October 29, 2009
Pig-worshiping foodies -- and they are legion these days -- should consider Mado as their church.
Chef and co-owner (with his wife, Allie) Rob Levitt gets a whole hog every other week, butchers it that morning and serves every last bit of it, in one form or another.
In subsequent visits, I had pig heart and a pig's-head salad, as well as the porky terrine known as ciccioli.
Levitt would use the pig's squeal, if he could bottle it.
"That's the right thing to do," the chef says. "You take the animal and respect every last bit of it. I hear of local farms who have so many [unordered] fresh hams that they end up on the compost pile, and I want to cry."
He talks about butchering, the skillful cutting of the carcass into usable pieces, as though it were a spiritual communion. "I come in extra early, get a cup of coffee, put on a little music, and peacefully butcher the cuts down," he says. "Just me and the pig, quiet time together. It's my favorite thing to do."
Pig, the whole pig and nothing but the pig? Not quite. This Bucktown BYO indulges in non-porcine pleasures as well. One menu fixture, for instance, features slices of hanger steak, with a charcoaled exterior and bright-red center, alongside blue cheese polenta.
Wood-grilled rainbow trout, moist and sweet, is paired with a sort-of locavore succotash -- roasted corn and shelling beans on my visit, corn, black beans and red curry squash currently.
Among starters, chilled coins of roasted eggplant bathed in rosemary-infused honey are an addictive treat; giving eggplant slices these sweet and aromatic herb accents is a brilliant stroke.
Beets striped with ras-el-hanout creme fraiche are a fine idea, but the Middle Eastern spices need to make their presence felt more. And I'd rave about the shishito peppers, which I could (and did) munch by the bowlful, but their season has ended, so doing so would be cruel.
But, like all Mado fans, I'm drawn back to the pork.
The pig's-head salad I mentioned consists of bite-size pork bits tossed with baby mustard greens (surprisingly mild) and pieces of delicata squash roasted with an agrodolce honey-vinegar mix.
The grilled heart was big and meaty and bright pink, looking for all the world like duck breast, but possessing a lean, earthy flavor reminiscent of turkey gizzards; the dish includes a plump, juicy sausage, adding the fattiness the heart lacks.
When it's available (and things cycle in and out of the ever-changing menu, as Levitt progresses from snout to tail), go for the garlic sausages, two fat pieces over thumb-size fingerling potatoes and homemade sauerkraut (coarsely chopped, not shredded, and mellow in flavor), served in a cast-iron dish resting on a pig-shaped (but of course) cutting board.
And there's always a few charcuterie selections to contemplate -- $5 each for pork rillette, chicken-liver pate, ciccioli or other creation, $14 for a trio. A $4 upcharge expands the serving with fresh-baked sourdough bread and pickled veggies, and it's worth every nickel.
Allie Levitt, who co-authors the daily menu and runs the front of the house, also oversees the desserts ("You wouldn't want me making your dessert," Rob Levitt says). These range from comfort-food staples like her chocolate cream pie (though sometimes the crust is made of crushed almond biscotti) to the innovative and addictive Migas Bark, irregular chocolate shards mixed with a savory crunch (finely ground, oil-toasted breadcrumbs with a hint of smoky paprika). The latter is so popular, Mado sells half-pound bags to go ($12).
Mado's bare-bones decor manages to be cozy and inviting. Red leather chairs add a splash of color to the unadorned tabletops. On one exposed-brick wall are a few abstract paintings, and the other holds two large chalkboards, which in addition to displaying the day's menu gives a few shout-outs to the farmers who supply the Levitts with meat and produce.
Not everybody loves this place. When Bon Appetit named Mado one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country, mentioning Levitt's fondness for early morning butchery, the restaurant got some nasty mail, including one from an anonymous hater who apparently believed Levitt was slaughtering hogs in the back room.
"It said horrible things about what they think of us, and what they want to have happen to us," Levitt says. "We posted it on our Web site."
Mado1647 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-342-2340
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, brunch Sunday
Entree prices: $17-$24
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; BYO
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