Tuesday, June 28, 2011
In the middle of a block surrounded by signs in both Polish and Spanish as well as a large number of discount shoe stores is a bright red store front with columns and a guardian lion. This is the home of Friendship Chinese Restaurant. There are many cheap Chinese places outside of Chinatown with nothing really to talk about as far as interior design but this is definitely not one of these places. Walking in, the alcove before the hostess station has a polished black wall with small buddhas mounted in even rows. The main dining area has a hardwood floor, rows of tables along both side walls and a row of tables running down the middle of the room with the back wall covered in a multi-layered brass plate. I have been here a few times but they have recently added a sushi station in front of the brass wall. It is raised and kind of looks like a DJ booth with the sides draped in black and with the front having what looked to me like a video fireplace. We were seated quickly and got our drinks. Friendship serves beer and wine but also has a modest corkage fee if you want to BYO. After we made our drink orders but before we actually ordered our food, they brought us an Amuse Bouche. I don't exactly remember what they said it was but it looked like a play on shrimp toast with microgreens and avocado and a teriyaki sauce. It was smoky and tasted as good as it looks. We made our orders and waited for our food.
For our appetizers, we got a Seaweed Salad and Wok Fried Five Spice Calamari. The seaweed salad was both briny and vinegary and sprinkled with sesame seeds. While it was simple, the flavor was very bright and it was also very good. The calamari was a bit of a surprise (but a good surprise). Most calamari I have had has been overcooked and rubbery. What came out did not look like any calamari that I have ever seen. The calamari had a light tempura batter on it and was cut so it didn't look like your typical calamari. With regular calamari, everything is breaded and deep fried. The tentacles are all together and the bodies are sliced into rings. With this, there were no obvious tentacles. The pieces could have been individual tentacles from a large calamari or half of a body ring. It didn't really matter because it was really tender and tasted quite good. It was served with fried pineapple, light layers of sweet and sour sauce and basil oil on the bottom and cilantro on the top.
While everything to this point was good, the entrees on the other hand were a little hit and miss. My brother ordered a Sweet and Sour Boneless Pork Chop with a fruit chutney, balsamic reduction, and a garnish of peeled carrots. It sounded and looked very good and individually, many of the ingredients were very good but, in the end it was just sweet and sour pork, a very boring dish. I understand that sweet and sour pork is a standard on Chinese menus for the less adventurous types, but even jazzed up, the sauce overwhelms everything making for a very boring dish. My dish, on the other hand was very creative in appearance and while not especially spicy, very flavorful. I had the seafood combo in a bird's nest. The combo consisted of scallops, shrimp, sole, mushrooms, and baby scallops served in a fried potato bird's nest.
While not the home run that it usually was, I like Friendship's sense of style and very good service. While their prices are relatively inexpensive, they have done several Groupons in the last year that allow you to try it out without spending a lot of money. I would certainly pay full price for their food but if they continue to offer discounts, I will continue to take those.
Saturday, June 25, 2011
This is a brown paper sack. It doesn't make for much of a picture but what's in it was something fantastic. The brown sack came from a neighborhood sandwich place called, surprisingly enough, The Brown Sack. When I moved to my present location, The Brown Sack had just been opened in an unassuming storefront on the main road that I live off of. It has since moved to a higher profile corner location but still is pretty low key. The Brown Sack is owned and operated by a couple that were both chef's in higher end ventures. Malaika Marion came from Lula Cafe and her partner Adam Lebin last managed Red Light (as well as helping to open the former Planet Hollywood and Rainforest Cafe). Coming from the higher end establishments is actually an advantage because while the food they are doing now is pretty simple, it is done very well. The present location is pretty low key and casual (as was the last location). The tables and chairs are mismatched and seem to be, while sturdy, definitely showing their age. This does actually give the place a bit of a homey feel. The walls are covered with Phish, Medeski Martin and Wood, and other jam band posters and the background music is almost exclusively jam band although their is sometimes some reggae thrown in. They are very friendly and if you order something regularly, they will remember your order. I do switch things up so I do actually have to order but they do remember me. They do offer a wide variety of hot and cold deli-style sandwiches and well as soup, salads, and some phenomenal shakes. They also offer breakfast sandwiches all day but when I get there something always sounds better so I have unfortunately never tried any of them. What I had this time around was a very good reuben on marble rye with a side of mustard potato salad and a pickle. I also got a chocolate cookie because I can never turn away a good chocolate cookie. The corned beef was thinly sliced and stacked high. The sauerkraut wasn't too wet. The swiss cheese melted through the interior of the sandwich and the thousand island dressing tasted house made. I am really glad that The Brown Sack is close. While I don't go there often, the food is really good and it's a short trip when I do want to go.
Monday, June 20, 2011
Piece has been around for almost 10 years but because of it's location in Wicker Park and the fact that it does some really good pizza and beer, it can still be pretty hard to get a table. You can have beer without having a table but if you want to eat there, you need a table. Up until yesterday, I had been too impatient to wait for a table so while I had had their very good beer several times, I had never had their pizza. The pizza that they do at Piece is called New Haven style which is kind of a cross between New York style and Roman style. The place is owned by Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick fame who are from Rockford, Illinois so where the idea of a New Haven style pizzeria in Chicago came from, I have no idea (although I am not complaining). The pizza is prepared on a rectangular pan like a Roman style but it isn't squared up so what you end up with is an oblong pizza that is wedge cut. It's a thin crust and seems to be flame roasted because it has some nice char on it but opposed to New York style, the crust is pretty crisp. After the crust, the pizza can be prepared three ways: red, which is the standard way that most people know pizza, tomato sauce and mozzarella (plus whatever toppings you might want), plain, which is the standard New Haven Style with a chunky tomato sauce, garlic, parmesan, and olive oil, and the white pizza which has olive oil, garlic, and parmesan. We had a large plain pizza with sausage and mushrooms which fed four of us well. I liked the char on the crust and the fact that it was really crispy made it easy to handle the large pieces. The sauce was very garlicky which was fine because I like garlic but because it is a prominent flavor, it can be a surprise to some people. The mushrooms and sausage really weren't anything special in and of themselves, but as a part of the entire pizza, they went together very well. As I mentioned, Piece is also a brew pub and has actually won awards for their beer. If you happen to like beer, the quality of their product can really be appreciated. I had the Dysfunctionale, an American style, strong pale ale that has a nice hop flavor to it and the Wackjob which is a double IPA which had a strong hop flavor as a good IPA should. Piece makes some really good pizza but be prepared to wait if you want to eat there. Having an award winning beer while you are waiting will make the wait much more palatable.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
While it isn't a huge distance for me, I am really glad that it does take some effort to get to Black Dog Gelato. Gelato, is an Italian frozen dairy based dessert, that is similar to ice cream but less milk fat, more sugar and doesn't last nearly as long as ice cream will. In my experience, it is also generally creamier than ice cream. Jessica Oloroso, the former pastry chef for Stephanie Izard in her previous enterprise, Scylla, and owner of Black Dog Gelato, is also wildly creative with her flavor combinations. Favorites include Mexican Chocolate, Salty Peanut, Sesame Fig Chocolate Chip, Strawberry Basil, and Lemon Lavender. Unfortunately, there are no menus posted online or elsewhere because she doesn't want to be limited by a menu so you actually have to go there to see what is on the menu on any given day. The gelato is served in cups. With a small, you can get two flavors and with a large you can get three. Any and all flavors may be sampled before you order as well. For my cup, I got a goat cheese caramel cashew and lemon ginger. It was sa good flavor combination but because they were both the same color, I didn't know what I was going to be tasting with any given bite. It was really good. It was so good in fact that I was reminded of the face that my sister Kathryn made when I introduced her to Dulce de Leche Gelato and I was hoping that I wasn't making the same face because I was in public and it could be potentially embarassing if someone saw me. So why, if it's so good, am I glad that it takes some effort to get there? Because if it was easy, I would have to do that much more biking to try to keep my weight down.
Friday, June 17, 2011
While pizza of all types is popular, there has been a recent trend in Chicago to explore the different regional styles. As Naples is the birthplace of pizza as we know it, there have been several restaurants that have explored the style with Sono Wood Fired being the latest. Sono Wood Fired is the sister restaurant to Burger Bar Chicago and is, in fact, located next to it although as one place does really good burgers and the other Neapolitan Pizza there is little obvious overlap. Both spaces are high ceilinged and the tables are far enough apart that the place is easily navigable. The ingredients are also very fresh although I will get to that in a minute. The walls to Sono are yellows and browns and are variously brick, painted, or mosaic tile (around the oven in the back corner) with the front wall being a large window as the Burger Bar's is. The design is very welcoming. We (my brother, Marty, and I) came here after I had biked 100 miles and was ready to eat anything. I left very satisfied. We started with crisp artichoke chips that were served with a spicy aioli sauce. The artichoke chips weren't quite as crispy as potato chips but I think the right spot between crispy and chewy was hit. It was a very simple start but simple done well as this was is still very good. We then moved onto the bruschettas. My brother and I ordered one each and split them and were very satisfied with both. The one that I ordered had fig and pear and some sort of white cheese. I wish I could be more specific about this but it is not listed on the online menu and I can't remember. What surprised me was that I liked all of it. People that know me know that I don't like pears but they also know that I am not afraid to order things that I could potentially not like. This was really good. The crispness of the bread and the sweetness of the fig both helped with the pears and everything got along marvelously. The other bruschetta was carmelized cipollini onions, Humboldt Fog goat cheese, and lavender honey. Everything about this sounded really good with the crispness of the bread, the sweetness of the onions matched with the with the sweetness of the honey and the slight tartness of the cheese.
Finally we came to our pizzas. We both ordered Bianco Pizzes (white). My brother ordered the Funghi which was a mushroom pizza with wild mushrooms, most of which were trumpet mushrooms, crispy sage, toasted garlic, and fontina cheese. My pizza was the Pancetta which was covered with a layer of arugula and some cherry tomatoes. The cheese was Provolone. Both pizzas had a nice char on the crust and the ingredients were really fresh. In fact, the arugula really reminded me of the arugula that I had sampled at City Farm. As it is just down the street from Sono and it sells to local restaurants, and Sono promotes the fact that they use fresh and local ingredients, there is a very real possibility that the arugula did come from City Farm. I was very satisfied with my meal at Sono. The food and service were both very good and I would be happy to return.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
It doesn't seem like a bad location, but in the four years that I have lived in the area, the location that is now occupied by Sacco Bruno has been 4 different food establishments. It has been a couple of bakeries, a smoothie/health food store, and now is an Italian sandwich shop/cafe with some specialty groceries. It is run by a family that has spent a significant time in Italy and Sicily and the name means Brown Sack. There is actually another sandwich shop in the neighborhood called The Brown Sack (which I will talk about at some future date) but they are unrelated. I pass by the location every day but I was in the area at about lunch time on Saturday afternoon and I had no plans so I decided to try it out. The sandwich list looked good but when I saw the pizzas there, I was sold. The pizza is Roman style and is actually sold by the pound. Roman style pizzas are cooked on large, rectangular pans so obviously are cut in rectangular pieces. There were four different types and they all looked good so since they sold it by the pound, I decided to get samples of all four pizzas. In the picture from top to bottom the pizzas were pepperoni; sausage, potato, and onion; chicken, artichoke, and spinach; and veggie with mushrooms, green and yellow peppers, tomatoes, and spinach. All of the pizzas were good but I liked the sausage, potato, and onion best. From the way that the people working talked, the pizzas change frequently so I will have to find another lunch time free to try some more of their pizzas (or a sandwich).
I did already post once about City Farm but, being a farm, it does change throughout the year. Because it has such a small footprint, the farmers have to be very efficient and the rows are turned around very quickly after a harvest. This time of year on the farm they are growing carrots, radishes, turnips, beets, asparagus, and head and leaf lettuce. Leaf lettuces like arugula can be harvested multiple times but the more it is harvested, the more bitter it gets. Citty farm will generally harvest arugula about four times before clearing it (which is what I did when I was there). Because they were just going to compost it, I tried some and it was really good. It had a buttery, nutty flavor with a radishy finish. Having tried much of their produce, I can understand why some of the fine dining restaurants in the area buy from City Farm. It's nice also that I can buy their produce at the local farmer's market but in addition to all of this, it's fun to play in the dirt.
Monday, June 13, 2011
On the surface, there is no reason to think that Paradise Pup should even be brought up in the same sentence as Kuma's Corner, or Burger Bar, or DMK Burger Bar, or Bad Apple. It's a small hamburger (and hot dog) stand out in the burbs (Des Plaines) run by a couple of brothers for the last 24 years and located next to a garage. It's also under one of O'Hare Airport's landing paths. It has indoor seating at a counter for about 10 people and about 6 round picnic tables that will seat about 6 each but if you come hear for lunch which is the only time it's open, frequently, you will see a line out the door and a wait of at least 20 minutes before ordering. It doesn't look like much, but it has been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and by Andrew Zimmern. While there is something to be said for all of their food, what they are famous for are their burgers, specifically the bacon cheddar char burger, a 1/3 pound burger chargrilled and served on a challah roll with grilled carmelized onions, merkt cheddar, 2 slices of applewood smoked bacon and the typical lettuce and tomato. The fries, which you have to order separately, come plain, with cheddar, or three layer which is bacon cheddar and sour cream. When I go there, I figure if I'm going to eat heart attack food, I might as well go all the way. If you happen to be in Des Plaines around lunch time check this place out.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
There have been many words written about Bleeding Heart Bakery, the punk rock organic bakery located in Roscoe Village. The bakery is very colorful as are many of their wares using a lot of graffiti and tattoo designs like the owner/proprietors Vinny and Michelle Garcia. The bakers are well known, having been featured on Food Network Challenge several times. They are also fiercely defensive of their creations. While they have some great looking cakes and cupcakes, I came specifically for their lemon bars and their cake balls and ended up buying much more than that. Unfortunately, because of the road trip that I made with them, they did get a little mushed but luckily the flavor wasn't degraded. I ended up buying two lemon bars, two key lime bars, a peanut butter bar, an espresso bar, an espresso brownie (eaten before the picture was taken), and some chocolate covered bacon (also eaten), as well as four cake balls: blueberry lavender, berry almond, peanut butter, and chocolate. Everything was very good, but some things were better than others. I will always go back for a cake ball and the lemon bars are fantastic but I probably should have gone for a little more variety and not gotten two espresso flavored items. Next time will be more cake balls, another brownie, and a great looking cupcake if I'm not going anywhere.