A Squared: Recent Chicago Restaurant Visits: Charlatan

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Recent Chicago Restaurant Visits: Charlatan

When Alex and I lived downtown we were always going out to eat, trying new restaurants, and hitting the hot spots as often as we could. Now that we are penny pinching homeowners on the North side with a dog to tend to, date night is usually at one of our favorite neighborhood spots. The consistent exception though is double date night with our friends Tara and Nick. We have running lists of buzzy restaurants we're dying to try and we select one from that list for our regular double dates and then proceed to order almost everything on the menu while we catch up. They're my kind of people.

So, our last date was a pick from Nick's list and it was a good one: Charlatan, located on W. Chicago Ave. in the West Tow/Noble Square neighborhood. Charlatan was created by the team behind Three Aces, one of our double date locales from last year. I immediately loved the decor when we walked in-- it was dimly lit, a little industrial, very eclectic, and not at all stuffy. And the menu is something really special. It's as eclectic as the decor and with a focus on seasonal ingredients, interesting proteins, and hand-rolled pasta, so like Three Aces its Italian with a bit of an edge. And when the warm foccacia with garlic butter showed up, I knew it was going to be good.

Another dinner with Nick and Tara tradition is that we always order the restaurant's cheese plate. Charlatan's plate was on the smaller side, but it included a really unique selection of cheeses and accompaniments.

We also decided to share the prosciutto appetizer, which was a really interesting combination of flavors and textures. Thinly sliced prosciutto was plated on top of two gnocco fritto, a light and fluffy Italian fried dough. It was all situated on top a thick and delicious sweet potato butter, which was more like a jam (like if you've ever tried pumpkin or apple butter) rather than dairy butter. And while we didn't really care for the generous garnish of peppercorns on this plate, on balance this dish was really solid.

Tara and I decided that we might need something green to go along with all of the delicious meat, cheese, and carbs we were consuming and we landed on the endive salad. This dish was large enough to share among the table and was a really nice foil to some of the richer dishes on the menu. Fresh escarole and frisee was tossed with chewy farro (one of my favorite salad ingredients), tasty bacon lardons, pomegranate seeds, and smoked walnuts all tossed in a savory arugula pesto vinaigrette. I know it's a salad, but I seriously couldn't get enough! The flavor and texture combination is on point and this is is a great dish to order if you're sharing starters with your dinner companions.

Alex made a gametime decision to order a side of meatballs to share too: Two good sized meatballs in a housemade tomato sauce topped with a generous amount of grated cheese. The meatballs were moist and really flavorful and would make a great appetizer to share or a side for a half (or full) serving of pasta.

And speaking of pasta, you know by now that I'm a pasta lover so I knew that one of Charlatan's hand-rolled pasta was going to be my entree. I had a really difficult time deciding between two of the pastas so I enlisted the server's help who made a brilliant no-brainer suggestion: The pastas are all available in half orders, so why not order a half entree of each? Done! 

The first pasta I chose was the black kale spaghettini. Gorgeous green spaghettini was tossed in a nutty kale and walnut pesto, topped with a really savory hard blue cheese, squash chips, and toasted walnuts. This dish was simple and also meatless, but the housemade pasta was hearty with a great toothiness and the flavors worked really wonderfully together. It was also a really good size for a half portion.

My second pasta dish was my favorite-- but by just a hair. The celery root ravioli was delicate on the outside with a velvety smooth celery root puree on the inside. The ravioli would have been great alone, but the sauce was what made this dish particularly special: a rich and tangy balsamic brown butter sauce topped the ravioli along with chopped toasted hazelnuts (a favorite!), celery leaves, and hen bottarga, which is basically a cured egg yolk that was lightly shaved over the top to finish the dish. In eating this pasta you wouldn't have known it was spring because this felt like such a wonderful rich fall dinner... but if I went back to Charlatan next month and it was on the menu, I would order it again without question.

Another tradition when dining out with Nick and Tara is that we order dessert-- and a lot of it. In this case, we ordered three to share beginning with one of my favorites: an affogato. This photo is terrible, but the flavors were perfect-- creamy vanilla gelato, hot Italian espresso, and a crispy slice of biscotti on the side.

We also tried the semifreddo, which was a huge portion of gelato and topped generously with fudge sauce with a little extra crunch. Truthfully, I cannot remember exactly what was in this and Charlatan is now featuring some kind of pistachio red velvet semifreddo on their menu (YUM!), but I can assure you it was a perfect dish for ice cream and gelato lovers and that we scraped the bowl clean between the four of us.

Last but certainly not least, the zeppole! These delicious little doughnuts were my favorite dessert of the night. These rich doughnut holes were more of the cake variety, so they were a little more dense with rich chocolate flavor. They were served with a creamy warm caramel sauce for dipping. It was simple, delicious, and the perfect dessert for sharing-- or for hoarding for yourself.

Charlatan is a real gem in the up and coming Noble Square neighborhood. It's trendy, but not over the top and the menu is super eclectic so it's totally the kind of place I would return to for date night.

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