Before leaving Chicago on my Italian voyage, I decided to venture out in my city and discover the new hot spots in the culinary scene. I can honestly say that as a foodie who travels a lot, I rarely stray from my “go-to” restaurants in the city when I am home. In other words, I really don’t know much about Chicago’s current food scene, which is quite embarrassing. I recently met an amazing new friend in Chicago that loves to eat and exposed me to an unbelievable side of Chicago dining that I never knew existed: The underground food scene. I mean, how mysterious and amazing does that sound?
I couldn’t resist the temptation to check out a dinner by the ” Xmarx” culinary team when I heard “the food is amazing, the ingredients are local and fresh, it’s BYOB, you get at least 5 courses and the dining is communal”. After moving back from San Francisco 7 months ago, I have been craving a dinner exactly like this. The best part was the dinner only cost 50 bucks. I was in! My friend and I signed up for the “Friday Fish Market” dinner and I knew I would be in for a treat.
The dinner was actually not only a treat, it was a memorable culinary experience. It was located in a really simple gallery on the west side of Chicago. Nothing too fancy, but pretty hipster chique.
Everyone gathered in the back of the dining area for the first hour to get to know each other and sip on wine or beer. When it was time to sit down, it was pretty much a free for all. There were three long tables where everyone could randomly seat themselves. Food seemed to be the hot topic of conversation. My friend and I were the only people in the industry at our table. Everyone else was at the dinner because they loved food and most seemed to be underground food regulars. Let’s just say, I felt right at home.
The first course arrived and I had no idea what I was looking at. I took a bite without questioning ingredients and my eyes rolled back immediately. That bite set the tone for the rest of the meal. Layered in a simple rocks glass was a complexity texture, flavor, temperature and color that truly came together perfectly. Specifically, this was a ceviche of conch (a type of mullusk) with young coconut, radish, avocado, crushed ice cubes, coconut juice, lime juice and cactus pear ice (the bright pink foam on top).
The second course proved to be just as creative as the first. This dish of hot rice dish was the chef’s interpretation of risotto, using broken Vietnamese rice, with the addition of some unexpected ingredients. Combined in the peasant like gourmet porridge were cold Littleneck Clams, miso glazed eggplant, shaved cucumber, jalapeno and crispy linguica sausage with a drizzle of salsa verde. I would never in my wildest dreams think of putting all of those ingredients together in one dish but somehow it worked. Maybe it was the difference in temperature of the hot steaming rice and the cold clams and crisp vegetables. Or possibly it was the array of textures layered throughout. Sometimes it really doesn’t matter why a dish works, it just does.
The third course was not my favorite. It wasn’t bad or anything, it just wasn’t amazing like the first two. It was a simple preparation of a whole red mullet topped with a shaved fennel and herb salad. Overall, the fish was cooked perfectly but it lacked acidity and an “it” factor. The highlight of this dish was definitely when my friend dared me to eat the eyeball of the whole fish. I looked at her and said “your kidding, right?” She calmly said “no.” I’m not one to normally eat fish eyeballs, but in the heat of the moment surrounded by 30 foodies, I went in for the kill. I grabbed the little fish skeleton and sucked down the whole eyeball. Everyone at the table seemed very impressed. The funny part was that I tasted nothing! I swallowed the fish eyeball whole, like I was taking a pill….apparently I was supposed to eat the gelatinous part around the eye and spit out hard center. The ” correct way” sounds pretty gross to me.
The fourth course proved to be the highlight of the entire meal. Once again, the combination of ingredients were crazy but also the intricacy of seasoning blew me away. The focus of the dish was grilled baby octopus paired with blanched romaine stems, sweet Japanese melon, red onion, and toasted peanuts. All ingredients were served over the most incredible Asian tahini-soy-peanut sauce that I have ever tasted in my life! The little dot in the right corner was Indian ghost pepper, the hottest pepper in the world. I could have done without the pepper, but it served as comedic relief to see how many people in the room dove in to eat the hot pepper and burnt the crap out of their mouths. All in all, this dish pretty much made love in my mouth. I could have eaten it over and over again. It was just that good.
The last fish course was a beautiful and delicate way to end the meal. It was a perfect preparation of Skate Wing served over seared baby green bananas and oyster mushrooms with a sour cherry sauce. The way sweet, savory, tangy flavors danced over the fish were lovely. The only thing the dish was missing was a bit more acidity from the cherry sauce. Otherwise, the dish was pretty much flawless.
The moral of the story is for those that live in Chicago, there’s more than you think going in the culinary world. It took me 7 months to experience a dinner that I will never forget. I highly recommend Xmarx, http://www.xmarxchicago.com, and I know there are several other chefs doing underground dinners all over the city. You don’t have to know someone in the industry to enjoy one of these amazing meals. You just have to do some research, get on a mailing list and be open to a new experience. I’m sincerely happy that this sort of food movement exists in Chicago and I hope more people become exposed to it soon!
Check out this website to find out about more underground dinners: http://www.examiner.com/dining-in-chicago/chicago-dining-101-where-can-i-find-underground-dinners