We always go to Chicago with a list of restaurants we would like to visit. This year’s list included a number of the city’s hottest new spots—spots such as Tanta, Nico Osteria, Fig and Olive and Kinmont. Unfortunately, based on limited time, the fact that many are not open for lunch and our desire to return to Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder (our favorite Chicago pizza joint) and our need for a fast lunch at the Art Institute, we weren’t able to visit all. We did, however, get a chance to visit two new restaurants and revisit one from last year, the still hot Purple Pig. Rather than discussing all the restaurants we visited, let us focus on the three most interesting.
- Nico Osteria. Two wonderful dishes, with equally good service. We began with the goat cheese Caramulla, housemade-pasta in a delicate aged balsamic sauce with morels and English peas, followed by a whole, salt-crusted roasted Branzino with heirloom tomatoes, aged balsamic and basil. We enjoyed both with a 2000 Tenuta Vino Nobile do Montepulciano Riserva. And as an added bonus, we had a ringside, Rush Street seat for people watching.
- Fig and Olive. Another big winner. When we entered the immensely popular, packed restaurant, the music and the crowd were so load that we could barely hear our friends. We were, thankfully, seated at an out of the way upstairs table that was much less noisy. The food was varied, and all very good. Joyce and I began with three crostini (crab, heirloom tomato, avocado and apple aioli; shrimp, avocado,, cilantro and tomato; and Manchego, fig and Marcona almond), followed by a shared appetizer: sliced, braised octopus with marinated bell pepper, heirloom potato, black olive, basil, arugala and pimenton lemon dressing. Then came two equally good entrees. Joyce had the Branzino with balsamic glaze, snow peas, fig and olive oil mashed potatoes. I, the grilled, smoked rosemary lamb chops with herbs de Provence, goat cheese and chive gnocchi, roasted honey and thyme eggplant. While service lapsed with the server mistakenly served half of our wine to another table, they more than made up for it by more than replacing the wine and by offering free deserts. Joyce and I opted for the chocolate pot de crème with praline and vanilla cream, and a mixed berry crostata with vanilla mascarpone, Cointreau syrup and fresh berries. Many thanks to our friends for introducing us to, scoring reservations at, and joining us at this great new addition to Chicago’s dining scene.
- The Purple Pig. Our second lunch at this popular restaurant in a year. Two of the dishes were very good: Salted-roast beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette; and Cape Cod mussels with pancetta, crème fraiche and marjoram. The third-dish, much less so. The roasted bone marrow bones were huge, but the marrow was watery and had little taste. Our Latin American neighbors, who had and were equally disappointed in the dish, said it was undercooked. This, despite the fact the long wait to receive the dish. While service on the crowded, outside patio was sporadic, this is probably inherent in the restaurant’s high-volume, reasonably-priced business model.
Although we were less enthused by Purple Pig than on last year’s visit, we thoroughly enjoyed both Nico and Fig and Olive. We just wish we got back to Chicago for repeat visits, rather than being forced (by our—make that mine—own obsession with experiencing all the city’s new hot spots). As for Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder—we shall again return, not least since it is one of the best ways to get some friends in from the distant suburbs.