Thursday, April 19, 2012

Baconfest 2012

The time has arrived for my writeup on everyone's favorite local food gathering devoted to a single, glorious ingredient - yes, Baconfest has again swept through Chicago like a pork-scented squall line raining smoky, fatty goodness all over its life-shortened (yet exuberant) enthusiasts. I was privileged to be attending my second Baconfest (not a foregone conclusion, by the way, as tickets sold out in a mere 15 minutes upon release) and was accompanied this year by Mrs. Hackknife's cousin Bob, who was more than happy to take her place while she enjoyed a Wisconsin spa weekend with the girls. Just like last time, the UIC Forum played host to the event; however, unlike before, the fest was expanded into two separate 3-hour sessions so as to maximize ticket sales without letting too many attendees spoil the vibe. Unfortunately, two sessions meant two sets of exhibitors, so I had to choose in advance which session I felt had the best bacon goodies to offer (of course, there was nothing preventing us from going to BOTH, other than an additional $75 ticket and the potential of a long-term hospital stay). After much deliberation and analysis, I decided that while the evening session had greater star power (Top Chef alumnae such as Stephanie Izard, Sarah Grueneberg, and Heather Terhune), the restaurants featured in the afternoon were a bit better. The table was set: we would be engorging ourselves on pork products and beer from 12:30 to 3:30 (and as I told Bob, it lasts 3 hours, but it doesn't need to).

The big day arrived gray and drizzly as we stood in line outside the forum with about 500 of our closest bacon-loving friends, many of whom sported clever t-shirts much like last year. When the doors opened, Bob and I headed to the first table on my list, Lillie's Q (a fine barbecue joint on North Avenue in Bucktown), featuring what they dubbed "Bacon on Bourbon Street" - a bacon custard-filled bacon beignet with a Cafe du Monde coffee and chicory bacon syrup (sort of like a crazed, feverish New Orleans food dream). Although it was a bit small, this was my idea of a fine breakfast and a great way to start the proceedings. Next to Lillie's was Pleasant House Bakery, Chicago's answer to a British pie shop, whose lads were serving decent-sized portions of a bacon and pork pie with a bacon fat crust - delicious, if not a bit heavy.

I should mention at this point my strategy to help avoid the overindulgence I suffered at last year's fest. Instead of getting samples of everything in sight (certain suicide, although I suppose one could argue that just being here was already that), I advised Bob to skip any table offering burger sliders or pizza, not because they wouldn't be good, but to cut down on the overall consumption mass, freeing up valuable digestive tract space to focus on the best of the best. This, in conjunction with drinking lots of water, is what I believe allowed me to actually feel halfway normal later that evening instead of assuming the fetal position in an Atkins-induced haze. Anyway, the strategy served us well when taking on such unholy creations as the bacon grenades (sausage wrapped in bacon and deep-fried, a Simpsons episode come to life) offered by Paddy Long's and the amazing bacon fat biscuit with crispy bacon, pea gravy, and piccalilli prepared by Southern cuisine wizard Paul Fehribach at Big Jones (a place I absolutely cannot wait to visit). Some creations were a bit out there, such as the bacon rice crispies from Hearty (the addition of peanut butter Captain Crunch-infused milk did little to improve the dish) or the pork belly taco on a chocolate tortilla from Mexique (not one of my favorites). Some of the plates were upscale, such as the Signature Room's bacon-wrapped rabbit loin with asparagus/morel ragu (very good), Pure Kitchen's Arabica coffee-cured bacon with black olive puree, scotch/coffee crunch, and peppermint (not so much), and Inovasi's quick-cured pork belly with Anson Mills farro verde, Argyle St. spice, peanuts, and wild ramp salsa (delicious). And some, such as the thick-cut bacon coated with brown sugar and honey from Uncle Bub's BBQ, were just classic and let the ingredient of honor stand out without gimmick.

My favorite bites of the day both had a Japanese flair to them. The top dish IMHO belonged to Chizakaya, a Japanese bar food joint in Lincoln Park, whose chef (Harold Jurado) was passing out what he called "baconmiyaki". This was described as a Japanese-style stuffed pizza (more like a little pancake) with Nueske's bacon, Napa cabbage, pickled ginger, scallion, shrimp, nori (seaweed), and bonito flakes (which make everything better), a combination of several tastes and textures that combined into an incredible, cross-cultural whole (I pray this is on the menu when we visit his restaurant). Second best was the panko-coated bacon with baby arugula salad served with a bacon reduction and house tonkatsu sauce prepared by Union Sushi and BBQ. Special mention goes out to highly-anticipated restaurant Moderno, whose doors won't even open until April 30 (indeed, the head chef told me that this was their first official event), yet here they were passing out homemade bacon cannoli with shaved Reggiano and crushed pea powder (delicious, but far too large) to the masses.

Other than the aforementioned water, we were pleased to be able to wash down all this bacon with great beer, specifically newcomer Greenbush Brewing Co. from nearby Sawyer, Michigan (beer-connoisseur Bob had been talking up their beers while we had been waiting in line outside). They came to Chicago with 4 beers on tap, 3 of which I was able to try: the Divine Rabbits (a Berlinerweis served with a shot of Jo Snow woodruff syrup), a Doomslayer (maple brown), and a Rage (Imperial Black IPA), all of which were hearty and terrific (I suspect we may have a new brewery to add to our list of upcoming tours). Artisanal rye whiskey maker Templeton Rye from Iowa was also passing out its wares, but sadly, I had to pass since I was the driver (another day, my friends). Regardless, both Bob and I were greatly impressed with all aspects of the event, from the food to the service (all of the volunteers did a great job). I'm already looking ahead to Baconfest 2013, chewing on celery in anticipation....

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