Exhibit A: The Purple Pig opened in 2009 by three successful Chicago restaurateurs who thought it right for the times to open a low-budget venture in a recently vacated FedEx–Kinko’s superstore in the Magnificent Mile.
No need to call ahead—no reservations are taken. Expect a crowd. When I arrived on Friday night, the restaurant was full to capacity and then some, with dozens of prospective customers impatiently milling about near the front doors, drinks in hand, some content, some very much not. I heard one customer complain to the hostess that he had been there already for three hours.
Why would anyone submit to such an indignity? Because of the engaging, convivial chaos of the place once you get inside. Because the waiters know exactly what to recommend about any given dish, and which great budget wines to have with them. And because each of the many hundreds of Mediterranean-inspired plates being cranked out by young chef Jimmy Bannos crackles with passion, texture and flavour. He triumphs at transforming cheap cuts of meat into something exquisite, expressed with an original culinary vocabulary (such as my brined, Brobdignagian turkey leg, confited in pork fat, roasted crisp, doused in agrodulce, and sprinkled with crispy lentils). His vegetarian dishes are just as satisfying. And not a single one costs more than $19.
The following evening in the West Loop, my dining companions and I settled in at one of the seventeen beautifully dressed tables at Exhibit B: Grace, a first restaurant from chef Curtis Duffy, who had previously toiled at Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea before enjoying a brief Michelin-starred run of his own at the Peninsula Hotel.
He evidently expects diners to admire him in action at Grace, where the only windows overlook his shimmering white $500,000 kitchen, source of $185 tasting menus—and nothing but. Ours began with some incomprehensible amuse-gueules arranged on a barrel stave. There followed a pleasant dollop of caviar with Meyer lemon, some kampachi inexplicably buried in palate-numbing flavoured ice, a 1/2 tablespoon or so of Scottish salmon, a single, miniscule slice of badly overcooked Wagyu beef, a wisp of lamb neck, and so on. Each plate was covered in mulch, as if a lawnmower had passed too close; if the greens were more exotic than grass clippings, their recurring texture was equally unwelcome.
Baffled by it all, we accepted an invitation to visit the kitchen, and discovered therein that Grace’s tweezer-toting cooks work in complete silence, in a space precisely as clinical and passionless as the food they create. Paying the $600 bill for two I thought to myself that in two nights I had just witnessed both the future and the soon-to-be forgotten past of good dining. And in this strange exposé, the future came first.
Three great meals to eat in Chicago
Rick Bayless’s Mexican Mix granola and yogurt ($5.50) at Milk & Honey
1920 W. Division St., milkandhoneycafe.com
Amuse-gueule or amuse-bouche? The more classic French term for a one-bite appetizer is amuse-gueule. But “face-pleasers” and “mouth-pleasers” are the same thing