Pilot Light: Chi-Town Is Chow-Town
Ariane Batterberry / July 2013
I just made a short trip to Chicago, which I have long considered to be a world-class restaurant city, and far more interesting than many European capitals. All this happened quite suddenly. When I was young, the trip from New York City to California on the Twentieth Century Limited broke in Chicago with just enough time to have lunch at The Pump Room (of the then–Ambassador East Hotel), the only place to go. More recently, if you were in Chicago and couldn’t cop a reservation at Gordon Sinclair’s Gordon’s, you were in trouble. And then along came Charlie Trotter.
My first stop was Grace, Charlie Trotter’s alum Curtis Duffy’s new restaurant, which is the talk of Chicago, or I should perhaps say murmur, because everything about Grace is light, delicate, minimal. The menu listings, divided into Flora and Fauna, run to entries such as “Beet, black garlic, apple, TARRAGON.” At first I thought this concision was an affectation, but I now see that for cuisine such as this, it makes great sense, because the dishes are in fact so complex that a full account could not be given in the usual way.
Duffy’s food is a symphony of contrasts—salty and sweet, hot and cold, sweet and bitter, crisp and liquid. The beet dish consisted of a sublime mélange of roasted, marinated baby beets, bits of apple confit, black barley, mascarpone, tarragon leaves, and red ribbon sorrel on a golden beet puree protected by a moat of apple milk with little floating puddles of tarragon oil. This was preceded by an amuse of a slightly warm dried date stuffed with a lime segment, encased in hibiscus sugar. Bread was a rosemary brioche lighter than a baby’s breath. My Fauna dish was “Lamb, kale, parsley root, MINER’S LETTUCE.” For dessert, the “Poached Pear, elderflower, tamarind juice, FENNEL” (which posed for our May cover) was a triumph. Pears poached in tamarind and cardamom were sliced and curled into little buds with a puree of tamarind in their center, and set afloat on a puddle of elderflower fronded with fennel and dotted with ethereal clouds of cardamom meringue, the whole an airborne explosion of flavor.
Other news in Chicago: Carrie and Michael Nahabedian have just opened Brindille. It is both elegant and bustling, with knockout food. My first course was a happy marriage of on-the-bone frog’s legs meunière sitting on a “blanc-manger of cauliflower and parsley” (and toasted hazelnuts) with ramps and green garlic—not easy to eat (consuming frog’s legs is like gnawing on toothpicks) but hugely rewarding. I followed this with a Dover sole meunièred with grapefruit. The sharpness of the grapefruit clashed gloriously with the buttery sweetness of the sole, creating a whole new “meunière” experience. This was topped off with a clafoutis that was the real thing—a panned cake piping hot from the oven, embedded with cherries and cooled with crème chantilly.
Before leaving, I nipped into Paul Kahan’s Avec for a quick meal of inventive dishes. My favorite was a fat, luscious date stuffed with spicy chorizo in a tomato sauce. A chorizo stuffed date? Sweet and salty are “in,” but this takes it to another level altogether.
Ariane Batterberry, Founding Editor/Publisher