Walk into the Packing House, 1113 W. Randolph, and relax. Dark wood is always comforting, but this space has an airiness about it, too. The bar's on your right and dinner seating across. In a second room to the left, recessed can lights in the ceiling highlight simple place settings of clean-lined, pure white plates and vibrant-orange napkins. Across the side wall: broad, floor-to-ceiling shelves full of books chosen to appeal to a wide range of interests - from sports to cooking to history. There's also a generous supply of big-screen TVs here in case you want to want to watch a game. Fortunately, the night we visited they were showing a shifting array of artistic pictures instead of news or sports. Made it nice and quiet for our dinner.
Our server Angelia was very helpful in describing each dish. We passed on their specially coated spicy bar nuts and their homemade pickles in favor of the Beef Chicharrones. She told us about the sour cream and chives coating they come with - said they were creamy and salty and light and with a great crunch. She was right; they reminded us of the crispy shrimp chips in a Chinese restaurant but crunchier. Very fun to eat.
After we scarfed down our paper cone of Beef Chicharrones, Angela came back out and finished her description. She said they are made from a cow's Achilles' tendon, simmered for 12 hours then frozen, sliced thin, then deep fried, drained and sprinkled with sour cream and chive powder. Holy mackerel.
When we asked why she hadn't told us earlier what they were made of, she smiled and admitted it sometimes makes people hesitate to try them. So they like to let guests enjoy the flavors before they tell all. We both enjoyed the crunchy pop and the creamy, tangy mouth feel of the sour cream powder enough that we didn't mind when we pictured the source. Talk about using all of the animal!
I loved the next app - a small slice of Hamachi crudo (raw yellow fin tuna) with jalapeño and a tiny chunk of fresh grapefruit, served with a delicate black garlic vinaigrette and some pearls of crisply cooked couscous. Truly creative and absolutely delightful.
Honestly, I got so focused on these taste experiences I was forgetting to drink my wine. Now that's food that's getting my attention. My companion challenged Angela with each course to suggest a wine that paired well with the particular dish. She did a great job, and we were pleased with each recommendation.
Another app was the Scallop Ceviche, a seashell-shaped dish filled to the brim with small, sweet, fresh bay scallops bathed in lemon/line juice, tangerine oil and sparked with tangerine zest, dehydrated roe and pickled ginger. My companion thought it a tiny bit overly sweet, but I liked it more than other ceviches I've had.
First entree was Smoked Beef Marrow, served in heavy sawed-in-half-the-long-way beef bones, and accompanied with grilled bread, pickled onions and cilantro-parsley salad - a surprisingly original and delicious combination. My companion frequently orders bone marrow, but I'd never ordered it as a dish on its own. Apparently many people are like me and not that familiar with it.
Angela explained that the chef smokes the bone marrow – both cold smoking and hot smoking – in order to distract from the gelatinous texture typical of marrow so that people who might not ordinarily like bone marrow can appreciate its qualities. The grilled bread was beautifully crusty, perhaps a bit over-oily but definitely not too salty. It made a perfect base for the rich marrow. And we thoroughly enjoyed the accompaniments - pickled bullet onions and the little pile of cilantro-parsley salad lightly dressed with a light, salty vinaigrette. My companion, who's not normally a fan of cilantro, described this dish as a perfect pairing of tastes.
The Crab Spaghettini was a combination of lots of sweet crab bits mixed with a nest of al dente spaghetti noodles that was blanketed with a thick, rich blend of Parmesan and Romano cheeses and sparked with spicy red pepper flakes.
The roast chicken was truly something special. The skin, covering moist, tender meat, was coated with a caramel soy glaze that was super tasty with just enough delectable browned spots. But then once you bite into it with the accents of jalapeno and cilantro - and lemon or something else acidic - the dish shot several cuts above average. The chicken, cooked to perfectly done, came with the Chef's delicious, nicely cooked, smashed fried fingerling potatoes. The whole dish was a positive triumph of flavors - and continued to taste that way under a light reheating in the microwave when I ate the leftovers for lunch the next two days.
Dessert that day was Seasonal Afogato (someone defines it as "drowned ice cream"). Packing House makes two flavors of its own gelato inhouse each day. This day it was honey gelato and gelato with olive oil and sea salt. Each came in a small glass serving dish accompanied with about a 2-ounce portion of espresso. The idea is either to pour the espresso over your gelato or dip spoonfuls of cream into the cup. You can even get decaf espresso. Lovely, cold, light and flavorful.
The regular menu includes a lot more dishes, so check it out here. The very cool rooftop lounge offers cocktails and a limited snack menu. There's an elevator if you don't fancy climbing to the third-floor roof deck to watch the giant screen TV or enjoy the view of downtown.
Even though the West Loop can be tough to get to from downtown and many other locations, make a plan and come to the Packing House. It’s worth the effort. Chef Amanda Barnes takes wing in her pairings of modern American cuisine with creative Mediterranean leaps. And I really like what she's doing.