Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Purple Pig and Sweet Mandy B's, Chicago IL

Making our way through Millennium Park I anticipated the long lines, hour plus waits, and loud environment without a system reservations – given its prime location, quartet of well respected chefs, and recent appointment by Bon Appétit as one of the 10 best new restaurants in America I understood the hype. For a concept that seemed so simple (and something done in other cities prior) to get such rave reviews I figured The Pig had to be something special but in all reality the main selling point for myself and my traveling party was that the full menu was available for lunch and that it was easily walkable from our Saturday visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. Arriving at the small space on Michigan Avenue the restaurant certainly lived up to the rumors – a line snaked out the door and the volume was audible from the street.

Making our way through the nicely heated outdoor seating area to the door we were greeted by a pleasant hostess who told us the wait would likely be 45 minutes “or so” for a group of three. Without further plans we put our name on the list and looked for a place to stand – the restaurant was jammed packed and we essentially spent the next 20 minutes standing/sitting near the glass window watching plate after delectable looking plate emerge from the kitchen. Twenty minutes at 1:00pm on a Saturday – yes – when a group of 8 stood up from the long center table and multiple persons ahead of us on the wait list had apparently left or didn’t hear their name called over the din we were seated without further ado, handed a menu, and water was poured immediately.

Browsing the multitude of menu options my companions noted that they weren’t terribly hungry and would likely be ordering only one item each – thankfully when asked if they’d sample some items if I was paying they assented. Although the place was packed and loud with seating tight and the gathering throng of waiting patrons invading our one foot radius frequently I will note that service was friendly, prompt, courteous, and never rushed - yes they were turning tables at a good pace, but never did I feel like plates were being rushed and when we finished we were even asked if we wanted dessert or more small plates. Orders placed we began our wait and watched plate after plate of pork parts pass by whetting our appetite.

With plates arriving randomly as they were completed in the kitchen (like most small plates experiences) timing was actually quite excellent and we were able to finish most plates before the next round arrived. Kicking things off would be the Open face pork belly BLT with a fried egg. Featuring Benton’s Bacon pork belly sliced and fried crisp over rye bread and topped with artisan frisee, fresh tomato, and a golden fried egg this was designer comfort food – savoriness sweetened by the tomato alone and balanced with the hefty and crusty bread – a tad difficult to cut and share, but an excellent start largely consumed by Nate who enjoyed it thoroughly.

Arriving shortly after the BLT would be more delicious pig parts – perhaps the most “famous” dish on the menu – Pig's Ear with Crispy Kale, Pickled Cherry Peppers & Fried Egg. Having only had pig’s ear twice in the past this was actually the strongest presentation to date with the ear actually less crisp than the intense kale – well done with melting collagen between layers of protein. With acidic as opposed to hot pepper intermingled and served in an adorable pig bowl the dish was again egg topped and the creamy yolk proved a nice foil for the otherwise contrasting flavors and textures.

With the next two dishes arriving as a pair the first would be a cheese course. Simply paired with toasted bread and quince compote our selections would be Truffle Tremor, Capriole O’Banon, and Manchego – all cheeses I have had in the past and all served in large wedges at a relative bargain price of $17 for the three. As much as I’m a relative novice to cheese tasting in general, Cypress Grove’s three chevres continue to wow me each and every time.

For my sister’s choice she opted for the Sepia with Snap Peas and Toasted Almonds and Rosemary. Served largely unadorned in ceramic bowl the squid itself was tender and juicy with just a touch of olive oil and lemon. With crunch lent by the almonds and sweetness from the surprisingly fresh mid-Autumn Peas this was a successful dish despite its lack of swine.

For our final two dishes more of the restaurant’s namesake animal were on the order – the first a “smear” of Mortadella, Balsamico & Pistachio on toasted house made bread. With the fatty salume ground to a chunky paste and ample with notes of pepper, nutmeg, and coriander the high notes of this dish were without a doubt the crunchy fresh pistachios. Accented with a tangy and sweet balsamic vinegar the dish was not the most attractive, but it was certainly my favorite of the meal.

Our final plate of the meal is perhaps the Purple Pig’s most notable; The Milk Braised Pork Shoulder with Mashed Potatoes. With the recipe featured on the website I rather figured this dish would be somewhat akin to my Grandfather’s rustic pork-steak and potatoes with a texture similar to Luke’s Cochon au Lait – unfortunately while it was quite good it didn’t live up to either. Fatty and succulent to be sure I really cannot fault the pork itself, but rather the lack of nuance or seasoning outside of a heavy handed salt shaker. Attempting to dissect the protein away from the gravy I personally think this dish would actually be better off without the gravy – or perhaps with a firm starch or vegetable.

Happily sated but certainly not stuffed we agreed to take a look when the dessert menu was offered but unfortunately the budino I’d been eyeing on the online menu was nowhere to be found and while the Panino con Nutella sounded tasty we also had cupcakes waiting from the morning and decided to pass. Check delivered we settled the tab and made our way through the crowd to the street – total meal time from entering to exit just shy of 100 minutes. Impressed but not wowed I think The Purple Pig is a great concept with good execution – the sort of place it might be nice to pop in for a drink and snacks, but not necessarily a “destination” or “must” in a city with such great diversity of options – though it is open for lunch when many of its competitors are not.

Returning to our parking space in Millennium Park after some Michigan Avenue shopping we were greeted by our cupcakes from Sweet Mandy B’s. Touted as an old fashioned bakery and featuring an assortment of nostalgic cookies, cakes, pies, whoopie pies, bars, and cupcakes the small shop is perhaps the oldest cupcakery in Chicago and a place I’d missed out on thrice during previous visits. Having gone early in the morning when Floriole was still behind on their morning baking the shop was bustling with a minimum of five bakers and three persons working the front of the house – service was excellent and prices surprisingly reasonable.

With our bounty of cupcakes less than 6 hours old and having sat in the chilly car I feel confident saying that our selections were still “fresh” and with each of us selecting one cake plus a mutually agreed upon fourth I will note I was disappointed there was no Red Velvet, but happy that there were so many unique options. With frosting aplenty and cake moist without being “doughy” each option was quite good – first a lemon selection that tasted somewhat artificial but plenty tangy – more lemonade than ice box, but good none the less. The second option, a seasonal pumpkin with cream cheese icing fared better than the lemon to my palate, but with significantly hefty nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon the pumpkin took a back seat to the spice. Choice three would be French Toast – a lovely flavor with ample notes of cinnamon, maple, and butter – it truly did taste like French Toast. The final choice, and best by far, was Caramel Apple. With chunks of baked apple providing contrast to the soft batter and a topping of butter cream and caramel the flavor was almost that of an apple dumpling.

Heading back to Millennium Park where Dr. Oz’s Health Expo was ongoing we had the opportunity to watch Art Smith – a known diabetic – and guest star Elmo prepare healthy foods while discussing the day’s gluttony and looking forward to the evening’s extended tasting by Chef Joho at Everest. Places like Sweet Mandy B’s make me glad that I take care of patients with diabetes and do not have it – but I’d rather tax my pancreas at Sugar Bliss, Southport, or Molly’s.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

FYI Sepia is Cuttlefish, not squid