Sunday, September 22, 2013

Usagi Ya

While I like sushi, I really don't go out for it that often.  My favorite sushi place closed relatively recently so I know that I will have to look for another favorite.  Going to Usagi Ya, I had a pretty good idea that I was not going to find my new favorite but it is always nice to have a good place to fall back on wherever you happen to be.  Located just south of the Polish Triangle in Noble Square, it isn't exceptionally obvious despite the fact that it is on a main drag (Milwaukee Ave.).  The storefront is flush with neighboring buildings and the large wooden sign, the width of the storefront, is mounted above the doorway.  The interior has a modern look with a brown color scheme with several paintings of urban characters with a design that looks like a cross between graffiti and anime.  The sushi bar is wood and runs the length of the restaurant on one side with banquette seating on the opposite wall.  There are also a couple of larger semi-private tables at the front of the restaurant on either side of the door.  The lighting is provided from hanging lights over the bar and some ceiling lights with an odd cartoon speech balloon shape.  I decided to sit at the bar because I like watching the chefs work.  I started my meal out with an Oyster Shooter.  I like oysters and I will easily suck them down raw.  What came out was not what I expected but it did definitely fit the bill for what an oyster shooter could be.  I did forget, however, to take a picture of it.  What came out was a shot glass filled with a dark liquid and some solids.  It was the oyster in Ponzu Sauce with a Quail Egg and some Chili Sauce to provide some spice.  While it makes sense that a shooter would be in a shot glass, I think that I have previously had a shooter in the oyster shell.  While it wasn't what I expected, it was good.  The next thing that came out I didn't order but I didn't mind because free is good.  I was presented with a Seaweed Salad with Onions, Cucumbers, a Sweet Rice Vinaigrette, and topped with Sesame Seeds.  It was crispy, sweet, and had a nice sesame finish.  It was pretty good but the fact that it was free made it better.                                                                                                                                            
 When I go to a sushi place, I like to try both Nigiri (the raw sliced fish with a little rice) and the Maki (rolls).  For my Nigiri, I got Escolar (White Tuna), Hamachi (Yellowtail), Sea Bass and Octopus.  These were also served with the standard candied ginger and wasabi.  I would generally mix up a platter of soy sauce and wasabi for dipping which, while good, does overwhelm the flavor of the fish.  I decided to forgo this this time so I could actually taste the fish.  The flavors of the fish were all pretty mild and briny.  The major differences were in the texture.  The escolar was the chewiest and the octopus the most tender.  The sea bass was a little sweeter than the rest so I think I liked that best.

For the maki, I ordered two.  The first was called a Spider Maki with Tempura Soft Shell Crab, Cucumber, Avocado and Masago (a small forage fish like a Smelt).  The other maki was called the Usagi Ya Maki which had Unagi (Fresh Water Eel), Salmon, Escolar, Avocado, Asparagus, and Tempura Crunch wrapped in Soy Paper with Unagi Sauce and Wasabi Mayo.  They were both flavorful although I think I liked the Usagi Ya Maki better.  They were both crunchy and a little spicy but the soy paper was a little better than the seaweed paper.

The go to dessert for many Japanese and Sushi restaurants is Mochi.  I will say that I really don't get mochi and if I have a choice not to order it, I will.  For my dessert, I ordered something that was decidedly not Japanese although it did have some Asian flavors.  I ordered a Ginger Lemon Cheesecake with Raspberry Jam and topped with Whipped Cream.  The cheesecake had a good cheesecake texture with a great ginger and lemon flavor and was obviously sweet.  The raspberry jam helped tie the ginger and lemon together.

I liked my dinner here, it was pretty good, and I will probably be back.  The space was nice and the service was good  but I will continue to have to search for a new favorite sushi place. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Mott Street

I previously mentioned Ruxbin, the tiny and much lauded BYOB that serves upscale American food with an Asian spin.  The people behind Ruxbin decided to open another restaurant nearby that focuses on Asian street food and has a full bar.  Unlike Ruxbin, it does take reservations, although they are limited to allow for more walk-ins.  Having really enjoyed Ruxbin, I was eager to try out the proprietors newest incarnation, Mott Street, and decided to go for dinner recently.  I went during a peak period without a reservation and while it was pretty busy, there was a seat available at the bar which was where I sat.  The restaurant is a stand alone building on a busy street.  By the shape of it, I would guess that it originally started out as a Pizza Hut.  It has a large patio off to one side and you have to enter the patio to enter the restaurant.  Inside the restaurant is a short hall leading to the hostess' station with the tables and bar off to the left.  The bar is long and on the left with tables along the windows to the right.  Past the bar, there is some booth seating on the left.  The ceiling is unfinished with exposed supports under what appears to be a tin roof.  All of this is painted white.  The lighting is hanging and appear to be Chinese lanterns.  The seating for the bar is tall metal-framed chairs painted white and the bar itself is light colored, finished wood.  I actually like sitting at the bar (if the bar offers all of the service and the full menu of the restaurant) because I get to see the restaurants liquor collection and also see what they use in their cocktails.  Mott Street has a pretty extensive selection of top shelf liquors and they also use Jeppson's Malort in a couple of their cocktails.  For their food menu, Mott Street does a spin on Asian street food and provide you with chopsticks with which to eat.  They will provide regular silverware if asked or if they notice someone having trouble.  I am not an expert with chopsticks but will try to use them if they are provided to me and the chopsticks provided seemed to be easier to use than others that I have used in the past.  For my first course, I had a Chicken and Candied Shrimp Salad with Peanuts, Thai Basil, and Bean Sprouts.  The chicken was shredded but not pulled and the pieces were big enough to be easily handled with chopsticks.  The candied shrimp were very small and were candied with the shell on.  As the shrimp were very small, they would have been very difficult to peel but the shrimp were meant to be eaten whole.  They were sweet and spicy (they were also cooked in a red pepper oil) and were so mild in "shrimp" flavor that I ate a few before I even realized that they were shrimp.  The peanuts, basil, and bean sprouts provided complementing flavors and textures.  Everything tasted very good and went together well.  The first dish boded well for the rest of the meal.

For my next course, while I was tempted by the crab brain fried rice, I noticed while I was looking at the menu that most of the main courses either featured chicken, seafood, or pork.  I had already had the chicken and the seafood with my first dish so I decided to go with the pork which I also knew wasn't going to be a challenge for me because I like pork.  I ordered the Chili Marinated and Grilled Pork Jowl with Sesame Leaf and Tofu.  A small salad of Radishes and Asian Pear was served on the side.  The jowl was sweet, spicy, and fatty.  It had a flavor similar to spicy bacon but it wasn't quite as "bacony".  The radishes and Asian pear provided a contrasting crisp texture to the dish and the tofu was fried crunchy.  I really enjoyed this as I kind of expected to.

For the most part, while I like Asian appetizers and entrees, desserts really don't do it for me.  Luckily the desserts offered weren't really Asian and the dessert that I ordered was definitely not Asian (although it did use Thai basil as a garnish).  I ordered a Tres Leches cake (Spanish for three milks) and while I expected it to be a bit decadent, I did not expect what I got.  The dense and wet cake was covered in whipped cream and berries with some Thai basil and crispy rice as a garnish.  It actually reminded me of the dessert I had at St. John Restaurant in London called the Eton Mess.  This was also very definitely a mess, but it was not served in a bowl but on plate.  It used cake instead of meringue and it was very good.

I really enjoyed my meal here and will surely go back.  The decor of the space is rather spartan but the front of the house people were very friendly.  The food, while at times, seems to be a stretch for some people is also very accessible and I would easily bring several of my more timid friends to try to expand their culinary horizons.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Au Cheval

When I think of diners, I think of a counter with a grill behind it, booth seating with some tables if the place is wide, lots of windows, breakfast all day, and bad fluorescent lighting.  While Au Cheval (which roughly translates to "with an egg") has the counter, the grill, the booth seating, and all day breakfast, it is also pretty dark and has an interesting beer and alcohol selection.  I would say that it looks like a cross between a diner and a dive bar but with a much better alcohol selection.  Located on Randolph Street in the West Loop Warehouse district, the windows are darkened and is done in black with tarnished metal trim.  The booths are black leather, there are old kitchen utensils hanging along the walls, and the metal topped counter has a bar with top shelf liquor and a selection of craft beers that aren't seen in many other places.  I came for lunch one day, but as Au Cheval plays as a diner, the menu doesn't change.  There were many things on the menu that really looked good including several things that didn't really fall under the classification of breakfast food.  I sat at the counter/bar and ordered something that, while it didn't have an egg and isn't exactly breakfast food, it also isn't exactly not breakfast food either.  I had Roasted Marrow Bones with Beef Cheek Marmalade, Savory Greens, and Texas Toast.  The marrow was buttery and well salted, and the beef cheek marmalade reminded me of the bacon jam that I had had in the past.  It was both sweet and meaty and had some nice chewy chunks in it.  I was given a small spoon to scrape the bones and I was to eat the marrow on the bread with the marmalade and greens like an open-faced sandwich.  It was all very good and a little decadent and the beer that I had with it was strangely appropriate.  It was a Red from Local Option called Blood ov the Kings.

While it was dark inside and there was a wait to be seated, the food and drink was good as was the service and while the food menu was really good, I would return simply for the unusual beer list.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Parsons Chicken and Fish

For many years, there was a former hot dog stand type restaurant building, down the street from where I live that sat empty.  I was very excited to here that the owners of Longman & Eagle had bought the place and were going to turn it into a fried chicken and fish place.  Parson's Chicken & Fish opened at the beginning of June and has become a hipster mecca.  The small hot dog stand building is still there and will seat about 30 people between the booths and the bar but a large patio has been added in back that seats about another 180.  There is also a red 1970 El Camino with the Parson's logo (a circle with a crossed drumstick and fish skeleton) on both doors that sits off to the side by the large bike rack. While it was a nice day and it would have been nice to sit on the patio, the sitting is picnic tables which all seemed rather full so I sat inside at the bar.  The bar has a nice beer and liquor selection but what draws a lot of people is their Negroni Slushie Machine.  The room is small and painted white with red trim.  There are 4 booths along the front of the room and the bar seats another 6.  There are also a couple of Specials Chalkboards along one wall near the bar.  I had heard before I went that the chicken was something to be had but as the place also features fish on the menu, I wanted to figure out a way to do both (without ordering two entrees and feeling stuffed).  The menu was divided into Raw, Fresh, and Fried with a changing oyster special.  The raw featured sushi, the fresh was salads, grilled chicken, and ceviche, and fried featured fried chicken and fish with hush puppies and baccala fritters.  There were many things that sounded good but I decided to start with the Baccala Fritters.  These are a Portuguese street food favorite that consist of ground salt cod and potatoes made into balls with garlic confit, fried, and served with Lemon Aioli.  While it wasn't purely fried fish, it does have fish and it was like the best of fried fish and french fries.  It was crunchy and salty with a slightly fishy finish but it was fishy in a good way. and I really enjoyed it.

The Fried Chicken is Amish raised and comes in two pieces, a half chicken, a whole chicken, and a bucket which includes Texas Toast, and Cole Slaw.  As I was unsure of the size of the Baccala Fritters and I wanted Dessert, I decided to go small and ordered the Two Piece.  I was given a Drumstick and a Thigh.  Both pieces had a nice crunchy coating and the meat was very juicy (and hot!)  The Amish Chicken was very flavorful and surprisingly much less greasy than I would have expected.

For dessert, Parson's does sell Fry Cakes, which I am sure would be good, but they also recently started selling slices of pie from Bang Bang Pie Shop.  I have been to !Bang Bang! Pie Shop a few times and know that they make really good pie so I knew that it was going to be pie for dessert.  On the day that I went, the slice that they were selling was a Lemon Curd Pie with Whipped Cream and Fresh Blueberries.  The pie was like a less sour version of Key Lime Pie.  I like key lime pie but this was good as well.  The tartness of the blueberries went well with the pie and whipped cream goes with everything sweet.

I really enjoyed my dinner here and I will definitely be back.  The fried chicken is worth a trip but there are other things on the menu that demand investigation.  While the wait time at peak hours can be substantial, especially with a larger party, you can have a cocktail while waiting which certainly helps.  Parson's is certainly worth the wait.