubling as fire extinguishers, but I was still concentrating on the bubbling sounds coming from the weathered orange Le Creuset pots at the tables around us.

Geja’s menu offers a variety of combination of fondue. You could simply snack on cheese or chocolate, or go the whole nine yards and get both cheese and chocolate, along with a meal in between of vegetables and your choice of meats, along with eight side sauces. These offerings were labeled the “premier fondue dinner” and we both opted for our own combination. I chose shrimp and beef tenderloin, while my husband selected shrimp and chicken. Other offerings include scallops, lobster tails, or simply a vegetable medley of potatoes, mushrooms, onions, and peppers.

When our waiter arrived with a basket of goodies to dip into the cheese, he also lit our hot oil in our own petite orange Le Creuset dish, and soon enough our table was gurgling with the rest of them. We wasted no time and jumped into the vat of melted cheese at our disposable. Our victims with this third of our meal included apples, white bread, pumpernickel bread, and grapes. I definitely wish the bread was a lot fresher and a little crustier; it tasted stale or as if it was sitting out for quite some time. The cheese itself had some good flavors, but I didn’t think it was exceptional by any means. Described as a combination of gruyere, white wine, and Kirsch, I couldn’t distinguish the cherry flavor anywhere.

So far, the ambiance was still the most impressive part of Geja’s. I was hoping the next two courses would redeem the first. A platter arrived with our raw meats, vegetables, and eight side sauces ranging from teriyaki to horseradish sauce to cocktail. We were instructed on how long to keep each item in the hot oil. We eagerly grabbed out skewers and started dunking vegetables and meats into the hot oil. Some oil splattered back but we were tough and continued to dunk until our stomachs felt a bit off, to be honest. The vegetables tasted ordinary; simply like vegetables cooking in hot oil, so they didn’t carry a ton of flavor. The eight sauces that accompanied the dinner were very welcomed. The beef was delicious, as long as I didn’t overcook it and of course, it was enhanced with its classic accompaniment of horseradish sauce.

The entire meal started to lose its effect and excitement when our heads, as well as our stomach started to realize how much oil we had ingested in a relatively short amount of time. We were each given four pieces of chicken and beef, respectively, as well as three shrimp each. Neither of us could finish was we ordered and about halfway through the vegetables, we simply got tired of the flavor and our stomachs were begging us to say no.
Was there still another course coming our way?

Our platter of remaining food disappeared and the sterno from our oil was covered. When the chocolate fondue arrived, the waiter lit the orange liquor that topped the melting chocolate, as his only sign of showmanship that evening. In the midst of our country’s chocolate revolution, the flavor of this mixture did not make the cut. It was flat and dull, sadly lacking any depth. We each took one bit, if I remember correctly. I’m surprised we could even stomach that.

What surprised me the most about our disappointed experience at Geja’s was not that we felt so terrible at the end of the night, but more that it was rated as one of the top romantic restaurants in all of Chicago. I cannot argue if that refers to the atmosphere, but the only thing my husband and I wanted to do when we got home was roll up into our comfortable fetal positions in bed and sleep our stomach pains away.

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