Monday, November 5, 2012
Mrs. Hackknife and I recently had a long-awaited couples dinner date at a long-anticipated Chicago restaurant. The couple in question was Mrs. Hackknife's work colleague, Hanif, and his wife, Nicole, with whom we'd been trying to get together for about 6 months (as always, work/family schedules proved difficult to synch up). The restaurant in question was Nightwood (2119 S. Halsted), a much-lauded farm-to-table venture from the folks that brought us (the also much-lauded) Lula Cafe in Logan Square a few years ago, Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds. I'd been eager to dine at Nightwood for quite some time, going as far as to make reservations for us to celebrate my birthday in 2011 there; unfortunately, my grandmother's passing on the day of our meal forced us to postpone our visit. Oddly, it was the sudden closure of Bonsoiree (our original agreed-upon venue with Hanif and Nicole) that created this latest opportunity for us to eat at Nightwood, which was my backup choice for our dinner date (evidence that everything comes around eventually, I guess).
The restaurant is located on a relatively-quiet stretch of Halsted Street in Pilsen, a predominantly-Latino neighborhood that has begun gentrifying over to modern art galleries and coffee shops. The road layout in the immediate area is a little challenging to negotiate with the hulking overpasses of the Dan Ryan and Stevenson Expressways looming nearby, dead-ending a number of routes from the Loop that one would normally expect to go through (I had to pick up Mrs. Hackknife at her office downtown before proceeding back south to our destination). Once we navigated our way through the travel confusion and found a parking spot down the block, we stepped into the crowded-yet-jovial atmosphere of the bar area from the closed-in patio (now covered for the cooler months). Although a little cramped, our table was right next to the open kitchen, giving us a decent view of the goings-on inside. What was going on was quite tasty: a warm eggplant salad with peanuts, arugula, honey, lemon, apples, and ricotta; a whole Japanese mackerel, deep-fried and plopped on a plate with pickled watermelon, grapes, leeks, cherry tomatoes, and a foie gras butter (nice touch, I might add); and cheese/potato gnocchi interspersed with beef brisket shreds, sage, and parsnip jam, all of which we shared at the table as our appetizers. The entrees were just as impressive, with Mrs. Hackknife indulging in a chicken-fried lamb chop garnished with a melange of creamed spinach, fall tomatoes, and smoked Wisconsin trout and me blissing out on a fine platter of rich Michigan duck leg, applewood-smoked and served with arugula, romesco, grilled duck liver, and pears (see photo above).
Since I've been on a bourbon cocktail kick lately, especially at farm-to-table eateries (see Vie, Tupelo Honey, et. al.), I tried a glass of the house punch named "the Fog", consisting of Cane & Abel rum, Buffalo Trace bourbon, Averna amaro (a Sicilian liqueur), Fee's bitters, and Kilgus Farm milk, giving it the distinctive look of a White Russian - sadly, I can't say that I'd order another. Much better were our desserts, a decadent bittersweet chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and milk chocolate hot fudge, plus a buttermilk panna cotta with glazed raspberries and citrus sugar cookies. The consensus at the table among the two couples was that our second dinner choice served us up a first-rate experience and, although Vie still gets my vote for undisputed king of farm-to-table cuisine in Chicago, I'd gladly dine at Nightwood anytime again (after consulting Google Maps, of course)....