Tomato season is here, and restaurants are making the most of it
Vine dining: Quay Restaurant & Bar's variation on classic gazpacho includes chunks of heirloom tomatoes. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
- Spring brings new crop of salad offerings
- A claw of lobster dishes to kick off the season
- Dining and Drinking
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20 E Chestnut St, Chicago, IL 60611, USA
1160 N Dearborn St, Chicago, IL 60610, USA
1625 Hinman Ave, Evanston, IL 60201, USA
1801 N Naper Blvd, Naperville, IL 60563, USA
465 E Illinois St, Chicago, IL 60611, USA
This season's drought hasn't hurt the bounty of the local tomato crop. Quay executive chef Dan Marquis gets organic tomatoes from a farm about an hour and a half southwest of Chicago that's been in his family for four generations. "This has been a very rough year, and the tomatoes are a little bit behind, but they're doing well because we built a well and irrigate them," he says.
At Cafe des Architectes, Greg Biggers started making dishes with tomatoes at the beginning of August. "Any first-of-the-season produce has a little window of time when it's not at its peak, so the first tomatoes were what I expected," Biggers says. As more and more tomatoes ripen, he's hoping to see "huge juicy ones that stop you in your tracks."
Here is a sampling of a few dishes we've seen where tomatoes are the star or sidekick.
At Cafe des Architectes, Biggers creates a salad with a checkerboard design, alternating cubes of meatier heirloom tomatoes in different colors with pieces of watermelon ($13). It is accompanied by watermelon gelee made with juice from the fruit and watermelon vinegar for a touch of acidity, a yuzu-avocado mousse, balsamic vinegar prepared to resemble caviar, sliced gooseberries and tomato "chicharrones." "The avocado puree adds a little richness and creaminess," says Biggers, "and the chicharrones are made out of roasted tomatoes and are crisp like ones made with pork." The tomato salad is topped with crunchy julienned pickled cucumbers and garnished with frisee and edible flowers. Biggers also pairs tomatoes with fruit in a chilled soup ($11). He places pieces of multicolored grilled melon, such as muskmelon, watermelon and honeydew, in the bottom of a bowl as a pedestal for a basil sorbet garnished with Parmesan foam. The chilled soup is poured on top table-side. 20 E. Chestnut St., 312-324-4063
Lee Ann Whippen knows the pleasures of eating fried green tomatoes because she grew up in the South, where they are a staple, but at Chicago q she has created her own version ($7.50). She cuts the tomatoes in slices a bit thicker than traditional ones and replaces the breadcrumbs with panko. "The panko makes them crunchier and less greasy," Whippen says. In another variation from the norm, she seasons the tomatoes with the restaurant's signature Pig Powder dry rub. "It has 13 ingredients, including cayenne pepper, chili powder and brown and white sugar, so it's sweet with a little bit of heat," she says. The tomatoes are served with a house-made habanero-ranch dipping sauce for an extra kick. Whippen also puts the tomatoes on a smoked turkey club sandwich ($14.50). 1160 N. Dearborn St., 312-642-1160
Dan McGee makes a salad with heirloom tomatoes ($8) that couldn't be any fresher because they are harvested from a farm in Frankfort, where his namesake restaurant is located. The dish is made with any combination of Cherokee Purple, Valencia, Stupice and Green Zebra. The varieties in the salad depend on which tomatoes are the ripest when he needs them. McGee leaves the skin on so the color of the tomatoes plays a major visual role, cuts them into wedges and tosses them with vinegar, fresh basil and cilantro. He sautes fresh corn kernels in olive oil, Dijon mustard and anchovies, and combines them with the tomatoes and garnishes the dish with crunchy pickled red onions. "Whenever you combine ingredients that are a little warm and ones that are cold, you add more flavor," says McGee. 9975 W. Lincoln Way Highway, Frankfort, 815-469-7750
Andy Motto uses tomatoes from Quince's rooftop garden and the Evanston farmers market for a dish of butter-poached lobster and gnocchi in a sauce of heirloom tomatoes, lemon grass and coconut ($16). He garnishes the appetizer with fresh, small, peeled Sweet 100s marinated in fresh basil, basil oil and sherry vinegar. "The tomatoes add a fresh touch to the lobster and gnocchi, which are a bit heavier," Motto explains. He uses heirloom Green Zebras, Pink Girls and beefsteak tomatoes for a summer corn succotash that accompanies pan-seared lamb brushed with fennel glaze served with a sweet garlic custard. "The color contrast of the tomatoes, the red of the beefsteak, the light red of the Pink Girls and the green of the Green Zebras is phenomenal, and we add Melrose peppers for a fresh peppery flavor, and stuff the succotash in pickled cucumbers for textural crunch," says Motto. 1625 Hinman Ave., Evanston, 847-570-8400
Sean Curry offers a menu at Artisan Table where heirloom cherry tomatoes from Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn appear in all three courses ($45). "The tomatoes are super delicious, and my philosophy is that if it tastes great, give it to everybody," he says. Curry combines crunchy Asian pear with the small tomatoes cut in half for a salad that is seasoned with a dried apricot and jalapeno vinaigrette. "The salad is on the sweeter side, but the acid from the tomatoes breaks through the sweetness," he says. Curry combines the cherry tomatoes with apple-cider vinegar and golden raisins to create an agro dolce sauce for the entree of braised short rib served with grilled asparagus. For the final course, pastry chef Erica Tomei places a scoop of olive oil ice cream on a crunchy, sweet, corn shortbread, drizzles on some basil-flavored oil and tops the dessert with tomatoes that have been roasted slowly in the oven until they become caramelized. "The tomatoes are sweet and taste like candy," says Curry. In the Chicago Marriott Naperville, 1801 N. Naper Blvd., Naperville, 630-505-4900
Dan Marquis creates a variation of classic gazpacho ($7) for the menu at Quay Restaurant & Bar. He uses the juice from tomatoes to make a consomme and then adds chunks of heirloom tomatoes such as Indigo Rose, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Hillbilly Potato Leaf and Black Sea Man. "They all have different levels of acidity and sweetness, so when you combine them together they make a nice balance, and the colors are all different, which makes the gazpacho visually appealing," says Marquis. For a cooling effect with a hint of spice, he floats a cucumber salsa with jalapeno peppers on the soup. His roasted heirloom tomato salad ($9) is combined with shaved prosciutto, watermelon and blue cheese. "It's been so hot this summer that I wanted to do the best of both worlds," Marquis says. "You get a little bit of warmth from the roasted tomatoes paired with the cold watermelon and blue cheese." The restaurant also serves a special heirloom tomato pizza ($5) at lunch and dinner on Mondays. 465 E. Illinois St., 312-981-8400