Monday, February 19, 2018

Tasting Collective Dinner at Quiote

I really enjoyed the first Tasting Collective Dinner that I went to at Split Rail, but I was very familiar with the restaurant and the chef.  The next dinner that came up was at a location to which I had been (when it was Letitzia's Fiore), but I had not been to since it had become Mexican Restaurant, Quiote.  I had tried the food of Chef Dan Salls at Pop Ups, benefits, and other events, and had been pretty underwhelmed, but I had never been to his restaurant.  I had noticed that the restaurant was very popular, so I had to wonder if I had just picked the wrong dishes, so I decided to actually try it out.  I also invited my friend, Rich, to accompany me.  The restaurant is small and narrow and is divided into two dining rooms.  A small bar/counter area is in the back of the front dining room it looks over the preparation area and into the brick oven.  We sat here and were able to watch courses being prepared and were able to talk to the staff.  Like the first dinner, we were given a menu which was also a critique sheet and a separate menu for drinks which were offered on a cash only basis.  There were some interesting cocktails on the list, but I decided to take it easy and just stuck with beer, namely a Warpigs Lazurite IPA.  It was bitter, citrusy, and I imagined that it should go well with the flavors of the Mexican food.
We started out with Crab Tostadas with Uni, Mustard Seeds, Hot Sauce, and Microgreens presented in a pan of Dried Corn.  The Tostadas were small, but were full of flavor and texture.  THe tortilla chips were crisp.  The crab was tender and full of flavor and the mustard and hot sauce provided a nice burn.  It was a nice start and it began bringing my opinion around.
After the Tostadas came a Hamachi Crudo with Burnt Chile, Grapefruit, and Sunchoke.  While not precisely Mexican, it was very good.  The hamachi was very tender and flavorful in in a sour and spicy broth that was similar to ceviche.  The grapefruit was very juicy and had a texture similar to the hamachi and the sunchokes, a root vegetable that comes from the root of a sunflower, was served as crispy chips.  It was very fresh tasting, spicy, tart, and very tender with a crisp crunch from the sunchokes.  
After the appetizers came the salad/vegetable dishes.  We started with an Avocado Salad with Brussels Sprouts, Apples, Quinoa, Tomatillo, and Cotija Cheese.  The salad was fresh and crisp from the brussels sprouts and the apples,the quinoa provided some nutty crispiness, and the avocado gave the salad some creaminess.  The tomatillo provided some tartness and the salad was finished with a lot of Cotija cheese. 
The next course was widely thought of as the best dish served for dinner.  It was a Roast Cabbage served with Pepitas, Serrano Peppers, and Burned Sourdough.  The cabbage was roasted in the brick oven until the outside was burned and the inside was tender.  The burnt sourdough was combined with the Serrano peppers to make a sauce that was char sweet and spicy and the pepitas adding a nutty flavor.  It was apparently a very dish to make, but it was very good and well liked.
Our first meat dish started with pork, specifically Pork Belly.  Bacon comes from pork belly, although it is salt cured, smoked, and sliced more thinly than pork belly generally is.  The pork belly was served with Apples, Escarole, Jalapeno, and Queso Fresco.  The greens were crisp with some apple tartness, and a little queso fresco.  The jalapeno was thinly sliced and mixed with the greens adding a little spice.  The pork belly itself was crisp and tender with a good pork flavor.  The greens provided a nice counterpoint to the meaty flavor of the pork belly.
The next dish was another relatively simple dish that was prepared simply and very well and was a favorite.  We were served a bowl of Clams and Mussels with Crispy Rice, Pasilla Peppers, Grilled Orange. and Mint. The dish might have been fairly simple, but it was also kind of messy and it was good to have an extra bowl in which to discard the shells.
Our final savory dish was a Mexican classic, Pollo en Mole.  There are numerous moles, many that have numerous ingredients and take many hours to prepare.  This mole had something on the order of 27 ingredients and took a day to make and had a nice complex, bitter and spicy flavor, but did not use Cacao as many Moles do.  It was also served with Roasted Carrots and Granola which added a nutty and earthy flavor.  The chicken was well roasted, tender, and went well with the mole, carrots, and granola.
Being served nine courses, we will have numerous of each type of dish.  We were served two desserts, the first generally being a favorite of mine, Tres Leches Cake.  This version, served with Dulce de Leche, Burnt Cinnamon and topped with Whipped Cream, continued the streak.  It was desnse, soft, sweet, and very creamy, and very good.
The last dessert, served with coffee to finish the meal, while not bad, almost felt like an afterthought.  We were served Churros, Bananas, Banana Ice Cream, and Piloncillo (Mexican Raw Sugar).  It was sweet and had a nice banana flavor.  The coffee went well with the dish and made for a good finish.  I think that my biggest problem was the fact the churros were just one bite.  If the churros were emphasized a little more and were a little bigger, I think I might have liked it a little more.  Despite this complaint, this was a very good dinner, both as the food presented and the presentation itself.  I will continue to participate in Tasting Collective events and I will definitely return to Quiote for more very good Mexican food.             

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Barrio - Restaurant Week

I love Chicago Restaurant Week.  It allows me to visit old favorites and try out new places at a price point less than I would normally pay.  In recent years, most of the restaurants that I have visited have been return trips, but I still visit the occasional new place.  One of the new places was Barrio, a Mexican place that is part of the DineAmic Group, the same group that runs Siena Tavern.  Like Siena Tavern, Barrio is run by a celebrity chef, another Top Chef Alum, Katsuji Tanabe.  I was a little baffled as to how a Japanese Chef came to be cooking Mexican food.  I have little issue with authenticity and am more concerned with whether the food at an individual restaurant tastes good.  A good chef should be able to cook just about anything well, I just think that some chefs are more comfortable with some styles of food than others.  I discovered later that Chef Tanabe had a Mexican mother and was raised in Mexico City, so it made a little more sense that he might gravitate toward Mexican food.  Located in the same building as Siena Tavern, Barrio has similar design elements.  It has both a modern and industrial look with references to Mexican style and some Japanese elements thrown in.  The dining room is large and open, but is also divided into several spaces with different styles.  The bar is separated from the main dining area with a screen and is large and oval with inlaid wood designs that reminded me of a combination of Mexican desert and Alice in Wonderland.  Both the Food and Liquor Menus are printed on single sheets of poster board about 11x17 inches in size and the Restaurant Week Menu came on another long and narrow sheet.  While there were several things on the main menu that looked good, I decided to reduce my choices and focus just on the Restaurant Week Menu to limit my choices.  In many cases, the Restaurant Week Menu is kind of a Best Of type of menu so I thought that it would give me some variety and an idea of what might be good.  The liquor menu had cocktails on the top divided between Traditional Cocktails and those made with Tequila and Mezcal, with beer and wine down menu.  I decided to start things off with a Mezcal based cocktail called Smoke Show, which started with Union Mezcal, continued with Ancho Reyes, a spicy liqueur using Ancho Chiles, Pur Likor, a German pear liqueur, Lime, and was garnished with a Dried Pear.  The drink was smoky and spicy with a fruity flavor and a tart finish.  I liked the taste of the cocktail even though I am generally not a fan of pears.  While I did like the flavor of the cocktail, I really didn't care for the dried pear garnish.  My issue with pears is not the flavor, but the texture, and the drying of the pear emphasized the grittiness that I dislike.
Even though I limited myself to the Restaurant Week Menu, I still had a bit of trouble making decisions as to what I wanted.  There were four items to choose from for the appetizer, four for main course, and a couple for dessert, and there wasn't anything that I could eliminate outright.  For my opening course I had a choice of Burrata (which isn't Mexican, but still looked good), Queso Fundido, Roasted Sweet Potato Guacamole, and Grilled Octopus.  I finally decided on the Grilled Octopus which was served with Crispy Papas (Potatoes), Agave-Jalapeno, and Roasted Tomato Mayo.  The octopus was meaty, the potatoes were large and had a nice crispy and salty exterior with a nice and firm interior, the agave-jalapeno sauce added some nice spice, and the roasted tomato mayo finished the dish off with a nice savory flavor.
For my main course, I had a choice of Forest Mushroom Tacos, Chicken Al Pastor Tacos, Diver Scallop, and Tamarind Beef Short Rib.  While everything here looked really good, I was able to limit my choices because I had had the Forest Mushroom Tacos at First Bites Bash, and while undoubtedly different, I had had Short Rib at Untitled.  I finally made my decision for the Chicken Al Pastor Tacos because I had already started with seafood with what turned out to be some very good grilled octopus.  The Chicken Al Pastor Tacos were served Deconstructed with Achiote Marinated Chicken, Pickled Onions, Avocado Rice, Crispy Kale, Agave Salsa Verde, Morita (Chipotle) Salsa, and Housemade Blue Corn Tortillas.  Everything was really good and went well together.  Because it was sent out deconstructed, I could put the tacos together in whatever combinations and whatever order I wanted.  My favorite construct was with rice on the bottom with chicken, onions, kale, and the morita salsa.  My only complaint is that I ran out of tortillas before I ran out of stuff to put in them.  It was okay though, because I just combined what was left and at it as it was off the plate.
Before I had my dessert, I decided to order another cocktail, this time from the Traditional list.  As I like Gin, I decided to try out their gin cocktail.  Called the Whispering Eve, it was kind of a spin on a Negroni, with Plymouth Gin, Combier Peche de Vigne (a peach liqueur with peaches grown in wine country, the Loire Valley), Campari, Lemon, and Thai Basil.  Negronis are pretty bitter, but the Combier Peche de Vigne added a little sweetness, and the Thai Basil added an Asian twist to it.  I generally have to prepare myself for a Negroni because it is so bitter.  The liqueur and the Thai basil moderated the bitterness and made it easier to drink.  That said, I did prefer the first cocktail better.
To finish things off, I had a choice between Churros and a Cocoa Taco.  I like both and both sounded good, so I just randomly decided to go with the Cocoa Taco.  Built in a Waffle Cone-style Taco Shell, It also had Milk Chocolate Ice Cream, Brownie Crumble, Coconut Crema, Guajillo Caramel, and Coconut Toffee.  It was sweet and chewy, with a lot of textures and a very nice finish to a very good dinner.  I really enjoyed the food and drink here.  While things were spins on Classic Mexican cuisine, dishes were updated and made a little more modern and seasonal.  The staff was very friendly and knowledgeable, and willing to answer all of my  many questions.  I will definitely have to return for dinner, and also possibly for brunch.                    

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Hopewell Brewing Monday Dinner with Wood

 I have been to Hopewell Brewing's Monday Night Dinner several times.  The brewery invites friends who are chefs at pretty good restaurants around town to prepare a private dinner at the brewery where the brewery will provide the beer.  It's like the beer dinners that are done at many restaurants except in this case, it is the brewery that is the host and the restaurant that is the guest.  In this case, the brewery invited Wood to do dinner there.  I have been to Wood for brunch and for a benefit dinner and I have had bites of their food at other benefits, but I have never been for dinner.  With the tastes I have had of their food, I do know that it's very good, and they are on my list for dinner sometime.  As was typical we started out with First Lager, their first beer (surprisingly).  I have mentioned in the past that the pub space is kind of plain, a friend actually used the word sterile, though I don't know if I would go that far.  There is a window into the brewing area in the back of the pub looking at three large vessels, one with googly eyes.
In past dinners, the beers were paired with the courses.  For this dinner, things were a little looser.  We were given four beer tickets to choose our own beers and to make our own pairings, and while many restaurants served four course meals (family style), the guys from Wood served more than 4 items.  Some, it could be argued, could be paired together to make a single course, but where exactly one course ended and the next would then begin is kind of unclear.We started out with Foie Gras Biscuits served with Honey Butter and Braised Collard Greens with Spanish Morcilla (Blood) Sausage.  The muffins were very good, though where the foie gras may have been used is unclear.  my only thought is that because it has a very high fat content, it at least partially substituted for the butter that would normally be used.  They were light and fluffy and tasted good with the honey butter.  As far as the collard greens are concerned, I am generally not a fan of greens of that type because, to me, the leaves are too stiff and they frequently have a strong flavor.  With the Morcilla Sausage, though, the fat tenderized the greens and provided some very nice flavor.  My first beer with dinner was the Side Salad Grisette (a low alcohol Belgian style, similar to a saison, with a mildly tart and funky flavor) which was very good and went well with the greens.
Our next set of courses, we were served Hoppin' John with Sausage, Marinated Fingerling Potatoes, and I had a Take Care Biere de Miel.  Hoppin' John is a Low Country Southern dish featuring Black Eyed Peas and Rice.  Wood is generally, a French inflected restaurant, though this dinner seemed largely Southern, I'm not sure how that decision was made, but it was good.  I'm not sure what the sausage was but it was tender and peppery and the Hoppin' John was tender and flavorful.  The potatoes were perfectly tender and seemed to be prepared with a lot of greens which enhanced the flavor.  I had had Take Care before and knew that I liked it.  A biere de miel is another Belgian style similar to a saison, but using honey.  It isn't exceptionally sweet, but has a nice head and a good malty character.
Our main course was pork, specifically, a Braised Pork Saddle taken from a whole pig that was carved just before service.  It was incredibly tender, sweet, and very flavorful.  There was also a Carolina Mustard Style Barbecue Sauce that was served on the side, but the pork was so good, that I never got around to trying it with the barbecue sauce or even the barbecue sauce on it's own, for that matter.
 After the pork, we arrived at dessert and as with many desserts, it was paired with a dark beer by the brewery.  We were served Hopewell Deluxe, an Imperial Coffee Stout made with Metric Coffee and served out of bombers as opposed to the other beers that were on tap.  It was very full bodied and had a great coffee flavor and it did go well with the Snickerdoodle Cookies and the Apple Crisp that we were served for dessert.  The cookies were soft and had the slightest tart flavor, and the Apple Crisp was fried apples topped with biscuit dough.  It was good, but I prefer my crisps with a granola topping.  After finishing dessert, I had only used two beer tickets of the four that I was given so I decided to finish with a fruity beer.  Ya Filthy Animal is a Tart Red Ale brewed with Spices, Black Currants, and Plums modeled after the mulled wines that are served in the winter time.  It was a very good finish to a very good dinner.  I enjoyed myself,the food, and the beer.  I will most certainly return at least for a beer to Hopewell, and Wood will move up on my places to go for dinner.     

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Forbidden Root Brewery

I had been to Forbidden Root a few times before and have liked both the beer and brunch, I decided to stop in for dinner recently.  Located in a former movie theatre, the space is rustic, with exposed brick walls, and tile floors.  The U-shaped bar is in the center of the room as you walk in with the tap list on chalkboards facing the side walls above and to the center of the bar area.  The brewing area is in the back past a large communal table that sits in an alcove at the back of the restaurant and beside the kitchen.  The beers that Forbidden Root does are classic styles with a lot of botanicals added that can sometimes modify the flavor significantly.  The first beers that they started with were hard versions of Root Beer (hence the Forbidden Root name) and Ginger Ale.  Their draft list when I went did not have the Root Beer, but it did have the Ginger Ale, so that was going to be one of the choices that I was going to make for my flight.  Called Sublime Ginger, it's a Wheat Ale with a significant ginger flavor that also included Key Lime Juice, Honeybush and Lemon Myrtle.  My other choices were Money on my Rind, a Hefeweizen with Juniper Berries, Grapefruit, and Grains of Paradise that leaned toward a Gin and Tonic in flavor, Dragon Zest Belgian Tripel with Wild Lemon Zest and Thai Palm Sugar (This was a really good Tripel), Get to the Winchester Toasted Rye Mild Ale, and ME DRINK COOKIE! Oatmeal Raisin Brown Ale, which for all the world tasted like an Oatmeal Raisin Cookie.  They were all very good and interesting, but my favorite for this trip was probably ME DRINK COOKIE!
The food served at Forbidden Root is largely bar food, but it all has a twist.  The menu is broken down between Snacks, Small Plates, Large Plates, Sandwiches, and Cheese & Dessert.  I decided to start things off with a dish of Lemon Almonds with Sea Salt and Olive Oil while I was trying to figure out what else I wanted to eat.  They were very good, having a nice Salty Lemon flavor with the hearty flavor flavor of fresh roasted almonds.
There was a lot of meat in both the Small and Large Plate sections of the menu, I was already getting plenty of protein with the nuts and would probably have meat for my main course, so I thought I would go with a vegetable.  While I did decide to go with a vegetable, that didn't mean it couldn't be fried.  I went with Fried Brussels Sprouts with Marinated Sprout Leaves, Bagna Cauda (an Italian dip using Garlic, Olive Oil, Anchovies, and Butter), XO Sauce (a Chines sauce using dried scallop, chili peppers, Jinhua ham, dried shrimp, garlic, and canola oil), and Lemon.  Normally, I have my brussels sprouts with bacon, and admittedly, there was a little ham used in the XO Sauce, but it wasn't enough to add texture and it was effectively without meat.  As such, it was very good, even without the bacon.
I did consider getting a burger, and I have heard that Forbidden Root's burger is very good, but getting a burger at a brewery is easy.  There was a Pork Schnitzel Sandwich that sounded good, so that's the way that I went.  While I knew that pork schnitzel was a piece of pork pounded flat, breaded and fried and they tend to be pretty broad, I was very surprised by the sandwich that arrived.  The Schnitzel was much wider than the Sesame Bun and was served with Beet Mayo and Slaw on the sandwich, with Fries and Housemade Ketchup on the side.  The schnitzel was much broader than the bun, so I did attempt to cut it around the edges before picking it up.  That didn't work out exceptionally well so I committed to Picking it up and eating it until it was gone.  It was really good, but it was also really messy and there would have been know way for me to pick it back up if I ever put it down.  The beet mayo had chunks of beets in it that were falling out as I was eating it and when I finally finished it, I had to take a time out to clean myself up.
By the time I got to dessert, I was pretty full.  I was interested in dessert, but because I was full, I was interested in something light.  My waitress told me that the chocolate pudding was pretty light.  I was a little skeptical, but I followed her recommendation.  She was correct, the pudding had the texture of a mousse.  With the pudding, it had Whipped Caramel, Quince Marmalade, Peanut Praline, and Ash Salt.  With that I had a House Shot called Cinn-Oak which had Bourbon, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Clove Buds, Orange Peel and Demerara Syrup.  After this, I was still full, but I really enjoyed everything.  The beer at Forbidden Root is very different while following standard styles, the food follows the same path.  I really enjoyed everything and will surely return for beer and/or food.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Tasting Collective Dinner at Split Rail

Just after Christmas, I bought a membership for a group called Tasting Collective.  It holds private 8-10 course meals at nicer restaurants around the city with pre-course introductions done by the chef, so they can explain their restaurant concept and cooking philosophies.  Members have to buy tickets for the dinners, but they are less than what a normal 8-10 course meal would cost.  The first restaurant that was offered was a restaurant with which I am very familiar with, having known the chef for several years, and having gone for both dinner and brunch, Split Rail with Chef Zoe Schor.  The dinner was going to be 9 courses, mostly served Family Style.  Having met the chef at her former restaurant, Ada Street, and having been to Split Rail a few times, I knew that I liked her food and thought I was fairly familiar with it, so it was an easy choice to make.  When I bought my ticket, I saw the time listed as 7:15 pm.  Generally, I have noticed that event start times can be kind of soft, but I do like to arrive close to the time listed.  What I didn't notice on a later email was that the doors would open at 6:45 pm and the 7:15 pm was a hard start.  In any case, I did arrive just before 7:15 pm, though seeing a full restaurant, I did feel late.  We paid for dinner beforehand, but drinks were extra, I ordered a drink that I had had before and had really liked.  Called Stay Out of the Forest, it was a very piney flavored cocktail featuring Vikre Spruce Gin, Zirbenz Alpine Liqueur, Grapefruit and Lime.  It's tart, herbal, a little bitter from the grapefruit and the spruce, and obviously very botanical.  While I was enjoying my cocktail, Chef Zoe came out and started talking about her history and her aim with the restaurant.  I knew that she had quite an impressive resume, having worked for Tom Colicchio and Thomas Keller in California, I was not aware that she was originally from the East Coast.  She also said while she was proud to have had the mentors that she had and was happy to have learned skills from them, she got a little tired of making what she called "Fancy Food" and with her restaurant was aiming for a place that did comfort food with a cheffy twist.  And with that, the meal started.
We started things with a twist on a dish that I have seen in many restaurants, Steak Tartare, but it was done as a Reuben and called a Reuben Tartare, which started with a Spiced Steak Tartare served with Thousand Island Dressing, Rye Toast, and a Gruyere Crisp.  I like both steak tartare and reubens and they went together very well.  It didn't have the salty flavor of the corned beef or sauerkraut, but all of the textures and flavors went together very well and it was a nice start.
Our second course were Beef Skewers served with Pine Nuts, Greek Dressing, and what they called "Spicy Green Sauce".  It was very good and seemed very Greek, though the Spicy Green Sauce tasted familiar.  When I talked to her after dinner, I had to laugh.  I asked Chef Zoe if the Spicy Green Sauce wasn't similar to Chimichurri Sauce and she said that it's totally Chimichurri Sauce, but selling to people that might not be familiar with it, it's "Spicy Green Sauce".  It was nutty, spicy, tart, and very good with the Greek Yogurt and "Spicy Green Sauce".
Our next course was a salad and while I am generally not a huge fan of salads, this one was pretty awesome.  It was a Leafy Green Salad with various Heirloom Lettuces, Crispy Ham, Point Reyes Bay Blue Cheese, and Garlic Breadcrumbs.  The lettuce was slightly wilted which actually was a good thing, because it provided a softer texture.  The ham added some salty sweetness, the bitterness of the blue cheese paired with the bitterness of the blue cheese, the green goddess dressing was used sparingly, and the breadcrumbs added some garlicky goodness.

Our next course was a toast, or if it was done in Italy, could have been considered a Bruschetta.  It wasn't typically Italian, but open faced toasts are very European.  This one was Duck Liver Mouse (Pate') and Pickled Apples on Publican Quality Bread.  The bread was nice and crusty, spread with the duck liver mousse, topped with sliced pickled apples, and finished with micro greens.  The  mousse was meaty and sweet with a slight iron flavor to it.  The apples were tart and sour and added a little crunch.  It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't exceptionally exciting.
After the toast, we went back to vegetables, roasted vegetables to be exact.  Included among the Medley of Roasted Vegetables was Cauliflower, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, and Pepitas (not precisely vegetables, but they are from vegetables and they are fried) which were served with Hook's Two Year Cheddar Cheese Sauce.  The vegetables were tender and well cooked and the cheddar cheese sauce added a complementary flavor, but it was a little on the salty side.  I would order it again, but I would know to be prepared for the salt.
The next course on the menu I had had before and was a favorite.  I was excited to see it on our menu.  It was the Loaded Baked Potato Gnocchi which had all of the best things about a loaded baked potato served with gnocchi.  It had Bacon, Cheddar Cheese, Crispy Potato Skins, Sour Cream, Chives, and was served with perfectly prepared gnocchi.  It was crunchy, tender, very flavorful, and continued throughout the course.
After the Gnocchi, we continued to the first of our meat courses, Braised Pot Roast with Red Wine Reduction, and Potato Puree.  On paper it sounded pretty mundane.  It was fairly simple and standard, but it is frequently the simple dishes that are the hardest to do because they are so familiar that they have to be nailed perfectly.  This was nailed perfectly.  The Pot Roast was fork tender, the Potatoes were perfectly smooth with a hint of butter, and the red wine reduction paired well with the jus from the roast and also made a good gravy for the potatoes.
For our final savory dish, we had was called Pork and Beans, which I can see, but I also see a similarity to a cassoulet, a French Hunter's Casserole using white beans and three meats, two of which are usually pork.  This only used Crispy Pulled Pork, Country Ham, and Stewed White Beans, but the similarity was there.  Also in the Pork and Beans was Crispy Kale, Pickled Turnips, and Shaved Radishes.  It was very tender, very good, and I would definitely have it again.
By the time we reached dessert, I was pretty full, so I was kind of happy that our desserts were fairly small.  We were served Olive Oil Cake with Malted Barley Ice Cream and Cinnamon.  While Olive Oil and Malted Barley are both used in a lot of savory dishes, the olive oil made the cake very smooth, and the malted barley, which is a key ingredient in beer, added a little bitterness and a little less sweetness than typical ice cream.

This was a great event.  I like Chef Zoe and Split Rail and will definitely return.  Many of the dishes that I had are now on the standard menu, so I could easily enjoy them again, and I am very willing and able to handle a small problem that I had that was due to a miscommunication.  Tasting Collective was a good host and I met some nice and interesting people and had some very good food.  I will definitely do many more of their events.