Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chicago Chef Battle 2011

One would expect that a benefit featuring 5 executive chefs using 5 Goose Island Beers (each chef used a different beer) to incorporate into a dish for service and with free beer, coffee, and Goose Island Sodas (and a DJ) would be pretty expensive. It, however, only cost $15 and for that, attendees were able to try each chefs dishes at least once, could drink as much as they wanted and were able to vote for their favorite dish. Now I will grant, that the event was held in the loading dock of Goose Island Brewery and the dishes were served on plastic plates with plastic silverware and the chefs were donating there time so there virtually was no overhead. It was also a benefit for WBEZ, the local NPR station, so they try to keep things open for as many people as possible. There were a lot of attendees so the attendance cost could be kept down and they would still raise a lot of money but for the individual, it was a great deal. We were able to try some good dishes and have some good beer without it costing much. I can also say that I have found some new places that I would like to try some time. Now I will grant that some of the dishes were better than others but none of them were really bad and all of them had something to say for them.

As I said, there were a lot of people there so the lines were long. A few times I jumped into a line without knowing what I was going for but it really didn't matter because I wanted to try everything. The first dish that I tried was a Seafood Steampot with a spicy tomato and Pere Jacques broth. It had mussels, shrimp, and potatoes and was made by Chris Curren of Blue 13. Blue 13 has been on my list of places to visit for a while so I was excited to try his stuff. While the broth was nice and spicy, and the seafood was well cooked, the dish was kind of simple and doesn't really match up with the stuff that's listed on the Blue 13 menu. I was a bit underwhelmed but I still want to eventually go to Blue 13.The next long line that I got into led me to Heather Terhune of Sable. Sable has also been on my list so I was happy to see that's where I ended up. It is supposed to be a gastro-lounge that actually pays attention to both food and drink. They were serving 312 beer and apple cider braised pork shoulder sliders with a celery root-apple slaw which while a little simpler than what might be found on their menu, is in the same ballpark. The pork was pulled and was nicely juicy. The slaw matched well with the braised meat and was pretty good but there was more to try.
Next was Carlos Ysaguirre from Acre. I was not sure if I had ever heard of Acre and I didn't know what to expect. What I got was a Matilda Braised Berkshire Pork Belly Tacos with Green Acres Pickled Peppers and Napa Cabbage, Henry's Farm Daikon and Carrots, and Hoisin Sauce. I looked at the menu of Acre and it seems to be seasonal and pretty wide ranging. The taco is also on the menu so it is no surprise that this was really good. The meat was really juicy and the vegetables seemed really fresh and had a nice crunch. At this point, this was my favorite dish and I have found another restaurant to add to my list but there were two more dishes to try.
I had heard of Mana Food Bar and knew it was a vegetarian restaurant. While I don't have anything against vegetarian restaurants as such (I love the Green Zebra), what I saw of the menu looked pretty boring to me. Jill Barron, Executive Chef of Mana Food Bar was serving a Goose Island Sofie Beer Cheese Tamale with mole poblano and pickled radishes. I like tamales and I like cheese so I had hope. While it wasn't terrible, it also wasn't something that I would go out and order on my own. The mole was good and the radishes were nice and crunchy but the cheese had soaked into the masa of the tamale so it was all one texture. While it didn't taste bad, it was pretty boring and it didn't convince me that Mana was a place that I had to (or even really wanted to) try. Carlos Ysaguirre was safe so far.
The last dish I had to try was from Leonard Hollander of Marion Street Cheese Market. I had been to the cheese market and to the cafe and it was pretty good but not much more than a cheese market and sandwich shop although a good cheese market and sandwich shop. They have recently opened a bistro but I haven't been there yet. I know what bistro fare is and like it but didn't know exactly what to expect. What I got was a Harvest Ale Braised Goat with Fall Squash Cider Puree, Verjus Pickled Apples, and Smoked Pecans. The goat was good and juicy and the pickled apples had a nice tartness and crunch but what made this was the squash. This was my favorite dish as it was for many other people and this was the winning dish and tells me that I also have to return to Marion Street Cheese Market to try their bistro.

This was a lot of fun and while the location wasn't much and it was crowded for a while, I did get to try some really good stuff and let me kinow that there were a couple more places that I need to try.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Katakana and Koko

I really like sushi but it isn't something that I usually think about when I go out. This is actually kind of funny because there are about 18 sushi places within a couple of miles of where I live. For whatever reason I awoke yesterday with an urge for sushi which is usually how I will end up going to a sushi place. I decided to go to a place that I pass by every day on my way to work, Katakana and Koko Sushi Lounge. Located in a space that was previously occupied by a Mexican restaurant, and also located in a largely Hispanic neighborhood, it still has a tropical festival vibe to it (despite the fact that it is a BYOB). The space is very large and open with a high unfinished ceiling, track lighting, and a large ventilation duct running overhead. There are also lighting strips above the windows that alternate in color between red, yellow, blue, and green. The floor is hardwood as are the tables and chairs. The sushi bar itself looks a little out of place, a mass of metal and glass in the center of the room and like every sushi bar I have been to in recent years, the background music is downtempo electronic or electronic lounge music. It's provides for a very nice and welcoming vibe. The menu has a wide variety of Japanese cuisine but focuses on Maki (rolls) of which there are many. It is possible and actually fairly easy to come here and have a nice dinner without having anything raw but in my opinion I don't know why you would. I started my dinner with something that wasn't raw or even sushi for that matter. Steamed rolls are fairly common in Japanese and Pan-Asian restaurants because they are pretty accessible. I had steamed pork rolls which were firm enough to handle with chopsticks and tasted really good with or without the spiced soy sauce that was served with it.
For my entree portion of the meal, I ordered a couple of Maki rolls that were fairly standard in many sushi restaurants. While Katakana and Koko does have a large list of Maki rolls, there really isn't anything groundbreaking here but that was fine because I really wasn't looking for anything that would challenge my palette. Both rolls came on one plate. The Godzilla Roll came with 10 pieces and contained smoked salmon, crab meat, eel, cucumber, shitake, kampho, cream cheese, tobiko, crunchy tempura, wasabi mayo, and eel sauce and was on the outside part of the plate. It was pretty big and tasted good but it didn't pack well and was hard to hold together. In order to prevent it from falling apart, I was having to eat each piece in one bite. I did try it with a soy and wasabi mixture but I thought that it tasted good enough without dipping it. My other roll was the Philadelphia Roll which I think I have seen at every sushi place that I have ever been to. It contains smoked salmon, cream cheese, and cucumber and was really good. It was in the center of the plate surrounding some pickled ginger and was much easier to handle than the Godzilla Roll was. While it was good, the white rice on the outside was a little bland and it did benefit from a dip in the soy and wasabi.

While there really isn't anything on the menu that is exciting, it also isn't boring. It is also very accessible and the restaurant is welcoming. It isn't haute cuisine but it is a good place to take care of a sushi craving.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I was riding home in the rain on Sunday and was passing by Superdawg so I decided to stop. As far as the food is concerned, it really isn't much more than any other hot dog stand but going there is like driving into the past. It is a classic hot dog joint with many drive-in booths and the building looks like one of the drive-ins that you would see in a movie set in the 50s or early 60s. One cool thing about the building though is the two 12 foot hot dog figures on the roof. They are a male and female, the male in a hide suit and the female in a skirt, and they kind of represent the couple that founded the place.
You can get chicken and burgers here, but because it's ultimately a hot dog joint, that's what I ordered. While their menu isn't that special, what they do, they do well and everything comes with fries. The Superdawg is a classic Chicago hot dog with mustard, onions, neon green relish, a pickle wedge, a green tomato, on a sesame roll. It's simple, it's classic, it's fun, and it's very good. Superdawg isn't a place that I will make a trip for but if I happen to be in the area, I am happy to stop by.

Monday, September 19, 2011


I realize that I posted about Gaztro-wagon in April but the sandwich I had yesterday warranted a special post. I hate pears. The skin is too tough and the fruit is very frequently gritty. It isn't a perfect description, but I have told people that it makes my teeth itch. Suffice it to say that it doesn't have a good mouthfeel for me. Cooking them generally doesn't generally help because it turns the fruit mushy without removing all of the grit and leaves the skin tough. I think that I've made the point that I don't think much of pears. Gaztro-Wagon's naanwiches on the other hand are very good. They are very creative, combining wildly different and unusual flavors and wrap them in a fluffy and chewy naan. I was in Morton Grove on Sunday at the Chicago Flatwater Classic and the Gaztro-Wagon was there. I was working so I didn't get a chance to get there until the end. At that time, there was only a Roasted Pear Naanwich left. As I don't care for pears, I did look around to see if there was anything else available. There was not so I decided to bite the bullet and actually try it. Besides the roasted pears, the naanwich also had Taleggio Cheese, dandelion pesto, and truffle honey so other than the pears, it sounded really good. I took a bite and while the skin was still a little tough, a lot of the grit was gone. It also wasn't cooked to mush. The dandelion pesto had a nice pesto flavor with the underlying bitter floral flavor of dandelions. The honey was light but there was a background flavor of truffle and taleggio cheese has a pretty pungent flavor as well. It was sweet, sour and bitter and had a very nice texture. While I don't know if I would order it again because there is always something else interesting at the Gaztro-Wagon, it isn't something that I would be afraid of or repulsed by.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

MS Dinner of Champions

I volunteer quite a bit and some organizations actually feed us. I don't volunteer to be fed but it is definitely a perk. Even if I am fed by the organization that I am working for though, I wouldn't expect to get the same dinner that the dinner guests are being fed. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is a great organization so I would have no problem donating my time even if I wasn't fed. I volunteered for the MS Dinner of Champions this last Thursday (September 15th) which honored Jim Skinner, the CEO of McDonalds, which does a lot to support research for a cure for Multiple Sclerosis. They also had Meredith Vieira and her husband, Richard Cohen, speaking about living with MS. We were told when we signed up to volunteer for the event that we would be fed. What I did not expect was that we would be provided seats at the main tables and had the same dinner that the donors received. I must say that the dinner was very good as well as the speakers and the entertainment. We ate a three course dinner consisting of salad, entree, and dessert. Our salad was a Mediterranean Salad with mixed greens, oven roasted tomatoes, feta cheese, eggplant croutons, and a lemon basil vinaigrette. I really liked the roasted tomatoes and feta but I could have done with a little more vinaigrette. Our entree actually had two proteins, soy-ginger braised short ribs and herb-seared halibut with a Dijon mustard aioli. A wild rice blend and pattypan squash, carrot, asparagus, and baby zucchini were also served. The short ribs were very tender and flavorful as was the halibut and the vegetables were actually very fresh.
I had liked the salad and the entree but the dessert was just ridiculous. It was a red velvet cake with a cream cheese icing and shaved chocolate, pecans, and Creme Anglaise with sliced strawberries and blueberries. It was a great event and a great dinner that I really enjoyed.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

caffe De Luca

I first came to caffe De Luca several years ago to participate in a salon style conversation group. At the time, it was essentially an Italian coffee shop but it also served individual size thin crust pizzas, some sandwiches and had a small listing of beers and wine. Over the years, it has expanded the kitchen and started serving some pasta dishes for dinner. I have always liked the interior of the place. It has a very high ceiling with red walls painted with a mural looking like small-town Italy. The bar is on the left side of the room and runs into the kitchen area which is semi-open and there is a stair above the kitchen leading to what looks like an apartment with clothes hanging on a line over the "alley" outside the door. The dining area is divided into three rooms inside with a patio area outside. All of the food that I have ever had here has been very good as well. The sandwiches and pizzas were simple and seasonal, and everything has a nice Italian accent. I hadn't been here for a while so I decided to make a visit one day last week. What I had forgotten after not having been here in a while is that while the service is mostly friendly, it is also very lackluster. Most nicer dining establishments have a hostess station and they will seat you. There is no hostess station here and there is also no one really to tell you to seat yourself so I have seen people walk in and stand, waiting for a few minutes to be seated before finally being told to seat themselves. Seating yourself without being noticed can also be a problem, because while it is a relatively small place, it might be a while before you are noticed.I walked in and went through the restaurant to see if there was anyone that I knew here. There wasn't so I seated myself in the front room where I thought I would most likely be noticed. It took a few minutes (but just a few) but someone brought me some water and the menus. The waitress came a few minutes later to ask for my drink order. She took my order when she brought back my beer (Stella Artois). I ordered a Tortellacci Carbonara. I have seen filled ring pasta called tortellini, tortelloni, and now tortellacci. I have never seen a difference between any of them and I don't know what the difference might be but I do know that they are good. There are a couple of types of carbonara as well. It can be made as a white sauce with cream or with wine but they both have parmesan cheese and a cured Italian pork, either prosciutto de parma or pancetta. In any case, I have never had a bad carbonara and this one was very good. It was the filled pasta with pancetta, a cream sauce, and grated parmesan. I finished my beer and my entree and waited for someone to check on me. The bus boy asked me if I was interested in another beer when he came to pick up my dishes but I was not. I assume that he told the waitress that I was done because when she finally showed up (in the time that I waited, a couple walked in, seated themselves, waited, and eventually left because no one came with water or menus.) she brought me the bill. I did find it a little irritating because I was interested in dessert which is another something that they do very well. I looked and while there are several things on the menu that piqued my interest, I went with the tiramisu. Tiramisu is a dessert of coffee-soaked ladyfingers topped with mascarpone and cocoa. What's not to like? This was also topped with strawberries and garnished with dark chocolate. It was very good. After I got my bill, I paid and left. While I like the ambiance of the place and they have someone that really knows what they are doing in the kitchen, I must remember that the service here is very casual and can take some time. It isn't somewhere that you would want to go to if you are in a hurry or want great service.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Dante's Pizzeria

When pizza in Chicago is talked about, the first thing that comes to mind is the deep dish Chicago-style first presented by Uno Pizzeria in 1943. There is a Chicago style that has a thin crust and cut in squares but there are also numerous other regional styles that are done in Chicago including New Haven Style, Quad City Style, and Neapolitan Style. While there have been some pizza joints that have claimed to be serving New York Style, they haven't been that great as far as New York style pizza is concerned. Recently, a new pizza joint claiming to serve a New York style pizza opened in my neighborhood so I decided to try it out. The name of the place is Dante's Pizzeria and it plays on the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, and his most famous poem, The Divine Comedy and more specifically The Inferno. The walls of the restaurant are dark red and the high, unfinished ceiling is black. The ordering counter is toward the back on one side and the kitchen window where you pick up your order is on the back wall. Above the window is a sign saying "Abandon Hunger, All Who Enter Here" (a play on the sign above the gates of Hell, "Abandon Hope, All Who Enter Here"). The music played is hardcore punk and there are concert posters for hardcore bands that have played in the area hung on the wall. While you can order whole pizzas, they are enormous (20 inches), so a lot of their pizzas will be sold by the slice (which are also huge). Slices available are cheese, sausage, pepperoni, and the slice of the day which is one of their 8 specialty pizzas which are named for characters in The Inferno. In order to try to compare Dante's Pizza with a New York style pizza, I figured it would be best to get a simple pizza and in order to see what they did, I decided to try one of their specialty pizzas. So I ordered a slice of pepperoni and a Geryon. When I was called to pick up my slices, I was a little overwhelmed because I was a little unprepared for the size of the slices. There is a reason that people fold slices of New York style pizza. It's because they are so big that trying to eat it flat is a bit unwieldy. I started with the pepperoni. The crust was thin and looked as if it was hand tossed. The sauce and cheese were light and had enough pepperoni without overwhelming it. The crust also had a nice char on it which I thought was nice. The Geryon is named for the the Monster of Fraud, the eighth ring of hell, a winged beast with the face of an honest man, the paws of a lion, the body of a wyvern, and a poisonous sting at the tip of his tail. The name, while interesting, really had no connection to the pizza. The pizza had sausage, broccoli rabe, and ricotta cheese. The crust on this was similar to the pepperoni although it didn't have as much char. The combination was pretty good which gave me hope for the other combinations. I really enjoyed Dante's and am sure that I will be back although I probably won't try to order to two slices at once.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


While I really like "haute cuisine", there is something to be said for simple food prepared very well and presented nicely. I went to erwin this weekend, an American-style bistro that does a small menu of local and seasonal fare. The restaurant itself has a very homey feel to it. With a white wood paneled walls with country-styled trim, a worn hardwood floor, and simple, comfortable tables, and chairs. The waitstaff is very friendly and the dress code is casual. There isn't anything exceptionally exotic on the menu but what they do, they do well. While the normal prices are pretty good, they have an $18 prix fixe that includes a soup or salad, entree, and dessert. While the prix fixe for the night that I was there looked good, I decided to peruse the entire menu. There were many things that looked appetizing but I decided to start out with the Onion Tart. It started with a thin whole wheat crust that was surprisingly light. Carmelized onions are added as well as Danish Blue Cheese and walnuts. While all of the elements of this were very good, the whole was greater than the individual parts. It was both sweet and savory, light and flavorful. In short, I really liked it.
While I was a little torn as to what I would order for an appetizer, when I saw the menu, there really was no question as to what I was going to order for my entree. I love duck but it has been a while since I have had it. There have been several times in recent months when I have seen it on the menu but decided to order something else because it sounded good and I already knew that I would love duck. On the menu here was a confited duck leg and a basil sausage with seasonal vegetables and a cherry-pomegranate sauce. The vegetables included corn, potatoes, sweet peppers, asparagus, and scallions. The duck was very good, of course. It was very rich tender and flavorful. The basil sausage was slightly crispy and very flavorful and the vegetables were very crisp and fresh.There are ten entrees on the menu and eight desserts so there was obviously some thought put into the desserts instead of having just one or two basic selections. I was kind of torn about what I would order from the dessert menu and then the waiter threw a wrench in and added another possible selection. I finally decided on the Lemon-Goat Cheese Souffle Cake with whipped cream, strawberries and balsamic syrup. It was actually very much like a very good strawberry short cake. The cake was very light, the strawberries seemed very fresh, the balsamic actually added a sweetness to the general tanginess of the cake and the strawberries and brought the whipped cream into the taste of it and who doesn't like whipped cream.

I really liked erwin. The food on the menu is fairly standard but it is done very well. The place is comfortable and the people are friendly and I would have no problem recommending it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Duke's Bar and Grill

The first thing that you notice when you walk into Duke's is that it looks like a cross between a hunting lodge and a lounge. The floors, wall, are all plank wood. The furniture is all wood as well although the booths are covered in white leather. The walls are decorated with plexiglass trophy head sculptures (one moose and two deer) that look like they would be assembled by the buyer. They look kind of tacky but I think that was the point, there was also a plastic palm tree sitting in the corner of a lounge area in the back. I think the idea was to go for a slightly tacky basement lounge feel on a main floor. They have a nice beer list as well as some choice top shelf liquors including the entire run of Johnny Walker's (Johnny Walker Blue $37/shot). While it has a good bar, what Duke's is known for is their burgers. They list 30 burgers on their menu to be built with one of a choice of 9 different patties. The meats include angus, American Kobe, bison, chicken breast, ostrich, turkey, wahoo, veggie, or portabella. Some of the meats sound pretty interesting but I decided that if I wanted to try to compare burgers between places, I would have to look at similar meats so I went with the angus. Most of the burgers are variations on your basic bar burger but there are three exceptions: the truffle burger which had the patty of choice, lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, Parmesan cheese, and black truffle paste, served on a pretzel roll, the surf and turf which is a 1/2 pound angus burger topped with 6 oz. of diced lobster tail on a pretzel roll and served with a side of garlic butter, and The Duke which is a $100 burger that starts with 1 pound of kobe beef, and adds black truffle paste, 6 oz. of diced lobster tail, and edible gold leaf on a pretzel roll. I did ask the waitress how often The Duke is ordered and she told me that someone orders it about once a month. I didn't go so extravagant. I just stuck with the Breakfast Burger which is exactly what it sounds like; breakfast on a burger. It starts with the burger of choice (I went with the angus) and adds lettuce, tomato, applewood smoked bacon, American cheese, and a fried egg on a regular hamburger bun. I had a choice of several fried potatoes (fries, waffle fries, chippers, or tots), onion rings, or a salad on the side. I went with the waffle fries. The burger came out quickly and it was a thing of beauty. Eating it was as pleasurable as gazing upon it. The meat was very juicy, the bacon was crisp, and the egg was fried just right. It was probably the best bar burger that I have ever had (I do not consider burgers from Kuma's or the Burger Bar to be bar burgers). My only complaint is that it was served on a regular hamburger bun as opposed to a pretzel roll, an onion roll, a challah roll, or some other specialty roll that I have had burgers on.

I come to that part of town relatively frequently and while I had seen Duke's, I was not aware of their burger prowess. I will have to revisit them when I am in the area some evening.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Food Truck Social

In theory, the Food Truck Social was a great idea. It exposed many of the food trucks that operate on our streets to many people who otherwise wouldn't be able to catch them. Most of the trucks work during the week in the Loop and River North so those people that don't work in those areas probably couldn't catch them. It gave the food trucks more business which was good for the trucks. The admission price went to several good causes including Share Our Strength, a non-profit that fights to end childhood hunger in America. Timeout Chicago, the sponsor got Ommegang Brewery for the beer sponsorship and the Empty Bottle for music. It was a great idea but it suffered from organization. It was so popular that there were many long lines and the only trucks that didn't run out of food were those that could prepare their food in their trucks. As the present food truck law in Chicago does not allow trucks that cook to operate on the streets, the only trucks that didn't run out were the Wagyu Wagon , which essentially operates out of parking lots because it does have a mobile kitchen, and Hummingbird Kitchen which was serving cold sandwiches. There were a few trucks that I was excited to see and a couple that I was disappointed not to see. I was disappointed not to see The Southern Mac and Cheese truck and was also disappointed not to see Meatyballs although I was not surprised, with the animosity that one of Timeout Chicago's food writers has for Philip Foss, the owner/proprietor of Meatyballs. Despite my disappointment, I did visit several trucks despite having to stand in line for an extensive period of time for a few of them. I started out with a truck with a line that looked kind of long but moved pretty quickly. Lillie's Q was serving pulled pork sliders with 3 different barbecue sauces and a cole slaw side. I tried the Carolina sauce with the slider. Overall it wasn't bad but it was a little overpriced. I then found a truck that I was very excited to see. I have been lookingg for years for pasties in Chicago with no luck. Then I saw Bridgeport Pasties here and was very excited. When I got to the truck, they were sold out and waiting for more pasties. Luckily it was close to the time that they were supposed to reopen and the line was short. They only had a chicken and a veggie on the menu and while the veggie did look good, I had to go with the chicken. It had many of the same ingredients that a regular pasty would but it also had curry. It was very good and I am very excited to see them operating in Chicago. They will have to be one of the trucks that I follow on Twitter because they are very good and I love pasties.
While it would have been nice to get something from Gaztro-Wagon, the line was long and they were operating with rotating chefs (including Bill Kim, Michael Carlson, and Stephanie Izard) so you would have had to get in line several times to try everyone's stuff. I nstead got into the longest line in the festival, the Tamalespaceship. I love good tamales. Unfortunately, they are very hard to find in Chicago. I had heard that these tamales were very good. Apparently, so had everyone else. I waited in line for over an hour and they ran out twice. Looking at the menu that they had, they had been selling 8 tamales including three veggie style. By the time I got to order, there were only meat varieties left. I decided to go with the standard pork tamale. It was enormous and you get two per order. While the masa was a little different from that that I was used to, it was still very good. As I said, the Tamalespaceship ran out twice while I was in line. While we were waiting several people ran over to Hummingbird Kitchen to try their food. They were selling a tuna nicoise sandwich and fries. After hearing it was very good and having the people behind me volunteer to hold my spot, I ran over and got a very good tuna sandwich. The line started moving shortly after I got my sandwich so I got my tamales and sat down to eat both the sandwich and the tamales. Kind of full but hot, I decided to make myself really full and got Starfruit which is frozen kefir.

I left the festival pretty full. The music and the beer were good but if they do this in future years, they will have to figure out a better way to do crowd control.