Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Springtime Spears: Asparagus is back and it's sprouting up at these local spots.

It's the season for all things green, and there's a reason why asparagus tops the list of our favorite farm-fresh picks each year. Its vibrant green stalks (or white, if you're into that sort of thing) are great for snacking raw, drizzling with olive oil, tossing in a salad, blending into a soup and (our personal favorite) wrapping in bacon. In fact, the possibilities for asparagus are almost endless, but the spears themselves aren't. They'll only be around for the next month or two, so get over to these venues before you miss out.

We wouldn't normally think of calling this Michigan Avenue restaurant "budget-friendly." But NoMI's $25 prix-fixe lunch is helping to change that. The value-minded three-course meal kicks off spring with a chilled asparagus soup, topped with toasted brioche and vanilla creme fraiche. For the main course, you can have your pick of the flat-iron steak sandwich, ricotta gnocchi, the ikebana sushi platter or NoMI's fresh catch of the day. Desserts include seasonal sorbets, peaches-and-cream ice cream bars and chocolate-raspberry savarin. If a $25 lunch is still enough to make you wince, try the asparagus soup a la carte for $12.

Arrowhead Restaurant and Bar
It's one thing to offer a seasonal asparagus dish, but its entirely another to give the perennial plant its very own menu. That's exactly what Arrowhead has in store for its first annual Asparagus Fest. Throughout the month of May, guests will have the chance to sample a lineup of unique dishes like asparagus and shrimp risotto, polenta and gruyere timbale with asparagus-morel sauce and asparagus soup with white truffle crouton. You can also get the stuff coated in tempura with bearnaise sauce or wrapped in prosciutto. For the main course, Arrowhead is featuring a pork tenderloin and asparagus roulade, served with potato-asparagus hash and apple cider reduction sauce, along with an Alaskan halibut and asparagus-mushroom ragout in red wine sauce. Prices range from $4-$21.

Nettelhorst French Market
If you like your asparagus in the raw, or are just looking to save some dough by preparing it yourself, then hike it over to the French Market. This little spot, located in the Nettelhorst School parking lot, brings together an eclectic bunch of farmers, bakers, fromaggiers, florists and other artisans every Saturday (through November 1) from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. But before you get too caught up in nibbling on scones, coconut macaroons and giant chocolate cupcakes, pay a visit to the produce guy. Not only will he keep you on the right track, he'll sell you a full bundle of the freshest white or green stalks in the city for about $4.

Farmerie 58
When it comes to seasonal ingredients, it only makes sense for a farm-focused restaurant to already be a step above the rest. So we weren't surprised when we noticed an asparagus soup on Farmerie 58's new spring menu, and we weren't disappointed, either. The $8 dish, served with sauteed spring peas and creme fraiche, makes for the perfect perennial appetizer or figure-friendly meal. We recommend following up with something light, like the restaurant's seafood salad, a mix of scallops, crab, shrimp, mixed greens and honey-lime dressing, $12.

Carnivale is all about asparagus this month, and to prove it, the restaurant will feature the green in a special salad from Monday, May 18-Sunday, May 24. In addition to the main ingredient, the farm-fresh dish will bring together jonah crab and green-garlic jalapeno dressing, $12. Other farm-inspired dishes include a white gazpacho (marcona almonds, blue marble yogurt, grapes, extra virgin olive oil), wild salmon (roasted mushrooms, leeks, aji rocoto cream) and panna cotta (yogurt lemon custard, quince, cheese empanada), $7-$28.

Tapas Valencia
This recently opened South Loop spot boasts a brand-new lunch menu, complete with our favorite seasonal spear. The menu, featuring salads, entrees and hot and cold tapas, makes good use of asparagus in its pisto manchego with sauteed vegetables, $5.25. But we think the green really makes a statement in the esparragos con salmon, crisp asparagus spears wrapped in smoked salmon and served on dill sour cream toast points with mixed baby greens, $9.25.

Asparagus is always in vogue at this Japanese restaurant, where it makes appearances in a number of signature maki rolls like the regionally inspired Chicago Bulls and the student-friendly UIC. The first showcases asparagus in a spicy mix of tuna, fresh yellowtail, sliced jalapeno, avocado and tobiko, $15. The second, designed with the college crowd in mind, brings together spicy tuna, crab, avocado and asparagus, and then deep-fries it for an extra crunch, $10. There's also a little something simple here for the vegetarians with the broiled asparagus roll, $4. But our personal favorite is the asparagus beef; the pan-fried perennial gets wrapped in a slice of beef and served with Kohan's sweet teriyaki sauce, $8.

This article was first published on Centerstage.
Photo: Chilled asparagus soup, courtesy of NoMI.

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