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Sold-Out Chicago Gourmet 2011 a Success

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Eater Chicago correspondent David Hammond braved the masses at Chicago Gourmet to deliver this report.

[Photo: David Hammond]

Since the first Chicago Gourmet in 2008, this annual eating event has been on a clear upward trajectory, building on past successes, learning from failures, and fine-tuning what is now an exceptional celebration of Chicago food and the chefs who make it.

The first year had much booze, too little food, and few places to eat or sit. In following years, organizers brought in more food to balance the wine, added seating, and tweaked some more. The result is an excellent food event, though a rather expensive one: $75 for Hamburger Hop; $150 for one day ($90 if you bought tix in May), and $175 for the Grand Cru wine tasting. Nonetheless, Chicago Gourmet 2011 was a sell-out.

According to Illinois Restaurant Association president Sheila O’Grady this year’s enhancements included “a new layout, with two entrances, more chefs and pavilions.” To help people get the grub, food carts have been introduced, as well as carrying trays (with wine glass holders) and a system that O’Grady explained enables people “to be in one line and go through three or four chefs in each pavilion.”

Also new this year was a specially developed iPhone app that O’Grady says helped organizers “eliminate the program book, which was not a very green; now, we use much less paper.” For those without an iPhone, there were small maps.

The Hamburger Hop:
The kick-off Hamburger Hop became a festival feature in 2010. This year, Bon Appetit sponsored the event, which was co-hosted by restaurant and drinks editor Andrew Knowlton and Bon App chef de cuisine Mary Nolan and drew nearly 800 people.

Judges including Kevin Pang (Chicago Tribune) and Audarshia Townsend (312 Dining Diva) ate every (or at least some of every) one of 17 burgers and picked a Judge’s Choice. This year, Bandera exec chef Colleen McHugh's "Bandera Burger" made of chuck, hickory sauce, Ding's pickled relish, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, cabbage, mayonnaise and mustard on a homemade poppy seed bun took the judges' choice. In some ways, this could have been the most classic-tasting burger of the night, a blend of sweet, sour and tangy.

The People’s Choice went to Steven Lawhorn of Palmer’s Place whose "Benchmark Burger” was a plump patty of short rib, brisket and prime chuck with pepper-cured Neuske's Bacon, aged Wisconsin cheddar, heirloom tomato, crisply pickle slaw, roasted red pepper remoulade and smoked ketchup on an onion brioche. The rib meat added a lot of richness, balanced by the smokiness of the condiments.

The Main Event:
Both days of Chicago Gourmet started threateningly, with dark clouds and a little rain?but the Gods of Chow smiled upon us, and each day eventually broke into cool blue and sunlight, perfect weather for eating outside (though, admittedly, this was not the day for heels, which sunk into the wet ground; we saw one woman walking around with tote bags tied to her feet to keep from sinking into the muck).

“It’s really all about the seminars,” O’Grady had told me, and there was a good range of offerings. From the safe side of the spectrum, TV personality Ted Allen showed people how to do up a skirt steak, and for the edgier, Stephanie Izard cooked up a pig head.

Still, though many of these seminars seemed close to capacity, it’s not easy to sit and listen to even a great chef when you know there’s incredible food just waiting on the fairgrounds.

Because pavilions housed three or four chefs, there seemed to be somewhat longer lines than last year, but they moved remarkably quickly and moved people in and out in about five minutes. In some cases, chefs or runners would hustle from behind the counter to serve plates to people while they waited. The new trays, with holders for wine, came in very handy when loading up multiple items.

Most of the plates held one or two bites at most, which is a good thing, because at these events you want a lot of tastes (Hamburger Hop featured burgers that were quartered, but even 25 percent of these big boys was a little too much; it seems there must have been a lot of waste, but perhaps there’s no way to avoid that).

About the food, there were a few misses, but overall the preparations were thoughtful and complex, and it’s always cool to see the A team of Chicago’s chefdom right there, cooking the food, dressing the plates, ready to chat.

Some unforgettable dishes:

· Aria’s mussels and panna cotta with fruit, a pleasant blend of seafood and sweetness. Chef Beverly Kim Clark was there both Saturday and Sunday, out front and looking beautiful, which is just fine, and fortunately she had the food to back up the glamor.
· Patricio Sandoval’s pulled pork tacos really stood out, in part because Sandoval delivered them to us as we stood in line and so we had the luxury of concentrating upon them more than if we’d just grabbed the taco as one of three plates in the pavilion and gobbled it all down together.
· For vegetarians who might otherwise have a tough time finding something to love, the Klug Farm peach shooter from Uncommon Ground was a refreshing blast of fruit that we found the perfect intermezzo between courses of animal protein.
· Myron and Phil’s shrimp de jonghe held up surprisingly well, and this Chicago original was served on a spoon which was a godsend (the trays helped, but balancing several plates became challenging as the day wore on, if you know what we mean).

Chefs want to please diners, of course, but when you have so many egos performing in one space, you have to believe there’s a little bit of competition that inspires everyone to up their game and show their peers what they can do.

Grand Cru Tasting:
This tasting of premium wines has been expanded from 90 to 120 minutes, a big help for those of us who like to take our time with a glass. And about glasses, the wines at this event were suitably served in crystal.

Lettuce Entertain You's master sommelier Alpana Singh was at the Grand Cru on Saturday afternoon, and so we asked her about her favorite sip at the event. She directed us to Clos Apalta 2008 from Chile, a big mouthful but very soft, fruit-filled and classy.

We also had a Robert Mondavi 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve that was superb, a woodsy, herbal nose and a clean mineral finish.

With about a half dozen or so champagnes, one could have focused just on those, and we especially liked the Laurent Perrier rosé that was light and fruity with a delicate floral flavor and lot more oomph than a straight-up rosé.

This year, the timing of the Grand Cru had been moved from the end of the day to the middle of the afternoon, which means that after drinking some (okay, maybe a little bit more than some), people were able to grab a bit of chow to ballast their bellies and even their keel before sailing home.

Aria

200 N Columbus Drive, Chicago, IL 60601

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