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Touring Chicago One Bite at a Time - Day 1: Perennial

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Day One: Perennial
The rain rhythmically thumped against the roof of our taxi. As people ran for shelter, a sense of urgency filled the air – a need to be somewhere. A need to…eat. It was our first night in Chicago, having just arrived at our hotel at 5:35 for our 5:30 reservations at Perennial, a “seasonally-driven” (restaurant-speak phrase of the decade) establishment only blocks away from the Mainstage Theater for our Second City show that evening at eight. 5:58. My anticipation grew as we walked into the restaurant nearly 30 minutes late. This was the kick-off to our food focused long weekend, and nothing – not the rain or the time – was going to derail our enjoyment.
After being immediately seated at a comfortable table in the back corner of the restaurant, we were asked our water preference. Water preference? Why, yes. Would I like tap, sparkling, bottled, spring, etc.? I went for the boring tap, but this being the first time I was asked what kind of water I would prefer, I thought it was a nice gesture. Drink orders were placed, and since I don’t drink alcohol, one of the x-factors of a restaurant for me is how they are able to accommodate non-alcoholic patrons. Happily, our server said he could whip up a drink (I forgot the name) that was a combination of tropical fruit juices such as papaya and pineapple and other liquids of which I’m nearly positive was sparkling water. The drink was nice, fruity, and refreshing. After our drinks were served, the waiter asked if we were going to the Second City show at eight. After we said we were, he said he would personally make sure to get us out at no later than 7:15. Here is where I’m going to comment on the service on a whole for the entire night: Fantastic. From food suggestions, to attentiveness without being obtrusive, to timing it perfectly at getting 4 courses to us and check paid by 7:15, the service at Perennial may have been their strongest attribute.
The breadbasket was served, which held two warm pretzel rolls and lightly whipped butter. The pretzel bread was deliciously salty and tasted like a warm soft pretzel. My Dad and I each began our meal with the very much in-season sweet corn soup with spoon bread and corn relish ($8). A heated bowl was presented in front of us with a square of corn bread. On one side of the corn bread was the corn relish, which was basically sweet corn kernels, and on the other side was what was described to us as “popcorn powder.” The popcorn powder was a white powder, and although I didn’t ask, I would be willing to bet it was dehydrated popped corn. The server then poured the creamy corn broth over the aforementioned items, and the aroma was intoxicating. Individually, everything tasted just fine. The spoon bread (what I would call corn bread) had a crisp exterior that gave way to a moist, dense interior. The corn kernels and popcorn tasted just as they should – like corn. But, what brought it all together was the broth. It was rich, almost bisque-like; with hints of what I thought was sherry. Altogether, with the broth soaking into the bread and the kernels provided the much needed pop to the otherwise smooth textured dish, this dish, for me, was the food equivalent of late August; and it was a warm start to a soggy weathered night.
Following the soup, we were brought our shared appetizer: Beef Tartar with Horseradish cream, roasted tomatoes, and quail yolk ($10). Now, I will preface this by saying that this is my first time having beef tartar. But, my first experience left me shrugging my shoulders in indifference. The tartar was served with toasted brioche points. I broke the quail egg yolk, which was being coddled atop the tartar, and took one bite of the tartar by itself. It was good, but not mind-blowing. Not knowing much about tartar, I half-wondered if most of its enjoyment comes from the texture. I only got faint hints of a beefy, mineral flavor, but it was more subdued than I had imagined. When taking everything in together, I felt the tartar got lost in the horseradish cream and richness of the yolk. The roasted tomatoes were fine, but, like the other ingredients, seemed to overshadow the star. This dish was very rich, and I was glad that it was shared. I’m sure this won’t be my last venture into beef tartar, but I’d wish the beef would be more pronounced. Who knows, maybe tartar just isn’t my thing.
After a 10-minute wait, our entrees were served. My Dad, always a sucker for a good piece of halibut, went with the Poached Alaskan Halibut with clams, chorizo, leeks, smoked onions, and spicy tomato broth ($26). I didn’t have a bite, but he said it was “very good.” Here is when I noticed Perennial’s strange quirk – they really, really like the serving method of pouring broth over your dish at the table. Not only did it happen to our soup and my Dad’s fish, but I also noticed on two more dishes that other restaurant goers had (both other fish dishes). Not that this method of serving is a bad thing, but it was just something I found a bit overdone. Anyway, I ordered the Organic Becker Lane Pork Belly with grilled peaches, kale, thyme doughnuts, and peach gastrique ($22). In all honesty, I’ve never had pork belly as my main entrée before (I know…a meal full of firsts!). Though, if this is what all pork belly entrees are like, I think I found yet another part of the pig I love! Having known that pork belly is usually very fatty; my main fear was that it would be a big glob of fat. I couldn’t be more wrong. The belly was nicely crisp on the outside, and the crispness gave way to tender, juicy meat. There was only a thin layer of noticeable fat around the outside of the piece of meat, but the best way to describe it would be it someone took pulled pork, and put it in block form. Ok…that might not be the best description, but needless to say, it was delicious. It was served with a thick slice of grilled peach, with its sugars caramelizing nicely and the sweetness cutting the richness of the pork belly. The kale on the side was fine, and it reminded me a lot of braised collard greens. In fact, in keeping with the porky goodness of the dish, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was braised in the rendered pork fat. All in all, a very satisfying, expertly cooked piece of pork belly with a nice, fruity compliment.
Too full? Probably. Too full for dessert? Not quite. I went for the Chocolate Malt, which consisted of a chocolate fudge brownie, malt ice cream, fried ganache, and raspberry syrup ($7). On the other hand, my Dad went a little south for dessert and chose The Brazilian, with brown butter cake, cachaca pineapples, ginger popsicles, coconut sorbet, and pina colada sauce ($7). I liked my dessert all right, but the flavors were all a little muted. There was malt powder around the cake and malt ice cream, but even with all the supposed maltiness, I still failed to identify anything but sweet, fudgy chocolate. Not that nothing is wrong with sweet, fudgy chocolate, but I was looking for something a bit more. On the other hand, my Dad’s dessert was really delicious. Though the description is long-winded, it all came together beautifully. Taking together the ginger popsicles with the coconut sorbet and brown butter cake turned what could have been an overly sweet dessert into a dish of contrasts: cold (ginger popsicles and coconut sorbet) and warm (brown butter cake); sweet (coconut sorbet, pineapple, and pina colada sauce) and savory (brown butter cake and ginger popsicles). I’m normally more of a chocoholic when it comes to dessert, but this may turn any chocolate lover into a fruit dessert person.
Overall, Perennial was a great pre-theater dinner destination, and I would recommend it to anyone. One thing you will notice about the menu is their use of the Green City Market (which is directly across the street from the restaurant and labeled as GCM on the menu). Perennial uses the seasons to its advantage, and all are the better for it. Prices are all reasonable, and the wait staff is attentive and accommodating. They opened just last year, and named one of the 50 best new restaurants in the country by Travel and Leisure Magazine, and some tweaks of flavor may need to be adjusted, but the acclaim is well deserved.

***Still to come: Urban Belly, Avec, Hot Doug's, Alinea, Cafe Spiaggia, Topolobampo, DB Primehouse, Burt's Place, and Kuma's Corner***

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  1. Thanks; we're visiting Chicago soon and you've now tempted me to add Perennial to the agenda. I look forward to your other reports...we visited last year and LOVED Cafe Spiaggia, although we were there for a splurg lunch.

    1. Great write up. Truly a night of firsts.