Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ai Japanese Restaurant and Lounge

I have mentioned in the past that I really like sushi.  I don't, however, go to sushi restaurants often because many of my friends are intimidated by sushi, thinking that it is simply raw fish.  There are a few sushi places that I really like and given the right opportunity, will go irregardless of whether I have company or not.  Ai Japanese Restaurant and Lounge is one of those places.  It is one of my favorite sushi bars and the fact that it had a nice looking offer for Restaurant Week prompted me to go for a visit.  While most places offer a three course prix fixe for Restaurant Week, the main dinner menu was five courses, only one of which was actually sushi, with an offer of an additional nigiri course for an upcharge.  Five courses sounded like a large enough dinner so I refrained from going for the extra sushi course.  While the restaurant is located in the River North neighborhood and is close to the highway, it is really off the beaten path on Ontario St west of the highway entrance.  It isn't generally an area that is wandered through because it isn't exactly the easiest area to get to.   The restaurant/lounge is very nice with a high unfinished ceiling decorated with finished wood beams used as part of the design and the floors are hardwood.  The walls were old brick with abstract Japanese Art and there are wall hangings and the furniture were purple velvet.  The sushi bar is in the middle of the room which is where I sat so I could watch the chefs work.  The bar itself is marble and the front is glass showing all of the fish and seafood.  As I said, I came to Ai for the prix fixe for Restaurant Week.  And while it did all look very good, I was a little surprised that there was only one course in the meal that was sushi.  For my first course, I started with a soup. It was a Kabocha Squash and Corn Soup that was garnished with Chives.  This soup was thick and creamy with flavors of corn and squash (as might be expected).  It was also a little grainy which I imagine came from the corn but it was still good.  It was very good and given a larger serving size, could have easily worked as a main dish.

For my next course, we went for what was essentially the Japanese version of a Beef Carpaccio.  It was called Beef Tataki and consisted of thinly sliced beef topped with Daikon Radishes, Carrots, Chives, and a Soy Sauce.  The beef was lightly seared to hold in the juices.  It was very tender and the crunchiness of the Daikon, Carrots, and Chives combined well with the beef.  The soy sauce was lightly added so it was possible to eat the other components without their having been doused in soy sauce.  While the sauce was nice and did add to the dish, it was really a bonus because the beef and vegetables were good without the soy sauce.

The next course was the sushi.  It was a Maki (roll)  called a Chef Hemmi Spicy Tuna Roll (after the chef) and it consisted of five rolls of spicy tuna (with rice and seaweed), each topped with something different.  Visually, it was a very striking dish.  Each of the rolls brought something different although several did add spicy to spicy.  In any case, they were all very good.  The first roll was topped with Cucumber Wrapped Tempura Flakes and Wasabi Mayo which added spicy to spicy.  Normally, I am not a huge fan of tempura flakes because I find them too fishy but between the cucumber, the wasabi, and the spicy tuna, the fishiness of the tempura was lost (which was fine with me).  The next roll also added spicy to spicy.  It was topped with Masago (Capelin Roe) and Jalapeno.  It was salty, spicy, and did have a light fishiness to it but it wasn't bad.  The next roll was spicy from the tuna but the topping was not.  It was topped with Rosemary and Walnuts which gave it a distinctive herbal and nutty flavor but it wasn't exceptionally spicy.  I am going to guess that this was kind of to give your tongue a little bit of a break because the next two courses also added spicy to spicy in their own way.  The next roll was topped with Avocado, Spicy Mayo, and Ikura (Salmon Roe).  The avocado added a creaminess and the salmon roe added a salty salmon taste (in addition to the spice from the tuna and the mayo).  The last roll was topped with a Spicy Tako (Octopus).  I like octopus normally but this was very tender and the spice of the octopus added to the spice of the tuna.  While I said that I liked all of them, this was my favorite.  It seemed that I had saved the best for last.

While the next course was fish, it was very definitely not prepared as sushi.  It was a Grilled Scottish Salmon topped with Rosemary Walnuts and Pistachios, Teriyaki Sauce, and Tomato and Zucchini Skewers (and a side salad).  I will admit that while I can use chopsticks and I had used chopsticks through the meal, I am very definitely not an expert with them and when this was served, I foresaw some difficulty.  I ate the zucchini and tomatoes as they were served, on their skewers.  I was able to eat the nuts and the salad with chopsticks, but the salmon filet was difficult.  I did end up eating it with chopsticks but it was a chore.  What I ended up doing was tearing off pieces from the edges.  It was luckily very tender despite the crisp skin and the teriyaki sauce provided an additional complementing flavor.  While it was difficult to eat, it was very good.  Although I think if I happen to  have it again, I will definitely ask for a knife and fork.

The last course was dessert and from my previous experiences at other Japanese restaurants, I would say that I would not normally order dessert at a Japanese restaurant because there are some very popular Japanese desserts (one of which was served here) that I just don't understand.  As the dessert was part of the dinner though, I was going to try it.  I had a Chocolate Mousse with Chocolate Whipped Cream served with a Chocolate Mochi with Coffee Ice Cream.  The Mousse and whipped cream weren't bad, nor was the coffee ice cream.  The thing that I have an issue with is the mochi (which was also chocolate although that was not the problem).  Mochi are a sweet rice cake made with glutinous rice and the texture reminds me of an overboiled hard-boiled egg white.  While they seem to be very popular among some people, I can't get past the rubbery texture.  I did eat it but I can't say it was my favorite thing and I wouldn't mind if I never had it again.

Despite the mochi in the dessert, I really liked my dinner here.  I like the space, the waitress was attentive and friendly, and it was very cool watching the sushi chefs work.  This will remain one of my favorite sushi places and I will very definitely be back.

Monday, February 11, 2013


I first heard about Chris Pandel when he opened the neighborhood restaurant, The Bristol, about five years ago.  That restaurant featured small plates and nose-to-tail cooking.  There was more to it than that but many of my friends (and I) thought of The Bristol, they thought of meat.  When I first heard that Chef Pandel would be opening an Italian inspired restaurant, it did not compute.  I could not see how you would get to Italian from where he was cooking at The Bristol and I told him as much when I met him at a benefit later that year (before the new place was opened).  He told me not to brush it off so quickly.  I admitted that he was a good chef which would allow him to make Italian cuisine, but I still remained a little skeptical.   A friend of mine went to Balena shortly after it opened last year and raved about it, telling me that it was a restaurant that needed to be on my short list.  When I saw that it was participating in Restaurant Week, where participating restaurants will offer a 3 course prix fixe meal for $22 for lunch and $33 or $44 for dinner (plus drinks, tax, and tip), I decided to give it a try.  Located near the retail hub around Clybourn and North Avenue and near a couple of theaters, Balena does see a lot of traffic so I shouldn't have been surprised by the sheer size of the space.  The space uses a lot of hardwood and pillars with a high vaulted ceiling with both overhead and table lighting.  The bar is at the front and while it does have the standards, it specializes in cocktails featuring Italian bitters.  The list, as a matter of fact, lists the relative bitterness of it's specialty cocktails.  The kitchen is off to one side in the back and while elevated, it is also fairly open so the action in the kitchen can be watched if you so desire.  There is a hallway like a closed catwalk on the second floor where offices can be seen.  I was seated in a back corner of the open dining room opposite the kitchen where I had a good view of the entire restaurant.  When he was just running The Bristol, Chef Pandel became known for his charcuterie program.  It should not be a surprise that charcuterie would make an appearance at Balena as well as the Italians are well known for their charcuterie (salami and prosciutto being but two examples).  My first course was Porchetta di Testa with Lemon Zest and a little Olive Oil.  When I saw it listed, I recognized it as charcuterie but was unsure in what form it was.  When it was served, I saw three thin slices of meat that looked similar to round prosciutto with lemon zest and a little olive oil.  Trying it, I really enjoyed it.  It was very light and delicate with a salted pork flavor.  The tang from the zest played very well with the flavor of the pork.  While I was at the restaurant I looked up porchetta to find out what exactly, it is.  It turns out that it is a lightly salted and cured pig face that has been rolled and poached.  As I said, it was really good, but I was surprised as to how light it was.  I would have expected pig face to be that light.  It was a great start and it got me set for the rest of the meal.

The next course was another meat course, but this one was cooked.  I had Beef Short Ribs with Calabrian Peppers, Onions, and Orange Zest.  It was meaty, spicy, sweet, and unfortunate.  It was very good but being short ribs there were a lot of bones in the meat.  It was unfortunate because this was served in a fine dining restaurant which, while it wasn't required, did encourage me to eat with a knife and fork.  Had I been in a regular barbecue joint, I may well have just used my hands.  It was a good course, but because it was ribs, it did require some work with a knife and fork.

The next course was the pasta course and it was much easier to eat than the short ribs.  It was a very colorful, striking, complex, and made for a great picture.  It was Beet Agnolotti with Smoked Salmon, Poppy Seeds, Dill, and Creme Fraiche.  The first thing that has to be said of this dish was that the agnolotti was very red.  This was obviously from the beets.  On top of this were several pieces of smoked salmon, a couple of dollops of creme fraiche, and several sprigs of dill.  The poppy seeds were sprinkled over the whole dish.  The agnolotti was perfectly cooked.  It was toothsome and had an earthy flavor, the salmon was smoky and had a nice firm texture.  The creme fraiche added a nice tang, and the dill provided a complementary flavor to the salmon and tied it to the vegetal flavor of the agnolotti.

The dessert was very good.  It took a simple idea and amped it up.  It was a Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Spiced Cranberries and Craquelin.  Panna Cotta is a simple and fairly standard Italian dessert.  It will typically use fresh fruit to add a complexity to the custard which by itself would simply be sweet.  The buttermilk panna cotta was richer than a standard panna cotta and had a little tang.  Cranberries are normally sweet with some bitterness, the fact that they were spiced added a nice bite, and the craquelin, which is essentially croutons made from sugar-coated brioche, added textural variety in a nice crunch.

I really enjoyed my meal hear and after having gone, I can see how you can go from local, seasonal, nose-to-tail, to Italian.  There really wasn't that much of a stretch.  I am glad my friend recommended Balena.  It will be recommendation I make to those that ask.    

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Blokes & Birds

For years there have been any number of Irish-style pubs in Chicago.  There really isn't a big difference between English and Irish Pubs as far as the bar and food menus are concerned, but the music and some of the designs are different.  In the last few years, there have been several places offering takes on English Public Houses and pub food.  Longman & Eagle, Owen & Engine, Bangers & Lace, and Blokes & Birds all do takes on British pub food if those takes are all have very different.  I went recently to Blokes & Birds for dinner to see their take on a cuisine that is stereotypically thought of as pretty boring.  The dining/drinking area is all wood with hanging lights and exposed rafters.  The front wall is a window wall looking out on Wrigleyville.  The communal table in the center of the room was actually cross shaped and I was seated at one of the arms.  The menu was divided into Bits N' Bobs (appetizers), Sarnies (salads and sandwiches), Fortnight (entrees), and Dessert (dessert).  I started out with a Bits  N' Bobs dish called Cheesy Peavey.  This consisted of a cored and roasted Granny Smith Apple filled with melted Brie and slices of Puff Pastry topped with Apricot Chutney.  This was a nice looking dish that reminded me of a deconstructed apple pie.  But while this was a creative dish that tasted pretty good, it unfortunately was the highlight of the meal.  This is not to say that the rest of the meal was bad, it was however, rather uninspired.

For my entree, I had an English standard in Chelsea Fish & Chips.  This consisted of Beer Battered Cod, a cup of Frites, with a grilled lemon, and side dishes of ketchup, tarter sauce, and pea puree.  On paper this does sound interesting and the frites were pretty good but the two fish sticks could have been found at Bennigan's.  The batter on the fish was crisp but it wasn't particularly light and the ketchup and tartar sauce were fairly standard.  The pea puree was an interesting touch but it was kind of thick and I was unsure as to what to do with it.  The food was good enough to eat but wasn't anything to rave about.

The dessert menu had four items on it, of which they only had two available, a creme brulee and a trifle.  I ordered the Creme Brulee which came with fresh berries and a strawberry.  The crust on top of the custard wasn't the thinnest I have ever had but it also wasn't particularly thick.  The berries were fresh and ripe and the custard was creamy and sweet but the dessert was like any other creme brulee that I have ever had.

While the dinner here wasn't bad, I shouldn't have expected much more as the vast majority of Blokes & Birds neighbors are bars.  I am sure that this place is fine as far as bars are concerned and it does compete well with the bars on the street, but it was not what I was looking for. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Lula Cafe - Brunch

I have previously covered Lula Cafe on Dinner and for Halloween but they also do an excellent breakfast so I knew that I would eventually have to write about that as well.  The food served at Lula is local and seasonal and that doesn't change based on the meal.  It also doesn't take reservations for brunch so if you come with a large party and don't want to wait forever, you might want someone get there a little early to let them know. I was coming with a large party so I arrived half an hour before we were to meet so we only had to wait for about 20 minutes.  By the time we were seated, the bar had gotten pretty crowded so it was good that I arrived early.  We sat at a large table in  the front dining room which also has the main bar.  I decided to start things out with a selection of pastries.  They were serving a Smoked Pecan Sticky Bun, Chestnut and Chocolate Scone, and an Apple and Goat Cheddar Crostata so I got some of each.  In short, I will say that they were all amazing.  The sticky bun was sticky with a lot of smoked pecans covering the roll.  The roll was also nice and soft, easy to cut, and chewy.  The crostata was fruity, flavorful, and very moist with a goat cheddar topping that was sweet with a little sharpness that played well with the appl in the body of the crostata.  The scone, while it was good, was probably the least of the pastries.  It had the rough texture of the scone and the flavor of the chestnut and the chocolate were prominent but it wasn't as exciting as the sticky bun and the crostata.  The pastries were very good and it excited the party for the rest of the meal.

The menu at Lula Cafe changes frequently based on what is available although they will have those things that will be typically found on a brunch menu i.e. omelettes, waffles, French toast, and breakfast burritos, as well as bacon and eggs.  What varies are the fruits and vegetables that are available based on the season.  We had a wide selection of items including what I was told was a very good breakfast burrito (above).

When I saw "The Royale" on the menu, I first thought of the movie Pulp Fiction and it was something that I had to order simply based on the name.  The sandwich here, however, was nothing like the sandwich referenced in the movie.  I was not disappointed however, because it was a very good breakfast sandwich.  The Pulp Fiction "Royale" was what they said a Big Mac was called in France.  The Royale served at Lula Cafe was a Tamarind Glazed Chicken Thigh with Bread and Butter Pickles, Smoked Gouda, Caper Aioli, Sunny Side Egg, and Radicchio on a Potato Roll.  The Sandwich was served with a side of Sweet Potato Chips.  The sandwich, while it looked really good, did give me pause when it was served to me.  I wondered how I was going to eat it, especially with the liquid yolk.  I did think about puncturing the yolk and letting it run over the sandwich but I figured that that would be pretty messy.  In retrospect, that probably would have been the better choice then putting the sandwich together and eating it as it was as this caused the yolk to explode.  Luckily, my napkin caught the mess but it didn't leave me with much to wipe my hands with.  Despite the mess, it was a very good and flavorful sandwich.  The chicken was moist and tangy from the tamarind glaze.  The gouda provided a little smokiness which played well with the egg and the chicken, and the raddicchio was fresh and crunchy.  The sweet potato chips were crisp and crunchy with the sweetness that could be expected of sweet potatoes.

Lula Cafe is one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants and I am always pleased regardless of the meal I eat there.  We were all very happy with our meals despite the noise of the room.  I will continue coming here and will continue to enjoy introducing friends to the restaurant.