Lamb loin chops with mnazaleh WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY MONICA KASS ROGERS
The golden glow spilling through Pixca’s front windows may be as warm as Oaxaca, Chef-owner Fernando Angelina’s birthplace, but the food is a global embrace. Pixca, the Mayan word for “harvest,” continues the vegetable-forward adventures Angelina started as executive chef at Guildhall in Glencoe, with new seasonal surprises.
The burrata you’ve had elsewhere as an appetizer likely came with tomato and basil. But here? The creamy dollop nestles over richly flavored burnt cabbage, black olive tarator, and toasted almond, plus honey that’s been house-infused with guajillo chilies. The blend of tarator (Lebanese tahini sauce) with oil-cured black olives is unexpected. But the cabbage—first braised in saltwater, then grilled with house-made Asian honey mustard, is even more so. Unusual as the cultural blending is, the flavors and textures work well together.
Pixca chef and owner Fernando Angelina
“I love changing people’s perception of what vegetables can be,” says Angelina, who opened Pixca in September 2020.
Pickling, wood-grilling, natural fermentation, and a wide-ranging use of spices all figure in his vegetable enhancement techniques.
One example? The coffee-glazed rainbow carrots we tried were roasted, then soaked in house-made coffee kombucha, before being roasted a second time and paired with a peppery chestnut puree, crunchy puffed rice, and sunflower seeds. Meltingly sweet, the carrots benefited from the pepper of the puree and darkness of the coffee soak.
“Whenever I create a dish,” says Angelina, “I think of the vegetable first. And once the vegetable part of a recipe is perfected, then I ask myself, “what protein would this pair well with?”
Tall and tender lamb loin chops were the natural pairing for Angelina’s spin on mnazaleh—the Israeli stew of eggplant, tomato, chickpeas, and spices that some Middle Eastern countries serve with minced lamb. Here, Angelina’s mnazaleh is made with Calabrian chilis, house-pickled sultana raisins, chickpeas, eggplant, and Roma tomatoes. While the chickpeas were a bit al dente, the sauce was fragrant, rich, and zesty, enhanced by the chop topping of minced sage, rosemary, thyme, and lemon zest. It was our favorite dish of the evening.
But there were very close seconds. The plump and perfectly roasted half chicken, with darkly house-fermented garlic jus and roast root vegetables, was very good. So was the walnut-crusted rainbow trout, spiced with baharat, sauced with creamy woodgrilled eggplant and tahini, and topped with a Spanish olive tapenade and daikon shreds.
Pumpkin bread pudding with toffee sauce and housemade creme fraiche
Angelina’s love for wood grilling goes back to his childhood farm. There, his mother’s acreage was planted three-sisters style— with corn, beans, and squash. “Every morning, my mother would have me bring her a squash, which she would throw into the fire until it was completely charred,” says Angelina. “For breakfast, she would spoon the sugary squash into bowls with milk and cinnamon. It was delicious.”
Angelina still loves squash, “Pumpkin, butternut, acorn, kabocha—all of it,” he smiles.
Roast half chicken with root vegetables and fermented garlic jus
Reflecting this, the walls in Pixca are painted a glowing yellow. And on the menu, squash adds a sweet note to Pixca’s autumn salad, where it balances out the bitterness of radicchio and walnut and mellows the tang of the apple cider vinaigrette.
Squash also figures in Pixca’s best-selling dessert: Pumpkin bread pudding. A redux of the house-made cinnamon rolls Pixca serves at its Mexican-style weekend brunch, the pudding also includes brioche, roasted pumpkin puree, clove, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Sweetened with maple syrup and topped with warm toffee sauce and house-made crème fraiche, the pudding stands tall on the plate. A warming comfort.
Looking ahead, Angelina says he will continue to forge relationships with local farms to keep his seasonal game strong. “And my education with spices is never-ending,” he says. “I’m experimenting all the time, never trying to re-invent the wheel, just putting my own spin on it.”
Pixca is located at 455 Central Avenue in Highland Park, 847-926- 3189, pixcarestaurant.com.
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