New spot celebrates lesser-known cuts of meat

February 5, 2010 8:37:12 PM PST
There are several cuts of beef and pork you can choose from on restaurant menus -- tenderloin, leg and brisket are just a few. But a number of chefs have also been using the lesser-known cuts recently.

It started with pork belly, also known as bacon. Pretty soon, chefs at places like Mado and the Bristol were using heart, kidney and cheek, also known as guanciale. It's nothing new, really. For centuries, chefs have made the most of the animal by using the offal, or lesser-known parts. That's precisely what's going on at the hottest new restaurant in Chicago.

Jimmy Bannos Sr. is Greek. His son Jimmy, is half Greek, half Italian. The father and son have teamed-up to cook the kind of food they like to eat at the brash new Purple Pig, housed in a bland office building just off Michigan Avenue.

"I decided to come aboard and the menu just kind of morphed into what it is now," said Jimmy Bannos, Jr., the chef at The Purple Pig.

It's a combination of Mediterranean comfort, along with bold, nose-to-tail offerings. Chicken kebabs are nothing new, but when they're plated over salt-roasted, smashed yukon gold potatoes and homemade tzatziki sauce, they're elevated to new heights. A "shmears" section of the menu has both a whipped feta cheese with cucumbers, assisted by Fox & Obel's thick, griddled peasant bread but also Bannos' Italian grandmother's recipe for pork neck gravy topped with a giant dollop of ricotta cheese. A broad assortment of cured meats can be sliced for your table. Bannos Jr. is making at least three of them in-house. Then there's the offal - the extremities and odd bits that chefs and food writers love to chow on. A pig's ear salad, for instance. In this case, thin shards of ear are fried, tossed with cherry peppers and capped off with a fried egg; just mix it all up for a crunchy, porky salad like no other. There's also liver pate - smooth and creamy - plus braised pig tails with balsamic vinegar.

"It's different, like the ears, the tails, that's different. Absolutely; but we're doing simple, still simple preparations on them. I don't think there's anything that's too out-there, crazy that people are going to be freaked out about. Ya know?" Bannos said.

There's plenty to choose from here, beyond the extremities. A simple roasted pork shoulder would be at home in any restaurant of this caliber, and the high-energy of the room - coupled with lots of communal tables - makes sharing and tasting a low-stress way to sample the menu.

"Still straight forward, pretty rustic and very flavorful," said Bannos.

The other reason chefs are turning to offal is price. It can be a lot less expensive than filet and sirloin, especially in a down economy.

The Purple Pig
500 N. Michigan Ave.