A splendid plate of octopus takes some doing. In its raw state, an octopus's edible bits—in the realm of conventional restaurant dining, we're talking its eight arms and a "skirt"—are far too rubbery and tough in texture to enjoy. A chef must invest in octopus, typically cooking it low and slow for sometimes hours before it becomes tender and yielding enough for him or her to manipulate. Cook it too long, and it dries out; don't cook it long enough, and octopus can be as forgiving as the sole of a dress shoe. But when it's done right, octopus is awesome eats. And although octopus may give restaurant kitchens a hard time at first, this protein is remarkably versatile, pairing well with lots of interesting and divergent flavors.
The textural challenges of working with octopus seem to arise from its invertebrate physiology. Categorized as a muscular hydrostat (thanks, Wikipedia!), the octopus arm is a boneless appendage solely commanded by muscle—not unlike the human tongue or the elephant's trunk. So instead of the sinewy, fibrous protein of, say, beef tenderloin, which is strung between bone, octopus meat is dense, unarticulated bulk. (If you've ever had octopus sashimi, this description probably sounds familiar.)
But good chefs love a challenge, evidenced by the amazing octopus dishes we ate recently in Chicago. Restaurants are taking an array of thoughtful approaches right now to serving up the cephalopod. Some opt to cook it sous vide, then finish it on the grill to order, leaving the texture pleasantly pliant and the flavor slightly flamed-kissed; others grill it and chill it, allowing octopus's natural chewiness to come through on the plate.
Check out the slideshow of eight octopus dishes we love in Chicago. Then let us know your favorites!