Friday, September 17, 2010

Taste of Chicago: Cibo Matto

Let me start by saying that I will no longer try to hold any notion of foodie supremacy over the carnivore’s head – the man has developed some proper taste buds. Yes, he used to go a place like Bob Evans and order a steak, simply because it was the largest, meatiest item on the menu. But he has evolved. The carnivore’s recent recommendation of Chicago’s Cibo Matto is proof enough of that.

So, with this mantle of foodie equality, comes responsibility…I bring you…our first collective blog post. A he-said, she-said of the best of Cibo Matto. C goes first, because he visited CM first in time, but he's no opening act; he should certainly get top billing in this post.

He (also known as the carnivore, the Manimal, and sometimes simply C) said...

I had the opportunity to recently dine at the Chicago hot-spot Cibo Matto, in The Wit Hotel. As with any dining experience, it is always more enjoyable when you don’t have to worry about the bill, and this client dinner certainly met that expectation.  

The three of us started off with three appetizer courses to whet our palates. We tried the fiore de zucca, a fried squash blossom filled with ricotta with lemongrass pesto sauce on the side.  Although I’m not a cheese lover, the squash blossom was fried perfectly and the ricotta was a nice consistency, at least one that did not offend this cheese-hater.  The pesto was nice, but it was difficult to mix the blossom and sauce, and I didn’t feel like the combination was exactly on point.

The second appetizer was the buffalo mozzarella platter.  Although I stayed away from the cheese itself, the poached lobster and arugula that accompanied it was tasty. My dining companions marveled at the buffalo mozzarella.

Third, I tried the salumi plate, which had a very nice collection of Italian meats. The meats were nicely cured and not overly salty, which makes for a more pleasant experience. The prosciutto was excellent.

Of course, you don't come to Cibo Matto for the appetizers. The piece-de-resistance is the primi course, specifically their homemade pastas. While all are excellent, two are notable.  Our group shared the black spaghetti with crab and the bucatini.  Let me talk about the spaghetti quickly – the noodles are squid ink, and truly excellent. There are some nice bits of crab meat, although not a lot. The cerrano chiles give the dish some added heat. But for all of that, it’s a tad bit salty.  Enjoyable, but salty.

Ah… the bucatini. You can almost see the servers salivating as they bring it to your table. It is truly the best thing at Cibo Matto.  The noodles are delicious on their own – thick, tender round noodles. However, when accompanied by the amazing pancetta, even better.  But the chef goes one better by topping this delicious dish with a quail egg that is broken and mixed table-side. The egg goes on top of the pasta, and as it is mixed in, the hot pasta cooks the egg.  It makes for a simply divine combination, and one that evokes memories of Mario Batali’s rich pastas. It was so good, in fact, that our table ordered two servings – one to accompany our main entrees as well.  Upon delivering our second pasta, our server eyed it wistfully and asked if she could mix the egg in.  We agreed, and she remarked that “every time I bring one of these out, it makes me hungry.”  A good sign indeed.

With that build up, there’s no way the entrees could live up to the bucatini. And frankly, I mainly ate the bucatini for my main course. Our table went fish heavy, opting for the skate, perch, and halibut. All were tasty, but ultimately not memorable.  My perch was poached in olive oil, and was fairly simple, but in season at the time. Again, most of us went after the bucatini – fish I can get anywhere, but delicious pasta is truly rare.

After all that, we had no room for dessert. But with our rather large tab (of course the others had wine), there was no reason for the waiter to complain.  Nor, for that matter, was there any complaint from three very satisfied lawyers.

She said (yes, I know this continues to shock, but Deepthroat is actually a girl)....

Our girls'-night-out crowd started with a pair of shellfish dishes - the diver scallop served with a celery root truffle puree, and the grilled baby octopus served with white beans, pearl onions, and a saffron aioli. Both were delicious, nice introductions to a flavorful meal that would follow. The octopus itself was perfectly cooked, tender and with a nice smoky grilled flavor. The aioli was a nice accent as well - the saffron was a refreshing alternative to a potent olive flavor that is so often the curse of octopus dishes. I also enjoyed the scallop, seared nicely, but the gem of that particular plate was the puree, a lovely, delicate combination of flavors.

C was not kidding when he told me that the star of this show would be the pasta. He recommended we order only pasta (a try every kind type of deal). Well, we had cute dresses on and were headed out for the evening, so we could not endorse that idea, but it is a notion worth keeping in mind. The pastas are definitely the highlight here. We tried the aforementioned bucatini (pretty sure I would still be hearing about it had I dared not to) and the caramelli. The Caramelli, stuffed with house-made ricotta, and served with sauteed asparagus and lemons, managed to perfectly balance being both rich and refreshing. Yummy indeed, and a nice textural journey. The Bucatini, as C may have alluded to, was out of this world. It's precisely what I wanted when we tried out Bibiana, and reflecting back, Bibiana's pastas are (this is not to discount some of their other offerings...i.e., dessert) pleasant, but simply do not stand up when compared to Cibo Matto's pancetta, peppercorn, and duck-egg laced creation. This is what James Beard nominations are made out of folks.

It was difficult to move on from the pasta course, but eventually we had to do so - we rounded out our meal with a couple of entrees, for good measure.  The halibut, accented with flavors of arugula pesto, artichokes, and balsamic vinegar, was nice. If I were looking for a criticism, I would say that the artichoke came on a little heavy, but this would be splitting hairs. It was good; it's just that our meal had already met its climax. The Costolette, a braised short rib served alongside ricotta creamed spinach, however, proved to be a rather perfect finale. The short rib was tender and meaty, and avoided the usual short rib pitfall of being overly greasy. The creamed spinach was another remarkably delicious component of our already amazing meal. If you make the trip here, you have to order something that incorporates CM's ricotta - it's quite an amazing cheese, rich and refined, light and textural - dairy goodness indeed.

After all that, a person should never eat more, but perusing the menu, I still wanted to try dessert. Oh God help me, I wanted to try dessert. I analyzed the spandex percentage of my dress, how sleepy I was feeling given the current intake, and whether I could ditch the Spanks merely to taste the chocolate torta to my lips, but it was not to be. I was simply full to the brim with no room. **Tear** I’m still a little heartbroken about this tragedy, but I had other plans for the night, and dessert would have prevented even an awkward waddle out the place. Some day though, Strawberry Cardamom Panna Cotta, I will find you.


Manimal said...

Oh wow, very interesting! It would be so much fun to go back... and just have multiple orders of bucatini!

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