Maybe I'm just always looking for a foil, but I find Stephanie Izard's Girl & the Goat the most immediately accessible of Chicago's vanguard dining scene. The hip vibe, attentive table service, and thoughtfully plated dishes you expect from the upper echelon are all present—with pretension conspicuously absent from the menu. Instead of fussy preparations with even fussier names, there are dishes called Wood Oven Roasted Pig Face and Fat Bread with Smoked Duck Fat Butter. It could be that the flavors here are more resolute, or that they're painted with broader strokes. Whatever it is, Girl & the Goat is the only high profile Chicago restaurant I've invested a sizable nest egg into. And I've been twice now.
Deciding what to order at Girl & the Goat is strategy more than anything else. Not "what's the perfect combination of dishes that will vividly represent the restaurant's core values?" but more along the lines of, "how much can we order without absolutely bursting at the seams?" This way of thinking is reflected in the server's instructions, which contained a maximum amount of recommended dishes. In our case for a party of three, that number was eight. We ordered nine, just to be safe. Lest you think all of these were deep fried, fear not, our dinner balanced business with pleasure. That being said, I was continually struck throughout the meal with just how often, and how inventively, the kitchen utilized the deep fryer.
I ordered Goat Carpaccio ($13.00) not because of any deep fried longings, but because I've been dreaming about Izard's deftness with raw goat meat since I tried her goat tartare on my last visit. Imagine my surprise when the dish arrived to the table garnished with fried fingerling potato chips and fried capers. Each bite of the brightly colored dish sets off gustatory fireworks. Slivered olives and smoked trout roe explode with brine, while the capers quickly pop before melting away. The hard fried chips add aggressive crunch, while the thinly sliced raw goat laced with sweet maple vinaigrette is reminiscent of sushi grade tuna dipped in soy.
As far as shared dishes go, the Goat Empanadas ($16.00) require a bit of elbows-out work to construct the perfect bite. But oh, what a bite it is: funky, braised goat densely packed in a crispy empanada shell, crunchy, tart, kohlrabi-endive slaw, bright and briny romanesco sauce, and creamy, house made crème fraîche. I don't know if the kitchen had crab rangoon on the brain when they developed this dish, but I for one couldn't stop thinking about it.
A requisite order for the garbanzo obsessed, the Chickpea Fritters ($11.00) were the lone vegetal little Dutch boy standing against our meal's meaty deluge. Crisp-then-creamy slabs of mashed chickpeas along with individual fried chickpeas provide the dish's legume base. The stewed apple-tomatillo is an exercise in contrasts: the tomatillos still retain enough shape to lend a mellow acidity to the dish, while the sweet apples fall apart at the touch. Luscious Prairie Fruits chèvre slows each bite, forcing you to savor every flavor before it's gone.
Though I'm a well documented sucker for fried fish, I wasn't expecting the Tempura Loup de Mer Filet ($13.00) to floor me like it did. Also known as Mediterranean sea bass or branzini, the fish itself is salty like the sea, with a melting texture only slightly slowed by the thin and crispy tempura batter that encases it. A bed of umami-forward tuna crema subs for traditional tartar sauce, while the garnish of bacon sweet n' sour lends the dish an inexplicable lightness.
The Ham Frites ($7.00, though our server wisely saved us from ourselves and brought out a $3.50 manager-size portion instead) were the meal's only low point. Dipped in ham fat before being being deep fried and tossed with a dehydrated ham salt, the fries are plenty crisp, with that prized pillowy interior. However, the ham on ham preparation gilded the lily a bit too much for my taste, though a bit more actual salt may have helped to sharpen the busy, muted flavors. More acidity in the sauces (especially the cheddar beer) would also help cut the dish's richness.
Flash-fried until crisp after an extended meander through the oven, the Crisp Braised Pork Shank ($25.00), was the meal's star, just like the kitchen knew it would be. Presented with as much pomp as the place will muster, the finale had Wedding at Cana aspirations: preceded by big flavor after bold combination, it still easily stole the show. The object here, we learned, is to treat the thing like a giant buffalo wing—albeit one made of pork. Kimchee wing sauce, mounted with plenty of butter, and buttermilk sorrel dressing make perfect dips for the pizzeria breadstick style naan, which is just doughy enough to sop up whatever comes its way. Meanwhile, the butternut squash-shiitake kimchee, in the spirit of pickled sushi accoutrements, is a meaty, spicy palate cleanser. With all this talk of the garnishment, it's easy to forget the main event, though that would be a mistake: the pork is plenty tender, with a respectable amount of resistance from the bone akin to what you find in the best ribs, while the shiny, crispy crust brings the buffalo wing conceit full circle.
Other Chicago restaurants may have grander ambitions than Girl & the Goat. But there's something to be said about sticking to what you're good at and knocking it out of the park every time. There's also something to be said about the first come, first serve seating at the bar, where the full menu is available for your perusal. That's where you'll find me, napkin around my neck and buffalo pork shank for one, very soon.