Eating Chicago: Flavour Tripping at iNG
The best way to enjoy a city is by spending time with people who have already fallen in love with it. Preferably the ones who are eager and willing to share their favorite spots and private hideaways, but equally exciting is the chance to meet a new friend and explore something a little bit different. Enter Kristie, the Spiteful Chef, who’s effusive praise of Chicago and its eateries was actually a big inspiration to us as we planned our trip. Mike and I are long time fans of her very, very funny website, and when she booked a trip to Chicago on exactly the same weekend as us, we couldn’t wait to finally meet up. Kristie is the kind of lady who (would probably object to being called a lady, and) you want beside you at a new restaurant. She can give you the background on the chef from his last five jobs to where he went to school and, quite likely, what he did on summer vacation when he was 6 years old. At iNG, she greeted the noodle-puller (possibly not his actual job title) by name, and charmed him into a crush so readily that when we walked by the restaurant again, hours later, he waved so enthusiastically that his shoulder was in danger of dislocating. I had a feeling that wherever we went, whatever sphericized fruits we would eat, and whatever experiential cocktails the night had in store, at least we were guaranteed to have a good time. And for that, before anything else, we must extend a heartfelt thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Spiteful Chef.
When Mike and I booked our trip, the very first thing that I did was book in the restaurants. For our first anniversary I wanted a meal that was exquisite, perfectly executed and exceptional tasting, so we were waffling between the old school charms of Charlie Trotters, the creative genius of Alinea by Grant Achatz, or Moto, by his peer in whimsical molecular gastronomy, Homaro Cantu. We settled on Alinea for our special meal (and, in restrospect, it is remarkable that we even entertained the idea of going anywhere else), but luckily, sophisticated Moto had a relatively new sibling on the scene that was touted as the more casual and dressed down option: iNG Restaurant, with owner Homaro Cantu and executive chef Thomas Bowman.
It is fair to say that iNG is still a work in progress. When the restaurant opened almost 9 months ago, they attempted to craft a trident of creativity in the small space by showcasing their ‘regular’ menu (or, at least, as regular as molecular gastronomy can be), a food-per-hour type deal, and the ‘flavor tripping’ experience featuring trendy miracle berries. Add to that a hand pulled noodle station in the window, wait staff who are decked out with curly wired earpieces (and one who I am almost certain sported a monocle), and more runners than there are customers on a busy night, and there is just a lot going on.
Located in the trendy meat packing district of Chicago (alongside Achatz’s restaurant Next and cocktail bar The Aviary, among others), iNG doesn’t look like much from the outside. Or the inside, really. The ambiance and decor are minimalist, with cool whites and hot burnt oranges mixed in with natural wood, metal and shell tones above the small booths and community style seating. However, it was more Ikea than Iconoclast and reminded me a little bit too much of the Vietnamese Pho-to-go joint down the road from us. And that’s down the road in the Canadian suburbs, people. Just to be clear. However, decor is usually the least of my concerns, so lets talk about the food.
As we sat, our friendly and engaging waiter placed in front of us a small origami box. The box, once unfolded, was the standard menu at iNG, and sticking out was a pipette holding our amuse bouche. The box was very clever, very twee, and set the tone for a night of whimsy. The amuse bouche on the other hand (some sort of carroty tasting miso liquid), was tasty but not moreish, and rather difficult to squeeze out and enjoy, which also somewhat set the tone for the evening.
The menu at iNG is designed around different states, including cool-ING, heat-ING, boil-ING, sweeten-ING, sipp-ING, brew-ING and mix-ING. We opted for what we shall call, “tripp-ING”, the special (and unwritten) miracle berry flavor experiment that was, seasonally enough, structured around the theme of Thanksgiving dinner. All that we knew about the menu is that it was multi-course, it was destined to include some form of turkey and cranberry, and the star performer would be miracle berries.
If you have never heard of miracle berries, they are an exotic fruit which changes one’s perception of sweet and acidic foods. At iNG, the miracle berry comes in tablet form that is placed on the tongue for a couple of minutes until it has completely dissolved. In the mean time, however, we were given a gin and tonic to enjoy. You may think that this is trite, but if every Thanksgiving dinner began with popping a few pills and sipping on a gin and tonic, I feel like my family life would be drastically improved.
(apologies in advance for the pictures. It was dark. Very dark. And we were hungry)
When our first course arrived, so did the tantalizing miracle berry (upper right). As we let the tablets dissolve on our tongues, the waiter explained that as soon as the miracle berry was dissolved we could test its efficacy by biting into a wedge of lemon (lower right). Sure enough, as soon as the flavor trip began, that little wedge of lemon tasted like delicious, fresh, saccharine lemonade on a nice hot day.
The first course was a lightly dressed arugula salad with pecans and goat cheese, a cranberry gelee ,which was designed to have the same texture and visual appeal as canned cranberry sauce, and a frozen supreme of mandarin orange. The salad tasted like…well, like salad, although perhaps the dressing was a smidge sweeter than normal. The cranberry gelee was a brilliant mimicry of canned sauce, which only made me beg the question of why on earth anybody would do that to a diner intentionally. The best part, and by far the smallest, was the perfect little wedge of iced orange which was sweet and strongly aromatic in the most sinfully fruity way. If this little wedge of orange had come out and done a strip tease in a beaded shirt it would have been more subtle on the palate.
Although a segment of fruit should not be the most appealing part of a dish, the first course was totally competent and left us anticipat-iNG what was yet to come.
The second course had Moto-magic written all over it. We were presented with an oyster on the shell under a rock glass filled with smoke. When the dish was set down, the glass was upended to free the smoke for our quivering nostrils, and then filled with a beer which I believe (in a Very Much Could Be Wrong kind of way) was Dogfish Head stout. The smoke was impressive and evocative, even if this little pony trick was par for the course on an (iNG) menu staple of smoked oyster with foie gras. The oyster was briny but inoffensive with a richly flavored garnish and small but peppery leaf of celery. Simple and succulent.
For the third course, I had to laugh. Earlier in the evening we had been discussing food phobias and Kristie had mentioned that, among other things, she really, really, REALLY did not dig oysters. However, like a champ, she swallowed one up for the second course. As for Mike and I, we’re pretty easy going as far as food and flavor go, but the one (painfully trendy) item that we just can’t get past is….*gulp*….pork belly. And yes, we had tried pork belly. Multiple times. It has always been startlingly bad, and frankly I could not understand why someone would willingly bite a mouthful of jiggly fat, or worse, DENSE AND DRY fat. Pork belly is like the Shirley Temple of the food community right now, and I’m sure that just writing this will get me a few emails full of hate mail, but that’s the price of honesty. Pork belly and I are not good friends.
But now lets talk about this dish.
When I said that I didn’t like pork belly, this was not what I was thinking of. Nestled on a stripe of pureed squash with morsels of baby brussell sprout and an unctuous gravy, this was like no pork belly that I had ever had. Incredibly succulent, fall-apart tender and surprisingly meaty and rich, this was like a 2″ square of heaven on my plate and I wanted more. The absolute best thing that I got out of this meal was the knowledge that pork belly can be awful and irredeemable, but cared for correctly it can be very, very, VERY good and incredibly pleas-iNG.
The fourth course was turducken, which I almost love enough to wish I had the patience to debone a trifecta of poultry. But I don’t, so I’m glad that someone else did it for me. Several slices of chicken were laid upon a bed of “stuffing”, a mixture of moist bread with turkey and duck confit which had the most irresistible crispy crust. Crowning the mound was a green bean casserole with fried onions, which was about as good as any other. The chicken was so moist, succulent and evenly cooked that it could only have been sous vide. However, it was also surprisingly salty like an overly brined breast, and as much as I love salt that was a bit difficult for me to get through. Overall, between the juicy chicken and the delectable confit stuffing, it was almost enough to camouflage the wrinkly, dry and overcooked roasted potato wedges hiding at the bottom of the plate. If anything, the dish was, in combination, disappoint-iNG.
Before you know it, we’re on to our fifth course which is dessert. Dessert came with another miracle berry tablet to re-activate the flavor tripping sensation, and a wee wedge of lemon to convince you that it isn’t all a hoax after all because dang! That lemon is totally the best part of the meal.
Dessert was a take on apple pie with cheddar cheese. Going from left to right, there were apple slices, a pureed apple gelee and a balsamic reduction, followed by a crisp and buttery crumb leading to aged gloucestershire cheese (I think) and a “cake” of unripened cheese with a traditional layer of ash, iced with a jellied-yogurt.
Really, Homaro and Thomas, lets have a little chat. Lets talk about how miracle berries are pretty great, but a blue cheese post-berry tastes like an only slightly less musky blue cheese, and jellied doesn’t necessarily mean delicious. The lemon “cake” was by far the best part of this dish, with a texture like a tender and mousse-like cheesecake, but that wasn’t enough to make me ever wish that I could order this again. This dessert didn’t seem creative, it was like it was just pretend-iNG.
Finally, for course six, the second dessert, we had a nitrogen frozen “waffle” with pumpkin butter and toasted marshmallow. Even though the marshmallow held fast to the plate and was difficult to eat, and the texture of the frozen pumpkin butter was incredibly granular and didn’t add in flavor what it took away in texture, the creamy smooth ice-cream style waffles were almost enough to compensate for that. Really. Creamy and smooth, subtly spiced and not too sweet, I could have easily eaten both of these (sans pumpkin) and pretended that my plate came out empty if I could please have some more. Hey, it was try-iNG.
Overall, the meal was ambitious but not completely accomplished. I think that the vision of iNG, as kaleidoscope as it is, may be better than the actual results. What little ambiance there was got swallowed up by an environment so loud that one had to shout across the table to a fellow diner. The wait staff, as savvy and quirky as they seemed to be (particularly ours, my new crush with his horn rimmed glasses and curled ‘stache that I totally don’t think is part of Mouvember) were darling and efficient but not particularly effective. We repeatedly had to ask for utensils, which were either completely lacking or disappeared frequently, and the glasses ran quite dry.
It struck me that iNG was a bit disoriented and going through growing pains, like it was in its first couple weeks of business, despite the fact that it has been open for a few months shy of a year. The food was overall competent, with flashes of the exceptional that dazzled brightly if only to remind about how dull the rest of the meal was in comparison. The food ranged between under-seasoned to saline, and really the best part of iNG was the idea of everything that it could be….if it hadn’t been so lack-iNG in substance and struggl-iNG in execution.
951 W Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607