Last night at the Trump Interntional Hotel (boo! hiss!) was Taste of the Nation – Chicago (yay! hurrah!). Boldface names, glitzy atmosphere, all-you-can-eat bits and bites from big-name restuarants, many many open bars, the presence of not one but two Cheftestants, and — oh yeah, that part — a good cause: Share Our Strength, a national anti-hunger organization. Special MP correspondent Byron Harrison weighs in:
Hotel ballrooms are meant for indeterminate-varietal wines, lukewarm steam-table food, dizzying carpet patterns, bad sound systems, and views of the adjacent parking garages. The Taste of the Nation event, hosted by the children’s hunger charity Share our Strength at the Trump International Hotel, lived up (or down?) to this with two notable exceptions: booze and views.
Booze: While Chicago’s food scene is getting some serious national press, it’s our humble opinion that it’s the mixologists who deserve the kudos. The cocktails had charmingly complex tastes, with little pretension and without highly complex formulae. Cocktail standards with simple and delicious modifications appeared to be the theme; highlights included a Sidecar with ginger-infused simple syrup (Angie Jackson, Ultimate Elixirs), a modified Manhattan with Navan vanilla liqueur replacing sweet vermouth (Tony Maffei, Jilly’s Naperville), a Gin Fizz with orange oil (Martin Adamczyk, Cocktail Concierge), and a Blood and Sand with a hint of mint (Carol Donovan).
Views: For such a freaking huge building (2.6 million square feet), the Grand Ballroom is kind of tiny… and also dominated by an enormous column. I’ll spare you my review of the architecture, but you can kind of get the gist if you read Kamin. The view from the 16th floor is just high enough to really experience the buildings that make up the skyline (up close and personal with the Mather Tower, for instance). I was nevertheless distracted and took photos of the view instead of the food. Oh, right… the food!
Want to read about the food? Oh yes you do! Pork skewers, fantastical salmon, and a Top Chef sighting — after the jump!
the view from the ballroom
Let’s work our way up from the bottom: The arancini with blue cheese sauce from Citizen Bar was a stunning and monumental flop. A sandwich of tender beef from Capital Grille was sunk by unfortunately big and chewy rolls. Pulled pork sandwiches from Rockit Bar & Grill were just so-so and were accompanied by colorful but absolutely tasteless and pointless coleslaw. Katherine Anne Confections’ coconut truffle did not change my life as I had hoped, and left me wishing I had the vanilla honey caramel instead.
But then there’s the good stuff. As the owner of a “Pork: The Other White Meat” t-shirt, I was not disappointed to find that the National Pork Board was a sponsor and donor of naturally raised Eden Farms Pork to the event. Bring it on! mk served pork belly with a cold summer squash and almond soup; ajasteak surprised us with a skewer of roast pork with iceberg lettuce and an herbed ranch dressing; West Town Tavern served roast pork with stewed Michigan cherries and a white bean salad; Top Chefs Stephanie Izard and Dale Levitsky lived up to their “top” moniker with our favorite pork of the evening, a kind of pork salsa with tomato, corn and bits of kalamata olives.
It turned out not to be a pork dish that demanded our only return for a second helping. Wave, the in-house restaurant of the Lakeshore W Hotel, offered sushi-grade salmon in a salad that included two winning combinations: orange/fennel and watermelon/cilantro. The flavors were unexpected and brilliant, and planted the idea of watermelon-cilantro Italian ice (which may very well be the inspiration I need to go buy an ice cream maker).
Cheers to Share our Strength and the program beneficiaries (Greater Chicago Food Depository, Illinois Hunger Coalition, the Near North Health Service Corporation, and Vital Bridges) for doing what might actually be more important than watermelon-cilantro Italian ice: filling the tummies and powering the minds of hungry kids.
— BYRON HARRISON
Taste of the Nation - Chicago [Official Site]
[Photos via Byron Harrison]