Sunday, August 2, 2009

North Pond, Chicago IL

After three days of gastronomic delights in Chicago, my family and I parted ways around 5:30pm on Sunday with them having a 5 hour drive back to Toledo and myself catching a plane back to Cbus at 9:30. Goodbyes exchanged I had them drop me off to meet a friend I hadn’t seen since a particularly memorable meal at Charlie Trotters on December 30th 2008 – a meal that still ranks in my epicurean top 5. Our destination, North Pond, proved a little tricky for me to find (especially carrying all my luggage) but I arrived approximately 2 minutes before our 5:45 reservation. Relaxing in the bar I chatted with a couple while sipping water – the view of the pond truly is excellent – the amount of green-space in Chicago never ceases to amaze.

Unfortunately, despite his GPS, my buddy Dave didn’t plan quite as well ahead as I did and ended up requiring two calls (myself facilitating conversation between him and the host through my cell) in order to find the valet – and arrive at 6:30. While I understand the setting is part of the “deal” with North Pond, they really do need to clarify their directions a wee bit better. No harm no foul though, my bags were checked and my friends car parked and we were seated by the window in the back of the room. Notably missing the “no jeans at dinner” policy, I was glad that no one mentioned it, but I did feel a little self conscious as we sat amongst the well dressed of Chicago.

Having already browed the online menu quite extensively myself and my friend more or less knew what we wanted on arrival, but our orders were delayed by a large party apparently containing a famous author towards the front of the room. While I’ve no idea who the man was, his table commanded much attention and one man was voice recording him while another snapped pictures on a very high end SLR. Eventually our waiter returned to deliver bread and take drink orders. While the bread itself was good enough, the flavor was rather mild and the ice cold butter was nearly impossible to spread – given Chef Sherman’s reputation I rather expected a more impressive bread selection.

With our waiter arriving with drinks (water for me, beer for my friend) my friend inquired as to whether one portion of a dish could be substituted out and was given a very abrupt “no substitutions.” While I told him this would be the case, I did find the waiter’s attitude and reasoning a bit condescending – “we will substitute for allergies but not personal dislikes as the chef is very passionate about his creations.” Not dissuaded we selected one sharable appetizer and while my companion selected hearty main I went the multiple small plates route.

Arriving first, a gift from the kitchen – fitting North Pond’s two ingredient description this captivating little bite was called Hamachi, Avocado and consisted of a flawless piece of hamachi sashimi with avocado paste served over fresh summer melons and what I do believe was zucchini spiced with paprika and perhaps coriander. Unexpected flavor combinations in general but certainly showing a deft hand this dish definitely peaked my interest for what was to come. My friend, not a fan of raw fish, noted “wow, that was good.”

Arriving shortly after the amuse was our shared dish, Charcuterie, Condiments and it featuered House-Made Soppressata, Prosciutto, Chilled Presskopf, Shaved Lardo, Frisée, Candied Pecans, Fig Marmalade, Toast. Having had all but the Presskopf (a vinegary and excellent headcheese made from steer and cow tongue) I was quite impressed by the selection’s myriad flavors and textures with the fatty Lardo (not as good as Batali’s at Otto,) Sweet and Spicy Soppressata, and salty/smoky Prosciutto all proving great examples. While I can’t say the single piece of dried raisin toast added anything to the meal, the candied pecans were excellent with strong accents of cinnamon and the fig marmalade was superb. For added crunch, the cornichons and Frisee were excellent, as well.

Following the Charcuterie closely was my first small plate, served as an appetizer. Entitled Spot Prawns, Mint the dish featured Alaskan Spot Prawns a la Plancha, Mint Handkerchief Pasta, Charred Carrots, Pignolis, Citrus-Anise Hyssop Butter, and Purslane. Admittedly most of my spot prawn experience has been with the significantly larger Santa Barbara version and as such I was confused when this dish arrived. Featuring well prepared and clearly fresh prawns with a good deal of sweetness and great consistency, the combination of flavors in this dish was clearly Oriental inspired with the mild mint pasta hidden beneath the prawns and complimented with smokey carrots, creamy/earthy pine nuts and bitter purslane. Bringing the dish together, ostensibly, was the sweet and decadent butter – unfortunately I found this flavor to be a little cloying and it overwhelmed the fusion of tastes beneath. While certainly not a bad dish, the combination of different expectations of the prawns and the heavy-handed butter just didn’t work as well as had been anticipated.

The next part of the meal was our mains – for my friend the Grassfed Beef, Cauliflower featuring a medium-rare Grilled New York Strip Steak, with Warm Purple and Gold Cauliflower Timbale, Almond Bulghur, Shallot Cream. As I do not eat beef flesh I cannot really comment on the flavor of this dish, but it certainly had a great smell and appearance. Noting that the steak was “great” my friend was additionally impressed by the Cauliflower which he’d originally tried to swap out stating “I didn’t realize cauliflower could be so good.”

While we talked and my friend dined, I started on the first of my two small plates, Farm Egg, Tomato - Soft-Boiled Farm Egg, with Grilled Polenta, Red and Gold Baby Tomatoes, Chicken Nuggets, Ancho Bacon Cream, Nasturtium. Ranging the gamut from crispy and savory polenta to sweet and tart tomatoes, creamy savory bacon cream to sweet and mild nasturtium, and all topped with an incredibly delicate and wonderfully presented soft egg that spilt forth a creamy golden yolk on piercing. Further enhancing the dish ad added even more “breakfast” nuance were the chicken nuggets – literally pieces of “popcorn” chicken fried crispy.

The second dish, the other savory outside of gnocchi and egg dishes that I’ll order pretty much anywhere I go was the Foie Gras. Foie Gras, Apricot – featuring seared Foie Gras, Rosemary-Poached Apricot, Citrus French Toast, Black Raspberries, Coffee Reduction was actually an excellent dish that arrived from multiple angles. While the foie itself was good, I will note that there were two prominent veins in the dish that proved tough to cut – the ancillaries, however, were something to behold. Starting with the Apricot – excellent, I’d have never thought to pair Rosemary with this fruit, yet the effect enhanced both ingredients to a new level. The citrus French toast, essentially a apricot glazed brioche, was excellent for texture though I do wish there had been more. Topping all of this, a tangy blend of black raspberries and the very essence of a bold coffee/fruit-sucrose reduction – while the coffee itself honestly didn’t add much “flavor,” what it did do was create a strong base for the sweets and anchored them to the fatty and rich foie. A very smart dish.

Following dinner we received absolutely no pressure as the place was not crowded and after a short while our waiter asked if we’d like coffee or dessert. Mostly pleased with the meal and service we decided to go ahead with desserts and placed our order – my friend ordering Sorbet, Ice Creams - Blackberry Sorbet; Dark Chocolate and Peanut Brittle-Caramel Ice Creams; Mousse Crisp, Ricotta Donuts, Berries which he said was excellent, though not as good as Trotter’s cake that he still claims is the best dessert of all time.

For myself, dessert was Cherry, Vanilla - Frozen Vanilla Souffle, Brown Butter-Pepper Financier Cake, Bing Cherry-Basil Salad, Sour Cherry Sorbet. A fan of the new-age fashion of adding savories to the dessert course I simply couldn’t pass up the basil and pepper aspects of this dish – but unfortunately one of them was a no show. Featuring a luxurious vanilla ice cream I’m not really certain what was “soufflé” about it – moreso a wonderful ice cream sandwich. Below the icecream was the Financier which although appropriately buttery and tasty sorely lacked anything resembling pepper. Atop the pseudo-soufflé sat a dollop of wonderfully complex and tangy cherry sorbet while the front of the plate was dominated by the highlight of the dish – poached bing cherries tossed with a balsamic and basil reduction. While individual components were all good, topping the rest of the dish with the salad was where the money was at – after doing this I still wondered where the pepper was, but was quite happy without it.

At the end my buddy picked up the tab (a nice gesture! Thanks, Dave!) while I grabbed the tip. As we sat and chatted the room remained largely calm despite the growing crowd and watching the kitchen work was fun. When the clock reached 8:15 we decided to make our way to the door and were wished a good evening. With the valet delivering the car we made good time to O’Hare and I was checked in and ready for my flight by around 8:55. After many hits and a really pricey miss in Chicago, I found North Pond to be somewhere in between. While the setting and service were good, there is definitely an ‘attitude’ to this place that somewhat outstrips the consistency of the food that, although good, is not so refined that it comes out unbelievably over and over. Like a lower end Gramercy Tavern in a much nicer setting.

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