Windy City wow

Move over this little piggy, there’s a new porker in town.

Our local babysitters extraordinaire/lovely neighbors/surrogate grandparents down the street offered to take the toddler overnight so hubby and I could sneak off for a quick trip to Chicago. Hubby had to go up there to pick up his new passport and also had an Expedia credit burning a whole in his virtual pocket, so we decided to make a night of it.

After some deliberation, we booked a room at Hotel 71, right on the river at Wacker and Wabash. A competent and comfortable choice. The hotel looks mod and hipster from the outside and in the lobby, but the rooms are sumptuously furnished with subdued upscale pieces and neutral décor. We stayed on the 16th floor with an impressive view of the river and bridges below. Nice. The orange-scented bath products are worth mentioning as well, they smelled yummy enough to make your mouth water. Our only (very minor) complaints were that the water in the shower and bath wasn’t as hot as we would have liked, and there was some noise in the morning from what sounded like construction going on next door. Other than that, the location was ideal and we agreed we’d definitely stay here again.

Chicago is foodie heaven for someone like me, and the choices are dizzying. For dinner, we’d already pre-scouted thanks to recommendations from a friend who used to live there (thanks, Renate!) The Purple Pig looked fun from the get-go, and has been rated one of the top 10 new restaurants in the country by Bon Appetit. Good enough for me.

To get to the Purple Pig proper, you enter under a metal archway off Michigan Avenue and walk back along a sidewalk to the restaurant itself. The place offers indoor and outdoor (heated) seating, but it’s not large. We ended up sitting across from each other at a long indoor table, elbow to elbow with fellow diners. Fortunately, the high ceilings and the acoustics help keep the noise at a somewhat manageable level (much better than, say, Napolese…), but it still felt intimate and cozy with lots of light wood and a huge wall of glass-fronted wine racks.

Our server was really on top of his game and somehow managed to keep our whole table and then some buzzing and well taken care of. The wine list is huge and overwhelming; I finally just closed it and told our server what I liked. I don’t even know exactly what he brought me, but it was a light, fruity, fragrant red just like I’d asked for. Hubby was pleased with his glass as well, a more assertive red with distinctive jammy but not sweet flavors.

The Purple Pig advertises “cheese, wine and swine,” and that’s pretty accurate. The menu is full of Mediterranean-tinged, small-plate tapas goodies. Now, I’m usually not all that crazy about tapas because I would usually rather eat a full serving of one thing I really like than a few bites each of half a dozen different dishes. Plus, I don’t like sharing my food. Tonight, though, this was somehow perfect. It was terribly difficult to make choices because so many things sounded tempting. The fact that hubby hates seafood helped narrow options down somewhat, as did obvious items like pig’s ears and tails that we both agreed were not personally appealing. We subtly tried to check out what our fellow diners were eating for inspiration; not difficult considering our quarters were so close, we could have just reached over and eaten off their plates.

We started with two dishes from the fried portion of the menu – breaded chorizo-stuffed olives with a lemony mayonnaise underneath, and proscuitto bread balls that came with a mild tomato sauce. I was a little surprised we only got five smallish pieces with each, but the flavors were so bold and vibrant, that was really all we needed. The savory green olives were good, but the proscuitto balls were AWESOME, a steaming-hot hush puppyish concoction with a crispy browned outer crust. The tomato sauce was a little bland, but a great complementary foil for the much saltier bread balls.

Next up was a sharable plate of mixed green salad with slivered pieces of asparagus, crushed hazelnuts and a citrusy vinaigrette dressing. Light, lovely and a refreshing way to cleanse our palates after the fried treats. We’d already started perusing the menu again by this point, looking for other items to order. The cured meats and cheeses are always a hit with both of us, but we looked beyond to the “smears,” a series of spreadable offerings delivered with slices of crusty brioche or Italian peasant bread. Hubby fought for the whipped feta with sliced cucumbers, but I lobbied hard for the eggplant caponata with goat cheese and won.

The serving size of the smear was pretty substantial – five slices of bread, each slathered with soft goat cheese that made a just-right base for the messy but delicious caponata. The chunky eggplant spread was like a sweet-and-spicy chutney with a nice vinegary tang and plump golden raisins (no onion, thank God!)

Hubby had his eye on the chicken thigh kebabs with fried smashed potatoes and tzatziki or the Jimmy’s housemade Greek sausage with rapini and grapes from the larger-portion “la plancha” selections, but let himself be swayed by the server’s suggestion to try the pork blade steak instead. And again, props to the server – this was fantastic, and something we never would have ordered of our own volition. The steak was a thin but generous piece of meat that had been brined in a salt solution, then quick grilled on both sides and topped with a little honey, arugula and parmesan cheese. A sweet and salty masterpiece. There were a few fatty bits here and there that we spit out, but the meat for the most part was tender and delicious. And underneath was what I thought at first glimpse to be sliced tomatoes, but was actually something called “ ‘Njuda,” a soft spreadable form of salami.

By the time we polished off the pork steak, we were starting to feel pleasantly full. The desserts were intriguing, especially the olive oil soft-serve ice cream, but we decided not to overstuff ourselves and went straight to the check. We were fully expecting a bill of at least $100, and were surprised and even a little shocked that our total was only $71. VERY fair considering the amount of quality of food and wine we enjoyed.

If you’re in Chicago and looking for a fun, scrumptious, pseudo-communal dining experience, pay a visit to the Purple Pig. I wish, wish, wish we would have taken a camera in with us. However, you can get a gander at the menu, the décor and some of the dishes for yourself at www.thepurplepigchicago.com. You’re welcome.

Incidentally, after the Purple Pig, we had a drink at the Redhead Piano Bar, then ended up at Blue Chicago. A colorful evening, to say the least.

The Purple Pig on Urbanspoon

Date night at Napolese

I’ve been dining out like crazy this past month, but mostly for work and am thus bound by confidentiality!

Trying a new approach for this entry… hubby and I had dinner last night at Napolese, and each wrote a separate entry about the experience. Below is our he-said/she-said review:

MY REVIEW:

Being a big Café Patachou fan, I was psyched to try out Martha Hoover’s newest invention – Napolese.

This cozy artisanal pizza place is located just around the corner from the original Patachou on 49th Street just off Pennsylvania. Hubby and I decided to go for dinner on one of our semi-regular date nights, but hadn’t made a reservation. We got a little nervous when we drove past looking for parking and saw waiting customers spilling out onto the sidewalk.

After quickly discussing a few alternatives, we decided to go for it and see just how long the wait was. The congenial hostess told us we could expect 20 to 30 minutes, but offered to get us a glass of wine to enjoy in the meantime. As it turned out, there was no need; we were led to a table within 10 minutes, if that.

Napolese is surprisingly small. About the same size as Café Patachou. One little dining room and that’s it. There are a half dozen or so outdoor tables, but hubby wasn’t thrilled about al fresco dining in a long-sleeved black shirt in near 90 degrees. I think we were both relieved to receive seats inside near the window.

Décor is fairly subdued — dark wood, one bookcase full of books and glass knick-knacks, another full of wine bottles. A row of bar seating gives diners a chance to check out the pizza-making process up close and personal. Cool. There’s really not much room to play with, but they’ve done a good job of making it feel classy, not kitschy.

You should know going in, this place is LOUD. This many people in one small dining room makes for a hell of a lot of noise. Unless you happen to read lips, dinner conversation at a reasonable decibel is not a possibility. Hubby and I had a hard time hearing each other across the two-top.

We selected wine right off the bat from a short but decent selection of Italian varietals. I opted for a glass of Valpolicella, always a dependable choice, I find. Hubby got a refreshing Lambrusco, served nicely chilled and appropriately fizzy (I once heard someone call this “soda pop wine” and it’s always stuck with me). Wines are available by the glass, full bottles and quarter liters, which you don’t see very often here but are common in Italy. (The $10 to $15 per quarter price tag is quite a bit higher than the 2 euros you spend on the same amount of excellent house red or white in Milan, but I digress…)

Water is brought to each table in a pretty resealable glass bottle, and bottles are replaced as needed. Hubby and I wondered if they really just fill up the bottles with regular old tap, but no matter. It made for a nice presentation. While we were perusing the menu, we received a small gratis dish of tasty marinated olives – I detected thyme in the herb mix. And, the olives were already pitted, thank God. It’s hard to look sexy on a date night when you’re trying to discreetly spit out a gnawed pit and then look for somewhere to dispose of it. Hubby and I were both starving, and these olives disappeared quickly.

The menu isn’t huge — a few appetizers, a handful of salads, a couple Neapolitan sandwiches, and of course, the pizzas. You can choose from house-recipe pies, or create your own from a list of (sometimes slightly odd) gourmet toppings like pancetta, quail eggs, arugula and fingerling potatoes.

The baked goat cheese with tomato sauce starter was tempting, but seemed a little redundant in a pizza place, as did bruschetta. We went straight for the Napolese double chopped house salad. A good move, as the huge bowl was plenty for us to comfortably split. The shredded romaine was generously studded with cheese, roasted peppers, white beans and toothsome chunks of pepperoni and capricola, all tossed with a subtle red wine vinaigrette. I loved that everything was chopped small and manageable by fork – no awkward wrestling with big unwieldy leaves of lettuce. This hefty bowl of greens was like a salad and starter all in one.

Napolese chopped salad

Having been to Milan twice within the past year, our pizza expectations are fairly high for a restaurant that claims authentic Italian-style pies. After some discussion, hubby and I went for the classic choice – a buffalo margherita pizza. The thin-crusted pizzas here are all the same size, eight slices worth, but not heavy like a deep-dish variety would be. We saw several tables ordering a pizza per person, but that seemed like overkill to me. I knew I’d probably only need a piece or two to be satisfied and would only end up taking the rest home, as many of our fellow diners seemed to be doing.

Must say, when our pizza arrived at the table, it looked and smelled delicious. Obviously handmade with melty cheese, a scattering of thickly chiffonaded basil, and a few big crispy dough bubbles emerging in the outer crust. We eagerly pulled slices onto our plates and got to work. I’m sorry to say, I was disappointed. The dough in the center of the pizza was pretty undercooked and could have withstood another minute or two in the oven. Subsequently, the sauce in the very middle hadn’t had time to thicken up in the heat of the oven and ran off the pizza in a watery mess when we pulled the slices apart. It wasn’t inedible, just a little underdone.

Napolese pizza margherita

The toppings were good, though, just the right amount of sauce, bubbly circles of melted buffalo mozzarella cheese, bracing basil and deliciously sweet little roasted grape tomatoes (I could easily have eaten a dish of these as a starter with some bread – note to self, experiment with this idea at home). The crust got better the closer you got to the outer edge and I really wished it had been cooked that consistently good throughout. In spite of its imperfections, we still finished the entire pizza between the two of us.

For dessert, I had my eye on the affrogato di gelato, advertised on the menu as vanilla gelato topped with espresso. Mmmm. When we ordered one to share, our server asked us if we’d like to sub another flavor gelato for the vanilla, an option we didn’t realize was available, but happily accepted. This was a great call on her part. The dessert arrived very quickly, a good-sized glass goblet/dish of hazelnut gelato with a cup of espresso on the side for us to pour over at will. (Hubby is the espresso aficionado, so read on for his thoughts on said coffee below.) The combination of coffee and hazelnut was fantastically rich and nutty, almost like a sweet sesame flavor, and we happily polished off the whole thing in short order.

Napolese affrogato

I have to make a point to mention that service at Napolese was prompt, friendly and efficient throughout the meal. Accommodating but never irritating or insincere, we never had to wait more than few minutes if we needed anything. And for such a small and busy place, we never felt rushed to give up our table. Kudos.

Our total bill was $73 without tip. Pretty expensive for a salad, one pizza and a dessert, although when you consider that we did have five glasses of wine between  us, not unheard of, I suppose. A good meal definitely, but thinking about it the day after, I’m not sure it quite lived up to the hype. Think next time, I’d still prefer a Quattro Fromaggio at Bazbeaux.

HUBBY’S REVIEW:

The fair Amy looked ravishing in a dark dress and a new dark hairdo. By coincidence I was wearing dark trousers and a dark shirt (I don’t have anything else). We climbed into our black Explorer and off we went to a restaurant staffed by young lovelies also wearing black. If Robert Palmer was sitting in the corner smiling I would not have been surprised except for the fact that he is actually dead.

On the other hand, Napolese was far from dead, so busy in fact that we circled past a second time to wonder on the wait time. Finding a spot we walked past the outdoor drinkers and were informed that 30 minutes was to be expected.

There isn’t any bar here where you can actually sit and wait for a table whilst enjoying a glass so I was a little alarmed as, wearing only black, with long sleeves, I certainly did not fancy standing around outside for half an hour, sweating with the sun beaming down on my shiny bald head. The 15 or so drinkers outside were almost all wearing the local uniform of tshirt and shirts, being a Euro these items are of course for painting houses only.

Food critic Amy Lynch must have had her photo circled around the kitchens of Indianapolis as one to be feared as we were seated in less than five minutes, not having time to even grab a glass of wine. To my delight we were also seated inside. My lovely wife loves to eat outside, but for me this is an option I generally do not partake of as it is hot and uncomfortable, and at this particular location proximity to the local vehicular traffic was not of interest.

So, inside we were.

We were seated close to the window, and I have to say the background noise was deafening, making conversation almost impossible. Having just moved on from the ‘will we wait ot not’ conversation I was certain Amy thought I didn’t want to be there and this conversational challenge was not going to help. This was a date night and I did not want anything to go wrong. On the other hand, the surrounding noise made disagreeing almost impossible. If we were to have a disagreement it would be a full on screaming match and in 5 years of marriage we have not hit that spot so we settled in to what was another lovely romantic evening.

I selected a Lambrusco, not often to be found and sometimes very refreshing (in this case it worked as I had two more), and Amy had a Valpolicella. The menu was not the longest, but for an indecisive fellow like myself, long enough. Having read some excellent reviews in various publications and of course having just come back from Italy a few weeks ago, we were looking forward to making our comparisons. A little plate of olives arrived with our drinks and were devoured almost instantly, mostly by me. Sorry, babe.

Amy will surely elaborate on the menu in full, and as you likely already know we split the chopped salad and a pizza. The salad was excellent, and I could have had another if it weren’t for the need for pizza space. I do not think I have ever heard anyone say they could have had another salad, and it is certainly a first for me, so we were off to a lightning start.

The pizza arrived in a reassuring ‘pizza made from scratch with love and attention’ timeframe, and it looked fantastic. My knife and fork disappeared with my salad plate and the waitress rushed to find replacements, returning with a fork. I have often found a knife useful when eating pizza in a restaurant but assumed we were in for a crispy affair here so was not too bothered.

As pizzas go, it was good, but not great. It was a little runny and really could have done with a little more time in the oven, as the dough right at the centre was not completely cooked. We still polished it off so it can’t have been that bad.

It was at this point we noticed just how good the service was. Water appeared at the table unobtrusively, the waitress managed to re-fill my glass without Amy noticing, and we never felt rushed or upsold. We were in the driving seat and it was nice to linger and not feel the need to leave. When Amy was finally getting to the end of her glass our waitress appeared and asked if we would like another, and once we mentioned dessert made a suggestion we were delighted with.

The hazelnut gelato with espresso was absolutely lovely. Reading the menu earlier in the week we both thought that would be a choice to share, and were not disappointed. Having the little cup of espresso for you to pour over the ice cream was a nice touch. Yummy!

The espresso served with the ice cream saved me a potential disappointment. By no means an expert, I do like a nice espresso and cannot for the life of me understand why restaurants purchase this very expensive machinery only to use it improperly. Pet hates are no crema, cold espresso, or served in a cold cup. I can bang out a fine effort on a $34 E-bay machine in my office so the restaurants of Indiana have no excuse, in my cranky opinion. Anyhow the cup was cold and the crema sadly lacking.

The tab came to $73 plus tip, not bad for an upscale dining experience but at the same quite a lot given that we shared all three courses. The pizza did not live up to expectations, but the salad and service can hide a multitude of sins. The noise really was an issue, and I would not recommend anyone taking their girlfriend to break up, you really would need to shout out whatever it was you could no longer stand about her. I was (retrospectively) surprised that no bread was offered, but given it was a pizza restaurant not so surprising and the olives were a fine replacement.

Would I go back? Possibly, but I would not rush back.

Napolese on Urbanspoon