Chowing Down in Chi-Town: Day 4
Whether on vacation or not, whether you happen to have stuffed yourself to the gills and sated yourself on liquor the night before or not, Sunday means one thing: Brunch.
I had another restaurant on my ‘to try’ list, and while I wanted to check it out for dinner, time was working against me, so I fit it in where I could. As it turns out, my new friend from Blackbird a few nights before had similar curiosity for the place, so we made plans to meet for brunch at Nightwood.
I’ve always been a very visual person, someone who’s instantly affected by my immediate surroundings. Nothing depresses me more than a cheap hotel room, not because of the bodily fluids that are likely all over the bedspread, and the fact that the bathtub fills with water while you’re taking a shower (okay, partly for these reasons…), but because the decor just gets me down. The other side of the coin is that when I like the aesthetic atmosphere of a place, I am immediately in a better frame of mind. When it comes to restaurants, this means that as soon as I walk in, I’ve begun to form an opinion, and no matter what, this means that I am either positively or negatively disposed towards the food before I even eat it. I know I’m not alone here, and some restaurants take note of this tendency to their advantage. Obviously, if the food is bangin’ at a hole in the wall, I’ll return again, but places like Nightwood (and Longman and Eagle from a few days before) impress me on a whole other level.
The sun-filled interior. Being in the restaurant biz in Chicago, my dining-mate knew the hostess at Nightwood, hence…
…free donut love. The bacon-butterscotch, the hole filled with caramelized bacon…
…and the cinnamon glazed with sweet potato ice cream and candied pumpkin seeds. Both were over-the-top decadent; a few bites was enough, but they had to be experienced. Plus, it goes to show that bacon makes everything better—something that has been demonstrated to me at various points, and—although I consider it to be irrefutable—I’m always willing to hear (eat) more evidence.
A bacon, taleggio, pear, and cabbage omelet, crusty toast with blackberry preserves, and the oddest looking tater tots I’ve ever eaten.
Mimosas, of course, because what is brunch but a way to justify booze at breakfast?
Matzo meal griddlecakes with apple, walnut, local honey, ricotta, and red wine-sweet potato puree.
After draining both coffee cup and champagne flute, I took off towards the metro. The sky was looking foreboding, and I had just the activity to pass a rainy afternoon…
The Chicago Institute of Art, a museum in which the space is as much a thing of beauty as the artworks it houses. The textures, angles, and materials of its construction seem to be extensions of the paintings on the walls, the views from the windows at once harmonious with and vying for attention from the sculptures within.
The gray day outside almost seemed more appropriate to the muted palate, blonde wood, and white walls inside.
I’ve loved this piece ever since I studied it in college; Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day is not only a beaitifully executed painting, but incredible in its depiction of depth and space. It was painted when artists were starting to use photography to enhance the realism in their art, and you totally get that perspective from seeing it in person; because of the scale of the painting, standing in front of it (as close as the little chain and attentive docents will let you) literally gives the impression of being on that corner, watching the cobblestone street recede in front of you.
View of the park from one of the galleries…kinda echoes the mood in Caillebotte’s canvas, hmm? Art imitates life? Okay, I’m done.
Another image that harkens back to my art history days in college; while Seurat and pointillism don’t pull at my heartstrings like some artists and techniques do, there is something impressive, almost awe-inspiring, about the sheer size of this piece, and the accomplishment inherent in its execution. Props, Seurat.
Picasso. This guy must have been pretty f’ed up, then again, most of the talented ones were…
Well I stayed until closing time, and it was still difficult to tear myself away. Luckily, the knowledge of my next destination went far in taking the sting out of it…
Everyone’s got a guilty pleasure, and nowadays, it’s not uncommon for it to fall into one very specific category: reality TV. Mine is Top Chef. Is it quality broadcasting that ennobles my chosen profession? Not quite, but at least it’s not real house-whores of yuppie suburbia. Anyway, rationalization aside, I devour every episode of that show like a starved hyena, await each new season like the first day of summer, and have had equally ardent crushes on Tom, Padma, and various contestants over the years…don’t judge.
This somewhat disturbingly revelatory tangent is not just to clear my conscience, but also to preface the restaurant choice for my last night in Chicago. One of the reasons I was so stoked to hit up Girl and the Goat is its chef, Top Chef alum Stephanie Izzard. These days, an association with this hit TV show is perhaps the ultimate advantage when it comes to the risky endeavor of opening a restaurant. In an undertaking that can be potentially soul crushing and bankrupting, having an edge never hurts, and celebrity status—whether borderline or full fledged—is the edge de rigueur. The verity of this statement is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that despite making a reservation a month in advance (and for one person, mind you) the only seating I could get was at 9:30 on a Sunday evening. They said I was welcome to ‘take my chances’ at the bar, so after enjoying a couple of cocktails with a new friend from and her lovely husband at the hip, indie bar Whistler, I did just that.
When I walked in at 8:30ish, the place was packed, with a din to match the crowd. I managed to wedge myself in at the bar, and as I looked around it was very clear that despite the renown and recent notoriety, this was no ‘fine dining’ atmosphere; no hushed voices, calm and composed servers shuffling around, or white tablecloths here, and while that’s fine with me, I do prefer that when I’m paying the price for fine dining, I’m not recieving an elbow to the ribs every other minute, and fearing that my seat might be nabbed if I get up to pee.
I began with a glass of pink bubbly; non-vintage Gran Sarao Cava Rosado.
And some bread to begin, but no ordinary bread. Out of three options, I went for the squish squash: delicate, brioche-like bread with the orangey color and earthy flavor of winter squash, served with pecan butter and apple puree. All were good, but that puree was amazing; the apple flavor was so fresh and pure, like biting into a tart apple, and the pool of EVOO on top brought out the fruitiness, and added richness, or course.
No meal at Girl and the Goat would be complete without a taste of its namesake…
…the goat, of course. Goat carpaccio with tongue-olive vinaigrette and smoked roe topped with parsley and fried capers. The meat itself was pleasantly gamey, sliced paper thin, and well salted. With the roe, the capers, and the olives, it was almost a salt overload, and coming from me, that’s saying a lot. Despite this, the flavors were intense and in your face, the textures subtle and varied.
Not to mention, it was a beautiful plate.
I had been told my a few people that I had to try the green beans, and since I am nothing if not compliant (at least when being told to eat something), I did. Topped with cashews and a ‘fish sauce vinaigrette’, they were Asian inspired in flavor, and while tasty, with an awesome amount of acid, they weren’t mind blowing, and again, a salt bomb.
A glass of 2010 Casa Castillo Monastrell from Jumilla to accompany the meatier selections to come; fruity, big, and leathery.
Now if you’re anything like me, something called ‘wood oven roasted pig face’ is tempting. Top it with a runny-yolked fried egg, and it’s too much to pass up. Clearly, the face part was well disguised, the fatty, porky meat cooked and formed into patties with maple, served with crispy potato “stix”, and topped with a cilantro-tamarind gastrique, it was like a dressed-up version of a greasy spoon breakfast, made by a nose-to-tail obsessed line cook.
My server instructed me to ‘mash it all up’ to eat, letting unctuous yolk, crunchy spuds, and meaty bits mingle on my plate
Another thing that’s hard for me to pass up: octopus. Again, an Asian-inspired preparation, this one combining grilled baby octopus with guanciale, both romano and wax beans, radishes, and radicchio with a lemon-pistachio vinaigrette.
If it’s not already clear to you, this place is peddling major flavors—subtlety is not the goal here. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good dish, but in portions any larger than the small plates they serve, the salt levels here would be nearly unbearable.
And for something sweet, who can resist dessert in a jar? Bourbon apples, cranberry, miso cake, and maple fat gelato. Not sure what some of those things mean, but it worked.
Especially with a glass of Historic Series Boston Bual Madeira to accompany it.
For my last night in the city of Chicago, it was a very fitting meal: big, loud, and slightly blustery yet refined, with one foot in global modernity and one firmly planted in the past, embracing innovation and all things cutting edge, but always with a nod to what’s come before. A few shortcomings, sure, whether an over-salted dish, or a few aesthetic scars on the face of a city that’s overcome gangsters and prohibition, the pollution of a major national meatpacking district, and, of course, a pretty big friggin’ fire. But overall, the impression I was left with was impressive; they know what they’re doing, they know where they’re going, and, most important, they seem to know how to enjoy life.
Thank you, Chicago.