MAD Social Review – West Loop, Chicago
Even as a newcomer to this city, there are a few names in the Chicago food scene that foodies quickly become familiar with. Stefani is one of them. It’s a safe bet that most Chicagoans have experienced one of the Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants, whether it’s Castaways — a summer snack shack housed in a ship buried on the beach — or Tuscany, a classic Italian spot serving the family’s signature flavors.
While the Stefani family has been feeding Chicagoans for decades, it’s been 14 years since they’ve opened a new restaurant. That changed earlier this year when Gina Stefani, Phil Stefani’s daughter, made her debut in the restaurant scene. MAD Social opened in the West Loop with much buzz. The restaurant promised to be an edgier, eclectic departure from the the Stefani brand, while maintaining the Stefani signature friendly, familial atmosphere.
I was thrilled when Gina invited me to try her new spot!
West Loop is probably the most buzzed-about neighborhood for dining out in Chicago right now. While Randolph Street is flanked by new openings and established favorites like Girl and the Goat and Au Cheval, MAD Social is located one street over, on the still up-and-coming Madison Street. Continue down Madison a few blocks past MAD Social, and you hit the United Center, home of the Bulls and Blackhawks. Despite its proximity to the apex of the Chicago sports universe, MAD Social strays far from the sports bar that you would expect to find close to such a venue.
If you’re looking for an establishment lined with TVs to catch the action down the street, MAD Social is not for you. However, if you’re looking for a place to catch up with good friends over outstanding food and creative cocktails, grab a seat and stick around.
MAD Social’s aesthetic is comfortably luxurious. You’ll find tufted leather booths and marble tabletops, paired with exposed brick walls and an upbeat soundtrack. From the staff to the patrons, the attitude is friendly and inviting.
From my seat behind the hostess’ table, I noticed Gina greeting guests and checking up on everyone. She really does treat visitors like family.
While perusing the menu, which is an eclectic mix of both American and internationally-inspired dishes made for sharing, Gina came over and recommended a few of her favorites: the beet salad, ropa vieja, and chicken and waffles (made with churro waffles!). With that in mind, my boyfriend and I placed our drink order and studied the food menu.
[Drinks] MADteani & El Guapo
I began my meal with the MADteani ($14), which tasted like lavender, with subtle notes of earl grey and honey. A single violet floating in my drink made for beautiful presentation. With little experience with martinis under my belt, the MADteani was a bit strong for my novice palette. However, I am certain that martini lovers would love the play of flavors.
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My boyfriend got the El Guapo ($13), a tequila-based cocktail made with vanilla syrup and bitters, and garnished with a jalapeno. The El Guapo blew both of us away. For someone who typically has a strong distaste for the flavor of tequila, I thought this cocktail was fantastic. The mixologist really knew what (s)he was doing because the flavors were blended together so well that I couldn’t taste the distinct tequila flavor. The El Guapo went down smooth and was very refreshing. I could smell the jalapeno whenever I would take a sip of the drink, but beyond that, the cocktail wasn’t spicy. The delicious cocktails set the tone for the rest of the meal.
Like at most shared-plates restaurants, the dishes came out as they were prepared. The meal kicked off with the MAD Poutine ($12), and oh my god was it delicious! For those unfamiliar with poutine, it’s a Canadian specialty consisting of fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. I’ve had poutine in its homeland, but MADSocial’s version — upgraded with red wine sauce, mushrooms, and a fried egg — was exponentially better. While fries tend to get soggy in poutine, these fries stayed crispy until we devoured the dish. Once we broke the yolk, its gooey sauce brought all of the flavors of the dish together. The roasted mushrooms mixed with the wine sauce and runny yolk created an addicting smoky, umami flavor. The mushrooms were the perfect combination of firm and chewy. The flavor of rosemary (probably my favorite herb) made this dish a home run.
While fishing around the poutine plate for gravy with my fork that I so wished was a spoon, the Ropa Vieja ($14) arrived. This was my first time having ropa vieja, which is traditionally a Cuban dish (meaning “old clothes”) consisting of stewed beef and vegetables. This version resembled pulled beef served on crispy plantain chips. On first bite, I tasted spices that are usually found in Mexican dishes and that I have an aversion to (probably because of experiences with bad cafeteria food). As I kept chewing, I realized that this wasn’t like nacho day at my high school cafeteria, and the other, richer flavors of the dish pronounced themselves. I tasted creamy and tart sour cream, sweet corn, and refreshing cilantro. Unlike other pulled pork or beef dishes I’ve had, this meat was far from dry. The plantain chip was the perfect accompaniment to the ropa vieja.
Chicken and Churro Waffles
I was sad when there was no ropa vieja left, but I was salivating over the prospect of what was to come: the Chicken and Waffles ($20). The dish’s simple name does not give away the fact that the chicken is served on no ordinary waffle, but a churro waffle! Sounds amazing, right?! Although I had never had the classic chicken and waffle combo before coming to MAD Social, I had a feeling that this version would be in a league of its own.
As I eagerly waited for the chicken and churro waffles, I noticed that more time had passed between this course than the others. I worried that our waiter forgot about us, but then I realized that MAD Social was packed for a Tuesday night, and that they were just working out the kinks of a newly-opened restaurant. (I went less than a month after the restaurant had opened). After waving our waiter down, I was told that the chicken and waffles take longer to come out than other dishes on the menu (pro tip).
When the dish arrived, it was well worth the wait. The presentation was dramatic and provocative. Heads turned at the tables neighboring ours when the dish came out. A single, beautiful waffle was topped with a thin, breaded chicken escalope the size of my face. A slice of charred pork belly garnished the chicken. All of the layers were held together with a steak knife that was delivered in an upright position. If there was ever a time to describe food as “sexy,” this was it.
The dish was served with house-made hot sauce (in the orange bottle) and maple syrup, a sine qua non of any chicken and waffles dish, no matter how fancy.
As someone who had never experienced this meat-and-dessert combo before, I was worried that this marriage of sweet and savory would be an acquired taste. However, my first bite of the chicken and churro waffles was out of this world. Instead of greasy chicken on a flavorless waffle (which is how I imagine this dish typically is), MAD Social’s rendition was sophisticated and full of flavor.
Rather than the waffle overwhelming the chicken with its sweetness and the chicken overwhelming the waffle with its meatiness, the two complemented each other perfectly. I was shocked by how the waffle stood its own under the chicken, which typically dominates any dish it’s part of. I was impressed by how the chicken almost served as a blank canvas that complemented the waffle rather than hogging the spotlight.
The churro waffle was crispy and sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. The thinness of the chicken helped it not overwhelm the dish. Like the waffle, the chicken was crispy, and breaded to perfection. The charred pork belly (the unidentifiable black blob on top of the chicken), added the saltiness that I thought I was expecting from the chicken. The pork belly melted in my mouth like butter. It was the perfect complement to the dish.
I enjoyed drizzling the entree in maple syrup for a sweet touch. My boyfriend, the hot sauce connoisseur, could not get enough of MAD Social’s house-made hot sauce. He asked Gina if they sold the hot sauce, but alas, that was not an option – yet.
The chicken and churro waffles were incredible. I can’t stop thinking about them even several weeks after having the dish. MAD Social’s chicken and churro waffles would be the perfect springboard for brunch, which Gina tells me is in the cards for the restaurant. I can’t wait to come back to try that menu.
The Bottom Line:
MAD Social is the first restaurant I have eaten at where I didn’t have any changes I would have made to the food. Every single dish was perfect the way it was served. MAD Social is a hot restaurant that has the potential to outlast the buzz around its novelty and become a neighborhood establishment where friends meet regularly over delicious cocktails and outstanding food.
Although this meal was provided by the restaurant, Better Than Ramen’s writers pride themselves in sharing their honest opinions
1140 W. Madison St. (West Loop)
Chicago, IL 6067