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...