The Purple Pig

(Chicago, IL) — Free for lunch in Chicago on a Friday afternoon, we quickly weigh our options. Sable is on the ground floor of our hotel (the chef is currently competing on Top Chef season 9). We could go out for a food truck. Many other local restaurants beckon, but only a few blocks away is a place called The Purple Pig, which has been getting some good press lately. They don’t take reservations, but we are ever-hopeful. We head out with intent of snagging a table...

He Fed:

We see the purple awning long before we get to the restaurant. I’m getting kind of excited because the online menu looks enticing. My heart sinks a little, though, when I see the line of people waiting to get in. The place is packed! Immediately after another couple, I put our names on a waiting list that seems a dozen deep. Much to my surprise, the hostess declares there is a table available and leads us to a small two-top that is in close quarters with nearby diners. I’m feeling a little cramped, but concentrate instead on the menu.

Everything looks amazing. The offerings are a combination of traditional French charcuterie and Spanish tapas, with even a little Italian flair. Meat, meat, and more meat...and some cheese in there for fun. It is nearly overwhelming, the staggering variety of dishes, so we buy time by ordering a bottle of Comte Audoin de Dampierre “Grande Cuvee” Brut Rose and a couple starters.

Juliet is keen on the Pork Fried Almonds, tossed with rosemary and garlic. It’s a smallish bowl, bits of pig clinging to the oily nuts. There are sweet garlic clove chunks stirred in, contributing to the earthy aroma of rosemary sprinkles. For my part, I instantly gravitate to the Pig’s Ear with crispy kale, banana peppers, and a fried egg on top. You heard me: Fried. Egg. On top. The ear has been sliced into small, thinly sliced shards then fried in a light batter. You pierce the egg and let the yolk seep down into the fried mixture, stirring it all up, allowing the peppers to spice each forkful. It is a silky, crunchy, caliente delight. What fun!

Instead of waning, our appetites are spurred on. There is an octopus option but after conferring with our helpful waitress, I instead select the Calamari with Fregola. It’s another smallish bowl of blanched calamari rings tossed in a salad of fregola pasta, radishes, cucumbers, and pistachios. It looks fantastic and tastes just as bright, light, and bold as it looks. I am in love, eating up every last yummy bite. I can truly say, this is one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten.

Right about this time, we notice our neighbors have ordered razor clams. Juliet blurts out, “Oh, you’ve never had razor clams!” and before I know it, I’m being offered one. I’ve had clams in dishes, but never straight off the shell before, but I bravely emulate our host, sliding it into my mouth. It’s tough to chew through, so I have to fold the whole length to get it in, then chomp away. The clam isn’t rubbery, per se, just requires some jaw muscle. I like the taste of olive oil and parsley it’s been baked in, and the clam itself is quite good. My first experience is a good one and I thank our neighbor heartily. (As it turns out, he is a chef in Toronto and ends up giving us his business card before they leave. Canada road trip?)

When Juliet finishes her Pork Neck Bone Gravy with ricotta, we decide to indulge in a cheese plate. There are over a dozen types to choose from, so we whittle it down to the Blu di Bufula, Le Chevre Noir, and Podda. They are all very good, though I have my eye on a particular dessert to cap things off: Affogato. Soft-serve peanut butter gelato with hot espresso poured on top. The coffee melts the frozen dessert until you’re spooning up chunks of gelato in an espresso broth. What’s left, you drink...and sigh.

There is so much else left on the menu that we don’t get to try, I’m a little sad. What began as a mystery ends with yet another “favorite” added to our list. I will have a difficult time not going to The Purple Pig the next time we are in the Windy City.
She Fed:

There's been fabulous buzz about The Purple Pig and when a foodie colleague (thanks Rachel B!) gave it a high recommendation, I knew we had to give it a try. Turns out, it's just a few blocks from the hotel I frequent in Chicago, which is nice given the cold temps and high winds today. We find it easily and round the corner to see...a mass of people waiting for tables. We work our way through the crowd outside to the hive of activity inside. Tables are packed, servers are artfully maneuvering around seats and bystanders. It would appear we have a long, long wait in front of us. When we tell the hostess it's just the two of us, she replies, "I can seat you now!" I'm almost too stunned to follow, but sure enough, there's a small table just to the right, waiting for us.

Our server is friendly and knowledgeable about the menu, sharing some of her favorites. We agree to start with two small plates and see where they lead. I choose the pork fried almonds with garlic while Jeremy opts for the pig's ear with crispy kale, pickled banana peppers, and fried egg. Yikers. I have to admit, I'm a little intimidated by the idea of the pig's ear and am expecting it to be too tough or sinewy to enjoy. The bottle of Cesarini Brut Rose Jeremy orders is delivered, tasted, and poured. I do love pink bubbles!

The almonds are rich and slightly chewy, having lost their crunchiness from frying in the pork fat. Intermingled with the almonds are whole cloves of fried garlic and soft rosemary nettles. It all combines to make an aromatic, almost meaty snack. The pork ears are ridiculously delicious and so much better than I imagined. First of all, it's a gorgeous little dish. The ear has been julienned into thin slivers and deep fried with kale, then tossed with the pickled peppers. It's all topped with a soft fried egg, the kind with a wiggley-jiggley yolk I yearn to achieve at home. Jeremy spears the yolk and it seeps out, dribbling everything with its bright unctuousness. And the dish isn't just beautiful, the crispy ear with the earthy kale, tart peppers, and gooey yolk make an incredibly tasty mouthful. It's damn good and we devour it quickly.

These first two small plates are so great, we order two more. The calamari with fregola, radishes, cukes, and pistachios is another winner, with calamari so tender it makes us marvel. The dish is fresh and clean—a perfect little palate cleanser. I ask our server how the pork neck gravy with ricotta is and she makes a face that says "do you even have to ask" and nods. One bite and it's my favorite dish of the meal. The gravy is luscious, with neck meat (very smiliar to the luxuriant consistency of oxtail) and dollops of fresh ricotta. It's served with charred bread that tastes like it's been schmeared with a little pork fat. I enjoy it much more than Jeremy, who finds it just a little too rich for his palate. No worries; I finish his share for him.

But a trio of cheeses isn't too rich for his palate and Jeremy orders up some. I'm beginning to fade at this point and wonder if one can actually lapse into a pork coma? Both tables on either side of us order and recommend dessert. Jeremy has an affogato with peanut butter ice cream. I order the "iris", a ricotta and chocolate chip filled brioche. The iris is quite good, but the affogato is amazing. Coffee and peanut butter, who knew?

Our two hour luncheon was a truly convivial adventure, chatting with neighboring tables and even sharing dishes with one. (Jeremy had his first razor clam!) I've been daydreaming about this experience for days and am already looking forward to a return trip to The Purple Pig.

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