Braised rabbit leg with crispy guanciale, polenta cake, bourbon tomato sauce and fried spinach at Atwood Cafe. (guanciale, from the pork jowl is the "bacon") | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: August 2, 2012 6:09AM
Bacon is king.
At least in Chicago, home of the sold-out-in-five-minutes Baconfest, bacon on a menu is the culinary equivalent of a pretty model in an advertisement — people instantly sit up and pay more attention. Chefs know this, which is why “bacon” has replaced “T-bone” and “caviar” as the menu nomenclature most likely to make foodies drool.
But, as with all things trendy, the audience eventually begins to burn out. Just like truffle oil and creme brulee before it, the only solution to bacon burnout is innovation. That’s where a new crop of bacons comes in. Veal, lamb, rabbit, portobello, duck and goat are all being given the bacon treatment in Chicago restaurants by creative chefs trying to stand out from the porcine hordes.
High-minded purists object that many of these dishes aren’t actually “bacon.” Not only is bacon usually made of pork, it is also generally made only from the belly of the pig. Some of these nouveau bacons don’t come from bellies, and none of them come from pigs.
Frankly, we couldn’t care less. If it walks like a bacon and quacks like a bacon (and tastes like a bacon) fry it up and stop complaining.
Speaking of quacking, one of the best of the new breed of bacons is the duck bacon available at Markethouse. Chef Scott Walton found himself inundated with duck breasts last year and came up with a delicious solution. “Come wintertime, it’s cassoulet season,” Walton explained. Cassoulet usually is made with duck legs and thighs. “I was stuck with so many duck breasts I had no idea what to do. They just kept adding up and adding up, so I started curing them. Finally, we got to the point where we realized it was pretty delicious.”
The duck bacon begins with an herb and salt cure made with thyme, coriander, caraway seed, white peppercorns, black peppercorns, bay leaves and sugar. After 24 hours, the duck gets cold-smoked in a smoker Walton built inside of one of the kitchen ovens. During the smoking, it’s brushed with syrup made of bourbon, coffee, star anise and cinnamon. After the smoking, it’s hung to dry for two weeks until all the moisture is gone.
Walton uses the bacon in all sorts of dishes, including a pasta carbonara made with duck, a salad that includes duck bacon lardons, a duck bacon jam and a croque monsieur sandwich with duck bacon. It’s also available to buy retail at Markethouse for $12 a pound, and it’s so good that you could scarf down a pound in about 10 minutes. Your heart might not thank you, but your taste buds will.
Chef Derek Simcik at Atwood Cafe was likewise trying to figure out what new dishes he could concoct with extra parts of rabbits that were lying around and hit upon the idea of rabbit bacon. He uses the loin and part of the back fat and treats it just like bacon, starting with a dry sugar cure and then a smoke. He describes his smoking process as “MacGyvering” the rabbit, since his kitchen isn’t set up for smoking and he uses a cast iron pot, wood chips and a convection oven.
Simcik has served the rabbit bacon in several different ways, including a play on the traditional pairing of ham and melon that uses compressed watermelon (infused with Monster energy drink in a cryovac machine) topped with the rabbit bacon and a slice of hard cheese. Simcik’s slightly perverse wit led him to think up “The rabbit got caught in the garden” — a farm fresh salad with little pieces of rabbit bacon.
Do people get confused seeing rabbit bacon on the menu? “I get questions about it all the time,” Simcik confessed. “It gives me a chance to go and talk to the guests and get out of the kitchen! I tell them it’s not really bacon — it’s just cured the same way as bacon.”
Dirk Flanigan, executive chef at the Gage and Henri, has taken bacon to the next level, combining two different meats to make one super-powered bacon. He uses lamb cap and goat belly, and glues them together. Yup, glues. First, each of the meats is cured in a salt and sugar mixture. Then the lamb and the goat are put together with a substance called “Activa,” which Flanigan explained makes two proteins adhere to each other. Afterward, he compresses the two meats together under vacuum, and then does a final cure with salt and sugar and herbs. The product has been used regularly in specials, particularly as a fancier version of the lardons in an otherwise-traditional lyonnaise salad.
These aren’t the only examples of great alternative bacons. Heather Terhune, executive chef at Sable Kitchen and Bar (and “Top Chef” contestant) created a lamb bacon, partly because she wanted to try out her new smoker. The lamb bacon is cured and smoked just like regular bacon, but uses Slagel Farms lamb that Terhune describes as “kind of gamey.” She’s incorporated it into a wedge salad, paired it with avocado in a deconstructed Cobb salad, and even made a BLT with the lamb bacon and a sunny-side up duck egg.
Chef Kevin Hickey at Allium, in the Four Seasons, also is playing with lamb, featuring lamb bacon on a flatbread alongside goat cheese. We asked if anyone actually ordered it. “I didn’t think it would be a huge seller, but it’s really popular,” Hickey told us. “I think Chicagoans are very into the whole snout-to-tail dining thing and are a little adventurous.” Hickey also insisted that this is real bacon, made with lamb belly and traditionally cured. He emphasized that the only two requirements for bacon are a belly and a “terrestrial animal.”
Even vegetarians can get into the act, as Karyn’s on Green serves up a portobello bacon atop vegan “chorizo” sliders made with chipotle aioli and a tomato-pepper jam.
So next time you have a hankering for some bacon, think about moving outside of your comfort zone and trying something new to get your smoky, salty fix. You might never go back.
Anthony Todd is a local free-lance writer.