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.