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R & D: Recently, Izard (top left) has been trying out dishes for her new restaurant at underground dinners around the city.
Stephanie Izard weaves in and out of traffic, the beams of her Mini Cooper barely piercing the foggy gray haze that envelops I-57. No one has passed us for miles. All the way from Chicago to Champaign, the tiny car whizzes past 18-wheelers, SUVs, and vehicles twice its size. What would take the average driver two and a half hours takes Izard barely two.
We’re off to Champaign to visit Prairie Fruits Farm, a small husband-and-wife-owned establishment that will make unique specialty cheeses for Izard’s forthcoming restaurant, Girl & the Goat. On the way, she tells the Taco Bell story, pausing to abruptly change lanes. A few nights before, the rising young chef and one of her two sous-chefs, Dave Gollan, were out in the suburbs cooking a charity dinner. Riding back to the city in a hired car, they chased the workday with a bottle of wine and some homemade pineapple vodka. That went down smoothly, so they ventured to The Bluebird in Bucktown for a few beers. Sometime in the night, they took a cab to a Taco Bell. Of course, the morning after, neither Izard nor Gollan remembered the Taco Bell visit. It took finding a receipt—and $9.47 in change in Izard’s pocket—to shake loose the memory.
And though it is buried in the recesses of inebriation, the Taco Bell trip is strangely relevant. Which Izard finds funny. That’s part of her charm. She can whip up a four-course meal for the most discerning audiences, as she did on season 4 of the hit TV show Top Chef, or she can wolf down a gordita and a beer and have the gall to call it research.
The gordita is research. Or was intended to be. For the uninitiated, a gordita—actually, Taco Bell’s Cheesy Gordita Crunch—is a taco with two outer layers: a soft flatbread and a hard taco shell. It’s the play between the crunchy and the chewy that Izard wants to incorporate into a dish for Girl & the Goat. In her version, she fries up pizza dough so that it is crisp, yet soft on the inside. She imagines that the fried dough will serve as a scoop for brandade, a blend of fish, cream, and potatoes that has the consistency of a dip. Her mother, Sue, used to fry up dough like that, and it’s one of Izard’s favorite foods from her childhood.
As for the rest of the dishes, she has loose ideas: a flatbread topped with shredded goat, house-made sausages, sustainable seafood dishes. Four months before the restaurant’s May opening date, if you ask Izard what the menu will be, she laughs and says, “There’s going to be one.” But even she’s not sure yet exactly what will be on it.
I’ve been hanging out with Izard for three weeks now, and I haven’t seen her cook a thing. Nor would I taste a bite until later at a private dinner with 100 other guests. She promises that she and her sous-chefs have been experimenting with sausage making and meat curing. But during the time I’ve been with her, that has been on hold as she picks her pottery, approves her logo, and sorts through the millions of tiny details that surround any major restaurant opening. The opening is a big one, particularly given the lousy economy: Izard’s business partners, Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, are spending $1.5 million to convert an old manufacturing facility at 809 West Randolph Street (near Halsted) into a fully functioning restaurant.
On its face, it sounds like a shrewd investment. Izard won a reality show watched by millions and refused to stop there. By thinking of herself as a brand, she has extended her 15 minutes of fame some two years and counting. That she’ll star in her own TV show one day isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when.
But is Girl & the Goat a huge gamble? Izard ran a self-funded restaurant for nearly three years, then closed it after she got too stressed out. The concept isn’t novel, either: It’s a shared-plates gastropub, the kind of thing that Chicago—and even the West Loop—has seen before.
The truth is, the most hyped restaurant opening that Chicago has experienced in a while is probably both a calculated capitalization on a budding brand and a roll of the dice.
Photography: Tyllie Barbosa
* * *Dining & Drinking