Farm fresh in the city: Social Urban puts local touch on food
On a recent evening I was lazily paging through the most recent issue of Midwest Living. As usual, everything looked gorgeous, and every featured city looked like an enticing weekend road trip.
Then I came upon the spread on Rockford, Ill. My first thought was that Rockford has a good publicist. And then the Social Urban Bar & Restaurant caught my attention. No place in Rockford could be that good, right?
Wrong. This little restaurant is astonishingly good. With only a handful of large, communal tables and a bar, Social is a foodie place of worship. It's all about the local ingredients and sharing the rapture with friends and strangers alike.
We tried most of the menu, and there wasn't a miss. No complaints. Perfection. It was among the best food experiences I have had anywhere.
The menu lists all the local farms where the chefs source their ingredients. One of the chefs comes out to deliver every plate and explains where the components came from and how they were cooked. It's like listening to an artist describe a painting. The earnest pride of the chefs, bartenders and wait staff is something special. But it's not a stuffy experience-it's relaxed and fun.
We started with a couple of cocktails from an impressive drink menu. I ordered a Caipirinha ($11), a Brazilian cocktail. This drink can knock you over with lime, but Social's version was bright and summery. My husband, Richard, ordered his favorite, a Sazerac ($11), a mixture of rye, absinthe and bitters. I liked its smooth, easygoing Southern flavor.
Like its food, Social doesn't mess around with average drinks. The restaurant makes fresh juices, uses small-batch bitters, makes its own grenadine, and creates syrups and mixers using herbs grown on the roof.
The bartenders also use artisinal spirits, which are spendy but tasty. For example, the Sin Nombre ($10) was an unusual but refreshing concoction of Mezcal, basil syrup, fresh ginger and lemon. As a mixologist wannabe, I was fascinated by the flavor combinations. Fortunately, Richard drove home.
Social offers a handful of big plates, but the creativity was most evident in the small plate menu. We started with the cheese curds ($6), which were far from average. The kitchen cut chunks of fresh, local Butterkase cheese, rolled it in panko, fried it to a light crispness and then dusted the little nuggets of bliss in chili salt. Mild gooeyness, crunch, spice and salt in every mouthful.
Things only got better. The ramp and kale gratin ($11), was a bubbling, browned mixture of vegetables and Swiss cheese that was delicately delicious. It was served with both tortilla chips and fresh crudites. We scooped up every last bit.
What can I say about the arugula and egg salad ($8)? The mixture of spicy arugula was lightly coated in a warm dressing created with house-made bacon, aged balsamic vinegar and truffle oil. A farm-fresh egg, with its deliciously runny yolk, and a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt added the final touches. Words don't do it justice.
I have eaten only one salad that compares-at Primo in Maine. Primo is another locavore/farm restaurant, which food personality Anthony Bourdain has called the best restaurant north of New York. Just so you know, it's that good.
The pork tacos ($12) have been on the menu since Social opened more than three years ago. Three corn tortillas held slices of crisp pork belly, onion, cilantro, lime, guacamole, melted Butterkase cheese and red cabbage slaw. The softness of the tortilla, cheese and avocado created a beautiful balance of flavor and texture with the crunchy assertiveness of the pork and slaw. Richard is a taco fanatic. He went nuts over these.
Then we tried the next dish, which he liked even better. The beef flank ($13) was around four ounces of tenderly cooked steak, sliced and served with a sauce of miso and ginger and accompanied by a moist jasmine rice with green onion. Both the tacos and flank steak were big enough to be entrees if combined with a salad.
After all that amazing food, we had to check out a dessert.
The bread pudding ($6) was sliced and then lightly pan fried to give it some crispness on the outside. It was served with caramelized white chocolate chunks, honey, lemon, figs and pine nuts.
Honestly, I wasn't expecting much of dessert. Many restaurants this focused on savory don't do sweet well. Once again, Social was a surprise.
The whole experience was a surprise. After driving along streets lined with abandoned warehouses and sidewalks littered with broken glass, it was like landing in Oz when we turned the corner onto those two blocks on State Street. The area bustles with ethnic restaurants, boutiques and a creative vibe. Someone turned on the Technicolor.
Maybe Rockford doesn't need such a great publicist after all.
Joan Neeno is a freelance writer who reviews regional restaurants for The Gazette.