Last week a client graciously took me to lunch at The Gage.
It's a nice-looking place, tile on the walls is obviously this year's thing, and the menu of dressy lunch food reasonably priced in the teens will clearly fill a need in the area for business lunches nicer than Cosi but less posh than, I dunno, the University Club or whatever.
Still, neither my client (who knows food too) nor myself was entirely in love with The Gage. It's a little hotel-restauranty in its way of hitting all the notes yet doing nothing unexpected. It just doesn't have a personality,
a clear point of view to set it apart from any other place for business lunch. I ordered the one really unexpected thing on the menu-- a trio of "locally sourced" sausages, which were cooked exactly right, and more funky-gamey than you might have expected, accompanied by a crock of potatoes cooked with way too much cheese. I liked it... but it sticks out from the menu like the one Cajun or stir-fry dish on the menu at an all-American place, and doesn't really tell you something about what the overall food-gestalt is. About who
the chef is.
On the other hand, if you want food with a definite, unmistakable point of view... go to Baccala.
* * *
To vamp just a little longer before getting to Baccala, I have Cathy2 to thank for an autographed copy of Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose To Tail Eating,
whose philosophy is summed up in its first paragraph:
This is a celebration of cuts of meat, innards, and extremities that are more often forgotten or discarded in today's kitchen... there is a set of delights, textural and flavorsome, which lie beyond the fillet.
Although John Bubala of Timo
and Baccala most directly came by his commitment to "nose to tail eating" as part of a Slow Food-related junket in Italy, Baccala seems to me to be the purest example I've seen of a Hendersonian restaurant in Chicago, braising and stewing bits to reacquaint us with all those parts they don't carry at Jewel (though some of them are still available at Moo & Oink). Here the odd men out on the menu aren't sausages but a mesclun salad and a grilled piece of salmon clearly added to cover off guests who can't see their way to eating lardo or pork belly.
Speaking of lardo, that was a particular interest of mine because I've got some curing as we blog
, and I was curious to taste it again, see what it's supposed to taste like in the end. However, the only thing it was offered with was chicken broth, which didn't sound like the thing to have on a warm Friday night. So I mentioned to the waiter my interest in it (but not in chicken soup), and the reason why... and very shortly I was presented with a plate of six small slices, lightly sauteed, to try. (Which, to be honest, is at least two more than anyone should eat at one time. But salty, calamari-chewy-and-soft, they were delicious and I was extremely grateful for the preview of what I hope my own efforts will result in.)
Unsurprisingly, not long after waxing poetic on pig fat, I was "made" as an LTHer by another staffer-- who turns out to be poster Mitch Cumstein (not his real name, you will be surprised to learn). He said he had just started at Baccala two days before, out of admiration for the menu.
So anyway, besides the lardo, I had mostly stuff described and shown above:
• Squid with sausage and a mascarpone-based sauce. You don't think "lush" with squid, but that's what this was.
• Artichoke ravioli. Not much artichoke flavor, but a really well-balanced cream sauce around them. Everything had a cream sauce.
• Lamb tongue. More gamey yet less organy than beef tongue, this is incredibly tender braised meat, set off perfectly by a wine reduction with a sweet note-- but then everything was really well thought-out, finished and brought to a point where they just seemed right. I thought I was being adventurous to order lamb tongue, helping them out by ordering something they weren't selling many of, yet it turned out I got the last one (or two) they had.
• Wild mushroom tortellini. Nice, but the least unusual or striking thing I had.
• Spiced peaches with panna cotta. Now this is panna cotta, not the too-firm jello'd up stuff we had at Anteprima a few weeks back. Exactly the right not too sweet and sticky dessert.
I had two glasses of wine off their list, a decent Montepulciano and (on my waiter's recommendation; he brought me a little of this and a Dolcetto to taste first and choose from) a really good Cabernet, you might find it a little watery for winter but for spring/summer it was light enough yet full of that mouthfilling leathery Cabernet thing.
As noted above, it was a very rich meal-- of course six slices of salted fat will do that to you-- and maybe a little narrow in its choices, but dammit, that's what a point of view is, narrowing the choices down to what you prefer most. And Baccala, for all that it has two chefs (Bubala is the owner and presumably devised a lot of the menu, but Armando Cabrera is credited as the chef in situ), clearly has one point of view about meat and cream and flavor-- which I highly recommend checking out.
Doublechecking the spelling of Cabrera's name I foundthis Time Out piece which I think does a good job of elaborating on Baccala's philosophy, if you're interested in that.