Sunday, July 28, 2013


Okay, I will admit it.  I'm a bit late to the game.  I am so late in fact, that the proprietors of the restaurant that I just went to have recently opened a new restaurant.  While there is a lot of buzz about the new restaurant, I wanted to go to the original first which is still getting a lot of buzz and still requires a long wait on some nights.  Recognized by both Esquire and Bon Appetit Magazines as one of the Best New Restaurants for 2011, Ruxbin has obviously gotten a lot of press, as might be expected, for a restaurant run by a chef that has formerly worked at Per Se.  The place is pretty small, seating 32 people.  The restaurant describes it's design as Steam Punk.  With many recycled and repurposed materials spread around the room, I have to agree.  There is a lot of copper around with many gears and a lot of wood and the general color scheme is sepia.  The room has a high ceiling with what look like old newspapers overlapped like a newspaper collage.  The room has three booths with overhead lighting that looks like an old school chair combined with a TV tube.  The rest of the seating has tables in front of a bench with seats on the opposite side.  The bench has a wooden seat and a back made of vertically laid leather straps.  The lighting is overhead, consisting of a light bulb that is silvered on the bottom that lets very little light through.  There is a curved copper reflector mounted above the light in order to light the table.  Despite the fact that the bench was wood, it was a lot more comfortable than it sounded and it was where I was seated.  I was served a bowl of popcorn shortly after I was seated.  I am not a huge popcorn fan but I did try this.  It had a lot of Butter with Salt, Sugar, Black Sesame, and Seaweed.  It had a good flavor with all of the flavors shining through.  The seaweed flavor came at the end and added a briny vegetal flavor to everything.  While it did taste good and different, it had the typical popcorn texture which I am not exceptionally excited about.  I did eat most of it though.

While I was waiting for my order, the kitchen brought out a little something extra.   They brought me a glass of Gazpacho which was topped with Rye Toast, Red and Yellow Tomatoes, and Fennel.  The toast and vegetables were very crispy and fresh tasting and the gazpacho was fresh and bright with a citrusy flavor.  I didn't order this but I didn't mind because it was on the house and it tasted really good.

For my appetizer, I ordered octopus.  I like octopus but this was the best octopus that I have ever had.  The Octopus was marinated in Red Wine for three hours before being grilled.  It was then combined with Crispy Chickpeas, Pickled Green Onions, Black Soybean, Grapes, and a Ginger-Scallion Vin.  The octopus was very tender and had a light wine flavor.  The wine flavor in the octopus went well with the ginger-scallion vin and the grapes, and the onions and soybeans had a complementary flavor.  It wasn't an exceptionally pretty dish but it did taste really good.

For my entree, I decided to stay with the seafood and went with what was essentially a seafood stew.  Called a Bourride, it had Cod, Clams, Shrimp, White Beans, Fennel, Sun Dried Tomatoes, Herbs, topped with a Lemon Aioli, and Sake.  The seafood was tender and the clams actually came out of the shell pretty easily and the lemon aioli added some brightness.  It was very good with a lot of flavors and textures and I really liked it.

I was excited for my dessert.  It was a panna cotta with a lot of fruit and I like panna cotta.  What I wasn't expecting was the Banana Milk Shake that they brought with it.  As expected with a banana milkshake, it tasted a lot of bananas but it also had some cinnamon.  It was a great bonus for dessert.  As far as the Panna Cotta is concerned, it was called a Corn Pop Panna Cotta but I am not sure why.  The panna cotta was smooth and creamy and was combined with Strawberries, Rhubarb, Pistachios, Short Bread Cookies, and Black Sesame.  The sweet, tart, and crunchy flavors complemented the creamy panna cotta and it was a great ending to a great meal.

There is a great reason that there is still a lot of buzz about Ruxbin.  It is a great restaurant with a very distinct look, friendly staff, and great food.  I would be happy to return here and to introduce my friends to this place.           


Friday, July 19, 2013

West Town Tavern

If their reputation had not preceded them, I may not have ever went there.  While it looks like a tavern from the outside and there is a bar as you walk in, the focus at West Town Tavern is much more on the food than it is on the alcohol.  If I had seen the place without knowing about it, I may not have ever come here.  This is not to say that the place looks bad.  In fact, it looks like a neighborhood tavern in a vintage building in a nicer neighborhood.  I may never have come here because there are any number of neighborhood taverns located closer to where I live than this is.  There has been much written, though, about the food at West Town Tavern so when the opportunity presented itself, it was an easy decision.  West Town Tavern is a small space in a vintage building.  There is a tin ceiling, a hardwood floor, and a bar that will seat about 10 people that runs from the front into the building.  Located on a corner, it has a couple of patios for dining al fresco.  As it was a beautiful evening, I decided to dine outside.  The fence/divider was steel and had several planters on it.  After I had ordered but before my food arrived, the restaurant owner, who is also the husband of the executive chef, came out to water the plants and I had an opportunity to talk with him.  We simply talked about the plants and the fact that they have changed what they grow in the planters several times trying to figure out what might work out best.  In the past they have grown herbs and different flowers and while they have all grown, for a variety of reasons, they have not been ideal.  This year, they were growing petunias.  While the conversation was pretty light, I enjoyed it and it helped to contribute to the feel of a friendly neighborhood restaurant.  West Town Tavern does not have an extensive beer and alcohol list but it does have enough craft beer and spirits to offer some variety.  They do have a pretty extensive wine list though.  For my drink with dinner, I ordered an Anchor Steam Lager.  It's a pretty good craft beer from the San Francisco area that I hadn't had in a while.  It's a copper colored beer with a nice head and a smooth finish.  For my appetizer, I went with a salad.  It was not, however, a simple salad of lettuce, carrots and tomatoes.  It was an Asparagus and Strawberry Salad with a Hard Boiled Egg and a Strawberry Balsamic Vinaigrette.  Both the asparagus and strawberries were very fresh and crisp and the hard-boiled egg provided some depth to the dish.  I would not have thought that strawberries and asparagus would go together, but I think that the fact that this was so simple helped.  The vinaigrette tied the asparagus and the strawberries together.  The sweet-sour of the balsamic matched well with both the strawberries and the asparagus and the simplicity brought them together. 

I got the idea when I was ordering that asparagus was in season because it was featured in several dishes on the menu and so it showed up again with my main course.  I ordered Pot Roast with Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Asparagus, Natural Jus, and Raisins.  The pot roast was incredible.  It was fork tender and very flavorful.  The garlic mashed potatoes were smooth and creamy with a lot of garlic.  The jus tied the mashed potatoes and the pot roast together.  The asparagus was the nice crisp side vegetable and while I would never have considered adding raisins to a pot roast dish, it worked, bringing out the sweetness of the meat and tying it with the asparagus.

While my first two courses were pretty local and seasonal, my dessert was not.  You will not find any bananas trees of note in the midwest (nor any cacao plants) so most of the ingredients of my dessert were shipped a long way.  Despite that, it was really good.  I had a Banana Cream Pie with Salted Peanuts, Whipped Cream, White Chocolate, Caramel, Brown Sugar, and a Mint Garnish (which may very well have been found locally).  It was sweet, creamy, and salty with a lot of bananas and a dense crust.  It was a very good finish to a very good dinner.

I am glad that I had the opportunity to come to West Town Tavern.  The staff is very friendly and attentive and the food is very good.  While it isn't far from where I live, I will definitely have to make a point of returning.  

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Arcadia Brewing Company

If you were traveling and stopped for lunch which would you choose, a place that you have been to and liked or a place that you have never been to but has the potential to be much better than the place you know.  This was a choice I had when traveling through Battle Creek recently.  The choice was made a little easier, I felt, because I was choosing between a coffee shop/cafe and a brew pub.  Even if you don't even consider what you might have to drink, I think that the decision was fairly easy.  While I like the coffee shop and will probably be back, the food served there is fairly light while in general, the food served in a brew pub is much more hearty and I was in the mood for a meal so Arcadia Brewing Company it was.  When I walked in, while there were a few people there, I was a little unsure if the place was open but I was quickly greeted and took a seat at the bar.  The space, while large and very open, looks like it was built out of the brewery/bottling plant that is next door.  The ceiling is unfinished and the floor is cement.  The bar, tables and booths all look like something that you might see in an English pub, but because the floor was cement, the ceiling was unfinished, and there was a window that looked into the brewery/bottling plant, it looked as if they cleared an area in the factory and set everything there.  Despite looking unfinished though, the staff were very friendly and the beer is very good.  I tried their Thunder Trail ESB and their Sky High Rye.

For my meal, I started with a dish that really reminded me of poutine.  They didn't call it poutine but that was what it reminded me of.  The dish consisted of Fried Potatoes topped with Bacon Jam, Jalapenos, and Cheddar Cheese.  It was a heart attack on a plate and it was awesome. The potatoes were fried to perfect tenderness.  The bacon jam was on the sweet side as a jam might be expected to be but it was savory and chunky and really good.  The jalapenos provided a nice fire to the dish and while there were enough to keep things pretty spicy, there weren't so many that it was like eating fire. The dish was not precisely a classic poutine because it used fried potatoes instead of french fries and shredded cheese instead of cheese curds but it was close enough that it might as well have been called poutine. 

I continued with a Breakfast Pizza.  What is a breakfast pizza?  It was a Pizza with Sausage and Mozzarella Cheese, topped with Fried Eggs, and sprinkled with Chives.  The crust was very thin and cracker crisp and with the sausage, cheese, and six eggs on it, it was much more than I was going to be able to eat in one sitting.  I ended up taking half of it home with me and it traveled petty well.

I really enjoyed my time at Arcadia.  It was a good place to spend some time having some good food and beer while waiting for the train.  It will definitely become for me a stopping place on the way back to Chicago.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Antique Taco

Tacos are very simple and taquerias are everywhere in Chicago.  They are like hamburgers in that most people like them and you can find them everywhere.  Just about anyone in Chicago could easily walk to at least one taco joint.  At their most basic, a taco is simply some meat in a tortilla.  Because tacos are very basic though, it leaves a lot of room for creativity.  A couple of places that serve what are essentially gourmet tacos have opened in the same neighborhood (Wicker Park) within the last couple of years.  I wrote about Big Star previously, I will talk now about the other, Antique Taco.  When Antique Taco opened (it opened several months after Big Star), an article asked whether there was room for two gourmet taco joints in Chicago.  I would argue yes, because while the tacos served at both places may be similar, the restaurants are very different.  While Big Star is a Honky Tonk that plays a lot of classic country music (on vinyl) in a converted garage, Antique Taco is a vintage store front that has a lot of antiques.  The storefront is located on a corner and has windows on two sides.  There is a patio on one side that consists of several long picnic tables surrounded by a fence made of old pallets.  Inside, there is a "passageway" that leads from the front of the restaurant to the rear where the counter where orders are placed is located.  The menu is written on a board behind the counter as well as printed on cardboard takeout menus.  The space has a tin roof which is painted white and hanging lights as well as exposed ventilation.  There is a bookcase next to the counter that looks like a shelf that might be seen in an old general store that holds a variety of  small antiques.  The counter looks as if it is made from recovered wood.  The tables are old heavy wood and the seats are backless and made of very heavy wood.  I made my order at the counter and since it was a very nice day when I went, I decided to eat on the patio.  As is the case in other restaurants, my drink (or should I say "drink") arrived first.  I got a Horchata Milkshake.  Horchata is a sweet rice milk drink served with a lot of cinnamon.  It is not normally frozen though.  This was not completely frozen, it was frozen like a milkshake is supposed to be.  The fact that it was frozen is not a complaint, it was a milk shake and is supposed to be frozen and it was very good.  It was sweet and creamy and had a lot of cinnamon and tasted as I would expect a frozen horchata to taste. 

For my dining pleasure, I ordered two types of tacos, Carnitas and Market Mushroom.  The Carnitas tacos arrived first.  There were two tacos per order.  The Carnitas Tacos came with Carnitas Taco with  an Adobo Rub, Tamarind Glaze, Spinach, Red Onion, Avocado, and Queso Fresco and were topped with a nice and crispy piece of Bacon alomg with a slice of lime to provide some citrus brightness.  The adobo provided some spice, the tamarind added some tanginess, the spinach and avocado provided some vegetal flavor as well as some color, and the bacon provided bacon because everything is better with bacon.

I finished things off with my Market Mushroom Tacos.  While I like mushrooms, these were a lot better than I expected.  The mushrooms were whole cooked button mushrooms.  Because whole mushrooms were used, smaller mushrooms were used than those that you would normally find in a package of mushrooms in the grocery store.  They were tender, well seasoned and perfectly cooked.  In addition to the excellent mushrooms the tacos had Guajillo Cream, Arugula, Radishes, and a Spicy Tamarind Sauce on the side.  The ingredients of the tacos were crisp and fresh and it was like eating a mushroom salad by hand.  

Antique Taco is nice and friendly and they use flavor combinations that provide a tasty variety with each bite.  The food here is good and I would be happy to return.