Diners soak in flavor and booze during rainy Chicago Gourmet

Soggy ground aside, this year's Chicago Gourmet may have been the best yet

(Bill Daley co-wrote this story)

Muddy shoes.

That was about all the hundreds of revelers at Chicago Gourmet, the two-day food and wine festival at Millennium Park over the weekend, had to complain about.

Efficiently-moving food lines and nine chef-tasting pavilions ensured that patrons had easy access to the gourmet goodies being cranked out by dozens of Chicago's top chefs, and there were more nibbles available than ever in this, the Chicago Gourmet's fourth iteration. Food carts, from 5411 Empanadas and Kim & Scott's Gourmet Pretzels, were dispatched to sites whenever the lines slowed or food ran low. "They passed out food to people in line," said one patron, wonder in her voice. Plastic appetizer trays with inset wine-glass holders, an innovation this year, made grazing a breeze.

The weather could have been more considerate. Steady rains late Friday and early Saturday morning turned Millennium Park's Great Lawn into a soggy mess, but duly prepared visitors wore sensible shoes for the most part. Patrons on Sunday dodged raindrops all day, but Saturday's visitors caught a break; just as an opening-ceremonies speaker was making the obligatory joke about undampened spirits, the rain ceased and the sun emerged.

And then they broke out the booze.

Some of the top mixologists in the nation assembled for a cocktail workshop. Don't imagine this was one of those sippin' and spinning-the-olive-on-a-toothpick affairs. This session was totally hands-on; patrons got to mix their own cocktails along with the experts. Yes, the attendees had to make and sample four cocktails — this before 1 p.m. — but as Bridget Albert, author of "Market Fresh Mixology" exclaimed to spirited applause, "That's how we do it in Chicago."

Meantime, Charles Joly of The Drawing Room walked from table to table, demonstrating how to swirl ice in a mixing glass. Bobby Gleason, a mixologist and brand ambassador for Beam, Inc., helped Megan Polson of Chicago with her mojito-muddling technique. And Lynn House, chief mixologist at Blackbird, got everyone up and out of their chairs to learn how to work a cocktail shaker, Chicago-style.

Bon Appetit's profile was appropriately high, given the Conde Nast food magazine is a mega-sponsor of Chicago Gourmet. New editor-in-chief Adam Rapaport was "psyched to be here," as he toured the event. And the Bon Appetit tent passed out such goodies as a Mediterranean tuna crostini and a killer garden gazpacho with garlic croutons. Complete with recipes, of course.

Intimate, small-group wine seminars played to full rooms. Alpana Singh, the plain-talking master sommelier and director of wine and spirits for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, explained what "legs" are (the streaks of wine that stream down the inside of a wine glass) and what they mean. (More legs equals higher alcohol levels, she explained, which in turn affects texture and how the wine feels in the mouth.) Serafin Alvarado, wine educator for Southern Wine & Spirits of Illinois (another big sponsor) led a group in discussing wine quality, and the extent to which wine perception is affected by mood and setting, by pouring samples of six pinot noirs, ranging in price from $12 to $200. And yes, the top-dollar 2006 Domaine Louis Latour Chateau Corton Grancey had plenty of supporters, but the 2009 Louis Latour Marsannay, about $18, was considered to be the best value.

And then there were the myriad chef tastings, which came off as a sort of passed-hors-d'oeuvres fantasy.

There were tiny pita pockets filled with chicken souvlaki from Carrie Nahabedian of Naha, chicken sausage with basil remoulade by Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Cafe and kimchee-topped short rib tacos by Michael Shrader of Epic.

Perhaps fittingly, the most elaborate creations came from restaurants located practically in Millennium Park's back yard. Dirk Flanigan, of Henri and The Gage, served roasted sea bream with compressed melon bits accented in various ways. John Hogan, of Keefer's and Tavern at the Park, passed out tiny cups filled with octopus, calamari, hearts of palm, laughing-bird shrimp and espelette peppers. And Beverly Kim of Aria, in the Fairmont Hotel, made a dazzling seafood panna cotta topped with mango gelee, mango relish and tiny chilled mussels.

Chicago Gourmet's kickoff event was Friday night's "Hamburger Hop," in which 17 chefs engaged in a friendly gourmet-burger competition, simultaneously trying to impress a panel of judges (which included the Tribune's Kevin Pang) and the attendees, who cast votes for the People's Choice award.

"Oh my god, you're going to give me a heart attack," said one patron, reverently, as Roger Herring of Socca applied the finishing touch — rich gorgonzola sauce — over his Harvey burger, which already contained wagyu beef, short rib meat and bacon. At the Four Seasons booth, Kevin Hickey unveiled a brunch burger, which included bacon, cheddar, arugula and "fried bearnaise" (like a beignet filled with hot sauce) accompanied by a "bellini shake" (peach milkshake topped with prosecco sparkling wine). Beverly Kim bolstered her short rib and pork shoulder burger with Asian flavors — red curry, sweet-and-sour cucumbers and tamarind ketchup.

The judges, however, awarded top prize to the Bandera Burger, created by Colleen McHugh of Bandera restaurant, while the People's Choice went to the Benchmark Burger by Steven Lawhorn of Palmer Place restaurant in LaGrange.

At one of the many chef demonstrations, Jimmy Bannos Jr. of Purple Pig teamed up with Stephanie Izard of Girl & the Goat for a "Beast Feast," as Bannos slow-simmered pork neck bones while Izard walked the audience through the preparations for Crispy Pig Face (an actual Girl & the Goat menu item), plucking a woman from the audience to help trim meat from an actual pig's head.

It was very entertaining, and taught us a phrase — Super Pig Face Demiglace — that we will try to use again someday. And behind the audience, a line of other chefs — including Giuseppe Tentori (Boka, GT Fish & Oyster) and Martial Noguier (Bistronomic) — quietly cheered the demonstrators on.

For an event that touts Chicago's supportive chef community, it might have been the nicest moment of the weekend.

pvettel@tribune.com wdaley@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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