The rising OK-ness of a table for one

“We love our single diners!” gushed the genial manager at Girl & the Goat in Chicago on a recent Thursday night. I believed her. She was sincere, direct and almost giddy.

I was eating alone, again, as I do when I travel solo, which is 99-percent of the time. Have no pity. This is something I relish, the quietude and solitude of dining companionless. Not that I don’t like eating with others. I do. But solo is its own sensation — cool, uncluttered, zen.

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Look at this guy. He’s dining alone, and he still looks suave.

I’ve eaten alone in restaurants around the world scores if not hundreds of times. What once might have been a mite squirmy and self-conscious is now a cinch, and a joy. Like going to the movies alone (the best way), eating singly is woefully underrated. (Haunting bars solo is a lonelier proposition, but it’s still totally doable, at times even rewarding.)

Eateries have evolved and they are now equipped, ready and happily accommodating of the one-man show. I have no, er, reservations about making a reservation for one, and the staffers on the other end never pause, hiccup or flinch when they hear that some weird single guy is coming. Nowadays a table for one is entirely normal. Any uncomfortable vibes are coming from your end only. I’ve never felt strange or alienated dining out with me and myself.

9Go. Relax. Be seated and order a cocktail or a glass of wine. I used to bring reading material to the table, a magazine or travel guide — like the hapless fellow in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” — but no more. (For one, it’s invariably too dark to read anything. I’m at the point where I have to use the light of the table’s feeble candle to read the menu.) And I’m not one to obsessively tap, scroll and stare hypnotically at my smartphone. So I instead observe, look around and listen — the time-honored sport of people watching.

When it’s early, well before the dinner crush, I’m known to sit at the bar with my laptop and have a small bite and a beer, which I did last week at Longman & Eagle in Chicago, a winsome gastropub with a kicky, rustic flair. I emailed ahead for the best hours to pull out a computer and to confirm the place has free Wi-Fi.

Any stigma attached to the idea of lone dining is dated and moribund. At Avec in Chicago I sat at the bar with an unbroken row of single diners. A few chatted with the stranger next to them, others (me) kept to themselves and saved conversation for the empathetic, fiercely attentive server who coddled me just enough that I didn’t feel fawned over.

There are perils to eating out alone. Servers tend to have the urge to rush the meal, so if I’ve ordered three courses, instead of staggering them leisurely, the server will pile them on, and I wind up with three full plates waiting to be tackled at once. I call this shoving food down your throat and shoving you out the door (this has happened to me at least three times recently). Rushing the plates, it’s as if the lone eater cannot be left without something in front of him, lest he perish from loneliness.

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View from the bar at Frenchie in Paris. Close to the action, with great, personalized interaction. That’s owner, head chef and all-around mensch Gregory Marchand. I had the best seat in the house.

Tip: Sit at the bar. Servers tend to be more attentive and personalized and there’s less of a chance of a plate pile-up because the area is busier and service slows somewhat. Communication, from illuminating details about the menu to cordial chit-chat, reigns.

Plus, the scenery at the bar is superior — a stool with a view. If you’re lucky, there’s an open kitchen, where you can witness the artful commotion of chefs in the tentacled frenzy of culinary creation. Bodies swerve and dodge, flames lick the ceiling, delicacies are chopped and seared and tossed, plates are decorated as meticulously as a Buddhist sand mandala. Art happens. For the wide-eyed foodie, it’s the frisson of salivating spectacle, a bonus main course, with extra dessert.

Getting my Goat, Chicago style

A couple of blogs ago I rhapsodized about two fine-dining dishes I’m already swooning over before a March trip to Chicago: crispy duck tongues and wood-oven roasted pig face.

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Roasted pig face.

Served at the acclaimed Girl & the Goat, they sound so marvelously disgusting yet so tantalizingly tasty that my anticipation surges. My only fear is that the plates are so popular they’ll be out of them the night I order. I have no backup. It’s either fowl and swine or nothing. Keep your hamachi crudo and seared yellowfin tuna — I want barnyard animals! (Well, there’s always the titular goat. I ate goat once in Jamaica, with a complex of reactions.)

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This is about Girl & the Goat. This post is then, in its adorable naiveté, free advertising. But let’s not forget: I’ve never been to the restaurant, never tasted its food. I’ve only read about it, drooled over photos of dishes (XXX food porn), watched Anthony Bourdain sing its praises and learned a bit about its chef and owner Stephanie Izard in the press. If I go and it even slightly disappoints, I will return here with a retraction, grumbling umbrage, quibbles and caveats. I am fair. And ruthless.

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Stephanie Izard

But back to our hopes and dreams. A Chicago native, Izard is, famously, the fourth-season winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” where she was also named fan favorite. She opened Girl & the Goat in 2010 in the West Loop, followed by Little Goat Diner across the street and the Chinese-themed Duck Duck Goat around the corner. She’s become a mini-industry in Chicago, and G&G was nominated best new restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 2011. Izard won the Beard award for Best Chef Great Lakes in 2013 and was tapped one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs in 2010.

I have meals planned at other admired restaurants in Chicago — Avec, Frontera Grill, Piece, Au Cheval — but for some reason Goat has me giddy. On paper, the menu’s a doozy, mouthwatering morsels and paradisiacal plates that can’t miss. I quipped before that I will only eat duck tongue and pig face. Not true.

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Calamari bruschetta.

The calamari bruschetta (clam baguette, goat milk ricotta, goat bacon, green apples) will be sliding down my gullet, as will the wood grilled broccoli (rogue smokey bleu, spiced crispies) and, if I don’t erupt first, escargot ravioli (bacon tamarind sauce, escarole and celery, crispy onions). (Please, god, let there be doggie bags.)

Girl & the Goat is but one more event in my ongoing daredevil dining excursions. It’s not that crazy, but its exoticism feels just right, and its menu is much more ambitious than those of the other eateries I’ll visit in the Second City.

Deep-dish pizza is great. Potato-goat sausage pizza is divine.

Dining out should be a thrill, a mini adventure. Not to get dopey or too obvious about it, but what’s the point of forking out for food that’s not extraordinary? When I buy a burger, I want that slab of beef to sing. I want the crispy Platonic ideal of fried chicken at The Wooden Spoon in Bloomfield, NJ, or the extravagant, inspired dogs at Ruffhaus Hot Dog Company in El Dorado Hills, CA, or the amazing mazeman at Ani Ramen in Montclair, NJ, and anything at Frenchie in Paris, France. I want my eyes to roll back in my head at each bite.

Girl & the Goat looks promising, and this will be the end of my unsolicited promotional pamphlet for the restaurant. Perhaps I’ll follow up with a report on how it all — duck tongues, pig face and all — went down.

I will follow in this little guy’s hoof-steps. He looks like he knows how to dine with panache.

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Girl & the Goat mascot. How I intend to enter the establishment.
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The little fella after enjoying dinner. How I intend to exit.

Quack, snort and other adventures in dining

I’m a relatively adventurous eater — I’ll nosh bone marrow, chicken hearts, snails, frog legs, foie gras, raw oysters, sea anemone, roe, goat, buffalo, pigeon, octopus — but, like most of us, I cleave to a less exotic, much less expensive daily diet. Those delicacies are for singular occasions, mostly while I’m traveling and living a bit high on the hog. (Hog, too, I eat that.)

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My grilled octopus, Barcelona.

Mulling a trip to Chicago, I’ve made a short list of restaurants offering casual to fine dining, from Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill (Mexican) to Paul Kahan’s Avec (Mediterranean). Squeezed between those is Stephanie Izard’s popular Girl & the Goat, an ambitious family-style spot located in the city’s Randolph Restaurant Corridor in the West Loop.

I always scan the online menus before I make a reservation. Pushing past the goat plates, two dishes at Girl & the Goat had this fledgling foodie hooked: crispy duck tongues and wood oven roasted pig face. After a flinch, I promptly decided I’m having both.

These delicacies are inarguably a vegetarian’s writhing apocalypse. I know. We must move onward.

I have of course never had duck tongue. Beef tongue, perhaps. No idea what to anticipate, so I’ll allow the gustatory gurus at Serious Eats explain the specialty:

“Surrounded by a faint hint of meat and papery thin layers of cartilage, duck tongue is predominately a vehicle for juicy pockets of fat. At barely two inches in length, the tongue may seem small and insubstantial, but its flavor is intensely duck-like. When freshly fried, duck tongues are positively addicting with a crisp surface and a creamy, slightly fatty interior that melts in your mouth.”

This …

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… becomes this:

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Duck tongue with tuna and black bean poke, crispy wontons and piri piri.

Like duck tongue, no appetizing euphemism masks what pig face actually is: the meat and fat sliced off the face of a pig. I may have eaten pig cheeks before, but this is different, a full facial. Again, Serious Eats explains:

“It’s the multitude of harmonized flavors and textures that make the roasted pig face of one my favorite dishes ever. From the succulent wood-fired pig face patties, sweet maple gastrique, and tart tamarind vinaigrette, to the crispy potato sticks and gooey sunnyside-up egg, it’s clear why this is one of Girl & the Goat’s signature dishes.”

This …Cannon-and-Cannon-Meat-School-pig

… becomes this:

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Wood oven roasted pig face with sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro, red wine-maple, potato stix.

As I momentarily salivate (daub, wipe), it strikes me that both meals are commendable for their use of animal parts that might otherwise, and usually are, thrown out with the beaks and snouts, offal rejects. This is mindful, sustainable cooking, but it’s also, let’s face it, delicious, deeply indulgent cooking, sinful, decadent, irresistible. (It’s a lot like the bone marrow I adore, seen below from my recent Russia trip.)

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Right, I haven’t tasted the duck and pig yet — maybe I’ll gag into my linen napkin — but my experiences with exotic, zany foods comprise a solid track record of gastronomical daring and concomitant success. In other words, I enjoy this kind of food, and I’m not only amenable to it, I’m beguiled by it, too.

Omnivorous by nature and choice, I will pursue my culinary escapades for the foreseeable future — that is, a very long time. Vegetarians may scowl and harrumph, and I get it. I can only respond with a lusty chomp and gulp and the thrill of tasting whole new worlds.