Three way | Sarsaparilla
What local chefs are doing with sarsaparilla
First things first. Sarsaparilla is not sassafras. The former is a vine native to South America; the latter is a North American tree, the leaves of which are essential for flavoring filé powder (key in gumbo) and, at one time, root beer. Sarsaparilla is bitter and nutty, with, well, a root beer–like flavor (hence the confusion). That flavor is key to Otom’s Pisco Float ($12), which includes both sarsaparilla syrup and sarsaparilla bitters, both housemade. Pisco brings the punch, egg brings the froth, and lemon balances the earthiness. (951 W Fulton Mkt, 312-491-5804).
Simmer sarsaparilla root in water, and voila! You have a flavorful broth, perfect for poaching. At least that’s what Tim Graham does to create TRU’s sarsaparilla quail ($25). The bird is poached in the broth before being cooked al matone, meaning on a grill, covered with a brick, to achieve crispy skin before the flesh dries out. Just for an extra dose of sarsaparilla, root shavings are pureed with smoked cippolini onions and plated alongside the quail with buttered cabbage and quail jus flavored with chestnuts and figs. (676 N St. Clair St, 312-202-0001)
For the key ingredient to Blackbird’s sarsaparilla skate wing ($12), sous chef Ivy King decided to take a similar approach of simmering sarsaparilla root in water, but she added sugar and let the mixture thicken into a tart, nutty caramel. Buttery sautéed skate is the center of attention on the appetizer (pickled Asian pears, dense brown bread, Parmiggiano-Reggiano shavings and fried rosemary don’t slouch), but for our money, it’s the sarsaparilla that pulls everything together. (619 W Randolph St between Desplaines and Jefferson Sts, 312-715-0708).