One of the hardest times I tend to have when ordering charcuterie is simply deciding what I want to enjoy. Do I stick with an old favorite like chorizo? Do I try a twist on something I am kinda familiar with like a lamb lomo? Or do I go completely off the path and get something I have never even heard of like a Catalonian vic fuet? If it is affordable and offered I usually opt for a pre-selected collection on a "platter/board" of some sort. But that isn't always an option. Sometimes I might pick one from the first two categories just listed and ask the server to pick a third for me, kinda leaving just a tiny element of surprise.
But then I had to throw all my methods of operation to the wind recently when I was forced to select only one thing from a charcuterie list. I guess the only good point was the fact that instead of ten things to choose from, there were only five. This was made more difficult though by the simple fact that all five offerings were great choices. I had eaten all five before, so going for the one that was new wasn't an option. Another important thing to consider was the fact that I wasn't simply choosing between a type of charcuterie, but rather an entire charcuterie "program" from five of Chicago's best pig-loving hot-spots. I was excited to see this category while I was clicking away on the website for the TimeOut Chicago Eat Out Awards reader's poll. But when I saw the list I was suddenly overwhelmed and felt like a grandparent being asked to choose a favorite grandchild. And it wasn't made easier by having a juvenile delinquent or murderer as an option.
*In knowing the laws of Chicago's Dept. of Health and requirement of HACCP certification for even the most simple curing, I am going to falsely assume that any non-fresh/cured/dried charcuterie was obtained elsewhere, though much consideration was given to it.
*All writing here reflects the current menu available on each restaurant's website, or of the menu at the time I visited.
The first choice offers a very straight forward and large selection, classical and done that way it has been for a long time. A large choice of dried salumi, a cured loin, a non-dried salume, a paté, a rillette, a liver mousse and even a "cold-cut." The restaurant places a good emphasis on their charcuterie section, and it is far from being simply a trend at Old Town Social. This is the only one of the options at which I have not eaten. I have however enjoyed some of Jared Van Camp's charcuterie at various off-site events and look forward to going in to eat.
The word about the next joint on the list had spread like wildfire throughout Chicago's pork-centric foodie world. But it seemed like forever for it to arrive. The chef was well known and rightfully respected as a master of the pig, so it was appropriate for his next place to be a European beer-hall with lots of pork on the menu. And for charcuterie, it offers a slightly different grouping. It has three types of Aged hams and a meat section with a choice of several main courses, but more importantly for this arena, a rillette and a charcuterie plate. This weeks plate includes a meat pie (paté en croute), head cheese, a galantine and some cured meats. The second choice is the highly touted Publican from Paul Kahan et al.
The third option in this poll is a husband and wife owned and operated place. While I have the chef's blog linked from my "blogs" section, he doesn't update too often. But seeing that he offers (butchery/cooking) classes and runs a rather popular and wonderfully delicious restaurant, I can't blame the guy! I am sure that while the selection is small, every bit is made in house, without a doubt. This week there are three charcuterie choices: a chicken liver paté, a cicciloi and a rillette. Again, everything here is surely made in house, which is why the selection is small but well done by Rob Leavitt at Mado.
The fourth place on the poll is the only one I have written about here on the Hog. They have an even larger selection than the first place. A nice list of what they call cured meats, and another of smears. The first is clearly salumi and some ham, while the second consists of a spreadable approach. This includes a fresh mortadella, a rillette and a paté. It is the Mediterranean influenced Purple Pig from the Bannos father/son team. I will add that they are only place in town I have seen and enjoyed the beloved 'nduja! I will admit that I have been here the most, mostly because it's open late, right by work, delicious and affordable!
Last, but far from least is a place at which I have only dined once, but have recently made plans to return to. Like the previous place, it has a rather small selection in comparison to the rest of the gang, but it too seems to all be homemade. And they bring a nice variety of approaches too, not limiting things a a simple section. There is of course the charcuterie board offering a chicken liver paté, a black pudding and a smoked brisket. But I really like how they have taken charcuterie elements outside of the box and are currently offer a goat merguez, a goat liver sausage and even a scotch olive filled with pork sausage. Chris Pandel has brought a great variety of styles of charcuterie to The Bristol. He also loves him some offal if you're interested!
Aside from the great procured and house cured meaty deliciousness, all of these places do a great job of preparing some excellent accoutrements. All of the things that not only taste great, but offer a refreshening of the palate. You'll always find things like pickled vegetables, preserved fruits, spicy mustards and plenty of breads or crackers to spread the love on, and these aren't just after thoughts at these places.
When I sit and smoke my pipe and dream, I see a restaurant that embodies so many of the aspects that these establishments have. I would even say that I would use parts of each of them as a model for my place. To be fair, voting for any one of these places is a great choice. But since you can only vote for one I hope that my 2¢ may help. I won't tell you who I chose. I will say it was the place that to me seemed to do things a little differently while maintaining the integrity of charcuterie as a whole. Good luck choosing and even more so, go check these places out, vote with your patronage!