Last month, I dragged Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette up to Chicago for 9 days (Mrs. Hackknife was also able to join us for a portion of that time), thus satisfying my urges to take full advantage of the kids' summer break. The "official" reason for our first return trip since the move was to visit friends and family we'd left behind; of course, off the record, I shamelessly used the experience to stuff my face with coveted local delicacies that I can no longer obtain whenever the spirit moves me. This included (but was certainly not limited to):
1. Gino's East deep-dish pizza, with a sausage patty covering the entire area of the pie instead of scattered sausage chunks (you bet my spiking LDL, I did). Although the Gino's outlet of my childhood (near Golf and Algonquin in Rolling Meadows) finally closed shop earlier this year, enthusiasts can still find the good stuff on Higgins in Rosemont.
2. My personal vote for best Chicago-style hot dog in a city full of, well, Chicago-style hot dogs (I just realized what a dumb statement that was) Superdawg, serving up boxes of beefy nirvana since 1948 at the intersection of Devon, Nagle, and Milwaukee. Although you can't tell from the picture, there is a beautifully-crafted Chicago dog underneath the crinkle-cut fries (also some of the best in town), pickle spear, sport pepper, and green tomato quarter, which I finally deigned to try for the first time instead of tossing it aside as usual (it turns out they're not half-bad).
3. A luscious Italian beef sandwich with sweet peppers from Portillo's, a Chicago institution now beginning to extend its tentacles out-of-state, including California and Arizona. I took this expansion to be a sign that perhaps a Florida location would not be too far off; alas, Portillo's corporate regrettably confirms that this is not the case (I emailed them to ask).
4. What you see above is called a Johnny Pop. Devised by Long Grove Confectionery in historic downtown Long Grove, IL, it's an apple cider doughnut dipped in chocolate and served on a stick. Had I not known that the doughnut was apple cider, I probably wouldn't have been able to tell, but the chocolate alone was worth the effort.
5. I'm embarrassed to admit that a terrific ice cream parlor has been dishing out premium sweets in my hometown (Mt. Prospect, IL) since 2001 and, until recently, I'd been largely oblivious to its existence (granted, I'd left Mt. Prospect for good 8 years earlier, but still). Chef Jim Capannari opened Capannari Ice Cream (10 S. Pine) in the old Moehling General Store/Post Office (circa 1882) and hasn't looked back, churning up flavors like Lick the Bowl Cake Batter and Frango Mint (which I had to sample on my first visit). I didn't really need more reasons to visit Mt. Prospect again, but apparently, I've found another.
Lest you think that my dining selections in the Windy City were completely limited to lowbrow nostalgia, I made sure that we included some highfalutin nosh as well. While Mrs. H and I enjoyed an adults-only day of fun downtown at the Art Institute, we popped in for lunch at Terzo Piano, a place we never managed to cross off our list when we were locals. TP is primarily a lunch place (open for dinner only on Thursdays) located on the third floor of the museum's relatively-new modern wing. Originally conceived by Chef Tony Mantuano (of Spiaggia fame) to highlight seasonal Italian cuisine, the restaurant is mainly run by alums of Spiaggia. Even though it's been open for about 3 years, reservations are still a bit hard to come by (we had to show up after 1 pm to get a table) and the all-white space is showing a little more wear/tear than I would have expected (I guess that's what happens with a steady stream of tourist traffic). Nonetheless, we were both pleased with our food choices, including the earthy (and ample) English pea spread crostino appetizer that you see below.
My entree consisted of an obscure noodle from Sardinia called malloreddus (I had to look it up - it's a bit canoe-shaped and grooved to maximize sauce retention) mixed with braised rabbit, chili flake, Parmesan, mint, pine nuts, and golden raisins (see photo below). There were so many wonderful flavors and textures at play in this dish that I hardly noticed the squall line blowing in from the west that darkened the room.
Our late lunch did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for dinner at Blackbird (619 W. Randolph) a few hours later, another fine dining establishment that had eluded us all of these years. The crown jewel in Paul Kahan's local restaurant empire, the Michelin-starred Blackbird has been dazzling patrons for 15 years with a modern approach to classic French cooking. The decor is certainly modern (lots of shiny surfaces and straight lines) and you may want to reconsider your presence if noise/claustrophobia isn't your jam (i.e., it's loud and a bit cramped), but the food is nothing short of remarkable. We opted for the day's tasting menu and were not disappointed. My photos of each course are below (and, no, I wasn't using a yellow filter on the lens, that's just Blackbird's "mood lighting" in the dining room):
Shrimp from Laughing Bird Seafood (Costa Rica), date-kaffir lime consomme, green almonds
Chilled spring pea and tofu soup, paddlefish roe, puffed onion, licorice
Hamachi tartare, sprouted lentils, cured rhubarb, spicy marrow, chickweed
Foie gras torchon, kohlrabi, white grape, black sesame, shiitake broth (amazing!)
Roasted halibut, oyster cream, artichoke confit, sea beans, seeds
Wood-grilled sturgeon, chicken wings, marinated kale, turnips, walnut puree
Aged duck breast, broccoli, potato granola, sesame, raisin cream
Sartori raspberry bellavitano cow's milk cheese, pretzel crisps, chocolate stout crumbs, Valrhona Dulcey blond chocolate
Cucumber sorbet, tahitian vanilla, tomato, green strawberries
Roasted peanut ice cream, carrot-barley sponge, honey mousse, pickled carrot, opal basil (try to ignore the fact that it basically resembles vomit on a plate - trust me, it's fantastic)
Clearly, Blackbird operates at an elite level of both style and execution, a disciple of Charlie Trotter's as well as inspiration for newer upscale dining spots like Goosefoot. I have to nominate Chef David Posey's potato granola as the new titleholder for World's Greatest Invention (sorry, sliced bread) and how Dana Cree's intricate desserts made me swoon with little to no use of chocolate is beyond me. Get thee to Blackbird ASAP before this dynamic duo moves on to other ventures.