Thursday, February 17, 2011


I shut down the Commissary this past Friday night to enjoy a well-deserved Valentine's Day dinner evening with Mrs. Hackknife. Given how hard she's been working the past few weeks, I wanted to choose someplace really special for us; after some careful contemplation, Spiaggia came to mind. For those of you unaware, Spiaggia is generally regarded as Chicago's finest Italian cuisine restaurant (some consider it among the country's best overall dining spots), yet I was only vaguely familiar with it, becoming more so after following Chef/Owner Tony Mantuano's recent stint on Top Chef Masters. Mrs. Hackknife had a work function there a few years back, but other than that, neither one of us had had the pleasure of experiencing its cuisine.

I did my best to keep our dinner location a secret from her and was able to do so pretty much up to about the time we got there. Its spot in the city is hard to conceal: right on the Magnificent Mile, with an elegant tiered dining room (lots of browns, low light) and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the intersection of Michigan and Oak, Lake Shore Drive (LSD), and a small park in-between the two across the street from the Drake. Although it was past twilight and we couldn't quite make out the lake beyond the brakelights on LSD, we could clearly see from our table a light snow falling over everything, including a gazebo in the park, making the whole thing seem very, well, fairytale-ish (as much as I hate to use that descriptor). Of course, the enchanted setting would mean very little if the food were not up to the rarefied address on the front door.

Speaking of food, we perused Spiaggia's winter menu while I sipped a Jack Daniels and Coke (a drink I have about every 10 years or so when the spirit moves me) and Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed her usual martini. Our server explained to us that the restaurant received a shipment of black truffles from Piedmont within the last couple of weeks, so they were offering a special tasting menu showcasing that ingredient (at a special higher price, of course). I can't say that we've had much occasion to try black truffles in the past, but we are definitely aware of their reputation as a luxury, almost ethereal food item, so we both decided to invoke our go-big-or-go-home dining rule and forsook many delectable-sounding dishes on the a la carte menu in favor of the tasting menu.

Feeling giddy with anticipation, the first plate arrived at our table: a small, "Italian-style" doughnut (not sure what exactly made it "Italian-style" as it could have passed for a Munchkin to me) dusted in Parmigiano Reggiano cheese with a few shavings of black truffle on top. It was savory, not sweet as one might expect a doughnut to be, and the truffle added a little earthiness to round out the flavor. Course #2 (my favorite) consisted of a foie gras torchon (basically a disk of the sinful stuff slow-cooked in a hot water bath), a slice of pork testa (head cheese) terrine, and a grilled crostini, all of which were dusted with fennel pollen, drizzled with Meili Thun honey (a high-end honey from Italy), and covered in black truffle shavings. The luxury quotient of this assemblage was through the roof and it tasted that way, eyes-rolling-backwards rich. By this time, we had finished our cocktails and had moved on to a nice glass of Italian Sauvignon Blanc, very tangy and herbal, a perfect match for this course and the next, which was a small grilled Maine lobster tail, topped with a quail egg and perched on a smearing of squid ink potato puree. I have to say I wasn't quite as enamored with this plate as I have a little bit of a tough time with uncooked eggs (this one wasn't as bad as the quail egg I choked down at Noma in Copenhagen a few years back), plus the puree underneath was very hard to scoop up without a spoon. The experience took another slight detour off the yellow brick road when the runner then brought us out an identical lobster plate instead of the next course (and then seemed confused about it when we tried to explain that we'd just had this) - normally not a big deal, but definitely a black mark when you're trying to distinguish yourself as a world-class establishment.

Order was quickly restored with the arrival of our primi (pasta) course, three ricotta and black truffle-filled ravioli with brown butter and Parmigiano Reggiano. These were delicious, although I needed about 10 more of them. Next up to go with our Montigl Pinot Noir from Alto Adige was a wonderful guinea hen, stuffed with prosciutto di parma, wrapped in guanciale, drizzled in saba (a grape syrup), and plated with lentils. You photographic memory readers will recall my difficulty last year in locating guanciale for some earlier pasta dishes cooked at the Commissary and our server also conveyed her regrets that, due to the city's archaic food regulations, Spiaggia has to look out of state to supply much of its cured meat needs (this knowledge came about since I had to quiz her on it). With appetites rapidly diminishing, we moved on to the cheese course (not just for the French anymore), which included primo sale pistachio pecorino and Accasciato bufala cheeses (our clear favorite), both drizzled in more Mieli Thun honey. The meal ended on a high note with a traditional dessert plate of dark chocolate custard with Piedmontese hazelnuts and a caramelized banana drizzled with olive oil and dusted with sea salt (topped with black truffle, of course). I have included a picture of this course above, although with the dim lighting, no flash on my iPhone, and the black truffle shavings scattered about, I'm fully aware that it basically looks like dirt piles on a plate (not representative at all of its taste, I might add). Our server also gave us a small dish of candied blood orange and a salted caramel chocolate bite, as well as a complementary glass of brachetto d'acqui (a sparkling sweet red wine from Piedmont) to wash everything down.

When the final tally was presented to us, it was pretty steep (probably one of the top 5 most expensive we'd ever had). All in all, the food was excellent and the service was very good; unfortunately, we left feeling a little like we'd just paid 5-star prices (no doubt helped along by the ubiquity of the black truffles) for what amounted to a 4-star experience. Regardless, it was a wonderful evening out with my wonderful wife. As for the truffles, I'm glad we tried them, but I probably won't be in a great hurry to seek them out again (unless they were to magically pop up under the crabapple tree in the back yard - black truffle meatloaf, anyone?).....

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