November 15, 2019

One night in Chicago

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I'm back in the Windy City after 5 years, but unfortunately this time I only have one dinner slot.  I figured I needed to get together with some local experts to figure out where to go, so I pinged two ladies from halfway around the world, and they agreed to show me around.

Blondie suggested Smyth right off the bat, and I know it's one of her favorites so I had absolutely no problem with that.  Thanks to her relationship with the restaurant, they were able to accommodate us even when my travel itinerary changed.

After changing out of my monkey suit, I headed west and met the ladies at The Loyalist - the more casual eatery downstairs - for a drink.  I was a little flustered when I arrived and didn't really have a chance to figure out what I wanted, so someone very kindly plopped down a glass of bubbly.

Eventually we went upstairs to take our seats.  We had originally asked for a short, classic menu because we were to be joined by my friend who doesn't like long, tasting menus.  But since my friend wasn't joining us, I figured we could be a little more adventurous...

I didn't know what to order in terms of wine, so I guess I kinda got myself the wine pairing without specifically asking for it...

Charles Heidsieck Rosé Réserve

Horseradish root - pickled and compressed salsify, cooked in whey, wrapped in kombu (昆布) and horseradish.  The kick from horseradish wasn't too bad.

Maine uni glazed in egg yolk - a classic dish here, apparently.  The texture of Main sea urchin was more firm and solid.  Egg yolk sauce and egg white garum, along with habanero (?) oil.  The flavors here were interesting, with fruit fragrance which reminded me of citrus notes, along with good acidity.

Brown butter uni - served on thin wafers of sourdough toast, with warmed butter and seaweed.  OK la...

Squash, sunflower, and togarashi - the sticky, grainy butternut squash has been roasted and came with dried quince, pickled cherries, huckleberry tomatoes, and medlar.  Seasoned with rose hip, sunflower oil, togarashi (唐辛子), and sudachi (酢橘).  Fruity with a bit of acidity here and there.

2009 Añada de Baladiña - thanks to 10 years' of aging, this was not at all fruity on the nose, but it was ripe on the palate.

Koji pancake and caviar - Kaluga (Queen) caviar with farm egg custard and horseradish gel.

We were meant to "build your own" with the barley koji (麹) pancake that's been cooked in beef fat.  I guess the egg custard was meant to replace crème fraîche.  The problem with this set up was that the gel and custard melted and kept dripping down my fingers... so pretty messy to eat.  But there was a nice smokiness that probably came from the pancake.

Shima aji belly - the striped jack (縞鯵) belly was cured with sudachi and brushed with country ham fat.

Shima aji loin - pickled with turnip ice, crispy barley, barley koji powder, fresh dills and seaweed.  This was interesting with acidity and fruity notes, and somehow tasted familiar.

In the tea cup we've got broth made with country ham, smoked bones of the striped jack, houjicha (焙じ茶) infused with herbs from "The Farm".  The ring of green floating on top is apparently houjicha oil, and I was told houjicha - which is usually grayish brown - turns green when made into the oil...  Salty and smoky, this was.

King crab in beeswax - the Norwegian king crab leg meat was encased in beeswax to impart some of the wax flavors, although honestly I didn't really understand why...

Then we were meant to dip the cold crab leg into the sauce made with egg yolk, barley, butter, and duck garum.   This was really good.

Ichinokura Junmai Daiginjo Kuranohana (一ノ蔵  純米大吟醸  蔵の華) - lots of banana in the nose, which was also a little sharp and showing slight fermented.  Palate was middle of the road, neither too sweet nor too dry.

Smoked king crab in kombucha - the warm king crab meat was brushed with lobster sabayon (?), garnished with "vegan ants" which were actually black malt which were brushed with hazel miso.  At the bottom of the bowl we have rhubarb vinaigrette and the whole thing was drenched in barley koji (again?) butter.  This was OK.

2005 Huet Vouvray Sec Le Mont - very toasty, a bit of green apple.  Good acidity.

Trout, kelp and autumn greens - the rainbow trout from Montana was "gently" steamed and brushed with sourdough miso, and served with apple kombucha, seasoned with juniper, mustard, and a sauce of apple juice and porcini mushrooms. This was sweet and creamy, and I definitely tasted porcini in the sauce.

2014 Dublère Chablis Bougros - the nose was really weird, not like a chard at all... but rather more like pear cidre.

Duck tartare - the duck tartare was lightly smoked, and came with mustard and preserved trompette de la mort.  There's also pine nuts in there, and a little spicy kick.

2012 Bruno Clair Vosne Romanée Les Champs Perdrix - WOW!  This was really sweet on the nose, with vanilla and coconut butter.

Lacquered squab and blood sausage - the bird was lacquered with honey from "The Farm" and fried like a Peking duck (funny, I always thought Peking ducks were roasted over open flame...)  There was a duck heart confit (well, half a heart...) and pickled gooseberries with rose hip jam and rose hip yeast on top.

The leg was covered in pickled flowers and herbs such as coriander, juniper, basil, perilla, and red peppers.  Nice fragrance here.

Between the breast and the crispy skin was a layer of liver pâté that tasted fairly interesting.

Brioche doughnut - this was one of Lulu's favorites, and she specifically asked the kitchen to send us some.  These are fried in beef fat but definitely tasted like donuts.  Very fluffy and sinful.

The Marmite butter is meant to go with the donut.

Milk chocolate with shiitake mushroom - with raspberry jam.  The fermented mushroom flavors were interesting.

Koji caramel apple - my substitute dessert since I don't want any beets.  Frozen apple koji (how many times has this shown up tonight?) mousse, salted caramel, and apple kombucha (encore?!)  Sweet and creamy, with acidity and fruity notes from the kombucha.

Billecart-Salmon Demi-Sec - flinty with a hint of anise.  Sweet-ish on the palate.

Egg yolk and salted licorice with frozen yogurt meringue - another substitute so I don't have something with beets.  Yolk of an egg from "The Farm", candied with molasses and black licorice.  Blueberries at the bottom with the froyo meringue.

Kombu ice cream sandwich - kinda interesting with some umami.

Kasu caramel - this was very savory upfront, then kinda tasted like egg yolk caramel.

Concord grapes - from "The Farm" and preserved in syrup and some malic acid.

1979 l'Archiviste Rivesaltes, mis en bouteille le Decembre 2018 - pretty savory.

This was an interesting dinner. I had been told that Smyth was "a little out there" and "experimental", and that not everyone "gets it" and returns after their first visit.  The way I see it, the kitchen uses a lot of complex flavor combinations, and some of these aren't exactly your run-of-the-mill tastes that you'd find all over the Midwest.  How many times has koji or kombucha come up tonight?  And sudachi, houjicha, and the like.  It's simply out of many people's comfort zone - unless you're a globetrotting foodie who really has had your eyes opened.

It was getting a little late and Blondie's got a long drive home, so now it was down to Lulu to show me what else Chicago has to offer at this hour.  And she knew just the place...

The Wiener's Circle is kind of an institution in Lincoln Park.  This hot dog joint is famous for its staff swearing and throwing insults at customers.

I ordered up a char dog, which is grilled until it's blackened on the outside and bursts open.  I asked for 'the works'...

... which will include, among others, a bright green relish as well as Merkts cheese spread.  Just in case you're wondering, you NEVER, EVER ask for ketchup on a hot dog in Chicago.  You don't wanna hear what comes your way from the staff here if you do.

Halfway through chomping, I start to hear a ruckus coming from the kitchen.  Apparently someone had dropped a twenty into the tip jar and ordered up a "chocolate milkshake".  I didn't actually get out of my seat to watch what's going on, though...

I could eat no more, and I had a plane to catch in the morning.  So I thanked Lulu for a good night out, and grabbed a ride back to my hotel for some zzzzzzzs.

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