Chicago foodies of all shapes, sizes, shades of black clothing, and types of Jimmy Choo heels descended on the Field Museum last night for Gourmet Magazine’s Wine Cellar, a celebration of how great a restaurant town this city is, which benefited the American Institute of Wine and Food. Thanks to the generosity of Greg, the husband of my friend, the lovely Dulce, and who works for Gourmet in the West Coast, BFF Debra and I got to participate in what was clearly one of the highlights of the Chicago culinary calendar. Most of the city’s top restaurants and chefs were out in full force and it was a kick, for this inveterate food fan, to see a goggles-wearing Homaru Cantu blowtorching a Baked Alaska with strawberry puree and truffle oil (aptly called, well, Baked Alaska Inferno) at the Moto table; or a very unassuming, and thankfully healthy- and boyish-looking Grant Achatz, one of the greatest chefs in the world currently, hanging butterscotch-flavored, rehydrated bacon on a deconstructed chicken-wire type contraption at the Alinea table, or Christophe David shaving slices off a humungous piece of jamon Iberico at the NoMi stand. And since my life is always inadvertently eventful, I managed to shamelessly introduce myself and gush all over a very game Stephanie Izard, owner-chef of the deeply-mourned, dearly-departed restaurant Scylla, and currently one of the favorites to win Top Chef Chicago (yay!), as well as get filmed (yes, filmed!) by a Food Network crew doing a documentary on Achatz, while gobbling down the aforementioned Alinea bacon offering (since I never signed the release form..maybe they’ll blur my face? But will they leave in my stretched out belly? Could I be recognized from my stomach??? Yikes…and then *faint* with a thud!)
There were 28 restaurant stations (and each station had a food table and a wine table for the suggested wine pairing) as well as a multitude of other stations for the numerous sponsors (such as Rodney Strong vineyards, Tillamook Cheese, and this startling but very lovely liqueur called St. Germain, which tasted like a cross between lavender water and the syrup in canned lychees, which is a great thing in my book – I know my Asian blog readers know exactly what I mean!). It took a while to circle the Grand Hall of the Field Museum and although I tried to go to all the food and drink stations, my stomach, feet, and the lightheadedness brought about by the missing Asian liquor-imbibing gene, held me back. I did get to go to most of the stations and got to hang out for a little bit at those featuring my favorite restaurants Sepia and Otom (and also because BFF Debra did some advance reconnaissance work while I was stuck on Lakeshore drive, I skipped the NAHA table and it’s supposedly strange-tasting carrot soup). The highlights of the night for me included:
- A very fresh, very light, expertly prepared hamachi sashimi from Erick Simmons of MK, which had asparagus, fennel, and wonderfully delicate Agrumoto olive oil accompanying it. I also thought MK had the best wine pairing among the restaurants last night – the 2006 William Fevre Chablis was effervescent and really highlighted the freshness of the fish, and the season-appropriateness of the dish.
- Top Chef guest judge Koren Grieveson of Avec was very low-key in ladling out a terrific red pepper and tomato braised cod. I had to think about it overnight, because my initial reaction wasn’t exactly a rave, but I realized I liked the un-saltiness of the still very flavorful cod, the really robust tomato broth, and the surprising but genius use of caperberries in the dish.
- Although I still love Daryl Nash’s barbecued pork belly which he served at the Otom stand, I was blown away by the braised pork belly with poached quail eggs that Jason Paskewitz served which would be part of the menu for his soon-to-open Jackson Park Bark and Grill. The pork belly was so tender and moist, and was quite a hearty portion, and having quail eggs (one of my favorite foods of all time) drippy and gooey all over it was enough to make me give up any sort of bodily function for hours.
- I had second helpings (second is probably, ahem, a euphemism) of a very nice tuna ceviche prepared by DelaCosta‘s Adam Schop. I thought, again, that the fish was very fresh, and the spice level was quite cranked up, but in a good, kicker-kind of way (I’m not sure what he used…was it sriracha? Or hot peppers?)
- And yes, Cantu’s Baked Alaska Inferno was indeed terrific and unusual. It was a very showy presentation (and I thought at one point that my already narrowing hairline would recede even further with the flames from that blowtorch nipping at my face) but it was a wonderful, startling combination of sweet and savory, a hands-down winner.
BFF Debra and I also attended the vertical wine tasting led by Chateau St. Jean‘s winemaker Margo Van Staaveren, which allowed us to taste various vintages (from a very assertive 1996 to a fruity, still maturing 2004) of its Cinq Cepage cabernet sauvignon. My own personal favorite was the 2003 vintage which Margo said was a “brighter” wine; I thought it was very strong, very firm but also not overpowering.
I thought the Gourmet wine cellar was a great showcase not only for our restaurants but for the fact that Chicago, this much acclaimed restaurant city, is first and foremost, an enthusiastic, supportive, creative and sophisticated food and wine community. Most of the people last night really came off as very focused on the food and wine, unlike some other recent events I’ve attended where there were a lot of annoying stand-and-pose. The conversations that swirled around us brought home the point that these attendees were there for the love of food, and they’re pretty educated and discerning about what they like and they don’t like. I also loved the fact that the chefs were out there with their restaurants, internationally-renowned chefs such as Achatz, Cantu, Tru’s Rick Tramonto, Food and Wine Best Chefs Grieveson and Vie’s Paul Virant (whose gnocchi with meyer lemon and feta cheese was BFF Debra’s favorite), their sleeves rolled-up, doing what they love to do, grilling, sautéing, plating, and yes, blowtorching, the best food in the country, for unabashed fans.
Here I am looking more stuffed than usual, in front of the Alinea table. No, this is not the Food Network shot. And no, I wasn’t stalking Grant Achatz for his phone number.