Eleven Madison Park, New York (April 2014)

Gone are the card tricks, carrot tartares and egg creams. But that’s the price one pays for endless reinvention.* With just over 30 hours in New York, I had enough time for dinner and lunch the following day. These were two of the longest meals I’ve had at the restaurant, both clocking in 3.5 hours, and included some real gems. On this trip, vegetables took center stage; below are some of my favorites. 

* Fortunately, the flaky house-made rolls and duo of butter, which deserve last-meal designations, remain.

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Waldorf salad with apple, celery, rhubarb and candied walnuts

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Asparagus cooked en vessie with black truffle and potato

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Celtuce with fermented pistachio, romaine and sorrel

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Morels with garlic, peas and quinoa

Here’s a link to all of the photos from meal #1: https://www.flickr.com/photos/82765022@N03/sets/72157644210283706/

Here’s a link to all of the photos from meal #2: https://www.flickr.com/photos/82765022@N03/sets/72157644356840403/

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NoMad, New York (April 2014)

After a wonderful 3.5-hour vegetarian tasting menu at EMP earlier in the day, there was really no need for dinner. But this was vacation, after all, and good judgment was not at the forefront of my decision calculus. I decided to keep it in the Make It Nice family, revisiting NoMad. 

On my first visit in August 2012, both the food and service were underwhelming. Fast forward nearly two years, and it seemed like a totally different restaurant: friendly and prompt service–my thanks abound to Mark and Camilla–and universally outstanding (if massively portioned) food. 

Leading up to the visit, I sought out recommendations from the Wizard of Roz and (thought I) knew exactly what I’d be ordering: chicken liver, tagliatelle, butternut squash and lemon tart.

The restaurant had other ideas, though, as one day earlier they introduced their spring menu, changing about 90 percent of the menu and leaving not one of the aforementioned items. In their stead, I pursued an equally enticing set of dishes. 

A salad of what seemed like a garden’s worth of ripe strawberries boasted layers of acidity from red onions and goat cheese and was brought into equilibrium by the addition of cucumber and basil. And then, the entree of entrees: roasted chicken for two–or one if you’re planning a weekend of hibernation–accompanied by nettles and white asparagus. It’s over-the-top, but so very delicious. My fork ping-ponged between the foie gras and brioche stuffed breasts and the casserole of fried chicken skin and egg yolk-coated dark meat. It’s as memorable an entree as you’re likely to find anywhere in the country and well-worth the $82 pricetag. Dessert proved to be an unfettered delight, as well, with renditions of strawberry cheesecake and an orange creamsicle. 

I’m thrilled to have given NoMad a second chance and now know it will become part of my rotation of New York restaurants. 

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Spring onion and fingerling potato flatbread

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Strawberry salad with goat cheese, cucumber and basil

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Whole roasted chicken presented tableside

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Chicken breast with foie gras, black truffles, brioche, nettles and white asparagus

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Dark meat, soft-poached egg, white asparagus, fried skin and chives

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Mandarin, creamsicle with vanilla and almond

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Strawberry cheesecake

Girl & the Goat, Chicago, IL (April 2014)

If you’re willing to suspend your sense of self-preservation for one evening, Girl & the Goat is the place to do it. This wasn’t a meal so much as a stampede of flavor-detonating dishes.

There is, of course, the mirthfully titled roasted pig face, so savory in its porcine essence that your palate pleads for a respite. The pappardelle sugo proved to be the most intensely satisfying bowl of pasta I’ve had in recent memory: wide noodles of unearthly satin were draped over a meaty pork and goat-based ragu, all of which was punctuated by tart gooseberries.

A plate of goat belly, lobster and clams hobnobbed with vanilla as if they were lifelong comrades. To conclude the savory offerings, out came an utterly clutterless bowl lined with salsa verde, which served as the perfect vessel for my fork to conduct a series of adventures piling slices of beef tongue and pickled onions atop crisp shards of masa.

And then there’s the service, which was exceptional throughout the two-hour dinner, certainly better than I expected, and far better than it needs to be. Patrick, my tattooed server for the evening, exuded an infectious enthusiasm and couldn’t have been defter in pacing the courses. But it wasn’t just Patrick, for every member of the front-of-house staff I encountered seemed to be a bliss merchant.

By the meal’s end, I’m convinced I wore a look of fatigue and satisfaction, as a server who was overseeing another section of the restaurant stopped by to congratulate me on my feat of imprudence.

I can’t recall the last time I was so bowled over by a restaurant’s food and service. Actually, on second thought, I can, and it was in the three-star Michelin institutions of Eleven Madison Park in New York and The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena. Girl & the Goat is a restaurant worth crossing borders for, and I’m only too happy to report that I’ve found my go-to restaurant whenever my travels take me to Chicago.

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Diver scallop, sweet curry, sweet onion, bacon and papadums

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Roasted cauliflower, pickled peppers, pine nuts and mint

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Wood oven roasted pig face, sunny side up egg, tamarind, cilantro, red wine-maple sauce, and potato sticks

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Fried duck tongues, tuna and black bean poke, crispy wontons, piri piri

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Pappardelle sugo, rosemary and cape gooseberries

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Sauteed green beans, fish‌ sauce vinaigrette and cashews

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Confit goat belly, bourbon butter, lobster and crab, vanilla bean and fennel

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Wood grilled broccoli, rogue smokey bleu cheese, spiced crispies

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Braised beef tongue, masa crisps, beef vinaigrette and salsa verde

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Dessert sampler: (1) “coffeecake” semifreddo, ruby red grapefruit and cacao nib, (2) plantain cake, cream cheese-chocolate chip gelato, passion fruit, left hand milk stout, (3) sticky date cake, whipped yogurt, spiced kumquat, almond halva, (4) miso-butterscotch budino, bacon toffee, glazed pineapple, candied cashews

Topolobampo, Chicago, IL (April 2014)

For the past three years I have visited Chicago for the annual Midwest Political Science Association conference and have enjoyed a number of outstanding meals at Tru, Alinea, Grace, L20, and most recently Girl & the Goat. After a nine-course tasting menu, the question is, does Topolobampo belong in that set? Does a priest make a good sitter?

I’m afraid, dear reader, the onslaught of amateurism made for the most joyless dining experience I can remember in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Those three hours were marked by numerous blunders, beginning with the melancholic amuse of hearts of palm pudding and watermelon radish, which just might be the most insubstantial kitchen offering I’ve witnessed; it valiantly parried my spoon’s best efforts to compile even the faintest bite. Then came a near twenty-minute wait for the first course, leading my server to issue an apology before the meal proper had even begun. And when the stuffed rock hen did arrive, it was lukewarm. One misstep deserves another, I suppose, as next out was a poached egg, which is described on the menu as “perfect[ly] poached;” what may have been perfectly poached was imperfectly served as the egg was cold enough to lead me to believe it was plucked straight from an ice bath and plopped atop a gummy saffron rice cake.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the dining room manager who did his best Hank Paulson impression in trying to rescue this Lehman Brothers of a meal, but the errors on the plate were beyond his control. A cube of sous vide pork shoulder was so dry that no amount of mole could reconstitute the protein to edibility. My frustration reached its apogee with the first dessert, a ricotta fritter with, inter alia, a frozen sabayon. Described on the menu as a “warm little ‘doughnut'” what arrived was a dessicated mass that 7-11 wouldn’t deign to serve; the dish would return to the kitchen in largely the same condition that it arrived in front of me.

The tasting menu was redeemed only partially by (1) a lamb porchetta dish I opted to add in between two pork courses and (2) the final peach and cream dessert that the aforementioned dining room manager supplied gratis as recompense for the litany of pratfalls throughout the evening.

Spend enough time in Topolobampo and you’re sure to hear a table lionizing Monsieur Bayless for his commitment to authentic Mexican cuisine. I’m not sure how he managed to acquire such fealty from patrons, but I know it couldn’t possibly be based on the cooking that was on display during my visit.

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Amuse: hearts of palm pudding, watermelon radish, escabeche

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Portuguese Rock Hen, fresh peas three ways, tomato salsa, savory pork picadillo

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Saffron rice torta, poached egg, olive-raisin salsa, pulque sabayon, spicy chiletepin-pinenut salsa, anchovies

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Smoked quail tart, corn masa bechamel, sherry reduction, slivered almond crumble, gold leaf

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Street Food 1671: pork chicharron braised in pasilla borracha, black beans, grilled carrot, pasilla compote

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Fresh tortillas

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Lamb porchetta, pumpkin mole, roasted sunchokes, fingerlings

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More tortillas

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Sous vide pork shoulder, clemole castellano, Iberico ham, clemole bread pudding, charred turnips

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Goat’s milk ricotta fritter, caramelized carrot ice cream, sweet beet crema, frozen sabayon and cocoa-dusted walnuts

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Rice flour cakes, golden plantains, plantain-infused brandy caramel, house-made crema, coriander crumble, plantain pudding, edible flowers

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Goat milk crema mousse filled with peach gelatin and raspberries

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Mignardises: chocolate truffle and prickly pear pate de fui