Farewell, 2012

As we start off the New Year and inch towards the first anniversary of The Taste Buds, I’d like to give one final sendoff to 2012—a year filled with countless culinary adventures. The latter half of the year saw a flurry of new restaurant openings, several of which I had the opportunity to try. Stephanie Izard’s long-awaited diner, Little Goat, finally debuted to much fanfare. Half café and half diner, the restaurant was as impressive as advertised. The menu spans breakfast, lunch and dinner with enough options to satisfy even the pickiest of eaters. On my visit, I tried the goat chili and fried chicken along with a smoked pork and toffee crunch milkshake. They were Izard’s refined spin on comfort food classics and for the most part, they succeeded (a little aggressive with the salt). I can’t wait to go back and try the rest of the menu. Elsewhere, Alpana Singh’s gorgeous Boarding House is also off to a hot start. The entire restaurant is housed in a multi-story building that includes a cellar. The interior is stunning,, with enormous chandeliers made up of wine bottles and glasses hanging over the space. As for the food, the double bone-in pork chop and hazelnut-crusted short rib were both solid, tender entrees. And of course if you’re a wine lover you’ll feel right at home with the wine list selected by Singh, who’s a master sommelier.

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Back in the West Loop, Thai Deng’s Embeya was another solid opening. The chef took his Vietnamese background and integrated it with French technique for a fresh take on Asian fusion. You can read Gary’s take of the pop-up preview dinner here, but as for me the garlic chicken was an unquestioned winner, which came as a pleasant surprise since I usually don’t have high expectations for chicken dishes. The dinosaur bones-sized tamarind ribs were just as good—juicy and fall-off-the-bone tender. If you can impress my mother with Asian cuisine, then I guess you’re doing something right.

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And as if the area wasn’t crowded enough with restaurants, Bill Kim’s bellyQ and the hot Latin American spot La Sirena Clandestina also found room for residency. BellyQ’s Korean barbecue wasn’t particularly memorable, but the huckleberry soft serve ice cream turned out to be one of my favorite desserts of the year. On the other hand, La Sirena Clanedstina turned out quality dish after dish with the standout being the whole red snapper. It was definitely an experience that ended up being worthy of the buzz.

Of course, no recap would be complete without the mention of brunch. Several new places offered a stellar brunch selection. Nearly everything from the Trenchermen was superb, starting with the decor and feel of being on a classic boat. The wooden space sits below ground level and screams vintage and vaguely steampunk. On my two visits, the food was excellent, from the pickled tots and pretzel cinnamon roll to the pad thai and ‘potato basket,’ shaved potato puree in a basket form with gravy, chorizo mole sausage and an egg on top. It’s a dish I would gladly eat for breakfast every day if I could. At the Carriage House, Mark Steuer brought the lowcountry cuisine of South Carolina to Chicago and the new brunch menu is full of what you’d expect. Johnnycakes, grits, cornbread and chicken and waffles were some of the items I tried, with the chicken and waffles being one of the best I’ve had. I eagerly anticipate returning soon so that I can try the lowcountry boil…

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Which brings me to my last spot, Next. It’s not a new restaurant in the traditional sense, but every time we go it’s a new experience. And with the very first post on The Taste Buds being our meal during the Childhood menu, I thought it was only fitting to end the year with Next as well. Coming off the somewhat disappointing Sicily menu, my expectations were a bit tempered this time around. Fortunately, Next delivered on all accounts this time with a meal that was wholly satisfying and thankfully not too heavy. Without going into a course-by-course description, the dishes were for the most part simple yet outstanding. A few of my favorites included a corn husk soup that incorporated elements of scent into the course; sashimi so good I’ll probably never have anything like it again on this side of the Pacific; a scenic ‘Japanese maple forest’ with several shrimp bites that were a real visual and flavorful treat; and a grilled ayu filet with the body fried to a crisp. In short, the meal was a display of what Next is capable of and one of the reasons we decided to renew our season tickets for 2013.

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With another year in the books (I’m starting to feel old), I look forward to whatever comes across my plate in 2013. Some stuff we’ve already got planned (I hear Gary’s visiting a certain Thomas Keller restaurant soon…) but a good majority of our outings will certainly be impromptu because hey, we enjoy eating and that’s what we do. And after writing this recap and looking back over a year’s worth of posts, it’s possible we might eat out a little TOO much. But probably not.

Recap: Baconfest 2012

Is there anything more perfect than a festival dedicated to arguably the greatest food ever? The answer, my friends, is no. And what is this illustrious food that I am referring to, you may ask? Bacon. Yes, you know you love it.

Baconfest Chicago is the creation of Michael Griggs, Andre Vonbaconvitch (seriously?), and Seth Zurer, and to these three gentlemen I thank, and ask that they pay for any medical expenses that may occur as a result of this yearly event. It was said that there would be over 1300 people attending this event, and Jeffy and I happened to be among the first one hundred VIP entrants. For one hour, we had the opportunity to mingle with the fifty-five restaurants (dinner service) and chefs.

Among the fifty-five eateries was the highly anticipated restaurant Trenchermen.  We had a brief opportunity to chat with the Sheerin brothers about their North Avenue eatery. “We’re about six weeks out from opening” said chef Patrick Sheerin. He proceeded to describe their offering for the evening, a bacon kimchi mortadella, pickle aioli and bacon tater tots.

Top Chefs were well represented, and their baconized dishes were all so different, and all so good. Season four champ Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat) cooked up a bacon soup topped with a smoked foam. This season’s runner-up Sarah Grueneberg (Cafe/ Spiaggia) was slinging wild cherry smoked bacon, cheddar gnudi (think gnocci) with spring ramps. Also from the most recent season, chef Heather Terhune and the folks at Sable offered applewood-smoked bacon pretzels with a cheddar-bacon jam dip so good that I would literally drink it.

   

With over a thousand bacon lovers in attendance, we had the opportunity to spark up a few conversations with local foodies. When asked about favorites, there were an overwhelming number of votes for three dishes: mini-whiskey bacon pops, bacon three ways (porchetta ravioli, crispy panchetta chip, and warm bacon vinaigrette), and braised pork belly with whitefish brandade, spring peas, and pickled green garlic. Jessica Oloroso (Black Dog Gelato) has created one of the best gelato desserts ever in the mini-whiskey bacon pops. These delectable treats are dipped in chocolate and generously coated with bacon. Jason Paskewitz and the team at Gemini Bistro (and Rustic House) whipped up the one, truly balanced dish in their bacon three ways. What made this dish (it was a three in one) so perfect was the balancing agent: vinegar. It was the much-needed acid in what was an overly-fatty and salty night. The Vie team behind chef Nathan Sears whipped up a very simple looking, but flavorful dish composed of a thinly sliced piece of braised pork belly. But what made it truly divine was the whitefish brandade.

   

But at the end of the day, the most interesting and fun dish, and I use the term lightly, came from chef Derek Simcik and my new favorite guys at Atwood Cafe. Their focus was the same as everybody else, bacon. But what this crew put together was a trip to the Wonka Factory. Titled “Willy Wonka meets Bacon – an array of Wonka-inspired candies done with bacon,” this really wasn’t a dish at all. It was a candy store, and children walked up, took disposable spoons and took scoopfuls of various pixie dust and, wait for it, bacon Pop Rocks. The stuff was like crack, and I stopped by to get my fix not once, but twice. On the second trip, though, the guys offered up a whole stash of the Pop Rocks concoction. Jealous?

     

We didn’t actually eat for the last thirty minutes. Jeffy and I were on the floor of the UIC Forum, having a stroke. Three hours. Twenty-one courses. It was heaven. But the best part about Baconfest is that it donates a significant portion of its proceeds to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. So while eating pounds of bacon, feel good about yourself because the money you dished out goes to a great cause.

It’s bittersweet now that the event is over. So until next year, BF..well not really, because I’ve got some bacon in the fridge.

Here are some other pics for your drooling pleasures.

            

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