Without doubt, one of the most enjoyable meals I had on my last trip to Chicago was at Girl & the Goat. In fact it was so good that I went there twice. Opened in Chicago's fashionable West Loop in July 2010 by former Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, this is a restaurant that defies categorisation. The only thing I can categorically state is that it was all utterly fantastic.
The menu is split into vegetable, meat, and fish sections, although there's some overlap between the categories. Love it or loathe it, dishes here are designed to be shared, and you're advised on ordering about six dishes per couple. Izard likes to keep it local, and many ingredients are sourced from Illinois farms, with most coming from Spence, Nichols, and Kinnikinnick farms.
The problem with the menu here is what not to order. Everything sounds so tempting that Mrs. Nibbler and I found it a tough decision to turn dishes down. Despite our best efforts over two dinners to employ a 'no dish left behind' policy, there were still plenty of tempting things on the menu left untried. So it's probably even better to come here as a group of 4-6 to let you sample as many things as possible. Anyway, here's a look at what we did manage to eat:
Clams and rock shrimp with tarragon, fermented black beans, chillies, and a 'Chinese cruller' ($14) was one of the star dishes. A bowl of perfectly steamed clams and shrimp bathed in a broth bursting with such intense savouriness. We ordered this dish on both our visits. The first time round we ended up fighting over the solitary Chinese cruller (a Chinese style savoury doughnut), but we had learnt our lesson the second time and begged our server to bring us two crullers instead. This was then dunked in the broth, soaking the cruller with its amazing flavours.
Fried soft shell crab was served with pickled ramps, zucchini noodles, and a chilli-lime dressing ($15). Good, fresh crab was lightly battered and fried, and was really lifted by the acidity of the dressing.
A tower of delicious plump prawns in a tomato sauce ($15) had a wonderful smoky taste of the grill. They were served with a little pot of dill yoghurt and wedges of "Greg's pita." Which begs the question: who the heck is Greg? I hope he doesn't want his pita back as it was delicious smeared with the tomato and prawn juices.
Wood-fired razor clams ($15) were served simply in their shell with chillies, peanuts, and sweet garlic. I adore razor clams and these were so tender and delicious.
Green beans ($9) were another unforgettable dish. I almost dismissed these out of hand. I mean, come on, how exciting can green beans be? Well, these turned out to be no ordinary green beans; these were Girl & the Goat™ green beans coated with a sauce so addictive it had probably been laced with crack. The green beans had been sautéed to a state of perfect al dente-ness, mixed with cashews and smothered in a fish sauce vinaigrette – the most lip-smacking, moreish sauce I have tasted. It was an utter umami-fest, an über-umami-palooza of tangy flavour. God, it was good. It seems I'm not the only one to be so enamoured by this dish. The lovely Krista, who writes the Passport Delicious blog, was brave enough to ask for the recipe, which you can find here.
Surprisingly, given the name of the restaurant, goat is not the dominant meat used here. However, one of the three goat dishes we tried was this addictive crisp flatbread topped with goat chorizo, ramp pesto, rhubarb, and fresh ricotta ($13). What a combination of flavours and textures this was; a total assault on the tongue. Spicy chorizo was tamed by fresh, creamy ricotta, while the rhubarb added tart freshness. This was sooo good.
Bread at Girl & the Goat is a whole course in itself, so make sure you leave room for some as it's very good indeed. Our "Chicken Little" bread ($4) was a fat round loaf that was infused with a hint of celery. It was served with pots of chicken liver butter and a carrot & sage oil ($4); the former being by far the better of the two to slather on the warm bread.
Wood-fired "Walter's chicken" (again, who he?), was served with yuzu harissa, fried pickles, kohlrabi, and grilled naan ($23). This was a tasty enough dish but I would have preferred the skin of the chicken to be crisper. It was probably the tamest thing we ate at Girl & the Goat and is a little pricey compared to other dishes.
When I saw this next dish on the menu, I knew I couldn't resist it. Just seeing the words "goat belly", "butter", and "lobster" was enough to seal the deal for me. What arrived was a stupendous and original take on 'surf & turf.' Confit goat belly had been cooked to a state of melting perfection and was served with a bourbon butter sauce, fennel shavings and large hunks of lobster and crab ($19). Fantastic!
Perhaps my favourite dish was wood-oven roasted pig face ($16) and it wasn't at all as grisly as it sounds. Known in politer circles as 'brawn' or the disturbingly named 'head cheese', the meat from the pig's chin and jowls is formed into two neat discs and roasted so that the outside is crisp, while the inside just falls apart at the merest prod of the fork into pieces of fatty porky goodness. As if this weren't enough, sitting on top was a fried egg to lubricate proceedings, some potato stix (sic), and a tamarind & coriander dressing. Oh, lordy! I cannot describe how much I adored this dish... PIG ... FACE. Sort of like a cross between Patrick Bateman and manna from heaven. It was bloody good. More, please!
At Girl & the Goat I guarantee you'll end up ordering only one dessert and sharing it. The knock-out flavour punches of the savoury courses left us stuffed. But don't skip desserts; they are an event in themselves. On our first visit, we tried a bittersweet chocolate cake/brownie that was served with toffee crème fraîche and an absolutely revelatory shiitake gelato ($8). The ice cream had a deep, powerful, savoury taste of mushrooms and, on its own, its flavour caused some consternation. However, when eaten with the chocolate cake it made total sense. Chocolate and mushrooms! A real Eureka moment for me. I would never have imagined these two flavours could work so well together.
On our second visit we opted for ganache pork fat doughnuts served with yuzu-marinated blackberries, salted oat streusel and malted vanilla gelato ($8). Another triumphant, but heavy dessert.
Getting a reservation at Girl & the Goat can be tricky (although not half the ball ache that getting tickets to Next was) so make sure you book well in advance. For our second visit to the restaurant, though, we got lucky and managed to book a random table online the day before, albeit for a 4:30pm sitting (who eats at 4:30pm? Er, me apparently).
But despite the reservation challenges, a meal here is a must if you're in Chicago. There's so much to love about Girl & the Goat: it's quirky, original and a total blast. But above all, it's the food. This is gutsy, yet accomplished cooking. It's big, bold, and packed with flavour – the Midwest spirit on a plate. Girl & the Goat is definitely one of my favourite restaurants in Chicago and I can't wait to return.
Food: 9 / 10
Service: 8 / 10
Ambiance: 8 / 10