Shortly after hearing that Top Chef: Chicago winner Stephanie Izard’s new joint, the highly anticipated Girl and the Goat, had opened, I rushed to get my reservation and still waited about three weeks for an 8 PM spot. The hype machine in Chicago dining spools up mighty quick these days. I’m no starfucker and I understand that winning a reality TV show on basic cable is not often the most reliable indicator for expertise in your chosen field, but who in the sleazy city didn’t blush with pride when a hometown girl took top prize on judgment day. Colicchio’s bald bear head beamed and Padma’s ample bosom heaved and all was right in the culinary metaverse because the whole world (or the small, white, grotesquely privileged corner of it that slavishly laps up whatever bowl Bravo lays out for it) knew for a brief moment what many of us hold near and dear – Chicago can cook as well as it can eat. Besides, I had heard really good things about Izard’s time at Scylla.
Me and the pre-Missus skipped on down to Randolph Street, past the recently deceased Marche, and bounded through the revolving door with empty bellies and high joy. The place was sardines, which worried me before we even got to the host’s station. “I’m really sorry. There are several tables ahead of you. You can wait in the lounge or at the bar or…” He trailed off as I looked at the completely full lounge area and the three-ass-deep bar. I turned back to him and said, “Right.” This gave us plenty of time to survey the décor. The place has a pleasant lofty layout with high ceilings and canister lights centered over every single table (note: I really wish more restaurants would to this, btw, as it is perfect for seeing your food, taking no-flash pictures and maintaining privacy in a busy establishment). Big win on the vast open kitchen, sadly something of a rarity in Chicago, which featured THE Stephanie Izard personally inspecting and physically blessing every single dish that left it. Didn’t love the dowdy centerpieces placed sporadically around the place or the giant painting of a girl and a goat in the grotesque style. I am a huge fan of haunting low-brow art, and Quang is my neighbor, but creepy skulls and a dead-eyed goat looming over your dining experience seems way off tone in an otherwise understated joint. We were seated at about 8:45 – unacceptable, even for a place this new. To their credit, everyone was very apologetic about the wait. Not sorry enough to buy us drinks or comp our dessert, but certainly better than nothing.
I started with the best Sazerac I’ve ever had (trumping even the mix nerds at Violet Hour) and moved on to Corny Goat bread with goat cheese butter and corn relish. This was better than it had any right to be and our spirits raised immediately with some quality food in our gullets. Also tossed down a few raw oysters (note: most common group in a restaurant is divisible by two, please serve the right number of oysters so nobody gets hurt in the violent roshambo for the odd bivalve out) with a satisfying mignonette.
Cauliflower with pickled peppers came out next. I speared a bit of cauliflower and threw down. Eh. It was roasted cauliflower. Just, you know, some cauliflower with pretty blackened bits. No seasoning, no sauce, no nothing to speak. Bland, if fresh, and uninspired. I got worried. We had four or five more dishes coming and this was a bad precedent. I wondered if I had done something wrong. For the second bite, I deftly balanced a bit of cauliflower, a pickled pepper and a couple pine nuts on the fork (no mean feat), and my mouth was filled with omfgwtflol. It dawned on me. This crazy, fuzzy-headed, young turk may have done this on purpose. In many fine dining experiences, each component stands well enough on its own that it can be eaten somewhat willy-nilly. Not so at Girl and the Goat. You better bring your manual dexterity and your reading glasses because you are going to have to carefully construct each bite for the ideal experience. If I sound annoyed, it’s because I am not still at that table eating that food. I actually appreciate the reward for my effort and this method of cooking ensures that each component remains true to itself, spurning the butter bath and salt shower.
The Chickpeas Three Ways followed on the theme. It was tasty, but a little forced and the ménage-a-trois of legumes (fresh and green, battered and fried, and deep-fried hummus) was upstaged by the cherry tomatoes and mozzarella. I think this dish would have been just as good without the chickpeas. Veggies out of the way, it was time for pleasures of the flesh.
Grilled Baby Octopus probably hovers near the five-spot on the ‘list of shit I never thought I would eat when I was six years old.’ Lo and behold, I absolutely adore the little alien fuckers. The taste is often spot on, but the texture can be tough to get right. Gum should be chewy, octoveal should not be chewy. Izard pretty much nailed it. Because it was grilled, the texture was a bit uneven, but it was mostly excellent and completely delicious. If they braised it (or braised it longer) before grilling, it would have achieved some kind of orgasmic perfection. It was served with big, fat, lima beans, some onion shoots and other vegetable matter. Again, constructing the perfect bite was rewarded, but well-seasoned grilled octopus almost needs no supporting cast.
We hit a wall in the form of lamb ribs next. Lamb ribs are like pork ribs, but a lot richer. The lamb these ribs came from probably died from a heart attack. I liked it, but it was heavy. Heavy like a movie about war crimes. Heavy like an airplane full of grandmothers crashing into an orphanage. This plate was delicious, but tough to deal with at this stage of the gluttony and it is the one dish I would leave out next time in order to make room for the one below.
This brings us to Pig Face. Let that just sink in a bit before I continue. Pig Face. This dish is what you might expect…if you were a serial killer or a cutter. Pig Face is a goddamned pig face, torn off the pig, snout and all. The pig’s tongue is then rolled up in the middle of the pig face and wrapped tightly in cheese cloth rendering something akin to a hell sausage. This unholy talisman is then braised for a day (alternatively, it can be nailed to your enemy’s front door as a warning) and finished in the impressive wood-burning stove, sliced into innocent-looking bologna-shaped pieces and served to you with a sunny-side up egg on top. The egg seems to be saying, “Hey! Hi there! Nothing sinister here! Happiness! Joy! I am not hiding the face flesh of a swine ripped from its brain pan and wrapped around its own tongue! No way, buddy!” Oh, and if lamb ribs are rich, this dish is Scrooge McFuckingDuck spliced with Daddy Warbucks and wearing Richie Rich’s skull as a crown. Pig Face might just kill you. I almost ordered another. The construction thing is especially important as munching down on Pig Face without a little egg-y help to tone down the situation could make your brain melt. Pig Face is the girl at the party that looks either stunningly gorgeous or horribly disfigured depending on the angle of light and how many Vodka tonics you’ve choked down. She will blow your mind and leave you for dead in a trash-filled alley for the rats to finish off and, make no mistake, she will sleep well, friend. Oh, yes.
Still reeling from the full-frontal porcine assault, we settled in for a delicious dessert featuring goat cheese, blueberry compote and brown sugar cake. It was served in a crockery. I barely remember the details, but I am pretty sure I really liked it.
Girl and the Goat made me wait longer than is acceptable, but the disappointment stopped there. I had high hopes for this place and it presented me with a dining experience fresh enough to dazzle my jaded buds. It is clear Izard loves her work and I am not sure if she is a genius or this was accidental, but she slapped, flipped and rubbed down my expectations and all for a check at the end that came in under what I thought the meal was worth. Top marks, cable television starlet and Chicago’s very own. Top marks.
(Glutton’s note: I apologize for the picture quality. It’s a new Apple iPhone and, while it is not a bad phone camera, it is not for low-light situations. It won’t happen again.)