Fun in the Whirlwindy City of Food

2 Aug

I got into Chicago’s O’hare airport at 12:15 on a Friday afternoon.  After a speedy flight sitting between an old lady and an uptight middle-aged woman, I was stoked to finally be there.  When was the last time I flew on a plane?  Yikes.  I was glad to be off-board, back on my comforting land.

“Ah you pole-eese?” asked the Korean cabdriver who I asked for a ride into Evanstion from O’hare.

“What?” I did not understand what he was saying.  I later realized cabbies aren’t supposed to solicit travelers at the airport curb, and therefore he was asking me if I was a policewoman trying to arrest him.  What a jokester.  I didn’t think he would know where I wanted to go, since we could scarcely understand each other, but I had a feeling he had the divine cab driver instinct that would get me to my sister, Maddie, at the Draftfcb office downtown.  He did get me there, and all was good in the world as Madison and I got sushi on her lunch break.

Yes, I said sushi on her lunch break—she is fancy.  She was dressed to the nines like her intern colleagues, and I looked like a semi-stylized punk/hippie burnout hybrid at best.  Womp.  We had a good time catching up before she had to head back to work; we would hit the Purple Pig in a few hours.

We waited a good half hour for a table at the Purple Pig; it was busy, as I’m sure it has been every night since it opened.  We shared a cocktail before sitting down—some boozy answer to the creamsicle called a Montalena.  Once at the table, we got down to business.  I was ecstatic to see so many piggy goodies on one page, and we ordered well: beet salad with goat cheese, watermelon with ricotta salata-like cheese, pork fried almonds, tongue in agro dolce, crispy pig’s ear, Iberico lardo, and the pork shoulder blade steak with ‘nduja and honey.  Holy business.  That stuff was good.  Even Maddie, a self-proclaimed offal-hater, liked everything.ImageImage

That evening, we just crashed at her apartment in Evanston; we had more plans the next few days that required a little recharging of the batteries.

The next day, we hung out at her apartment.  In the morning, we headed to the farmer’s market and grabbed a bunch of ingredients for dinner, and I was stoked to go home with corn, tomatoes, berries, goat cheddar, and lamb spare ribs.  While we watched “Something Borrowed,” a mediocre dramaromcom, I reduced some cranberry juice with the flesh of some old figs Maddie wanted to use up.  For a few hours, I slow-cooked the ribs and then glazed them with the cranberry-fig reduction, and served it all with a corn and tomato succotash with nectarine, micro basil, and the goat cheddar.  I had an awesome time cooking those tasties in her kitchen, and the food came out pretty well.  Who couldn’t love lamb ribs?  They had all the succulence of pork ribs with that exotic, lamby flavor I find delicious.Image

Although we wanted to go out that night, I got tired after a train ride and some hang time at a weird pub called Cheesie’s, where we got margaritas and a grilled cheese sandwich filled with mac ‘n’ cheese…so we called it a night.  Talk about being a lame sister and visitor!  I hoped for more energy for the following day.  Check out my somewhat childish table art at Cheesie’s:Image

The next day, Sunday, we got ready and went to Wicker Park for brunch at Mindy’s Hot Chocolate.  Once we sat down, I was immediately impressed by the beer list offered during brunch.  Hell yeah, breakfast beer.  After checking out the menu for a while, ordering once and finding out 80% of what we wanted was 86’d already, we attempted to order again.   This time, we were successful.  One chai hot chocolate, one Alpha King beer by Three Floyds Brewing Co., one order of donuts with raspberry sauce, chicken and biscuits with gravy for me, and baked egg with ratatouille for Maddie.  ImageImage

This stuff was pretty bangin’.  Although we both thought the kitchen could have used some more salt, everything was tasty.  I think the beer, hot chocolate, and the donuts were the best-prepared things (#pleasetellthechefthebeerwasbrewedperfectly).  My chicken was cooked really nicely, but I felt the biscuit was a little dry or uninspiring, and the gravy was almost solid by the time it arrived to me.  I tried the ratatouille, and I really liked it but for its slight lack of seasoning.

We shopped for about five hours to work up an appetite again, and I actually had some success, even if it meant nearly spending all I had.  A cool ring, a top hat, sunglasses, and a record later, I was all shopped out.  Perhaps the best find was this little mascot I got myself at a funky boutique:Image

Later that day, we had dinner at Girl and the Goat.  I would stage there on Tuesday, and I wanted to get acquainted with the restaurant’s flavor.  Thoughtfully, the restaurant seated us at the chef’s table across from the garde manger station, so we got to witness the fun as we ate.  In addition to what we ordered, the kitchen sent us two gifts: the sockeye salmon tartare with squash and truffle vinaigrette and the goat cheesecake with candied beets and cajeta.

Between the two of us, we ordered the roasted beets with avocado crème fraiche; scallops with foie vinaigrette and plum; oven roasted pig face, goat belly with lobster, crab, and bourbon butter; grilled broccoli with blue cheese and crispy rice; and quatro leches cake with cereal streusel.

Everything was delicious, and I am not just saying that.  That pig’s face was pretty genius, first of all, because essentially it was a sliced, crisped up pig’s head terrine served with potato sticks and a fried fucking egg.  Fried fuckin’ eggs actually make the world go ‘round, if you’ve ever read science-type literature.  And when you eat that dish altogether, with the tamarind sauce, maple gastrique, and cilantro oil, it does taste like the best porky hash in the world.  My brain was all shouting loud, excited expletives, such that I could not hear Maddie talk very well while I was eating it.  Now that I’ve written a paragraph about one dish, I’m just gonna let this dinner experience turn into something of a Steinbeck-length novel (but not Grapes of Wrath, because even I am not cocky enough to write something that long and expect anyone to read it).Image

Now, for everything else, in the order we ate them…First, we had the salmon tartare, the roasted beets, and the grilled broccoli.  The salmon tartare was very clean and delicious; it was served with a salad of thinly sliced zucchini with truffle vinaigrette.  I can’t say the truffle was really my favorite part of the dish; I loved the freshness of the salmon and the zucchini without the truffle.  However, I do think the kitchen made a great argument for using Sockeye salmon over farmed Atlantic salmon.  It was delicious raw, and having recently served Sockeye ceviche at an event I catered, I have to say: enjoyed once, good; enjoyed twice, addicted.  Its darker color and deeper flavor really gives it extra oomph in uncooked preparations.

Moving on to the beets—I can’t begin without noting that my sister loves beets and ordered them everywhere we went while I was in Chicago.  I’m really glad she did, because everywhere we went, they were great.  Girl and the Goat was no exception.  Our beets came in a large bowl with anchovies, breadcrumbs and avocado crème fraiche.  The portion was generous, and I really liked having something besides just chevre with the beets.  Maybe that sounds obvious, but I am always surprised by how many restaurants stick to that classic combo instead of changing things up.  Anchovies were a really nice contrast to the earthy beets, and I probably would have eaten the whole bowl if I a) didn’t order five other things or b) knew for a fact that I would drop dead right after the meal for unknown reasons and therefore did not care how full I would be upon polishing off five generous portions.

The broccoli, people, was just plain stupid good.  Wood grilled and served with a velvety blue cheese sauce and toasted Rice Krispies (yes, the cereal), the broccoli had insane depth of flavor.  I love my cruciferous veggies, and I’m big on roasting broccoli and cauliflower.  But grilling the broccoli added some ‘round-the-campfire nostalgia beyond just dark roastiness, and adding milk and cereal (in blue cheese and crispy rice form), was smart.  The Rogue blue cheese sauce was piquant and in harmony with the smokiness from the grill; the toasted Krispies added crunch factor and intrigue. Image

Now, let’s talk protein.  Following the veggies, we ate some really dank scallops, a goat belly dish that challenged Victorian feasts in decadence, and that crazy pig face described in the above funky passage.   The scallops, served with plum, brioche croutons, and foie vinaigrette, were ridiculous.  Now, these were the fattest scallops I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few scallops in my day.  Seared to brown perfection, they were super tender and sweet.  The brioche croutons added textural contrast while singing buttery back up for the browned scallop flavor and rich foie.  Do I even need to say that the trifecta of scallop with foie, foie with plum, plum with scallop, was perfect?  Maddie liked it, and she is a proclaimed foie-phobe.  Is she on the path to enlightenment?  I believe so; and I thank this dish for the prospect.Image

Now, in the past ten years, the secret on bellies has gotten out.  These days, the only belly fat Americans can’t get on board with is their own.  Pork belly was always the thing.  Then lamb belly.  But goat belly…yes.  Similar to lamb belly in gaminess but perhaps more subtle, the goat belly was meltingly tender while crispy on the outside.  As for the decadence factor, if belly wasn’t hard core enough, Chef Stephanie Izard whips out lobster, crab, and bourbon butter and suddenly the dish is all, “if you’re so badass, eating your bellies all the time, try this, ya pussy!”  And I’m all like, “Screw it!  I’m goin’ in.  Because bourbon butter strikes my fancy, and lobster and crab are awesome. And all these shenanigans in one dish makes me quiver.”  The salad of shaved fennel and some delicate shoots on top offered freshness, and it was tasty, even if mocking in its sparing ray of healthfulness on a plate of lipids.

Everything worked.  The belly and seafood were fun partners, and the bourbon butter bridged the two together pretty nicely—who doesn’t like a little butter with their lobster and some bourbon-y sweetness with their belly?  I dug it.

Dessert was fun.  We ordered the quatro leches cake with blueberries and cereal struessel, and the kitchen sent out the goat cheesecake with beets and cajeta.  I think that between the two, I may have liked the cheesecake more, but it was a close call.  I love this chef for her use of cereal on the menu, because I’ve been a cereal freak since I was about three.  I was down with having corn flakes in my streusel for sure.  I thought that maybe the cake needed a little more of a leche soak, just because my experience with tres leches cake has been on the more “leche-soaked” side.  Even so, it was tasty.

The goat cheesecake was delicious.  Now, I have to say—well played with sneaking the goat cheese-chevre combo in there, chef.  And at that rate, the combo as a dessert was pretty rad.  Candied beets were both sweet and earthy, and the cheesecake was creamy and just goaty enough for a dessert.  Cajeta, a caramel/dulce de leche of sorts made with goat/sheep’s milk and sugar, rounded out the combo in a way that said, “I am not just beets and goat cheese.”  It really worked.  Our server was certainly right when he said we had to try it.

Phew.  You better feel like you just ate that meal, because that was a damn lot of words back there.  So that was my experience with Girl and the Goat.  Staging there was great, and it really didn’t hurt that I got to taste every dish on the menu during my day working there.

The swag of a Chicago kitchen seemed different from that of New York kitchens.  It may be unfair to base my judgment solely on G&TG, since their culture seemed particularly fun, but everyone just seemed more relaxed, and I never heard anyone bitch anyone out.  Everything just flowed smoothly, and no one seemed fazed on the line as they put out plates for 500 or so covers.

The day after our meal at Girl and the Goat, I hung out with some friends in downtown Chicago, and day after that, I went back for my stage.  Those two days flew, and on Wednesday morning, I found myself packing up to fly back to New Jersey.  I would be lying if I said I wasn’t depressed about leaving.  Chicago in general was fun; I could see why Madison wanted to stay and work there during her summer break from Northwestern.  If I didn’t have to go home to cater a dinner, I might’ve even extended my trip.  But Maddie and her roommates probably wanted the rights to their couch back…

Since Madison needed to lock up the apartment, I was cool playing bag lady for part of the day, carrying my luggage around until my 3 PM flight.  I hopped on the train to Wicker Park and walked around for a little, rolling my suitcase up and down the street like a nerdy child in the middle school hallway.  Finally, some stores opened and I checked them out to kill time.  Afterwards, I passed this donut shop Maddie and I had seen a few days before: Glazed and Infused.  The operation ran out of a little window on the side of a restaurant.  Could I resist the maple-bacon donut?  No.  Would it be a waste?  So many maple-bacon wannabes leave me unfulfilled.  This time, however, my doubt was misplaced.

The donut was a freaking revelation.  It was a yeast donut.  Usually, I am a cake donut person.  When I eat yeast donuts, I wonder why I bother.  They are so light and airy that I feel like I am reconstituting the essence of fryer oil with my saliva.  This one, however, was perfect.  The donut had a denser crumb for a yeastie, and it was just the right amount of sweet.  The glaze on top was maple-y heaven, in a perfectly thin but powerful layer.  When I saw that one strip of perhaps not freshly rendered bacon adorned the top, I was skeptical.  How wrong I was.

That one strip of bacon was meaty and a little crispy; one strip down the length of the donut really was enough bacon for every bite.  Warning lights flashed in my brain as I considered the tragedy that my favorite donut (a cake donut from Payne’s Dock, on Block Island) might be replaced with this monstrosity.  I decided they could tie and subsequently calmed.  In my usual obnoxious eating fashion, I ate the two ends, which had the most glaze coverage, and then I ate off most of the glazed external part of the donut, as if I was eating corn off the cob.  I got fairly messy, but I had no shame eating that thing—sitting on a sidewalk bench next to my luggage, looking like a confusing form of well-fed hobo.

I walked to my airport terminal with a heavy heart.  Was I really flying away from delicious donuts, crazy good goat bellies, Iberico lardo, and other awesome eats?  I suppose you always know when it’s time to go for real: when you have $0 in your ATM account and you are having a difficult time fitting into your pants.  I had to go back to the dirty Jerz and make some money; eat some salads and stuff.  Sigh.

Now, I’d like to take this final paragraph to disclaim the following: my Chicago food expeditions are merely a secondary and happenstance occurrence; my primary reason of travel is to see my awesome sister, Madison Loew, and it is not her fault that she lives in such a delicious city.  It is not her fault that I influence horribly unhealthy eating for a four-day period, and it is not my fault that she likes to go shopping and therefore we both spend all our money.  That is just how it happens.  And what the hell—we only see each other so often; might as well go all out.  I can’t wait to return for her Northwestern graduation next summer.  Publican—I mean commencement—is gonna be awesome!  Just kidding, Maddie.  Until next time, Midwest!


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