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July 16, 2010

The Girl and The Goat

Awwwwwww Dominic Armato

Let me make something absolutely clear, lest you think I'm plumbing new depths of Top Chef obsession. I did NOT travel to Chicago for the opening of The Girl and The Goat. But when the enormously (over)hyped opening of a Top Chef winner's restaurant happens to occur the very week we have a night on the town -- a week when I was taking a Power Rankings pass, no less -- checking it out kind of seems like a moral obligation. I don't mean to give the wrong impression. I was actually quite curious to see how Stephanie Izard's place would turn out. I'd eaten at her previous restaurant before she was a reality television star. But to check out how fame and fortune may or may not have changed her meant making peace with the fact that I'd be letting the blog be even further dominated by Top Chef this month. With a little trepidation, I suppose I can deal with that.

Fat Bread with Liver ButterDominic Armato

In her pre-reality televison days, Stephanie (being on a reality TV show puts you on a first name basis with the public, you see) was the chef at a joint in Wicker Park named Scylla. I had a couple of meals at Scylla not long before they closed, and while I can't recall the details (this is precisely why I started a journal/blog, by the way), I recall a bit of an uneven experience that nonetheless included some rather exciting peaks. I remember thinking at the time that if you picked the winners, you'd walk out having had a great meal. I didn't get much of a chance to suss out those winners, however, as Scylla closed up shop shortly before Stephanie went on Top Chef. Which precipitated which is anybody's guess. Shortly thereafter, she became a national culinary icon, having snatched victory from popularly favored (though no less popular) Richard Blais, and after a brief respite, what followed was a slow crescendo of rumor, then buzz, then announcements, then delays, then name changes, then a marketing blitz, and finally... just this week... an opening. Yes, Chicago, henceforth when you read daily updates about The Girl and The Goat, they will most likely involve discussion of actual food.

Cave Brothers MozzarellaDominic Armato

So my ladylove and I went to go check it out this past Wednesday. I concede up front that it's completely unfair to write about a place like this just a scant few days after opening. Early writeups are always unfair, but when the hype has reached such a fevered pitch, it's especially unfair. The Girl and The Goat can't possibly live up to expectations, and not letting them at least get their feet wet seems cruel, somehow. But such is the reality of the Yelp era, I get one shot at the place this year, and it happened to be this week. I figure I'd better take it. So the usual "just opened" caveats apply. Even under the best of circumstances, I like to think of these posts as data points rather than "reviews," and that goes triply here. It's only fair.

Chilled Sweet Onion SoupDominic Armato

The Girl and The Goat is big! Much bigger than I expected somehow, a lofty space on Randolph in the West Loop filled with unfinished wood, black and dark green accents and the pleasant, if pungent, scent of wood smoke from the open oven in back. There's a rather sizeable bar, a small lounge with low couches where many appeared to be eating a full dinner, a long kitchen along the back and plenty of tables to cover what I expected would be a crush of opening week reservations, until I checked Open Table on Monday morning and discovered that other than a gap from 6:30 to 7:45, Wednesday night was wide open. Had so many decided to keep their distance that the crowds they had sought to avoid were rendered illusory? The room sure seemed pretty busy. Perhaps the throngs got wise to the Open Table backdoor later in the day. It's a small plates menu (surprise!), divided into vegetables, seafood and meats, with a small addendum featuring oysters and breads.

Crispy Pig Face with ChimichurriDominic Armato

Yes, breads. While trying to keep an open mind, I'm unsure of how I feel about bread service being monetized. It feels a little like we've simply found a way to charge for something most places give away for free. But like most other things, items given gratis are worked into the prices anyway, so I suppose this way the cost is limited to those who choose to partake. Nonetheless, it's a little jarring to pay $5 for a small loaf of fresh bread with liver butter and diced plums, even if the description thereof is all you need to hear to know why we did it. It was delicious, hot and soft bread spread with creamy butter that had a little offal funk, and bright, sweet tart plums for contrast. It was perhaps the second-most decadent bread service I've encountered, safely behind the creamy crock of lardo at Carnevino, which was free. But then, dining at The Girl and The Goat doesn't require taking out a second mortgage for a steak that may be older than the house you're mortgaging (and yet I'd do it again... and again... and again... but I digress).

Skirt Steak a la PlanchaDominic Armato

Dishes, by design, arrived in no particular order, though I don't know if this is a conscious choice or some opening week jitters. My first taste was a small one, a sample of my ladylove's salad, listed on the menu as Cave Brothers Mozzarella with sungold tomatoes, yellow plums, watercress and purple beans. It was as described, a fine specimen of a salad, especially when it came to the crisp, slivered beans, that satisfied without thriling. You can make friends with salad, but it has to be one helluva salad. This was not. But I enjoyed the taste I had. My first, however, rather endeared me to the chef. It was a chilled sweet onion soup, with beautiful, explosive flavor and a wonderful creamy texture despite what I suspect was a total absence of dairy. Highlighted with a small dollop of mildly spicy poblano-sorrel oil, it was a beautifully refreshing dish for a hot evening that still had some depth and body. Perhaps my favorite of the evening.

Crisp Skate with Calamari and GarbanzosDominic Armato

Nipping at its heels was my next dish, the "crispy pig face" with chimichurri, daikon and baby arugula. Stephanie, like many chefs these days, displayed an unhealthy (yet oh so wonderful) obsession with pork products during her stint on Top Chef, and little bits of pig are to be found all over the menu. It's the star, however, of this dish, which plays kind of like an unusually succulent schnitzel, breaded and crisply fried with fresh greens and a chimichurri that had some kick. My first taste left me a little flat, but it quickly became apparent that this was because I'd first hit upon a lean corner of the cut. Once I found the fat -- which was practically everywhere else -- the plate melded together into a meaty and herbacious blend of flavors with a wonderful crunchy texture.

Soft Shell Crab with Sweet CornDominic Armato

Sadly, texture was something of an issue for the next two dishes, and our dinner went south for a bit. Though my ladylove seemed quite tickled by it, I was underwhelmed by the skirt steak a la plancha. Done with slivered beets, wilted romaine lettuce, assorted pickled vegetables and what was described as a salted goat milk caramel, it seems like it should have had a lot more depth than it did. It actually came across similar to an Asian-style sweet and sour beef salad that you might have at a Thai or Vietnamese place. But without something like the punch of chiles or the salty pungency of fish sauce, it felt flat. That the skirt steak didn't seem to retain any of the seared flavor you'd expect it to pick up from the plancha didn't help, either. Combine that with intentionally wilted greens, and it felt like a weak, overly sweet Americanized Thai beef salad that had been sitting in the container a little too long. Overly harsh, perhaps, especially considering the kitchen's young age. It wasn't bad, really. But that's what immediately sprung to mind.

Rabbit Rillettes in Crisp Rice CrepeDominic Armato

The first of my two seafood dishes was similarly challenged, and I started to suspect that we might be seeing some opening week issues on display. The crisp skate was done with grilled calamari rings, sweet (pickled?) grape tomatoes, garbanzo beans that challenged the teeth (though not unpleasantly), grilled radicchio, capers and a tomato aioli. There were small issues, like the fact that I wouldn't have known the calamari were grilled if the menu didn't say so (not a hint of char or smoke). But most importantly, the panko-breaded crisp skate was anything but. It was soggy, limp and barely warm, and it resulted in a dish that completely lacked texture. There may very well have been a good dish in here, but it was very difficult to see past a sad piece of seafood. It remains to be seen whether the skate and the skirt steak bloom once the kitchen tightens up a little bit. I think it's a possibility, but they're definitely not there yet.

Goat Cheese BavaroisDominic Armato

This would have been the end had we not opted to add a couple more dishes mid-meal. The plates are small enough that I'd say three will do most folks, going down to two or up to four if you typically find yourself on the extremes. My last dish was another crack at seafood, a fried soft shell crab that was, indeed, served crisp, atop a bed of sweet corn kernels and dressed with a chili aioli. The crab was seasoned, barely dusted and fried, letting it shine which was a great call. These little fellows are so delicate and so tasty that there's no sense burying them. The sweet corn was similarly minimal and delicious, but the whole dish was put off by one unfortunate error, which was an overabundance of lime juice that really took over the dish. Again, work out the kinks and this is a winner (though the crabs will most likely be gone by then).

Corn Nougat with Plum and BaconDominic Armato

But despite some of the problem dishes, we ended on a high note, a creative little dish that still wasn't quite firing on all cylinders, yet managed to delight us nonetheless. Rabbit rillettes are rolled in rice crepes and fried crisp, then floated in a bowl of ginger "giardinare" and sweet garlic puree, and topped with thinly sliced carrots and a bit of spigarello (the green stuff). The flavors here were wonderful and well-balanced. The rabbit not only took to the broth beautifully, but its shredded texture lapped up the liquid once the crepes were cut apart. The garlic was present but not overpowering, and the vegetables atop were pure and delicious. The singular issue was, again, that the crisp crepes weren't very crisp. Only the tiniest bits on a couple of edges provided any clue that they were intended to be. And while I'm sure they were meant to be partly crisp, partly soft (a call I fully support), a little more texture would have made the dish. But this was a winner even as we received it.

Desserts were creative and enjoyable. A goat cheese bavarois with berries and crisp oats was clean and restrained in its subtle sweetness. The corn nougat -- corn ice cream, as far as I could tell -- was served with crumbled corn bread, corn kernels, diced plum and bits of crispy bacon, and the only problem was that the nougat arrived half-melted, in keeping with the evening's theme.

Inspiration For The NameDominic Armato

That theme, of course, is that The Girl and The Goat just opened, and I have absolutely no business writing about it. Like the meals I remembered from Scylla, there were big hits and big misses. But this offering from Stephanie lent the impression that it might come together with a little more time. The beauty of restauranting in the internet era, however, is that unlike with a traditional newspaper review, there will be no shortage of others commenting in the coming weeks on whether or not the kitchen finds its footing. Less highly anticipated restaurants might not survive a lukewarm early reception, but unless the city of Chicago has completely succumbed to goat fatigue (I suppose a case could be made for the north side of the city... *sigh*), Stephanie will get the time she needs to whip the kitchen into shape. I hope she does, not because she's so damn likeable (though she is), but because there are some really compelling ideas here that I'd like to see hitting the table at full strength.

The Girl and The Goat
809 W. Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60607
Mon - Fri4:30 PM - 11:00 PM
Fri - Sat4:30 PM - 12:00 AM


fun review! do you happen to know who did the mural? it looks a bit like os gemeos but i don't see any reference to who made it on the girl and the goat's web site. thanks!

Just curious, Dom: Have you even been to a small plates restaurant where every single dish was a winner? I haven't...but I don't think I've been to as many places as you have.

I totally think you should have told your server (with an officious air): "Please tell Stephanie that Dom from Skillet Doux is in the house and sends his compliments to the chef." Naturally, she would have come out to greet you personally. :D

Thanks for the look-in, Dom!

You really conjur up great word-pictures of the dishes (not that your photos aren't expressive as well). I hope it goes well for Stephanie. I was a Blais fan, but I thought that she was totally charming and earned her win.

And yeah, you should have let Stephanie know that you were there! :D

Marjorie... no clue, sorry. And actually, I erred. Though the name of the restaurant was inspired by a painting, it wasn't that one... it was this one.

Paula... sure. Most recently that I can remember, Laiola in San Francisco. Every single dish, awesome. Sadly, it's gone.

And while I appreciate mad props from loyal readers, I think you guys grossly overestimate my pull :-)

I don't know, your pull might be stronger than you think. Wasn't it season 4 when Ted Allen mentioned your blog? I'm sure that one of Stephanie's friends, if not Stephanie herself, clicked on that gateway link. And this site's addictive, so I doubt they stopped reading after that. So you just might have gotten a little something extra if you mention who you are!

Not that I advocate name dropping. Personally, I have no name to drop, but even if I did, I would probably be left with a slimy afterfeel.

My husband and I are dining at Girl and the Goat next week, looking forward to it!

@marjorie: the mural to me looks like something by Mark Ryden, but I am not absolutely sure about that.

No pull? So, Stephanie didn't come out and greet you personally and send a special course from the kitchen? ;)

Anon Man... nope. No pull. And really, there's nothing more obnoxious than a food blogger trying to throw his weight around... particularly when he doesn't have much to begin with.

You have a great blog! In fact, I did find it when Ted Allen made mention of it!
As a Chicagoan, I loved Scylla (it was my favorite place until it closed) and was so excited to see Stephanie Izard on Top Chef! I personally never had an uneven experience and found her to be quite talented even before her win on Top Chef. ( I do wish she could get some props for her win without always a mention about Blais, it seems to undervalue her achievments.)
Thanks for the review of her new place! Can't wait to check it out!

I joked with a friend, when I was in Perilla, that I should demand to the waiter to see Harold... of course, I would never seriously make such an arrogant demand, and would much rather experience Harold through his food, not through the person.

I'm reminded of a memorial in Westminster Abbey dedicated to the architect - it had just his name, a quick little inscription, and a large mirror. When you looked into it, you saw the Abbey's roof, therefore, his work.

Last time I went to Absinthe I asked to see Jamie Lauren. However, only because in her TC blogs she always says "Come visit me at Absinthe!!" It was weird though - the front of the house had no idea if she was even there and it took them quite a bit of time to determine she was not in the city. You'd think they'd know something like that...

Nikki, I had a very different experience with Jamie Lauren at Absinthe. It may have been because it was recently after filming the season. I asked if she was there and the server said the she always liked to visit with customers if she was cooking. She was very gracious and spoke with us for at least ten minutes. She told me how to make the root vegetables that we admired and spoke glowingly of Stephan and many of the other chefs. I was amazed that she took the time to see us. The food was terrific and it was a wonderful evening.

Nikki -- I suspect they knew and the waiter was just checking how he/she should respond to the question because some diners get prickly when the chef is absent.

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