I’ve learned a few things about Chicago restaurants in my
time life living here. For one, just because a restaurant is popular does NOT mean that it’s good. Case and point: Rainforest Cafe. Sometimes, little neighborhood places can be much more remarkable without the notoriety. Another thing I’ve learned: when my sister says that a place is great, I go. No questions asked.
So, at 2:45 yesterday afternoon, when my phone buzzed in the middle of the study hall I was supervising with a message from my sister saying “I have reservations at Nightwood and need a date!” I couldn’t say no. Rush hour traffic be damned, I was going to go!
The concept behind Nightwood is simple: locally sourced food cooked really well. They’re run by the same people who run Lula Cafe, another locavore restaurant here in Chicago, and home of one of Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs.
Leigh and I took the long way to the restaurant, enjoying every minute of the gorgeous Spring weather. Nightwood is in the traditionally Mexican neighborhood called Pilsen, home to some of my favorite street art.
We enjoyed sitting on the enclosed patio, perfect for people-watching and the fresh air we all have been craving since this horrendous winter.
Of course, Leigh knew a bunch of people there, and the pastry chef Sarah Mispagel came out to our table to say hello. We began our meal with cocktails; mine was called a “Pink Whippet” and contained vodka, St. Germain, Campari, grapefruit and lemon.
Leigh ordered a “59th Street Bridge”, a mixture of rye, calvados, vermouth, and yellow chartreuse. I didn’t taste it.
We ordered an appetizer each and an entree, and because she knows people everywhere, things just showed up on the table too. We didn’t argue.
First, a focaccia with a sweet tomato jam.
The top of this perfectly baked miniature focaccia was speckled with coarse salt and herbs, and the tomato jam was lovely and sweet and tart at the same time.
Our first appetizer was a burrata-filled fresh ravioli with sweet peppers and Butcher & Larder sausage.
Circles of tender pasta surrounded a sausage and burrata cheese filling, and a glorious sauce of sausage and peppers. I would’ve eaten however many were in front of me.
Next, a fresh fusilli with Jonah crab, sweet chili sauce, egg yolk, and scallion. WHY have I never put an egg yolk on my pasta before?!
Then, the next dish magically appeared. A cured fois gras with fish sauce caramel, local ginger, and almonds. While salty, it was delightfully rich.
This next dish also magically appeared: smoked lamb guanciale, porcini, fresh garbanzo beans and fava beans, and chilled pasta. There was something about this dish that reminded me of being outside on a fresh summer day, when everyone and their neighbors are mowing the lawn and barbecuing. The flavors were smoky and green, and very earthy.
At this point, we could’ve stopped, but we still had entrees to eat! Leigh’s was seriously perfectly cooked scallops, nduja, ramps, and tuna toast.
And I got the signature burger. What can I say? I’m inherently simple. Two local beef patties, 5-year Wisconsin cheddar, an onion ring, and “special sauce.” Perfection. Sheer and utter perfection.
Then, Leigh told our server to have pastry chef Sarah “surprise us” and at this point, Leigh’s friend Lauren joined us! Since there were now 3 of us, we were told we’d be getting full-sized desserts…so dessert rolled out:
First, a goat-cheese mousse, sponge cake, beet puree, and the most phenomenal pistachio ice cream. Even Leigh calls her the “ice cream maven”!
Next, a vanilla cremeaux on a polenta crust, ginger-braised rhubarb, and rhubarb sorbet with ginger crumble. Sweet, tart, creamy, crunchy… LOVED it!
Last, a chocolaté bombe with bourbon caramel ice cream and cherry mousse.
We left super full and super happy, and way past my bedtime! It was a lovely surprise to spend a Wednesday evening with my sister, and even better that, as usual, it involved phenomenal food. Thank you for a fantastic evening!
2119 S. Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60608