A week ago, I had the opportunity to not only go to, but to be “Chef for a day” at iNG restaurant in Chicago. If you do not know it, it is the sister restaurant to Moto, Chef, Owner, and Michelin star winner Homaro Cantu’s two amazing molecular gastronomy establishment’s in the Fulton River District.
Chef Cantu started doing experiments with the miracle berry at Moto and because of the response opened up iNG so he could continue his “flavor-tripping” experience in a new place. iNG stands for Imagining New Gastronomy, which it really is. I had never been exposed to the miracle berry before this day, and it truly is a trippy experience.
But I digress, I actually got to see the workings of the kitchen, where the magic happens. I first got to meet the Chef at iNG, Charlie Harrison. He showed me around and got me set up with a coat and apron. Although we had to go to Moto to find my size. I haven’t comfortably fit into a L in quite a few years. Luckily Moto had a few extra XL that fit much, much better. After, I got a tour of the kitchen and met all the crew who are lucky enough to make the magic happen in such a creative place. They have been doing a 10 course tasting menu including the miracle berry. So things were already happening when I showed up at one o’clock. Now the miracle berry isn’t included in all the dishes. Mostly just sweet dishes, where they want to highlight the non-use of sugar. Yes, they use no actual sugar. Because the miracle berry temporarily blocks your ability to taste sour, and makes bitter even taste good.
So I had the opportunity to watch the pastry end of the kitchen to start. Helping to get some Pomegranate seeds out of the fruit to be included in the Lemon Tart that night. Seeing the use of liquid nitrogen for the yogurt dessert was also very intriguing. It was a lot like when I was a kid and got to be behind the scenes and meet some of the Philadelphia Phillies. A very exciting experience. Nothing like being in the kitchen and seeing how your dinner that night will be made. Especially when Molecular Gastronomy is in use!
I got to help cut, slice, and prep some other things. I haven’t worked in a kitchen for quite some time, so it took me back. I always found that kitchens have a very strong camaraderie. Seeing how the crew is given a lot of free reign to be creative. Even though they were serving the same 10 course tasting menu, most nights, some of the dishes are changed slightly, either by a mention by a diner, or by the cook who thought it could be better. I love this type of cooking. Don’t do the same thing night after night. Change it up, taste, taste, taste. See what works. See how it can be better. The Wings dish was one of the dishes that has been undergoing constant improvement. I was able to help out a bit on this dish, which was thrilling.
Let’s get into the meal itself, shall we? 10 courses. Four of them were dessert dishes using the miracle berry. Paired with all kinds of tasty beverages, from beer to wine to cocktails.
To start we had our first taste of miracle berry, which really worked for the cocktail for me. We had a Capon Puff with Feta, Nectarine and Cherry. Paired with a Lemon Drop Gin-Sphere. This is where the berry comes in, to take away the tartness of the Lemon Drop and make it sweeter and a really, really nice drink. The Capon puff was good, but in the grand taste of the whole meal, seemed to get lost a bit.
Next, was a Crab Rangoon, which was very delicious. It wasn’t served like a traditional simple Rangoon you find at the corner Chinese Take-Out. Of course they had to add their own tasty twist. It was a very simple dish, small, and packed with very intense flavors.
A great, great flavor packed dish was brought out now. It was their “Wings”. And it was tremendous. Although I was a bit prejudiced, as I had assisted with this earlier. This was one of the dishes that had been evolving since they started this tasting menu. There were no bones, not even a wing looking piece of meat. The duck is braised all day, which made the kitchen smell fantastic. They were cooked down till they were fall off the bone, and were then deboned. The meat was put in the food processor, laid out on a sheet pan, and chilled. Along with some other little tricks, they got a sheet of meat. I never thought I’d ever say something like “sheet of meat”, but it works. You could insert _______ of meat and I’d most probably be down for such a thing. Well now the sheet was cut down into cubes, placed around the plate with a Jalapeno-Apricot sauce/jam. Really, really, really tasty. For such a small unassuming plate to give so much flavor was amazing. We all ate every last morsel. This was served with beer. Which makes total sense. Alpha King by Three Floyds. Wow, just wow. An excellent combo. I could of just had a liter of that beer with a large plate of the duck, and been totally content.
Pizza. When someone talks about it, everyone has an opinion. EVERY. ONE. NY style, Chicago deep dish, thin, thick, rustic, etc…. Pizza is one of the most loved and hated foods. Do it right, and you have a wait every single day. Do it wrong, and you are sent adrift in the solitary culinary seas. Or, you can totally re-think the whole pizza thing, and mess with one of the most beloved foods, and come up with Executive Chef Charlie’s deconstructed pizza. A tomato reduction. Freeze dried venison pepperoni. All the things of Molecular Gastronomy that would make anyone wonder why you rethink a world wide classic. Well if you had this, you would wonder what all the hub-bub was about. This pizza was, dare I say, truly outside the box fantastic. We all loved it. LOVED IT. The flavors were all there. Served on a plank from a whiskey barrel, and I was in love. I would of never guessed you could do this deconstruction and have me not only enjoy it, but to crave more. (Chef Charlie sent us another round) which the ladies did not want, but which every crumb was again gone. One of the favorites of the night, especially when you pair it with an Ale from Belgium. I know, a double win! La Chouffe by Brasserie D’Achoufe.
Another beloved food??? Tubular meats. Made with fresh game. Venison Bratwurst. Another of the dishes that was tinkered with over the course of the first weeks of the tasting menu. It is served with Mustard, Cabbage and Peanuts. Simple ingredients. How do you change this classic dish?? Well you leave the Brat to it’s own accord. Homemade sausages are always packed with all kinds of deliciousness. Well to adjust the dish to take it from great, to insanely good, you need to play with your food. Never to just sit on their laurels, they work on the mustard and peanuts every day. I got to see how the mustard evolved to the one served this day. I mean this was no regular mustard. I don’t want to give away the secrets, but it was probably the best condiment I have ever done had. The nuts were baked, and sweet, and a perfect compliment to the tanginess of the mustard. Another great, great dish, and served with another beer that was terrific, with more great beer. Autumnal by Stillwater Artisanal Ales. YUM
Korean Beef. Korean Beef. Korean Beef. There is just something about those two words put together that make the hair on my arms stand up. Especially when you throw in SHORT RIB. THEN, throw in some French wine. Estibals by L’Ostal Cazes in Minervois. The Ribs came with Lemongrass and Ginger. They were so tender. So packed with flavor. So Awesome!!! This was the dish that put us over the edge of loving this place, and this tasting menu. I really have nothing else to say about this dish. It was perfect and amazing. And to boot, one of the pieces was a little fatty, which I love, but they saw two of us switch plates, so they fired another one, and we got another bonus dish. This is one of the little things that takes a restaurant from good to great. It also shows that they have a great team here that is in tune with their guests. FYI, the fatty piece was terrific.
We then went into four desserts, a Lemon Tart, a Yogurt Parfait, a Chocolate Buckeye and a Semifreddo. We had miracle berry with them, and you could never tell there was no sugars in them. I would of guessed they were packed with sugar. The Yogurt was a real neat, interesting play on a dessert. They used liquid nitrogen to freeze up the Yogurt. Our favorite was not the chocolate, which I loved, but the Semifreddo. It had some pickled grapefruit, clove and chicory. Oh man. Man, oh man. This dish was one of the most eccentric desserts I ever had, but one that sung in harmony. Tremendous. And yes, the Buckeye with peanut butter was also a hit. A good mix of delicious ingredients. The neatest aspect was the serving of a Washington state Cabernet Sauvignon with the Buckeye. When tasted after ingesting the miracle berry, it turned this big, bold Cab into a smooth and creamy Port. It really was a mind blowing experience.
So to sum up. Go to Moto. Go to iNG. Try things you wouldn’t normally order and go with an open mind. Don’t over think and go to enjoy. Sometimes nowadays, when everyone is a food expert, you forget the little things. To sit with good company, and just eat to enjoy. Put the phones down. Have some good conversation. Consume some good wine. Order some food you normally wouldn’t. Then eat every single thing. Licking the plate is optional.
iNG Restaurant http://ingrestaurant.com/
Moto Restaurant http://www.motorestaurant.com/
Homaru Cantu http://www.cantudesigns.com/