I am not a good singer. In fact, my dad often wonders how someone who played the piano for more than 10 years could be so tone deaf. Despite this knowledge, I still like to rock out on occasion. In my car, in the shower, while I'm cleaning and, undeterred by the weird looks I get from colleagues, in my office. Which is why I love American Idol auditions. Partly because I find it a relief to know I'm not the world's worst singer, but partly because I have a serious admiration for the people who audition. Because, for as hard as I may laugh at songs like "Pants on the Ground", I realize it takes a serious amount of courage to face not only Simon, Randy & Kara, but the millions of people tuning in from the comfort (and safety) of their couches. And the warm and fuzzy part of me likes to watch peoples' dreams come true.
I first heard about The Purple Pig (500 N. Michigan Ave) in early October, when I had the tremendous honor of meeting Chefs Jimmy Bannos, Sr. and Jimmy Bannos, Jr. (who partner with Scott Harris of Mia Francesca for this great concept) at the Macy's Celebrity Chef Ball. I listened enthusiastically as Executive Chef Jimmy Jr. spoke excitedly about his ideas for the restaurant and followed up on The Purple Pig's progress regularly (religiously) in anxious anticipation of opening day. This was his "American Idol" audition and I was crossing my fingers for success.
Which is probably why I felt a bit like Kara DioGuardi when I walked into The Purple Pig last Saturday night, my girls in tow(I'm not bitter enough to be Simon and I don't say "Dawg" enough to be Randy). Because, as a diner visiting a new-to-the-scene restaurant for the first time, we are all a little bit like an American Idol judge- hoping for greatness, bracing for failure, and eager to have a hand in crowning "the next big thing." Given the restaurant was just a over a week old, I was amazed at the hour and a half wait and impressed that, within just a few days, this place already had such a strong following. The small but beautiful dining room was so packed it was next to impossible to maneuver our way to the bar to order drinks, but the incredible bartender, Lucas, more than made up for our momentary discomfort. Despite the volume of guests seated at the bar, Lucas stepped out to personally greet us as he explained the wine menu that is arranged geographically. He promised us a minute of his undivided attention to ask any questions we had about the menu, and I appreciated his focus as much as his honesty.
True to her word, an hour and a half later, the hostess seated our group of eight in a tight, but cozy, table with a perfect view of the bustling kitchen. Our group of 8 had a difficult time choosing dishes on the small plates menu, so we were extremely grateful when Chef Bannos agreed to design a Chef's Tasting menu for our group. Round One was a sampling of some of the Antipasti dishes- Shaved Brussel Sprouts with Pecorino and Parmigiano Reggiano; Salt-Roasted Beets served with Whipped Goat Cheese & Pistachio Vinaigrette; Olive-Oil Poached Tuna with Greek Lima Beans; and Butternut Squash with Pumpkin Seeds, Brown Butter & Ricotta Salata. Truthfully, one dish was better than the next and it was so hard to choose a favorite. The Whipped Goat Cheese was soft and so savory; the Butternut Squash was perfectly sweet; and I could eat the Brussel Sprout Salad every day for the rest of my life. It took us, collectively, less than 5 minutes to devour all four dishes, so we were slightly embarrassed when Chef Bannos came out to describe each dish and there was no food left for him to reference.
This was the trend of the evening. Chef Bannos sent out delicious items, from his cured-in house meats (served on a platter shaped like a pig, appropriately enough) and homemade sausage, to Fried Pigs Ears served with kale, marinated cherry peppers and topped with a fried egg (again, served in a pig shaped bowl), to two of the best smears I've ever tasted in my life. The first, a whipped feta with cucumbers, was creamy and flavorful and the kitchen had a hard time keeping up with our demands for more toasted bread (though the Whitebait, deemed the "french fries of the sea" were an equally delicious compliment). The second, a Pork Neck Bone Rillette with Mostarda, Bannos credited to his grandmother, and we all stared googly-eyed at him as he explained the dish as his tribute to Sunday family dinner. He graciously visited our table after each course was served, taking a few minutes to explain each dish and answering our many questions.
As we opened our fourth bottle of wine, we dove into our final course of the evening which included Sepia with Toasted Almonds and Fried Rosemary; Charred Scallions with Romesco Sauce; and Chicken Thigh Kabobs with Fried Smashed Potatoes and Tzatziki, which was hands down my favorite. For a good minute, we held true to our promise of waiting for Chef Bannos to come out to explain the dishes before we ate, but 8 ladies 4 bottles of wine deep were too easily tempted by the fragrant aromas in front of us to wait longer than that.
Despite the long wait, tight quarters, and moderate performance of our server (we cut her a break because she was new and the restaurant was packed, but we did get the wrong bottle of wine), The Purple Pig has quickly become one of my favorite restaurants in the city. The concept is perfect; great wine, wonderful food plated to share and priced exceedingly well, and a cozy space with communal tables, Spanish tile decor and an awesome playlist are the trifecta of an excellent dining experience. If this were an American Idol audition, I'd send Chef Bannos' Purple Pig to Hollywood, 100,000,000%.