Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Gage, Chicago IL

Despite all the food-ventures of our visit, the main reason for visiting Chicago this time around was to see the opening date of U2's American leg of the 360-tour. Wanting a high quality but somewhat early and quick dinner before the show and focusing on something within walking distance of Soldier Field I was particularly excited when a fellow foodie recommended an Irish white tablecloth gastro-pub near Millennium Park - how perfect! Owned by Billy Lawless and managed by a father/son combo familiar to the area (owners of Irish pubs near Wrigley Field) the creative yet hearty menu was especially intriguing - featuring "Irish favorites" all dressed up. As an additional bonus a friend from Detroit happened to be in town on business and met us at the restaurant for dinner.

Arriving approximately 15 minutes late for our 5:00pm reservation due to traffic and spending too much time at the Renegade Art Fair we found my buddy drinking Scotch at the bar and were led swiftly to a table all the way in the back - far from the incredible degree of noise in the bar and with a full view of the rapid-fire yet impressively quiet and refined kitchen. Taking out seats we were offered menus (a new menu featuring dishes just introduced the previous week due to the change in season) and drinks - my buddy opting for a second Scotch on the rocks and my sister choosing a pale ale from Goose Island that she reported was very good. Explaining to our waiter that we'd be attending the concert and made a note telling us "no problem."

Browsing the new menu (I have to admit I was sad to see the duck/foie gras rillette removed) I saw a number of items I wanted to check out and decided to go with the multiple-small-plates approach while my dining companions opted for entree's, sides, and salads only. Browsing the room I have to say I quite liked the dark woods and heavy feel of the room - the back of the restaurant actually quite attractive and mostly well isolated from the deafening noise of the bar area. Service was friendly, hip, pleasant, and vastly better than any "bar" I've ever been to.

Shortly after placing our orders the server returned with a warm loaf of "Soda Bread" with salted butter on a wooden serving board - having never tasted soda bread in the past I was somewhat excited. Tearing off an end piece and topping it with butter I took a bite and was instantly impressed by the crispy crust and soft/airy insides with obvious notes of buttermilk. Not unlike the famous sourdoughs served in San Francisco in texture I actually liked this bread more than any sourdough in flavor and the butter was excellent.

Arriving first, having asked our server to split up my choices into two courses, were two of my "firsts" and a salad for my sister. Entitled Braised Rabbit Salad with Crisp Rice, Langhe Robiola and Horseradish Vinaigrette the salad arrived appearing to be a big pile of Robiola with some sesame seeds and light dressing. What the dish lacked in presentation, however, it more than recovered for in terms of taste, contrast, and variety of flavors. Large in portion the savory rabbit meat was very well prepared and not one bit gamey while the crispy rice lent a nice contrast to the soft flesh. Crispy, fresh, and only slightly bitter the Robiola was well tempered by the sweetness of the dressing while the horseradish came through not as "hot" but rather as a warm sensation on the palate and nostrils.

For myself, the first taste of the menu at The Gage was an appropriate one - The Scotch Egg with spicy mustard - "bar food" at its best. Featuring a jumbo hen egg that was hardboiled and wrapped in spicy pork sausage then deep fried the egg was served with a dollop of yellow mustard on top and a ceramic cup of spicy brown I personally opted to remove the mustard as I do not fancy the taste. Biting into the egg carefully in order to avoid any mishaps with the yolk I found the inside well cooked but not overly done - quite perfect, actually. Tasting the mix of crispy (not oily) breading, smooth and mild egg, and spicy savory sausage together was like the best sausage and egg biscuit you can imagine - sure it isn't healthy, but damn is it good.

The second dish of my first course, another egg, was titled Poached Swan Creek Duck Egg on Mushroom Toast with Shaved Grana Padano and it was actually better than the first egg. First of all, if you've never had a duck egg you owe it to yourself to do-so (assuming you like eggs.) Richer, creamier, and smoother than a hen egg this average sized specimen was perfectly poached with a creamy and rich yolk pouring forth when poked and lathering the combination of smooth shaved cheese and mélange of woodsy mushrooms with an intense flavor. Beneath the cleanly flavored fungus was a buttery slice of toasted and buttery brioche. While the first dish was bar food, this dish would not have been out of place at Blackbird, North Pond, or even Charlie Trotter's (I actually had a similar textured egg - albeit covered with black truffles at Trotter's in December.)

Clearing out plates the server inquired as to whether we were ready for round two and as the first course had come so quickly and been so well prepared we told him it was no rush. Chatting amongst ourselves we could hear some loud cheering coming from the bar (a college football Saturday, UofM playing ND) but had no issues with the "noise" interrupting us. After a short while the second courses did arrive - for my buddy a medium rare 16oz. Natural Aged American Rib-eye with Les Frères Cow Milk Cheese, Roasted Organic Potatoes that he stated was "awesome." Alongside the beef was a pot of Roasted Woodland Mushrooms very much akin in flavor to those accompanying my duck egg - not over seasoned in the least and allowing the beauty of the fungus to shine I quite liked these.

For my sister the selection of the night was Potato and Semolina Dumplings with Woodland Mushrooms, Tomato, Fennel, Parmesan. Gnocchi-esque in preparation but somewhat more dry - almost an orecchiette, the noodles were quite well prepared and only slightly past al dente. The additions, specifically the parmesan and fennel were very well thought out and their savory smoothness balanced well with the woodsy mushrooms and acidic yet mild tomato sauce.

For myself, continuing the eclectic takes on "bar food" concept I went with a dish I'd heard much about but never had the opportunity to experience - Poutine. Not really Irish but rather French Canadien this dressed up version of cheesy fries was titled House Poutine with Elk Ragout, Curd Cheese, Chips. First of all, the parts I was familiar with - the fries were great - large and cooked through with a good ratio of crunchy outside to smooth potato interior while the cheddar cheese curd was obviously quite fresh with a lot of squeak and only a mild bit of brine. Anchoring the creamy cheese and crispy potatoes was a delectably rich and savory gravy of elk - a beast I'd never tasted - and hints of carrots, celery, and smoke. Salty and delicious, no doubt.....though the combination of this and my previous two dishes plus what followed must've had my arteries pleading for mercy.

Before getting into the final item, I'll also note I purchased a small side dish of Brussels Sprouts with Brie and Applewood Bacon to share with the others - unfortunately my buddy wasn't biting on sprouts and my sister was getting full. Consuming approximately 3/4 of the crock I have to say these were the second best Sprouts I've ever tasted and the combination of mild creamy cheese and spicy sweet pork was a perfect foil for the well prepared and pungent sprouts. I've thoughts for a haute-stuffed-cabbage based on this blend.

My final dish was potentially the only misstep of the meal. Not because they weren't amazing, but because of the amount of rich food I'd already eaten - I was getting full. I've had chicken nuggets. I've had popcorn shrimp. I've had deep fried sweetbreads. I'd never had deepfried chicken livers. Creamy, smooth, flavorful, perfectly coated and well done - but a belly bomb to say the least. Offering one to my buddy without him knowing what it was his response was "wow, these are amazing, is it dark meat?" When told, surprisingly, he shrugged and kept on eating. Liking my nuggets with ketchup as opposed to mustard I asked for some and was given a ceramic bowl filled with Heinz organic (I watched the server fill the cup) - a nice touch.

As it was getting to be around 7:00pm and we were all stuffed we opted against dessert but did take a look at the menu. With many interesting options I found the chocolate chip banana soufflé most appealing and would've stopped by after the concert for dessert had the fools of the Chicago Museum Campus not locked myself and 70,000 other fans in the stadium after the show for an hour. When it was all said and done our bill at The Gage was less per person than that at Blackbird and I enjoyed it nearly as much - a great surprise as I went in with skeptical expectations at best. As I've said before, I'm not a bar guy - but if bar food at home were half this good I could become one.

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