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Review: The Purple Pig

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jan 27, 2010 5:00PM

I'm a big proponent of the social aspects of dining in groups: talking, breaking bread together, sharing plates and laughs with both friends and strangers. It's no coincidence that some of my favorite restaurants encourage communal or family-style dining — the Publican, mado, the Bristol and Urban Belly, to name a few. All these restaurants tap into an emotional well that make me feel better about myself and the world around me, if just for an evening. It's probably naive to feel that way, but it is sincere.

None of these restaurants, however, has a dish that stirred up so many emotions as the Purple Pig's quail with salsify and pomegranate. The plating is simple yet bold in its execution; the quail, grilled a tender golden, served spread-eagled over a bed of puréed salsify, pomegranate syrup and olive oil. The laugh that escaped my mouth was instant and loud. Here was a dish that was beautiful, brash, submissive, somewhat erotic, somewhat disgusting. It was bigger than the sum of its ingredients and said a lot about the sense of humor, and skills, of the chef behind its creation.

That chef is Jimmy Bannos, Jr. His father, Jimmy, Sr., gave New Orleans-style cooking local flavor with Heaven on Seven and is one of four chefs in the Chicago Culinary Museum's Hall of Fame. The Bannoses have partnered in the Purple Pig with Scott Harris of the Francesca restaurant chain. Even though The Purple Pig is a collaboration of two of the more successful restaurateurs in the city, the vibe is a family affair, with a room and menu designed to bring out the best aspects of an enoteca. The menu couldn't be further away from the Cajun cuisine with which Bannos, Sr. earned his mint, or the hearty pastas of Francesca (pick one). Bannos, Jr.'s passion lies in the Mediterranean, having worked together with Harris before; under Gabriel Viti at Miramar Bistro in Highwood. He traveled to Italy to study the culture and cuisine; before cooking under Mario Batali for three years at his Del Posto, Lupa Osteria Romana and Esca.

That cumulative knowledge is put to amazing use at the Purple Pig, Everything coming out of Bannos's kitchen is rooted in simple, classic preparation. A roasted bone marrow smear is served with chevril, capers and parsely. Spread this rich mix onto toast and you have Exhibit A in Classic Comfort Food. Raw almond meat, pan-fried slowly for two hours in pork fat and seasoned with rosemary and garlic, makes for an amazing bar snack. Mini arancini stuffed with sweet winter squash and tangy goat cheese is given some zest from a sage pesto. Baccalà, cured in house, is the main ingredient in a lush, silky brandade. Firm, perfectly prepared sepia is given extra texture from the addition of toasted almonds and fried rosemary. It was a harmonious meal, with no wrong steps. The cost per person for a party of six, including tax and gratuity, is also reasonable: around $65. For that cost, a couple could have a very filling meal.

Steve Dolinsky wrote on his Vocalo blog that he hasn't been this excited about a restaurant opening since avec. Look deeper and the parallels between the two are striking. Both serve simple Mediterranean-style wine bar menus owned by crack restaurateurs, manned by chefs who have leave their own distinct styles on the menu and have room that encourage social intercourse between diners. In a whirlwind two-month period that has seen more high-profile openings than the past 11 before it (Brand BBQ, Kith & Kin, Cuna). The overall strength with which The Purple Pig came out of the gates at its Christmastime opening have it poised to be the Restaurant Event of Winter.

The Purple Pig, 500 N. Michigan Ave., 312-464-1744. Open 11:30 a.m. - Midnight Sunday - Thursday; 11:30 a.m. - 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday (kitchen closes at 1 a.m.).