Eating, walking, rocking, Chicago style

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View from the 95th floor bar-lounge in the John Hancock Building.

The first thing I did in Chicago was get a drink. There for fun from last Thursday to yesterday, I took the elevator in the famed Hancock Building (at a clip of 22 mph), which was smack next-door to my hotel in the lake-kissed Gold Coast, and landed in The Signature Lounge on the 95th floor.

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My hotel abutting Hancock Building.

It’s all about the eye-popping view. But after the hassles of airport travel, it was as much about a decompressing dram. Like the view, the drink prices were waaay up.

The catch: Going one floor higher to the official observation deck costs a smidge more than a Signature drink. So it works out: same view, less money, plus a cocktail and a seat at the window. My blackberry gin and tonic, mighty fine, cost a few cents less than $19, pre-tip. Ghastly, sure. But again, a better deal than what the higher (and dryer) chumps upstairs got.

It was a refreshing and dazzling beginning to the trip, which would take me on a three-hour walking food tour (very good, but too many sweets), Millennium Park, the International Museum of Surgical Science (shoutout to blogger Jessica — you would love this place), the Art Institute of Chicago (boo — no “American Gothic”; it’s on loan), Frank Lloyd Wright’s world-famous Robie House, an exhilarating play about teenage-girl soccer players called “The Wolves” (it was a Pulitzer finalist), an iffy concert of all-female punk bands at legendary dive bar The Empty Bottle, and a superlative array of eateries running the gastronomical gamut.

Yes, I did, as sworn, order and devour the fabled roasted pig face — and it was amazing. That was at the charming and bustling Girl & the Goat, where I also ate calamari bruschetta and grilled broccoli, all of it savory and spectacular.

Chicago is like a cozier New York with a tang all its own — a little Midwest, a little metropolis. It’s thronged and noisy, but contained and sleek, despite ragged edges any city worth its urban bona fides possesses.

The “El” trains will deafen you, while its uber-original hot dogs and pizza will soothe and sate. It’s got a lake so big it looks like an ocean and it’s steeped in cracked-leather tradition that makes so much of it seem early-20th century old school. Like Al Capone old school. Like lots of restaurants called Joe’s. But it’s also ever-changing, of course, with farm to table bistros, elegant bars, hip cafes and cutting-edge art. Its modernity is palpable.

It is, in its sneaky little way, deeply seductive.

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Roasted pig face, succulent layers of meat with potato crisps under the runny egg. This signature dish at the adamantly popular Girl & the Goat was the highlight of the night, and perhaps the trip.
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Calamari bruschetta (clam baguette, goat milk ricotta, goat bacon, green apples) at Girl & the Goat. Perfectly firm yet silky squid with the creamiest, velvet-like ricotta. Kaleidoscopic flavors, sweet, tart and savory — a tastebud tango.
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Pricey drinks, priceless views, 95 stories high.
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Anish Kapoor’s glistening Cloud Gate sculpture, aka the Bean, in Millennium Park. People swarm the ginormous orb, gazing at the skyline and themselves in its curved silvery skin.
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Same, in the Loop district of the city, Millennium Park.
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Butcher steak at the phenomenal Avec, a massively in-demand Mediterranean-tinged joint that hit every note just right, with music to spare. The must-have dish, which I had and almost wept over, is the chorizo-stuffed dates. Divine. Meanwhile, this steak, piled with tender fennel, was marvelously otherworldly.
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Frank Lloyd Wright’s elegant Robie House was finished in 1910 and is part of the iconic architect’s Prairie period. It’s simple yet granular in its considered details that only Wright was doing at the time — from windows and furniture to lighting and rugs. It’s one of the most important examples of residential architecture in America. Undergoing renovations, it can be a little musty in some rooms, but the informative tour highlights what makes the building a grand marriage of form and function.
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The sublime Art Institute of Chicago boasts one of the largest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world, as well as such masterstrokes as Seurat’s giant pointillist gem “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,”  Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and a flotilla of other indelible works by Degas, Magritte, Dali, Warhol, Giacometti, et al, not to mention exhibits of African and Asian art and a large spread of Chicago’s specialty, architecture. Huge and handsome, the venue is like a combo of NYC’s MoMA and The Met — a magnificent aesthetic amusement park.
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The perfect classic Chicago-style hot dog, or “red hot,” that’s been, as they say, “dragged through the garden.” It overflows its poppyseed bun with celery salt, a dill pickle spear, peppers, tomatoes and onions. For three bucks at famed Portillo’s, it was a thoroughly delicious snack.

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.