This weekend is actually packed, which I’m really excited about. My grandparents are in town to see my dad’s exhibition at the Smart, so we went out to dinner last night after my swim meet (It was exhausting– immediately after the 500 I had to dive back in for the 200 freestyle relay). My grandma hadn’t arrive yet, but my mom and I had planned ages ago that we would go to North Pond, which is a super seasonal American restaurant that’s actually located in Lincoln Park in the park. The setting was ridiculously romantic– there was a yellow crescent moon, big purple-gray clouds in the sky, and the whole skyline was lit up with flashing signs for the Cubs and Sox (that’s not why it was romantic). There were even ducks on the pond, making loud, annoying quacking noises. The restaurant was pretty formal (AKA no jeans), but the funny thing is that the inside was like somebody’s lakehouse… the walls were wood panels of ducks and other naturalistic images, they were playing Porgy and Bess, etc. It was almost kitchy, in a good way, since it countered the pretension of the dress code. To start with, we ordered the most amazing Italian red wine, a Barbera d’Asti… as my mom said, “If all red wine were like this, I would have red wine every night,” and I agree 100%. Although the waiter described the wine as “crisp” (which is usually a description reserved for white wines), I didn’t agree at all. Instead, it was almost smoky in a way that caused the back of your throat to get all scratchy. My dad ordered a beet-ini that I partially goaded him into ordering since it sounded so interesting: green gin, beet juice, mint. I loved it, since it tasted of nothing but the sweet beets and refreshing mint, with the gin simply adding that kind of bitter yet robust undertone whose flavor clings to the tip of your tongue. My mom took one sip and said “tastes like Chinese medicine!” My grandpa took one sip and proclaimed, “Under torture I wouldn’t drink it!”
As an amuse-bouch, we were brought salmon tartar on an apple slice with a cider gastrique. Couldn’t taste the cider much, but I noticed the apple had been sprinkled with mint and paprika underneath the salmon, which I enjoyed. Mainly it was the texture that was great, since tartar is usually on the gummy side– the crunchy apple balanced it out perfectly.
To start with, I was on the fence. I was caught between the “Scallop, Celeriac: Warm Celery Root-Cider Soup, Almond-Crusted Seared Sea Scallop, Celery Leaves” and “Kampachi, Beets : Charred Kona Kampachi Medallions, Gold Beet-Apple Confetti, Roasted Red Beet Mousse, Sesame Tuile, Tatsoi.” (At North Pond everything on their menu is listed in the form of two nouns, which my mom only noticed at the end of dessert. The waiter told me that the kampachi and beets were the lightest dish on the menu. I hadn’t eaten anything since my swim meet, and I can never seem to get sick of scallops, so I ordered that. It was one of the best pureed soups I’ve ever had, and I’m usually not a fan of cream-based soups. The beauty of this was it tasted of nothing but the freshest celery, with just a little cream to turn it from a mash into a soup. Somehow the sweet scallop, which had apparently also been seared in almond oil, was the perfect compliment to that oh-so-distinct celery flavor that a lot of people don’t enjoy. While I didn’t taste the almonds a whole lot, they added crunch to the soup. The whole thing was topped with a celeriac salad, which brought everything together. It. Was. Amazing.
My mom decided to order two appetizers instead of an appetizer and a main, so she ordered the two heaviest appetizers on the menu (which really doesn’t say very much). To start with, she ordered “Farm Egg, Mushrooms: Poached Farm Egg, Spin Rosso Polenta, Maple-Cinnamon Glazed Chanterelle Mushrooms, Parmesan Emulsion.” Everything was COVERED by the parmesan foam, which added an airy texture to the denser nature of the mushrooms. In the small bite I tried, I didn’t get any polenta (what’s Spin Rosso?), but a bite of mushroom and foam permeated with the richness of the egg. Usually I hate runny egg yolks, but this one was so pure that I couldn’t help but love it. It was hard to see with the dim lighting, but I bet the yolk would have been bright orange, like organic eggs usually are.
My dad’s appetizer was apparently one of the best, so of course I’m sad that I couldn’t try it: Quail, Sage: Prosciutto-Enrobed Quail, Roasted Kabocha Squash, Uplands Cheese cream.
I’m sure you’re not surprised that it was the combination of sage and squash that drew me in, so luckily I snagged a bite of squash, which I was surprised to find was pureed. What I’ve noticed I loved about last night was the simplicity of each component on a plate with lots of different flavors. For instance, I really don’t think they added anything to the squash (maybe a bit of butter or cream, and obviously salt and pepper), but by using seasonal squash from local farmers, it really did taste that much better.
My grandpa’s appetizer was the only one that I didn’t think was that great, mainly because it needed more salt: Walleye, Olives: Warm Poached Walleye Pike; Grilled Marinated Eggplant, Red Bell Peppers; Wilted Gem Romaine, Green Olive-Almond Relish. It was served in a little cast iron dish, but underneath the vegetables was a pool of oil. The fish was tender and good, but it was a little too bland for its more flavorful counterparts.
On to mains! For the first time in a long time, I actually preferred the vegetarian option to the fish options… before I ate fish, I was stuck eating some form of eggplant, vegetarian lasagna or moussaka. They had salmon and swordfish on the menu, but since I have salmon a lot and we had swordfish for Rosh Hashana, I thought this would be better: “Leeks, Figs
Warm Leeks Vinaigrette, Smoked Parmesan Eggplant Puree, Caramelized Fig-Ricotta Tartlet, Roasted Red Bell Peppers.” I was right, and one of the reasons it felt so special is that it’s the kind of entree I rarely order. The tart was the star, of course, with other elements on the plant that in some ways felt a little chaotic, but also complemented the sweet tart well. The tart was sweet, yes, but the pastry was so buttery and the figs so juicy, with the ricotta as a binder that I can’t even describe how good it was. To pull in the leek element, the figs were layered on top of a caramelized leek layer that was between the figs and ricotta. Of course there was balsamic to dredge it in, as well as an eggplant puree (fine but nothing special), leeks, bitter radishes, and roasted peppers. The radishes were whole, so that gave it a kind of rustic element.
My dad was the only person who wasn’t in love with his entree because he claimed it was “too Chinese/ Middle Eastern” (I kind of find it funny that this was a turnoff for him). He ordered “Lamb, Cucumber: Grilled T-Bone Lamb Chop, Yogurt Marinated Leg, Cucumber & Garbanzo Salad, Lundberg Wehani Rice, Pistachios, Spiced Jus.” He thought there was too much cumin in the preparation. Personally, the whole description screams Middle Eastern fusion to me, so I’m not sure why he ordered it.
My grandpa’s entree looked great, but relatively traditional: Guinea Hen, Potatoes
Pan-Roasted Hen Breast, Shallot Thigh Sausage, Fingerling Potato Medley, Brussels Sprouts, Foie Gras Sauce.
My mom’s second appetizer looked AMAZING! If I ate foie gras, that’s totally what I would have ordered: Foie Gras, Plums
Sautéed Duck Liver, Ancho French Toast, Orange Muscat Plums, Glazed Purple Knob Onion, Granola. What seduced me were definitely the sweet components, and now that I think about it, most of the dishes had a certain sweetness to them. I took a bit of her French toast before it got the foie gras all over it and it was incredible. The inside was almost like custard! Couldn’t taste the ancho, though.
For dessert, I really wanted to order more (I’m a glutton), but we decided to split two between all of us, which in my opinion was NOT enough! Their portions were absolutely tiny, but of course everything was still good. We ordered “Nectarine, Ricotta: Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Cheesecake Medallion, Muscat-Poached Nectarines, Red Plum Coulis, Opaline” and “Apple, Cinnamon: Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake, Cider-Poached Apple, Cinnamon Spice Chibouste, Crème Fraîche Ice Cream.”
Sadly, the portions were pitiful! They would have been fine for a person who just wanted to eat a light dessert after a big meal, but since we were splitting them, we hardly got two bites each. I wasn’t too impressed with the ricotta dessert, but it wasn’t my idea to order it. The “opaline” turned out to be what looked like tiny cubes of jello…
The apple dessert was REALLY good. The ice cream was amazing and tart, like a sophisticated and more fattening frozen yogurt. The “chibouste” was like a marshmallow.
To sum it up? I would definitely come back. There are lots of other restaurants I’ve been meaning to check out, but I’m really glad we picked North Pond to start with.