One of the best salads I’ve ever had was at Chicago’s Blackbird at lunch. It consisted of endive, dijon and pancetta in a crispy potato nest topped with a poached egg. Unbelievably creamy and full of flavor on top of the crunchy potatoes.
Sixteen hardy Knoxvillians have just returned from an action-packed trip to Chicago. The purpose of the trip, organized by the Knoxville Museum of Art for members of its Collectors Circle, was to take in a wide variety of art, some of which will be coming to Knoxville within a year or so and some the museum has an eye toward acquiring.
The next post on the Blue Streak will show you some of the art we saw. But this post will deal with another kind of art — the culinary kind — that obsessed us almost as much as the framed and sculpted variety.
Chicago is home to many great chefs and many great eateries. With just a couple of exceptions, the trip planners at the KMA wisely left time on the schedule for our group of travelers to split up and make our own dining plans. Alan and I did research and then made reservations in advance for four to six people at each meal, figuring we could always adjust our reservation downward if no one was interested in joining us at the places we picked. Fortunately, we didn’t have to do that. Others took the same approach, resulting in different groups dining together at a different fabulous restaurant at every meal.
To sum it up, we dined at three top-of-the-line, must-eat-at places and another that was almost that good. Read on, especially if you are planning a trip to Chicago in the near future.
One of those top-notch places was Blackbird, located at 619 W. Randolph St. It was one of the places that the KMA selected for us to have lunch as a group.
Enjoying lunch at Blackbird, from left: Stephen Wicks, KMA’s curator; Barbara Apking; Robin Turner; Lane Hays; Pandy Anderson; John Cotham; Alan Carmichael; Bob Hawthorne; Susan Hawthorne; Donna Wertz; Ashley Addair; Molly Joy, Myron and Jayne Ely. Not pictured, other than me: Terry Wertz.
Blackbird is acclaimed for “elegant and imaginative Midwestern cuisine” crafted in a sleek and spare space that has won the James Beard Award for best restaurant design. And, to put the icing on the cake (ha!), there’s a Knoxville connection. Ryan Pfeiffer, recently promoted to executive chef, is the nephew of Knoxville’s Tom Catani, a vice president at U.S. Cellular and a great client and friend of Moxley Carmichael. Ryan’s mother is Tom’s sister.
From left, Blackbird’s executive chef, Ryan Pfeiffer, Donna Wertz and Alan Carmichael.
Even before that fantastic salad pictured at the top of this blog post, we knew we were in for a treat when the bread arrived. It was a slice of warm and crusty sourdough wheat bread: sharp-flavored and delicious. The butter was filled with finely minced herbs.
We had a limited menu to expedite our lunch. Those who chose beef got this grilled hanger steak with crispy shallots atop an artichoke basil puree. They loved it.
Those of us (like me) who chose fish, got poached halibut with peekytoe crab, a duckfat and allium puree and ground cherries. (Those things that look like little tomatoes? They are the ground cherries. I assume, meaning they are grown on low bushes rather than traditional cherry trees.) They are sweet-tart and delicious.
Even for a non-dessert fan like me, this was irresistible: chocolate pistachio mousse cake, lemon verbena sherbet and micro basil. Holy cow.
Stephen Wicks gave Pandy Anderson a sip of his espresso. Talk about a great tour leader!
Here’s a look at that sleek award-winning interior.
Donna Wertz in front of the restaurant, in case you are looking for it.
Another of our top three picks: Boka, located at 1729 N. Halsted St., in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. This Michelin Star-rated restaurant serves seasonal American food like none I’ve ever had. Thanks to our Moxley Carmichael foodie colleague Scott Bird for turning us on to it.
Alan, left, and John Cotham at the entrance to Boka.
First up: An amuse-bouche compliments of the chef. In this case: smoked eel on a nori chip with a dab of some kind of delicious garlic sauce.
My first course consisted of luscious heirloom tomatoes with pinenuts, black garlic and buttermilk. It was a bright and delightful combination.
Alan chose roasted carrots with pistachio, vadouvan, dates and smoked feta cheese. Vadouvan is a kind of French curry spice mixture that really complements carrots.
John didn’t get a first course because his main course was huge! Here it is: roasted chicken with broccoli, almonds and foie gras. Interestingly, the foie gras was inserted between the breast meat and the crispy skin.
Alan went with seared monkfish with sunchokes, cabbage and mussels.
Mine didn’t photograph very well, but it was fantastic. It was shellfish and apple chowder (how’s that for seasonal?) poured over smoked mussels, peekytoe crab and kombu. Kombu is a kind of edible kelp. This was velvety smooth with a delightful little nugget of something interesting in every bite.
With help from our server, we picked a wine that would go with all our dishes: a Lunae Colli Di Luni vermentino.
Alan selected the dessert for all of us (mostly him!) to taste. It was a blueberry concoction on angel food cake with coconut, violet, earl grey and sorghum. (That’s the sorghum popped like popcorn.)
As if we needed more food, we received these little jewels as we were paying our tab. On the left, bite-sized blueberry corn cakes. On the right, luxurious white chocolate truffles. Of course, we managed to eat them all.
Next up: Pelago, an upscale Italian place located at 201 E. Delaware Place in the Raffaello Hotel. Our downtown Knoxville friends Jacque and Cliff Hawks recommended it. We knew it was a hit when they told us they had eaten there for lunch one day and liked it so much that they went back for dinner!
Look for this sign!
Crunchy breadsticks with truffle butter are waiting for you at the table.
Our friend Lane Hays and Alan share a toast with their gin and tonics.
Pandy Anderson and I chose martinis. (Photo by Lane Hays)
My starter was roasted buffalo Scamorza cheese with arugula and heirloom tomatoes. (If it appears to you from my selections that I am on a tomato kick, you are correct. Trying to get in as many as I can before the season ends!) These were at their peak.
Alan raved about his tri-colored gnocchi, which were tomato, cheese and spinach potato dumplings with a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese sauce. He let me taste one of each and they were light and delicious.
Here was the dinner drink of choice for Alan and me. I loved it and will try to find it in Knoxville. (If I can find it, it may replace my old standby.)
Lane selected a roasted veal loin chop with oyster mushrooms sauce. She did not leave hungry!
Here’s Pandy’s grilled lamb chops with fresh herbs.
Alan had a seared halibut fillet with white wine and chives sauce.
I opted for fish soup with herbs and extra virgin olive oil. It was light and very flavorful, loaded with fish, shrimp and vegetables.
The Pelago interior is spare and elegant.
We were stuffed but somehow found ourselves ordering gelato for dessert. These are pistachio. Refreshing.
We stopped in the open rooftop bar when we got back to our hotel to take this picture of the Chicago skyline. But we didn’t order anything because of our early schedule the next day.
Myron and Jayne Ely selected our fourth top restaurant of the trip: Chez Joel Bistro Francais. Since we’d already scheduled Italian and American meals, we felt it was time for something French. Ironically, it is located in Little Italy at 1119 W. Taylor St.
Molly Joy and Alan outside Chez Joel. It is small and super charming.
Here’s the interior. We had booked a party of six and a party of three, and they agreed to seat us together at one big table.
Jayne Ely got her French on and ordered escargot.
My starter was piping hot cauliflower soup. It was soothing with more than a touch of cream in it!
Alan loved his Coq au Vin. It was braised in white wine rather than the traditional red.
Lane had bouillabaisse. The portions were hefty.
My main course was steamed Prince Edward Island mussels with herbs, shallots and a white wine sauce. They were tender and tasty, but I could not finish them.
We had to skip dessert because no one had room for any.
So, those were our top four eating experiences in Chicago. I will add that the rooftop bar at our hotel, The Godfrey, had an excellent Caesar salad which Jayne and I each had while watching the first half of the Tennessee-Florida game on the bar’s big screen TV.
Caesar salad with grilled chicken at The Godfrey Hotel Chicago.
We had to leave the bar at halftime, however, because Myron wanted to go to his room where he could curse out loud! Ha. Fortunately, Tennessee’s fortunes changed and the Vols pulled victory from the jaws of defeat, as everyone knows.
Here’s the daytime view from our hotel.
Next post: the actual art we went to see in Chicago!