Monday, December 26, 2011


I have written about both of my adventures in creating bacon. I just finished my most recent foray. In this case, I made pancetta. Known also as Italian bacon, pancetta is also made from pork belly but there are some significant differences. It starts with a salt cure like American bacon but the skin is removed before the cure is started instead of at the end. It is cured with salt for a week like American bacon but whereas bacon is essentially finished after a week, either being slow cooked or smoked, Pancetta is then rolled up, tied, and hung to dry for several weeks. The cure does have a lot of salt but the recipe that I had also included garlic, bay, coriander, sage, and juniper berries. While it did lose some liquid in the refrigerator like the bacon, it didn't lose as much. I assume that was by design so it wouldn't be completely dry before it was hung up. It did look really good in any case. The rolling and tying was a job. It took about an hour and then I had to tie it up. That was also a job. I tied it under my sink and let it hang for two weeks. The ideal conditions for drying meat is about 60°F and about 60% Relative Humidity. I keep my place relatively cool when I am not home or sleeping but it's more than 60°F. I did keep it in the dark and kept a pan of water near it to try to maintain some humidity. I did check it every few days and saw that it did stay firm without getting hard. There was a little mold along one edge but from what I had read, as long as it was white (it was) and the meat looked fine (it did) you could just wipe it off. As you would cook the meat anyway it would be fine. After cleaning it off, I bagged it and put it in the refrigerator. I was planning on saving it until I came to my family's house later in the week but someone asked me how it was so I had to try it. The meat is more firm than bacon and it had a stronger flavor but it is really good. Now comes the fun of trying to find recipes in which to use it. While I could use it just like bacon, I have an idea that there are a world of other possibilities.

Monday, December 19, 2011

O'Shaughnessy's Public House

One of the first things I think of when I think of bar food is a good hamburger. I have been to O'Shaughnessy's Public House several times and they do the Irish Pub thing pretty well. They have a good beer list and as a good pub does, they have a pretty good menu of bar food with an English and Irish bent. At various times, I have had the Irish Breakfast (2 Eggs, bangers (sausage), rashers (bacon), grilled tomatoes, potatoes, baked beans, and black and white pudding), a really good roast beef sandwich, Shepherd's Pie, and Irish Curry and Fish and Chips. I have always been happy with the food that I have gotten. I was there on Saturday and while I knew that all of this stuff was good, I really wanted a burger. They have a burger on the menu called the Triple Bypass Burger that sounds absolutely decadent. In addition to the usual lettuce, tomato, and onion, it had applewood smoked bacon, cheddar cheese and was topped with an over easy egg. It also came with a side of fries. I got the burger and it looked pretty good and the egg exploded over my hand but that was the height of excitement for the burger. It was filling but as far as taste was concerned, it was positively boring. I like applewood smoked bacon but for whatever reason it went without notice. I was really wishing after I had the burger that I had ordered the curry.

While I like the vibe of O'Shaughnessy's, the staff is friendly and the bar looks nice with a lot of wood and a fireplace in the back room, I know now when I come back to stick with the standards and not to bother with the burgers.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cafe 28

While Chicago has a wide variety of ethnic restaurants, most people wouldn't even think to put Chicago and Cuban food in the same sentence. There are however many pretty good Cuban restaurants in Chicago. Most are sandwich shops, but there are a few that go a little higher end i.e. appetizer, entree, dessert. I went to Cafe 28 on Friday which is a Cuban Restaurant in the guise of a Neighborhood Restaurant. Located in Ravenswood, it is kind of out of the area where most Cuban Restaurants are located: Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and Hermosa but there is nothing that says that a given ethnic restaurant should stay in a certain community and may actually play to it's advantage by being able to stand out from the other restaurants in the area. Cafe 28 is actually a pretty large space divided into a bar and 3 dining rooms, 2 of which also had bars. The dining room that I was in had track lighting and several large square pillars. Three of the walls were antique bricks with pictures of rustic and very colorful doors and windows. The floor was hardwood and the wall serving as a dividing wall between another dining room had a spiral design on it. Looking at the menu, I saw that I could have gone a number of different ways but I decided to stick with what I think of as fairly standard Cuban dishes. Before I start with the actual dinner though, I have to talk about the bread plate. It really didn't look like much but it was something special. The bread was a nice dense country-style bread that was nice and crusty. The butter that was served with it was whipped so it was very easy to spread. I tasted it and got a nice sweetness. I thought possibly that it had a little honey added. My first thought was that it was nice but not especially special but as I ate the bread, I started to get a burn. There was cayenne pepper in the butter. It was a nice spicy start.
My dinner started with a hot appetizer (they also had cold appetizers which I didn't try), Papas Rellenas. It was fried jalapeño mashed potatoes filled with grilled chicken, pico de gallo and cheese and served with a saffron cream sauce. It was cut in half and split and served with arugula. It was very hot when it was served to me so I had to eat it slowly but it was very good. There was a range of flavors all in one bite. It was salty, creamy, cheesy, and spicy; all of which went with the chicken and potatoes.My entree was a Cuban standard, Ropa Vieja. It literally means old clothes but obviously, that's not what it is. It is a flank steak that is cooked in a garlic tomato and bell pepper sauce until it falls apart. The shredded beef kind of looks like the old clothes where it gets it's name. It was served with black beans, white rice, and sweet plantains. It was good but really not anything spectacular. I did try to combine the flavors somewhat by taking bites of different things together, but it might have worked better if I had actually combined them on my plate. As it was, I left the different ingredients separate.
Generally, I have found that it can be fairly easy to pass up dessert at a Hispanic restaurant. There is generally some sweet stuff but other than flan, there really isn't anything special. I will look most of the time though to see if anything struck my eye. This time, the Tres Leches Cake sounded good so that's what I ordered. Tres Leches literally means three milks which are what are used in this cake. A sponge cake is soaked with evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream. As one might guess, the cake is sweet and kind of heavy and was topped with whipped cream, a couple of mint leaves and a strawberry. It was very good although it did make my bike ride home of about 5 miles a little uncomfortable.

Overall, I liked the look of the restaurant and the service while not exceptionally attentive, was nice enough. While the ropa vieja and the tres leches cake were good, the papas rellenas and the bread were something special. The restaurant was good but not great but I would go again if someone wanted to go there.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Kuhn's Delicatessan

My coworkers and I have traditions about where we go for lunch in certain times of the year. In February we go to a Mexican Restaurant, Paradise Pup in the summer time, and in December we go to Kuhn's Delicatessan. Located in a strip mall in the suburbs, it looks like an ethnic grocery in the front with a deli counter in the center, containing all manner of German sausages and meats and coolers on the side walls containing lots of German beer. While some of this stuff does look pretty good, we come here for lunch for good German food that has already been prepared and that's on the cafe in the back. The place is kind of small and could seat about 40 or 50 people. It doesn't look like much but we don't come for the aesthetics but for the food. They serve several hot sandwiches including a really good reuben but when we come, I usually go with the schnitzel which you can get in veal, chicken, or pork, or the goulash. Served with spaetzle or german fries and rahm sauce, if you eat one, you probably won't need to eat dinner. I decided when we came last week that I wanted something a little different and went with the schweinhaxen which was served with potatoes and sauerkraut and horseradish on the side. I didn't know what schweinhaxen was when I ordered it except that it came from a pig (schwein) so I had to ask. It was a braised, bone-in pork shoulder with the joint. It came with the skin on which was nice and crispy and the meat was very tender. It was also so big that it served me for several lunches.

While the food here is very good, it is a good thing that we don't eat here regularly otherwise I would just roll home. I enjoy Kuhn's and we could probably come more often than once a year but I do enjoy our December trips.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Frontera Grill

While I had been to Rick Bayless' newest place in Chicago, the Mexican street food restaurant Xoco, earlier this year, it had been a very long time since I had been to Frontera Grill. I owed a friend, whose favorite cuisine is Mexican, a dinner out and it was close to her birthday so it gave me an excuse to go there. Frontera Grill specializes in seasonal, Mexican based cuisine primarily using the produce of local farmers. While it does have a lot of the standards, they are very definitely upscaled. While it is possible to make reservations here, the vast majority of seating is by walkup. Unfortunately, because of this, if you want to get a table on any given night, you will need to get there early and expect to wait. First seating for dinner starts at 5 pm and we arrived at 4:30 pm to see about 40 people in front of us. The host came by while we were waiting to get our names and told us that there was one table left for the first seating and we should come up to the host's station to get a beeper at about 5:30 pm and expect seating around 5:45 or 5:50 pm. While the doors open at 5 pm, they use staggered seating so the kitchen and wait staff aren't overwhelmed which would happen if they attempted to seat everyone at once. We were able to enter when the door opened and wait by the bar until we could be seated though so we weren't freezing for over an hour. The restaurant is divided into a dining area and the bar area with a few tables which is where we were when we were seated. There is also a second dining area for Chef Bayless' fine dining restaurant, Topolobampo which is located at the same address but it isn't obvious. The restaurant has a lot of avant garde Mexican art hanging like a couple of very colorful dragon sculptures and a very strange crocodile man in addition to a lot of pottery and textiles. The color scheme is in bright colors and the music is in Spanish. We were seated and while we were able to figure out what we wanted to drink pretty quickly, it took some time to figure out what we were going to eat. We finally decided on a couple of appetizers between the three of us, the Taquitos de Pollo Alhumado which were taquitos filled with smoked chicken, poblanos, and black beans, and served vertically with guacamole on the side and topped with house-made sour cream, anejo cheese, salsa verde, and jicama. It looked nice (even if it was a little dark to take a good picture) and tasted better. It was salty, sour, and a little spicy, with a nice crunch to the tortillas.
Our other appetizer was the Queso Fundido de Hongos. Queso Fundido at its most basic, is melted cheese (which is what queso fundido means). It is normally served with tortillas as an appetizer and has a variety of add ins. Ours included Otter Creek organic cheddar melted with beer-braised mushrooms (wild & woodland), ham hocks, epazote, and habanero chile. It was warm, salty, gooey, slightly funky, and the habaneros added a nice bite to it.
Knowing that I would get a little bit of a hard time for it, I ordered the duck for the entree. While it is my favorite meat, I also wanted to compare the duck served at Frontera to the duck served at one sixtyblue. While both ducks came from local farms,they were both the same breed and both were served medium rare, the dishes were very different. While the one sixtyblue duck used a lot of apple and root vegetables, the Frontera duck was served with mole. To be specific, it was called Pato en Mole de Calabaza and contained Red chile-rubbed Gunthorp duck breast cooked medium rare, pumpkin mole with ancho chile and spices, Spaghetti squash that I actually thought was fideo, grilled onions, brussels sprouts, and toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds). The meat was tender and savory, the mole was a little spicy and had the pronounced unsweetened chocolate flavor that mole is supposed to have but there was the underlying flavor of pumpkin. The spaghetti squash was both served fried as a garnish to top it off and underneath like fideo (a thin Mexican pasta that is frequently used in soups and served with sauces. Spaghetti squash does have a squash flavor but as it was in the mole that incorporated pumpkin, that flavor was masked. It was a good dish but it would have been a good dish if they had used something other than duck.With the size of the dishes that I had been served, I really didn't need the dessert, but after seeing the dessert list, there really wasn't a question about ordering dessert. We did. We ordered two desserts for the three of us but while we tried both, we really didn't sure our respective desserts. My friend ordered Duo de Flanes, two flans. The first had a fairly standard flavor, if a very good version of standard, Mexican vanilla topped with an ancho-candied orange zest. The other incorporated the orange zest into the flan itself and was topped with a cranberry jicama salsa. They were very good flans but I was looking for something a little different so I ordered something that I had a hard time pronouncing, Buñuelos Navideños. It was described as a Oaxacan Christmas fritter but it reminded me of a fruitcake that had exploded. As I like fruitcake, it played to my palette. It had the crispy Oaxacan Christmas fritters which were like small, round and crispy tortilla chips, spiced pumpkin ice cream, brandied fruit (cherries, apples, apricots, figs) in piloncillo syrup, toasty meringue, and caramelized pecans. It was really good and I thoroughly enjoyed it.I really like Frontera Grill and enjoyed my meal despite the wait. It shows that Mexican food is much more than tacos, burritos, and tamales. I would recommend anyone who enjoys their food a little spicy and doesn't mind the wait to try this place out.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

one sixtyblue

I wrote about one sixtyblue earlier this year but I had gone then as part of Restaurant Week and I was ordering off of a limited menu, so I thought that I would write again after going again on my own and choosing from the full menu. Ever since the first time I came to one sixtyblue a few years ago, it has been a favorite of mine. Their food is very approachable serving upscale versions of American favorites, changing the side vegetables according to the season. In addition to eating at the restaurant itself, I have had their food at a chef demo at Green City Market where they get a lot of their food (or at least get a lot of their food from the same farmers that sell at Green City Market), at a couple of charity benefits, and at the Taste of Randolph Street Festival. While the food was good at all of those places, they can't match the aesthetic of the restaurant itself. For this visit, I was seated close to the kitchen. There is an open kitchen at one sixtyblue so you can see the goings on from the dining room. sitting next to the kitchen, I was not only able to watch the kitchen but I could also see the flow of the dining room. It was fun to be able to see everything. I started my dinner with a spin on something I had had before, the one sixtyblue Hash Brown. It was topped with a House Smoked Salmon, with Chopped Eggs, Capers, and Sweet Potato Creme Fraiche. The hash brown is fried into about a 4 inch disc that is about half an inch thick. While it tastes good on it's own, I think that it's a bit too crispy around the edges. I figured that the addition of the salmon would both complement the flavor of the hash brown and with the texture, provide a contrast to the crunch. It did. The capers and egg provided a nice tartness to the dish as well.
I was really torn about what to order for my entree because there were so many things that looked really good. I finally went with something that, in general, has been a long time favorite, the duck. Duck is a favorite of mine to the point that for a while, when I would tell a friend or family member that I went to a new restaurant, they would ask me how the duck was. I hadn't had duck in a while so I thought it was safe this time. Even if it wasn't, it really looked good. It was a Wood Grilled Duck Breast from Maple Leaf Farm, that was served with salsify, fennel, cabbage, apple chutney, and apple-caramel sauce. The combination of flavors was both obviously seasonal and very good and even without my bias, I wouldn't be afraid to recommend it to someone.While I was waiting for the dessert menu to arrive, I got a surprise, a dessert amuse bouche. I am very familiar with amuse bouches (French for "Happy Mouth" and it is an off-the-menu treat that is normally served as a pre-appetizer). I was surprised to get an amuse bouche before dessert. What I was served was a spiced apple cider with tapioca pearls (like Japanese bubble tea) and whipped cream. It was a nice surprise that was refreshing and got me ready for dessert.
While I was feeling a little full after what I had had so far, there was no question about my having dessert. The dessert chef had wowed me more than once and I had liked everything that I had ever had that she created. There were a few things that interested me on the dessert menu but I was interested in the description of one dish that I would think is a classic, carrot cake. I really like carrot cake and my Mom makes a good carrot cake, I was wondering how a high end carrot cake based dessert might compare. The dessert was called a carrot cake terrine and it was amazing. The term terrine is usually used in reference to charcuterie. It is a coarsely chopped meat pressed together and held together with fat of the same animal. This dessert was almost nothing like that. It started with a carrot cake that was coarsely chopped and pressed into a mason jar, a layer of vanilla cream cheese custard is then added followed by another layer of carrot cake with pineapple, another layer of custard and topped with candied walnuts. Did I mention that this was amazing? It was so good, I almost proposed to the pastry chef. It was one of those desserts that you make sure that you get every crumb. As far as the comparison between this and my Mom's homemade carrot cake is concerned, it's a comparison that can't really be made because while the dessert incorporates carrot cake, it is much more than carrot cake. The carrot cake itself is very good and it compares positively to my Mom's carrot cake, but as it is just part of the terrine, it can't be compared as a whole.

I really enjoy one sixtyblue, I enjoyed my meal and I have no problem recommending it to anyone. While I do enjoy dining at a lot of different restaurants, this is one that I will always come back to.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Peanut Butter

When most people think of peanut butter, they think of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that everyone ate as kids. While peanut butter is definitely not haute cuisine, gourmet peanut butter can and does exist. I recently discovered a company, Peanut Butter & Co that does gourmet peanut butter. I like peanut butter but I don't eat it often enough to warrant buying any. When I think about eating peanut butter, I think of peanut butter sandwiches- which I am not a huge fan of; peanut butter cookies which I like but I don't bake; Thai food, and Elvis burgers (peanut butter and bacon). While all of this is good, it would require a lot of preparation and planning to use even one jar of peanut butter. While I could probably manage to eat one jar of peanut butter, Peanut Butter & Company makes more than one type of peanut butter. In fact, they make 8 types of peanut butter which is something that I know that I couldn't do. I really wanted to try this but knowing I couldn't eat this much peanut butter, I had to come up with a plan. My little sister likes peanut butter and has kids so I thought that I might send some to them. I sent her a package of the six most popular peanut butters with the understanding that they could eat as much as they wanted as long as she saved a little of each for me. In addition to the standard smooth and crunchy, they also include white chocolate, dark chocolate, cinnamon raisin, and red pepper peanut butters in the package. They also make honey and maple flavored peanut butters which are not included in the Big Six.I got a call from my sister a few days before I came to visit her. After sitting unopened at her house for a few weeks, she took it to her work to see what her coworkers might think of it. While they said that they all have great flavor, the white chocolate was a huge hit and the red pepper was really hot. When I was visiting, I got to try the peanut butters. There was just enough white chocolate to try but that was about it. It was creamy, sweet, and had a subtle flavor of white chocolate. While it was good, my favorite was actually the crunchy peanut butter. It was salty, not exceptionally sweet, and was the nuttiest peanut butter that I have ever seen. The cinnamon raisin was also pretty good. It had whole raisins and a nice cinnamon spice to the peanut butter. Creamy was a very good creamy peanut butter. The dark chocolate I thought, could make some really good peanut butter cookies and the red pepper peanut butter would work well in Thai food.

It was very good peanut butter and I'm glad I got to try it. I discovered that Whole Foods carries the smooth, the crunchy, white chocolate, and dark chocolate. I might decide to pick some up for myself but it still isn't something that I will eat on a regular basis.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bakin' & Eggs

Getting up at 5 am on weekday mornings, I do not have the ambition to cook any sort of interesting breakfast. As a matter of fact, they are generally pretty boring. After eating 5 days of really boring breakfasts, when the weekend comes, sometimes you really want something interesting. I went to Bakin' & Eggs last week for breakfast and definitely got an interesting breakfast. The recently opened breakfast (and brunch) spot from the owners of Lovely Bake Shop is located in Lakeview and has a definite small town general store vibe. The walls are robin's egg blue with black and white pictures of baked goods. The floor is hardwood, the ceiling is tin, and the tables and chairs and the antique bus bench are also wood. There is a long bar along the left side which provides for more seats for breakfast as well as a spot for a nice cup of coffee (Intelligencia) and some very good baked goods. Bakin' & Eggs does not take reservations so if you come with a group on a weekend, expect to wait. I came by myself and was quickly seated at the bar. You can get eggs, waffles, pancakes, and biscuits at many places but I wanted something a little different. I ordered a breakfast sandwich and a side of bacon which I will get to in a minute. The sandwich started with chicken apple sausage on cinnamon raisin toast with an egg to order (over easy) and aged cheddar. It was served with maple syrup and a side of fried potatoes, fried with garlic and sprinkled with aged Parmesan. While the sandwich looked and tasted good, the potatoes were amazing.
I also ordered a side of bacon. It was not just a side of bacon, though. It was a flight of bacon. I was brought 5 different slices of crispy bacon. The bacons were maple, jalapeño, honey, cherry, and mesquite and they were all very crispy. While bacon is always a win, I think I would have preferred it if it was a little less crispy. My favorite bacon though, was the jalapeño or the mesquite.

Bakin' & Eggs was a good choice for breakfast and one that I would be happy to visit again. The food was good, the staff was friendly, and the atmosphere was very welcoming.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Sometimes a restaurant can do everything right and still feel a little off. I went to Zealous last week for a five course dinner. The dining room was a big open space with a lot of white and glass ceilings. While it was very open, it was divided by long serving areas and bamboo plants surrounding the center tables. The space was so white, it almost reminded me of an operating room. The look of the space might sound a little off-putting, but the table and chair were very comfortable. The hostess and waitstaff were very friendly and seated me and took my order very quickly and I didn't have to wait long for the start. My Amuse Bouche came quickly and while it looked very good, I was surprised by the small size. I will grant that an Amuse Bouche is generally small and is supposed to be a one bite wonder but most, in my experience, have been the size of a couple of bites. This was a couple of bites but only by a technicality. I was served a pumpkin and truffle gougére (a savory cream puff) with a balsamic reduction and a spiced pumpkin seed. It tasted very good and I was actually surprised how well pumpkin and truffle flavors work together. It went down though, in one bite and the pumpkin seed was the other bite. Despite the size, it was a good start.My first course came quickly after I finished my Amuse Bouche and I would call it a salad course but only because it had the elements of a salad in it. It was a visually well constructed dish that was essentially a deconstructed salad. It included gravlax (salt cured salmon), beets, grapefruit, brussel sprouts, baby greens, and crispy papadum. All of the elements tasted very good and while I suppose that you could have mixed and eaten the food together, it was just as easy to eat each of the elements separately which is what I ended up doing.
The next course was a seafood course and when it was presented, I started to notice something. While fine dining is considered a style, most restaurants even those pinned in the fine dining area can also have an ethnic focus of some kind. Zealous is a very international restaurant drawing on techniques and foods from all over the world, sometimes multiple areas in one course. In the first two courses I had had French, Swedish and Indian, and with this course, we had Asian and American. The course consisted of a seared scallop with an Asian slaw, a kimchi puree, and crispy pork belly. The scallop was perfectly seared and the kimchi was surprisingly spicy. Admittedly, I couldn't find the pork belly, but I then tried some of the crumbs that were scattered on the plate. It was another nice looking (if small) course that tasted very good.
From Asia, we went to France, and to a certain extent, Italy and it was very definitely the carnivore's course. We started on the left, with a filet mignon served with baby carrots, roasted onion went to the center for a potato and mushroom lasagne, and to the right for a braised short rib with a truffle foam. It was a very good looking (and good tasting) plate and while I really like truffles, I am really not a big fan of foam.
After the strong flavors that came from the beef, a palate cleanser was in order and that came from the next course. I was served a peach sorbet in a pomegranate soup with blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, melon, apple, and pineapple. It was light, sweet, refreshing, and slightly tart, and got my palate ready for dessert.Dessert was kind of a surprise in that it came as a pair. The first of the desserts was a chocolate pudding cake that was served with chocolate pudding, pickled cherries, and armagnac ice cream. The second was an apple tart topped with apples and served with apple sauce and Goldschlager ice cream. Both desserts were very good and had something to say for them but I preferred the pudding cake and its accompaniments. While the apple tart and the accompanying apples and apple sauce were very good, I have never been a huge fan of Goldschlager. I find it too sweet and the ice cream version didn't improve it much.
After the dessert, I thought I was finished and it would have been a good place to finish but instead of the after dinner mint that many restaurants bring, I was brought a chocolate cupcake and an apricot financier cake. They were both light and very good providing a nice finish to the dinner.

After paying and leaving the restaurant, I looked at my watch and noticed that I had been there for less than hour. While I never felt rushed, I am not sure that the time is worth the money. The food looked and tasted excellent, the waitstaff was very friendly, as was the chef, and while the serving sizes looked a bit small, I didn't leave the restaurant hungry. Having said that, between the ambiance and the speed of the meal, I am not sure that I really liked it or if I will be returning.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe

I went to Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe on Burbank, IL last week. Burbank would normally be a little far outside my range but as it was for a friend's birthday, I made the trip. So who is Chuck? Chuck is a native of Burbank who worked for several years under Rick Bayless at his fine dining Mexican restaurant, Topolobampo before studying the barbecue world and opening up his own barbecue, Mexican, and Southern restaurant. This is actually kind of funny because Rick Bayless came from Oklahoma and his family ran a barbecue joint before he started his own Mexican restaurant (in Chicago). On the surface, Mexican and Southern foods don't seem like they would go together but barbecue brings them together. There is both Southern barbecue and Mexican barbecue on the menu and the influence of Rick Bayless can be seen in his Mexican food. The restaurant also has a tremendous beer list with 120 different beers. While the number sounds large, it actually covers a huge number of categories so there are only a few representatives of each category. I actually was surprised not to see a few beers that I like that were not included in a given category. While I generally stayed with the Southern style barbecue, there were a few people that ordered the some of the Mexican dishes which I will get to. We started with the cornbread which was served in a cast iron pan with a whipped butter on top. It was a nice looking dish with a good texture and taste and actually avoided the sweetness that seems to be popular at other places.
As is my tradition at barbecue joints, I ordered the ribs so I could compare them to the ribs that other barbecue joints. I ordered a BBQ Combo which included a half a rack of ribs with another meat of my choice. I chose the brisket because it gives a little variety and I love brisket. The meal came with a choice of sauces, mild, hot, or honey chipotle, and 2 sides. I like my barbecue sauce to be spicy with a little sweetness so I went for the honey chipotle and I chose baked beans and mac and cheese for my sides. My half rack was bigger than I expected but I erred in the ordering of the honey chipotle sauce. It was too sweet with a little spiciness. The meat though was nicely smoked and had a nice chew to it. I ended up adding some of the hot barbecue sauce which I saw was what I actually should have ordered. The sides, while not spectacular, also were not bad. The brisket was sliced, was nicely smoked, and was also pretty tender with out being meat jello. I also tried some of the Cochinita Pibil which a couple of people at our table ordered. It is a Mexican barbecue consisting of a pork shoulder rubbed with achiote pepper and wrapped and smoked in banana leaves. It was excellent and I saw that that was actually what I should have ordered.

Chuck's is a good restaurant that does everything we tried well. My friend made a good choice in coming hear and I'm glad I came. While it won't be a regular stop for me, I know that it is a good choice if I happen to be in the area.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Avanti Caffe

There is a wealth of fast food restaurants in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. The first McDonald's actually opened in Des Plaines and there are several Subway's, Portillo's, Chipotle's, and Quizno's, so if you want to have something that is the same as everywhere else, it's fairly easy. If you want something a little different, it does take a little bit of thought but really, it isn't that hard to find a place that isn't a franchise. Most of the time, my coworkers depend on me to pick a place but this place was actually suggested to me by a coworker (who joined me for lunch). Avanti Caffe is located in the Northwest suburbs, on the border of Des Plaines and Mt. Prospect. They serve a variety of pizzas by the slice, salads, Italian subs and paninis, and a variety of pastas in the evening. There are a wide variety of Italian sausages; mortadella, pancetta, prosciutto, salami, sorpressata, and capicola. Most Italian sandwiches are pretty similar so I didn't think of the possible variety that there could be. Between the subs and the paninis, there are about 14 very different Italian sandwiches on their menu and I can't forget the arancini, the deep fried stuffed risotto balls. The sandwich I ordered was called a Venezia which was a sub that had capicola, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, and Italian dressing. It was spicy (not hot), and very fresh tasting. The fresh mozzarella balls were a nice touch. While the sandwich was good and probably would have been enough for lunch, I couldn't turn away a chance to try the arancini (which was served with a marinara sauce). Risotto is good and you can never go wrong by frying something so in theory, arancini are a win. The breading was light and crisp and the risotto included peas. It was stuffed with hamburger which wasn't that interesting but as a whole it wasn't bad. While I have had better arancini elsewhere, these weren't bad.

If you happen to be in the area (Northwest suburbs or the loop), Avanti provides a nice change of pace from the average fast food or sandwich place. They have a good variety of quick Italian foods and I would enjoy going for lunch there again.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Flavor Changing Dinner on Ice at Ing

I was invited, last week, to attend what was called a Flavor Changing Dinner on Ice at Ing by Chef Homaro Cantu. Chef Cantu could be called a master chef, a genius, a mad scientist, or all of the above. His original restaurant Moto, which is next door to Ing, is the ultimate in Molecular Gastronomy and explores the preparation, presentation, and flavors of food. He competed in Iron Chef America and beat Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. He also formed a company to explore the use of the miracle berry which is where this dinner came in.
Ing is Chef Cantu's second restaurant. It has a bit of an Asian bent to it and while the food is quite a bit more straightforward, it all has a bit of a spin on it. The menu is divided into five sections for food: cooling, heating, boiling, melting, and sweetening, each designating the major technique used in that section and the drinks are divided into sipping (wine), brewing (beer), and mixing (cocktails). Thomas Bowman is normally the Executive Chef for this restaurant but for the Flavor Changing menu which focused on Thanksgiving, Chef Cantu was in charge. The restaurant is in the heart of the warehouse district. It has a glass front with a noodle station in the front of the restaurant. There are about four or five tables for four but the largest seating area is a couple of large wood communal tables for 12. Between them is a plastic table with seating on one side like a bar. and the bar is in the back of the room. The room is high ceilinged and the walls are wavy and covered in white mosaic tile. We were seated at the communal table in the rear of the room. We were served our bottled water and shortly thereafter were brought a folded paper cube with a pipette sticking out of it. The cube is actually the menu for Ing. We were having a special meal so with the exception of the alcohol, none of our courses was on the menu. The pipette contained an amuse bouche which was a cool carrot soup. It was an interesting start.Our first course arrived shortly thereafter and it both looked pretty good and showed the playfulness of the culinary team. We received an elongated platter on which one side had a beet and goat cheese salad with arugula and pecans. The other side had a fresh cranberry puree which had been pressed into and out of a can so it could have the rib marks that you would get from a can of cranberry sauce. On top of the cranberry sauce was a slice of tangerine that had been carbonated. In the center of the platter was a small plate containing a slice of lemon and a little red pill. The pill was a miracle berry which we were told to let dissolve on our tongue. In addition to our course we got a cocktail. It was a ginger infused gin and tonic with an apricot liqueur and topped with a basil leaf. We were instructed to try everything first and then to let the miracle berry dissolve on our tongue and try it again. Before the food tasted as expected. It was all good but nothing exceptionally exciting. A miracle berry changes your sense of taste for about 30 minutes so sour becomes sweet and bitter becomes more savory. After trying the miracle berry, the most radical changes were the lemon which now tasted like lemonade and the gin and tonic which tasted like ginger ale. The salad tasted more nutty than it had and the cranberries were sweeter. It was very strange and very cool at the same time and everything still tasted good.
LinkThe second course came soon after and it was a sight to be seen. The waiter brought out a small plate with an upside down glass filled with smoke. When the glass was lifted and the smoke dissipated we saw that we got oyster stuffing which was served in an oyster shell. The drink that went with the course was a Great Lakes Nosferatu that was served in a smoked glass. Everything was very smoky and good and placing the oyster stuffing in the oyster shell was whimsical.
If you hadn't noticed yet, there seemed to be a theme running through the courses. As it's November, they decided to do a spin on Thanksgiving. I would call it ThanksgivIng. The next course continued that theme with pork belly, a yam puree with garam masala, and roasted brussell sprouts. Garam masala is an Indian spice mixture with a very pronounced spicy flavor, though not necessarily hot. With the miracle berry still working, the yams had a cinnamony taste and tasted very much like a sweet potato casserole without the marshmallows.
While it could be argued with the previous courses that they were going for a fall theme and not necessarily ThanksgivIng, the next course made it obvious what they were going for. They brought out their spin on a turducken. Now a normal turducken is a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken, they are way to big to be served individually. Their version had a quail stuffed with a turkey leg stuffed with a duck breast. If you used the naming conventions that were used in the case of turducken, you would end up with something like a quaikeuck but if they called it a quaikeuck no one would have any idea what it was. Most people do know, however, what a turducken is and the name did fit in a manner of speaking. On top of the turducken was a green bean casserole with haricot verts and fried scallions and everything sat on roasted potatoes and gravy. The bird was boneless with the exception of the quail legs and wings and the meat was nice and juicy. It was all very good and if turducken is like this, I would happily have it again. While we were working on this course, they brought us a Portuguese wine that used the same grapes as port. Tasting it gave me the idea that my miracle berry was wearing off because it was dry and kind of tart. We were told that we would be getting another miracle berry with the next course so we should save some of the wine.
The next course really reminded me of Moto. When I went to Moto a few years ago, I had a massively multicourse meal where nothing looked like what it actually was. The dish we received here was a cheese plate. It looked as if we were being served 3 cheeses, 2 blues and a Parmesan. There were also apple slices in the upper left corner and a puree running across the plate. We also had another miracle berry and a lemon slice sitting at the right side of the plate. While our cheese plate was a cheese plate and the apples and the puree were what the were supposed to be, we only received one cheese that was unadulterated. The cheese on the left that looked like a light colored blue cheese was not actually a blue cheese at all. It was a cream cheese with a couple of layers of herbs that had been put into it. The middle cheese was actually what it looked like, a Shropshire Blue Cheese and the Parmesan cheese was actually a Braeburn apple that was pressed into the shape of a wedge of cheese. Before the pill, the cheeses were rather strong flavored, after the pill they became much more light flavored but they still tasted good. The wine after the pill tasted just like a tawny port.All trips must come to an end and our twisted ThangsgivIng ended with a twist on pumpkin pie. The pumpkin was served in a poptart form, sat on top of a lemon fluff and had some sort of sauce on top. The sauce was the only thing that had sugar in it but we couldn't tell after the miracle berry. The pastry was light and fluffy, the pumpkin tasted like pumpkin pie, and the lemon fluff tasted for all the world like a roasted marshmallow. It was nice and sweet and a fitting end to our twisted supper. I did have an opportunity to try the poptart and lemon fluff after the miracle berry wore off and while it had a similar flavor, without the sweetness it wasn't nearly as appetizing.

This dinner was a lot of fun and it was kind of weird but I am glad that I got to do it. The plan, I guess, is to do a flavor changing dinner once a month. While I am glad I got to do it, it was kind of expensive and while I won't say that I won't do it ever again, there are too many other restaurants to explore to make this a regular event for me. Link

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Butcher & The Burger

There are a lot of good burger joints in Chicago and I am happy to have tried many of them. If you want to compare burgers though, you really do have to look at the venue and what they are trying to pull off. While there are some fine dining restaurants that do burgers, it isn't what they are known for so I won't talk about them . Most bar and grills have a burger and many of them are pretty good. Occupying that space between a bar and grill and fine dining are places like Kuma's Corner and the Burger Bar who make enormous burgers using good beef and combining it with a wild combination of ingredients (like blue cheese, walnuts, cranberries, and bacon). While I have been talking about the higher end burgers, even the lower end places like Paradise Pup in Des Plaines, can make some good burgers.

I think that I have made the point that there are good burgers throughout the spectrum. Just because though, that you use good ingredients, doesn't mean that you are going to get a good burger. There are several places that also offer a build-your-own burger. While this sounds nice and good, it also lays the responsibility of coming up with a good combination to the diner and while some combinations might sound like a good idea, they may just not work (blue cheese and barbecue sauce is just a bad idea). A new venue of this type, Butcher and the Burger, has just opened and I decided to try them out. As the name implies, it is both a burger joint and an old style butcher shop. The place has tables in the front and a counter along one wall. There are also many old butcher tools like hooks and scales decorating the place. The hooks are not obiously meat hangers so it is much less gruesome than it has the potential for some people. They grind their meat in-house so you can pick up cuts of what they are offering ground or unground. As far as the burgers are concerned, there are a large number of choices starting with the burger itself. They have 10 different patties including 3 types of beef plus turkey, shrimp, 2 types of veggie, pork, salmon, and shrimp. Add to that a choice of 4 buns, 10 different spice mixes. In addition to the standard toppings (ketchup, mustard, lettuce, pickle, onions, tomato, mayo, and 4 types of cheese) they also have premium toppings like artisanal bacon, foie gras, and truffled aioli. For the uninitiated, this could be a recipe for disaster, and/or a very expensive burger (an elk burger with foie gras and bacon on a pretzel bun would run $27.50). There is also a selection of salads and custards. And what is a burger without fries on the side? They offer fries for an additional charge but I will get to them shortly. The burger that I built was relatively simple: a local and natural house blend beef burger on a brioche bun with blue cheese, bacon, and grilled onions (and ketchup and mustard) with a Chicago Steakhouse Spice Blend and a side of fries. I made my order (which was taken on an ipad) and found a table to sit at. The food was brought out to me by the head chef/butcher, Allen Sternweiler, whose last position was as the Executive Chef of Duchamp. I liked his food at Duchamp so I was confident that my burger and fries would not disappoint. I knew that the combination would work because it is a favorite of mine. The burger and fries were served on a small cutting board and was excellent. It was one of the best burgers I have had in a while. The meat was juicy, the bacon was thick, chewy, and a much more distinct flavor than most other bacon. The onions were sweet, and while a pretzel bun is good, you can never go wrong with a brioche bun. The fries, were made from Kennebec Heirloom potatoes and were the best french fries that weren't frites that I have ever had. They were well salted, very crispy, and still maintained a good potato flavor.

This is a good addition to the Chicago burger world. While it isn't my absolute favorite burger place (that still belongs to Kuma's Corner), it is a place that I will be returning to to try the other burgers and to enjoy those fries again.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Halloween at Lula Cafe

Lula Cafe is a nice little place in my neighborhood. It is also one of my favorite restaurants (despite the fact that I haven't been there in a while and so haven't written about it). They serve local, seasonal, and some organic food with a menu that changes often for brunch and dinner but on Halloween, they do something special and dress up as a different restaurant (with their own spin). In past years, they have dressed up as "Olive Pit" (a spin on Olive Garden), Not Doug's (Hot Doug's with zombies), and last year's Luma's Corner (Kuma's Corner). This year, they became Taco Hell (a Hellish Taco Bell). There were banners flying above the door and flames on the wall, a poster of a demonic chihuahua was on the wall and red demonic donkey pinatas with horns and black spots were hanging by their necks through out the restaurant.
The line to the restaurant was very long which made the sign in front of the door very appropriate (see above). We were given menus while we were in line but despite the fact that I had quite a bit of time to look over the menu to decide what I wanted before I got in, it was still a difficult decision. Rick Bayless consulted on the menu so everything looked excellent. What it came down to was a quick decision. I got in to the restaurant after being in line for about an hour and a half. The way things worked was that you came to a counter to make your order and pay. You then found a table to sit at and when your order came up, the devil (Rick Bayless) called out your number yelling into a bullhorn warning you that your food was ready. I ordered what was essentially a Gordita and a Chalupa, called a Double Decker Beef Taco Supreme Dark Lord and a Steak Chalupacabra. The food was amazing and the event was comical.

Despite the long line, I really enjoyed my time and my dinner and I am really glad that Lula is in my neighborhood. The event was fun, funny, and absolutely delicious. While I don't go there really often, I do have that option when I do want to go.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


I went to C-House Restaurant on Saturday night. It is listed as the restaurant of James Beard Award Winning Chef, Marcus Samuelsson. While Chef Samuelsson is the Executive Chef, he is also based in New York and the job of achieving his vision falls on his Chef de Cuisine, Nicole Pederson, who, among other things was last Sous Chef at Lula Cafe. Located in the Affinia Hotel in Streeterville, C-House is largely a seasonal restaurant focusing on seafood although it does have some fowl and red meat on the menu. The restaurant is in a high celinged room that is fairly narrow and deep with an open kitchen. The walls and ceiling are white but there is a lot of copper and brown trim and several sepia-toned photographs with a nautical theme. All of the tables were pretty large and I was seated in a very comfortable corner on a leather bench seat with some nice pillows. While I was perusing the menu, I was brought a bowl of bread. Now I wouldn't normally talk about bread because most places will provide you with bread and most of the time it is pretty good but this bread was amazing. It was a small round loaf sliced into six pieces and sprinkled with cheese. The loaf was very soft but the crust had a very light crispiness. While C-House does have items on their menu that are not seafood and both Marcus Samuelsson and Nicole Pederson are both talented chefs, because C-House is nominally a seafood restaurant, I decided to stick with those food items that started with shells and/or lived in the water. For my appetizer, I ordered an oven-roasted tomato and escargot terrine with bulgur wheat, confited fennel, topped with frisee, and served with a toasted baguette. A terrine, for those who are unfamiliar, is similar to a pate, although it is ground to a rougher texture. My past experience with escargot has had it cooked with a lot of garlic which will make anything taste good. In this case, while the snails were chopped, they had the texture that I was used to, that of a slightly tough mushroom. The flavor was more subtle but it was still good. It had a slightly beefy earthy flavor and the roasted tomatoes were chewy and had an intense tomato flavor. It was all very good, especially on the toasted baguette and it got me ready for my entree.The entree was incredible. It was an explosion of flavors and textures and would have been good even without the main protein. It consisted of thick, hand-cut pasta, pepitos (fried pumpkin seeds), calabrian peppers, aleppo pepper, fried baby octopus, and guanciale. It was slightly spicy and very lemony so I have to guess that there was quite a bit of lemon juice that was also included in the dish. It was both crunchy and chewy and so good that I cleaned my plate very well. This was one of the cheaper entrees on the menu and I felt a little guilty about that so I also ordered a side of house cut french fries with house made ketchup. The fries were good although they weren't as good as the frites that I have had at other places. the ketchup was sweet, slightly spicy, and peppery and was some of the best ketchup that I have had.While I did like the fries, I was wondering about my decision to order them when it came time to order dessert. I wasn't full after I had eaten all of this but I had a feeling that I would be on the uncomfortable side of full if I ordered dessert. One of the best thing about going to many fine dining establishments is the dessert and I had had a cupcake made by the pastry chef of C-House when I was at the Meals on Wheels Celebrity Chef Ball so I wasn't going to turn dessert away. I would deal with the discomfort. The dessert was eye opening and made me come to the conclusion that I am going to have to amend my likes and dislikes. On the menu it was listed as gingerbread with pears, figs, and creme fraiche. I have mentioned in the past that I don't like pears but I don't have a problem trying them in a dish. If I don't like them, I will just deal with it. What the dish consisted of was 3 slices of gingerbread with a fig puree between them, a creme fraich gelato on top, and poached pears spread around the dish. There were also long slices of lemon zest winding through the gelato. Dessert was very good, even including the pears. I have had cooked pears several times and have not had a problem with them. I think what I don't like is raw pears.

This was a very good meal at a nice restaurant. I really enjoyed the food and the service was excellent. While this place is nominally a seafood restaurant, I think that I may try the steak, chicken or pork, the next time I visit. The chefs here are very talented and there is nothing to say that they can't do something other than seafood.