Category Archives: Best bite
With a name like Nightwood, how can a restaurant not be cool and automatically great? But ever since I heard that chefs behind Lula Cafe, Jason Hammel and Amanda Tshilds, were opening a second spot, I was already intrigued and couldn’t wait to check it out. It’s located in Pilsen, just a block away from the divey Skylark Restaurant (perfect place for an after-dinner nightcap complete with rolling chairs, kitschy mirrors and a photo booth).
Just like Lula, I knew there would passion and thought behind the place, not to mention a seasonal, local focus and the kind of menu you want to experience with 6 close friends so you can try everything and share. But unlike veggie-friendly Lula, Nightwood seems to focus more on meat, pork and poultry dishes on the entrée side, with short ribs, chicken liver and pig trotters making an appearance on the appetizers. For other not-so-light starters, deep-fried mozzarella nestles up to mustard greens and shallot marmalade, english peas get chummy with bacon (see pic) and egg yolk joins ricotta in a raviolo with sage and brown butter. But a personal highlight was fresh burrata with lovage, roasted fennel, and toast points loaded with a mound of soft, spreadable garlic. English peas and their purée covered the plate, easily spread with the soft, creamy burrata. We asked for more crispy bread after we polished off the first two pieces, but we would’ve happily cleaned the plate without it.
After coming to the conclusion I could live on the burrata appetizer alone (the menu changes daily at Nightwood, so pray this one stays in the rotation), we moved onto entrées, another tough decision that involved a spit-roasted half chicken, wood-grilled Wisconsin trout, hand-cut basil pasta with cauliflower, almonds and chili oil and a buttered pork panino on brioche with turnip greens, cherry mustard, smoked bacon and sunny-side up egg. I took our server’s advice and went with the meat; spit-roasted pork loin with butter roasted apricots, cabbage, crème fraîche and olives was a delicious, generous bone-in loin with a smokey barbecue flavor and perfect tenderness. The roasted apricots on the side also picked up the crispy sweetness to the pork. Oy, I tried my best to take a decent shot as night fell on the outdoor patio, but this just doesn’t do it justice.
Dessert could be another round or two of the fantastic house cocktails, like strawberry-basil gimlet or the lavender Collins, which tastes like a Tom Collins with a dose of flower. But we opted for chocolate and hazelnut custard which was exactly what it sounded like, with housemade whipped cream on top of a rich, creamy concoction of milk chocolate and hazelnut, like top-of-the-line Nutella on over-drive, taken even more over-the-top with a garnish of crunchy hazelnuts.
As mentioned, there’s a great outdoor patio lit by lanterns and candles, but the interior looked just as enticing with seating around the bustling open kitchen, a wall of fire-wood and wooden two-tops. Whether I sit inside or out, no doubt I’ll be back try the rest of the ever-changing menu at this Pilsen gem, just as long as they keep bringing back the burrata. Nightwood, 2119 S. Halsted, 312.526.3385
I guess I didn’t reach my pork belly quota on my trip, as we devoured last night’s special starter at Urban Belly, watermelon, shrimp and pork belly noodle salad. I think this one deserves a spot on the permanent menu. Other hits of the night: squash and bacon dumplings, short rib and scallion rice bowl, Chinese eggplant with Thai basil, seasonal kimchee. 3053 N. California, 773.583.0500
By this time, we couldn’t tell if we were slightly buzzing from the 6th glass of wine, or the parade of food that had unfolded before us. We were a couple hours in, but the chairs were still cushy and comfortable, the waiters still buzzing like clockwork and all we could really do was look around and just smile at each other in collective contentment. The delicate tastes of sea-flavored roe, fish, floral foam had started to settle into our flavor memory banks, but we were ready for some meat, maybe a bold red, and the next course offered up both.
The Wagyu beef looks like a too-cruel mere bite of the intensely marbled meat, but it’s the perfect size. Its luscious flavor is intensified when dipped into an “A-1” powder of raisin, clove, anchovy and tamarind stuffed into a tiny plastic packet. The puréed potato cube encrusted with potato chip added the potatoes to the meat, a 2006 Sonoma Coast Syrah threw in the flavor of a bold, juicy, beef-friendly red, but it was the waves of smoldering dry ice reminiscent of a barbecue that brought the course to a new sensory level. Right on cue, a waiter came over to make the frosted over centerpiece “erupt,” emitting barbecue-inspired “smoke” that swirled around our sea of wine glasses and lapped up against ours plate before rolling over to the ground.
The smoke had cleared, the rest of the A-1 powder was gone when this simple spoon was set down in front of us with special direction to not bite down until the entire thing was in our mouths. The black truffle “explosion” was an intense burst of black truffle stuffed in a velvety smooth al dente ravioli. Our mouths were bursting with truffle broth, Parmesan and romaine, but the flavorful bite would have left us speechless anyway.
The intensity had been kicked up, but we were ready to start heading into the sweet, and the bacon course was the ideal way to do it. I’d had the dish before, and truly never forgot it. A single strip of bacon drizzled with butterscotch and laced with apple and thyme hangs on a silver wire. Sweet, savory, stare-worthy.
Oh my god, rhubarb. Could there be a better flavor? Tangy yet sweet and so conducive to pairing with other flavors. The rhubarb course, rhubarb, creamy cheesecake and a subtle onion cotton candy, is served on a pin-pricked pillow filled with lavender air that deflates and is emitted as the plate is set on it. You get a little lost with this one, not knowing quite what flavor or scent to take in first, but it’s another good bridge from the savory to the sweet.
Wherever I’m enjoying dessert, I want to make sure that chocolate occurs at some point. The chocolate course offered a lovely array of various “bubbles,” from fudge cream to a consommé of maple sap and blueberry. A subtle hint of tobacco hit our tongues at various points, but I’m still trying to figure out where and in what form it was hiding on the plate. A 1994 Smith-Woodhouse Vintage Port tied the heady, smoky, chocolate flavors together, a combination that might have represented the flavor of the color blue.
The final three flavors ended on a sweet and playful note, and each looked plucked from a candy store shelf circa 2060. We began with the raspberry transparency, a paper-thin shard of intense raspberry candy clipped onto metal wheels. It broke into crunchy sugary stained glass shards into our mouths invoking the essence of raspberry along the way.
Bubble gum. This long frozen plastic tube was placed in front of us with instruction to, “slurp it all out at once. There’s less in there then it looks.” We slurped and later found out that the frozen tube is filled with hibiscus, crème fraîche and tapioca flavored with bubble gum stock. Yes, actual stock, from bubble gum. Delish and fun (insert laughing fit).
Caramel. The final, solitary flavor of the night. The pile of brown caramel and salt powder turns into a creamy, lucious, buttery caramel when chewed. Perhaps the best caramel we’ve ever tasted, we swore the stuff should be packaged up and sold as chewing “dip.” Instead there would be no spitting, only savoring the flavor as long as we possibly could.
But wait, there was more! Click here from Alinea 1.0, and here for 2.0.
Continuing onto courses six and seven, you really don’t feel the need to cleanse any of the fantastic flavors still swirling on your palate, until this one-bite work of art is placed in front of you. A green almond gelée flavored on the corners with tiny bits of juniper, gin and lime. It jumps from salty, to sweet and lingers on light citrus for a while.
Foam returns in the delicate lilac course with scallops, razor clams, honeydew gelée and hidden pillows of lilac that emit tiny floral explosions on your tongue. Thin slices of ulta-crunchy celery add more layers of texture amid airy foam, fresh herbs and tender seafood. It was paired with a bright and crisp Paolo Bea “Santa Chiara” Bianco from Umbria, 1994.
Lobster with popcorn, mango and curry. A true study in beauty, humor, texture and color, we were told the dish was inspired by butter. Works for us. Popcorn kernels were scattered with juicy, tender chunks of lobster meat, curry, micro herbs, tiny mushrooms and corn while a sweet mango gelée rested in the middle.
Served on the side was a slice of coconut toast, just one of the house breads brought out to try with various courses. This sweet slice didn’t really need a spreading of the goat’s milk butter, but we slathered it up anyway. The butter itself (not pictured), reminiscent of movie popcorn, was good enough to eat on its own, or as a dining companion declared, to “bathe in.”
“The next dish is so well known you can google it,” our server told us. My first guess was the famous single strand of sweet bacon on a wire, but that was yet to come. It was the Hot potato that was placed before us. I had seen it before, but never had the gorgeous course of hot potato covered with a black truffle and resting over a ultra-creamy cold potato soup. The bowl is a wax mold made daily by the servers and a pin is pulled to release the hot potato and truffle into the soup ready to be sipped. Brilliant, delicious, and a great play on temperatures. Bowl-licking may have been sneaked.
Up next, Wagyu with “A-1” sauce, an explosion of truffles, maple sap reduction and more..