Gluttony in Review

Michael Nagrant / 01.08.07

Etouffée and all the trimmings at Lagniappe

I’ve eaten about 1,200 meals this year. I know that works out to more than three a day, but in the last month alone, I ate at five different taquerias in one day, I had eleven different bowls of chili over three days and I drank in seven different bars in a span of three hours. That last point probably just makes me a typical Chicagoan, but as a food writer, what most people call sustenance, I call research.

About ninety percent of those meals were mediocre. There may be 10,000 restaurants in this city, but I’d guess 9,255 of them are taquerias serving up steamed mystery meat on processed tortillas, noodle joints slinging overcooked Pad Thai, lacquered bento box-style sushi joints serving up questionable unagi and hotdog stands pushing frozen pizza puffs and flaccid sausages that have been roiling away in a hot box all day.

Still, amidst all the okay meals, once every few months a dish will come along and rock my palate. When it does, my first inclination is to find the chef and hug him or her, but that’s kinda awkward. So I write about it. Even when the great dishes slide across my table, a single taste doesn’t always merit a column or a full article, and those meals get left behind. But here’s the place for it, my list of the best dishes I ate in Chicago in 2006.

Four-cheese ravioli with white truffle sauce and red wine reduction, and the bread basket at Viand (155 West Ontario)

Owing to my predilection for funky fungus and the fact that I’m part truffle pig, this sweet savory ravioli is my new obsession. I’m reluctant to give one restaurant two nods, but I can’t remember the last time I remembered bread. Instead of relying on ubiquitous and able stalwarts like Red Hen or D’Amatos, Viand bakes its biscuits, scones and pretzel bread daily.

Watermelon soup from the summer menu at NoMI (800 North Michigan)

Watermelon has transcended the picnic table. Chef Christophe David serves it up as a frothy cold soup perfumed with the star anise, micro basil, dots of vanilla and a swirl of Banyuls vinegar that mimics the amber and gold tendrils of original Dale Chihuly glass sculptures hanging overhead. Sipping the soup–topped with a crusty crouton plank dotted with chopped lobster–is like crunching on melon in the middle of a spice plantation. If I had to pick my single most memorable dish of 2006, this would get the nod.

Corn soup from the fall menu at North Pond (2610 Cannon Drive)

This sweet-corn-on-the-cob soup garnished with succulent thyme-basted frog legs and smoky grilled corn relish channels swaying stalks and waves of corn tassels on a weekend drive through farm country. The real test of the perfect dish is if it inspires you to recreate it. Within days I was at the Green City Market buying up sweet corn and thyme in a feeble attempt to recapture the moment.

Crawfish étouffée at Lagniappe (1525 West 79th)

One gulp of this chocolate-brown swamp of plump crawfish and specks of peppers and onion surrounded an island of white rice, and I was reliving my 2004 Jazzfest trip to New Orleans. This is a scratch operation where owner Mary Madison’s searing off the onion and green pepper, making the roux and throwing the crawfish only after you place your order.

Seared foie gras and prime beef at Avenues (108 East Superior)

I ate twelve courses of foie gras as one last hurrah before the ban and six months later I still remember the rare prime beef paired with molten seared lobes of foie, greenhouse spinach that tasted of the minerals from the soil in which it grew and a garnet merlot reduction that tasted like mom’s cherry pie.

Cumin-flavored lamb with bone or #C636 at Ed’s Potsticker House (3139 South Halsted)

Sure, you can get it boneless, but this bowl of slightly charred lamb with a crunchy sesame crust perfumed with cumin is so much richer when you leave the shanks in.

Boudin noir at La Sardine (111 North Carpenter)

Boudin Noir (blood sausage) with caramelized apples and onions, a sharp creamy dijon mustard and a lightly dressed frisee salad was one of the best examples of this porky delicacy that I have ever had.

Pork Cubano at Nacional 27 (325 West Huron)

It takes three days to cure this Gunthorp Farms pork shoulder paired with coconut rice and garlicky mojo. Day one the pork receives a spice rub, day two it gets a lime mojo marination, and day three it’s slow roasted and gulped down. On Day four, it becomes a fond memory.

This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Newcity Chicago.