Braving single-digit weather during a pandemic requires the right frame of mind. We want to support local restaurants, and we especially want to check out new ones, but in surroundings that are as warm and comfortable—and as protected—as possible. In the past month or so, we visited three restaurants that are new, cozy and to what extent possible, COVID-safe.
Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, seeded India with spices that fell from his arms as he flew across the subcontinent bearing a mountain of spices. That’s why, according to legend, a lot of spice grows in India. There are also lots of spices and herbs in gin—juniper is the big one, but also frequently anise, basil, cardamom—so it makes sense that gin from India would be generous with the botanicals.
At Bar Goa, you can select from several Indian gins for your cocktail; I went with a martini made with an Indian gin, Hapusa, which means juniper in Sanskrit, and this and all other botanicals in the gin are sourced from India. It is an excellent gin, and other gins on the menu also encourage exploration.
The first Indian meal I ever prepared, many years ago, was pork vindaloo. At that point, sometime in the seventies, I had enjoyed Indian food a few times but can’t say I understood it. Later, I discovered that my first homemade Indian dish was atypical of India’s larger culinary traditions: not much pork is eaten in India… except in Goa, on India’s southwestern coast. That’s because the pork-friendly Portuguese had established themselves in the region around 1510, and they brought with them some European recipes and ingredients, including pigs.
The Pork Vindaloo Sliders at Bar Goa are good finger food, perfect bites to enjoy while you rock out to the DJs on scheduled weekend evenings. This new bar-restaurant was started by the same folks behind Rooh on Randolph, and when there’s a DJ on hand, Bar Goa turns into a dance-performance space. The slightly disco atmosphere reflects what we understand to be the party vibe of Goa, which the menu informs us is “the Ibiza of India… known for Electronic Music and all-night parties.”
For dinner, we start with a green pea hummus, a large green swirl with a vortex of microgreens and spices, an easy grab-and-go party food and a good accompaniment to before-dinner drinks. This version of hummus—a combination of pureed peas and garbanzos—is served with poi bread, based on Portuguese pão, a kind of pita, unleavened and good for dipping.
Less appropriate for get-up-and-dance River North revelers, though fine for sit-down diners, is the Goan fish curry, mackerel in a spicy stew. If you avoid fishy fish, this dish is not for you: it’s a blast of fish flavor in a capsaicin-charged spice broth, served over basmati, and incredibly warming on a wintry night. This is also a dish that looks just wonderful, bright red sauce and glistening mackerel mounted with a small mountain of greens.
If you want to check out all these tastes as well as a few others, the Chef’s Feast is a good way to sample chef-selected favorites; with a bottle of wine, the Chef’s feast runs $50 per person; it’s a high-value deal.
Protocols are politely enforced by the host, who hesitantly and apologetically asks to see our vaccination cards. It is the first day of citywide regulations, and she says she is prepared for pushback, but we thank her—and the restaurant—for taking precautions. At our request, she sits us on the balcony overlooking the dining room, removed from the madding crowd but with a view of the whole place. It is comfortable, very cozy, and it feels as safe as one can feel in a restaurant in this time.
In the old Band of Bohemia space in Lincoln Square, Cultivate by Forbidden Root serves what they call “elevated brewery food.” As at Bar Goa, we select a place to sit in the dining room that is both removed and in the action. There is a row of banquettes in back, and we sit in one of these high-walled enclosures. We feel safe, though perhaps we are no safer than we would have been at the bar, where all servers are, per regulations, masked.
On a frosty winter night, it was very cozy, enhanced by the beers, which were extraordinarily food-friendly. Chef Carlos Cruz tells us that “When I first talked to Robert [Finkel, “rootmaster”] and Brian [Krajack, director of operations], they told me they wanted upscale bar food that was not too pretentious. When people think of bar food, they think fried, and we didn’t want to do a lot of fried food, but we did want to do food that paired very well with the drinks.”
This is the second location for Forbidden Root, whose beers we’ve long admired, and at this new spot, there will be foeder and kveik brews.
A foeder is an exceptionally large wooden barrel, and because it is so big, the beer that it contains takes longer to mature and develop. Because the foeder barrel holds so much, the final product provides a large quantity of very consistent drink. We like the #1 Tableau, the first foedered beer from Forbidden Root, just slightly sour and not oaky at all (predictable, given the large barrel, which makes for reduced contact between wort and wood); it is exceptionally good with food.
Kveik is not exactly a style of beer; the word “kveik” refers to a type of Norwegian yeast that’s widely used in the production of farmhouse ales. The Just Ben Spiced Kveik Ale contains chicory and kudzu flower. Such “adjuncts,” we were told by Anello Mollica of Central Waters Brewing, represent a major trend among barrel-aged beers. This kveik ale has a floral, almost candy-like flavor, which went especially well with chicken liver mousse.
Short ribs—like oxtails, once neglected, but now a more costly cut—are everywhere these days, and one of the best versions we’ve had are at Cultivate. Here, the ribs are sliced very thin, flanken-style, much like the cuts used for Korean barbecue, chili-rubbed, with good chew. The ribs come with a large mound of raw and crunchy sweet potato salad, a fine plate of food… and like many of the dishes here, engineered to work with beer.
Though the ribs are the key attraction of this dish, at least for me, Cruz is turning his focus to vegetable-forward dishes, saying, “We’d like to get around fifty percent of our menu to be vegetarian. A lot of people, when they think of vegetarian or vegan food, think bland or not overly exciting, stuff you have to chomp through, but for us, we’re adding huge, bold flavors to the vegetables.”
Forbidden Root beers are characterized, like the gin at Bar Goa, by their liberal use of botanicals, and those herby flavors play well with vegetables. “We want dining at Cultivate to be fun,” says Cruz, “and Forbidden Root beers use a lot of fun ingredients, so if there’s a beer that contains passion fruit [as does Forbidden Root’s Fruited Snoochie Boochies] or tea [as does Early Sunset Tart Golden Ale], I try to incorporate those flavors into my dishes in some way. Even in something as simple as olives, I incorporate hops into the marinade, for floral notes and earthiness.”
With locations in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, newly arrived The X Pot is the Chicago location of a luxe restaurant group that also owns several smaller, humbler restaurants in China.
On a cold, cold Chicago night, the hot pot—the signature dish at The X Pot—sounds perfect to us. Tables are outfitted with sunken induction heaters and under-the-tabletop controls that enable you to quickly heat up the broth of your choice (golden chicken, red tomato or sukiyaki). A ceramic cornucopia bearing raw vegetables and tofu skin arrives, followed by a spectacular platter of meat, a Wagyu feast of sliced A5 Wagyu ribeye cap and a chef’s choice of sliced domestic Wagyu. Each thin slice of beef is dropped into the broth for a few seconds, and you can opt for a Japanese pasteurized egg to dip the meat into before it’s had its bath in bubbling broth.
Then after the hot pot experience comes more Wagyu, as well as ribeye with foie gras, short rib (it’s everywhere), chuck and top round, all cut into small portions and arranged on a large golden steer set up at the end of the table. A server lightly grills each piece of meat on a himalayan salt block. Several sauces are provided, including a particularly good mushroom-truffle sauce that’s an ideal umami-mate for red meat. With meat this good, however, I could hardly bear to obscure the flavor with any of this or any sauce, good as they might be.
Throughout the night, robotic servers with big blue LED eyes wheel around the room. I stand in the aisle, arms akimbo, just to see what s/he/it will do, which turns out to be nothing: the robot just quietly waits until I step aside before moving ahead (I believe that if I were in the robot’s path for too long, it’s programmed to politely ask me to move out of the way). I ask two of our servers if the robots were much help, and they assure me that they are, indeed, a good help. Watching servers waiting for robots to move or slowly walking behind a robot, however, these ambling automatons seem in the way, blocking traffic, and creating bottlenecks. With time, human servers will likely be able to work with the robots more seamlessly… until such time as humanoid staff may be replaced by the robots.
Spectacle is a large part of the experience at The X Pot. While we slurp our hot pot, we watch a demonstration of face-changing, a technique used in Chinese opera in which a character spins around a mask to change his face to reflect a changing emotional state. Also provided as circuses to our bread, there is a noodle dance, in which a gentleman does a dance of the seven veils with a noodle stretched into a twirling and elastic lasso that is snipped and added to our hot pots.
Located in the Roosevelt Collection, The X Pot has a lot of business on the Friday night we are there, though as is our wont, we sit at the end of a row of tables, with no one on either side, the better to separate ourselves for safety’s sake and, not incidentally, to mess with the automatons as opportunity arose.
Before we visited The X Pot, I went to get a rapid test because I wanted to feel confident that I wouldn’t be responsible for anyone getting sick. This will now be routine for me; if we’re going out, which admittedly is much less than we did pre-pandemic, I will do my best to test which should be easier once the Biden initiative ensures we can get several home-testing kits each month.
We expect restaurants to keep us safe while we dine. To that end, I make a point of thanking hosts for checking my vaccination card: I want them to know that I support what they’re doing to keep customers safe, and I certainly don’t want restaurant staff to feel, like the host at Bar Goa, that pushback is to be expected when they’re just doing their jobs in the safest way possible. And recognizing what people in the hospitality industry are enduring due to the nonsensical, bellicose outrage of anti-vaxxers, now is an excellent time to over-tip your servers. Twenty precent is the new fifteen percent.
Bar Goa, 116 West Hubbard; Cultivate by Forbidden Root, 4710 North Ravenswood; The X Pot, 1147 South Delano Court East.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org