Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Purple Pig

With our time in Chicago running ever shorter, the missus and I made the executive decision to start picking restaurants from the very top of the hit list as we scheduled various going-away meals. Up first, the Purple Pig (500 N. Michigan), a Mediterranean-influenced swine and wine emporium started a few years ago by Chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. and his prominent financial partners (including Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia fame, Scott Harris of the Francesca's empire, and pop Jimmy Bannos Sr., most well-known for Heaven on Seven). Back before my blogging days, I had the good fortune of standing in line at Great Lake Pizza next to the chef's mom, who at the time told me about the pending opening of her son's new eatery. This was late 2009 - since PP fired up its grills shortly thereafter, it's been nearly impossible to get a table as the place is small, reservations are not accepted, and the food is allegedly kickass. What better time to dine there than a Monday night in winter immediately following the Super Bowl, right? Well, that pretty much worked for us - we (we being me, Mrs. Hackknife, my cousin P.J., and his wife Megan) still had to sit at a communal table, but only after a modest 20-minute wait.

Once inside, I quickly appreciated the conundrum of dining here. The restaurant really IS small (seating for maybe 50 if everyone sucks their guts in) and the kitchen is impossibly tiny considering the magical dishes emanating from it. We started with a selection of antipasti items, including pork-fried almonds with rosemary & garlic (totally addictive), salt-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette (as a semi-authority on beet roasting and not much else, I found these a little underwhelming), and our server's recommendation on some cured meats and cheeses. We all loved the cured meats (jamon Serrano, tartufo - a salami made with black truffles, and Catalonian fuet - a dry Spanish pork sausage) and the cheeses (caprino tartufo - a goat cheese studded with black truffle, quadrello - a buffalo milk cheese, and piave vecchio - similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano), which you can see in the photo below; however, there were plenty other menu items to explore.

We subsequently went a little crazy and ordered up a few more goodies (since, you know, small plates of stuff don't really count towards daily caloric intake). Croquettes of fried manchego cheese with a sweet membrillo (like a quince marmalade) were sinfully delicious, as was one of the house specialties, strips of crispy pig's ear with kale chips (slightly better than my house recipe), pickled cherry peppers, and a fried egg on top (which I gingerly worked around). Equally decadent was a rich rillette made from pork neck bone meat/fat, paired with a mostarda (a mustard and candied fruit syrup common in Italy) and crunchy toast points for spreading). By the time we sliced into the milk-braised pork shoulder with mashed potatoes, our bevy was hitting the proverbial wall, but we rallied in time to enjoy an amazing dessert of panini stuffed with Nutella and something that resembled marshmallow fluff (see photo below).

Clearly, my recommendation to you is not to be deterred by the extended wait times and no reservation policy at PP, as the payoff is well worth the inconvenience and lack of personal space...

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Office

Many people are unaware that there's an exclusive speakeasy located in the basement of the Next/Aviary building called the Office. When I say "exclusive", I mean the very definition of the word in that you can't just show up - admittance is by invitation only. Fortunately for those of us who are not VIPs, getting inside isn't all that difficult if you're a diner at Next. I read somewhere that the restaurant waitstaff will usually take you down there after your meal if you just ask nicely (and if they have room) and, lo and behold, this methodology worked for our table when we recently had the Hunt menu.

I'd always wondered where exactly the Office's entryway was - you can imagine my surprise when I realized that it's a simple, unmarked metal door with no knob (as it locks from the inside, someone has to open it for you) at the bottom of the stairs, right next to the bathrooms.

Once inside, you find yourself in a room not that much bigger than the kitchen at the Commissary (although it's much more tastefully decorated). There's a wooden bar behind which rest many, many bottles of top-shelf liquor, comfy couches/chairs, random paintings, and fairly low lighting (see photo above), a nice lounge environment in which to enjoy after-dinner drinks and civilized conversation (or some reasonable facsimile thereof).

Speaking of the drinks, they're not cheap. I had a difficult time identifying anything with a single digit price tag on the drink list, but if you can afford to eat highfalutin cuisine upstairs, presumably you can drop $18 on a good bottle of beer. This is exactly what most of our group did - 3 of the 4 of us opted for beers from Evil Twin, a Denmark-based microbrewery whose stock is quickly rising among hop enthusiasts. I chose the Yin, an American double/Imperial stout, while Mrs. Hackknife had a Yang, similar except an IPA (in case you're wondering, yes, they do offer a separate Yin & Yang bottling that combines the two brews into a Black & Tan). Had I imbibed here before dinner, I would have been tempted to get some Pappy Van Winkle bourbon and the $30 banana split, which is for 2 and is supposed to be phenomenal - maybe next time. Still, being able to hang out in the Office with good friends and a good drink was the perfect way to cap off the evening's festivities...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Next (The Hunt Menu)

When the time came to renew our season tickets to Next, there was still some uncertainty as to exactly which date we'd be departing Chicago for good. I knew that the first of the 3 menus for 2013 (entitled "The Hunt") would be occurring during our transition from north to south and, at the time, early March seemed to be a safe choice for Hunt tickets. However, shortly after I bought our new seats, Mrs. Hackknife discovered that her new employer wanted her in Tampa by 3/1 - I thus found myself scrambling to trade our table (originally slated for 3/4) for an earlier seating. Luckily, I was able to secure a 4-top in late January (also enabling us to invite our foodie friends, Phil and Karen, to join us again) so that we wouldn't miss out. This was a good thing since all early indications from the culinary cognoscenti was that the Hunt featured a spectacular lineup of creations by Chef Dave Beran and his crew.

Once seated, we were given a little notecard (sealed with wax and a single feather - pheasant?) explaining the premise behind the menu, which focused on the relationship between hunting animals and the natural environment where they live, in this case, the Upper Midwest (Chefs Beran and Achatz both hail from this region). Not only were game meats included, but also fish and vegetables (as they can be found in the lakes and forests, too), prepared using a variety of methods, such as smoking, preserving, and grilling, plus a dose of hands-off treatment (think foraging) for good measure. Our first course, in fact, featured some raw grub, a single hen-of-the-woods mushroom atop a warm stone with garlic, onion, and rosemary, encased in a glass container (see photo below). The aroma of the steaming herb was enticing and the mushroom wasn't bad, except for the fact that, well, it was a mushroom.

Much more palatable to me was the concentrated mushroom consomme that accompanied the fungus box, served in a simple wooden bowl (see photo below) and packing the punch of French onion soup on steroids (without the melted gruyere topping or the croutons). Every sinus cavity in my head was instantly and completely opened by this magic broth (it should be canned and placed in the cold & flu aisle at Target).

The subsequent course (featuring the bounty of the Great Lakes) was also very tasty, a slab of smoked lake trout (not unlike what you'd find over at Calumet Fisheries) and a glass jar filled with walleye rillettes, plus pieces of pumpernickel bread and some pickled kohlrabi (see photo below). Now that I've had the opportunity to sample a few different kinds, I'm fully convinced that anything with "rillette" in the name is going to make me swoon.

After the fish came what was possibly the most inventive dish (or collection of dishes) of the Hunt menu. A slab of birch limb (upon inquiry, our server assured us that it was "fully dishwashable") was placed in front of each of us, atop which rested 5 separate little piles of cured meats (see photo below) to made up this "Charcu-Tree". The cured bites included (from left to right) a rabbit pate, spicy elk jerky, a mild boar salami, antelope heart tartare that had an unexpected Asian flair (lemongrass?) to it, and a decadent blood sausage. There are many restaurants in town that are doing house-made charcuterie these days, but I'm guessing that none of them are like this.

Just when I thought the onslaught of game meat had been unleashed with the last course, the chefs threw us a little curveball, presenting a dainty plate with cellar-aged carrots and french fried onions (see photo below). The carrots had been picked during the final fall harvest in October, then aged in sawdust for 3 months before being disinterred, cooked, and doused with a buttery orange sauce. My mummified carrot ended up being the smallest of the 4 at our table, which made me quite jealous since the dish was a complete knockout (call me crazy, but I picked up notes of the ketchup and mustard that top a McDonald's cheeseburger, and I mean this in a good way).

It took us a couple of minutes to realize that the next dish was a clever play on bacon and eggs. The bite on the left consisted of scrambled (yaaa!) duck egg wrapped in radicchio, while its counterpart was a chewy, smoked duck tongue (tasted just like bacon) with apple and an apple cider vinegar sauce (see photo below). IHOP needs to add this duck breakfast creation to its menu tout suite.

Just as delicious (if not quite as unusual) was the poached sturgeon medallion that followed (on what appeared to be one of the gold-rimmed plates from the Paris 1906 menu), which was covered in a caviar-laden beurre blanc sauce (it's hard to see in the photo below, but there's also a crispy sunchoke underneath the fish). This was one of those dishes where I had to resist the urge to plate-lick when everything else had been snapped up.

Another elegant show-stopper arrived next (clearly, we had reached the fine dining portion of our menu, with the fancy plates and the candelabra and such - I half-expected to hear Escoffier barking out orders in the kitchen), two pieces of tender woodcock stuffed with a forcemeat of liver, heart, and truffle, garnished with huckleberries (which, come to think of it, may be part of the woodcock's diet). Just for some added panache, a little bit of truffle and unsweetened chocolate was dusted over the top of the bird (see photo below).

The subsequent course consisted of three separate parts, each featuring a different portion of squab (basically a demonstration of how every piece of the bird could be put to use). First was the roasted breast (see photo below), looking and tasting very much like rich duck, bathed in a blood sauce just like the duck from the Paris menu (I'm told that they brought out the same duck presses for this one). Also on the plate is the squab leg meat and even the head (it's a little hard to see on top of the pile - look for the beak), which was stuffed with a mixture of finely-chopped squab brain seasoned with breadcrumbs. Our server instructed us to suck the brain-breadcrumb mixture out of the head cavity - this was my first dining experience with brain and, although I think it wasn't bad, I can't really say how much of the mixture I was able to extract (we all found it to be somewhat awkward).

No tongue contortions were required for Part 2 of the course, a bowl of insanely-rich steel cut oats cooked in more blood and chopped-up squab organs (see photo below), and possibly even a little foie gras. If this is what oatmeal was normally like, I'd be eating it every morning (at least until advised otherwise by a medical professional).

An odd-looking assortment of roasted bones made up the third part of the squab course (see photo below). These were the backbones, which didn't have much meat on them, but was scrumptious nonetheless. We were instructed to get dirty, using our fingers to gnaw off any tasty morsels.

Another unexpected dish came next in the form of a birch bark plate (again, dishwasher-safe) topped with a collection of mostly vegetarian ingredients (pumpkin seeds, bits of parsnip, purple cauliflower, edible bark, and fried seaweed) and one not-so-vegetarian (a kidney mustard). Like the carrot/onion dish earlier, this course was amazingly savory for including primarily vegetables (if the Vegan menu this summer ends up full of these types of things, I'm going to be pretty bummed that we missed it). My photo of the beautiful presentation turned out lousy, so I'm directing everyone to Serious Eats Chicago's picture here.

One more meat course appeared just before dessert, this time thin slices of raw bison that we were instructed to cook on a hot, black rock placed in the middle of the table (I recall doing something like this in Japan - see photo below).

The meat cooked very quickly and was ready to eat in about 20 seconds. The garnishes were simple, just some onion, leek, and a bearnaise sauce (see photo below).

Our first dessert pretty much made everyone's head explode, eliciting wild superlatives from each of us. A cross-cut section of bone was cleared of marrow and refilled with a marrow-based creme brulee more decadent than anything the French could conceive (see photo below). The portion was small, but what was there packed a solid jolt of ethereal sugar and fat (I don't think I could have handled anything much bigger).

Not quite as amazing, but still good was the small iron pot of long-grain Maris Otter barley pudding that followed (see photos below). Small glass bowls containing (from left to right) dried tart cherries, candied pecans, brown sugar, English toffee, and mint leaves were provided for each diner to customize his/her pudding experience. I'm guessing that this dish may have been a campfire favorite from Chef Achatz or Beran's youth.

Last, but not least, was one final dessert inspired by the maple syrup farmers of Quebec. A narrow, metal trough filled with shaved ice was placed on the table, atop which was drizzled some high-end maple syrup that quickly cooled into almost a taffy-like consistency (see photo below).

Our server gave us twigs so that we could twirl up the maple "taffy" and direct it mouthward, a technique used by generations of French-Canadian kids to get a tasty treat (see photo below).

Even though it's pointless to compare the various Next menus, I'm going to do it anyway and say that the Hunt has to rank among the best of the 6 I've been fortunate to experience (but, really, they've all been terrific). I continue to be astonished by how well Chef Beran and his staff are able to repeatedly conceptualize a series of dishes around a theme that's not tied to a particular place or time and then execute them flawlessly. We'll soon be out-of-towners, however, I'll gladly commit the added time and expense needed to return from Tampa for future menus as long as we're able to do so...

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Manny's/Dat Donut

Ever since he joined Cub Scouts late last year, Hackknife Jr. had his heart set on an overnight at one of the local museums. Unfortunately, the sleepover for his first choice, the Field (where the dinosaurs live), is taking place after we skip town in a few weeks, so Mrs. Hackknife made arrangements for he and I to stay at the Adler Planetarium this past Friday night instead. Hungry space enthusiasts need a good meal before an evening of sky shows and mock rocket launches, so we popped in to Manny's Delicatessen (1141 S. Jefferson) on the way, a Chicago institution serving up fine Jewish food since 1942. Service here is cafeteria-style - you grab a tray and head up the line past the metal pans of soups, salads, and other goodies to place your order, which can be a bit intimidating to newbies since the white-coated staff behind the counter likes to move quickly. Famous for their corned beef and pastrami sandwiches (everyone from mayors to sitting presidents stop by for a photo op with one), I chose the half corned beef on rye with a bowl of kreplach (basically dumplings filled with meat) soup and a potato pancake on the side, while Jr. went with a hot dog and chips. I was glad I stuck with the half sandwich - the grizzled septuagenarian slicing the brisket (a job I imagine he's performed for 50-odd years) piled it so high I could barely find the bread on the plate (see photo above). Not quite as fatty as the pastrami found at Fumare in the French Market, the corned beef was still excellent and surprisingly mild. When accompanied by 4 pickles (Hackknife Jr. gave me his 2 to go with mine) and a Dr. Brown's Cream Soda, this made for a mighty fine pre-flight meal.

After scant sleep that night, we skipped out of the Planetarium a little early to pick up some donuts to bring home to the rest of the Hackknife household. I recently read a story about how one of the best barbecue purveyors on the South Side (Uncle John's) was making arrangements to move into some vacant space in a nearby beloved donut shop called Dat Donut (8249 S. Cottage Grove). Fortunately for us, DD happened to be on our route home, so we headed over there to investigate. Located in the quiet Chatham Park neighborhood (not quite as rough around the edges as Roseland), the shop nonetheless uses a plexiglass divider for employee safety (similar to Exsenator's in Markham), although I suspect most bandits are still in bed at 7:30 on a Saturday morning. Clearly, they have a loyal following as we had to briefly wait in line before placing our order, a half-dozen mixed donuts including glazed, chocolate, and blueberry (a bargain at only $6). I have to say I enjoyed all 3 varieties, with the glazed having a slight edge over the others, light and airy with a nice balance of sweet and savory. If we're fortunate enough to find donuts like these somewhere in Tampa, we'll be doing just fine...

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Frog N Snail

With less than 3 weeks to go before the big move, our frantic dining pace continues as I'm now starting to fall behind on my postings (it's conceivable that I'll be writing about a few Chicago places from the confines of our new Florida home, with the warmth and sunshine hopefully adding a rosy glow to my otherwise-drab verbiage). For a while, Mrs. Hackknife and I had been talking with Cheryl, a former high school classmate of mine (and relatively-recent new co-worker of hers), about a dinner date at one of Chef Dale Levitski's two restaurants in town. Chef Dale also happens to be a Prospect grad and friend of Cheryl's from high school swim team, all of which obviously took place before his leap to local stardom in Season 3 of Top Chef. Anyway, with time running short, all of the interested parties finally managed to synch up schedules for a Friday night visit to Frog N Snail (3124 N. Broadway), Chef Dale's newer, more casual eatery focused (like many others now) on farm-to-table small plates. Having been to several of these restaurants in the past year, I'm finding the biggest problem is that there's just too much good stuff to try in a single visit (and FNS was certainly no exception).

Once settled at our table with a couple of drinks, the 3 of us reviewed the menu and tried to narrow down our selections. No stranger to fine dining herself (her foodie experiences while on assignment in New York City put ours to shame), Cheryl assured us she was open to anything, so we made a first pass by ordering 4 diverse dishes to share. A lovely meat-and-cheese plate called "This n That" featured Pleasant Ridge Reserve (an oft-awarded Alpine-style cheese from Uplands Dairy in Wisconsin), genoa salami, smoked duck breast, and a (thankfully) small dollop of foie gras mousse. Just as tasty were a small bowl of homemade ricotta with bacon, broccoli, and herbs and a plate of truffle dumplings (almost like gnocchi) garnished with cauliflower and leeks. Our favorite, however, in this first bunch was the Swee'Tarte, a delicate pastry shell filled with caramelized onions and fontina cheese, served with a blood orange chicory salad and a summer peach vin (you can see a great picture of this creation on the FNS website here).

Now having hit our stride, we decided to move down the menu to a section simply titled "Put an Egg on It", featuring dishes that are all topped with some sort of egg as a finishing touch (egg-topping is becoming so much of a trend now that it would be almost cliched if people didn't like it so much - see belly, pork). Always a little wary of eggs unless they've been scrambled, I was pleasantly surprised with our selection, a set of crostini holding salmon, white anchovy, red onion, and mustard, plus a "cracked egg" that ended up being more or less like scrambled (at least close enough to keep me interested).

At this point, we were starting to waver a bit - should we continue or just call it quits and get the dessert menu? The siren call of two more menu items proved too strong to ignore, however, and we dove into a wonderful plate of duck leg confit pierogi (see photo above, at left) accompanied by brussels sprouts, cauliflower, celery root slaw, and saffron creme fraiche, plus what turned out to be the evening's highlight. With this dish, Chef Dale has conjured up what should be his signature creation moving forward: the "Hawkeye" (a nod to his collegiate days at the University of Iowa), which includes what appears to be just a thin, pan-fried pork tenderloin, flopping over the edges of the egg bun like a pig's ear (see photo above, at right). The pork tenderloin sandwich is one of two things that Iowa foodies usually mention when referring to their state's cuisine, but that's not what makes the Hawkeye distinctive; rather, it's the Maid-Rite-style loose meat (the other thing that Iowa foodies adore) that the chef clandestinely tucks away into a scooped-out hollow of the top bun. The combination of the tenderloin and the loose meat is truly sublime and every Iowan from Sioux City to Dubuque should be dismounting their John Deeres and proceeding directly to FNS posthaste for one of these beauties (oh, I almost forgot - it comes with fries and slaw, but these are largely overshadowed by the sandwich).

Of course, now that we'd been completely deviant, we still needed to have dessert (a choice I'd come to regret later that evening as I agonized in bed, but that's not important now). Cheryl was kind enough to work her connections with the kitchen to get us a free dessert (and I can't say enough about Chef Dale, who came over to speak with us a couple of times and was nothing but a gracious host) when we couldn't decide between the "grasshopper pie" pot de creme (a homemade brownie topped with marshmallow and mint custard) and the tarte au citron (vanilla creme, lemon curd, shortbread, and hibiscus syrup), both of which were terrific. As we rolled out of the restaurant onto the street, I realized that our list of dining establishments that are must-visits on trips back to Chicago is getting a little too long...