I’ve always managed to miss Chicago’s Restaurant Week.
Somehow I’d never remember it until it was already occurring, and there’d be no reservations left at any of the places I wanted to go to. I’d recover by making sure to get Chef Week reservations a few weeks later, but still felt I was missing out by not experiencing both.
Well, this year, I wasn’t going to miss it. Then, I saw that iNG was on the list. Oh. My. God. Now I absolutely could not miss it.
Both Restaurant Week and Chef Week are around my birthday, as well as my sister’s, and for the last couple years we’d celebrated by taking each other out for Chef Week. Well, this year, my partner-in-crime lives in Texas, so that’s a bust. I asked a friend who is also a fan of these discount weeks, but she’s a pescatarian. iNG’s menu was set, and meat was definitely a part of it. I asked around, but couldn’t find anyone available and/or interested. I even considered going alone, but that just seemed weird.
None of the other menus compelled me enough to try them, and I figured iNG would fill up right away, so I kinda gave up. Then, a couple days after Restaurant Week actually started, I was at work and couldn’t help to think about it. I WANTED TO GO THERE. So when I got a chance, I looked it up. Holy hell, there were still reservations! I texted my friend, asked if he was interested, and we got a reservation. Score!
Now, when I’d clicked the link on the website for the Restaurant Week menu, it just brought me to the regular menu page, so I was under the impression that somehow, some way, the regular tasting menu was basically just cheaper for Restaurant Week. But, alas, this was too good to be true, and there was a shortened menu for RW. At first we ordered that, but before the first course came we talked ourselves into the whole shebang. I really did not want to leave without trying Miracle Berry. They call the experience “flavor tripping,” and I didn’t want to miss out on that!
What’s this “Miracle Berry,” you ask? It comes from an African plant, and enhances the sweetness of food. I’ll talk more about the effects in context of the meal (best meal ever, that is..) but if you want to hear about it from Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche of Moto, the flagship restaurant that later spawned iNG, check out this TED talk that they did (Miracle Berry stuff starts around 5:30).
The meal started with the menu, which was folded into an origami box. Our waiter informed us that an amuse bouche was enclosed inside: a pizza-flavored “packing peanut.” After what felt like 20 minutes trying to unfold the box without ripping it, I got to the tasty morsel inside. As a child, I always kinda wanted to eat packing peanuts. Luckily, I was smart enough not to, so I was able to live long enough to try this one. Good job, little Megg.
Already I was giddy.
(Before I get too far into this, let me point out that I was timid about bringing my dSLR since I was in a fancy dress and didn’t know if it would look weird. I’ve decided never to be timid about this in the future, because I would have loved to have good quality photos of this impeccable meal! As it was, I just used an iPhone, so I apologize for the fuzziness.)
Since it was February, the menu had a Valentine’s Day theme. First course was called “Hawaii 5-O.” There was a little square of perfectly prepared pork belly (“Wow! That’s the best little piece of pork belly I’ve ever had!”), pineapple in different forms, including carbonated (“Oh my god! I’ve always wanted to try carbonated fruit! Yes! Yes! Yes!”), a hearts of palm puree, and jalapeno. We were instructed to try the dish, and then eat the powdered Miracle Berry that was before us. Then we were to wait about 45 seconds, and taste the lemon wedge served with the powdered berry. “Eat a lemon wedge?” you say. “Are these people crazy???” Yeah, probably, but let me tell you: a lemon has never tasted so damn delicious. It was like lemonade, or lemon candy, or something! I could have eaten an entire bowl of lemons. Even knowing about the Miracle Berry’s effects ahead of time, nothing could have prepared me for the actual experience. AMAZING!
Then we were told to revisit our first course. I was astounded. The dish was totally transformed! Sweetness emerged, the acid of the pineapple was subdued, and the dish became a whole new experience. I realized I couldn’t even taste the hearts of palm before the Miracle Berry. I was incredibly happy. This. Was. Awesome!
What followed were some twists on more traditional dishes. For “Fish and Chips,” the bass was utterly divine with a nice sweetness to it (I assume from the berry). The “chips” element was made from malanga, a taro-like vegetable that apparently is usually quite bitter; here, with the effects of that magical Miracle Berry, you never would have known. The malt vinegar it was served with tasted like a rich, aged balsamic!
Then there was the “Baozi” course, which was a twist on the ol’ brat, onions, and mustard, but here with a tasty bao bun.By the end of those courses, the Miracle Berry had worn off so we could enjoy the “Steak House” course: a beef short rib (“Wow! That’s the best little piece of short rib I’ve ever had!) with a version of a wedge salad made with micro iceberg. We also enjoyed a perfectly paired Cabernet at this time, which the waiter pointed out would have tasted weird if the berry was still in effect. But then, it was time to take another hit! Yay!
Dessert arrived with many parts. First were tasty cinnamon breadsticks and vanilla cream (bread and butter, see?). Then came the next part, and it was kind of the coolest thing ever. Aptly named “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” there was a “gun” and a “victim”… here, let this video show you how it’s done!
We tried it, and then ate another spoonful of the berry. For this dish, neither me nor my friend thought this was particularly sweet after the berry. I did note that you’d definitely think the ash on the gun was the same cocoa powder of the body outline after the berry if you didn’t know better. There was a change, but it wasn’t as dramatic as before. I actually enjoyed having something less sweet, especially considering what followed.
The last dessert was red velvet cake (I must admit, I’m not a huge fan of this variety of cake, but this one was hella good). It was served with a big cream cheese sphere, made possible thanks to the wonders of liquid nitrogen. It was sprinkled with the freeze-dried blood orange. Again, there’s a great video so you can see what I mean:
The coolest part was when the sphere started to melt. I touched it with my spoon and the whole thing collapsed, but in beautiful slow motion, and in perfect form. I’m pretty sure I let out an audible “whoa-oh-oh-ohhhhh” when it happened. Then again, I was probably doing that during the entire duration of the meal.
Served with dessert was a really cool cocktail called “Kiss in the Dark.” The waiter told us, pre-Berry, that it would taste like a martini, but post-Berry, it would taste like a Manhattan. And yes, they followed through, all with a touch of absinthe. I must say, one of my favorite cocktails that turns into one of my other favorite cocktails is more than okay with me!!! Okay, one more video! It’s so worth it!
(By the way, all the dishes in the videos have slight variations from what I was actually eating, but you get the idea).
All in all, this was the experience of a lifetime for me, and the best birthday present I could ask for!!
I felt like a kid in a candy store (or, I guess, a slightly older adult in a molecular gastronomy wonderland, which is way cooler) the entire time. It’s important to note, though, that even if you’re not a huge food nerd like me, I’m willing to bet you’d still be blown away by this meal. Sure, there was a lot of novelty and theater, but every element was so perfectly executed, and the more traditional parts of the dishes were just as delicious as the innovations. Also, to address another common concern, I was really full at the end of this meal. Even my friend, who eats a lot more than me, said he couldn’t even finish the last couple bites of his dessert. Basically, you don’t have to worry about going home hungry. It was a brilliant balance of wonderment and nourishment. The best part was how much fun I had. It was definitely apparent how much passion went into the meal, and how much fun everyone involved was having too. From the creation of the menu, the execution of the dishes, to the people serving and describing each exciting plate, you could just feel (and taste!) the childlike delight.
If you’re in Chicago and you can swing it, don’t hesitate, just go! Many thanks to Chef Nate Park and everyone involved for providing this unforgettable experience!