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A Dialog with Analogue: On Bitter Drinks And Cajun Food

By Staff in Food on Feb 6, 2014 7:00PM

(Fried Chicken Sandwich courtesy of Analogue)

I first came to Analogue for the drinks, attracted to the bitter-heavy concoctions of bartender Robert Haynes, who spearheaded the creation of Letherbee’s own version of Malort. And indeed the drinks here will please the devotees of Chicago’s bitter-drink cult, but I was surprised to find a menu of Cajun classics. I was even more surprised at how well they go with the drinks.

Of all the things to pair with cocktails, why Cajun food? That’s the question I asked Chef Alfredo Nogueira on the kind of frigid snowy Chicago night you don’t often see on the Louisiana bayou. Nogueira was born and raised in New Orleans, but he told me that he never really appreciated how special Louisiana's food was until he moved away and got homesick.

Louisiana’s two most famous cuisines, Cajun and Creole, are frequently confused. It’s natural given the inevitable cross-pollination, but true Cajun is the distinctively rustic backwoods cuisine of the French-Canadian exiles who made their home in the Southern portion of the state. They made good with what was there in the swamp: semi-feral pigs, duck, wetland vegetables, rice and bayou water creatures from shrimp to alligator.

Wistful for this food, Nogueira turned to Cajun cookbooks. He particularly admires Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana, John Folse’s magnum opus The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine, Paul Prudomme’s cookbooks, and of course the oft-maligned Emeril Lagasse’s work.

Like everyone with roots in New Orleans, Nogueira is an impassioned partisan when it comes to restaurants there. He especially loves Casamento’s, with its renowned oyster loaf, which is fried oysters on Texas Toast. He wants to do a Great Lakes inspired twist with smelt when it’s in season.

“In season” being the hitch, which explains something strange about Analogue’s Cajun menu - it doesn’t have a lot of seafood. This might seem almost heretical but Nogueira told me that the thing about the food of the French Canadians in North America is that “it’s regional.” And oysters aren’t exactly the regional food of the Midwest.

Not yet at least. Nogueira said he managed to track down the near-mythic Midwestern aquaculture operations growing shrimp. Near mythic because every few years they get a spate of media coverage and you expect to see them at your local farmer’s market, but you never do.

They haven’t quite figured out how to make them economical yet, but some are quietly trialing their shrimp at a few Chicago restaurants. Analogue occasionally has Midwestern aquacultured shrimp in specials, such as shrimp served with classic remoulade sauce. One supplier tantalized Nogueira with the prospect they may be able to supply Midwestern aquacultured oysters in the near future.

This isn’t trivial localism- concerns about the environmental impact of imported farmed shrimp and imperiled wild shrimp stocks are spurring people to look towards sources they can verify themselves. This is the case even in Louisiana. Last time I visited family in Lafayette, which is in the heart of Cajun country, I found many of the newer restaurants run by younger chefs there, such as the fantastic Bread & Circus Provisions serving little or no seafood. In the wake of overfishing and the BP oil spill disaster, local seafood is getting harder to source there, and more expensive. You now have to examine menus carefully for the words “Louisiana seafood” no matter how close you are to the Gulf.

But Cajun food minus seafood resembles the food you might find in less seafaring French Canadian enclaves like Montreal. And that’s definitely not a bad thing. Despite stereotypes, seafood isn’t really the end and be all of Cajun food and Illinois has plenty of the other Cajun essentials, like the hallowed pork.

Butcher and Chef Danielle Kaplan, formerly of the Butcher and Larder, has helped put together a formidable charcuterie program and they hope to start breaking down whole pigs soon. One of the most memorable items is the boudin, almost like a luscious porky rice pudding, which is on the boucherie plate special, named for the Cajun traditional seasonal hog butchery.

One of their most popular items is their fried chicken sandwich, a juicy crispy buttermilk-brined breast topped with sour and sweet pickles, bright slaw, and homemade hot sauce. It’s less traditionally Cajun than a higher quality rendition of Popeye’s, many Louisianan’s guilty pleasure.

On my first visit, the basket of biscuits I got as an appetizer called out for the chicken to be nestled within their pillowing buttery deliciousness. Luckily they are answering the call and serving some fried chicken biscuits as specials, with a plan to have some biscuit menu nights featuring other Louisiana biscuit favorites like tasso ham biscuits.

Actually the cocktails aren’t so surprising a pairing once you think about it. The Cajun food soaks up alcohol quite well and the more bitter cocktails act as much needed digestifs after a giant meal of pork, fried chicken, biscuits and their bread pudding, which is topped with whipped cream, chocolate, toffee and served with a donut.

Of course New Orleans has a formidable cocktail scene, but bartender and co-owner Henry Prendergast said they wanted a more unique menu featuring local spirits.

I love bitter drinks, so of course I had to try the purls, a revival of an old British tradition of adding bitters to beer. Prendergast told me their early renditions of purls were too merciless in their bitterness, and all you could taste was the wormwood. This predictably attracts the type of Chicago’s bitter-arms race contestants that Malort does.

Nevertheless, Prendergast said Analogue wants to showcase the other more subtle flavors in the purls, like allspice and strawberry, so they’ve toned them down a bit since they first opened. But just a bit. They are still bracingly bitter, with a fantastic complexity. For those who think bitter receptors evolved to tell us what not to consume, they offer drinks like a smoky bourbon sour called the Radio Flyer - ideal for watching the bitter arms race from the neutral sidelines and just as good for washing down some fried chicken.

Post by Melissa McEwen