Blu Aubergine Blog

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Chicago's Ēma and Girl and the Goat

I'm looking back with nostalgia on just a few weeks ago, before the U.S. Presidential elections and the current "politapocalypse" -- to a time when everyone was rooting for the underdog...in sports. The first week in November was a big week for Chicagoans. The Cubs won the World Series after a 108-year drought for the world champions and fans alike, and the city was on edge in the lead-up to the win. For the celebratory Cubs' parade, record crowds were reported, and they even dyed the Chicago River bright blue in the team's honor. I'm not a baseball fan, but I love a good underdog tale, and the feeling in the city all week was pretty electric (fitting, as I was there doing work with General Electric). I was in the right place at the right time.

Ema dining room 2.jpg

By happenstance, my flight from New York on Halloween evening arrived late, so I missed dinner in my hotel's restaurant and was directed to dine at a new place next door to my hotel, called EMA. I didn't realize until I got there that it's spelled Ēma with a long "e" -- as in the Hebrew word for mother. I asked my server about it and was told that the chef, who is Californian, had traveled around Europe and Israel for volleyball tournaments, and spent time in Israel. 

When I started reading the menu and the wine list, I was surprised and delighted to find some really interesting items, including a Greek cheese from a tiny island I'd just visited in September -- one which I'd never seen on a menu anywhere in the States. Color me impressed! There were also interesting wines from Israel, Sicily, and Greece that I really love but that you don't find too frequently on lists in the U.S., even in top Mediterranean restaurants in Manhattan.

I started off with a glass of Calabrian sparkling rose' (Garruba "Incanto Rosa") and decided to go with my version of comfort food, my culinary happy place: eggplant. They featured a smoky grilled eggplant puree served with warm homemade pita bread, and I could have made a meal out of these two items alone. Or I could have bathed in the eggplant dip! It struck the perfect balance of flavors, with the sweet and smoky eggplant flesh whipped with garlic, plenty of lemon juice, a little yogurt and a generous dusting of sumac for tang and a tart finish. And the warm bread! Suffice it to say I daydream about snacking on this pretty much every day. The next dish I ordered was a tuna crudo with crispy lentils (perhaps my favorite way to enjoy lentils), heirloom tomatoes, avocados, and turmeric. Every restaurant of a certain level seems to have a raw tuna dish on its menu, and many are simply mediocre, which is a shame because it should be illegal to waste good quality fresh tuna on middling preparation. Here, the tuna is lush and rich, and it's got a nice assortment of accompanying textures and flavors so that each bite awakens the palate.

The menu is structured in a way that encourages grazing -- mezze and small plates and portions that allow for ordering multiple dishes -- and so I moved on to a salmon dish and a vegetable dish. The salmon was a beautifully seared 3-ounce piece served in a shallow pasta bowl in green tomato water, with pickled green tomatoes, Michigan peaches, and herbs. It was light, bright, and happened to be perfectly matches to the balmy weather outside -- upper 60s in Chicago on Halloween!Now, what would be relegated to side dish status in most other dining establishments was elevated to a "hot mezze" here.

It's subbed as "Pan-Roasted Romanesque Cauliflower", which isn't exactly right. It may paint a clearer picture for American audiences of the taste they'll be getting in the dish, but in Rome (hence the "Romanesque"), this is simply BROCCOLI. It is not called "romano" anything, nor is it called "romanesco" which is what so many other restaurant menus dub this veggie. "Romanesco" refers to anything that is Roman or Roman-style, and is not exclusive to cruciferous vegetables. Nomenclature aside, the dish was absolutely delicious. The broccolo romano was tender and seared crispy at its tips. It was served on a shmear of labneh/Greek yogurt, delicious olive oil, and plenty of that delicious tart powdered sumac, which for me is a personal favorite spice. It all came together as more than the sum of its parts, and a dish that is both filling and could double as a main course for a vegetarian. I accompanied my later courses with a hard-to-find Nerello Mascalese in WHITE (it's a red grape), from Terrazze dell'Etna grown in the rich volcanic soil of Sicily's Mt. Etna, a volcano I've visited while it was erupting. Very cool, and a very unusual wine.

My only disappointment was in later finding out that the chef is actually CJ Jacobson, from an early season of Top Chef (when I still watched the show religiously) -- he was always a favorite of mine, both for his cooking chops and his funny, warm personality and capacity to call things as they were. I had chatted with my server there and she'd mentioned that the chef would be happy to meet a fellow chef who'd lived in Italy as I did, and who'd traveled around the Mediterranean as much as I had. I mentioned I was staying next door for work for a few days, and she told me to "swing by some time and have a chat with the Chef"! But I got bogged down with work and I never made the time to stop by again. My mistake.

Speaking of Top Chefs, Season 4 winner (and the first female to snag the top spot) Stephanie Izard has been running a fantastic restaurant since 2010 in the West Loop section of Chicago. The Girl and the Goat, as it's called, offers a truly eclectic menu set up with a grazing-style format (see a trend here?). She hops from southern Europe to Southeast Asia and all over the world map for influences, to (mostly) excellent effect. You can start with items as simple as warm marinated olives, or an umami bomb like pan fried shishito peppers with parmesan, sesame, and miso. My culinary school friend and I went for the green beans, with the encouragement of our server, because it seemed an interesting, slightly Thai treatment of a green veggie we both enjoy. What we got was basically "green bean crack".

This dish was addictive! It's described as being served with a fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews, but to say it tasted of so much more would be a huge understatement. I would have split 3 orders of that dish alone and happily called it a night. But, there was so much more to try.

We moved on to the blue cheese sweet potato peirogies, in honor of the large Polish population in Chicago. This turned out to be the only disappointment of the evening. The peirogies were somehow breaded and fried, so they ate more like a Jamaican beef patty than a Polish dumpling. They were served with a mushroom ragout, mushroom creama (sic?), and fried capers. Frankly, I'm not sure all of the flavors worked as well together as I might have imagined. Not so great. So, we were very happy to move on to our next dish: wood-fired shrimp with a pork and peanut ragout and a cucumber salad.

This was delicious -- and again, echoes of Southeast Asian preparations. I must admit, as a chef and a non-kosher Jew, I am a sucker for the double-traif pairings like a pork-peanut ragout with shrimp. I think the flavors work really well together (and it's somehow more delicious in being somewhat forbidden -- mostly-kosher Jews who go out for Chinese and order the occasional shrimp with lobster sauce know of what I speak). And lots of sour lime and fresh coriander help anything along, in my view. Next up, and to finish our shared world culinary journey, was the extremely rich escargot ravioli.

Yes, each raviolino was filled with a whole escargot, sauced with a tamarind-bacon number, and accented with escarole, celery, and crispy onions. It was over-the-top decadent, French-Italian with an Asian accent, as if some Torinese chef with a sense of humor and a stint in a Hanoi kitchen had dreamt up the dish. It was the perfect ending to tip us over the edge, so that desserts were no longer a possibility. If they HAD been in the picture, however, I might have ordered the "All the Leches" cake, or the caramel corn and malt balls, as the caramel popcorn and "chocolate magic shell" are almost too much to resist. I'd also go for some more daring dishes like anything from the goat menu, or the pastrami-spiced beef heart. But we stuck to slightly safer bets (and the escargot), and left very happy. The service was really friendly and the atmosphere was fun, and 6 years in, still electric. Or maybe it was just that a future Cubs win was in the air...

Ēma
74 West Illinois Street
Chicago, IL60654
(312) 527.5586
www.emachicago.com

Girl and The Goat
809 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL60607
(312) 492.6262
www.girlandthegoat.com

QUICK BITE: Greek Salad

QUICK BITE: Greek Salad

Greek salad: the term conjures up many things to many people. For some, it's a mainstay at U.S. Greek diners, usually pretty drab, or maybe huge with mediocre produce and too much over-salted supermarket feta cheese. But to others, it's a revelation, a composed salad, often lettuce-free, comprised of juicy, ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced red onions, slivers of crisp green pepper, and fresh cucumber slices, doused in delicious Greek olive oil and a splash of vinegar, topped with authentic sheep's milk feta cheese and dusted with fresh oregano. The really good ones include briny capers. These are the Greek salads of which I rhapsodize today.

In Greece, and particularly the islands of the Cyclades from which I write now, I often order these salads (or some version thereof) twice a day. When the tomatoes are grown in the rocky soil of Naxos or the volcanic soil of Santorini, their flavor is concentrated and they're unbelievably sweet, their thick skins pushed to bursting under the pressure of their turgid flesh.

The cucumbers are firm and heavy with water, their aromatic melon-musty goodness pairing with the bite of the red onion. And there is crisp vegetal tang of the green pepper, the salty feta from the milk of locally-roaming sheep and the capers that taste of the sea itself...

There's not much about a Greek salad that's complicated, but like most simple Mediterranean food, the dish is only as good as the quality of its components. Luckily for the Greeks (and all who eat there), farming still accounts for a nice chunk of the country's economy, and they're still growing things they've grown in this rich soil for millennia. The tomatoes we enjoyed in Koufonissi (at right), in the small Cyclades, came from the island of Naxos nearby, where a lot of farming for the surrounding smaller islands is done.

They were some of the best tomatoes I've had in recent memory -- which is saying a lot, coming from a Jersey girl who lived in Italy for nearly a decade! The local cheese in Koufonissi, which was often used in place of feta, is called mithizra, and it's fluffy and fresh, what you'd get if a tangy Greek feta and a creamy ricotta had a cheese baby! This was also used on a variation of a Greek salad with Cretan roots -- chopped tomatoes and red onions with the cheese and lots of capers served over hardened pieces of Cretan dark grain bread, moistened with a liberal dousing of local olive oil. It's topped off with plenty of dried oregano. And it's delicious. Again, simple with top-quality primary ingredients. It's the way that people in this corner of the world have been living long, healthy lives for thousands of years. And the gorgeous view doesn't hurt, either.

HOLIDAYS: Passover + Pesce en Saor Recipe

Venice: La Serenissima, the only city in the world with streets of water, where we're made to slow down the pace. It's home to delicious seafood and fresh veggies pulled from and grown in the briny waters of the lagoon. And, it's the birthplace of the term ghetto (based on the Venetian dialect term for foundry, original site of the neighborhood that became the ghetto...also gettare in Italian means to toss aside, throw out, which is essentially what happened to the Venetian Jews).

This ghetto was created for Jews in the 16th century and has morphed into terminology for an area into which a specific ethnic or racial group is pushed, isolated. This original ghetto separated the Jews from the rest of the Venetian population, but it also allowed, on some level, for the city's Jewish population to insulate itself and strengthen its traditions, though perhaps not into a singular Venetian Jewish community -- as evidenced by the five different diminutive synagogues in the neighborhood, catering to Italian, German, Levantine, Portuguese-Spanish, and French Jews practicing in Venice. 

Venice was truly a city at the crossroads of the spice trade and was the hub of trade routes between the east and the west for centuries before the ghetto was created. Jews were a vibrant and integral part of trade and banking for centuries in the middle ages and early Renaissance, and then once the Inquisition started driving Jews out of Spain and Portugal, many settled in Venice, and its Jewish population grew. So, on March 29th, 1516, the Venetian Jewish ghetto was established, more or less to keep the Jews "in check." Their movement about the city was limited and there were curfews set in the evenings, as entry points on the water were blocked and guarded by Venetian security men in boats. And while this was certainly oppressive and limiting, Jewish cuisine in Venice still flourished. So much of what we think of simply as "Venetian food" or "Roman specialties" or "Sicilian cuisine" originated in the kitchen of Jewish Italians. Artichokes, eggplant, and squash and pumpkins are all examples of food items that were not eaten by non-Jews, even up until the 19th century in many cases. Now it's difficult to imagine Italian cuisine without these items.

One of the signature flavor profiles of typically Jewish-Italian dishes is the element of sweet and sour, or agrodolce, in Italian. This comes from the pairing of vinegar and sugar (and honey well before sugar was widely available in Europe). The use of vinegar to preserve food is a classically Jewish one, because no work is allowed to be done on the sabbath, so all the food for sabbath meals needs to be prepared in advance -- and so the dishes are often served cool or at room temperature, having been cooked the day before. This happy coincidence allows for the flavors to develop, resulting in an even-more-delicious dish eaten a day or two after it was prepared. The sugar added to the vinegar is simply to cut the acidity of the vinegar (or citrus juice, or wine). Pesce en saor is Venice's shining example of a practically-conceived dish in the Jewish cuisine canon, going mainstream (pun intended). 

This dish is often made with sardines and called sarde en saor -- it's on most Venetian trattoria menus -- but it can be made with any fish fillets, really, though more oily fish like Spanish mackerel are suited to the sweet-and-sour preparation (they're also good for you, with lots of Omega-3s). A typical pairing would be with polenta, soft if you're making it and serving right away, or made a day in advance, cut into squares, and either served cold or grilled before serving. The addition of carrots and celery is optional, as is the choice of red or white onions. But the raisins and pine nuts are key to matching the sweet and sour flavors of the dish, and add texture and interest. it's the perfect make-ahead dish for Passover, and serves as an interesting substitute for gefilte fish on the American/Ashkenazi Passover table. Try it this year -- you may do as the Venetians have done, and incorporate the dish into your personal repertoire of favorites. HAPPY PASSOVER!

PESCE EN SAOR

 

(6 servings)

1 whole fish (about 2 pounds), cleaned, or 1.5 pounds fish fillets -- Spanish mackerel is a nice choice

½ cup red wine vinegar

3 tbs. sugar

1 onion, thinly sliced into half moons

2 small carrots, thinly sliced into a thick julienne or shavings

1 celery stalk, sliced into thin Vs

½ cup toasted pine nuts

½ cup raisins, plumped in hot water

6 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil

salt & pepper to taste

 

- In a small bowl, stir together vinegar, sugar, pine nuts, and a little of the raisin plumping water. Set aside.

- Warm 2 tbs. of the olive oil in a large saute’ pan over medum heat. Sprinkle the fish with salt just before placing it in the saute’ pan. Saute’ until golden brown. Flip and brown on the other side.

- Remove fish from pan, add 2 more tbs. olive oil, and saute the onions and carrots an celery in the pan until softened, about 4 minutes.

- Add the vinegar mixture, cover, and cook over medium heat until the fish is done – about 10 minutes for a whole fish and 5 minutes for fillets.

- Transfer to a platter and serve warm or, better yet, the next day at room temperature.

 

* This dish pairs really well with polenta squares, grilled or pan-seared.

 

 

 

 

Posted by Dana Klitzberg at Friday, April 22, 2016