When it comes to quintessential winter foods, cranberries are pretty close to the top. And while much of the time they're pigeonholed as giggly canned sauce, cranberries are actually one of the most versatile seasonal products around and stand on their own tangy merits as an ingredient that transcends Thanksgiving. From cranberry aïoli and milkshakes to cranberry margaritas and even sushi, Chicago restaurants are proving this season that there are more to cranberries than holiday goo.
Start your day with a big ol' plateful of red cornmeal and cranberry hotcakes at Bongo Room. This temple of breakfast indulgence is renowned for its hulking portions and its affinity for doughy delicacies. You don't come here fo diet fare. The whimsical eatery rotates pancake flavors throughout the seasons, with one of the latest iterations being a medley of ground red cornmeal hotcakes speckled with fresh cranberries and strewn with powdered sugar, toasted pecans, honey, and bourbon butter. Because it's never too early for bourbon butter.
Cranberries are a prominent player at Grange Hall Burger Bar. First of all, cranberry juice is made in-house and reserved for beverage purposes, crafted by boiling crushed fresh cranberries and mixing them with lemon, simple syrup, and cinnamon. The tart fruits also lend a bit of pizzaz to aïoli, livening up a sage- and onion-flecked turkey burger.
Cranberries and margaritas aren't the most obvious of fall duos, but they certainly work wonders together at de cero, the tanginess of the berries in perfect harmony with the piquant tequila and heady spices. Freshly made cranberry juice is mixed with lime, simple syrup, cinnamon, apple cider, and 100% blue agave reposado tequila, putting an autumnal American variation on the Mexican classic.
Cranberries and burgers obviously go hand-in-hand, because here they are again on the menu at a burger shop. This time though, they skew sweet. Though limited in their use of seasonal ingredients as a no-frills Americana burger spot, Edzo's Burger Shop peddles cranberry milkshakes between Thanksgiving and Christmas, made by pureeing cranberries and white chocolate together to make for a rich, drinkable dessert that not only tastes festive, but looks the part as well.
Across the street from de cero, Japanese sister spot Sushi Dokku is also getting crafty with cranberries. Likely one of the most unusual cran-creations on a menu this year, Sushi Dokku uses the fruits to make a highly unique nigiri chef bite. To start, fresh cranberries are boiled and crushed to make a slightly sweet cranberry sauce. It's served atop hirame and topped with fresh ginger and green onion. The pristine, fresh fish lays a sublime framework for the medley of tart, spicy, sweet flavors draped overtop, and you'll never look at a can of cranberry sauce the same way again.
For a rare instance of seasonal cross-breeding, David Burke's Primehouse manages to seamlessly combine cranberries with the spring-y steakhouse staple, asparagus. Executive chef Rick Gresh explains that as a steakhouse, it's damn near impossible to remove asparagus from the menu, as guests expect it almost as much as the beef. So he makes the most of it by adding in-season accoutrements. Right now, he tops his asparagus with pickled cranberries.
Photos: NAHA, Chelsea Ross, de cero, Sushi Dokku