Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chicago: Mado Restaurant in Wicker Park

Taste Courtesy of Midwestern Farmers
1647 North Milwaukee Ave., Chicago
Wicker Park neighborhood
PH: 773.342.2340
Open for dinner, Tue.–Thu., 5–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5–11 p.m.; and Sun., 5–9 p.m. (closed Monday)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted


It might be lofty to compare Mado Restaurant to the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley. But if it doesn’t compare in talent, Mado definitely is similar in approach.

This tiny, contemporary restaurant on the edge of Chicago’s hip Wicker Park focuses on sustainable, farm-fresh ingredients coming from local sources. They work with their purveyors to ensure the animals are raised responsibly. This may not sound ground-breaking in the Bay Area — where almost every new restaurant touts their local sourcing and minimalist plating — but it’s near revolutionary in Chicago where portions are big and so are the appetites.

Mado ended up being the location of our graduation dinner for my nephew Chris, mostly because it was one of the few places that could take reservations for our party of 10. We basically took over the communal table in the center of the dining room, which was casually decorated with exposed red-brick walls and chalkboards with the menu and list of farmers who provided the ingredients.

I felt very comfortable with the menu, which features cured meat platters and small plates as starters. The changing menu also features salads, soups, a few pasta options and large plates (many with items cooked from the wood grill or rotisserie).

We started off with an array of small plates for the table, including the roasted beets with crème fraiche, spring onions and mint ($9). The roasted beets had a beautiful marbling effect in appearance because of the crème fraiche, and they were roasted perfectly tender.

The roasted carrots with ras el hanout goat cheese ($10) caught several of our eyes, and the plate looked beautiful with these thin, heirloom carrots glazed with cumin honey. The taste, however, was too candy-like (I tasted almost a hint of cinnamon, too) and made me think it would be best for a Christmas dinner but no other time.

My 17-year-old niece was enthralled by the fried farm egg bruschetta ($9), excited that she was going to get a piece of breakfast for dinner. My younger sister and I really enjoyed the seasonal wood-grilled ramps with spicy crème fraiche ($11). The ramps were grilled until they were softened, releasing the natural sweetness. While my sister is not a big onion person, she said she really appreciated the way the ramps were prepared.

I also ordered the arugula salad ($10) with shaved asparagus, radishes and toasted almonds in the lemon vinaigrette. Everything was fresh and the flavors were clean.

The six entrée options proved to be a tough choice for many of us at the table, but a couple went with the spit-roasted chicken ($21) with green garlic panzanella. My niece, who had ordered the chicken, thought it was too big of a serving and wished she had ordered her mother’s hanger steak ($26). (I tried a bit of the chicken and it was perfectly moist, but a few people at the table thought it was bland.)

A couple of people ordered the wood-grilled pork leg paillard ($23) with grilled ramp and faro salad. My younger sister, a bit of a foodie herself, felt the pounded thin pork slices were overcooked because it was a bit tough to eat. But she says she loved the faro salad, which had a complexity of flavors and texture.

My brother-in-law sitting next to me ordered the rainbow trout ($25) with marinated chick peas and chili oil.

I tried the most unusual item on the menu: wood-grilled beef heart ($24). I’ve never eaten beef heart, and after asking our server about what it was like (he described it similar to lamb as opposed to liver, which is what most people’s minds probably jump to when they hear heart) I decided to give it a try.

My entrée was the only one served up in a cast-iron skillet, with the slices of beef heart looking like rare meat. It was served with charred spring onions and watercress. When eating the beef heart slices, the texture did remind me of lamb meat. It was interesting how grilling the heart gave it a meaty texture, and it was quite a big heart. I think the grilling helped mask the exterior to give it a nice char flavor with the seasoning, so you don’t think that this was once beating in a cow.

We ended our dinner with a variety of desserts ($8 each), including the house special called Migas Bark (the restaurant sells it by the pound to take home). It’s basically a Spanish type of chocolate crunch bar. The chocolate pieces melted on your fingers once you touched them, which makes me think the chocolate wasn’t tempered properly. The overall flavor was a bit too bitter for me, and that’s surprising since I’m more a dark chocolate lover than milk chocolate.

My younger sister tried the chocolate coconut flan cake, which looked really pretty when it arrived at the table. The flan had a layer of chocolate, which my sister and I agreed ended up overpowering the delicate flavor of the custard.

We were also intrigued by the layered ganache cake, but that turned out to be a simple tasting yet dense yellow cake with, again, a heavy chocolate flavor.

Overall, most of us were disappointed with dessert. But I enjoyed the bulk of our meal, even though a few skeptics at the table thought it was too simple and bordering on boring (I think this is a common sentiment among some Chicagoans as well).

Coming from the Bay Area, however, I appreciated the simple preparations from the kitchen and the few creative touches, especially among the small plates. I can’t help thinking that if Alice Waters were in town, she would totally go bananas at Mado.

Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (Natural Flavors Shine)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Mado on Urbanspoon

OK, you're going to have to indulge me as I share this photo of my 3-year-old niece, Mirabelle. During this trip I got to spend time with three of my nieces, and while they're all beautiful, I just liked the lighting on this shot I took of Mirabelle during dinner. She enjoyed her own special plate of butter pasta and French bread. I think she's so funny because even at a big fancy restaurant, she can always entertain herself and often would make up stories to tell herself. So smart, huh?

Previous travels:
DBGB Kitchen and Bar (New York)
Bar Uriarte (Buenos Aires)
Downtown @HiSAM (Honolulu)


Mrs. L said...

Cute niece. But I'm having a tough time with anything Chicago right now...give me a few weeks to get over being SWEPT by them in the 3rd round and I'll be able to read about your Chicago trip with a little more objectivity! :)

Carolyn Jung said...

Your niece is adorable. And I love the name, Mirabelle. Sounds so poetic and romantic.

And good for you for setting such an example for her by ordering beef heart. I think I've had beef heart in other things, but never as one big entree like that. Interesting that it takes on the texture of lamb when cooked like that.

foodhoe said...

I don't really see the CP connection other than the use of organic/local ingredients, is it run by an alumni? I am very intrigued by your entree and that yellow cake with chocolate frosting looks delicious!