Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chicago Noms, Part 1: A Girl, A Goat, and 22 Bottles

by EP

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At the end of January, 15 people came together in Chicago - yes, Chicago in January - to celebrate a special friend's 30th birthday.  That friend is my dear friend from college, Craig, who you might remember from such posts as this and this.  I was so pleased and honored to be invited to this event, a "destination" birthday party in a fabulous city with an amazing and flourishing food scene.  I had been to Chicago once before back in '04 for a chilly "spring break" road trip from St. Louis, but I was eager to get back and check out the city and the food I'd heard so much about (mostly from Twitter and Xani's various visits).

I will be blogging soon about my other eats with another buddy, Alex, but this post is dedicated to the fabulous meal and overall experience we had at Girl and the Goat, the brainchild of Chef Stephanie Izard, Top Chef Season 3 winner.*

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Craig and his partner Mark hosted the dinner for 15 of Craig's friends from all parts of his life.  We were seated in a private room in the basement of the restaurant ("the underground goat").  Technically I think it was their liquor store-room but they made it quite cozy and intimate with candles, music, and centerpieces, and the bottles of booze stacked up along each wall were more decor than "pantry."

We arrived at 7:00 and schmoozed for about an hour, enjoying champagne, warm marinated olives, and Fried Naked Cowboy Oysters with capers and egg salad.  (It's a minor detail but I loved how the oysters were served on spoons that had been transformed into little serving vessels.)

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Then we were seated at the large table, where our wonderful waitress brought three kinds of bread, each with two kinds of butter.  While we noshed the bread, Craig stood up and made an incredible toast where he expressed his gratitude and addressed each of his guests, explaining to the group how he knew each person (since many of us had not met) and how special each of us was to him.  Talk about touching!

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Then it was time for the first "wave" of foods.  This point deserves attention: the waitstaff brought the food out in several "waves" - lighter, appetizer-esque dishes, then mostly seafood dishes, then the meat dishes.  Each dish in the wave was presented solo or with 1 other dish, and served family style.  After each wave, we took a 10-15 min break to get up, use the restroom, walk around and mingle, take pictures, etc.  To me, this made the meal that much more enjoyable - you didn't feel like you were just sitting there eating eating eating until you couldn't move.  Plus, the table was kind of big so you could only comfortably speak to your close neighbors; the breaks allowed us to schmooze (my hobby) and get to know one another.  Sharing the dishes family style also helped with this since it's interactive and everyone was excitedly discussing each dish.

And here was the fab menu (unfortunately the separation of dishes into waves is a bit hazy...blame the champagne):

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Hiramasa Crudo with crisp pork belly, chili aioli, caperberries

The crudo + pork belly combo here was killer - light yet decadent.

Kohlrabi Salad with fennel, evalon, pear, toasted almonds, ginger dressing - no picture of this salad, which was one of the most memorable/favorite bites of the evening for me.  I was too into the kohlrabi to take a picture, I guess!  The salad was so crunchy but had a light yet creamy dressing.  And I thought I didn't even like fennel!

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Hen of the woods mushroom ragout with sweet potato agnolotti, shroom creme fraiche, capers

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Grilled Seppia with piparra-pineapple relish, grilled kale, sweet garlic puree
The seppia (cuttlefish) is not unlike squid, and here it was grilled to perfection.  This was another big hit in the first "wave" -- and overall!  I think we ordered more, it was so fantastic.

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Smoked Blue Prawns with hedgehog mushroom gribiche, creamy polenta

The head-on shrimp in this dish were not only delicious but also a great conversation piece, as there were some of us willing to "suck the head," and we spent the course trying to make everyone else do the same.  Great play on shrimp and grits.

Fried Cod Cheeks with bacon sweet n' sour, potato aioli, tempura broccoli

Clearly I was not able to take a picture before people started digging in!  This dish of fried cod cheeks and tempura broccoli was like a super-fancy version of General Tso's...cod cheeks.  Very rich but very awesome.

Kalbi Style Beef Ribs with grilled sweet potatoes, charred okra

Sauteed Green Beans, fish sauce vinaigrette, cashews

And then they brought out the whole goat leg!  It was served with pita bread, hard boiled eggs, crispy fried onions, and various sauces and sides.  The meat was very flavorful and I loved the various condiments.

Whole Roasted Goat Leg (!) with sides and sauces

SO many condiments

Sugo with pappardelle, rosemary, cape gooseberries

This was an excellent pasta dish - the pasta was perfectly cooked and the sauce was rich and lovely.

Pan Roasted Brussels with sesame soy bean sprouts, pepitas, pecans, pomelo

I love me some Brussels sprouts and these were no exception.  They were cooked well and they had a nice crunch from the nuts, and a good acidic flavor from the pomelo.

Wow, just wow.  Everything was not only truly delicious but interesting in some way.  I've done a lot of eating in my day and I've tried A LOT of different things, but the Chef here added some new twist, ingredient, or technique to each dish and really made them one of a kind creations. For me, my favorites were the kohlrabi salad, the seppia, and the cod cheeks.  It was truly a whirlwind of cuisine though, so the details are fuzzy!

Then it was time for dessert.  We enjoyed all four of the pastry chef's offerings on the menu that evening, also served family style.

Birthday boy blows out his candle!
Chocolate-Thai Chili Gelato with chocolate cake, peanut fluff, pomegranate, left hand milk stout
This dessert was probably my favorite - it had some heat to it from the thai chili that went so well with the chocolate and peanut butter.  Reminds me of the spicy chocolate gelato at Pitango!

Butternut Malasadas with bourbon gelato, brown butter apples, hook's cheddar
Okay...maybe this one was my favorite.  These were basically butternut squash donut holes with a bit of cheddar in the middle.  This cheddar went beautifully with the apples, as in a cheddar-apple pie - GENIUS. And who doesn't love brown butter apples and bourbon gelato??

Pear wonton with parsnip puree, pineapple sweet and sour, and tamarind stracciatella - no picture of this one but this was also excellent - I loved the fried wonton with the warm pears inside.  I have no recollection of the tamarind stracciatella but I'm sure it contributed to the yumminess factor.

Gingerbread Cake with cranberry-orange sorbet, caramel, orange cream, candied ginger
I am not a huge gingerbread fan but I liked how the spicy cake went with the bright and citrus-y sorbet.

All the desserts were great and again, so unique.  I think there's a line between a meaningful and unique addition, and adding something just to add it and be obnoxious about it.  I thought these desserts, while made up of many unique components, worked really well together and weren't pretentious about it.  Then again, this opinion was formed after 11 courses and who knows how much champagne, so maybe I just wanted something sweet and a nice cup of coffee, okay?

As for beverages, we were offered still and sparkling water (bubbles for me, always!), and a choice of two reds (a Pinot and a something else) and two whites, or champagne.  All in all, the 15 of us went through 22 bottles of various wines!

After the main courses and before the desserts, we were on a "break" and were chatting and mingling.  And then our wonderful waitress offered to give Mark and Craig a tour of the kitchen, as Craig was a special guest and it was pretty late (11pm) and the kitchen was winding down a bit.  Mark and Craig were kind enough to invite me along for the tour and I was STOKED!  We toured the prep kitchen, which was in clean-up mode at the time, and we saw their walk-ins and all the prepped stuff for the rest of the weekend.  Then we went upstairs to the main dining room and saw the semi-open kitchen (diners in the main dining room can see  the "line" - chefs cooking their food), both the dessert station and the savory side.  It was incredible to see the cooks working so hard and so fast, with so many hot pans and garnishes and quick turnarounds...exciting and terrifying.  It was all very cool to see, but honestly, I have never felt more in the way than I did at that moment.

At the time of the dinner I was reading Blood, Bones, and Butter, memoir of Chef Gabrielle Hamilton (chef at Prune in NYC, which we love and have been to twice), so I had all that "inside scoop" knowledge of how a kitchen runs going through my head during the tour, which made the experience even cooler.  Based on this "inside knowledge," I tried to swear - a lot - on the tour.  To try to fit in, you know.

It was about 12:30am by the time we stumbled (from full-ness and the aforementioned 22 bottles) out of the Girl and the Goat, about 5.5 hours from start to finish.  I can't get over what an incredible event this was, from the food to the company to the ambiance.  The whole thing felt so special, you know?  And I hope Craig, the birthday boy, felt the MOST special, as it was his special celebration.

In conclusion: this is a tough act to follow.  My 30th is coming up this summer and I will have to really think about how to celebrate this one...

Happy birthday Craig, and thanks Mark & Craig for being such wonderful hosts!  Love you both!

Thanks Mark & Craig!

Ps. Here are a few more fun pics from the evening:

*I believe this was the 4th Top Chef-contestant restaurant I've been to.  Others include: Volt (Bryan Voltaggio), Home (Richard Blais), and Perilla (Harold Dieterle - no blog post about this one but it was fantastic, trust me).


  1. What an amazing meal and event! Happy Birthday Craig, you really set the bar high for bday celebrations!

  2. wow, so jealous you made it out to G and the G. Glad it lived up to your expectations. :)

  3. Great job, Erin! My mouth is watering. Can we please go back soon?! I am so glad you could make it to Chicago - it would not have been the same without you. Mark

  4. Here's my "15 minutes of fame story. We used to be regulars at Ms. Izard's pre-Top Chef fame restaurant, Scylla. The use of unusual combinations that actually worked was her signature. It is amazing how far she has come. I remember her winning entry at the Top Chef Final where Tom Colecheo commented on how he thought the combination was going to be horrible but was wonderful. That sums up Izard's cooking. Of course now I can't even get into the new place :(

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