Welcome one and all to another mouth-watering entry on Mastication Monologues! This is part three of my Restaurant Week series in Chicago where a plethora of eateries open their doors to the public with great deals for some of the best food in the city, country, and perhaps the world. Fig and Olive in the fancy Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago manages to bring the best of the entire Mediterranean region to the Midwest.
It was a fancy eatery to begin with, so I highly suggest you get on your Sunday best as we did on a Friday night. This place was so fancy we had to take an elevator up to the main dining room. Once we arrived, we were greeted to the strains of light jazz and sumptuous surroundings in the form of long cloth couches in a lounge area. However, we were led to our seat in the mainly glass and metal lined dining room with the creative bar that had trees growing out of the middle of the drink shelves. Nothing like admiring a little greenery while spending some. When we sat down, our friendly waiter greeted us with the drink menu. I ordered a glass of cabernet sauvignon- tenuta mazzolino from Italy. It was a bold wine that had hints of smoke and blackberries. While we were sipping on our wines, we got a complimentary olive oil flight with small cubes of rosemary foccacia. The three cups were filled with an Italian extra virgin representative, a buttery Spanish olive oil, and a bold Greek olive oil that was a bit spicy. The Italian option was good but not great. The Spanish oil was extremely rich when the warm nooks and crannies of the foccacia soaked up the golden nectar. As for the Greek entry, it slowly grew on me as the most palate engaging of the trio. After that little appetizer, we ordered off the Restaurant Week menu which was $33 plus $10 for our crostini tasting which was recommended by a ton of people on Yelp. This was 10 bucks well spent. We got six of the chef’s choice, and when they came out, they looked amazing. The most interesting thing about them was that it wasn’t as crumbly and stiff as typical crostini, but rather crusty yet soft. First, there was the burrata, tomato, pesto, and balsamic vinaigrette. It was in my top three as it was like a caprese salad on a fresh piece of bread. Burrata is a softer than normal fresh mozzarella that also is a bit softer than a buffalo mozzarella. It might not be for everyone with its goopy texture, but I couldn’t help myself. Then there was the grilled vegetable crostini with the ricotta olive tapenade. This crostino didn’t leave me with any sort of positive or negative impression. It just tasted like a lot of olives yet not really. Thankfully, I followed it up with a lovely manchego cheese, fig spread, and topped with a marcona almond. This was also in my top three crostini since it was the perfect mix of the buttery and slightly salty manchego, crunchy almond, and sweet fig jam. The mushroom crostino was in the same category as the grilled vegetable crostino, i.e. a less flavorful mix of greens with a healthy dose of Parmesan cheese. Next up were the two seafood entries with shrimp and crab.
If I had to pick one, I’d go with the shrimp as being the lesser of two evils since I’m not a huge fish/crustacean fan (sorry, Aquaman). Both were served cold which didn’t help, but while the crab just tasted like sweet, cold, flaky meat with a hint of avocado, the shrimp had a bit more body to it and a nice cilantro zing. While we couldn’t choose the crostini, the table next to us ended up getting a sample of the one crostini I was hoping to get but didn’t. It was the pata negra, tomato, peach, Parmesan cheese, and ricotta cheese. I couldn’t believe our waiter brought it out to them because I was just telling Janice why the pata negra was the best crostini on the menu. First off, the name “pata negra” literally means “black hoof” in Spanish due to the color of the pigs from which this ham originates. Then there is the price of this precious commodity is anywhere from $52 to $95 per pound. Why is it so expensive? The reason why is because they are a specific type of black pig that roams southern and southwestern Spain and is raised to roam throughout the oak forests between Spain and Portugal. They then eat the acorns that fall which then produces a peppery flavor in the meat with a good ratio between the fat and deep red meat. It took me back to my time living in Spain where I couldn’t turn around without being smacked in the face with one of the large slabs of pork hanging from the ceiling. Fast forward to that night at Fig and Olive, and I asked our waiter if we could try one of the ham crostino for free. He obliged and was amazed that someone actually knew what this ham was. It was my number one crostino hooves down. The crimson ham, salty cheese, and fresh tomato made it an appetizer I wouldn’t soon forget. Then the appetizers came out off of the Restaurant Week menu. Janice got the octopus a la gallega or Galician octopus which was the best I ever tasted. Even though I’ve been to the emerald green, northwestern province of Spain to taste where this octopus comes from, the thinly sliced tentacles at Fig and Olive bested the Iberian version. I loved the spicy and sour lemon vinaigrette combined with the melt in your mouth texture of the tentacle laden creature. As for me, I got the fig and olive salad. It was delicious but not as unique as the octopus dish. It was a melange of almost every variety of taste around. There were sweet elements like the fig vinaigrette and apple pieces, salty manchego pieces, earthy greens, and crunchy walnuts. The food train didn’t stop there. We still had our entrees to take down. Janice ended up getting the Mediterranean branzino or European sea bass in English. It looked good, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m sure fish lovers would be bowled over by it though. The only downside was that Janice said the plate overall was a bit one dimensional with a bland mashed potato side. In comparison, I got the Fig and Olive tajine. Now, Fig and Olive labels itself as an eatery serving the best of Italy, Spain, and southern France. However, what they didn’t mention was that they serve North African food since diners would most likely be a bit hesitant to try something from Africa, and might not be seen as sexy as the three aforementioned cuisines. Two good reasons why I chose it over all of the other entrees. Tajine (in Arabic طاجين) originates from Morocco but can be found also in Tunisia and Libya. It is traditionally stewed in a clay pot that tapers at the top to promote the return of condensation to the bottom of the vessel. This technique definitely came in handy in the hot and arid climate of the former Barbary States. As for what tajine actually is, it’s basically a North African stew of figs, olives, carrots, tomatoes, and onions. At Fig and Olive, they don’t serve it in a clay pot, just a regular bowl, but that didn’t take away from the amazing flavors. On the side, I got a bowl of couscous to mix in with the stew along with a bit of cilantro sauce and harissa (هريسة), known as “the national condiment of Tunisia”, mixed with some Spanish Hojiblanca olive oil.
I found the couscous a negligible carb element in the stew since it didn’t stand a chance going up against the giant vegetables and chunks of spicy chicken (beware of the bones). However, I did like the harissa since it was a mix of chili peppers, garlic and coriander and managed to nudge itself above the intense flavors found in the dish. By the end of our main course, we were stuffed and couldn’t think we could eat anymore, but au contraire! We got both of the Restaurant Week desserts. The dessert crostini wasn’t like their more savory brethren. It was basically a cookie topped with candied cherries and a smooth and sweet mascarpone cheese. I preferred the chocolate pot de creme which was like a fancy chocolate and vanilla mousse cup with a crunchy praline cookie on the side. It was even better when I crunched the cookie up and mixed it into the decadent cream.
We left the restaurant with some trepidation due to the crush of people by the elevator upstairs and door downstairs and because we were so stuffed with delicious food. Although it might not be the cheapest place for Mediterranean food, you can get high quality dishes for half the price in a modern and classy environment.