Chicago is always a pleasure to visit, but frankly, I’m torn on whether or not it’s a city I could see myself ever living in. There’s a great food culture there, obviously, but is it as good as the one we have here in the Twin Cities? In a lot of ways, yes it is, but still, for the time being, I think it’s a city best left for visiting – perhaps with a little more frequency.
I was in Chicago for a work thing and while there, I knew I had to make a least a few stops to some places to help gain a better understanding of the gastro-world around me. A quick peek at OpenTable showed me that the legendary Blackbird had a last minute, late night reservation, so I quickly snatched that up. Blackbird is the flagship restaurant of renowned chef Paul Kahn. The last time I was in Chicago I stopped by Kahn’s newest restaurant at the time, The Publican, and I had a great time there. Blackbird is more on the fine dining side of the food world than The Publican is and I was eager to really see what Chef Kahn was all about.
Despite the fact that I had reservations, I opted to grab a seat up at the bar, because really, when dining alone, it’s the best place to be. The bartender was an excellent host and really fun to just chat with. I started the evening of with a cocktail in an effort to get a feel for their overall bar program and to see just how well this chatty bartender could mix one up. He absolutely delivered. The cocktail was called A Little Bed and was a mixture of Johnny Walker Red, Lephroige 10yr, lemon, simple syrup, a hint of an apricot liquor and hellfire bitters. It was an incredibly well balanced mixture of sweet, smokey, spicy and fruity and really helped to setup the meal.
After my cocktail, I was treated to an amuse-bouche from the kitchen which consisted of a lightly tempura fried perch, some kind of maple based emulsion and a leaf of crispy fried kale. The sweetness from the fish and the maple played extreamly well with the earthy flavors from the kale and the crisp, light batter.
Instead of ordering an appetizer and entree, I opted to go with several small plates to try and get a better feel for the restaurant as a whole. I feel like the best way to get to know a chef is try a variety of their smaller dishes. You get a good feel of their range in technique and composition this way, although next time, I’ll definitely hook-up with one of their full entrees based off of my experience.
The first dish I ordered was an confit octopus on a puree of parsnips drizzled with a touch of pomegranate molasses. The dish was masterfully garnished with pomegranate seeds, toasted garlic and a little mixed herb salad. This dish was easily one of the best composed dishes I’ve had in a really long time. The rich flavors from the octopus played extremely well with the decedent creaminess of the parsnip puree and both elements were elevated by the sweet molasses. The pomegranate seeds added a nice crunch, as did the toasted garlic which also added a mildy spicy, earthiness to the dish. The addition of the herb salad though is what really sealed the deal. The parsley and dill mixture added a freshness that the dish could not have done without adding in a bouquet of floral notes that brought the entire ensemble of ingredients together.
Next up on my tasting adventure were the sweetbreads. I love sweetbreads and this was a fairly pleasant interpretation, although I feel like it wasn’t as well composed as the octopus plate. Before this plate was served, I let the bartender mix me up a bourbon concoction of his choosing and I’m really glad that I did. It was a fairly simple drink consisting of bourbon, a blood orange liquor and bitters, but the way it enhanced my dish really helped to highlight the conceptual shortfalls of the plate.
The sweetbreads came lightly fried with a freekah salad on a puree of kohlrabi. The dish was garnished with thinly sliced grapes. All of the elements worked nicely together, but it felt as though something was missing, fortunately that missing element came to light as I sipped my cocktail. The orange flavors from the blood orange liquor really took the dish to the next level making me think a little bit of orange should have been incorporated somehow, even if it was just garnished with a little zest. The brightness from the orange in the drink really helped the sweetness in the grapes pop, which brought the entire dish up. This just goes to show you how a good cocktail can really help a meal.
The last plate on my Blackbird expedition was a suckling pig served on a celeriac risotto and was garnished with hazelnuts, granny smith apples, and black truffle. Oddly enough, this dish seemed to be the least well executed dish of the bunch. The risotto had kind of an odd starchy texture that made it almost gummy (you can kind of tell from the photo) and the raw julienne of apple overtook everything. The pork itself was luxurious. The crackling was perfect and the meat was succulent, but in contrast with the raw apples, which were exceptionally tart, kind of got lost. In theory, this flavors are all natural pairings. Pork, hazelnuts, apples, root vegetables, and truffles so this should have been a slam dunk. Unfortunately it just didn’t come together the way I would’ve expected and it mostly can off as a jumbled, oddly textured dish.
With all of that being said, the food was still largely excellent, despite my criticisms, and I will absolutely return to Blackbird, but I’ll probably hit up Avec next time just to round out the Paul Kahn trifecta.
Of course I couldn’t just end there. I still needed dessert, so I decided to wonder down the street to visit Girl & the Goat. This turned out to be a lot of fun too. I again sat at the bar where I had a great, chatty bartender and the people around me were also into chatting and having a good time. Also, James Franco was having dinner directly behind me, which was kind of neat in it’s own way.
For my “dessert” I ordered the wood-grill roasted pigs face. Sure, it’s not your traditional dessert, but I’m not really one for sweet things, especially when the option of pigs face is also on the table. This dish was a decedent spoof on breakfast and was rich as hell. The meat from the pigs face is slow roasted and then shredded, formed into a patty, and seared. That get’s topped with fried shoestring potatoes and a beautifully cooked, sunnyside up egg. The dish is dressed with tamarind, a cilantro oil and a red wine, maple sauce. This is exactly the kind of thing I wish I could eat for breakfast everyday, but it also made for a fitting dessert to end my Chicago trip.
Well, Chicago turned out some fun eating and I’m really looking forward to my return, which will hopefully be sooner than later. I think I say that every time I visit, but this time; this time I think I really mean it.