Monday, January 21, 2013

Stout Barrel House & Galley - Deschutes Beer Dinner.

It is funny to thing about how the craft beer world has grown over the last twenty years.  While there were a few microbreweries, I think that it would have been difficult to have an extensive beer list.  We are now in a craft beer renaissance.  There are breweries all over the country and it is actually pretty easy now to find something that you have never had before if that is your desire.  There are several "beer bars" in Chicago but only a few have food menus of any note.  Stout Barrel House & Galley, a beer/sports bar in River North has a great chef in Chris Curren, formerly of Blue 13, who has created a menu of amped up comfort food. I actually came to Stout Barrel House for a beer dinner hosted by Deschutes Brewery, an Oregon based brewery that has just started selling in Chicago.  The menu and price for 4 courses and 4 beers looked good and I had thought about going so it seemed like a good time to go.  Stout Barrel House is a big space with a bar in the middle.  The floor, furniture, and bar were reclaimed wood.  The banquettes were covered in black leather, and the outside walls were antique brick.  Interior walls were would bent and formed like barrel walls, as were many of the hanging lights.  The dining area was divided between booths and high top tables and there are many flat screen TVs so you have a good view of the game no matter where you sit.  I was seated at a high top two top near one of the large windows which allowed me to watch the goings on on the street as well as having a good view of the dining room.  I let my waitress know shortly after I was seated that I had come for the beer dinner and my first course and beer were brought to me shortly after.  We started with French Onion Soup with Red Chair NWPA (North West Pale Ale) broth.  It was paired with Red Chair NWPA.  French onion soup, when done correctly, can be a meal all by itself.  The broth was very rich and the onions were very tender.  The broth and onions were topped with pieces of bread and melted Gruyere.  The dish was rich and savory with a lot of onion and strong cheese flavors and it definitely got me excited for what might be next.

The next course was Linguini with Mussels and Clams which was paired with Chainbreaker White IPA.  The Linguini was toothsome and flavorful and the mussels were cooked well.  The clams were removed from their shells and were chopped and mixed with the pasta.  For the most part, they were very good but there were a few that seemed not to have been cleaned well and I got some sand.  It was all sitting in a buttery sauce.  The hoppiness of the IPA paired well with the mussels and other than the sandiness of the clams, it was a good dish.

For the main entree, I had a Pork Chop and it was a very nice looking pork chop.  It was served with Capers, Brown Butter, Carrots, Cauliflower, and Brussels Sprouts, with a Pancetta Chip.  It was paired with a Mirror Pond Pale Ale.  The chop was more than an inch thick and tender.  The pancetta chip was very crisp and like bacon and the vegetables were crisp and well seasoned.  It wasn't an exceptionally adventurous dish but it was filling and done very well.  I really enjoyed this but after eating it, I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to finish my final course, the dessert.

While I starting to fill up, I was going to make an effort on finishing my dessert.  I had a Chocolate Lava Cake with Blueberries, Blackberries, and Coffee Ice Cream.  The plate was sprinkled with powdered sugar and the beer paired with it was called a Black Butte Porter.  The pairing worked extremely well.  It was very dark and had a lot of coffee flavor to it.  The ice cream tied the cake and the beer together well.  It was really good but it was too heavy and I couldn't finish it.  I did finish the beer though as it was pretty good.

I really enjoyed my dinner hear.  The food was good and the service was fairly attentive.  This isn't normally a place that I would normally go to.  It has a sports bar vibe to it and I am generally not a sports bar person.  In addition, while my service was good, I have seen many notes about poor service and management when things get busy and late at night.  I might go back here but it would be a special event.       

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Reno is not in Nevada.  It even says that on the floor of the dining room.  While it does have a rustic look, as might be expected to be found in Nevada, it has an unfinished ceiling, hardwood floors and tables, chairs of wood and wrought steel, and antique brick walls, the restaurant is located on the square of Logan Square next to its sister restaurant, Telegraph.  While it is one restaurant, it wears two completely faces for Breakfast and Lunch, and Dinner.  For Breakfast and Lunch, it is largely a coffee shop, serving flame-roasted bagels, bagel sandwiches,  pastries, and Stumptown Coffee.  For dinner, it becomes an Italian and Pizza joint, using their brick oven to make great, semi-Neapolitan-style pizzas.  They are very different but they sounded good so I came twice to try both versions of Reno.  For my breakfast, I started with a Snickerdoodle Muffin.  Snickerdoodles are cookies covered in cinnamon and sugar and generally have a cracked surface.  A snickerdoodle muffin is the same thing in muffin form.  The outside was cracked and crispy and the inside was soft and fluffy.  It was big, sweet, and nice, and I would be happy to eat it again. 

For the main part of my meal, I had to have a bagel as that is what they are advertising.  They have six types of bagel: Sesame, Everything, Olive & Herb, Poppy Seed, Cheese, and Pumpkin Seed which are flame roasted.  You can get a variety of schmears or jams or have it made into a bagel sandwich which is what I did.  I ordered an Everything Bagel (which has, as you might expect, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, pumpkin seeds, and herbs).  The sandwich was a standard breakfast sandwich with cheese (in this case, aged cheddar), scrambled eggs, and sausage.  The bagel was crisp and chewy with a slight smoky flavor although it doesn't quite have the chew of a boiled bagel and the sandwich that was built inside it was pretty good.  I really liked these bagels and I will definitely be back for them again.

For dinner, it becomes an Italian restaurant/pizzeria.  I was quickly seated and ordered.  The pizzas did look good but I was by myself and I wasn't going directly home.  I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to handle an entire pizza and I had no desire to carry a pizza box around all night.  I instead, went the standard restaurant route and ordered appetizer/side, entree, and dessert.  For my start, I ordered Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Red Cabbage, Tasso Ham (a spicy, slight cured piece of pork shoulder), and Chestnut Vinaigrette.  I like Brussels Sprouts but this was ridiculously good.  It looked like coleslaw with ham which, in a manner of speaking, it was.  It was crisp and spicy and the vinaigrette provided a creamy nuttiness.

For my entree, I had more pork.  I had Rigatoni with Pancetta, Guanciale, and Bacon with Amatriciana Sauce (a tomato based sauce using guanciale and pecorino cheese) and fresh Pecorino Cheese.  The Rigatoni was cooked perfectly.  It was smooth and slightly toothsome and there was pork in every bite.  I really liked this and would happily enjoy it again.

For dessert, I went with the Apple Crisp with Cinnamon Ice Cream.  This is a fairly standard comfort food dessert but prepared really well.  The crisp was wood fired and was served warm.  The Cinnamon Ice Cream was obviously served cold with a caramel sauce spread over it.  The crisp was crisp and a little tough to get through to get to the apples.  It was all crunchy, chewy, and sweet.  The apples were slightly tart and crisp and the ice cream provided the sweet, spicy, and cool.  I really enjoyed this and would definitely have it again.

I have enjoyed my trips to Reno (not Nevada) and will definitely be back.  They are very casual, relaxing, and make some great food.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Table

Midland, Michigan is home to the corporate headquarters of Dow Chemical Company.  One of the largest chemical companies in the world.  With Dow being the biggest employer and Midland being a fairly small town, the importance of chemistry can be seen in many places.  As an example, the hotel in downtown Midland is named the H (as in Hydrogen).  At the H, there is a restaurant called Cafe Zinc, a cocktail lounge called Bar Oxygen, and the fine dining restaurant, The Table.  As I was in Midland recently, I decided to visit The Table and try it out.  The dining room has a.very open floor plan with parquet floors and chandelier lighting.  The walls used a frame design that reminded me of an old French mansion.  There were also free floating dividers on each side of the room.  We were seated in the center of the room on a table with white tablecloths.  Our waiter was excellent.  He gave us a few minutes after we were settled before coming for drink orders and telling us the dinner specials.  He returned for our orders when he brought our drinks and was very good at answering questions.  While we were waiting for our appetizers, we were brought an antipasto plate which contained several items that were very fresh and flavorful.  The plate included prosciutto, asparagus, mozzarella, and coppa and it was all very good.  For my appetizer, I got a Foie Gras Brulee.  It was served with toasted baguette slices and fresh strawberries.  I like foie gras but I had never thought of having it bruleed.  To brulee something is to roast it with a flame on top, largely with a flame thrower, to caramelize and crystalize the top.  The crust on top was light.  There isn't nearly as much sugar in foie gras as there is in the custard that is used to make creme brulee but it was caramelized and slightly scorched.  It was creamy, rich, sweet, and doesn't nearly have the irony taste that can be found in beef liver.  In short, it was very good.

For my entree, I went with the Branzino, or European Seabass.  It was served with Jamon Iberico, Figs, Mushrooms, and Sweet Potato Puree.  The fish looked to be pan fried and was very tender.  The fish had a light flavor.  It was slightly sweet and not at all fishy.  It had been boned although I did find a few pin bones while I was eating it.  All of the sides/garnishes that were served with the fish were sweet and went well with the fish although I don't know if I would say that they went well together (especially the figs and the mushrooms).  While there were a few things that could have been better about this dish, overall it was very good.

For my dessert, I had an item whose name escapes me.  I will say though that it was very good.  Part of the name was Canela which means cinnamon.  They were mini pound cakes (with cinnamon) sitting in a chocolate sauce, topped with powdered sugar and served with a homemade whipped cream on the side.

I did enjoy my dinner here.  The space was beautiful, the service was excellent and the food was mostly excellent.  I will say however, that while it was good, it was also very expensive, and while I am glad to have gone there, I am not sure that the value received was completely worth the price.


Saturday, January 5, 2013


While there is something to be said for being on Top Chef, unless you win, it doesn't help a lot other than name recognition.  This was especially true in the early seasons of the show.  Dale Levitski finished in second in the third season of Top Chef.  While he was fairly well known in the Chicago scene, having worked at Blackbird in it's early days and replacing Grant Achatz at Trio, when it came to finding money to open his own place, it wasn't happening.  When Sprout opened about 5 years ago, it was trying to do a completely organic menu including a $100 veal chop.  This didn't play exceptionally well and it struggled for about two years before they hired Levitski, who was working Front of the House at Sola at the time.  When he started, he decided to go with a 3 course Prix Fixe menu for $60 which he used to introduce people to his food.  While the menu is still divided in three parts, the names are a bit ambiguous and it's a little difficult to tell what might be appetizer, entree, and dessert.  There is also a 10 course tasting menu which I went for becaause I figured that it would give me an opportunity to try more of his dishes.  While I waited for my first dish, I looked at the dining room which was actually divided into two rooms.  Both rooms were fairly small and could seat about 30 people each.  The room that I was in looked like it was a patio at one time.  The walls and floor were white stone and the ceiling was pyramidal with a skylight at the peak.  The furniture was wood topped with a black metal frame and there was a repeating theme of a stylized sprout on the menus and on the wall art.  When my first dish arrived, the Amuse Bouche, I thought it looked cool but I wasn't exactly sure how I was supposed to eat it.  It was a Rabbit Rillette on a large spoon (like a pate) topped with Red Borage, sitting on a Mustard Creme Fraiche, and served with Basil Powder.  All of the individual pieces tasted good and many of the pieces tasted good together but I was never able to get everything together.  While I liked the artistry of this, it did make me a little nervous for the rest of the meal.

The next dish though, helped to allay my fears.  It was the soup course and while it had much of the artistry of the amuse bouche, it was easier to figure out how to eat.  It was a peppery Potato Soup with Microgreens stuck to the side of the bowl with Creme Fraiche, and Olive Oil Croutons that were hidden in the Greens.  This was excellent.  The soup was creamy and peppery, the microgreens added a fresh vegetal flavor, the croutons were a surprise crunch, and the creme fraiche provided a nice tartness to finish the taste.

The next dish was the fish course.  It had a lot of elements and it was kind of busy but every element was very good.  It was a Striped Sea Bass fried skin-on, Edamame Greens, Malted Brown Butter, Faro, French Fried Ramps, and Pork Belly, and was garnished with radish slices.  This was another one of those dishes where I was puzzled where to start.  The fish was well fried.  It had a nice crust and was very tender.  The French Fried Ramps and Pork Belly was set opposite the fish and was also very good.  The other elements were very delicate.  They did taste good by themselves but they worked better as an accompaniment to the fish or pork belly.

After the fish came a dish that was based on Bouef Bourgignon.  The beef was a Braised Beef Cheek that was fork tender.  It was served with Carrots Two Ways, as Roasted Baby Carrots and as Carrot Chips, and with a little Creme Fraiche to fill out the taste.  This was amazing.  As I said, the beef was fork tender, but it was also very flavorful.  The roasted baby carrots were tender, of course, and the carrot chips had a nice crunch to them, but the chips were surprisingly flavorful as well.

After four dishes, while I had liked the look of every dish, I had only completely liked every other dish.  If the trend was going to continue, I should have expected a dish that was beautiful with elements that tasted really good but did not, in the end, come completely together.  This dish broke the trend and it was in fact, one of my favorites.  It was Filet Mignon with Fried Shallots, Grilled Bok Choy, and Worcestershire Barbecue Sauce.  It was a high end spin on Texas barbecue.  The shallots were everything that you might expect in good onion rings.  They were crunchy and salty on the outside and soft and oniony on the inside.  The filet mignon was cooked medium rare and was very tender and juicy and the bok choy maintained it's fresh crispness while adding a nice grilled smokiness to it.

I am not sure the order made sense to me but the next course was a salad.  I am sure many people would have liked this salad because all of the elements were fresh and crisp and the dish was very flavorful.  The green in this salad was Bibb Lettuce, it was topped with Macadamia Chips, and Fennel, served with Asian Pear, and sprinkled with Licorice Root.  The creamy vinaigrette was served on the side and while I am sure it was very tasty, I don't remember what it had in it.  Every part of this salad was fresh and crisp and the licorice root provided a nice spice to the dish but as I really don't care for pears, I have to call this a fail.

The next dish was a very creative cheese course.  There was a wedge of Goat Cheese in the center framed by Candied Walnuts and Figs, which was all set with a Golden Squash Puree.  It was a simple dish that was artfully presented.  It presented both sweet and savory both of which paired well with the cheese.

Generally with multi-course meals, there is a palate cleanser served between the entree and the dessert.  Sometimes it is counted as a course, sometimes it is not.  Many times it is a sorbet.  In the case of Sprout, a palate cleanser was served between the last entree and dessert and as everything that was brought to the diner was counted as a dish in the 10 course meal, this counted as a dish.  The palate cleanser was a Grapefruit Sorbet topped with Red Flower Petals of some sort and paired with a Sauternes.  There are many things I could say about this.  It was made well but there really wasn't any element of this that I liked.  I like grapefruit but for whatever reason, the grapefruit flavor was too strong.  The flavor of the flower petals did go with the sorbet but I didn't like the way it felt.  The Sauternes was very sweet.  Sauternes are supposed to be very sweet but for me, it was too sweet.  I understood the idea of the dish but I didn't care for the execution.

The dessert was beautiful.  It was a Chocolate Tart Shell filled with Mascarpone Powder and topped with a Graham Cracker Cookie and Chocolate Ribbon.  There was a smear of Housemade Caramel off to the side.  It actually kind of reminded me of a S'more.  Together everything was very good although with the mascarpone powder, you did have to be a little careful.  At one point, it felt like I had swallowed some dust and I started coughing a little.  It tasted good but it was also a little irritating.

The last course was the equivalent of the after dinner mint.  It was a Financier Cake and a Grapefruit Gellee served with a sprig of fresh mint.  It was a simple presentation for a couple of simple bites which were prepared perfectly.  The Financier was light, spongy and buttery, with a nice almond flavor.  The gelee had a nice grapefruit flavor (as opposed to the sorbet) and while it wasn't quite as firm as a gummy candy might be, it did kind of remind me of that..  It was a nice and simple end to a very complex meal.

While I didn't like every dish that was presented to me at Sprout, I will say that part of that was my own personal preference and not the execution of the dish.  I found the dishes very creative and visually stimulating even if they didn't completely come together on the palate.  There are other dishes that I saw on the menu that I thought sounded interesting so I may very well come back.