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iNG Launches Flavor-Tripping Dinner Series with an Ode to Squash

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Oct 14, 2011 6:00PM

Since it replaced Otom earlier this year, Homaro Cantu's iNG has been part restaurant, part test lab bent on exploring the promise of the miracle berry. Chewing on one of these delicate little African fruits - or consuming it in concentrated powder-pill form, as one does at iNG - causes the tongue to misinterpret flavors for upwards of 30 minutes. Sour becomes sugary sweet. Bitter loses its biting edge. A miracle berry can seemingly take lemons and, with chemical sleight of hand, make lemonade.

Over the summer, head chef Thomas Bowman and his kitchen staff toyed with this transformation by introducing a flavor-tripping cocktail menu on iNG's patio. With the arrival of fall, they've brought the flavor-tripping experience indoors; their latest venture is a monthly prix fixe dinner series, which premiered Wednesday in the form of a six-course tasting menu that included wine and original cocktails ($65 per person, including tax and gratuity). To celebrate the flavors of the season, the chefs prepared a set of dishes featuring a familiar emblem of autumn: squash.

We landed a seat at Wednesday's debut of the dinner series, which will likely continue to recur on the second Wednesday of each month. The menu and amuse arrived together, as a carefully folded origami cube and a pipet filled with liquid, which had been stuck in the paper box like a sword in a stone. In the pipet, a trio of squashes, soy and mirin. (It was the first of many nods to Asian ingredients and cuisine throughout the meal.) The amuse was accompanied by the first cocktail of the evening, a blend of sake, squash and yuzu, all in a tumbler glass rimmed with toasted, crushed pumpkin seeds.

The first dish out: eggplant parmesan - at least according to the menu, now dutifully unfolded beside us. What actually arrived was a deconstructed version, consisting of tempura-fried eggplant strips, basil and tomato broth. The server then brought over a miracle berry pill and a lemon wedge (which functioned as a kind of miracle-berry barometer during the meal), and instructed us to taste the eggplant parm before and after taking our dose in order to perceive the shifting flavors. Almost immediately, the palate is beset by fugitive perceptions. The cocktail, for instance, began as a mild affair, with the yuzu quietly riding in the back seat; suddenly, it spoke up. The drink had gotten sweeter and richer. The first course, too, seemed to have gotten longer in flavor, so to speak, like playing a piano with three hands.

The "okonomiyaki pizza" that arrived next was, much like the traditional Japanese version, a mixed bag of sweet, rich and vegetal ingredients - peanut squash, sambal and hoisin sauces, and Japanese kewpie (aka "fat baby") mayo. It was nutty, sweet and smoky all at once. With a palate by this point largely unhinged from reality, you can't help but play the game of "What would this normally taste like?" The meal progressed with a broadening range of squash varieties and cozy fall cocktails: a take on curry udon with housemade noodles, crunchy carrots, kale and a poached egg; a bourbon cocktail with granny smith apple juice, apple brandy, yellow Chartreuse and a spiced-foam topper; a crispy-skinned piece of dorade with kombucha squash and black rice.

By the middle of dinner, it was time to re-up on the miraculin, the active ingredient in miracle berries. But first, a sip of Chilean carménère wine. At first earthy, inky and peppery, the wine's underlying sweetness and dark fruit notes would soon be rushing to the forefront. The gems of pink banana squash that accompanied a delicate sesame-crusted steak with pickled green beans and fingerling potatoes became toothsome bits of candy. Later on, the pumpkin spice latte (brown-butter bourbon, espresso, Dogfish Head Punkin Ale) that came alongside dessert careened between subtle sweetness and round, bitter-coffee boldness as the miraculousness gradually wore off.

While rudimentary, potluck-style flavor-tripping parties have come to be associated with the miracle berry over the past several years as people learned of this rare, extremely perishable fruit, iNG is clearly approaching its potential more seriously. Cantu has been vocal about what it could do to curb obesity, stem diabetes and even fight worldwide hunger by making unlikely foods more palatable. With iNG's new dinner series, he and his fellow chefs make a strong case that it has a place in the realm of fine dining, too. With its unique ability to surprise, confound and delight the palate, its makes an at-once logical and utterly fanciful fit.

iNG is located at 951 West Fulton Market