…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: http://www.chicagogluttons.com/the-girl-and-the-goat-chicago/) 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.