Poet Carl Sandburg bestowed the nickname “hog butcher for the world” upon the great city of Chicago at a time when the city was the epicenter for meatpacking in the United States. Companies such as Oscar Mayer, Swift and Armour operated large plants in the city, employing hundreds of residents. Unfortunately, Chicago’s streets became frequently overcrowded with pigs and cattle being herded through the streets to the plants. Ultimately the largest companies banded together in 1865 to build the Union Stock Yards next to the railroad tracks. Henceforth animals were ferried to the plants by train instead of through city streets.
The 1970 closure of the Union Stockyards brought an end to the time when Chicago was nicknamed the “hog butcher for the world.” Perhaps if Sandburg were alive today, he might be inspired to write about the rebirth of the presence of the pig in Chicago. More specifically, he might write about one particular Purple Pig, a restaurant recognized by Bon Appetit as one of America’s top ten best new restaurants in 2010. In his inimitable fashion, Sandburg could explain the genesis of the restaurant’s name being from a legend that if a pig drinks red wine, it will turn purple.
When waxing poetic about the Purple Pig, Sandburg would have to exclude another sobriquet he penned for Chicago. “City of big shoulders” isn’t sufficient enough to describe the Purple Pig’s holistic use of the pig in its menu. The restaurant literally serves the entire pig—from snout to tail. A quick perusal of the menu bears this out. There you’ll find house-cured lardo, pork neck bone, pig’s ear, Balsamic braised pig’s tails, morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), pork jowls, pork sweetbreads, pork blade steak and a variety of cured pork meats. It’s a pulchritudinous pigfest. It’s porcine perfection.
The Purple Pig is located in Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, the downtown neighborhood which houses more than three-million square feet of restaurants, hotels, retail stores and museums. On the intersection of North Michigan and Illinois Avenues, the Purple Pig is a boisterous, high-energy milieu with a decidedly youthful customer demographic. The restaurant is perpetually crowded. Much of the seating is in communal tables where you’ll get to know your neighbors. An L-shaped bar with extensive (but accessible) wine and beer offerings is among the choice seating because of its unobstructed view of a capacious open kitchen, but if the weather allows, you can’t beat al fresco dining on the patio.
The Purple Pig doesn’t currently entertain reservations and waits can be half an hour or longer. It’s worth the wait, especially if you wish to be seated on the patio. When you’re seated–likely in a communal table–you’ll quickly learn there are no strangers at the Purple Pig. There’s just friends who haven’t yet met. You’ll find your tableside neighbors are more than willing to recommend their favorites. The wait staff is encyclopedic in its knowledge of the menu to the point they can tell you about each ingredient used to create the fabulous feast on which you’re about to indulge.
You can summarize the restaurant’s menu in four words: “Cheese, Swine and Wine.” Most, but not all, of the featured fare will be comprised, at least in part, of pig parts complemented by a fromage fanatic’s fantasy of cheeses. The Purple Pig is a bona fide Charcuterie (a term referring to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie) with many of the cured meats offered being proudly made in-house. The menu is inspired. It also calls for a certain level of audacity among non-gastronomes. We were surprised at how “daring” other guests were in ordering foods many would consider “yucky” and strange.
Similar to Spanish-style tapas restaurants, the concept behind the Purple Pig is for diners to share small plates with dining companions, ergo more variety. While most of our neighbors ordered two plates per person, our table of three–Bill Resnik, Paul Fleissner and me–shared nearly twenty plates in two visits. For every item we ordered, there were several we wanted to try. The biggest surprise wasn’t our capacity to eat so much, but the fact that none of us were bankrupted by the bill of fare. In fact, we were surprised at how reasonable costs were.
The menu is segmented into nine sections: Antipasti, Smears (spreadable items served with toasted bread), Fried Items, Panini, Cured Meats, Cheese, Salad, A La Plancha, Etc. and Dolci. Each section of the menu lists a number of dishes. The A La Plancha, Etc. tended to be the highest priced and the ones which most closely resemble full entrees instead of small dishes. The menu isn’t exclusively pork-based. You’ll also find mussels, chicken, turkey, rabbit, sardines and more.
From the Antipasti menu, one of our favorites is the Salt-Roasted Beets with Whipped Goat Cheese & Pistachio Vinaigrette. This is roasted beets living up to their potential. This is roasted beets combined with ingredients which complement each other very well. The salt, a large crystalline variety, bring out the sweetness of the beets without overwhelming them. The beets are tender while the pistachios were wonderfully buttery and crunchy. The goat cheese is rich, thick and creamy while the vinaigrette added the acidity that balanced other flavors while keeping the salad fresh and vibrant.
Also from the Antipasti menu are Braised Baby Artichokes, Fingerling Potatoes, Asiago & Salami Toscana, an ingredient combination which probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. The “binding” which puts it all together deliciously is the sharp, but semi-sweet Asiago cheese which proves to be an excellent counterpoint for the “summery” flavor of the artichokes, the robust flavor of the Salami Toscana and the savory-sweet flavor of the fingerling potatoes. The biggest surprise to me was the freshness of the braised baby artichokes which were as good, if not better, than the artichokes I’ve had recently in California.
Several years ago my friend and fellow gastronome Sandy Driscoll introduced me to burrata, a rich, creamy ball-shaped cheese with an interior akin to soft, stringy curd and fresh cream. It’s been an addiction ever since so an Antipasti dish of Burrata Pugliese with Arugula, Marcona Almonds, Sour Cherries, Popcorn and Maraschino is a no-brainer. The burrata shines, but so do the sour cherries and maraschino which prove a perfect foil for the peppery flavor of the arugula. This is a plate-licking good dish.
From the Fried Items section of the menu, comes the Eggplant Parmesan Balls, six bite-sized balls of gooey, cheesy meets crunchy deliciousness. While they might resemble the de rigueur fried mozzarella served at many Italian restaurants, these are several orders of magnitude better. The cheese is melted, but not molten so you probably won’t burn the roof of your mouth. Nor is the cheese so stringy that you can stretch it around the block. The parmesan balls are served in a thin tomato sauce.
One Fried Items dish which probably qualifies as an acquired taste is White Sardines with Capers. Sardines have a pronounced “fishy” taste (think anchovies, only stronger). Perhaps because sardines, even the more sublime white sardines, are so fishy tasting, the Purple Pig prepares them with plenty of capers. The capers lend a sharp, tangy and slightly salty taste. If you like sardines on their own, you’ll be very happy with these fried three-inch beauties. Just make sure to masticate them vigorously because the sardine, spine and all, is fried intact.
The Panini menu lists only three sandwiches, but if the one we had is any indication, the Purple Pig would be an outstanding restaurant if it focused solely on sandwiches. Our panini was engorged with slow-roasted ham, Camorza cheese, pickled portobello and sun-dried tomatoes. Scamorza is a cow’s milk spun cheese, belonging to the same family as mozzarella and provolone. It’s perfectly melted on this panini par excellence and it complements the slow-roasted ham very well. The pickled portobello and sun-dried tomatoes are a nice foil with acidity and tanginess.
The Cured Meats section of the menu is a veritable smorgasbord of cured meats from throughout the pig. Though you can order meats individually, your best bet is the Pig Platter, an assortment of cured meats, some of which are made in-house. All eyes on the table will train on the platter on which the meats arrive. It’s a pinkish-reddish treasure trove of thinly sliced pork and an exemplar as to why I will never become a vegan. There are some stand-outs on the Pig Platter and no one meat grades any less than excellent. Some, such as the Prosciutto Di San Daniele are prepared with such high and exacting standards that no prosciutto meeting those standards can legally call itself Di San Daniele.
The Lingua Agrodolce, literally sweet and sour tongue, is one of the stand-outs. Resembling a smaller cut of Spam (in appearance only), it will delight you with its rich flavors and the interplay of how they contrast on your taste buds. The Catalonian Fuet (a word which means “whip”), from the Catalan region of Spain, is whisper thin, dry cured pork meat sausage with a salty, dry flavor. The thinly cut Serrano ham is wonderfully marbled dry-cured ham with a salty flavor. The Cacciatorini is a well-seasoned pork with a great depth of flavors; it’s among the most addictive of all dry-cured sausages. The Coppa is a flavorful combination of meat and fat, heady from the aromatic spices and herbs in which is it cured. Salami Loma is literally “head salami,” a pungent, spicy salami cut into thin slices. Tartufo is a thin-sliced salami with a delicate, earthy aroma. I’ve only explained what they are; you’ll have to experience them for yourselves to taste how wonderful they are.
The Smears section of the menu proved to be our favorite, not for the sheer numbers of plates listed, but for the visceral flavors provided. This is the section of the menu which separates the professionals from the amateurs. It’s where you might test your own mettle. Smears are served with toasted bread which they are meant to be spread onto or top. There are eleven smears on the menu. Among the ones we forwent were one made with foie gras and membrillo and another crafted with Taramasolata, the poor-man’s caviar.
We didn’t know what to expect when ordering the house-cured Lardo Iberico. Made from 100% acorn-fed pork back fat in Spain, we frankly expected something akin to pork belly. Instead, we were treated to four slices of toasted bread topped with a sheer, almost transparent “sheet” of lardo. It resembles “melted” fat but with a flavor rivaling that of duck fat. Despite the waifishly thin sheet, the flavor is very pronounced. It’s salty and fatty with a melt-in-your mouth quality. The toasted bread had black edges and was toasted to a greater extent than any of the other smears we sampled.
The one Smear we all agreed was most transformative was the roasted bone marrow with herbs. It’s a life-altering dish, the only item we had during both our visits to the Purple Pig. Bone marrow is one of Anthony Bourdain’s very favorite things to eat in the entire world. Now it’s mine, too…and it shouldn’t come as a surprise. My favorite Vietnamese phos are replete with floating marrow. Henceforth, I’ll forever think twice when considering how to dispose of a marrow-filled bone.
The roast bone marrow is meant to be scooped out with tiny spoons and slathered onto toasted bread then sprinkled with sea salt. I couldn’t bring myself to adding capers (which I love) or any of the complementary herbs. Bone marrow is rich, buttery and delicious with a depth of flavor few items achieve. It inherits a beef-broth flavor from its host animal. Its gelatinous texture may be a bit off-putting to some people, but true gastronomes haven’t lived until they’ve had roasted bone marrow (and sweet breads, but that’s another story).
The third, but just slightly less wonderful Smear, we enjoyed thoroughly was pork neck bone gravy with ricotta. My mental picture was of a traditional brown gravy redolent with natural pork drippings. Instead, we got a thick red sauce (almost marinara-like) with shreds of pork neck braised for hours swimming therein. The light, fluffy ricotta resembles an island surrounded by the red sauce which has notes of heat and herbaceousness. It could be argued that the red sauce subtracted from the flavor of the braised neck bones, but that’s a nit.
Unlike the Pig Platter in which most of the meats on the menu are featured, there is no cheese platter. Instead, you order as many cheeses as you’d like to have. We opted for five and allowed our server to select four of them with a request that we receive a balance of flavors and textures. We hit a home run. The sharpest and most pungent of the cheeses was a Piquant Gorgonzola replete with blue veins signifying a long aging period. It’s a breath-wrecking cheese to say the least. Another sharp, pungent cheese is the Blu Di Bufala, a rare aged buffalo blue cheese. This is a flavor which lingers on your taste buds and on your memories.
The Big Ed’s cheese, made from raw cow’s milk ripened for 120-days, has a buttery texture and is mild, but full-flavored. It’s a connoisseur’s cheese, one any fromage fanatic would be proud to serve. It will win over your heart and your appetite. The Podda has a hard rind and a dry, slightly crumbly texture and a sweet-nutty flavor resultant from having been aged for nearly an entire year. It’s a pasteurized cheese made from a combination of sheep and cow milk. My favorite of the five may well be the Delice de Bourgogne, a rich, creamy cheese with a whipped buttery texture and a pungent fragrance. Eating this cheese is said to “triple your pleasure” because cream or creme fraiche is added during the manufacturing process. The cheese is served with lightly toasted bread and a grape chutney which proves a sensational counterpoint to the savory, salty, creamy, utterly (would that be “udderly”) delicious cheeses.
The only item we ordered from the A La Planca, Etc. section of the menu was the Pork Secreto Romano Beans, Marinated Red Bell Pepper & Pickled Watermelon Rind. Pork Secreto, we were told, is thus named because not even many butchers know how to extricate it from a pig. Pork Secreto is a tender strip of pork hidden beneath a thick layer of belly fat. Secret though it may be, it doesn’t taste like the mystery meat you find at some restaurants. Some connoisseurs consider it the best part of the pig, a “poor man’s tenderloin.” The Purple Pig serves it with marinated red peppers and pickled watermelon rinds, neither of which detract from the flavor of the secreto. It’s a very tender, pinkish hued piece of heaven that’s as good as pork belly.
There’s only one way to top a meal at the Purple Pig and that’s with something from the Dolci section of the menu. That’s where the restaurant’s post-prandial sweets can be found. Our server recommended a Sicilian Iris, a round fried brioche filled with ricotta and chocolate chips and sprinkled with confectioners sugar. She earned a generous tip based on this suggestion alone. Bite into the golden disc of fried dough and you’re rewarded with rich, creamy ricotta and adult chocolate chips. It’s a sweet piece of heaven on earth.
Cheese, wine and swine. The Purple Pig excels at all three. The same year it was named one of America’s top ten new restaurants, it received the Bib Gourmand award, a Michelin Guide distinction awarded to restaurants judged to offer very good food at a very good value. For Michelin’s purposes, a “very good value” means an appetizer and entree, plus a glass of wine, will cost $40 or less. It remains consistently one of the most popular restaurants in Chicago according to Urbanspoon and has earned a “27” rating on Zagat.
“Seeing pink elephants” is a euphemism for drunken hallucinations. Savvy diners would much rather see one famous Purple Pig in a section of Chicago not too far from the “hog butcher for the world.”
THE PURPLE PIG
500 North Michigan Avenue
LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2012
1st VISIT: 4 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Sicilian Iris,