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  • Writer's picturethe_maestro

An Overnight Layover in Chicago

I hadn't been back to Chicago since my last (brief) visit mid-summer of 2020, when almost everything was shuttered, but my sister and I managed to grab a rooftop table at the excellent Cabra for our first dining out meal during the pandemic. This month, when I made a last-minute trip up to Iowa to watch the Iowa/Iowa State game with the fam, I decided to drop in to Chicago on the way back to Charlotte and spend a night and day exploring and eating/drinking.

The restaurant scene in Chicago got shaken up pretty dramatically by the pandemic, with some institutions having closed permanently and others still closed indefinitely. But, on the bright side, there are a ton of new places to explore in the city right now. Seeking last-minute Sunday night reservations was a challenge, but craving some good sushi, I managed to snag a seat at the basement Izakaya at Momotaro, an excellent, if a little corporate, Japanese spot in the West Loop. The Izakaya portion of the property is dark and moody with Japanese laterns and wood paneling, and is meant to be evocative of old school Tokyo izakayas. A lady I'd met back in 2015 at a wine bar in Milwaukee who I've been in touch with from time to time decided to join me for food and beverages, which was a refreshing change from my normal dine-by-myself M.O.

I've written up Momotaro before, but was excited to try the more casual Izakaya, featuring the same excellent fish and Chef Kato's food in a wilder environment. My buddy and I feasted on a few shared plates, including shishito peppers and some AMAZING robatayaki beef skewers.

Among their sushi options, I opted for their special aji, or horse mackerel (really a jack), nigiri, one of my favorite pieces I've had the world over, smoked with sugi, a type of Japanese rosemary. Not as mind-blowing as last time, but still good. They also offered a few other pieces of their specialty nigiri, including a torched salmon belly with miso and kombu, and a torched otoro with ponzu, yuzu, and daikon. I also stacked up some other beautiful cuts which looked particularly awesome under the dim lights of the bar.

Kumiko is another haunt I've written up, a Japanese-inspired bar owned and helmed by the incredible cocktail wizard Julia Momose. I was glad to see that Kumiko is still operating, though their collaborate downstairs kitchen with Noal Sandoval of Oriole seems to have folded, though Julia's team has since expanded the offerings from the kitchen. After ordering a gin fizz made with two types of Japanese gin, I also settled on their special for the evening––an uni toast made with beautiful grapes, caramelized onion jam, urchin, and bottarga. Incredible.

The winner of the night was Julia's take on a Manhattan, made with Japanese whiskey (of course) and with a tangy grip of a Japanese plum spirit. So amazing. This bar is truly one of the level best in all the land, and I was very impressed that everyone, including the incomparable Julia, remembered me!

I had consumed a pretty robust amount of alcohol the night before in both cheering on the Hawkeyes and mourning the loss of the Utes to BYU, so I was pretty damn tired when the time came to call it a night, so I big my friend "adieu" and settled in at my hotel. I had until 6pm the next day and decided to hit up a new charcuterie joint in Logan Square, right off the Blue Line to O'Hare, for a pre-flight lunch. This new place, Lardon, has been getting a lot of attention lately as an old-world style salumeria, coffee shop, and wine bar, and is the perfect little neighborhood haunt in this delightful corner of Chicago's west side. And in a meat-focused working class sort of city like Chicago, it seemed even more appropriate for a visit.

The place even looks like old Chicago, embracing the brick building aesthetic of the city and managing to look like a neighborhood restaurant that had been there for decades. They get whole pigs from heirloom hog farms in the midwest and break them down and make/cure all of their charcuterie on site. They also bring in cheese from midwestern dairy farms, as well as a handful of cheeses from Italy, owing to their Italian influences.

I settled in on the patio and perused their really cool and pretty damn deep wine list, sporting some niche natural wines and even a healthy selection of orange wines. The "Pet Garg" stood out to me––it's a take on pet nat, a type of sparkling wine, grown in Gargano National Park in the northern part of the Puglia region (the "heel" of the Italian "boot") with completely organic and biodynamic processes. The grape is a red––Nero di Troia––and the wine is insanely tasty, sporting funk and tiny bubbles and ripe flavors of strawberry rhubarb pie. So damn good.

The charcuterie and cheese spread that was brought forth after receiving recommendations from my server was truly glorious to behold.

Four cuts of charcuterie and four cheeses graced the plate:

  • Calabrese––traditional Italian style with Calabrian chilis, garlic, and wild oregano.

  • Chorizo––paprika, garlic, and loads of fennel seed.

  • Saucisson de Campagne––clove, cinnamon, peppercorns. My fave.

  • Truffled lardo––whipped pork fat with black truffles and rosemary.

  • Bent River camembert from Minnesota (my fave).

  • Mobay, a goat and sheep blend, from Wisconsin.

  • Caves of Fairbault gouda, "Jeff's Select," from Minnesota/Wisconsin. Easily the best gouda I've had.

  • Pecorino from Italy.

More natural wine was also on the docket, including a honey-colored orange wine from Chile called "Jamón Jamón," so named precisely because it is meant to pair with charcuterie ("Here's your glass of ham ham" the server said as he delivered it), and a glass of not-your-grandma's lambrusco. Loved exploring the wine list of this place!

If you have a chance, definitely hit up Lardon in Chicago. A stellar neighborhood restaurant in an equally fantastic city. Can't wait to get back to Chicago sometime soon, hopefully with a shade more advanced notice, so I can keep munching on the best the city has to offer!

Until then, a trip to the northeast awaits me next week, as well as a jaunt out to Salt Lake. Surely culinary reporting will follow. Stay tuned!

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