Chicago's meatpacking district is fast becoming the culinary soul of this city's amazing dining scene. Just like Les Halles in Paris, this neighborhood across the river from the loop was once the belly of Chicago, where butchers and meat packers ruled the bustling street corners. I used to come to this area to pick up some of my Filipino food staples from
the distribution center turned grocery store on Lake street. I remember how hard it was to find the place since its front door next to a loading dock resembled pretty much every building in the area. As the El train creaked its way through the tracks above, delivery guys rushed dollies of beef carcasses and pork butts from their trucks to a back room in the building as if prohibition was still in force. Sinister looking men in bloodied aprons would appear out of nowhere like a Capone movie; screaming obscenities at the delivery guys without fear of any retribution.
Times have changed. The creative types have moved in and nasty warehouses have been converted into hip design offices with illy espresso machines and canopied decks. The grungy loading trucks with cartoon pigs and cows painted on its sides have been replaced with Volvo SUV trucks with heated seats and iPod docks. The butchers are still around, but this time, they don striped aprons and offer charcuterie with artisanal goat cheese on a platter.
Restaurant rock stars such as Avec, Blackbird and Publican have taken over. And the latest entry on the Randolph street stretch is Girl and the Goat or G&G as the locals call it. At the helm is season four Top Chef winner, Stephanie Izard. The hype surrounding G&G's opening this past summer was synonymous to an upcoming Obama speech during the election cycle in 2008. So on this last trip to Chicago, I wanted to find out myself whether the restaurant lived up to all the hype.
I arrived to a bustling restaurant filled with foodie and expense account types. A group of young Asian professionals sipped their crafty cocktails in the cozy banquette seating across form the bar. Two large tables in the back of the restaurant were boisterous with foodie chatter. Dining alone, I sat at the corner of the bar to get a panoramic view of the dimly lit restaurant. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of chef Izard slaving away behind the line while barking orders at her Mexican line cooks (Mexicans rule almost every kitchen line in Chicago). But on this night, there were no chef stars, just the quiet open kitchen buzz behind the dining room.
I sat next to a foodie salesman from California who made it his mission to dine at nice restaurants in every city he visits. While waiting for my first order, he had me try his Grilled Baby Octopus, Serrano, Treviso, Celery Root, Braised Pistachio and Red Bliss Potato ($12) small plate which was a terrific start to prep my palette for the next round of small plates. I love Octopus and the layers surrounding this dish was an orchestra of flavors.
On the advise of my server, I followed the octopus with the Wood Roasted Pig Face, Sunny Side Egg, Tamarind, Cilantro and Potato Stix ($16) I had no idea how this dish was going to be presented. I feared some sort of banging of pots from the kitchen to announce another "sucker" ordered the dish as the server laid a platter with a pig's face on a bed of arugula. I was pleasantly surprised to see the face served like a roulade with a perfectly cooked egg on top (everything taste better with an egg!). The face was crispy and woodsy on the outside, and firm, yet succulent on the inside. It was like biting into a smokey portobello steak. I give G&G a big star for making this dish and it was definitely the highlight of my evening.
I rarely encounter a mussel dish I didn't like, but to my disappointment, the Steamed Mussels, Goat Sausage Croutons, Cilantro and Bagna Cauda($13) was a dish that failed to impress me. First of all, the massive croutons overwhelmed the dish at first sight. It appeared like a seafood panzanella (and I was not in the mood for a summer salad). The mussels were plump but were lukewarm in temperature. Normally an aromatic dish, none of the broth flavors layered the mussels. I tried to savor the aroma by waving my hand over the dish, but the lack of steaming broth in the bowl did not help my cause. It's sad to say but the dish was simply bland.
Like any good restaurant, sometimes dishes just don't come out of the kitchen line as intended by the chef. Perhaps, my mussel dish was one of the last dishes created that evening and the cooks were more anxious about going home than serving the dish properly. Maybe I'm just being to harsh. I don't know, but stuff like this do happen.
Would I return to G&G on my next trip to Chicago? Well, maybe not on the next trip as there are more restaurants I wish to experience. But, there is no question I will return. Though, I will probably pass on the mussels.
|Grilled Baby Octopus|
|Wood Fired Pig's Face|
|Girl and the Goat|
|The crowded dining room at G&G|
|The open kitchen line|
|Another view of the dining room|
|A gnome stood guard in the basement|