On this recent trip to Chicago, my eating out was pretty even split between some delicious downmarket staples and a couple of higher end meals. Chicago is a truly great eating and drinking town, and on this visit I booked restaurant reservations at a couple of places where the menus and reputations for inventive food excited me. So excited in fact, that for my first night in the city I opted for the allure of a delicious meal over a Blackhawks – Canadiens hockey game. That’s right – I chose eating over sports. Maybe I’m becoming more refined as I age…
Night one: The moment the reservation window opened for the Girl & the Goat (I think it was three months before my planned visit), I grabbed one and started scouting the menu. The idea of sampling a number of small plates was high on my list, and the restaurant’s ability to scale down dishes to suit a solo diner looking to try multiple things made me very excited. One item that was personally recommended to me by Chef Stephanie Izard on Twitter was the duck tongues. I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t even know ducks had tongues. What a delicious discovery! Here’s what will probably be the best thing I eat all year – duck tongues with crispy wontons, black beans and piri piri:
There was another dish on the menu that had captivated me, and left me no other option but to order it: oven roasted pig face. I dreamed about this for weeks before leaving for Chicago. It’s a bit of a signature dish for the restaurant, and deservedly so. As tasty as it was beautiful, here is the wood oven roasted pig face, with a sunny side up egg, tamarind and potato sticks:
A balanced meal has to have vegetables right? My third dish, and it was hard to narrow down the choice to just one more, was the sauteed green beans with cashews in a fish sauce vinaigrette:
I really would have eaten every last dish on the menu, and this was one of those rare times that while eating I wished I was traveling with a larger group so I could have sampled small bits of more of the menu. I briefly thought about creating a distraction in the restaurant then grabbing something off of each of the neighbouring tables.
Night two: Hungry from being outside on a cool damp day watching the Cubs lose (nice of the team to give me a feeling they share with their fans all to frequently for their liking), I took up a seat at the Rick Bayless restaurant, Frontera Grill. To date, a dinner at his co-located Topolobampo stands as the best meal I’ve ever had. I opted for Frontera so I’d go a little lighter on the wallet this time around. As the menu hit my table, I already had my drinking planned out – first, a mezcal margarita:
The menu at Frontera is another difficult task for the solo diner. There’s a wonderful selection of small plates so I focused on that so I could try a greater variety of items. Thinking I had made up my mind, my waiter paused on hearing my first choice. He politely let me know the dish I picked was in his estimation, the least tasty on the menu. Perfect! I love when you get an honest opinion, so I turned over the ordering to him.
“You pick three dishes, I’ll eat anything.”
He smiled, picked up the menu, and nodded at my empty margarita glass. I nodded back… I was in his hands. It’s a decision that worked out beautifully.
First up (and on the left below), pork manchamanteles: pork shoulder in a stew-like Oaxaca mole (ancho, almonds, peanuts, pineapple) with Mexican purple sweet potatoes, plantain and chorizo. This was served with perfect corn tortillas for tacos. Also arriving at the same time was grilled tatume squash (on the right below) served with poblanos, crema, and a house made fresh cheese:
The pork manchamanteles was outstanding – tender pork, earthy chocolate from the mole, the heat and sweet of this dish were in perfect harmony. I probably would have ended up ordering the pork regardless, but I wouldn’t have picked the tatume squash dish. And that would have been a shame. It felt good letting someone order for me.
In that same vein, the third dish that arrived was something I never would have landed on ordering. It was huitlacoche tamales w/ tomatillo-corn sauce, corn and poblano esquites and was the star of the evening. The earthy huitlacoche (essentially, a naturally occurring corn fungus/mushroom) was perfectly accompanied by the sauce. They should sell the sauce or give you a little bag of it on the way out – it’s addictive and I wouldn’t be above drinking it with a straw.
This being my second trip to Chicago, I had a trick up my sleeve for desert on this night. Rather than having it at Frontera, I walked around the corner to Xoco, a small take-out joint (also by Rick Bayless) specializing in Mexican street foods. I ordered some churros and a side of dark chocolate dipping sauce and headed for my hotel with a small box of deliciousness. This was the perfect way to end my second night of great eating in Chicago.