Arriving in Chicago on the overnight train from New York, we discovered, unlike it's oft-used moniker, the Windy City, it was HOT. Even after spending what felt an age dragging our cases through the muggy streets from Union Station to our hotel in the Loop, it was still too early to check in. Deciding food was now more of a priority than showering or clean clothes we shed our bags, and a couple layers of clothing, grabbed a map from the lobby and set of for the Magnificent Mile, hoping to catch a late lunch at the Purple Pig.
The Purple Pig is a collaboration of chefs from Chicago restaurants Mia Francesca, Spiagga and Heaven on Seven, serving, in the words of the website, 'housemade charcuterie, cheeses and classic Mediterranean fare plus an extensive yet accessible wine list'. The sign on the gate puts it more succinctly; 'cheese swine and wine'.
There's a no reservation policy at the restaurant, but fortunately a spot opened up at the bar almost as soon as we arrived. Other seating can be found at a large communal table in the centre of the room, two tops running down the sides or, on a day like our visit, outside by the canal.
There is nothing better on a hot day than a cold beer. The Purple Pig offers a variety of European brews, including Peroni, Saison Dupont and Belhaven Stout. Getting into the Iberian vibe I settled for an icy Estrella Damm.
First up was the Ewing's choice of broccoli with roasted garlic and anchovy. Now I love broccoli, it's possibly even my favourite vegetable, but I was a bit disappointed when the Ewing chose it seeing how much we already eat at home. Sometimes it's good to be proved wrong, and here was certainly one of those occasions. The broccoli was still nice and crunchy, and had been slightly charred before being tossed in the sweet, salty anchovy garlic vinaigrette. The whole thing was topped with a good handful of crispy, oily breadcrumbs. A good way to get your greens.
Next up was the crispy pig's ear with kale, peppers and a fried egg. Now anyone who knows me knows I'm game to give most things a go, but a unfortunate incident with a bad egg while on holiday in France as a child has left me unable to face them in an unadulterated state. Mostly this doesn't present any problems, but recently I've been wanting to try more things with eggs prominently involved, so I decided to brave it.
As it was place on the counter our waiter instructed us that the best way to eat it was to break the yolk and stir it through the crispy shards of ear, bitter kale and vinegary sport peppers. The Ewing looked concerned, but I grabbed my folk and stabbed away, mixing the buttery yolk right through my first mouthful. It was perfect; the silky egg and fatty pork was cut through with the sharp vinegar and heat of the chili while the kale added a further tannic edge. The contrast of textures was also great, crispy, gooey and crunchy in every mouthful. It is a rich dish, and I couldn't quite manage to eat the egg white, but I was very pleased I had overcome my fear so I could sample it.
The next plate was a light and summery rabbit and panzanella salad which combined the traditional cubes of rustic bread with tender rabbit meat, green leaves, capers and fiddlehead ferns. The pickled ferns and capers cut through the oily croutons, and the rabbit remained juicy and moist.
At around the same time as this we were presented with our dish from the dubiously titled 'smears' section of the menu; pork neck bone gravy with ricotta. Sadly this seems to be the only plate from the trip that no photographic evidence exists for as, despite it's rather alarming name, it was quite a beauty. The neck bone 'gravy' was a meat tomato based ragu, full of tender shreds of pork and flecked with basil. The blob of fresh ricotta on top provided a creamy, sweet contrast and the whole thing was served with chunks of charred bread for dipping.
We finished with the octopus, green beans and fingerling potatoes. Another fine dish, where the, rather scary looking, octopus seemed to melt like butter and everything has been imbued with the smoky taste of the grill, before being seasoned simply with salt, oil and lemon. The sort of dish that transports you to a Greek beach hut, where you can sit enjoying fresh food like this with your feet in the sand and the sea in the distance.
While the Purple Pig might not have the beach views and sunshine it does have some great food that cherry picks its way around the Med, with a little State-side influence along the way. It's also pretty much the ideal stop for most occasions from a quick solo lunch to a lingering meal with friends, remembering that with the no reservations policy to plan your visit accordingly if you're in a bigger group. Oh, and the Ewing very much enjoyed the house made Limoncello digestif, so try and leave a little room for a few shots of that, too.
Sunday morning means brunch, and, in at number 9 on Travel and Leisure's greatest brunch spots in America, in Chicago it had to be brunch the Publican. I had already wanted to visit, tempted by the platters of ham, oysters and charcuterie on a regularly changing menu, but I was lured into making a reservation for a morning meal by the idea of bloody mary's with beer chasers, and their legendary maple syrup-braised bacon.
After enjoying a couple of cups of good Intelligensia coffee, these bloody mary's arrived really get the senses going. Mine came with a Brooklyn Blast Pale Ale, The Ewing's with a Cooperstown BPA. As you can see from the picture they were properly garnished with a forest of pickles, always a winner in my book, and the beer chaser was a great way to freshen things up after all the salt and spice.
I was keen to get the sablefish, served with a summery salad and Sam's 3-seed bagel, having run out of time to try some in New York. Also known as butterfish or black cod (yes, like in the famous Nobu dish) they are native to the North Pacific, and as 'butterfish' suggests, are extremely rich in oil, making them an ideal choice for smoking.
The salad was a well balanced, fresh assortment of flavours, from the moist, smoky sable to the crispy radish, cucumber and fennel, and the tangy Meyer lemon. There was also a goodly blob of fromage blanc to schmear on the toasted, multi-seed bagel. A lovely, light start.
Halfway through The Ewing and I swapped and I was presented with this beautiful plate of maple glazed pork shoulder, kale, grits and fried egg (the Ewing ate the egg, but did leave me most the pork shoulder). This was a a hearty heap of food, the meat soft and salty, making a perfect match with the creamy blandness of the grits, and the whole thing spruced up by the iron rich kale and crunch of pickled red onions.
The Publican's bacon, braised in Burton's maple syrup. Two chunks of sweet, salty, fatty, pork-a-licious-ness. This is nothing like the familiar British back bacon, nor is it like the traditional American streaky. Instead you are presented with a pair of belly slices that are grilled crispy on the outside, fall apart as you cut into them, but still have a good amount of chew. Despite having already eaten a huge hunk of pork shoulder, these presented no challenge, and I daresay they would be pretty great accompanying their coffee cake or waffles, too. Hell, this stuff would be good with anything.