On a recent trip to Chicago, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find a food, beer and wine destination thriving with culinary excellence, with some restaurants even more exciting than the scene in New York City. On past trips to Chicago, I have explored steak houses and deep dish pizza joints, street hot dogs, great Mexican fare and solid pubs.
But the focus was on the new and noteworthy this time around, and I have added three new restos to my expanding list of Chicago eateries and bars.
On Friday night, I snatched an early table at Publican in the West Loop, essentially a beer hall with gastro fare. Large paintings of plump pigs adorn the walls, wooden stable doors enclose the booths, surrounding long communal wooden seating and central standing room only bar, flanked by the open kitchen, attractive and engaging. The crowd is hip, the ambiance ebullient, the staff knowledgeable and laid back.
Start off with the oysters, pristine and paired perfectly with the extensive beer list. On to crudo and pork rinds, which if were sold in Harlem would cause a riot, fluffy, puffy, piment d’esplette accented – they are my latest obsession and addiction.
The next beer was a Flemish offering called Monk’s Cafe, an eye opener and versatile for the courses to follow. The highlight is a ham chop in hay, thrice cooked via sous vide and open fire. I am not sure what hay tastes like, but the smoky, meaty chop had a woodsy aroma and was succulent, decadent and dreamy. I had tickets to see Carmen at the Lyric, otherwise I would never have left my table until I’d sampled all the beers.
The next night was a follow upscale sleek temple called Blackbird, a multiple James Beard award winner helmed by chef Paul Kahan. At the bar, I sipped a perfect Manhattan and bourbon sidecar, then sat down to the tight row seating thrilled by the menu at hand.
I chose a versatile wine with the help of Christopher Nostvick, the sommelier, who shared with me that he would be adding Italian wines to the French and American dominated wine list. Les Heritiers de Comte Lafon Macon-Mully Lamartine 2007 was up to the task. Garbanzo bean soup with falafel, pickled asian pear, caramelized egg yolk and sumac was the starter, a hint of Chef Kahan’s style, great ingredients, superbly presented and cooked with scintillating accents seemingly out of left field. The garbanzos were creamy, make that double creamy with the egg yolk, the falafel playfully crunchy. The whole time sumac lingers causing pasue for thought and discovery.
Coffee-scented fluke tartare with lemon cucumber, saffron, and bread sauce was up next, cooling the news that the Yankees were getting beat up, again showing a creative hand using coffee and saffron, an unusually thought provoking affair.
Roasted hudson valley foie gras with charred green garlic, black garlic, preserved plums and shrimp salt followed, the two garlics misleading me into thinking I had never tasted foie gras before.
The main courses were solid but less interesting, an aged peking duck breast with illinois chanterelles (who knew?), haricots verts and brown butter worcestershire and a classic grilled berkshire pork loin with caramelized white chocolate, beets, plums and sea beans. This was washed down nicely with a towering glass of Bressy Rasteau 2005.
Some local cheeses to follow and an espresso for the next leg of the evening.
A cab ride to the Violet Hour, Chicago version speakeasy, with a line and much hullabaloo at the door. I spoke to George the doorman and scored a table towards the rear. It felt more lounge than speakeasy, with spacious ceilings and seating areas, soft hues and cool music. I went for classics, mint julep, sidecar etc. and before I knew it 3 am rolled around and I had been lost in time. I contemplated the Wiener Circle for some good old fashioned abuse, but was rerouted by sleep and a dream of brucnh at Bongo Bongo.
The line for Bongo was an hour wait, and if not for Bears tickets, I would have queued up. Instead I settled for a trattoria, stadium beers and a healthy anticipation for my final destination before my flight back to the Empire state, the Girl and the Goat.
After a bit of schlepping, back to the hotel, bag retrieval, ride to the restaurant, etc. we sat down at the bar at 4:30 pm because the place was booked solid at five. The Girl and the Goat is captained by the only female Top Chef Season 4 winner Stephanie Izard, who was actually there managing the kitchen on a Sunday!
Situated in the West Loop, an apparent hub for new and hip restaurants, this enormous space is dark, almost Gothic in tone. At the rear is the open kitchen, half staffed by female cooks. All were young and hip looking, operating seriously and orderly.
After some more delicious local beer, we opted for a Nigl Gruner Veltliner, a great producer and expression of the grape. The menu is divided into three sections, meat, vegetable, and fish and all plates are meant to be shared.
The meal began with ethereal pretzel bread, and fried watch hills atop egg salad and capers. Then hiramasu crudo and green beans in fish sauce.
We ended with goat, pork and veal sugo pappardelle, falling off the bone tender, laced with goose berries popping with each bite. Then a sort of breakfast dish of wood oven roasted pig face, a mishmash of pig face parts formed into a patty, draped by a sunny side egg, spiced with tamarind and cilantro with a side of potato stix. I’ll have to come back for the goat loin, beef tongue, and lamb shank.
The restaurant reminds me of Momufuku and Ssam bar of NYC, in terms of menu design and concept, except that the star is the goat, and the service and ambience is friendly, minus the attitude. The food is quite good, although sometimes heavy on the sauces. I feel chef is still finding her way, but I appreciate the direction she is going. I look forward to checking in on the Goat on my next visit.
Blue line to O’Hare, the inevitable two hour delay, then the rerouting of our plane to JFK, as well as the dreams of pork rinds sure to haunt me for the rest of the week leading up to Halloween. I can’t help thinking that the food scene there is just as alive as it is at home, maybe even brighter on the count of ingenuity.
Sing on Sinatra.