Monday, March 26, 2012


I have often commented that I regret only having one digestive tract with which to enjoy the multitudes of culinary treats that our modern world has to offer. This lament is compounded by the fact that I didn't get on the foodie bandwagon in earnest until really the last five years, which makes me wonder exactly how many calories I wasted on Hamburger Helper prior to my conversion. Anyway, I find myself getting a bit reflective like this as I've now just this past week crossed the threshold from the you're-still-relatively-young 30s into the you're-definitely-middle-aged-now 40s, more determined than ever to make the most of my finite stomach capacity. Fortunately, the place I chose for my milestone birthday dinner was well-deserving of the honor. Goosefoot, named after a family of plants (which includes swiss chard and quinoa) with leaves that resemble the walking appendages of said waterfowl, opened in late 2011 on a quiet stretch of Lawrence Avenue between the north branch of the Chicago River and Western Avenue (an area more accustomed to homey ethnic eateries such as the Croatian joint down the block). Chef Chris Nugent and his wife designed every aspect of the restaurant's decor and menu, drawing from his experience at Les Nomades (one of the last bastions of traditional French cuisine in the city) to create an elegant-yet-relaxed menu that marries precise French techniques to innovative presentations of seasonal ingredients (think Charlie Trotter's with less Asian influence, or, better yet, El Ideas with a touch more subtlety). A vein of environmental ethos runs through the whole production, from the herbs and greens that the Nugents grow at home in their garden for the restaurant to the menu printed on wildflower seed paper (as tempting as it is to plant my souvenir of the evening, given my lack of skill in the yard, I'd probably just grow more menus).

The premises don't have a liquor license, so Mrs. Hackknife and I brought our own wine to enjoy during the meal (I selected a Louis Jadot Beaune Therons 2009 red Burgundy, young, light, and versatile for lots of different courses). We arrived to a tranquil and mostly empty restaurant at 6:30 (it didn't stay that way as nearly every table was full by the time we left a few hours later) and we were greeted with a tasty amuse bouche of golden beet topped with a dollop of whipped goat cheese, with a tiny, rich cheese puff on the side. The first listed course on our biodegradable menu was a seared scallop placed in a pool of curry and lobster sauce, garnished with a puree of hubbard squash, a small cloud of licorice root foam, and a dusting of Parmesan powder, the flavors of which were all perfectly balanced. This was followed by a surprisingly large bowl of amazing chestnut soup infused with white alba mushrooms and truffle essence, topped by a sizable (almost too sizable) puff of smoke foam. Although the foam seemed a bit extraneous to me (and brought to mind the Next el Bulli smoke foam course that also wasn't a favorite), the soup was fantastic, probably the best example of its kind that we've had in the past year (I guess chestnut soup must be a trend in fine dining circles these days).

Moving onward, we were given a small fillet of loup de mer (European sea bass), perfectly crisped on the outside and served atop a mixture of tapioca pearls and Meyer lemon (reminiscent of something that Thomas Keller might do) with a smear of sunchoke puree.

The garnish of orange, yellow, and green foliage (from the house garden, I assume) seen in the photo above appeared in various arrangements throughout the meal, attempting to establish a common visual link between plates (not sure if that was necessary - too obvious?). With the food tasting as good as it did, window dressing clearly wasn't needed, as further evidenced by the fowl course, a delicious roasted quail paired with spiced beluga lentils, jellied ginger cubes, spheres of pickled "compressed" apple, parsnip puree, and droplets of mustard vinaigrette. Mrs. Hackknife promptly put a baggie of the apple spheres on her Christmas wish list. The beef course (fillet of Angus beef with cumin/shallot jus served with goosefoot greens, truffle powder, and various forms of heirloom carrots, one of which looked like a quail egg yolk) was just as succulent and artfully presented.

After a palate-cleansing shot of pomegranate juice mixed with citrus-infused olive oil, a cheese course consisting of delectable Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese shavings (voted best American cheese in 2010) atop a celery-truffle caponata puree with almond marscapone and what I later determined to be a tapioca cracker supporting the whole shebang arrived at the table.

As good as this dish was (note to Chef: package those tapioca crackers and I will give you my firstborn), the desserts were even better. First up was a sort-of deconstructed pumpkin pie - a slab of soft cinderella pumpkin (yes, there is such a thing - I looked it up) resting on a bed of spice puree (containing cinnamon and nutmeg among others), paired with a sweet nougatine and coffee drops. I was then promptly blown away by the chocolate course, a masterly arrangement of chocolate mousse encased in a shell of cocoa butter and dark chocolate, then placed next to a crispy hazelnut and praline mound, sprayed with orange blossom water, and garnished with a single chocolate-dipped sea bean (which got me thinking of Noma) and a smear of mulled wine glaze (I had to restrain myself from eating the candle - it was not edible).

Perhaps the most incredible aspect of this entire experience was the cost - $90 each for the set menu and no markup for alcohol since it's BYOB. When considering that we've easily paid twice that (or more) for cuisine of comparable quality at swankier locales, I think we may have stumbled upon the best dining value in town. I guess growing older isn't so bad when you're feeling savvier than those whippersnappers downing $20 martinis and gnawing on $60 steaks at Mastro's in River North. Well done, Chef...

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