Venturing into unknown territory when it comes to dining usually gives me a thrill. But when my companions consist of people with varying degrees of culinary curiosity, I try to exercise caution.
Chicago’s Nightwood is the restaurant of choice for dinner with eight co-workers. Nightwood is situated in Pilsen, a neighborhood not exactly known to tourists. But the restaurant’s online description is appealing: “with the best farmers and craftspeople of the Midwest, we cook with bold simplicity and care.” The menu features a mix of creative fare for the adventurous eaters in our group, as well as a decadent-sounding cheeseburger or enticing wood-grilled chicken.
Nightwood’s decor feels like a cabin in the woods, but with a regulated temperature. We’ve been sitting in a meeting all day, so feeling like we are outside is a plus. Much of the food here is grilled over an open flame, further perpetuating the outdoor experience.
I begin the evening with a cocktail called “Problems Faced When Traveling.” This features a blend of tequila, campari, yellow chartreuse, smoked salt, grapefruit, and lime. Since I had my share of problems getting to Chicago on a previous work-related trip, I am compelled to order this aptly titled and seriously potent drink.
Grilled baby octopus with broken mole, peanuts, and compressed cucumber appeals to my wild side. I set aside a fear of grit or over-chewiness, and am rewarded with a perfectly-cooked, spicy, peanutty dish that wows me.
Any entree will be a hard act to follow. Wood-grilled lake trout, bok choy, and cucumber with a charred ginger vinaigrette is the best possible second act. It’s light and refreshing, but at the same time full of smoky flavor.
Enticing ice cream flavors enhance desserts showcasing local ingredients. The best part of dining with a large group? Sharing multiple desserts. Flourless chocolate cake with bittersweet chocolate sauce, cherries, malted vanilla ice cream, and potato chips on top is flawless. Likewise for chocolate chip and banana bread pudding with toasted marshmallow fluff and salted caramel ice cream. I keep the honey goat cheese ice cream all to myself.
It’s been weeks since I dined at Nightwood, but memories of the food still linger. In fact, every time I see a photo of an octopus dish on Twitter or Instagram – which is actually more often than one might think- I yearn for another bite of the grilled baby octopus.
Nightwood’s location is a bit out of the way from where we are staying in downtown Chicago. But the focus on simple but creatively prepared dishes, showcasing the freshest local ingredients, makes it well worth the hike.
Nightwood, 2119 S. Halsted Street, Chicago