The longest post ever– a review of iNG, The Aviary, and The Publican

When I last left you, I was napping off a food coma from Xoco in the heart of Chicago.  My next set of stories comes from a few hours later, after we’d located a Red Bull and managed to gird and shower our loins for further adventuring. 

I was actually very nervous about our next meal, at iNG Restaurant, because we were planning to meet our blogging friends Choosy Beggars Tina and Mike for the very first time.  I’ve “known” them via the blogs for a couple of years, and at one point we’d even exchanged packages of regional foods (theirs from Canada, and ours from the depths of Texas) via international mail.  But we’d never met in person, and after that length of time of knowing someone without meeting them, you do get worried that it’ll be totally weird in person, or that they’ll think you’re hideous and boring, or that they’ll actually end up being axe murderers.  It’s the classic struggle that faces people who date after meeting on one of the myriad creepy dating sites on the internet.

Only in this case, I’m pleased to report, they were LOVELY.  Tina is both beautiful and gracious in a way I’ll never be, and Mike was so adorable and Canadian that I almost wrapped him up and stole him to take home to Colorado.  Which I guess IS creepy in the manner of internet meetings, so I’m glad I didn’t go that route.  Kind of.

Fantastic

We initially met for dinner at iNG, after a harrowing cab ride through an area that can be best described as “industrial chic” only without the “chic” part.  The restaurant was well lit and friendly looking, if in a questionable part of town.  The servers wore little ear-pieces for communication with the kitchen (?), which seemed to teeter on the very edge of being douche-y, but never crossed over into douche territory with both feet.  Our server was an obvious hipster with a pretty awesome ironic moustache, but was open and engaging and made us feel welcome.  Also, he had a sense of humor, which I always appreciate, regardless of venue.

Chris and I immediately ordered beers, because Mike and Tina hadn’t arrived yet, and I tend to be much friendlier after a beer or two.  They came out quickly and were delicious.  After our dinner dates had arrived, and Chris had had time to become adequately smitten with them, we made some decisions about what we’d be eating. 

iNG offers a tasting menu and a regular a la carte menu.  The tasting menu is centered around a concept known as “flavor tripping.”  Flavor tripping involves eating a special African berry (known as ‘miracle berry’), which changes the bitter/sour receptors on your tongue to perceive those bitter/sour flavors as sweet.  So licking a lemon after eating a miracle berry tastes like delicious lemonade, rather than sour, mouth-puckering lemon.  It’s really a neat experience, and Chris and I have experimented at home with it before.

The tasting menu for the evening was Thanksgiving themed, and after discussing it between the four of us, we decided to just go for it.  There were several a la carte items that I really had been looking forward to trying, but a tasting menu is almost always the way to go in the nicer restaurants, and would allow us to make innumerable “tripping balls” jokes while eating.  Win.

Our first course actually came in the menu, which was folded into an origami box.  It was a little pipette of carrot soup, which was okay, but kind of difficult to eat and a little underwhelming in flavor for an amuse bouche.  I did like the origami menu, though, because it set the tone for a fun and tricksy meal. 

Can’t beet a good salad, HAR!

The next course (which was the first official tasting menu course) was a salad of beets, cranberry gelee, arugula, goat cheese, and spiced pecans with a small clementine supreme.  On the side was a lemon wedge and a miracle berry tablet.  The idea was to try the salad, then let the miracle berry dissolve on the tongue, then lick the lemon to confirm that the berry was working, and then finish the salad.  The salad was initially pretty bland.  It didn’t have much punch at all, and was dominated by the sourness of the goat cheese, the bitterness of the arugula, and the unsweetened tannin of the cranberry gelee.  BLAH.  It was like a Wendy’s salad without the corn syrup and soybean oil dressing.

Enter the miracle berry.  We let it dissolve on our tongues, which took kind of an awkwardly long time, especially for me because I’m perpetually dehydrated.  We were having a good time, though.  We then licked the lemon, which was indeed sweet and delicious.  So we moved back to the salad.  WOW, what a difference.  The gelee had become sweeter, the goat cheese richer and less goat-y, the dressing more assertive and perfectly matched to the peppery bite of the arugula, and the spiced pecans tasted almost candied and spiced (which, um, hi? DELICIOUS).  Very impressive transformation, and we thoroughly enjoyed the rest of our salads.

Also enjoyed very much the gin and ginger ale cocktail that we got to try before and after the berry.  It was good both ways, and I usually feel like gin is a way that God is punishing me for stealing drinks from my parents liquor cabinet in high school.  So that’s a big deal.  I can’t remember the name of the gin, but I was told it’s the best gin in the universe or something equally superlative.

Bajango says “wha?”

Next course was an oyster, which was kind of a big deal because I don’t normally swing that way.  I was trying to sack up and look culinarily tough for Mike and Tina, though, so I went with it.  It had a cornbread crumble and some celery on top, and was served in a smoked dome with a smoky beer on the side.  It was meant to mimic oyster stuffing, but having never had oyster stuffing, I just had to deliberate on whether or not it was, in fact, delicious or gross.  I went with “medium.”  The celery and cornbread worked well to brighten the smokiness and the briny vag…oyster.  The fact that I didn’t hork it back out speaks volumes as to its palatability.  The rest of the group seemed to enjoy it quite a bit, as well.  And the smoky beer was delicious, even if I can’t remember its name.

Belleh

Another plate arrived, this time bearing braised and caramelized pork belly with brussels sprouts and a sweet potato puree.  OMNOMNOMNOM.  Phenomenal, perfectly cooked, crisp on the outside and meltingly tender within.  Perfect.

Turducken

And then turducken on roasted potato hash.  Sort of.  It was a kind of home fry wodge underneath some confited duck and perfectly cooked sous vide chicken breast slices and somewhere in there was turkey.  I can’t remember the specifics of the meat order.  On top were a few pretty little haricot verts with house-made mushroom veloute and crispy fried shallots.  It was fabulous, and fairly creative, and would have actually been an awesome breakfast, I think mostly because of the potatoes.  My one tiny quibble would be that the sous vide chicken, if left un-seared, gets a kind of pinkish pallor that is visually unappealing.  The dish was beautifully presented, and tasted great, but it was hard to get my brain excited about eating the slabs of chicken.  Maybe that was just me, but I like my meat to have some color on it.

Ignore the fact that I married a man of British ancestry.  Onward and upward!

Screw you, Stropshire

A cheese course!  Only not really!  We were given another miracle berry to awkwardly dissolve, another lemon to lick suggestively, and a plate with three wedges, a balsamic smear, and a few apple wedges.  And nut crumble.  The wedges LOOKED like humboldt fog, stropshire cheddar, and a hard, parmesan-like cheese.  However there was trickery afoot.  It was actually a homemade unsweetened cheesecake of sorts, a wedge of real stropshire cheese, and a wedge of apple gelee.  We tasted them before the berry and got a bland apple gelee, a blander creamy wedge, and OMG HOLYSHIT WHAT IS THIS FOUL ASSAULT ON MY TONGUE stropshire.

I had never eaten blue cheese.  Never.  I always thought the idea was just too repellent, and was really hoping that I’d try it boldly and love it.  Not so.  It tastes like bitter mold and hatefulness.

So, miracle berry.  What can you do to make all of this better?  Answer?  The humboldt fog wedge tasted like a particularly high-end cheesecake, the apple gelee with nut crumble tasted like apple pie (so much so that it was kind of a mind-hump), and the stropshire tasted like THE DEVIL’S BALLSACK.  Still.  Apparently there are limits to what the miracle can miraculasize.

I do not like blue cheese.  Not in a house, not with a mouse, not in a box, not with a fox (and yeah, Tina is totally a fox).

Accompanying the cheese, we were given a red wine that was good to begin with, and after the berry tasted like a rich, delicious port wine. That was pretty incredible.

Finally, dessert came.  It was waffles with butter and syrup.  Only not! Because the waffles were really a graham cracker ice cream, the butter was really a different kind of ice cream, and the syrup was…I don’t know.  Not syrup.  It was good, but I was still reeling from the stropshire, so nothing was quite sweet enough for me.  Also, I think my berry had been overwhelmed and decided to pack up and leave my tongue completely for gentler lands.

This was all ice cream

Overall, it was a very good, fun, playful meal.  I enjoyed it, and with the company, I enjoyed it even more.  Plus, I just think Homaro Cantu is a nice guy, unlike Achatz, who makes delicious food, but seems like a prick.  I think there’s some polish left to be put on the food, and that may be in part due to the limitations of the miracle berry.  The food has to be kind of bland and unappealing before application of the berry, otherwise it won’t be as “cool.”  There’s a part of me, though, that wants all of my food to be honestly good, even without a miracle.  That part of me probably would have preferred the a la carte menu.  The chefs in the kitchen clearly know what they’re doing, and they’re working with great ingredients, so less tomfoolery would have made for a more even experience of goodness with fewer peaks and valleys.

Side note: We also got to watch Hugo do his thing with the noodles, and he looked totally creeped out that some random blonde girl ran up like a fanboy, knowing his name and salivating over his technique.  I am SO pissed off that I didn’t get to try his noodles.  Maybe in a few years, I’ll be able to pull noodles with the same skill.  *insert weiner joke*

After paying a reasonable bill (honestly, it was pretty darn reasonable, given the experience), we moved over to The Aviary.

Sigh.  Oh, Achatz.

The Aviary is Chef Grant Achatz (of Alinea fame) new cocktail restaurant.  It is very difficult to get into, and I had to write a sad, begging letter to be let in at all.  In it, I said I was a CIA grad.  It has helped me to get into restaurants before, since it’s kind of an industry courtesy, and it’s true, so why not?  We got a 10 o’ clock reservation for four, and since it’s right next door to iNG, we were timed just about perfectly.  When we got there, the doorman said something about “you can tell me but you’d have to kill me.”  I realized, after a few minutes, with the help of the group, that it had apparently gotten around the restaurant that I was CIA.  Not Culinary Institute of America.  The spy kind.  Me.  A spy.

At first, I was a little embarrassed, then flattered, then laughing my ass off because REALLY?  What kind of wanker would use his/her CIA connections to get into a restaurant? The spy kind, that is.  And, to think of it, are CIA agents even allowed to admit that they’re CIA?  And why would they be trying to get into a random bar?  Whatever.  Basically, I’m a kind of important as an international woman of mystery at this point, and will probably ride that train for a while.

We were let in and led to a booth in a very dark lounge.  I’ll never understand why ‘Chatz feels like all of his venues have to be nighttime.  It makes me feel kind of uncomfortable, like I’ll be reaching for my glass and end up with a handful of someones titty or something by accident.  And man of mystery or not, that kind of behavior is frowned upon.

A set of four tiny little amuse bouches arrived on the same pedestals that they use at Alinea for some of the one-bite courses.  There was no explanation as to what they were.

What ARE you??

Our incredibly pretentious server came over, not glancing up from his iPhone, thrust a hip out, and explained the menu to us in a manner that stated “Oh good lord, how did I end up with four filthy suburban losers at my table.  I totally thought they were going to be spies or Oprah or at the very least Obama.”  Then he walked away, leaving the amuse bouches on the table, unmentioned.

So we ate them.  Honestly, in this group, it’s probably best not to leave anything that looks edible out on the table unless you want it consumed immediately.  Not even flowers.  They were pretty unremarkable, even if they were appetizing to look at.  Or repulsive to look at.  I couldn’t tell in the fruit bat lighting.

When our server came back and finished rolling his eyes long enough to focus on the screen of his iphone once more, we asked what they were and were told something about manchego, olives, almonds, gelees, foams, and something else.  Hopefully Mike and Tina remember better than I do.

We ordered our first round of drinks, and a few little items off of the “bites” menu.  Yeah, we were STILL EATING.  You’ll find it’s a theme.

Tastes like High School chemistry class with Mr. Arvidson

My first drink was the Oolong, and it was beautifully presented.  A scientific evaporative collection contraption of some sort, with aromatics in the top chamber, gin in the lower chamber, and a bunsen burner of sorts to heat the alcohol into the top chamber, where it married with the aromatics.  When, minutes later, the flame was removed, it all fell back to the bottom chamber and was ready for service. 

Anything you have to open with a sling shot is a win

Have I mentioned I hate gin?  I did not think Oolong would involve gin.  But this was hot and nuanced and sweet without being cloying.  There were a couple of delicate glass teacups’ worth of cocktail, which I enjoyed thoroughly.

Chris ordered a drink called “In the Rocks,” which was a very well-executed old fashioned, served in a sphere of ice that had to be opened with a sling shot.  Very cool.

Tina ordered the “Blood and Sand,” which came without fancy presentation (except for lighting an orange peel on fire), and was incredibly tasty, whiskey-based, and, as another reviewer put it, “not fucking around.” 

Mike, pouring the liquor into his festive lady-glass

Mike got a Hurricane, complete with a green umbrella.  All. That. Is. Man.

Typical Achatz fare, from left clockwise, potato cube, Tina bite, Tina bite

From left going clockwise, waygu, a Tina bite, and rillette

The bites I ordered were the waygu beef, the duck rillette, and the potato cube.  I’ve had similar versions of the potato and waygu at Alinea, where they were delicious.  These didn’t fail at recreating those dishes. The rillette was less good than some I’ve made at home, but just fine overall.  Moaning may or may not have occurred.  Tina ordered 3 bites also, but I can’t remember what they were.

Giant hand-carved ice ball
Wheel of destiny

Second round of drinks!  I was torn between the Candy Corn and the Maraschino.  The server suggested Maraschino (with a silent “you ignorant slut” at the end of the recommendation), so I accepted.  It was a solid, hand carved ice sphere that fit perfectly in the rocks glass, surrounded by some alcohol.  It tasted like vaguely sweet burning, and I enjoyed it very much, after the hair finished sprouting on my back.

Chris got the Cider, which was served in a transparent flask filled with aromatics.  It tasted like hot apple cider, only with the fire of spirits.

The Ginger

Tina got the Ginger, which looked like Thai soup, but was tastier and gently spicy, with a kick of liquor at the end.

Tiny house bottles

And Mike got the 2 in 1, which was a White Lady and house-bottled Negroni.  I only tasted the Negroni, which I’ve never had, but it was really intricate and well-balanced and addictive.

That’s right.  I tasted other peoples’ drinks.  That NEVER HAPPENS.  Such was our love for Mike and Tina.  Sure, I grilled them on their cold sore history (none of us had ever had one, which was awesome), but then we passed all the drinks for tasting, and I’m so glad we did. 

We’d been waiting for some time now to determine whether or not we would be able to visit the downstairs super-secret speakeasy called “The Office.”  Apparently, we were not cool enough.  Not even cool enough for an explanation of what it was or looked like– the server would only smirk and say “it’s Sexy.”

He was such a butthole.

But I would totally go back.  That’s the rub of Achatz’ ventures– even though they’re expensive, and even though the pretense and douchery runs rampant like a stampeding buffalo of dickishness, the food and cocktails are so beyond superb and interesting and experiential that you end up dying to go back, just to have another few hours of magic.  I was again amazed at the creativity and execution of each and every item (barring the amuse bouche).

We finished the night at The Publican, having a couple of interesting brews and some great conversation.  Mike and Tina kept us rolling with tales of Canadian drug busts using only a flashlight and a notepad, and men standing in their underpants, fighting off a bear by clanging two frying pans and making empty threats.  We couldn’t get enough of it, and were so sad to end the night. 

I was full, fat, and happy.  Chris was too, and deep in man-crush territory.  It was just a great night with great food, great drinks, and great people.   Also, the word “great.”

 If you have managed to saw through this enormous review, then bless your hearts.  I’ve got more coming! Topolobampo, Spiaggia, and a great hot dog place.

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