Giant’s Engaging Comfort Food, As Seen Through Five Dishes
Whenever I’ve tried to describe the food to someone who’s never eaten at Giant, standard menu-speak like “seasonal American” or “elevated comfort food” never quite cut it.
“See, there’s this infinitely layered lasagna, waffle fries with blue crab salad, sweet-and-sour eggplant and sticky-sweet pork ribs all on one menu!” I’d explain. Eventually, I simply started describing it as “food people like” — not unlike how the late artist Andy Warhol defined pop art: “It’s about liking things.”
It turns out that description “is the clearest view of what I like to do,” says Jason Vincent, chef and partner with Josh Perlman of the pint-size Logan Square restaurant. “I’ve struggled with that my whole career. I remember [One Off Hospitality chef] Paul Kahan, my idol, telling me, if you can’t describe your restaurant in three words, it’s a failure — and spending every f—ing waking moment thinking about three words.”
Over a year-and-a-half in survival mode, Vincent hasn’t thought much at all about Giant’s food or how to describe it; instead he’s focused on keeping his family and staff safe (and the latter gainfully employed) while keeping two restaurants (including Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar) afloat. But as he and Perlman readied five-year-old Giant to reopen for dine-in in May, Vincent leaned into the muscle memory of menu development once more as a means of therapy — “grasping at normalcy and sanity,” as he puts it.
That meant retiring certain long-standing items, like the fan fave uni shooter, a few pastas and those ribs, as he and his fellow cooks threw themselves into such new exercises as how to do justice to cold fried chicken and find a new, still nostalgic, way to serve pork.
“Now’s the time to get rid of things that didn’t do well, that calcified over five years,” Vincent says. “We are selfishly cooking food that we really, really like. If you’re a snob about goat cheese cannolini, f— off! That’s what people want. But hopefully other dishes resonate, or the service does, or you like the wine list, the vibe, the room, and people are nice to you.”
Of course, a few old standbys remain, including that comfy lasagna, waffle fries with crab, and the “little” (read: towering) buttery biscuit. But today, let’s talk about five brand-new dishes that still say Giant.
1. Tempura Trout Roe
This one-biter is an indulgent sequel to the beloved uni shooter, a burst of briny fried butter that nodded to the late French-born D.C. chef Jean-Louis Palladin’s deep-fried oyster filled with caviar butter. In the trout version, Giant’s chefs make a compound butter with cooked potatoes, MSG, citric acid, and trout roe, which they coat in toasted panko for nuttiness. After chilling, the butter rounds are coated in tempura batter, fried to order, and topped with sour cream, more trout roe, and chives. “It’s delicious; I’ll eat it for the next five years,” Vincent says.
2. Cold Fried Chicken
“Everybody loves eating cold fried chicken,” Vincent says. “This is the perfect distillation of all the different sensory things that make that good.”
That means it’s technically served closer to room temp rather than cold — to optimize the dark meat’s rich flavor of the chicken and maintain the outer crunch. The carefully engineered process starts a few days in advance, when the chefs rub Amish chicken drumsticks in mushroom powder and other flavorings, then let them sit for a day. They bread the chicken in flour, buttermilk, and cracker meal and fry it, then let it sit out until service, when each flavorful, still-crunchy drumstick is arranged alongside seasonal veg (bok choy, for now) atop peach-plum jam flecked with Thai chiles and peanuts. In other words, your favorite picnic food, fancified.
3. Grilled Pork
Just because the ribs came off the menu doesn’t mean Team Giant doesn’t love pork more than most proteins. Playing around with different cuts led the kitchen team to the meaty neck, which lends itself beautifully to grilling.
The pork is sliced and skewered with onions soaked in orange vinegar syrup then grilled until the edges are richly charred. “Honestly, we’re skirting the edge of burnt food, but nobody’s sent it back. It’s summer. It’s that nostalgic thing of grilling food until the edges are almost burnt.” The pork is served with feta, tomatoes, and fermented tofu chimichurri — a finishing sauce stolen from a previous bay scallop dish — and a crisp-chewy slab of scallion pancake.
“(Chef de cuisine) Mike Gaia and (chef) Melven Botacabe and I all came together on this, and little by little it became a Giant dish,” Vincent says. “It happens that way a lot.”
4. Cannolini with Goat Cheese
Because everyone likes lots of pasta options, the goat cheese cannolini was born to fulfill the “stuffed” pasta prerequisite. The chefs add a touch of vinegar to the housemade dough to make it tender, then smash a basil leaf into it as they roll it out, “so it distributes itself and perfumes the dough with basil, which is neat,” Vincent says. The ruffly-edged pasta is stuffed with Prairie Farms goat cheese, then nestled into a luscious sauce of almond pesto and sun-dried tomato butter. The seasonless nature of the dish betrays the ongoing unpredictability of running a small restaurant in a pandemic.
“When I wrote the menu, I didn’t know if we’d be closed for another two months,” Vincent says, “and the sun-dried tomato butter and almond pesto were good in case we had to delay the season. Plus, almost everything we’re talking about today can be frozen, which is very telling of our mindset.”
5. Crêpe Cake
Inspired by pastry chef Heather Haviland’s (owner of Lucky’s Cafe in Cleveland) layered crêpe cake with cashew buttercream, Giant’s version starts the same but takes a different flavor direction. Huge stacks of crêpes are cooked and cooled, then stacked with alternating layers of yellow cake puree and ricotta with candied orange and chocolate. The resulting cake is sliced into wedges and served in a bright-red pool of sweetened tart-cherry sauce spiked with cinnamon, cloves, and lemon. “It’s delicious, and we just needed something we can produce a lot of,” Vincent says.
Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based freelance food and drink journalist, and the former restaurant critic for Time Out Chicago. Her work has appeared in such publications as Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Taste, Eater and Food52. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.