Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Girl and The Goat, Chicago IL

…I’ll be the first to admit I do not watch Top Chef – as a matter of fact, I don’t watch The Food Network at all unless one of my favorite chefs happens to be battling it out on Iron Chef. It is with that disclaimer that I note I made a reservation at Stephanie Izard’s curiously named The Girl and The Goat almost a month and a half in advance – and lucky I did as reservations were completely booked only a few days later – for the whole night. My reasons for making the reservation were two-fold, number one I had a 7:50 flight out of O’Hare and TGatG opens at 4:30. Number two – well, to call the Evanston native’s restaurant the hottest ticket in town may be overstating considering Alinea, but given the difference in styles and duration of meals I’d almost have to give the not to Izard for the time being…basically, I wanted to see if the hype was justified.

Formerly working under Shawn McClain at Spring and later opening her own restaurant which subsequently went under due to financial issues, Izard herself is probably most well known for winning on Top Chef. Looking into the restaurant’s title largely out of curiosity (thank goodness google images has a filter) I found out that apparently Izard’s last name is a type of Pyrenees mountain goat and the original title was to be “the drunken goat,” but that changed due to copyrights. Reading more about the young chef it turns out that the drinking and partying may have actually played a part in the long delay in TGatG’s opening, as well – for all intents and purposes it seems Chef Izard had been living quite well since her sudden celebrity.

Arriving at the West Loop location (walking by Avec which was jammed packed at 3:45 en route) the area is decidedly gritty, but not unattractive our seedy in any way. Dark on the outside I sat across the street sipping a coffee before the Goat would open its heavy black doors to welcome me in – employees arrived by the car-full, all dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts. When the time hit 4:15 I decided to head in and was greeted promptly by an attractive young lady who said they’d start seating at 4:30 and invited me to sit at the bar. Opting instead for a low leather couch in the lounge area I was admittedly taken by the contrast of dark and light woods, plethoric open kitchen, and intriguing soundtrack playing overhead. By 4:29 the lounge was jammed packed, as was the bar.

With one couple arriving before me I was seated second – and the seat was a delightful and unexpected surprise – on a bar stool at in front of the kitchen where Chef Izard herself and a team of at least twelve were working at a frenzied yet controlled pace. Bread stations, meat stations, fish stations, sauce stations, and more were abuzz despite the fact that not a single order had yet been placed. Throughout the evening Izard would be there on the line with her cooks chopping, finishing, tweaking, and educating – always with a smile. She emerged occasionally from the kitchen to greet a friend or patron but all told it was clear that as much as she is “the boss” she is also “one of the guys/gals.”

Seated at the far right end of the bar I watched intently throughout the evening and conversed at length with the crew in front of me about what they were doing, what I do, the Chicago dining scene, Michelin, and all sorts of info – as it turns out one of the chefs there was actually affected by the same exact Schwa issue as I just three days prior. With water filled I was presented a drink list which I declined and the menu featuring 10 vegetables, 10 fish, 10 meats, 3 breads, and 4 roast beasts. With options ranging from whole goat leg, to grilled goat t-bone, to smoked goat pizza, to hiramasa crudo with crisp pork belly almost everything on the dish sounded unique and delicious. While my server made plenty of suggestions, most (surprisingly) for lower priced items, I trusted my gut and went with one item from each column.

Having explained to my hilarious and helpful server that I’d be flying out that evening the evening’s dining got started quickly after ordering – the first dish to arrive would be my bread selection. While some may quibble about a restaurant charging for bread, if most breads were baked in house and tasted this good I’d gladly pay. Served as a sliced loaf and piping hot from the oven, Spence Wheat Bread with “Hunk-a-burnin’ Love Butter” with Bacon, Banana, and Peanut Butter plus Wildflower Honeycomb was excellent. Hearty and fragrant on its own the bread was only improved with the decidedly calorific spread. Adding honey only made things more interesting and I only wished my sister, a fan of such sandwiches (sans bacon) in her childhood could have been there to share – it was definitely filling.

The second course to arrive, as I was enjoying the bread and chatting with the chefs, would be Kabocha Squash Ravioli with Mushroom Raisin Ragout, Brussels leaves, Shroom Crème Fraiche. Having asked my server about portion sizes to avoid large plates this dish was significantly larger than billed – seven Raviolis compared to the four promised – and each was delectable, perfectly cooked, and stuffed to near bursting with a nutty but sweet puree of squash. Complimenting the raviolis was a light and earthy whipped sauce, pungent Brussels sprouts, and fibrous mushrooms intermingling with golden raisins. Never one to complain about more food if it is good I have no complaints at all.

The next course to arrive would be perhaps the most talked about dish at TGatG – the Wood Oven Roased Pig Face with sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro, potato stix. Described at length in many of blogs and reviews (most hilariously here: the dish was every bit as good as the rumors. With the pig’s tongue rolled in the center of the facial fat and musculature and formed into a sausage the braised dish was crisp on the exterior and creamy within – something akin to trotters but more, if it is a word, porky. Adding some levity to the decidedly heavy protein were drizzles of savory cilantro and tamarind oils while lightly fried thin cut potatoes added some crunch. Topping the dish with a golden fried egg topped with sea salt and black pepper I watched the whole dish come together at the braising station before my eyes and as much as I enjoyed eating it, watching the construction was even more exciting – without overexaggerating, the kitchen at TGatG is every bit as much fun to watch as Volt’s Table 21 or Ko.

The final savory of the evening would be from the fish menu – though titling it fish may be cheating. While everything I had at Izard’s establishment was great, it was the Lamb Sausage Stuffed Calamari with Sweet Garlic, Sweetbread Crisp, Currant Saor alone that made me want to stand up and bow to the chefs behind the counter. With three perfect cephalopods stuffed with succulent lamb at its core the dish really didn’t need much more – but then you add two crispy chunks of thymus, pureed and sliced roasted garlic, and a sweet reduction of currants – after my dinner at Schwa I knew sweetening up protein was “in” but this dish did it with pizzazz. An absolute must order that shows off Izard’s deft hand with seafood and the restaurant’s house curing of sausage and salumi all at once.

Having eaten my savories in just under an hour I gladly agreed to take a look at the dessert menu when it was offered - a decision I’d strongly recommend every diner at TGatG also consider. From Shiitake Gelato and Maple Fat Gelato from Black Dog (with a cute “Shout out to Jessie at Black Dog Gelato. Werd” at the bottom of the menu) the four choices could only be described as “eclectic” and as such I had to order two.

Arriving first would be the “house special” according to my server and the chef - Cocoa Nip Donuts with pomegranate Ganache, brut sabayon, smoked pear, pine nut brittle. With the donuts plucked directly from the deep fryer each was stuffed with bitter dark chocolate and resting atop a bed of small chocolate chips and boozy cream. Adding sweetness but leaving the dish largely bitter-sweet was a compote of pears and pomegranate plus a saccharine sweet brittle adding crunch. Amazing interplay of flavors, textures, and temperatures – but the best was yet to come.

My final taste at TGatG would be delivered with the phrase – “what better way to end an evening than with a sticky date?” Cracking a smile thinking “wow, I can’t think of many places I eat where someone would say that” I received Sticky Date Cake with three philosopher’s marshmallow, meyer lemon quince, and pepita crunch. Thick and dense the date cake was a textbook preparation – incredibly sweet, heavy with spice, and steaming hot. Topping the dish with a slowly melting marshmallow that tasted faintly of beer and tangy chopped quince the whole dish was pepped up again by a “brittle,” this time from candied squash seeds. Asking me how it was the chef informed me this was a new addition to the menu for the coming weeks and I strongly suggested he whip one up for himself during a break – and keep it on the menu for some time to come.

Bill paid, tip left, and bags collected I made my way out the door and was bid farewell by many of the staff. Making my way to the train station just past 6:00pm and to O’Hare by 6:45 I made my flight with ease and slept all the way home, full of the memories of the trip past. On my arrival home I was met with the news that Michelin had released the first half of their awards – the Bib Gourmand list – and The Girl and the Goat had been named to the list. While Bib Gourmand is certainly an honor, having been to Casa Mono and other Michelin Starred “bargain” spaces in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco all I can say is that The Girl and the Goat is every bit worth the hype and after another year of maturing I’ve no doubt it will net a star if things continue as they are.

Hearty and Floriole, Chicago IL

The phrase “accidental expertise” was applied by them, not me – and when I say them I’m referring to The Hearty Boys, Dan and Steve. Never professionally trained but known by millions due to stints on the food network, a best selling cookbook, and a ten-plus year old catering company I’d always heard of the couple’s unique urban/casual style but had never been in Chicago for a full Sunday to partake in their brunch – neither at their first eatery, HB, nor the newer and more ‘refined’ Lakeview storefront simply called Hearty. With my sister and her friend planning for an early afternoon departure and myself flying out late I figured this visit would be a perfect time to see what the fellas’ had to offer.

Arriving shortly after the small shop opened it doors we were greeted by a friendly young lady at the door and with reservation made we were led promptly to a solid wooden four-top in the middle of the mid-American themed room, complete with exposed brick and a unique wall mounted fireplace, plus “floral” centerpieces made of cut soda cans. In the corner, a television played old Droopy and Tom & Jerry Cartoons while the overhead soundtrack piped in a random array of feel good tunes.

Greeted next by one of our two primary servers, a tall man my sister thought looked “exactly like the server from Lifehouse” we were presented with menus and our waters were filled. Myself opting for a bargain $2 bottomless cup of Metropolis Indonesian coffee and Erika choosing from a selection of Stash Tea our service was excellent throughout – suggestions were thoughtful, drinks remained full, everything arrived piping hot, and everything was done with a smile and no-hassle approach even as the restaurant reached capacity by 9:45am.


With orders placed we sat back and chatted for a while and watched the bartender throw together any number of unique drinks for extremely mixed crowd – young and old, gay and straight – and everyone seemed to be having a great time even prior to imbibing, moreso later.


With a unique but small menu and no desserts at brunch our decisions were diverse but rather easy given our own personal preferences – this is a menu with something for everyone. Starting things off, a Scratch made Biscuits with pumpkin clove butter. Tasty, large, buttery, and aromatic this was the sort of biscuit you’d expect further south – but the butter itself was not especially apparent. Good, but not on the level of the biscuits at Big Jones the day before.

For Nate, again abstaining from the sweets, a tarragon chicken & brie omelet with smoky breakfast potatoes and a scratch made biscuits with pumpkin clove butter was selected. While I did not taste the dish, it certainly looked and sounded good.

My sister’s selection, Cinnamon Mascarpone Stuffed French Toast with raisin nut cocoa and pure maple syrup looked and smelled heavenly with accents of cinnamon and cocoa prominent and the syrup inherently sweet. Utilizing a thick brioche as the base, however, this French Toast suffered the same fate as the version at Big Jones in that the interior of the bread remained largely uncooked and doughy while the exterior was appropriately crisp and buttery. Again, perhaps I just like a custard French Toast because my sister seemed to enjoy it – the cocoa baked walnuts were wonderful either way.

For my breakfast – never one to turn down sweet and savory - Chicken and Pumpkin Waffles with boneless southern fried chicken breast, house made waffle, quince butter, and Cajun maple shot. Tasty and fragrant, the waffle portion of my dish was excellent – crisp exterior and soft within. In the savory department, the chicken itself was somewhat overcooked but the decidedly spicy and thin batter was delicious. Adding ample butter and the hot sauce infused syrup lent an extra degree of fruity heat to the plate – not that it was needed given the black pepper laden batter, but it worked.

With no desserts offered we sat and chatted for a bit while finishing our coffee, never feeling rushed to leave the bill was presented and after paying we made our way to the street. Looking back at the meal I have to say that given the hype I left somewhat unimpressed, but perhaps inappropriately so. While nothing in particular “wowed” in the manner than many Chicago breakfast/brunch spots do, the service was superb and the setting was fun. Claiming that they appeal to the gourmand and the kid in each of us on their website I’d have to say I agree – I simply lean more heavily to the gourmand side and, per their own admission The Hearty Boys are all about upscale comfort food, not haute cuisine.

Leaving Hearty my sister and Nate were heading back to Oxford and asked where they could drop me off – figuring Fox & Obel was rather central to the area I’d like to browse I asked them first to swing by our missed stop from the day prior – Floriole Bakery. Named “Best Bakery” in Chicago (In a city that contains Fritz) by Chicago Magazine and featuring what many were describing as the best Canele in the city (In a city that contains L2o) I figured Floriole was a can’t miss.

Arriving slightly later than the previous day the café was abuzz when we arrived – myriad bakers buzzing about the kitchen and the staff stocking the case with 20-30 classic French pastries from bread to baguette to pound cake to tarte to quiche to croissant. Advertising that everything was made with European butter and organic or local grains and produce I noted at least ten items I wanted to try but limited myself to three as they’d be serving as my daytime snack before an early dinner. With friendly service abounding I paid the relatively hefty tab of $9 plus a dollar tip and made my way back to the car.

Beginning first with the Macaron - $1.50 for a rather small serving, I made the choice of coffee over caramel and can simply say it was okay. Purportedly fresh from the oven I found the cookie to be somewhat dry while the interior was rich coffee cream. While better than a “doughy” macaron, I can’t say my first bite was a good impression.

Improving significantly on the small cookie the $4.25 Almond Croissant was everything I’d hope from a place billed as the “best” bakery. Flaky and crisp exterior, buttery smooth interior with aromatic notes of almond and a sweet almond paste the croissant stood up nicely to mastication with its springy interior giving way to bite without distorting the shape of the pastry. While not as good as some elsewhere (Payard, Petrossian,) potentially the best I’ve had in Chicago.

The final selection, a classic Canele de Bordeaux baked in a bee’s wax mold was superb – crunchy shell, eggy custard center, not too sweet. While it would require some side to side, bite to bite comparison I’d place it on par with that of L2o and La Colombe (Philadelphia) for best yet.

Having sampled only three of a large collection of fine pastry’s the verdict is still out on my end as to whether or not Floriole holds up to its reputation as best in Chicago, but either way it is an excellent bakery provided everyone gets to work on time and the selections are ready and warm.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Everest, Chicago IL

Next to Charlie Trotter’s iconic restaurant, Everest stands as perhaps the most well known elder statesman in a dining scene dominated by cutting edge technique and “hyper-modern” cuisine. While both styles clearly have their place in 21st century dining, Chicago’s predilection for molecular gastronomy somehow makes a place such as Everest stand out in a way it may not in San Francisco or New York. Other factors that makes Everest stand out – its glorious location on the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange, four star reviews by the Tribune and Sun Times, designations by Relais & Chateaux/Relais Gourmand, Traditions & Qualite, and Le Grande Table du Monde – and just days ago, a Michelin Star.

Helmed by Chef Jean Joho, a native of Alsace and a James Beard and Bon Appetit Chef of the Year award winner, and part of the LettuceEntertainYou (TRU, L2o, etc) empire Everest had been on my list for some time but always seemed to get overlooked for someplace less traditional and more innovative. Having originally planned this meal with my friend Dave who dined with me the night prior at Schwa due to Saturday family obligations, I opted to keep my reservation this time and dine alone – after all, I’d communicated extensively with the lovely special events manager, Megan Laskoski, who had helped to set up a personalized extended tasting menu by Chef Joho for evening – I’d have been a fool to take a pass.

Arriving minutes early for my 7:00pm reservation after a brisk walk from Millennium Park I made my way into the building, through security, and to the first of two sets of elevators – I guess the location comes with a price. Checking my bag after the specially designated elevator transported myself and another couple from thirty-nine to forty I headed for the end of the hall and turned left to find one of the most grand dining rooms I’ve seen. Thick white tablecloths, elegant monogrammed carpeting, chandeliers, and a view that went for miles to the right and the hostess stand with none other than Ms. Laskoski at my left – greeted pleasantly I was led swiftly to a table towards the windows – surprisingly given the current economic climate the restaurant was packed.

Seated in a comfortable padded chair I was to decide between still/sparkling/tap and I was next presented with a wine-list slightly thinner than the phonebook in my home town. With my special menu noted I was left to browse the drinks and upon deciding against alcohol I was asked if I might enjoy a non-alcoholic option such as Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider, an option that actually sounded quite nice. Having never had a $10 cider before I will definitely note it was sweeter and more punchy than the average apple cider the mouth feel was quite similar to champagne.

With a female captain and two younger males managing my table service was excellent throughout the evening – everything was presented with full description, the team was aware of preparation techniques, and my water glass remained persistently full. Presented with a signed copy of my night’s menu I did have to inform the team that I’d specifically requested the Foie Gras be included in the meal (it was not on the menu, but was added without question) and I was a little disappointed that the Duck Margaret would not be part of the evening, but otherwise everything sounded wonderful – even the timing was exacting with each dish arriving approximately 10-15 minutes following my completion of the prior course.

Beginning the night’s dining would be a trio of les amuses bouche – left to right the choices included Wild Mushroom Crème Brulee, Maine Lobster in Alsace Gewurztraminer Butter, and Sweet corn Panna Cotta with bacon. While it is tough to trump lobster in butter, the highlight of the amuses would actually be the brulee with its darker earthy tones nicely melding with the sweetness of the crystallized sugar. The panna cotta, while good, was perhaps a little too heavily buttered for my taste and the corn did not shine through the salty bacon as I’d have hoped.

For bread service I was next presented with a slice of Midwestern unsalted butter from Ohio – smooth and sweet on its own, Everest is rare in that each table has a small salt and pepper shaker and the butter was even more impressive with a touch of salt. Amongst the evening’s breads were Rye, 9-Grain, Baguette, Sourdough, Potato, and Milk. House baked but unfortunately served less than warm I tried each and found the crumb of the baguette and milk bread quite wonderful while the standout flavor wise was certainly the nine grain with obvious notes of sesame and wheat.

Beginning the meal proper, approximately 25 minutes after I sat down, would be my specially requested Pressé of Cold New York State Foie Gras, Rosehips, Heirloom Apples, Marinated Melon with toasted brioche. Thin and perfect the strip of liver clearly highlighted the dish – not quite mousse like that at The French Laundry, but more so than that at Henri. Topped with a compote of apple and cinnamon and complimented with a twirl of honeydew and cubes of watermelon I actually found the most intriguing part of this plate a flower spiked balsamic spread on the plate – savory but with floral notes evident and especially nicely complimenting the apples.

For my second course I was served a dish I’ll certainly look back on as one of the best of the trip - Farm Fresh Shirred Egg, Champagne Cream, Smoked Sturgeon Caviar. Featuring half an ounce of glistening black eggs both topping the egg and filling the molten yolk interior, the layer in between was a piped sponge of bracing contrast, something like whipped cream made of dry champagne. Perhaps the most memorable savory of a meal full of top notch preparations.

Continuing the parade of well executed preparations using superior ingredients dish number three would prepare Vintage Carnaroli Risotto with a Compote of Cinderella Pumpkin and Boneless Quail Supreme. With crispy skinned quail at the center and a drizzle of pan jus surrounding the bird the highlight of this dish was the creamy rice, just toothsome enough to make itself known in a broth that tasted somewhere between chicken soup and sweet potato pie. I’ve realized over the years that I am in the minority of persons not wowed by Risotto, but this was a great interpretation.

The fourth course to arrive at my two-top was Sautéed Casco Bay Sea Scallop, Pomme Mousseline, Jus de Poulet – and by sautéed I’m pretty sure the kitchen meant “soaked in butter, caramelized atop, and sashimi style within.” With the seemingly hockey puck sized scallop dominating the plate’s center and a pool of buttery sieved potato beneath the jus was merely a savory afterthought.

Plate five would present the most aggressive flavor pairing of the evening in the form of Crepinette of Wild Sturgeon, Wrapped and Roasted in Cured Ham and Cabbage, Pinot Noir. With the sturgeon nicely prepared and flakey, the typically mild fish was somewhat overwhelmed by the combination of aromatic cabbage, savory pork, and reduced wine. A decent sized portion for a long tasting menu my favorite aspect of the dish was the buttery “cabbage crust” and the texture lent by the crispy pork.

The final savory of the evening would be Filet of Venison, Wild Huckelberries, Braised Pear, Alsace Knepfla. Never one to order deer by choice I must admit I’m always happy when it arrives as part of a tasting. Mildly gamey the rolled loin was coated in what I believe to be graham cracker and seared on the exterior with a crimson center. Adding levity to the hefty meat would be a puree of membrillo, sliced braised pear, and a reduction of huckleberry. Served as a “bonus,” a small bowl of buttery pasta knepfla pasta with a texture not dissimilar to spaetzle – tasty, but oddly presented in my opinion.

Always one to take notes I am remiss to note that I did not detail the night’s cheese selection – an Assortment of Small Midwestern Farmer’s Cheeses. Presented as a quartet with mild to pungent from left to right I do remember that two were from Indiana, one from Ohio, and another from Michigan and that there was a blue, a raw cow, a sheep, and a goat. Overall each of the selections were pleasant and the accompanying walnut raisin bread and compote of candied fruits and nuts were quite tasty.

Marking my transition from savory to sweet, the palate cleanser of the day would be Composition of Heirloom Apples en Gelee. Pale green on pale green on pale green the course featured silky smooth green apple gelato over tart apple jello. With a crystallized apple chip topping the gelato and small cubes of apple dotting the dish the serving was actually quite large for a palate cleanser and quite good, to boot.

For my desserts I’d mentioned to Megan when I made the reservation that there were two I was quite interested in, something old and something new – both would find their way to my table that evening. Starting first with the Classic Old Rhum Infused Baba, Raisin Pineapple Glace, 18th Century Alsace Recipe all I can say is that it was as classic as the name portrays, aside from the ice cream. Topped tableside with a spicy and boozy shot of rum the baba was flawless and the ethereal buttery pastry simply melted in the mouth. An equally competent counterpart, the rum raisin and pineapple ice cream was served atop a compote of candied pineapple and raisin. Having had far less traditional Baba Au Rhum from Ducasse and Kruether, this classic presentation was an equal delight.

As good as the first was in its tradition, the second succeeded in its novelty. Presented and topped tableside with a “free form” soufflé standing tall and proud at the center, the New Wave Fromage Blanc Soufflé with Persimmon Coulis, Squash Confit, and Alsace Spice Cake Glace was sublime. Light yet harboring the essence of cheesecake with a base of “spice cake crumble” the soufflé itself was a marvel. With chunks of confit squash alongside and room temperature coulis adding fructose sweetness the main portion of the dish alone was worth the hefty price tag ($22 if ordered a la carte.) Equally impressive as the soufflé and served over the spice cake crumble at the bowl’s edge would be one of the five best ice creams to ever grace my palate – nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, allspice – and smooth as silk.

Sipping my coffee – appropriately Intelligentsia given our location in Chicago – I was next presented with a tray of mignardises. Rather full from the day of eating I opted to taste only one of each (the waiter quickly said “as many as you’d like” when I asked if he could just leave the tray.) Featuring a Marshmallow Chocolate Cone, Anise cookie, Pistachio Financier, Rum Square, and Lemon Pate a fruit I loved the Marshmallow cone’s presentation, texture, and flavor while the cookie and financier were rather dry.

Settling the tab - $200 for the meal, $10 for the cider, plus tax and tip – I bid my team farewell and made my way to the exit where Megan greeted me. Stemming from a mere comment to my server (when I noted the Foie Gras) about my menu being dated “October 6th” as opposed to November Megan apologized and stated she would take my name and have a menu sent out immediately. Insisting it was not a big deal she persisted and I left my name and address – four days later I received a new copy of the menu, with the Foie Gras and correct date – plus a signed card from the team and some promotional information.

Similar to my TRU and L2o experiences there is no doubt in my mind that LettuceEntertainYou is similar to the Danny Meyer Empire in NYC – a “yes” organization where the diner’s enjoyment is of the utmost importance. While it certainly is not a cheap meal, the combination of atmosphere, food, and service at Everest is amongst the best in Chicago – if I were with Michelin they’d have gotten two stars, just like Trotter’s.