A "team building" dinner for 40 people may inspire images of rubber chicken dinners served banquet style, but I am pleasantly surprised with our dining experience at Merlo on Maple in Chicago. After a quick walk up a rustic staircase we find ourselves in a charming room with several small tables for six to eight. We are encouraged (ordered?) to sit with people we do not know and I find myself hopping from table to table trying to find unfamiliar faces. The problem with being in PR is that you tend to know everyone and indeed, I find myself at a table of eight, most of whom I have met before tonight. Oh well. The small table size encourages lively conversation and the generous wine pours are simply insurance.
We are served an antipasto of insalta mista or traditional baby greens with veggies and a vinegrette. The salad arrives beautifully composed with julienne slices of celery (I don't think I've ever seen celery julienned?), cherry tomatoes and thin slices of mushrooms that have been marinated in the vinagrette. The mushrooms are juicy and earthy, the greens are bitter and crisp and the celery tastes super clean and pure. Aside from the cherry tomatoes (I have an aversion to raw tomatoes in any form), I devour the salad as well as several of the housemade rosemary-flecked crackers our table keeps passing around.
Our primi course is a tasting of pasta (assagio di pasta to be exact). A plate with two nice mounds of freshly made pasta appear in front of me. The first is a tortellini stuffed with ricotta di pecora and tossed with butter and sage. The pasta is tender, but toothsome and the fresh ricotta filling comforts me immediately. The fresh sage leaves and buttery sauce are truly frosting on the cake. Unnecessary, but darn I'm glad they're there! The second pasta is a tagliatelle with a Bolognese meat ragu said to "follow the recipe of downtown Bologna." I used to think meat ragu was meat ragu, until I worked a demo kitchen in Aspen with a chef who made homemade Bolognese sauce. And then I fell in love...with the ragu, not the chef. Her Bolognese uses coarsely ground veal, beef and pork with more than a fair amount of finely-ground chicken liver. Also a touch of heavy cream at the end, which is hard to detect in the meaty red sauce.
In any case, Merlo's Bolognese is very reminiscent of the one I became enamored with in Aspen. More meaty than tomatoey, scented with wine but not overpowered by alcohol, thick and rich and clinging to each strand of tagliatelle. Bestill my beating heart!
At this point the room has become unnaturally quiet and we quickly realize the entire group is experiencing pasta nirvana simultaneously. My tablemates' eyes are literally rolling back in the sockets so we decide to ask the waiter, Sam from Verona, for a second serving that we all can share. Sam is flattered and a flatterer all at once and promises to bring us a pasta dish that will make the Bolognese seem average.
So while the other tables are devouring their secondo course, my table enjoys a second primi...hmmmm, not sure if I've got the numbers right on that one? Sam brings us a second plate of Bolognese and a plate with something new. He offers a prize to the first one who can identify what the new pasta is. We all dive in--forget the individual plates, we just knife and fork our way in to the main plate. There's eye rolling, sighs and even some slight moaning. Second helpings and then I guess, "Tagliatelle with porcini, veal, white truffle and parmesana?" I was right on the money and Sam assures me there will be a prize later. I blush, but secretly pray it's more pasta or at least the recipe.
Stuffed from all our pasta porn, but needing to keep up with the other tables, we adjust for the secondo course. There are four entrees to choose from: a slow-roasted lamb shank; veal tenderloin stuffed with prosciutto and Parmesan; sea bass with zucchini souffle; and a black pepper pan-seared tuna filet over arugula. I go with the tuna and am thrilled to see it's not over-peppered and that the arugula still has some bite to it. Is there anything worse than overcooked greens?
I am only able to eat a few bites of the tuna because I'm just spent from the pasta. It's ruined me for the rest of the meal. Hell, it was the meal.
Dolce (dessert) is served family style at the tables and we've all clearly bonded by now. A dessert wine is served with a vanilla bean panna (flecked with lovely vanilla beans) and a dark chocolate molten cake. Sam brings my prize...a double black sambucca with three espresso beans. I take a bite of the panna cotta and a bite of the chocolate cake, declare the panna cotta the clear winner and down my sambucca. I have a long day tomorrow at the trade show and I am about to enter a wine-induced, carb-enhanced coma. Dreams of Merlo on Maple are sure to follow.