Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Girl & The Goat

I admit it. Even after all these seasons, suffering through lesser contestants and foolish challenges, I am still a big Top Chef fan. When I landed in Chicago, the home of Top Chef season 4 winner Stephanie Izard, I started plotting a visit to her insanely popular restaurant, Girl & The Goat. Stephanie wasn't a flashy contestant but her food seemed consistently solid and she never stooped to the "I'm not here to make friends" attitude seemingly required by reality show producers.
Small plates in the restaurant world these days are the new tapas with eclectic menu wine bars and gastropubs popping up in eating cities across the country. Girl & The Goat follows in that tradition with a sizable menu of small plates designed to taste and share. I snuggled into a seat at the bar and prepared to be dazzled.
The bartender, handsome and slightly bored in a wearing all black, tattooed hipster kind of way said the roasted cauliflower was one of his favorite items on the menu. Out came a savory bowl topped with toasted pine nuts, bright pickled peppers, grated cheese (was it pecorino or parmesan -- I can't be sure) and mint. I liked it. It was fine. It need a little salt.
I think perhaps James and I are a little old fashioned (and certainly not hipster material) when it comes to vegetables. At our house roasted cauliflower has a healthy dose of caramelization and is cooked soft, to just past toothsome, where the vegetable gives up it's sometime hidden sweetness. The Goat's cauliflower still had a bit too much bite for me.
I glanced around the dark room at the no doubt hoards of other Top Chef fans swooning over each and every bite obviously smugly proud (but too hip to show it) and reveling in their success on scoring a table at what must be one of the city's hottest reservations. I felt a little left out.
Next came the crispy roast pork shank. At $25 by far the most expensive item on the menu but the meat is tender and moist and very, very tasty. The red "buffalo sauce" though not listed on the menu was perhaps the best part of this dish. Not too spicy with a terrific depth of flavor that really complimented the pork. The buttermilk sauce was a nice idea and should have been a great combo but the sauce itself was bland. A good idea not quite realized. I can't imagine why they call the spring onions "kimchee", being neither pickled or spicy but the side added a layer of savory flavor none the less. The flatbread -- another good idea -- fell really flat. It was undercooked and still gooey in the middle. Shame.
I was beginning to sense that this creative busy kitchen while daring and inventive had a problem with consistency.

I thought I'd try one more taste, ready to be wowed. I love chick peas. When I see garbanzos on a menu I gravitate towards the dish so I had trouble staying away from the chick pea fritters. These were not at all what I expected. The "fritters" kind of amounted to fried hummus with a crisp salty shell. Interesting. probably not a dish I would order again, but interesting. The oddity here was the eggplant caponata underneath. Again it may just be my personal, old-fashioned taste. But eggplant should be soft with a velvety texture that makes the sometimes overlooked vegetable a sensual delight. The Goat's could have been cooked a bit longer. Flavors good, execution questionable.

I rarely order dessert -- especially without James. But I couldn't resist the "Sweet Corn and Peaches" or imagine what might be in the dish when it arrived. What came out was the true flash of brilliance I had been waiting for. The peaches sautéed in butter and brown sugar were fine, the bourbon caramel ice cream tasty, the sandy cookie and caramel sauce nice bits of texture. But, oh that whipped cream. I've never tasted anything like it and I can't wait to steal the idea. The cream was infused with the flavor from corn cobs and whipped to a light froth with sweet kernels folded in. Delicious, addictive, fantastic.  Brilliance from a Top Chef winner who is not afraid to take risks which makes for interesting dining and the occasional note of brilliance.

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