Thursday, December 27, 2012

2 Sparrows

I cannot talk about the restaurant where I went to brunch this month without first talking about Charlie Trotter's.  No matter what anyone may have thought of Charlie Trotter, the person, it cannot be denied that his restaurant was, for many years, the pinnacle of fine dining in Chicago.  Despite the fact that his restaurant is gone, his influence remains; not only in the food that is presented in area restaurants, but in the chefs themselves, who had worked in Trotter's restaurants.  There is an expectation among area diners that a chef that advertises his time with Charlie Trotter will be a talented chef.  The name applies even if the chefs are not doing the same level of fine dining that could be found at Charlie Trotter's.  The restaurant that I went to, 2 Sparrows, is almost entirely a brunch place, although they are open in the evening for some special occasions.  Located close to the heart of Lincoln Park, it's in an urban strip mall (street parking only) and is not exceptionally obvious.  The front glass window wall blends in with the businesses on either side.  The sign for the restaurant is on the window near the door.  Inside, the restaurant has high unfinished ceilings, hardwood floor, pillars, and furniture, and a small bar near the entrance that serves both liquor and coffee.  There are also cartoon style drawings of animals on the walls.  The restaurant does not take reservations so there can be a wait at times, especially with larger parties (which mine was).  When we were seated, we started out with a variety of pastries which combined sweet and savory elements.  The first pastry that we were presented was what we thought was a cinnamon roll.  It was listed on the menu as a cinnamon roll.  It looked like a very nice cinnamon roll with the requisite cinnamon and glaze and the dough was rolled but it was very dense.  It was texturally very much like a muffin.  While it did taste good, I have to say that the density made it a fail.

The next pastry however, was a definite win.  It was a Maple Bacon Doughnut.  The doughnut was of the light fluffy variety that you might find at Krispy Kreme.  It was covered in maple syrup and topped with chopped bacon.  The doughnut was light and fluffy, the syrup was sweet, and the bacon was cooked to done but not crispy so it had a nice chew to it.  This was very messy to eat and obviously required a knife and fork but it was very good.

The last pastry before we got to our main courses might be considered an acquired taste and was one of those things that sounded so weird that we had to try it. It was a Foie Gras and Cherry Pop Tart.  It looked very nice when it came out.  The pastry shell looked like a good pie crust, flaky and slightly crisp with fork sealed edges.  There was a nice, slightly tart cherry sauce spread over it and when we cut it open, it oozed more cherry sauce.  The filling was a mixture of foie gras and cherries which was very good.  It tasted primarily of cherries being sweet and tart  but the foie gras provided a depth of flavor and texture to the dish that put it over the top.  All of the pastries were very good and got us ready for our main dishes.

For my main course, I went with a spin on hash, something I have been hitting on frequently lately.  This hash was a Sweet Potato and Duck Hash which was made with cubed sweet potatoes, duck confit, and caramelized onions.  It was topped with a poached egg and served with a fresh green salad that was served with a light vinaigrette.  The hash was tender and slightly sweet from the sweet potatoes, duck confit, and caramelized onions.  The egg was poached medium.  The white was solid but the yolk was still fairly liquid.  And the salad was crisp and sour from the vinaigrette.  It was a very good dish.

There is a reason that there is a wait for 2 Sparrows.  The place looks rustic and friendly, the service is excellent, as is the food.  I would be happy to return here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Glenn's Diner

There are two things (besides heartburn) that you are guaranteed to be able to get at a diner.  The first is breakfast all day and the next is a burger.  I went recently to Glenn's Diner recently and while they do both of those things well, they are also very well known for their fish and seafood.  Located in Ravenswood on Montrose, it doesn't stand out a lot.  There is a sign in front with a fancy typeface, but it's black with white lettering so it doesn't stand out exceptionally.  The dining room has high ceilings and there are large chalkboards on both sides with the seafood menu.  At the back of the dining room is a small bar with beer and liquor service but also with a shelf on the back wall behind it that has over 25 boxes of cereal for those that desire cereal and cold milk. 

I came to the diner in the early afternoon, so while I didn't have to have breakfast, that was the direction that I decided to go.  As this is a seafood restaurant as well though, I also wanted to do that.  Luckily, there were several breakfast dishes that featured seafood so it wasn't hard to find something.  The difficulty came in actually choosing something because so many things sounded good.  I decided to go with hash and eggs.  Specifically, I chose the Rushing Waters Smoked Trout Hash and Eggs.  The hash consisted of smoked trout, onions, and potatoes.  It was smoky, tender, well-seasoned, and very flavorful.  The eggs that I ordered were over-easy.  There were tree of them that were cooked together and cooked well.  The whites were lightly fried on both sides but the yolks were still soft as they should be.  The hash and eggs were served with four slices of buttered wheat toast which came in handy to sop up the yolk and left over hash.

This is a very good diner with very good food.  It is also a very good place for seafood.  I will definitely have to return here to try more of the menu, seafood and otherwise.   

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Urban Belly

I have gone before to Belly Shack, an Asian/Latin Fusion street food restaurant in my neighborhood and have met Bill Kim, the chef, at any number of events around town, but until recently, I have never been to it's sister restaurant, Urban Belly which is also relatively close.  The restaurant is located in a small space in a strip mall close to the Kennedy.  The entrance has a silhouette of a Buddha and the interior is wood.  There are four communal tables made from finished drift wood which seat about 10 people apiece.  The seats for the tables are solid wooden blocks.  Food and drink is ordered from a counter at the back of the restaurant.  The menu is divided into dumplings, rices, noodles, and sides.  The restaurant is also BYOB.  When I go to an Asian restaurant, rice tends to be on the menu so I decided to be a little different and try everything else.  I started with the Kimchi side.  It had cabbage, as might be expected but had other vegetables like cucumbers, and I think carrots and celery.  The sauce was very red and spicy and was covered with sesame seeds.  It was crisp, crunch, sweet, spicy, and a very nice start.

The dumplings were the next dish and it was a very nicely presented dish.  It was served on a narrow and oblong dish with some mango sauce on the bottom of the dish.  The dumplings were similar to triangular ravioli and were filled with ground pork belly.  The dumplings were separated with fresh mango slices and everything was topped with threads of Asian squash and green onion.  It was sweet, tart, and obviously a bit bacony and had a nice texture.  This dish made me really happy and made me glad that I had come here.

For my noodle dish, I ordered a dish similar to pho.  It was a big dish of broth with long vermicelli rice noodles, small rice dumplings, pork belly, celery, hominy, and kim chi in a very spicy pork broth.  The soup was hearty with good size chunks of everything in every spoonful and the broth was hot and spicy.  I really liked this as well and after this, even if there had been dessert, I would have been to full to eat it.

I really liked Urban Belly and will definitely be back.  The food is very good and well priced, the space is nice, if a bit simple, and the staff was very friendly.        

Monday, December 10, 2012


On a side street in Bucktown, near the Clybourn Metra Station is a little blue brick building that looks like a house.  This little blue brick house is actually Jane's Restaurant which I visited for dinner recently.  While the exterior of the restaurant looks like a house, the interior has an open floorplan. and a high cathedral ceiling.  The walls at the front of the dining room are antique brick and there are many paintings from local artists on the wall that are for sale.  There is a long bar that starts at about the middle of the dining room and extends to the rear.  The front of the bar is for drinking and eating and the back serves as the serving table for the kitchen behind the bar.  The entire restaurant has a decidedly retro feel.  The furniture uses a lot of curls in the design and the typeset of the menu shows a similar design.  I sat at the end of the bar and was able to watch the action in the kitchen (as well as the rear half of the dining room).  The menu focuses on American classics as well as some Latin inspired fare.  For my first dish, I decided to try their spin on a quesadilla.  Jane's Quesadilla uses a combination of Gouda and Blue Cheese and is served with Spiced Apples on the side and a garnish of fresh dill.  I will admit normally that quesadillas really do nothing for me because there is really nothing to them.  While I do like both cheese and tortillas, a tortilla by itself will be pretty bland as is the white Oaxaca cheese that is used with it.  There also isn't much textural variety.  In this case, Gouda and Blue cheese both have pronounced flavors which add tartness from the gouda and bittersweet from the blue cheese.  The apples that were served on the side were cooked but still crisp and had a nice sweetness that cooked apples will have but were also decidedly spicy from the added cinnamon and other spices.  I wouldn't have thought that dill would complement the flavors but it really did.  The flavors from the modified ingredients really added to what is normally a pretty boring dish.

For my entree, I went with Seared Sea Scallops with Carrot, Celery, Coconut Milk, and Peanuts.  The scallops were prepared perfectly.  They had a nice sear on them and were very tender with the slightest amount of chew.  The risotto had the right texture and the carrots and celery were cooked well and complemented the curry flavor.  While the risotto did have a good texture, it did taste as if they took a shortcut with the risotto and cooked the rice before adding it to the curry and coconut milk.  The rice didn't taste as if the curry had infused it.  While the individual parts of this dish were good, it just didn't quite come together.

With one hit and one miss, it was up to the dessert to see how the meal would go.  I ordered the Warm Turtle Brownie with Bourbon Pecan Gelato, Candied Pecans, and Housemade Caramel.  On paper this dessert sounded amazing.  In real life, it paid off.  This was the best dish I had .  Chocolate, pecans, and caramel complement each other well and each of the individual pieces was made well.  The brownie was warm and dense, the pecans were salted, and had a nice candy coating, the gelato was nutty, buttery, and the bourbon added a nice smoky flavor and the caramel added a great gooeyness to everything.

Jane's was a nice neighborhood restaurant and overall, I did enjoy my meal here.  It had a nice welcoming and homey vibe to it and while the food isn't exceptional, it is good.  


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Katherine Anne Confections

I really like chocolate but I will say that I was glad that I had to travel outside my neighborhood in order to get good chocolate.  How does this make sense?  If I have a good chocolate place close, it makes it easier to stop by and puts a risk to my wallet and my waist.  For good or bad, a very good chocolate/candy/confection shop open in my neighborhood recently.  I have had sweets from Katherine Anne Confections before they opened their shop although I am not sure when or where that happened.  I was told when I went the first time that they operated at a couple of Farmer's Markets that I frequented so I will guess that that is where I tried their creations.  I have found that I have many friends and family that appreciate sweets as a birthday gift and I have several friends with fall birthdays so it was an easy decision to stop there for a gift for them because it allowed me to treat me as well.  As they make a variety of confections, I decided to get a variety and try each type.  I got three truffles, four marshmallows, and four caramels.  The marshmallows that we had were large and housemade (as one might expect) and all had other stuff besides the standard sugar and gelatin to enhance the flavors.  They were all very good and the extra ingredients really contributed to the complexity of the flavor.  The marshmallows were Salted Caramel, Lemon Ginger, Earl Gray, and Cinnamon. All of the marshmallows were really good although the cinnamon probably could have been a little less cinnamony.  The caramels were probably my favorite.  We had Salted Caramel, Rosemary Sea Salt, Chocolate Walnut, and Vanilla.  For the truffles, we had Sour Cherry Pie, Salted Caramel, and Hazelnut.  The Salted Caramel and Hazelnut truffles were easy to like but the Sour Cherry Pie took some adapting to.  As the name suggests, it was sour.  The sour of the cherries and the bittersweet chocolate used was not an easy first bite.  There was some Kirsch used so there was also a slight alcohol burn.  It had a good texture and a complex flavor so I am willing to try it again. 

Katherine Anne's Confections makes some really great sweets and for good or bad, I will definitely be back.  I will probably use the excuse of holidays or birthdays but I know that I will get more for me.    

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Swim Cafe

I first encountered Swim Cafe a couple of years ago when they catered a pre-show event for Redmoon Theater.  I really liked the freshness of their food and the fact that everything seems to be made from scratch.  I thought at that time that I would visit their place and try their regular fare.  That didn't actually happen until recently.  While they aren't really far from where I live, they are a breakfast and lunch place (they are open until 7 pm but I generally don't go for sandwiches for dinner) and are in the wrong direction for a stop on the way to work.  Stopping by would require a special occasion which happened recently.  I don't own a car so when I travel to visit my family in Michigan, it is by Amtrak.  I will generally pick up food for a meal for the trip because the food on Amtrak is expensive and not much better than something that you would get out of a vending machine.  In this case, I will take a sandwich for dinner.  I do like some variety so I am always looking for a new shop that might do things a little different.  In this case, Swim Cafe fit the bill.  Located across the street from Eckhart Park, it looks at the natatorium (indoor swimming pool) which is where it took it's name from.  The design of Swim Cafe looks like any number of coffee/sandwich shops in the area with an with tables along one wall and a counter looking out the front window.  There is an order counter off to one side behind which the coffee, tea, sandwiches and salads are made and there is a display case with the available baked goods (which are made in the back of the restaurant).  It also has a hardwood floor and an unfinished ceiling with exposed ventilation pipes and a tin ceiling (painted blue).  There is also art from local artists for sale on the walls.  The thing that catches your eye though when you walk in is the fact that the place is painted like a swimming pool.  The lower part of the wall is painted in various shades of light blue like a swimming pool is tiled, the ceiling and top two feet of the walls are painted bright blue as if looking up from the bottom of a pool at a blue sky, and the space between the upper and lower blues is white. 

Swim serves a variety of salads and sandwiches to satisfy vegetarians and meat eaters alike.  The meat and produce served at Swim is largely organic and the baked goods are made from scratch.  All of the sandwiches are served with a choice of side.  For my meal, I chose a Roast Beef and Gruyere Sandwich.  It was served on a Pretzel Roll with Red Onions, Mixed Baby Greens, tomatoes, and a horseradish creme fraiche.  For my side I had an Asian Slaw with baby greens, red onions, and a sesame dressing.  While the slaw and the sandwich don't exactly sound like they would work together, surprisingly they do.  The sandwich had a lot of strong flavors from the horseradish creme fraiche, to the gruyere, to the onion, to the pretzel roll (all of which complemented each other).  The greens and the tomato provided a moderating influence to the flavors which may have been why they were able to complement instead of overwhelm each other.  In order to make any influence on the taste buds after eating that sandwich, the flavors on the salad also had to be prominent which the sesame was and the greens and the onion from the sandwich also showed up in the slaw tying them together.  For my baked good "dessert", I had a Dulce de Leche Bar.  This was amazing.  It started with a crisp and buttery butter cookie base.  It was then topped with the dulce de leche, a slowly made caramel-like confection that is made with caramelized sugar and sweetened and condensed milk.  All of this is topped with butter cookie crumbs.  It was crisp, buttery, sweet, chewy, and very, very good.  I will return here just for this bar.

Swim Cafe does seem to be a place inhabited by a group of regulars.  While I do think their food is good to great, because of it's location and operating times, I will never be a regular.  I will however, definitely return when the circumstances dictate a sandwich for the road.