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Creative combinations of sweet with savory and interesting spices keep flavors alive

By AMELIA LEVIN
     Duck confit with apricots. Apple slices atop pork tenderloin. Sauces made with rare and unique spices. Sprinkling cinnamon into main dishes rather than in just desserts or
coffee.
    The idea of pairing sweet with savory and using spices and herbs in creative ways to add “pop” to dishes that would otherwise taste bland is nothing new. Chefs around the globe have been cooking that way for thousands of years. In fact, it’s become an integral
part of contemporary cuisine. While it’s safe to say that here in Chicago most chefs have an element of creativity in their blood, we checked in with a few who are known for their creative combinations. But first, the scientific part.

Sweet + Savory
    We all know what “sweet” means—whether it’s the juicy sweetness of a ripened peach or the sugary taste of ice cream and candy—but what does the word “savory” really mean?
    Jim Javenkoski, a distributor with the Canadian brewery Unibrou, holds a Ph.D. in food science and is considered an expert in sensory analysis. He says the technical term for savory is “umami,” a Japanese word to describe the fifth taste beyond sweet, salty,
sour and bitter. Umami, or savory, refers to the taste of meats, cheese, butter, even mushrooms—foods that have an earthy, heavy or rich taste.
    “Flavor equals taste plus aroma,” Javenkoski says. “Ideally, what is acceptable on our palettes is balance.” Combining as many of those taste elements into one dish typically pleases our palettes the most.
    At One Sixtyblue (1400 W. Randolph, 312-850-0303), French-born and trained Executive Chef Martial Noguier is known for incorporating many French influences into his dishes,
and this means pairing lots of different fruits and sweeter elements with rich meats and cream-based dishes. “In French cooking, we use a lot of fruit,” he says. “Pairing sweet with savory is something we do all the time.”
    Noguier keeps a gigantic recipe book, which he updates four or five times a year, depending on what’s available seasonally and new inspirations that he’s had. Many if not most of those recipes have some sort of sweet and savory, creative element. In the
summertime, Noguier has paired seafood like lobster and scallops with sweet corn or a touch a Mayer lemon and honey to bring out the subtle sweetness of fish, without introducing too much acidity. He has also used peaches to cut down the richness of veal sweetbreads, cherries with squab, golden raisins with duck breast, caramelized pear with venison and star anise. That way, he says, “you don’t feel so overwhelmed by the fat of the dish.”
    “My cooking doesn’t use a lot of flavors, maybe two or three at the maximum, but I try to use them in a different way to make the dish more interesting,” Noguier says.
    Another method behind this use of “contrasting” combinations that work is texture. “I often use fruit for texture, not just for sweetness,” Noguier says. He’ll pair crunchy pomegranate with duck confit and crispy Granny Smith apples with other meats. “I also make an apple salad with venison to bring a crunch to the dish. Pears also make for an interesting texture.”
    Greg Darrah, executive chef at the recently opened Sage Grille (260 Green Bay, Highwood, 847-433-7005) is also known for his trademark use of fruit in many of his dishes. “We do a tremendous amount of play with flavors,” Darrah says. “But generally, we
like to keep the fruit in original form.” That means just lightly roasted or sliced raw.
    Again, this is to achieve the balance of sweet with savory. “Sometimes savory dishes are so savory with garlic and herbs that you want to balance it out with something sweet,” Darrah says, admitting that he has a bit of a sweet tooth.
    With a highly seasonal menu, Darrah in the summertime paired heirloom tomatoes and pepper with watermelon and put a spin on the traditional peach melba dessert by combining roasted peaches soaked in red wine, a blueberry gastrique, or thick sauce made with
vinegar, and topped that with some rich fois gras for a savory effect (remember, the delicacy is legal in the suburbs). But in the fall, it’s time for tart pears and crisp apples.
    Often Darrah will also use dried fruits like cherries, figs and currants. Other times, he’ll re-hydrate the fruits using wine and simple syrup tocreate sauces for richer dishes like pork, duck and game meats, commonly found on menus after the first frost.

Spice
    According to Javenkoski, the other element of taste that hasn’t been officially defined, but refers to spicy foods and such, is something called “trigeminal sensations.” These are “senses that stimulate certain nerves in the face,” he says. For example, when
you eat spicy foods, like hot peppers and horseradish, the hot factor in those flavors can cause you to tighten your face, squint your eyes. When you drink beer, the bubbles create a sensation on your palette. Tasting different ethnic spices can also create these sensations.
    Enter Kristine Subido, executive chef of Wave Restaurant (644 N. Lake Shore Drive, 312-255-4460) in the swanky W Hotel Lakeshore. Subido’s trademark is her creative use of spices from around the globe, and at one point was referred to as “spice girl,” in a chef profile published by the Chicago Sun-Times. Trained under Paul Bocuse, the acclaimed French chef known for incorporating Moroccan and North African-style cuisines in his cooking, and Viand’s Steve Chiappetti, also known for his globally-inspired dishes, Subido continues to gain inspiration from traditional Moroccan, Middle Eastern and Indian flavors.
    “I enjoy using spices in my cooking because they help bring out the main ingredient and add a lot of ‘pop,’” Subido says. But, she adds, “there definitely needs to be a balance. A little spice goes a long way. You want to enhance flavors, not mask them.”
    In the summer, Subido played around with a traditional caprese salad with fresh heirloom tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, but “added a twist” to a traditional balsamic dressing by reducing it and adding garam masala, an Indian staple. Now that it’s fall, Subido might serve a duck confit, but add unexpected spices to the oils, like cinnamon
and star anise. Subido also experiments with sweet and savory or sweet and salty flavors. She says she’s been testing out sweeter spices like cinnamon in savory, rich dishes, along with adopting a “Thai mentality,” balancing out all the elements of taste—sweet,
salty, sour, bitter and savory. “When it all gets on the plate, it works together.” But, she says, “you don’t just want to throw spices in a pot. You have to make sure it makes sense.”
  While some creative accidents turned out tasting great, such as testing out cinnamon sticks and green apples in lobster bisque, for the most part, Subido relies on these more scientific sensory and taste combinations when choosing which sweet spices to pair with
which savory dishes.
    “Once I served a fried feta that was sort of like an adult mozzarella stick, but with the breading and the nature of the cheese, it was so salty,” Subido says. “So I paired the cheese with roasted pears and sprinkled the dish with cinnamon and powdered sugar and then added some arugula for bitterness to achieve balance.”
    While there is beyond a countless number of restaurants with “creative combos” and dishes that play on all our senses, here are some restaurants with interesting pairings to try:

FOR SWEETS + SAVORY:
Café 103
1909 W. 103rd, 773-238-5115
    This relatively new, seasonal restaurant that took the Beverly neighborhood by storm has already drawn in regulars from other neighborhoods and cities. Perhaps that’s due to the freshness of the ingredients or the combinations of them. Some good examples:
sturgeon grilled and served with sweet potatoes, a ragout of oxtail and lemon curd of sorts and a sweet, roasted corn chowder that’s served alongside scallop ceviche. Sounds strange, but somehow Chef Thomas Eckert makes it all work.

Boka
1729 N. Halsted, 312-337-6070
    Chef Giuseppe Tentori, who came to Boka from Charlie Trotter’s in March, has many culinary tricks up his sleeve, and they mainly center around his use of fruits and other fresh, seasonal ingredients to achieve character and balance. Look for interesting combinations like beef tenderloin with licorice-braised shortribs and sweet potato pave and fennel seed-crusted monkfish tail with lentils, caperberry and escarole.

SPICE HOUSES:
Vermilion
10 W. Hubbard, 312-527-4060
    This funky, creative spot in River North has been pairing up Latin flavors with Indian ones for some time now. Members of the staff say the lobster Portuguese reigns as a favorite among regulars—skewered lobster with a coconut milk, curry leaf sauce and other spices. Beyond that, barbecued ribs get a douse of tamarind, tomato soup gets tarragon, and curry weaves
itself through dishes on the menu.

Marigold
4832 N. Broadway, 773-293-4653
    A self-described “modern Indian restaurant,” this popular Uptown neighborhood spot offers traditional dishes with interesting spice twists, like prawn rubbed with ground cardamon seed, scallops with garam masala and coriander-crusted halibut.

FUSION STYLES:
Yoshi’s Café
3257 N. Halsted, 773-248-6160
    A Lakeview mainstay, the only sushi dish on the menu veers off the beaten path with jalapeño-infused avocado. Elsewhere, French, Italian and American influences permeate the dishes in fun combinations.

SushiSamba Rio

504 N. Wells, 312-595-2300
    A pioneer in mixing Latin flavors with something as unusual as Japanese cuisine, SushiSamba’s popularity hasn’t slowed, and perhaps that’s due to the ultra-fusion style dishes, where sushi meets samba, delicate beef carpaccio meets soy dipping sauces and raw
tuna meets chimichurri and avocado.

THAI-STYLE BALANCE:
Sura Thai Bistro
3124 N. Broadway, 773-248-7872
    All white, minimalist, modern and funky, this newish hotspot in Lakeview features a menu of small plates with Thai flavors infused with other global tastes, as “bistro” in the name would suggest. Look for duck in a port wine and soy sauce reduction, ebi and
crab croquettes, spicy peanut sauces, tofu-teriyaki dishes and panko-crusted lamb.

Vong’s Thai Kitchen
6 W. Hubbard, 312-644-8664
   Still thought of as a mainstay for Thai food in the city, Vong’s menu features traditional Thai dishes like thick curries, pad thai variations and stews touching on the essential taste elements, with sweet coconut milk and curry, savory meats, spicy Thai peppers and salty soy.

Published: October 14, 2007
Issue: November 2007