Saturday, October 26, 2013

Found Kitchen and Social House

I don't often get to Evanston because while it is right next to Chicago, there is no really direct route for me to get there and it takes well over an hour to get there.  When I do travel to Evanston however, I do like to try out some of their restaurants.  While the restaurant scene in Evanston is smaller than that of Chicago, of course, it is active and does have some pretty notable restaurants and chefs.  I had heard a lot of buzz about the restaurant Found Kitchen and Social House so that's where I decided to go.  Found does have a very good pedigree.  The restauranteur, Amy Morton is the daughter of steakhouse king, Arnie Morton, and worked for many years at his namesake steakhouse before going off on her own.  She is also the sister of David Morton of DMK fame.  The chef at Found is Nicole Pederson, formerly of C-House and Lula Cafe.  With all of this history behind it, I was excited to try it out.  Located in downtown Evanston, Found takes no reservations so in order to avoid the line out the door that happens frequently at peak times, some planning is necessary.  I was going to be in Evanston relatively early so I was hoping to get there early to avoid the crowd.  I got to the restaurant a little after 5 pm on a Sunday and while many of the tables were already seated, there was still space at the bar so that's where I went.  The space has a stripped down, partially-finished look with antique brick walls and an unfinished ceiling over the dining area.  The bar has a large chalkboard overhead with inspirational quotes from a wide variety of famous people such as Jack Kerouac, WC Fields, Voltaire, and the Dalai Lama.  The furniture in the restaurant describes the restaurant as it was all found and are all mismatched.  With a variety of armchairs and couches (as well as the standard restaurant chairs) used for seating and side and coffee tables used for dining.  The candlesticks that were ubiquitous throughout the restaurant appeared very well used.  All of them had a large amount of melted wax cascading down from the candle stand.  While all of the furniture seemed to be mismatched and well used.  The silverware and table service seemed to be fairly uniform.  The menu is vegetable based and seasonal (although not necessarily vegetarian) and is divided into small plates, sandwiches, flatbreads, and a few large plates.  The small plates could act as an appetizer or as several small plates to compose a meal.  I decided to go the several small plates route (or in my case, 2) and started with a Quinoa and Poached Chicken Salad with Fennel, Feta, Arugula, and Olives.  This had a very fresh taste and texture with a nice crunch to the quinoa and a crispness to the arugula and fennel.  The feta tied the chicken to the arugula and fennel and with its tartness tied everything to the vinaigrette.  The quinoa had a nice crunch but it also had a nutty flavor that added to the dish the the olives which were finely sliced, provided a subtle and slightly bitter finish.

My other small plate was a Walleye and Goat Sausage Stew with Kale, Baby Turnips, and Cream.  To me, it sounded like kind of an odd combination (the walleye and goat sausage) but it really worked.  A lot of fresh fish that is cooked well has a relatively neutral flavor as was the case here so it didn't provide a lot of flavor as such but there was enough that it provided a significant textural element.  The goat sausage was skinless and was well spiced in addition to the gaminess that comes with goat.  The kale was wilted so while it didn't have the crispness that freshly picked kale, it did provide a nice vegetable flavor that tied well with the root vegetable flavor of the very tender baby turnips.  The cream added to everything and provided a nice depth of flavor for the finish.

For my dessert, I went a little decadent and got a Cinnamon Pound Cake with Butterscotch, Roasted Apples, and Butter Pecan Ice Cream.  It was sweet, a little spicy, hearty, and very definitely a fall dessert that was a good finish to what was otherwise a rather light dinner.  I could have gone light for dessert as well, but the combination of flavors looked too good to pass up and I really like butterscotch.

There is a very good reason that Found is a hit, even in a city with several other good restaurants.  The space is very friendly and homey and the food is very good.  While a good pedigree does not guarantee a good restaurant, in Amy Morton and Nicole Pederson's case they do well by their pedigree and have created a very good restaurant.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Little Goat Diner

What is your next step after opening and running a highly successful restaurant that pushes the boundaries using relatively common dishes and varying them by changing flavor of texture?  If you're Stephanie Izard, Executive Chef of Girl & the Goat, Winner of Top Chef, Season 4, and the 2013 Winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Great Lakes, you decide to open a diner.  While the food at a diner is generally simpler than that served at a fine dining restaurant, I would think that this may be even more difficult in some aspects.  The menu in a typical diner will be larger than that in a typical fine dining restaurant.  They are open longer and the entire menu is frequently available for the entire time that it is open.  A meal typically moves faster in a diner than in a fine dining restaurant.  All of these are on top of the fact that the menu at all diners are pretty typical, so much so, that you could call several items archetypes.  You may run into a problem with the clientele if you vary a standard diner dish too much.  While the dishes served here were spins on diner classics, they retain their essences.  Located on Randolph Street across the street from it's big sister, the Little Goat Diner (and adjoining bakery, Little Goat Bread) is a large space with a high ceiling and a skylight.  While it's look is dineresque, it is very definitely not a greasy spoon.  It does have some vintage wallpaper on the back wall but for the most part, the walls and counter are white.  The room is divided by two half-walls with a row of booths outside of each.  There are some two tops on the inside of the half-wall and a large communal table under the skylight in the middle of the room.  There is also a row of booths beside the wallpapered back wall and side window, and a row of tables at the front.  The counter runs from front to back along the side of the room opposite the side window behind which is the server station and the narrow kitchen.  The expediter has a very cool computerized tablet system mounted on the wall to keep track of orders.  With the large skylight, I am sure that in the daytime, the lighting in the dining room is bright enough but at night the lighting in the dining room is fairly dim except at the counter where I sat.  The extra light comes from the well-lighted kitchen.  The regular lighting is provided by dim hanging lights.  

There were several directions I could have gone for dinner.  I was not really interested in breakfast for dinner and while there were several things on the supper menu that sounded good, there were also some very good sounding burgers and sammiches so that is how I went.  I ordered a Tonkatsu Sandwich.  While a Tonkatsu sounds unlike anything you might find at a diner, it wasn't that much of a stretch from something standard you might find at a diner.  It was actually a Breaded Pork Cutlet with Asian BBQ Sauce, House Mayo, and Shredded Cabbage on White Bread.  It was Served with some pickled vegetables, Carrots, Onions, a Radish slice, and Hot Peppers on the side.  While I did eat the pickled vegetables on the side, they might have gone quite well on the sandwich.  I am generally not a fan of plain white bread but I do understand the logic of using it as this is what a diner might use.  The breading on the cutlet was crisp and held the juiciness of the pork which was also pretty tender.  The Asian BBQ Sauce was soy based so was fairly salty.  It also had a slight bite and some sweetness at the end.  The mayo took the edge off the salt and spice of the BBQ sauce and the cabbage provided a little crispness and slight vegetable flavor.  As a side for my sandwich, I ordered some Smoked Fries (which came a la carte).  I did think that the price for the fries was a little high, until I saw the order.  It was enormous.  The fries came in (and overflowed) what was essentially a cereal bowl.  The fries were crispy, salty, and like their name implied, had a smoky flavor on top of the good potato flavor that came from the potatoes.  I will frequently use ketchup on my fries and I did try some on these but I only used a little ketchup because they really didn't need it.

When you think of dessert at a diner, three things come to mind: pies, shakes, and sundaes.  The Little Goat had selections on their dessert menu that covered all three.  The dessert menu was also where the most creativity was found.  On the menu (among other things) was a Cookie Pie, a Smoked Pork and Toffee Crunch Shake, and a Cheez-It Sundae.  I was torn, but I finally decided to go with the Cheez-It Sundae.  This was built around a scoop of Peanut Butter Ice Cream surrounded by two scoops of Strawberry Ice Cream.  This was then topped with Caramel Sauce, Whipped Cream, and a large number of Chocolate-Covered Cheez-Its.  A Maraschino Cherry Cherry topped everything else off.  Without the Cheez-Its, this sundae wasn't too bad.  The ice cream and caramel were creamy, sweet, and flavorful and who doesn't like whipped cream with a cherry on top.  The chocolate-covered Cheez-Its added crunch, chocolate (what's not to like so far?) and a sweet-salty flavor along with the slightly cheesy flavor that Cheez-Its provides.

The Little Goat is loud but the staff is friendly and prompt and they do a good job of putting an interesting spin on standard diner fare while still maintaining the essence of diner food.  As the menu is huge, it will take several trips to explore the menu more thoroughly.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Glen Prairie

While you do have to travel further between them, there are some good restaurants that are located in the suburbs.  I went to visit friends in Lombard recently and we went to Glen Prairie which is located in the Crown Plaza Hotel in Glen Ellyn.  The space has elements of modern and classic with beam ceilings and hanging lights.  The tables are round and the chairs are padded and look to have some prairie style elements.  The restaurant specializes in local and seasonal cuisine.  Having said that, my appetizer was a bit of a stretch on that front.  I had Shrimp and Grits with Neuske's Bacon and a Honey Glaze.  I will grant that the grits, the 2 year aged cheddar that was used in the grits, the Neuske's Applewood Smoked Bacon, and the honey used for the glaze all very well could have been local, but the shrimp was definitely a salt water variety and Illinois is definitely not on the ocean.  I like shrimp and grits although I once had a dish at Mindy's Hot Chocolate that I now compare all Shrimp and Grits to.  While this dish had shrimp, grits, and bacon as shrimp and grits is expected to have, most dishes are buttery and served with a brown gravy.  Glen Prairie's shrimp and grits are buttery and cheesy but the honey glaze used makes the dish different enough that I couldn't really compare it to the other versions of shrimp and grits that I have had.  I will say that the dish was very good.  The grits were creamy, cheesy, and buttery, the shrimp was cooked perfectly allowing it to have a good chew without the rubberiness that results when shrimp are overcooked which is not uncommon.  The bacon was flavorful and chewy as I would expect of well cooked Neuske's bacon.  The homey glaze threw me off a little though because with most versions, they will go savory and this one went sweet.  The glaze did go well with the rest of the dish and brought out the sweetness in the bacon and shrimp.

For my entree, I went with the Espresso Rubbed Pork Tenderloin topped with Spicy Peach Chutney, and served with Whipped Sweet Potatoes and Caramelized Cauliflower.  The tenderloin was well cooked and juicy but the primary flavor of this was, like the shrimp and grits, sweet.  The espresso rub on the tenderloin did provide some moderating bitterness and the spicy chutney was a little spicy as should be expected but the whipped sweet potatoes and carmelized cauliflower contributed to the prevailing sweetness of the dish.  This was not just what I chose either.  While there did seem to be some savory dishes on the menu, it seemed if there was a way to bring out or emphasize sweetness, it would be done.  I can understand some logic to this because sweet is the first flavor that people learn and like, most people's palates do grow beyond being simply liking sweet and so I think that this plays things simple.  

I will make an exception for sweet for those things dessert.  Dessert should very definitely be sweet (although not simply sweet).  For my dessert I ordered a Creme Brulee served with Seasonal Berries which, at this time of year, were Blueberries and Raspberries.  The blueberries and raspberries were fresh and provided a little tartness and the the custard was creamy and sweet.  This would have been a great creme brulee if the crust had been evenly caramelized.  I like my creme brulees with a substantial crust and in the center it was definitely there but the edges were definitely on the thin side.  Overall it was good but it would have been great if they had gotten the crust even.

Overall, I did like my meal here.  It was good but not great and they seemed to take the simple route on most dishes by giving everything at least a sweet edge.  I like the fresh and seasonal theme and the restaurant has a nice look but if they could make improve the dishes by aiming for a more complex flavor profile.