The wacky spring weather Chicago has experienced over the past two months has at least one silvery lining: the arrival of the strawberry sundae ($10) at Nightwood. Slagel Farms, which supplies much of Nightwood's meat, delivered a small shipment of first-of-the-season strawberries from one of their neighboring farms. Pastry chef Matthew Rice jumped at the chance to transform simple berries into his strawberry sundae—an elegant, balanced version of a childhood favorite.
The sundae begins with scoops of buttermilk-strawberry and vanilla ice cream, plus a generous dollop of rich Kilgus cream that coats your mouth and reminds you just how different real whipped cream tastes from its manufactured, canned counterparts. A delicate chiffon cake tops the sundae, dusted with a fresh snowfall of powdered sugar. The chiffon cake manages not to harden as so many other cakes do when put in contact with ice cream. Pastry chef Rice says that using olive oil in the cake rather than butter means it remains light and fluffy even when chilled.
But both the cake and the ice cream are mere supporting actors for the dish's true star: The much-anticipated spring strawberries. Mercifully devoid of any of the white, flavorless filler that plagues some store-bought berries, these are juicy and deep red throughout. Rice tosses them in a strawberry juice reduction to which he adds just a touch of anise flavor. The licorice taste is imperceptible, but balances out the sweetness of the berries to keep the dish light rather than overly sugary. Eaten together, all the elements of the sundae combine in a delightfully nostalgic yet certainly grown-up bite that has me ready for more soft spring fruit in the months ahead. Unfortunately, like the warm weather we enjoyed a few weeks ago, once the strawberries run out at Nightwood, only Mother Nature can say when they'll return.