Chicago Gourmet 2010 | Bleader

Chicago Gourmet 2010


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Chefs grilling at the Hamburger Hop
  • Chefs grilling at the Hamburger Hop
Entering the tent on the Harris Theater Rooftop where the Hamburger Hop—Chicago Gourmet’s kickoff event this year—was held on Friday, I had flashbacks to the gala opening event two years ago where I spent the evening waiting in endless lines for small bites of food and chasing down servers bearing hors d’oeuvres, trying to ward off hunger pangs. This time, though, the space was packed with 15 restaurants each serving tasting portions of a different hamburger, which would be judged at the end of the night by a panel of judges including Barbara Fairchild, Thomas Keller, and Jean Luc Naret. Lack of food would not be a problem here, though hamburger fatigue might. And as the smoke from 15 industrial-size grills filled the tent, I prayed I wouldn’t asphyxiate.

Palmer Places serving station
  • Palmer Place's serving station
I was a little skeptical of the premise—I love hamburgers, but couldn’t imagine wanting more after the first six or eight tastes. Most restaurants were grilling full-sized burgers and then cutting them into quarters for serving; a few were doing sliders. I calculated that eating a quarter of each of 15 burgers would be the equivalent of close to four full-size burgers, and resolved to pace myself. Still, the first burger I tried—Wagyu beef with Cambozola cheese, bacon, and caramelized onion, from chef Carol Wallack at Sola—was so good that I practically inhaled the entire tasting portion, along with the heirloom tomato salad it was served with.

After that first one I did manage to slow down, sharing tastes with two friends, and most everything I tried was excellent. Favorites included Palmer Place (a blend of Wagyu beef and sirloin with aged cheddar, braised "drunken onions," bacon, and smoked red pepper picante ketchup), English (a lamb burger with feta, cucumber, mint, and cilantro), Seasons (bison with truffle cheese and "lobster love" served with a bourbon-cherry-chocolate malt), NoMi (Wagyu beef with bacon, pickled garlic and shallots, Comte cheese, and smoked tomato aioli) and Edzo's (a more traditional burger with cheddar, barbecued onions, bacon, and pickle). But even though I only took a bite or two of each, by about burger #10 the idea of tasting yet another one was becoming significantly less appealing, and trying #15 felt like a chore.

Several of the burgers we tasted
  • Several of the burgers we tasted
Every attendee got one vote for the people's choice award, and I was tempted to give mine to one of the last burgers I tried, from 437 Rush (with onion and quince apple chutney, Formagella cheese, and bacon). I couldn't get the Sola burger out of my head, though. Had I liked it so much just because I was hungry when I tried it? By that point I didn't even want to smell another burger, much less eat one, but there was only one way to find out. I got another quarter burger from Sola and took a bite. Then I took another. It got my vote.

Not that it mattered much, of course, being one vote among hundreds. The people's choice award went to Seasons and the judges panel chose NoMi—both very worthy recipients. And I went home to try to sleep off the queasy feeling that comes from consuming massive amounts of hamburger (and awoke the next morning still reeking of smoke, feeling like I'd swallowed a charcoal briquette).

Chicago Gourmet
  • Chicago Gourmet
The sold-out Chicago Gourmet proper took place Saturday and Sunday in Millennium Park, and I arrived Saturday afternoon to long lines at every food stall. Memories of the first Chicago Gourmet again came flooding back, but unlike that inaugural event there was plenty of food here—there were just a lot of people as well. Lines generally moved pretty fast, except at Tasting Pavilion IV, where there was just one for all five restaurants. One woman I talked to there said she'd been in line for 40 minutes, and she was only about two thirds of the way to the front. Most people in the less epic lines seemed pretty cheerful about waiting, though—I'd bet the abundant wine and other spirits helped with that.

I didn't try many of the offerings because I wasn't personally much in the mood for waiting (and was still kind of full from the burgers the night before), but everything I did taste was top-notch, including silky beef-liver mousse with grape mostarda from Vie, spicy kabocha squash soup with shrimp and bacon from Aja, and chicken galantine on a buttermilk biscuit with maple mustard from Old Town Social. I also checked out the Grand Cru wine tasting, which even at $175 on top of the regular entry fee was sold out and completely packed. There was some good wine there, though, including Joseph Phelps Insignia, Silver Oak cabernet sauvignon, Chalk Hill Estate Red, and champagnes from Domaine Chandon, Dom Perignon, Krug, and others. It was certainly a step up from the Sutter Home they'd served at the Hamburger Hop.

The Illinois Restaurant Association, which organizes Chicago Gourmet, got a lot right this year—especially compared with the first year of the event. I actually preferred last year's, though: there was plenty of food and not nearly as many people, so lines were much shorter. I've been reading that attendance was up 25 percent from last year but haven't been able to get any exact numbers yet from the IRA; it seemed about twice as crowded as last year to me. Most people didn't seem to mind the lines too much, but I did overhear one person wondering aloud to a friend: "Isn't there a stand that has a hot dog I can just grab?"


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