The Best Meat Meccas in Chicago

One of the last scenes of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1908 masterpiece about Chicago’s meatpacking industry, takes place at a Socialist rally. Downtrodden and abused stockyard workers, many from Eastern Europe, all hopelessly exploited, froth in righteous anger as the orator chants, “Chicago will be ours! Chicago will be ours!”


A century later, most of the stockyards have been shut down, but Chicago’s place as a carnivore’s carnival has never looked more assured. A crop of new restaurants with a crew of young chefs are reconnecting to the city’s storied past. “We’re coming back to our roots,” says Cosmo Goss, the 24-year-old head of charcuterie at Publican Quality Meats, an artisanal butcher shop and the newest addition to Blackbird chef Paul Kahan’s meat empire. “What it comes down to is if you start with a great cut of meat, you simply don’t need to jazz it up.” At both PQM and The Publican, where meat is substantially jazzed up by chef Brian Huston, all meat—beef tongue, blood sausage and country ribs—is sourced from local farms. Charcuterie has also taken root at Bread & Wine, which opened in late 2011. Helmed by Curtis Gamble, the bistro pays homage to the old Eastern European days with kielbasa and terrines as well as appealing to the modern carnivore with a beef & chorizo burger and the Black Earth lamb and mustard seed meat loaf.

But the real mark that meat has made its return is the menu of Allium, the hotly anticipated restaurant at the Four Seasons. One section is devoted to things “From The Meat Locker.” Also on the menu is what is surely the most haute Chicago–style hot dog ever. It boasts “housemade everything.” “With our reputation as the hog butcher to the world,” observes Allium chef Kevin Hickey, “Chicago has always been known for great cuts of meat. But now, restaurant patrons are looking for serious, high quality cuts of protein cooked by creative chefs in different environments.” For meat lovers, Chicago is finally theirs. 

An Early Peek at ‘Top Chef’-Winner Stephanie Izard’s New Restaurant, Girl & the Goat

There’s a formula here somewhere: Take one Top Chef winner, buy two ancient buildings on three parcels of land, subtract one wall, and multiply that by the number of foodies in Chicago by, say, 1000. Hopefully, you cheated off your autistic neighbor and came up with Chef Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat, the most anticipated Chicago restaurant since Paul Kahan promised (and delivered) The Publican. Before the $1.5 million, 130-seat restaurant’s grand opening today — the reservation line opens at 10am– I followed a road of butcher paper around the saw-dusty digs for a tour of the restaurant with the president of 555 Design Fabrication Management, James Geier.

While the restaurant’s name doesn’t leave much wiggle room for porn parodies (I could only come up with four), it does keep one guessing what’s going on inside. It’s definitely rustic. The 7,400 square foot space is a limited color wheel of browns and whites. The walls are burlap and covered in clay, the floors are Ipe hardwood. The tables are made from chunky butcher block, the ceiling from exposed beams and original steel. Practically everything is reclaimed or refurbished. Immediately to the left of the revolving door are custom floor-to-ceiling oak windows and a lounge that’s currently empty.

image

Extending into the lounge, and just beyond the bartenders’ reach, the cobbled European oak bar starts as a communal table with chairs on both sides before it thins out and runs along the Eastern wall to guard the alcohol. Above the bar is a series of vintage fireboxes reclaimed from turn-of-the-century Chicago homes that have been sandblasted, cleaned, and mounted with lights, so that when the featured bottles are placed inside they will glow like the Sankara stones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

As Geier walks me toward the open kitchen on the south wall and points out the 3,000-pound wood-burning pizza oven and the custom-made one-piece Jade appliance that dominates the kitchen, he reiterates that every element of Girl & the Goat was designed to capture the spirit and personality of Chef Izard, the affable, frizzy-haired winner of Top Chef Season Four, the first and only female champion on the show. (The design also accommodates Izard’s height, as the oak shelves above the expo line are a bit lower than usual to accommodate her reach.)

Speaking of Chef Izard, she’s meandering around with her phone in her hand. The dining room chairs arrived that day and she’s contemplating removing their plastic and sending out Twitpics to her 6,000-plus followers. She resists.

image

“I love the energy of an open kitchen and I like the idea of people sitting right here and being able to talk to the chefs and the cooks,” says Izard, nodding to the two king oak tables where she’ll be turning out Mediterranean-style dishes with Asian ingredients. So, take note, Mr. Starstruck. She’ll talk to you if you have something to say.

The rest of the restaurant includes a floating wall in the middle of the dining room covered in burnt cedar and a slightly raised section to the right of the front door that’s enclosed by a thigh-high glass fence.Then there are the seven individual bathrooms downstairs replete with antique sinks, white subway tiles, and beveled mirrors. Each has a personal message from the chef etched into it. I don’t know what she’s going to write on them, but I’m guessing it’ll be under 140 characters.

image

Chicago: Top 10 Places to Eat with Strangers

imageCommunal tables in Chicago are huge right now. Get it? Because the tables are …

1. avec (West Loop) – The place is always busy, no matter what time you arrive, so don’t feel bad for asking those at a semi-full table if you can sit there. Just feel bad if they say no. 2. The Bristol (Bucktown/Wicker Park) – The main room is as intimate as the communal seating. Pass the salt and share your grilled prawns, would you? 3. Room 21 (South Loop) – Long tables and the long bar at this former Al Capone speakeasy make you feel like royalty upon arrival. The vintage leopard oil painting on the wall should provide a perfectly good conversation starter.

4. The Publican (West Loop) – Pull out any chair on Sunday for their four-course, family-style menu for $45. If you’re lucky, a couple of cute Ukie V artists will be sitting where your Grandma Pat and Aunt Elsie usually do. 5. The Gage (Loop) – Eat some locally crafted sausage, drink some wine, then invite all your new friends across the street for some pictures in front of “the bean” at Millennium Park. 6. Carnivale (West Loop) – Excuse yourself often for the ceviche bar at this Nuevo Latin restaurant. 7. Mado Market & Eatery (Bucktown/Wicker Park) – Rub elbows with strangers at this huge table made of wood salvaged from an old farmhouse. Don’t let anyone distract you from reading the entire menu on the ever-changing blackboard. 8. Graham Eliot (River North) – The copper-clad communal table looks even better when it’s covered in rosemary skewered sweetbreads, olive-crusted swordfish, and crispy pork belly. 9. Sepia (West Loop) – At a hotspot like this, it’s hard to get a seat without reservations, but that’s where the two communal tables save the day for those who can’t wait for their Berkshire pork chops or duck fat fried potatoes. 10. Japonais (North Side) – It’s in the Green Dining Room (as opposed to the Red Dining Room) where the long community table runs along the one wall. Entertain everyone by ordering “The Rock,” a steaming black stone served at your table upon which you cook paper-thin slices of sirloin beef.

Chicago: Top 10 Ball-Dropping Places to Ring In 2009

imagePull out your card and make reservations now.

1. The Violet Hour (Bucktown/Wicker Park) – Reserve the third seating at this intimate hotspot. For $60 a person, you get unlimited sparkling wine and three cocktails (or beer or wine) from their NYE cocktail list. There will be an appetizer menu floating around, but food is not included in the price. 2. Province (West Loop) – Ring in an organic New Year. The early seating package (5:30 to 8 p.m.) inside this LEED-certified building includes three courses at $36 per person for food only; for the later seating, you get a glass of sparkling wine and your choice among five appetizers, five entrees, and three desserts for $65. There’s a couple of wine packages to choose from, too. 3. Pops for Champagne (Near North Side) – If you’re looking for an open-bar package with Piper-Heidsieck Champagne and passed hors d’oevres prepared by Chef Andre Brochu, then slap down $130 and indulge here. The Ava Logan Quartet will be bebopping downstairs in the intimate jazz lounge from 6 to 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

4. Blackbird (West Loop) – Celebrate with the regular menu, or feast on the $100 NYE dinner that includes caviar, roasted foie gras, lobster legs, braised rack of lamb, black truffle, and more. Wine pairings will be offered for an additional $55 per person. 5. avec (West Loop) – Nothing screams “Happy 2009!” like a wild boar menu. Nothing. 6. The Bristol (Bucktown/Wicker Park) – Lie to yourself about your upcoming resolutions while choosing between the ballotine of young chicken, the Bristol bouillabaisse, and the red onion tart. You get three courses for $39. Oh, and last we checked the second floor was still available for a private party. 7. The Publican (West Loop) – Make reservations early as Chef de Cuisine Brian Huston will prepare a special à la carte version of his pork- and oyster-centric menu to celebrate the season. Consider how the communal table situation might be perfect for finding someone to kiss at midnight. 8. Vertigo Sky Lounge (Near North Side) – Watch Chicago ring it in from the 26th floor. Tickets will cost you (and 164 other people) $206.50, but that gets you inside their “Octopussy Penthouse” party with running films, passed hors d’oeuvres, house cocktails, a midnight Veuve Cliquot toast, and a view from the open patio where they’ll have an “Ice Luge” with housemade shots and drinks. 9. Moto (West Loop) – Chef Cantu has created a 12+ course meal consisting of his most famous dishes. Bring your credit card because it’s $150 a person, plus another $90 if you want to do the wine pairing. 10. N9NE Steakhouse (West Loop) – The second seating (8 to 10 p.m.) will feature N9NE’s a la carte menu of signature steak and seafood dishes for $80 per person, and it also gets you into the upstairs Ghost Bar after 11 p.m. You could really live it up by also requesting a spot at the Champagne and Caviar Bar.