Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Green Zebra

Most of the time when I think of vegetarian food, I think of a lot of salads, mushrooms, tofu, and a lot of very bad fake meat. In a word, boring. Green Zebra is a vegetarian restaurant but the food that they serve doesn't fall under the boring category at all. While it does serve a lot of salad greens, mushrooms, and cheese, their food is well seasoned, inventive and they don't even pretend to imitate meat. Located in a storefront in Westtown, the place has a minimalist modern design and uses downtempo electronica for background music. On Tuesday nights, they do a tasting series. The series started featuring a specific vegetable, it then added spices and drinks. The series for the winter features the cuisine of a specific country. On the night that I went, they were featuring the cuisine of Spain which is what I ordered. Before I ordered though, the amuse bouche came out. It was Lemon Popcorn. While I will eat almost anything, I don't care for popcorn. To me, it tastes like styrofoam. If I am out and served something I don't care for, I will try it to see if it has been done in a way that allows me to like it. As it sounds this popcorn was very lemony. It also had butter, salt, and I will guess sugar because it also tasted a little sweet. It tasted very good and while it still felt like I was chewing styrofoam, the taste took my mind away from that. I could eat this popcorn at any time. The first course of the Spanish menu (of four) was essentially a salad. It was a Manchego and Spiced Almond Salad with grilled greens (radicchio), marinated olives, crispy capers, and sherry vinaigrette. It was tart, smoky, spicy, and very crisp. The flavor was very bright and changes the idea that salads are bland and boring. My tongue was excited and I anxiously awaited my next course.The next course was a Gratin 'Espanola' it was kind of a cross between a Spanish tortilla and Au Gratin Potatoes. The thinly sliced potatoes and eggs were topped with charred espellette peppers, and was served with Pata Cabra Goat Cheese, Preserved Lemon, and Parsley. The flavors for this were also very bright, spicy and tart and it was served with a Balsamic Reduction. It was exciting, very good, and the lack of meat was not missed.The final savory course was a stew. It was a chickpea potaje containing herb roasted potatoes and a spicy sauce with grilled pita bread on the side. When it was served, a saffron yogurt was poured over the stew adding a very nice floral taste and aroma. the beans and potatoes were well cooked, the sauce had a nice tang to it and the bread provided a good way to sop up the extra sauce.After such a good meal, I was excited for dessert. Unfortunately, while it was good, it really didn't compare to the rest of the meal. It started with a Blood Orange Crema Catalan and while it tasted good, I am not exactly sure what it was. It was served cold but it wasn't ice cream. Texturally, it was between ice cream and pudding. On top as a hazelnut tuille cookie and it was surrounded with pomegranate cells and thyme sauce. Everything went together well and it was a good finish to a great meal.

If it isn't already obvious, I really liked this meal. If all vegetarian meals could be this good, I could easily eat vegetarian more often. I really like this tasting series and if nothing else, I will definitely make it back for another of these meals.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


There are a large number of brunch spots in town. In fact, Time Out Chicago mentions 52 in this week's issue. They did not, however, mention the spot that I went to over the weekend, the imaginatively named Brunch. Brunch has a large open dining room that is elevated from the street. There is a pastry counter by the hostess station in the front. The dining area has hardwood floors, an unfinished ceiling with ventilation ducting, and beams, and a long curving bar running the length of the dining area. There are several large flat screens behind the bar that were all televising the death of Joe Paterno when I was there. While the TVs were on, there was also background music playing playing Indie Dance music like MGMT and LCD Soundsystem. I sat at the bar where I was served quickly and very friendly. For starters, I had the Strawberry Stuffed French Toast which was stuffed with strawberries and whipped cream cheese and served with sliced strawberries and maple syrup. When I am presented with a sauce (or syrup) on the side, I like to try the food by itself first so I can get an idea of how it tastes. As one might expect it was kind of sweet but the toast could have used a little moisture which I added with a little syrup. While the syrup was good, it really didn't add anything to the taste of the french toast. The dish was good, though.
For my main dish, I had the Brunch Skillet. As most skillets are, it was brought out in a cast iron pan. It consisted of cubed sweet potatoes, grilled onions, and a hash of Yukon Gold Potatoes, Pancetta, and fresh herbs and was topped with two eggs to order which, in my case, were over easy. I was also served a toasted English muffin on the side. I like skillets and this was a good skillet that took a step in the imaginative direction.

I enjoyed my meal at brunch. The food was well prepared, the staff was very friendly, the music was good and it had a very relaxing vibe. It reminded me of the former River North version of Kitsch'n without the 70s design. While there are several good brunch places that are closer to me than Brunch is, this will be a place that I will come to again.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Lula Cafe

Years ago, when I lived in the suburbs, I heard about this cool little place in Logan Square called Lula Cafe. It sounded cool and it went on my list of places that I wanted to go but I never actually made it there until I actually moved into the neighborhood. It immediately became one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants. They have a frequently changing seasonal menu and serve both brunch and dinner. In addition, they "dress up" for Halloween, an event that is enormously popular. While they do fine dining very well, they also have a very good cafe menu which is less expensive. You can actually order from both menus during the same meal. They recently expanded and I haven't been there in a while so I decided to go for dinner. The restaurant used to be divided into two small rooms a long narrow bar that had a few tables, and a cafe that is entered by walking through the bar. The bar area has expanded, basically doubling in size adding a bigger bar and more tables. The design of the room is both kind of classic and worn and the background music was a mixture of classic jazz and avant garde. I hadn't been to Lula since they had opened up the new space and seeing it, i have to say that I really liked it.

The appetizer I started with would surprise no one. I had the duck breast. It was very rare and served with a savory tarte tatin (an upside down apple tart), Japanese Turnips, Mustard Streusel, Wild Arugula, and Hazelnut Jus. While the duck was good, I think I would have preferred it cooked a little more. While everything went well with the duck, I was actually surprised how well the mustard streusel and the tarte tatin went together. It was a pretty good start.I was not completely certain what I was getting when I ordered my entree. I ordered Strozzapreti with Venison Ragu, Matsutake Mushrooms, Fennel Cured Olives, Pecorino Romano Cheese, and New Potatoes. I knew that what it had in it sounded really good but I was not sure what Strozzapreti was. It turns out that it's a flat pasta that is hand rolled originating from Tuscany and the name literally means priest choker (possibly due to a fat priest choking on it or hope of a priests tenant farmers that he would choke on the past that was partially used for the rent). In any case it was all very good. The pasta had a nice chewy texture and the flavor of the dish was very robust with all of the ingredients working well together.The dessert that I ordered was very creative and actually kind of surprising. It started with some sticky gingerbread and had a hazelnut tuile, a thin curved cookie that is sort of shaped like a roof tile. It was also served with a key lime ice cream and sauce. While I could see before I tried it that hazelnut and gingerbread would go together well, while I like lime and gingerbread, I wasn't sure how they would work together. The hazelnut actually brought them together.

Overall, my meal was very good and I am very glad that I live close to Lula so it's easy to visit. I will certainly be back again soon.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


I thought, when I went to Aja, that I was going to an Asian Restaurant. The name, which is pronounced like the continent, and description added to my thought that I was at an Asian restaurant not to mention that the Executive Chef, Ariel Bagadiong is Asian himself. It describes itself as an urban, greenmarket, Asian cafe. While the description implied to me that the food would probably be seasonal and might not be something like sesame chicken, I wasn't expecting a huge departure from that. The restaurant is in the Dana Hotel and has a glass wall that looks out on State Street. The restaurant is long and narrow with the dining room actually occupying two floors. The bar is long and made of a dark wood and you walk by it to get to the dining area. I ate in the lower dining area which had the long glass wall which I already described, a gas fireplace on the back wall, and a wall opposite the window that is wood and curved like a cresting wave. The ceiling is concrete and it has hanging lighting. While it was definitely modern, I could still see it as an Asian Restaurant.
I was seated at the back of the restaurant which was fine because I was able see the entire restaurant. When I was looking at the menu, I was also brought a tray of pickled vegetables. Call it either an Amuse Bouche or the equivalent of the bread course. The tray was divided in to three sections and contained a different vegetable (with a different pickling liquid for each). On one side were the sliced, pickled cucumbers. They were sliced pretty thinly, were pretty crisp, and were like fresh refrigerator pickles. The center section contained pickled daikon, They were crispy and sour and actually my favorite of the pickled vegetables. I have to think that they used a cider vinegar because it tasted to me kind of like jicama. The last was an Asian slaw. It contained cabbage and carrots and kind of a sweet pickle. It was nice and a good start to a surprising dinner.There is a sushi bar at Aja and while it looked good, I was interested in the rest of the menu. I would say that this is truly an Asian-American fusion. Many of the items look like things that you might find on an American restaurant menu but Asian ingredients and spices are used. For the appetizer, I got a crab cake. It looks like a fairly standard crab cake and the sauce looked like the Hollandaise sauce that you would expect to see with a standard crab cake but the sauce was actually a sesame mustard aioli. The crab cake also had scallions and garlic, was topped by cilantro, and topped sliced pickled daikon. It looked nice, tasted good, and the daikon was a nice surprise. I have to think that a different pickle was used for the daikon used in this dish than those used at the beginning because it was pink and slightly sweet.

For my entree, I went with the seared strip steak. With all of the very good strip steaks in Chicago, I am not sure why I went with the steak. I think what it was that there were so many things that looked interesting that I decided to go simple. While I wouldn't exactly consider it Asian, and it certainly was not the best steak that I have ever had, it was good. It was served with lemon soy onions and coriander shortbread. With my entree, I also got a couple of sides, Korean Potato Salad and Marinated Mushrooms. When I think of potato salad, I generally don't think of Korea. It looked and had the same texture of a standard potato salad but there was something in the seasoning where I could see Korean. The marinated mushrooms were much more obviously Asian. The marinade had sesame, white soy and coriander. They were very good and if I thought I could have gotten away with it, I would have picked up the dish containing the mushrooms and drank the marinade.My dessert was the Thai Coffee Tiramisu. It was a nice layered wedge served with some mocha ice cream topped with mint. The tiramisu itself has the cocoa, coffee, and a layer of coffee ice cream. It was a very good finish to a very surprising and good dinner. While many dishes at Aja are not obviously Asian, the garnishes and spices give the dishes an Asian flare.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


It was a great start for the new year. I went, with a large group, to a restaurant/bar that does not take reservations. This sounds like the start of a very bad situation but it worked out much better than I would have guessed. Frontier is located in Noble Square just south of the Polish Triangle. While it's close to hipster central, it looks like a mountain lodge. It has hardwood floors and furniture with wild game trophies on the walls and a very large stuffed grizzly behind the bar. There are also also several large flat screen TVs on the walls so the game can be watched from anywhere. There is also a large communal dining table in the kitchen. For people interested in food, the kitchen table is a big bonus because you can watch the goings on in the kitchen. I was very happy to see that we were seated at the kitchen tableThe menu at the Frontier is divided into Snacks (appetizers), Harvested (vegetable dishes), Fished (seafood), and Hunted (game). While the stuff in the Harvested and Fished sections did look good, most people who live in the city do not get to eat game often so that is what I went for. While they have a beef hamburger on the menu, and some chicken but there is also venison, elk, boar, rabbit, goat, and other thinks. There was also an appetizer that I was interested but because they were missing a key ingredient, they were not serving it. For the appetizer, I was interested in the Cheese Fritter. On the surface, that sounds pretty mundane but who doesn't like fried cheese? It was what was in it though that had me interested in it. It was made with Gruyere Cheese, Lamb Brains, Chives, and Lemon and Veal Reduction. I have never had brains which so this is what I wanted to try. Unfortunately, they had no lamb brains so I had to go with something else. I went with the waitress' recommendation. I had a Peppadew Pepper that was stuffed with Manchego Cheese and Dates and wrapped with House-Made Bacon. I didn't know what a Peppadew Pepper was but it was wrapped in bacon and bacon makes everything better. The waitress was right, it was very good. The bacon had a nice crispness to it but also had a good chew. The pepper was about the size and shape of a grape tomato. It initially had a kind of a bell pepper taste but developed a slow burn. The dates and cheese added a nice tangy sweetness to it. It was a good start.
As I was at a restaurant that featured game, I looked to get as much bang for my buck so I ordered a dish with four different animals in it. I ordered the Hunter's Cassoulet. A cassoulet is a slow cooked bean stew originating in the south of France and which normally contains pork sausage, pork, goose, duck, and sometimes mutton. This cassoulet had mutton but the pork sausage was boar, the duck was ostrich, and the pork was antelope. It was served in a large metal bowl on a cutting board. It looked rustic and tasted amazingly good. It was kind of funny though, the meat that I liked least was the one that would probably be most accessible to most people, the boar sausage. While it was all good, the sausage was what I liked least.

I really liked Frontier and I will definitely have to go back. There are so many things on the menu that I wouldn't be able to get anywhere else, I will have to visit several times to try it all.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Best of 2011

2011 was a good year for me in dining so I thought I would do a sort of year in review. As January is the start of award season, I will do this in the manner of an award show. Admittedly, as I will be the only judge, it will be decidedly slanted and just because I label something as the best of 2011 does not imply that it is the best. It is simply the best I had last year.Best Burger - Kuma's Corner- While I had several good burgers last year, there is a reason that after 6 years, Kuma's still has a line out the door at all hours. The combination of good meat and some highly creative combinations still make this the best burger in town.Best Hot Dog - While the same things could be said for Hot Doug's in regard to hot dogs that are said for Kuma's in regard to burgers, I didn't go to Hot Doug's last year so the winner is a place that has very good service, does a very good Chicago Style Dog, and has been doing it for many years, Superdawg.

Best French Fries - While there are several places that do some very good sauces in which to dip your fries, or put some sort of flavoring on the fries themselves, the best fries are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. They should hold their shape instead of flopping over when you pick on up. Skin-on is a plus but is not absolutely necessary. They should be seasoned well and they should taste good without having to douse them in ketchup, truffle oil, or any other side that you may want to put on them. Meeting all of these criteria and meeting them well is the Butcher & the Burger.Best Pizza - I will admit that while all pizza is good, I have a definite preference for Neapolitan-style pizza and the best Neapolitan-style pizza I had in 2011 was at Spacca Napoli. The pizzas are thin, individual sized, and flame-roasted with just the right amount of char.
Best Sandwich Shop - The Brown Sack - While you can get some really good stuff with creative ingredient combinations, sometimes it's best if things are left simple and The Brown Sack does simple food very well.
Best Barbecue - While I had assumed that Smoque was the best simply from their brisket and pulled pork and from their reputation, I discovered that different places do some things better than others, and while Smoque makes some great brisket and pulled pork, I like Fat Willy's ribs better.

Best Cocktail - Boka has a "drink" called the dealer's choice that after you indicate to the bartender a base alcohol and a flavor (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, neutral), he would create a drink for you. I went with Vodka and sour which could have been done pretty easily but the bartender was much more creative than he needed to be and I really appreciated it.

Best Gastropub - Owen and Engine - It looks as if you have been transported to Victorian England. All of the male wait staff had at least some facial hair, and dress with suspenders and sock garters. All of the food is locally sourced if not made in-house outright. They have a very good charcuterie program and a great beer list.

Best Lounge - While it's a little hard to find and it looks like your Grandma's basement (it is in a basement), the Watershed is a very welcoming and relaxing place with a good soundtrack (that you can play DJ with if you have an iPhone), and an interesting local bar and food menu.
Best Neighborhood Restaurant - A good neighborhood restaurant occupies the space between diner/cafe and fine dining restaurant. While some do one side better than the other, few do both well. Lula Cafe does and has for 13 years. They serve brunch and dinner and carry items on the menu at a variety of price points. You cannot however, really prjudge how good something might be just looking at the price. It's all good. They also like to have a little fun at Halloween and dress up as another restaurant.
Most Unusual Meal - There is no question in my mind that the Miracle Berry Dinner at Ing was the most unusual. Combine the adventurousness from the guys from Moto and Ing with the Miracle Berry and the meal became a very tasty if unusual, mind trip. The things that stick in my mind are the dry white wine that tasted like Port after the Miracle Berry and the very tasty pumpkin tart and lemon fluff that was made without sugar.
Best Fine Dining Experience - Vie - While it is out in Western Springs, it's just off the train line and is well worth the trip. The food on the frequently changing menu is local, seasonal, and organic, the service is excellent, and the restaurant is divided into several rooms which keeps the noise level down. I had a 5 course meal with wine pairings which spanned vegetable, fish, beef, and dairy. It was an excellent meal and would definitely travel there again for another meal.

I was also glad to have dined at one sixtyblue multiple times this year. It was announced at the beginning of the year that it would be "changing concept" and while management has been mum on the cooking staff, in an interview, Chef Michael McDonald said that he would not be a good fit for the new concept and would be leaving. While I am sad that it is closing and I am worried about the new concept because I really liked the old concept, I wish Chef Michael much luck in his future endeavors.Link

Monday, January 9, 2012

Miracle Berries

In November I went to Ing for a Miracle Berry Dinner and really enjoyed it. I did some research after that dinner and found that Miracle Berry Tablets really aren't that difficult to find online. I didn't buy a pack though, until my sister showed me that she bought a pack. I thought the effect of the miracle berry was very cool and wanted to share it with friends and family so I bought a pack. My sister then bought me a pack for Christmas. Miracle berries change your sense of taste, greatly reducing sour and making things sweeter. To a lesser extent, it also makes bitter taste more savory. The change is most obvious when you eat something really sour like a lemon or lime, tasting like lemonade or limeade. While it's a really cool and dramatic demonstration, the effect lasts for between 30 minutes and two hours and I thought that trying just citrus would be a bit of a waste. While I did get lemons, limes, and oranges, I wanted to find a few things that might not change much. The tasting list included lemons, limes, oranges, three types of sour gummy candy - ribbon, sour apple and grapefruit, Cheddar cheese, Gruyere cheese, and some crackers. I provided two pieces of everything so everyone could try everything before and after. So what were the results? As I mentioned, lemons and limes tasted like lemonade and limeade, respectively. The orange lost any tartness that it normally had and the candy became much sweeter. The Cheddar didn't change much but the Gruyere did. I can't however, really describe how it did change. The cracker, while pretty nice before the miracle berry, became absolutely tasteless after. It was fun discovering how different things change. Just because the sour is removed from something, it may not make it better. I still have over one package left, I can still lots of room to experiment.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Dung Gia

When I leave town for several day, I generally work things out so I have all of my perishables eaten before I leave. The major advantage to this is that I don't have to worry about anything spoiling when I am gone but the disadvantage is that if I don't have the time to shop before the next time I work, I will have to eat out. This isn't really that bad because there are several places close to where I work that are pretty good and I enjoy going to. I invited a couple of co-workers to join me to both celebrate the end of the year and to kill time because the time between Christmas and New Year's is generally pretty dead. We went to a small Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Des Plaines called Dung Gia which while it doesn't look like much, really puts out some good food. The tables were covered with vinyl tablecloths with an Asian design, there were some Vietnamese styled design accessories (bamboo, bead wall hanging, etc.) and there was some Vietnamese music playing softly in the background. The menu is pretty accessible and affordable. There is a lunch deal that includes soup for $6.95 but as I generally also order an appetizer, my bill costs a little more. I unfortunately forgot to take pictures so I had to rely on pictures taken by others. I started with a Vietnamese Crepe which is big enough to be a meal by itself unless it's shared. It is a crispy rice flour pancake filled with bean sprouts, shrimp, and pork and served with a lime dipping sauce. Our crepe was also served with a side salad of leafy greens and carrots. It is really good without the lime sauce but the lime sauce puts it over the top.For my main course, I had a Beef Curry. It was very liquid and served in an unevenly shaped bowl with rice on the side so the diner could combine them to his desired consistency. In addition to the curry spices which made it both sweet and spicy, and the beef, the stew included coconut milk, potatoes, carrot, and taro (a root vegetable that is starchy and kind of tastes like a potato). It is all very good and while similar to Thai curries, has a flavor all it's own.

I like Dung Gia. The service is friendly, the food is good and affordable and while the food is different from the Chinese and Thai with which many people are familiar, it isn't so different that it would alienate anyone. It is an easy step to take if you want to explore and I would gladly go back for lunch.