Five years ago, I wrote that chef Stephanie Izard had "a fanaticism for balance that a Wallenda might envy."
Two years ago, after Izard had emerged victorious in the fourth season of "Top Chef," I joked that she should get out of the restaurant business, reasoning that "she hasn't ruined a sauce or overcooked a fish in three years."
Girl & the Goat, which opened mid-July, is beyond hot. Weekend reservations are almost impossible to come by, unless you care to dine at 5:30, weekdays aren't a whole lot better and the restaurant is already receiving inquiries about New Year's Eve.
And in the midst of this high-energy maelstrom is Izard, cooking up a storm, deftly balancing the savory, sweet and tart flavors she brings to every single dish, pausing only to beam telegenic smiles for the customers taking cell phone pictures of her toiling in the display kitchen.
"I'm still juggling," she says. "But it's the best decision I ever made."
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That would be the decision to team with Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, the restaurateurs behind Boka, Perennial and Landmark in Lincoln Park. With those accomplished partners seeing to the business side of things, Izard is free to entertain, delight and even challenge her patrons.
"It's fun," she says, "to get people to try things they're afraid of."
Which explains the presence of Escargot & Goat Balls on the menu. These are not, thankfully, goat testicles (though Izard says she considered that), but merely ground-goat meatballs with a sausagelike texture, bolstered with pieces of escargot and anchovy under romesco sauce. It looks prosaic, but there are layers of flavor here uncommon to most meatball dishes.
The menu also lists Crispy Pig Face, a variation on head cheese that offers more textural contrast than traditional versions and is a very tasty dish besides; if you can say the name out loud, you're home free.
Oysters, a yea-or-nay dish for many eaters, come three to an order in raw, oven-roasted or fried preparations. Three oysters for $10 seems a mite pricy, especially when one of the trios I ordered included an oyster so scrawny that I lifted the shell to see where the rest of it might be. (I mentioned my disappointment to the bartender, who tsked sympathetically, then turned away.) But I do like the cooking, particularly the wood-roasted treatment, which imparts subtle, smoky flavor notes that fortify the oysters for their horseradish-aioli topping.
Izard is at her flavor-layering best with an inventive surf-and-turf of sashimi-style hiramasa (a farm-raised amberjack) and crisp pork belly, contrasting the pristine, clean flavors of the fish with the indulgent richness of the meat, using sliced caper berries, bits of Meyer lemon and squiggles of chile aioli for her tart, sweet and spicy accents.
The menu is all small plates, so nothing is very big or very expensive (the top price is $18 for pan-roasted chicken). Indeed, I found treasures among the lower-priced options, particularly the vegetables. Parmesan-laced shishito peppers are a delight, and the thin-sliced, still-crunchy cauliflower bits with pickled peppers are a revelation, but the sauteed green beans, tossed in a fish-sauce vinaigrette with hints of sambal and Dijon mustard, will change your life. I'm thinking wistfully of my next serving already.
The parade of hits includes rabbit rillette, the shredded meat bound inside rice-paper crepes above sweet-garlic puree and below a spicy-vinegary carrot giardiniera; chewy flatbread pizza with smoked-goat and tart-cherry toppings; and hefty scallops over braised veal with marcona-almond butter. Terrific combinations.Izard's desserts are less sugary finales than they are logical extensions of her flavor aesthetic. Doughnuts are actually squared potato dumplings over yogurt, sprinkled with lemon-poached eggplant. Bavarois layers whipped goat cheese over brown-sugar cake and blueberry compote. And the fudge-sicle consists of frozen chocolate pieces topped with olive-oil gelato (from Black Dog Gelato) and doused with sweetened milk stout.
All this is delivered in a casual, converted-loft environment with unadorned wood tables and painted concrete floors, illuminated by mounted spotlights, dangling Edison bulbs and some nifty tube lights over the bar. Servers bop around in black, goat-logo T-shirts with goat-themed phrases, some more printable than others.
"I call it rustic with a bit of badass," says Izard of the look. Not a bad descriptor for her food, either.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.