Sky Full of Bacon

Mado the Closer

There have been so many interesting openings lately that I’ve been trying new spots every chance I get, but when my wife’s sister (the one who lived in France, the one to whom we sent my first course-by-course description of a meal— a postcard detailing everything we had at L’Esperance in Vezelay, the one now exiled to the provinces of teaching in West Virginia) was coming to town for a conference, I knew where we wanted to go to give her a guaranteed knockout Chicago meal in non-stuffy circumstances: Mado.  It’s the closer of Chicago neighborhood restaurants.

Taking her made me think freshly about the ways in which a meal at Mado is different from the usual fine dining experience.  Appetizers at so many restaurants are the most creative parts of the meal, which is appealing, but it also means they’re often the richest, which unbalances the flow of the meal— you’ve had a bunch of butter and frying and rich meats such as crab up front, making the main course seem heavier and duller.  At Mado, though, the combination of the charcuterie platter and a few simply dressed seasonal vegetables from the antipasti plate has a light and clean feel that segues perfectly into richer main courses.  Some of that, of course, is simply the Italian way of doing things, but kudos to Mado for internalizing it so thoroughly that it has become their natural way of pacing a meal even when the dishes themselves don’t seem Italian in any way.

The charcuterie platter had three things on it— our old favorite testa, housemade ham (a touch boring, frankly, and quick to dry out; the same meat would probably be better served some other way) and ciccioli.  I couldn’t particularly explain how the ciccioli differs from testa but it was the best of the three, a wonderfully nourishing mix of cold meat and subtle spices.  In the dead of winter, I wondered if the antipasti would amount to much, but both a sweet carrot dish with a touch of middle eastern spicing, and beets with, I believe, sheep cheese were as good as any antipasti I’ve had there.  We also enjoyed the brandade (though I’d say Cary Taylor’s at Chaise Lounge was better) and a crock of velvety chicken liver as well.

Well fed by this point, we only ordered two mains, though one was a double portion: the shepherd’s pie, a Valentine’s special for two, and a porchetta with white beans.  Of the two, the shepherd’s pie was the revelation— nothing unusual about it, God knows nothing deconstructed, but so rich with deep braised lamb shoulder flavor and root vegetables and fresh rosemary scent throughout the potato top; great ingredients (even turnip chunks sang!) prepared to bring out their all.  It was as comforting and as profound as comfort food gets, and so too the creamy polenta (ordered only because it seemed like something the youngest son would eat if he ate nothing else), simplicity itself but sharpened up with something grownup like parmesan to transcend its gooey, fit-for-babies texture.  The mascarpone grits (basically the same thing) at Kith & Kin seemed especially diminished after this.

It’s a shame to only order one dessert for yourself at Mado, because they tend to be on the subtle side, low on sugar and avoiding the pyrotechnics that make dessert an easy way to send everybody out happy.  You are much more likely to like dessert at Mado if you can try several things at once and, again, get an appreciation for how good they are at letting ingredients stand out on their own without cheap tricks that aim straight for the sweet tooth, bypassing the brain.  We had a sour cherry pie with chocolate creme fraiche, an almond cornmeal cake with spiced apples, and rice pudding with golden raisins and nuts, along with a bit of the migas bark, and going back and forth between all of them was far more than the sum of their seemingly modest parts.  As we finished up, amid a happily full house, I could see that we’d done right by a guest in her one shot at a big city meal before returning to her college town.  Mado closed the deal.

If you like this post and would like to receive updates from this blog, please subscribe our feed. Subscribe via RSS

Comments are closed.