Monday, June 25, 2012


I think that I have said it before, but I really like French food.  The French style employs what is in season in dishes that are simple as far as ingredients are concerned but can be very complex as far as technique and presentation.  Because of this, they are masters at making things that might sound unappetizing, absolutely delicious.  I went to LM Restaurant recently and two out of the three dishes that I had tasted much better than they sounded.  LM is a small restaurant in Lincoln Square located across the street from the Old Town School of Folk Music named after Luc and Mary Quaisser, the children of the husband and wife team that own and run the restaurant, Stephan and Nicole Outrequin Quaisser.  The dining area has a simple design and there is a bar in the back opposite the kitchen.  The color scheme is orange and brown which kind of reminds me of a pumpkin although the table and chairs are black and there is a large mirror on one wall.  This kind of reminded me of Bistronomic, but while the restaurant designs were sort of similar and they both serve French food, the similarity ends there.  LM seems to focus much more on offal than does Bistronomic and there were several offal dishes on the small menu.  Since it was on the menu and I don't really have a lot of experience with offal, I decided to go that route.  For my appetizer, I chose Veal Sweetbreads, with Wild Mushrooms, Veal Tongue, and Spring Onions.  This was served in a very savory gravy/broth/sauce.  I have to admit that when it came out, it looked a little less than appetizing.  I knew that I wouldn't have a problem with the mushrooms, the broth, or the spring onions, but the sweetbreads didn't look that appetizing.  The only other time I have had sweetbreads, they were deep fried and deep frying anything will make it good.  Appearances though, can be deceiving.  I will try anything at least once.  The sweetbreads were very tender and had a mild flavor.  They had a slight liver flavor but it wasn't bad and they went very well with the mushrooms and the broth.  Despite the appearance, I really enjoyed this dish and was happy that I chose it.

The entree that I chose wasn't exactly offal but it also wasn't something that most people even think about.  I ordered Beef Cheeks with Chive Spaetzle, Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, and Creme Fraiche.  While I had never had beef cheeks, I have had pork cheeks and know that they are very good so I was confident that I would like the beef cheeks.  The cheek was almost fork tender and had a slightly sweet flavor.  The flavor was offset by the creme fraiche but with the chive-flavored spaetzle and the earthy flavor of the mushrooms, it all came together very well.

The desserts were fairly standard bistro desserts.  There was of course the creme brulee, an apple tart, and a lemon curd.  I decided to go simple and ordered Fresh Berries with Honeyed Sabayon, and Whipped Cream.  The piece looked very nice in its simplicity.  It had strawberries and blueberries which was on top of the sabayon (custard) and topped with whipped cream.  It was a very simple dessert but I really enjoyed it and it ended the dinner well.

I really enjoyed my meal here and will be happy to return.  The menu is small with a prix fixe option.  The food is very good if a little rustic and the staff was very friendly.     

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Silver Cloud Bar & Grill

While fine dining and gourmet food is good and nice, sometimes you just want a grilled cheese sandwich or mac and cheese.  I went to Silver Cloud Bar & Grill with a group of friends recently.  It epitomizes the best of what a bar and grill is.  The space has a long bar running the length of the room with a row of vinyl backed booths opposite the bar.  There is also a large table at the back of the room with banquette seating for larger parties and an outside patio for outdoor seating.  The style of the place is definitely retro but they really don't play it up.  It's a nice design without feeling like you've walked into the past.  The menu isn't really fancy but it isn't really trying to be.  It features comfort food like meatloaf, grilled cheese, sloppy joes, or your basic burger and does it well.  A few dishes do have some nice twists to them like the meatloaf with the Bell's Amber Ale gravy, the customizable mac and cheese, or the brie burger but the dishes are still very accessible.  Their beer list isn't extensive but they do hit most of the popular styles from white to black and also includes PBR and Bud for those people that aren't adventurous.  I much prefer to try something new to the tried and true (although I do tend to stick with breweries with which I am familiar).  The beer that I go was one that I had never had but I was familiar with the brewery.  I got a Dark Horse Black Bier which lived up to it's name.  It was as black as motor oil and looked very thick in the pour.  The head was minimal but what was there was kind of caramel colored.  It had a nice coffee and roast malt flavor with possibly a little dark chocolate.  For my meal, I ordered a pulled pork sandwich which was served with tater tots.  The sandwiches came with tater tots, chips, zucchini and carrot slaw, or Boston baked beans.  Going to a bar and grill, I was not interested in veggies, and chips just do not interest me.  The tater tots weren't really anything special but fried potatoes by their very character are very good.  The Pulled Pork Sandwich was served with JK's Scrumpy Organic Cider Barbecue Sauce and topped with coleslaw.  JK's Scrumpy is a sweet cider so the barbecue sauce was pretty sweet as well.  While I do prefer my barbecue sauces to be a little less sweet and more spicy, this was pretty good.  The pulled pork had a nice texture and the slaw did provide some tartness.

This is a nice relaxing place that does comfort food pretty well and the beer list is pretty good.  It's a nice place to hang out with friends and also does brunch well.  I will be back again. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Franks 'n' Dawgs

There are probably 1000 hot dog places in the Chicago area.  At most, you can get a Chicago-style hot dog.  Some are even pretty good but there are very few that make what could be called gourmet hot dogs.  I have often referred to Hot Doug's as the best hot dog joint in Chicago.  This was before I went to Franks 'n' Dawgs.  Located on Clybourn Ave, it is actually a little difficult to find unless you know where to look.  While it does have a sign that sticks out from the restaurant, there are many other businesses that have signs that stick out from the building.  The restaurant is narrow so it took some creativity in the layout to utilize the space well.  The entrance is a little odd.  It is located in a narrow alley and opens in front of the counter, with the menu displayed above the counter.  The seating is a varied with counter seating to the right of the entrance, a row of booths on one side of the restaurant in the front, and several two tops on the opposite side of the restaurant from the booths.  When an order is made, you choose a velcro-backed celebrity villain that range from Donald Trump, to Lindsay Lohan, to Charlie Sheen, to Montgomery Burns. This is used to mark your table so they know where to bring the food (like an order number).  I chose Mr. Burns.  The sausages used at Franks 'n' Dawgs are all handmade with a wide variety of meats like beef, pork, chicken, turkey, salmon, scallops, and duck.  The buns used are New England-style, like those used with lobster rolls.  It is like a thick slice cut from a loaf of bread with a partial cut in the middle forming a V.  The roll is also toasted.  On top of the hand-made sausages are a wide variety of handmade toppings using ingredients from artisanal and local vendors.  The fries that they serve are waffle fries that can be ordered plain, with cheese, or truffled.  I will never turn down truffle flavored food, so of course my fries were truffled.  The fries were crisp, well seasoned, and very good.   

In addition to the creativity and variety of their own sausages, Franks 'n' Dawgs has an Iron Dawg competition in which they invite a pair of local chefs to create a  hot dog to compete against one another.  The hot dogs will be on the menu for a month with the best selling dog staying on as the champion and competing against another chef's creation.  When I went, the competing chefs were Chef Bill Kim (Urban Belly, Belly Shack), the champion, who created what he called urban belly chix which was a Vietnamese Chicken Sausage with Pickled Green Papaya, Curry Mayo, Crispy Shallots, Thai Basil, and Lime.  This is what I ordered.  The challenger was Chef Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe, Nightwood) who created what he called the Lula Cristo which was essentially a Monte Cristo (a fried ham and cheese sandwich on French toast with maple syrup).  Lula Cafe is my favorite neighborhood restaurant and I am sure that the Lula Cristo would have been good but I was more interested in the urban belly chix and I didn't think that I could eat both so that is what I ordered.  It was amazing!  It was sweet, spicy, and a little tart with the excitement of the Thai basil.  

I really liked my meal here and I have to say that while I still like Hot Doug's, I cannot say outright that they make the best dogs in Chicago.  Franks 'n' Dawgs is also amazingly creative and the line is much shorter.  I will definitely be back for more. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Mangia Roma

Call it the beginnings of a tradition.  Last year, after I did a 100 mile bike ride, I was really hungry and enjoyed a good meal at Sono Wood Fired.  Last week, I did another 100 mile bike ride and, as one might expect, when I was finished, I was again really hungry.  While I didn't go to Sono, I did go to another Italian restaurant that serves pizza.  The place that I went to was Mangia Roma which is across the street from Steppenwolf Theatre and actually in the same neighborhood as Sono Wood Fired.  I walked in to a cozy space with hardwood floors and brick walls.  The front had a glass window wall looking out onto Halsted St with several high top tables in the front.  Tables were against both walls with a row of tables also in the center of the dining room and toward the back.  There is also a small bar at the back of the dining room near the kitchen.  The hostess station is in the back of the room also near the kitchen so it is a little confusing when you walk in and there is no one there to greet you.  I stood for a minute before being told to take any empty table.  I took a place near the front because the light seemed to be better there.  I wasn't really interested in pizza but they looked like they had some pretty good appetizers and pasta dishes.  I started things out with Calamari fra Diavolo.  This is breaded and deep fried calamari that is sauteed in a spicy marinara sauce and served with a wedge of lemon for a squeeze of lemon juice.  While I do like calamari, it does seem to be pretty easy to overcook in which case it becomes rubbery.  This was actually cooked very well and the spicy marinara was really spicy.  The dish did seem a little unusual in that while it was cooked with a sauce, it was actually cooked onto the calamari.  It was very good and really enjoyed starting to sate my hunger with this.

For my pasta, I stayed with a rather simple dish with a tomato based sauce.  I ordered Gnocchi with Sausage and Rosemary.  The Gnocchi was cooked very well.  It was firm, chewy, and had a great texture.  The sausage was a little spicy and well distributed and the rosemary was lightly spread over the dish.  While the taste of the rosemary was not at the forefront, it was prominent enough to be tasted and blended well with the other flavors of the dish.

The dessert was what I think of as an Italian dessert classic. While it seems to me to have a classic style, it seems that tiramisu (literally, "pick mi up") has only been around since the 80s.  There really wasn't anything special about it but in general, tiramisu is very good as was this.  It had a very delicate texture whith a light layer of chocolate over the egg and cheese custard layer and then the Lady Fingers.  It tasted nicely of coffee and chocolate, was sprinkled with powdered sugar and cocoa powder, and had chocolate syrup drizzled over the plate and the dessert.  I really enjoyed this.  I provided a nice relaxing end (ironically) to a good meal.

While the beginning was a little confusing with no one close to greet me when I entered, the service was friendly after I was seated and the food was good.  The food here is not exactly high end Italian, but it is a nice neighborhood joint and is a lot better than Olive Garden.  I imagine that a lot of their business comes from the theater crowd and I think that I will definitely consider it when I go to Steppenwolf Theater or if I am in the area and am interested in a casual Italian meal. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Big & Little's

If you want to talk about Big & Little's, you first have to talk about the location.  It is in an area that formerly bordered the Cabrini Green Housing Project.  While the housing project is now gone, the location is certainly not what you would call hot.  While it is now located in a building next to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, after previously using the space now occupied by Badhappy Poutine Shop, there still is nothing in the area that would bring most people to the area.  This actually does have some advantage to it.  There is more parking (even if you don't count the attached parking lot) and much less competition.  As one might expect for a place that is essentially in no man's land, there isn't much to see inside the restaurant.  That having been said, it's okay because it isn't trying to impress with it's look and is trying to be an everymans kind of place which it does well.  The entrance to the restaurant is on the side, off the parking lot.  The counter is to the left of the door behind which is the open kitchen and fountain drinks are available from the fountain to the right of the door.  The menu is on a couple of chalkboards opposite the door and there is a specials board behind the counter.  The restaurant is cash only but there is an ATM in the building.  Seating consists of a couple of rows of picnic benches (about 7 in total) and a counter on the wall where the menu is.  The menu consists largely of fried seafood with some burgers and a variety of po' boys.  The sides are a variety of fries and poutines.  Despite the fact that this place is in the middle of nowhere, it was pretty busy when I arrived and I ended up waiting about 20 minutes before ordering.  While there was a lot of very good looking seafood being served, I decided to go with the Pork Belly Po' Boy and Truffle Fries.  Orders are sent out piecemeal as they are finished and my truffle fries arrived first.  I got a full basket of crisp and well fried fries..  The truffle aroma and flavor was lighter than on other truffle fries that I have had but wasn't so subtle that I couldn't taste it.  They definitely had a truffle funk to them, tasted pretty good, and set me up for the Po'Boy.

The Pork Belly Po'Boy was something else.  For those that are unfamiliar, a po' boy is a sandwich similar to a submarine originating in Louisiana.  Generally, they are served with seafood (and there are a lot of seafood po' boys at Big & Little's) but they can also be served with meat and they are always served on a baguette.  This po' boy is obviously of the meat variety.  The French bread was grilled and was filled with 1 inch cubes of fried pork belly, lettuce, pickles, a few onions, some hot sauce and was finally lightly drizzled with a combination of mayonnaise and maple syrup.  As stuffed as it was, it wasn't actually that hard to eat (and it was very enjoyable).

As good as the stuff that I had was, I don't think that I got to the heart of Big & Little's with what I had.  When I return, I will definitely have to try some of their fish tacos and possibly some poutine.  I will also definitely have to one day have to try the Foie Gras and Fries.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Just because something is on my list doesn't mean that I will make it there any time soon.  I first heard of Zocalo about 5 years ago when I attended the Meals on Wheels Celebrity Chef Ball.  They were serving some very good tamales and were giving out 10% off coupons for the restaurant.  The tamales were very good and while 10% off isn't much, it's less than nothing.  I looked the place up and it did look interesting but I actually never made it there until recently.  Zocalo is located on Ontario on a mini restaurant row but while there are 4 nice restaurants on the same side of the block where Zocalo is located, they are all very different so they aren't much competition to one another but because there is a number of restaurants there, they draw people there.  Zocalo, in addition to having a notable Mexican menu, it also has an exceptional tequila list.   The restaurant is very rustic with dark beam wood making up the walls and holding up the ceiling.  For whatever reason, the place reminds me of a saloon or a desert bodega.  There is a big, heavy-looking bar opposite the entrance and most of the tables are round and free standing.  The one negative thing I found about the space was that it's dark.  Besides the tequila, the menu here features fairly standard albeit very good Mexican food.  I started things out with a shot of tequila and my appetizer while I continued deciding on my entree.  For my appetizer, I ordered Tamales de Doña Flor, which were two different and very good tamales with mole. The first tamale was Poblano, a chicken filled corn tamale with poblano mole sauce.  The other tamale was Rajas con queso.  It was a corn tamale filled with jalapeno strips and a three cheese blend.  It was served with a Mexican ricotta and a ranchero salsa.  The tamales were garnished with a radish slice and a sprig of fresh cilantro.  The tamales were served on the wrapper in which they would have been prepared.  The poblano sat on a corn husk and the Rajas con queso was on a banana leaf.  The tamales were just as good here as they were at the benefit.  I really enjoyed them and thought they were a nice and spicy start to the meal.

The waiter came came by as I was enjoying my tamales and I ordered my entree.  For my entree, I ordered Enchiladas Rojas.  The enchiladas were filled with beef barbacoa brisket, topped with guajillo salsa, cotija cheese (Mexican Parmesan), and grilled scallions, and served with white rice.  I love barbacoa but I had never had it made in an enchilada.  This was very good.  The meat was both tender and savory, the salsa was nice and spicy, and the scallions were crisp (fresh vegetable crisp not potato chip crisp) with a nice smokiness to them.  The white rice was also very flavorful and was prepared with peppers and spices.

For my dessert, my decision was very easy.  While I don't know if I would normally consider it a dinner dessert, it is definitely a classic.  I had Churros y Champurado.  The churros were slightly crisp on the outside and very soft on the inside.  They were also coated with sugar and cinnamon, drizzled with a mango-agave nectar and garnished with a mint leaf.  It was also served with Hot Chocolate that was infused with cinnamon and vanilla bean and topped with whipped cream.  While the churros were good on there own, they were that much better when they were dipped in the hot chocolate.

I really liked my dinner here.  The space was nice even if it was a little darker than I would have preferred, the service was friendly, and the food was very good.  They do very good versions of classic Mexican food and have a tremendous tequila list for those who want to experiment and learn more about Mexico's national drink.   

Sunday, June 3, 2012


If you look in the dictionary for the definition of the word epic, you find, after descriptions of poetry of heroes doing great things, descriptions such as heroic, impressively great, or of unusual size or extent.  If you name a restaurant Epic, you have a lot to live up to and yet it is still done.  I had dinner recently at Epic, and admittedly, I did go in with a certain level of expectation.  If a restaurant is going to call themselves epic, it should be more impressive than the restaurants with which it is competing.  I will first say that it is very big.  While it is only three floors, with 23 foot ceilings, it could have easily been five or six.  The restaurant is divided by floor into three sections.  The first floor is the lounge which has high unfinished ceilings, a long bar along one side, and some private tables.  There is a lounge menu that features oysters, sliders, and tacos.  The second floor is the large dining area.  It has banquette seating along one wall, a large communal table, a high unfinished ceiling, and separate table seating.  There is also a large raised mezzanine area that will seat about 40 people.  The third floor is the rooftop lounge which also offers the lounge menu.  As I came for dinner, I will focus on the happenings of the main dining area.  I mentioned that the space was big.  At the front, it has a large window wall. and the unfinished ceiling was more than 20 feet up.  Other than the large window wall, lighting came came from hanging lighting hung at various lights.  I sat at a two top on the leather covered bench seat.  Epic has been open for a couple of years and if I remember correctly, when it opened, it looked like it was trying to be a steakhouse.  Considering the location (River North), I can't say that I thought that it was an exceptionally good idea.  There are a large number of very good steakhouses in River North and, to me, even if the steak was good, it didn't seem to have anything that differentiated it from any other steakhouse in River North.  Since then, while the steaks are still on the menu, they have been deemphasized going with a seasonal American menu which earned it it's first Michelin star this year.  There were several things on the menu that sounded good but I did find things that I thought that I would enjoy.  For my appetizer, I ordered the Crispy Pork Belly with Golden Beets, Horseradish, and a Root Beer Reduction.  It was topped with arugula and sat on some sort of soft bread.  This was very good and may have, in fact, been my favorite course.  The beets were sweet, a little tart, and almost reminded me of a citrus fruit.  The pork belly was crispy and a little spicy and the bread was nice and soft.  It was a good start, the question was whether they could sustain it.
For my entree, I ordered a Coffee and Cinnamon Rubbed Rack of Lamb with Eggplant Puree, Baby Artichokes, Lipstick Peppers, and Olive Jus.  The presentation was nice and there was a variety of flavors but I actually expected a stronger cinnamon and coffee flavor.  I was served six ribs and it was a little bit of work to get the meat off of the bone but I kind of expected that.  It was good although I don't know that I would call it great and certainly not epic.
With my entree, I did order some vegetables.  I ordered some Broccolini with Fennel, Crispy Ham, Chilies, and Garlic.  Broccolini is like a cross between broccoli and mustard greens and looks kind of like anorexic broccoli.  It tasted very nice although admittedly it was a little difficult to eat.  The stems were a little long to eat politely without cutting.  The stems were a little thin to stab with a fork well but it could be done and it did taste good.  Another problem was that there was a delay between appetizer and entree, and another delay between entree and dessert.

For my dessert, I ordered Lime Pots de Creme with Blackberry Jam and topped with Fresh Blackberries and Crunchy Granola.  Pots de Creme is a custard dessert and while it was good, I think I may have preferred it bruleed.  I get that the granola was there to provide some crunch to the dish which it did but I do think that it still would have worked had it also been bruleed.

While I can see using the adjective epic to the space, I don't think I can apply it to the whole.  While the food was good, it wasn't epic and while the service was friendly, it could have been more attentive and prompt.  There were other things on the menu that did interest me although I am not sure that I will return to try them.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


While I do like the Greek food that I have tried, I would definitely not consider myself an expert.  Most of the time when I go to a Greek place, if I don't get a Gyro or Souvlaki, I will go for a Pastitsio.  There are other standards that sound good but, as I said, I haven't really tried it much, if at all.  I went to Melanthios Greek Charhouse recently and decided that I was going to step out of my comfort zone and try some of those things that have sounded good but I don't have much experience with.  Arriving at the restaurant, I noticed that they had a large outside dining area in the front and at the side of the restaurant.  It was a warm day so the outside area was pretty popular.  Coming without a reservation, I expected that the odds of my dining outdoors would be pretty slim.  It was okay though because I didn't have my heart set on dining outdoors and it would give me a look on the inside.  I walked in and saw that it was a very open space.  There was a walkway with half-walls from the door to the hostess station so you could see the entire dining area.  There was an unfinished ceiling with ventilation ducting and hanging lights with additional illumination provided by tabletop candles.  The floors were dark varnished hardwood as were the rails and furniture.  All of the tables in the restaurant were large four tops although there were some two tops outside along the side of the restaurant.  The kitchen was in the back and was open and there was a small bar across from the kitchen.  On the side of the restaurant that had the bar there was a bench backed by the side window that had several large pillows for comfort.  I was seated on the bar side of the restaurant and sat on the very comfortable bench. 

I started my meal with something that I have seen many times but amazingly have never tried, Saganaki.  I have always thought that the presentation was entertaining and have thought about ordering it when I have seen it but there was always something else.  Saganaki is very simple (at least the saganaki that most people are familiar with).  It is simply a sheep cheese that is doused with brandy, lit on fire, and then extinguished with the juice of a lemon.  The tradition of the waiter shouting "Opa!" when he lights the cheese actually comes from a Greek restaurant in Chicago in the 1960s.  What, if anything, it means, I don't know, but it is entertaining.  The dish was crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside, salty, sour, and very good.
While what I ordered I have never ordered in a Greek restaurant, what I ordered for my entree was not completely alien to me.  While I have never ordered skewers before, what was on the skewers were very familiar.  I had Scallop Skewers with Zucchini and Summer Squash that were served with rice.  The skewers were grilled and were very good.  Everything had a nice smokiness but the vegetables were still nicely crisp.  The rice was long grained and had spices and other things was also good.  While I would have been interested in dessert, I was full.  I enjoyed my dinner here.  The food was good, the service was friendly, and the space looked very nice.  I would be happy to return if I am interested in good Greek food.