18 August 2011

Big & Little's, Chicago – Restaurant Review

It seems my blog posts these days have mostly been all about Chicago. But I can't really help it – Chicago is an amazing city to eat in, and there's just so much stuff from my recent visit that I'd like to share. One such place is this little hidden gem of restaurant called Big & Little's.

The fact that I visited Big & Little's no less than three times during my stay in Chicago should say it all. It was, without doubt one of the best dining experiences I had in the city, and is testament to the fact that sometimes (OK, most of the time) it is the simplest food done well that gives the greatest pleasure.

This tiny 12-seat hole-in-the-wall is located in a small strip of no-man's land in Chicago's Near North neighbourhood. Running the place is "Big" Gary Strauss and "Little" Tony D'Alessandro. The latter might be familiar to you from the Hell's Kitchen TV show, where he was eliminated by the "craggy-faced shouty one" for his apparent lack of skill in cooking fish. So it's pretty ironic (and possibly a one-fingered salute to "El Gordo") that most of Big & Little's menu focuses on seafood. And do you know what? It's simply magnificent!

The menu at Big & Little's is quite straightforward and very reasonably priced, featuring things like seafood tacos, tostadas, burgers, hot dogs, po' boys, and fries. But don't let this simplicity deceive you. This isn't just another fast food take-out joint. Everything here is spankingly fresh and made to order right in front of your eyes, and it's all utterly delicious.

A crab tostada comprised of large pieces of freshly cracked snow crab tossed in a mix of lime, mayo and hot sauce and sat on a crisp deep-fried tortilla. The crab was soft, sweet and sparklingly fresh; its light dressing served to bind it together and give it some zinginess, while shredded red cabbage and a touch of spring onion gave some crisp lightness. I adored this dish, and at $6 it was a bargain.

A mahi-mahi taco ($4.50) was a double layer of soft grilled corn tortillas topped with a surprisingly large fillet of said fish, shredded lettuce, red cabbage and more of Big & Little's mayo/lime/hot sauce mix. It was also wonderfully fresh with very balanced flavours.

Next, perhaps the most wickedly obscene dish I've ever had. Fresh, hand-cut fries were blanched then fried in canola oil before Gary extravagantly tossed them with salt in a large metal bowl. Over the fries were placed two glistening pieces of seared foie gras. However, the pièce de résistance, the crowning glory, the dénouement comes when the pan juices from the foie gras are gently drizzled over the hot fries. A juxtaposition of the luxurious and the common – hot crisp fries, with an unusually deep potato taste, smothered with ambrosial fatty foie gras goodness. Oh, lordy! At $14 these may not be the cheapest fries you will have, but I guarantee you they will be the best. I regularly have warm fuzzy dreams about this dish.

Although Big & Little's focuses on seafood, I also ordered what would turn out to be one of the best cheeseburgers I've had in a long time. Hand formed patties of freshly-ground chuck steak are grilled to order and served in a toasted sesame bun with lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup and mustard ($6). For an additional 50¢ I upgraded the standard offering of American cheese to the fiendishly good Merkts cheddar, lending a sharp cheesy tang to the proceedings. You also have the option of adding bacon or fried egg to your burger, but I'll let my arteries recover before attempting that one. The only slip-up was that I had asked for the burger to be cooked medium, but it arriving looking distinctly medium-well. In the end this didn't really matter, as the patty was just so tender, leaving me with meat juices and melted cheese dribbling down my chin.
Truffle fries ($3.50) were made the same way as the foie gras version, except instead of foie gras the fries had been doused with a good slug of truffle oil. This gave the fries a wonderful, über-umami hit as well as that intoxicating stink of truffle. These fries could have done with a bit more cooking, though, as they weren't as crispy as the ones I tried previously.
A fried shrimp taco ($4) consisted of pieces of battered deep-fried shrimp served on a double corn tortilla and topped with lettuce, tomatoes and the (by now) famous house mayo/lime/hot sauce dressing. This was another outstanding dish – the very embodiment of comfort food.

Big & Little's is one of those rare gems that just gives you so much delight. It's great to see the friendly owners Gary and Tony working away behind the grill, and you really sense their passion and pride in what they do. Such is the growing popularity of this place that the restaurant is due to move larger premises just south of their current location. I wish them every success – Big & Little's is a true gift to the city of Chicago and I can't wait to return.

Food:          9 / 10
Service:       8 / 10
Ambiance:   7 / 10

BIG & little's on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. Well I for one am loving the Chicago posts - hope to make it there one day (and visit Krista!) and your posts are certainly inspiring.