Let's get one thing straight: I get paid to eat.‚ That doesn't mean every meal is rapture, but it does give me an opportunity to try things you might otherwise not know about. I'm guessing you probably already have an RSS feed pouring in every day, giving you information about the latest openings; you also probably follow a few people on Twitter or even check out the Facebook News Feed of a few notable food writers.‚ I realize there are dozens, if not hundreds of choices you can make for your daily dose of food information.‚ My hope for this blog is to give you a little window into my world.‚ I'm not interested in telling you about places offering $2 shots and 2-for-1 vodka-and-Red-Bulls, but rather, to share with you some of my eating and drinking experiences - both the good and the not-so-good.‚ Even though I'm based in Chicago - and file three reports each week for ABC 7 - I also travel a fair amount, and will be blogging from some of those places along the way.‚ I hope you enjoy the read, and as always, I welcome your comments, feedback and input.
The Purple Pig
Late last week, I popped into The Purple Pig, just off of Michigan Avenue.‚ It has a rather odd entrance.‚ You have to go into the 500 N. Michigan Ave. building, say a quick hello to the security desk, then walk to the left, down a hallway, and in through the front door.‚ Talk about a change of scenery.‚ From the drab, corporate lobby, you cross the threshold into a cozy room, covered with decorative Spanish tiles and tightly-packed tables along the walls.‚ A giant food counter against the open kitchen is perfect for voyeurs.‚ The "Pig" is a family affair; Chef Jimmy Bannos (Heaven on Seven) is a partner with long-time friend Scott Harris (Mia Francesca).‚ But it's Bannos' son, Jimmy Jr., who is working the line, cranking out the food.‚ As I tweeted the night after I ate there, I haven't felt this way about eating in a new restaurant in Chicago since I went to Avec.
"We're serving the food we like to eat," Bannos Sr. told me.‚ That means sardines (currently fried on the menu, but soon to be simply grilled), or a salad of shredded and fried pig's ear with crispy kale and cherry peppers, topped with a fried egg you get to incorporate, bibimbop-style.‚ A "smears" section of the menu contains highlights such as roasted bone marrow and a caper-parsley salad, paired with giant hunks of grilled peasant bread dressed with olive oil, or even better, a cazuela filled with a rich, meaty pork neck bone gravy and a giant dollop of ricotta cheese - Bannos Jr.'s grandma's recipe.
As I glanced the menu, spotting all sorts of odd bits and pieces - pork liver pâté, lardo crostini, pig's tails braised in balsamic vinegar - I was reminded of St. John, the seminal nose-to-tail restaurant in London, helmed by Fergus Henderson.‚ His bone marrow salad is a classic, and he thinks nothing of serving heart, liver, lung and tail.‚ Bannos Jr. spent nearly four years working for Mario Batali at various restaurants in New York, and his Cured Meat section of the menu reflects that experience (tongue, headcheese, salumi) but more than anything, it's the location where all of this exciting food is being served that kept surprising me. I mean, here we were, devouring milk-braised pork shoulder and chicken thigh kebabs with fried yukon golds (smashed thin) served over a homemade tzatziki - and yet the Disney stage for the Michigan Avenue Lights Festival was just across the street, and right outside the front door, millions of tourists clutching Gap bags would no doubt be deciding between Bandera or Grand Lux Cafe for their lunch or dinner.
I think that's what is the most impressive element. The fact that Bannos & Co. have set up the kind of restaurant hard-core foodies love to patronize, in an area previously reserved for national chains offering marginally exciting dining experiences.‚ God bless the tourists. Incidentally, while I was eating dinner, I was seated next to Rodney Alex, the charismatic owner of Juicy Wine Co., who - in addition to sharing his crazy-good smear of whipped feta with cucumbers - told me that the '07 vintage of California wines is spectacular.‚ "Buy as much as you can, red or white," he told me.‚ "Even the cheap stuff is going to be great.‚ They had a perfect growing season - long, hot days and cool nights - just enough moisture too."‚ Cheers to that. Foodie Notes:
- A couple of places around town are getting into the spirit of National Pizza Week: Pizzeria Via Stato (620 N. State, 312-642-8450) has half-price pies everyday this week from 2:30 - 4:30 p.m.
- During the month of January - at lunch service only - Custom House (500 S. Dearborn, 312-523-0200) is bringing back its $5 burger.‚ Containing a ground mixture of steak, pork chop and short rib, chef Aaron Deal tops it with caramelized onions, house-cured bacon and homemade steak sauce.‚ It's all jammed between a poppyseed-fennel bun.
- Tomorrow night, Jan. 12, Cafe Matou (1846 N Milwaukee Ave., 773-384-8911) in Bucktown is hosting a Normandy Wine Dinner.‚ Price is $59 per person, all inclusive. Reservations required.The four-course dinner will feature food and wines from Northwest France.‚ Here's the menu:
Tasting platter of seafood with winter veg relishes Market fish and mushrooms baked in a hard cider cream Grilled chicken breast with cauliflower puree and hollandaise sauce Souffle fritters served with caramelized apples
- Beginning tomorrow, every Tuesday is "4-4-44 Night" at Province (161 North Jefferson St., 312-669-9900), as Chef Randy Zweiban offers a seasonal four-course menu, paired with four wines for $44.‚ Regular dinner menu is available as well.
- On Wednesday the 13th, mixologist Victor Baheza teaches neophytes how to make the perfect mojito at Carnivale (702 W. Fulton, 312-850-5005) beginning at 6:30 p.m.‚ Cost for the class is $25
- On Thursday, the 14th, Mixologist/Bar Chef (and soon-to-be author) Adam Seger leads a "Hot Drinks" class at Nacional 27 (325 W. Huron, 312-664-2727) beginning at 5:30 p.m.‚ His popular monthly cocktail class series is hands-on, and takes place the second Thursday of every month. The one-hour class will highlight hot drinks, such as Seger's "Hot Buttered Hum" and "Hot Agave Mocha." Guest will be able to sip drinks, nosh on apps and also take home recipe cards Cost is $27 per person. To purchase tickets, visit N27chicago.com or call 312-664-2727.