I finally went to Kuma’s Corner. Better late than never, I suppose. It was pretty much what I expected it to be: tasty, hearty food, all named after fantastic bands, excellent people watching, and a great beer selection. I’m pretty sure I ate my body weight in burger after finishing their “Lair of the Minotaur” burger, a behemoth creation loaded with caramelized onions, pancetta, brie, and bourbon soaked pears. That’s right, I said it, bourbon soaked pears. And while the rest of the food was fantastic, as I had been promised, the thing that I could not stop marveling over was those pears.
Which made me wonder why are fruits not paired with meats more often? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a total carnivore. I enjoy meat piled on top of meat (see Kuma’s “Led Zepplin” burger featuring a burger garnished with bacon and pulled pork) but sometimes that little bit of freshness that fruit brings in is very much welcome.
I think the first time I experienced the uniqueness of the fruit and meat pairing was at the now shuttered Emilio’s tapas in Lincoln Park. I love poached pears and eat them as dessert whenever the opportunity presents itself. At Emilio’s however, they had the pears nestled alongside thin slices of duck, which I soon found out equates to happiness on a plate.
That first experience created a monster. I had already been hooked on Spanish foods, but now I was actively seeking out restaurants that used fruit in unusual ways. My personal favorite of any Spanish restaurant has got to be their dates which seems to be unique to each location (after eating at La Taberna Tapas which stuffs their dates with sausage, wraps them in bacon, then serves them in a sherry reduction I went to Virginia to visit my uncle who took me to Mas Tapas which roasts their dates inside apple smoked bacon). My current obsession , Tavernita, unfortunately does not offer dates, but instead features scallops with sliced grapes (sounds odd but is incredible) and pork belly bocadillos with a fruit jam (I actually had a dream about these the night after I first tried them—yes, they are that good).
While the Spanish focused restaurants always seem to be able to sneak some fruit in to their dinner menu they thankfully aren’t the only ones. Mexico seems to follow closely in their footsteps, using bright tropical flavors in their cooking. Rick Bayless, the king of Mexican cuisine in Chicago, offers up some of my favorite examples of fruit and meat pairings. I was lucky enough to treat myself to Topolobampo as a birthday present to myself. My favorite part of the meal was, without doubt, the ceviche, Coctel de Atun Tropical, featuring yellowfin tuna with a mango-grapefruit salsa. It was light, refreshing, sweet and salty and tangy and wonderful. If the rest of the meal was horrible I would still go back just for that. Not to be overlooked, Frontera has some spectacular fruit offerings of its own. The most in-your-face of the group is definitely the duck with apricot mole garnished with a red chile fruit salsa (strawberries and limes with assorted other ingredients). And as if that wasn’t enough of a push for pairing duck with fruit…
One of my absolute favorite dishes ever is the duck gyro at Taxim, featuring a pomegranate reduction that I would probably pour over everything if I had that option. Gym shoes would suddenly become edible if doused in this sauce. Soylent Green would suddenly seem like a viable option. Or a little less extreme, I may actually be convinced to eat Brussels sprouts if they were soaked in pomegranate. Not that I mind the Greek obsession with using lemons, but the pomegranate provides a nice change from the typical lemon dominated menu (lamb chops with grilled lemon, roasted chicken with ouzo-preserved lemons, etc, from Taxim, but take a look at some of the menus for Greektown restaurants—I’m talking to you, Parthenon and Pegasus restaurants—and you’ll notice lemon is king, especially when it comes to seafood).
Of course I cannot talk about anything food related without somehow tying in Girl and the Goat, basically the happiest place on the planet for me. Izard, always the savory fan who shies away from sweetness, creates some of the most unique fruit pairings. Nodding to the Greeks, the grilled baby octopus has a pistachio-lemon vinaigrette. Diver scallops are garnished with green papaya. Escargot ravioli sits in a tamarind sauce. Salmon is paired with grilled blueberries. Frog legs feature strawberries. Quail is served with blackberries. The list goes on.
I guess what I’m getting at is why is fruit not more commonly paired with meats? The restaurants I’ve listed seem to be the exceptions, rather than the rules. These restaurants range from catering to students to upscale clientele, proving that at any price point creating a fresh, innovative, beautifully balanced and completely unexpected meal is entirely possible. I wish more restaurants realized that people are adventurous eaters, they just need guidance and trust and encouragement. And I wish my fellow eaters would start demanding the obscure, the underappreciated, and the underused techniques and ingredients. If nothing else, it’s summer finally and Chicago is getting to that point where it’s like living on the surface of the sun. Step back from the grill and cool off with some fruit!