Chicagoings-on, Food: For He Who is the Least Among You

I got three meal invitations for this past weekend that I could not refuse. I don't mean that in a Godfather way. Restaurant Week in Chicago was in full effect and I wasn't intending on joining the Open Table RSVP scuttle, but a girlfriend with whom I hadn't seen in too long texted, so I accompanied her to Boka. Another girlfriend invited me to be the fourth on a reservation for Girl and the Goat, a place I'd been jonesing to return to enjoy a full meal. And finally, I took up a suggestion for Sunday post-church brunch at a new-to-me Ethiopian place, Ras Dashen. Interestingly, of these three, the humble, least-hyped, least expensive restaurant is the joint whose food most impressed me. 

Part 1: Deconstructing deconstruction at Boka.

My girlfriend and fellow blogger, Mia, invited me to Boka. Reading their prix fixe RW offerings and noting their 2012 Michelin star, I thought it would be a good bet. I expect restaurants of that accolade to at least live up to their praises - every dish wonderful, ambience welcoming from start to finish. Boka is located between Old Town and Lincoln Park on a strip of Halsted Street that boasts multiple valet-parking kind of establishments and the renown Steppenwolf Theatre. It's in a 'hood that's not hood. It's decidedly fancypants. The interior is very inviting. The lighting is dim without being dark, but it's at the precise level where my rods and cones all register grey. These cool stretched canvas lighting pieces affixed to the pitched wall in one of the main dining rooms add architectural interest. About the food, maybe I don't get deconstruction. A lot of the dishes just looked like little puddles of grey variants. I don't mind doing the "little shoe" mopping up the gravy but with all the dishes? Maybe a rubber spatula should accompany the fork and spoon? Could the tables use a brighter votive so that patrons can see the colors of their fare? The gnocchi dish - which had three or four gnocchi total - was garnished with some smoked oyster mushrooms, whose overpowering taste lingered longer than desired. I had to swish my water, people. The one traditional (non-deconstructed, to use a double negative) dish we tried was whitefish with a prawn-black truffle sauce. The look of the brown puddle was awful, the texture was meh. The dish didn't offer any bite, either by way of crunchy bits or by acid. Mia and I talked about why restaurants would take part in Restaurant Week. Ostensibly, it's to drive new customers and get some new converts. By that frame, the food should have been outstanding.

Part 2. Wanted: Pig Face at Girl and the Goat.

Stopping by near closing time a few weeks ago, I had dessert here - malasadas AKA fresh fried doughnut holes with toasted hazelnuts, melted cheddar and ice cream. Slap yo' mama good. Perfect with a glass of milk, which is exactly what I paired with it. Reservations at Girl and the Goat are hard to come by and this wasn't a Restaurant Week participant but my expectations were high. Chef-owner Stephanie Izard's star skyrocketed after appearing and winning Bravo's reality show/culinary competition, Top Chef. I'd faithfully watched that season she won, started following her on Twitter to score a ticket to her dinner nights pre-restaurant opening (I didn't) and I'd even spotted her in my local Whole Foods once and got major celeb-paralysis. Here were my highlights of the evening's meal. Our server kindly helped two of our party who had shellfish and peanut allergy by marking up their paper menus. A few dishes fell into the cross-your-eyes good category: wood smoked oysters, goat empanadas, hen of the woods mushroom ragout and the malasadas (again). Alas, not all the dishes met the mark. Our server spoke very highly of the Loup de Mer - sea bass - which was deep-fried and given the sweet and sour treatment a la Panda Express. It pains me to write that because I love sea bass. The roasted beet salad wasn't tossed well, so I got most of the anchovy chunks while some of my dinner-mates got none. All I tasted was the anchovy bite, and I wish they would have incorporated the anchovy into a paste dressing instead. Finally, the pig face. The pig face I waited so long to try. Guess what: it was deconstructed with a runny egg on top! GAH! In my mind I'd pictured it as mostly skin, ears, snout, with bits of cheek and other meat shavings. I even thought maybe the dish would be presented as a whole roasted hog's head. Call me crazy! The flavors, once mixed together, were on point, but I didn't get nearly enough crackling bits. Filipinos are used to getting their pig skin (hello, lechon). Sad face from the pig face. On the service side, while overall it was great, our waiter gave us some dish pairing suggestions but the plate duos did not reach our table simultaneously. I wanted to love you, G&G, I really did.

Part 3. Ras Dashen

Ras Dashen's Edgewater locale is smaller and cozier than mainstay and neighbor Ethiopian Diamond. Unlike the other two restaurants, we parked just outside and strolled in with zero fuss and no RSVP necessary. Everything by the end of our meal, the communal plate was completely decimated: injera torn up and gobbled, thick lentil soup trails scraped up, none save bones from two kinds of wat (chicken and lamb), nary a veggie nor cluster of wonderful kitfo remained. That was the first time I'd had kitfo, raw or slightly cooked ground beef, and it was outstanding. Don't get freaked out by the raw, I know you eat sushi and carpaccio, for goodness sakes! The meal was the perfect winter fare: hearty, spicy, flavorful with enough carbs to make you feel full and enough vegetables to make you feel like you balanced things out. The bill was easy on the wallet, too. Three of us split the "for two" omnivore special: a generous amount and variety of food that provided a great value. Don't miss their coffee, it's not to be played with: thick, delicious and very strong. I had serious caffeine withdrawal the next day. But I'll do it again, maybe on one of their bossa nova nights? Ras Dashen's food is the gastronomical equivalent of Sharing is caring.