Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Gaucho Steakhouse

Many Brazilian restaurants are very similar in style with the major differences coming in the meats that are served.  They look very nice and, for a single price, you have access to a great salad bar and many grilled meats that are served on skewers by servers in Gaucho outfits.  In general it is an exercise in gluttony and while there is a discount for those that are simply eating at the salad bar, I don't know that it is really worth the price.  We recently went to Gaucho Steakhouse in Northville, Michigan, which is near Detroit.  Like the Brazilian Steakhouses in Chicago, it is a large space in it's own building.  The entrance is large with a curved and glass backed waterfall to one side.  The lights are hanging and the inner walls have bullfighting murals.  The bar is large and sits near the entrance and the salad bar which has just about everything you might want is located in the center of the restaurant.  There is a semi-private dining room in the back for large parties where we had been seated in the past, but we were seated in the main dining room near the front of the restaurant this time. 
At everyone's place setting there was a two sided coaster, red on one side and green on the other.  As it might be expected, red means stop and green means go.  When we were seated, the coasters started in the red position.  This allowed people to go to the salad bar which is pretty impressive.  In addition to some very fresh vegetables, it also included Blue, Swiss, Cheddar, Mozzarella, and Parmesan Cheese, Ham, Salami, Tortellini and Risotto.  There was also Soup, Crab Salad, Lobster.  These were all very good, but the point of going to a Brazilian Steakhouse is to have the grilled meat and salad wastes stomach space. 
When a diner was ready, they flip the coaster to the green side and the gauchos begin arriving.  There were thirteen meats on the menu.  Most of it was beef, but there was also pork, lamb, chicken and shrimp.  I started out with Chicken and Lamb which were juicy and very flavorful.  I then went on to the pork shrimp and many cuts of beef.  While I did try most of the meats, I did miss the Linguica Sausage, the Lamb chops, and the Ribeye.  It was all very good but because it was essentially a moving buffet and it was tough to photograph everything.
I finished the meat part of the meal with the Top Sirloin.  This is their signature meat and well worth trying.  It was tender and juicy with a nice garlic flavor and it was a great way to finish the savory portion of the meal.
After the salad and the meat, we were pretty full, but many of us had saved enough for dessert.  They had a pretty extensive dessert list.  I went with a classic dessert that I thought went well with the meat, an Apple Cobbler with Ice Cream.  The Apples were baked in a Caramel Sauce with a Sugar Dough and were served with Crushed Pecans and the Ice Cream and it was a great finish to a great meal.      

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Siena Tavern - Brunch

While the last time I went to Siena Tavern was during brunch, I did not go for brunch so I decided to make it the location of my brunch together for this month.  The Italian-ish restaurant in river north run by Executive Chef Fabio Viviani is spacious with both modern and vintage elements done in a siena color scheme.  The restaurant is in an office building and the outer walls are tinted glass looking out to the street.  Despite being located in an office building though, the space does look friendly and the waitstaff are very helpful. As far as the food was concerned, I continued my habit of trying both sweet and savory starting with the Monkeybread for the table.  Our jaws dropped when this arrived because it just looked ridiculous.  The sweet sticky bread was topped with Hazelnut Cream, Hazelnuts, and was sitting in a thick, buttery caramel.  It was amazing and despite the size of it, it was pretty big, it disappeared quickly. 

For my main course, I went with a hash, as I frequently do, but this was a major variation on the standard hash.  It was a Lobster Hash with Poached Eggs, Lobster (obviously), Caramelized Vegetables (Asparagus, Onions, and Carrots), House Cured Pancetta, and Truffled Hollandaise Sauce.  The entire dish was very flavorful.  The lobster was sweet and tender and came in large pieces.  The eggs were poached perfectly with solid and firm whites and liquid yolks.  The vegetables were tender and had a caramelized sweetness.  The pancetta was firm and flavorful with a sweet pork flavor and the hollandaise sauce was great.  It was creamy and buttery with a significant amount of pepper and enough truffle to give it a good truffle funk without overwhelming it.

This brunch was a favorite of mine and I will probably repeat it in the future because many of the people that expressed interest had to cancel at the last minute and this is a place that deserves wide acclaim.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Fuji Sushi

I like sushi, but I will admit that it isn't for everyone.  It takes some taste adaptation and you have to get past the fact that much of the fish is raw.  This is not the case for all sushi and you can, in fact, have a great sushi meal where you have no raw fish (or fish in general) at all.  Most people that have come to like sushi though, have gotten past the fact that many of their choices are going to be with raw fish.  In Midland, there have been places that have served maki rolls for years, but it has only been recently that a sushi restaurant, Fuji Sushi, has opened up.  I have, for years, tried to convince my family that sushi was good, but when the only examples that they have had experience with have been mediocre maki, it's a really hard sell.  My youngest sister is very open to new culinary experiences despite the fact that she thought that she disliked sushi.  One of her friends convinced her to come with her to Fuji Sushi where she discovered that she did like sushi.  She prefers maki (rolls) to nigiri (raw fish with rice) or sashimi (raw fish), but it is a start.  Knowing that I like sushi, she invited me out with a friend, her husband, and my parents.  From the outside, it doesn't look like much, occupying a store front in a small strip mall.  Inside, it really isn't that much more impressive with white walls with a cherry blossom tree design near the rear of the dining room.  There are booths on one side and tables occupying the rest of the space.  The sushi bar is in the back of the dining room on the right side.  The menu has a pretty good list of maki with the usual suspects showing up on the sashimi and nigiri lists (the usual suspects being a lot of tuna, salmon, shrimp, octopus, and eel).  They also had a variety of appetizers and non-sushi items for those that are yet averse to sushi.  I started things out with a standard appetizer found at many sushi restaurants, Spicy Tuna Tartare.  It was served with a spicy sauce and topped with Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe) which, while salty, is more used for texture than flavoring.  The presentation was nice as were the flavor and texture and the tobiko provided a nice crunchy contrast.  The fish tasted very fresh which tells me that they have a good supply chain which is especially important for inland sushi restaurants.
For my main course, I went with the Sushi Deluxe plate which featured 10 pieces of assorted nigiri and a tuna roll.  The choices made for the plate were made by the sushi chef which I actually prefer because he knows what is best on any given day.  The fish was presented in a line on top of a coconut leaf.  In front of it was a shrimp and the tuna roll.  Wasabi and pickled ginger were presented to the side for seasoning and palate cleansing.  The tuna rolls were simple with simply the tuna, the rice, and seaweed to wrap it.  It was simple but good and allowed me to get the fresh taste of the tuna.  The shrimp was tender and obviously very fresh because it had none of the bad flavor that comes when shrimp gets old.  As far as the rest of my nigiri, I was served white tuna, yellowtail tuna, salmon and more tuna.  It was all fresh and had a good texture and taste, but I preferred the rich, fatty flavor of the white tuna best.

I am glad that a sushi restaurant has opened up in Midland, I hope to return sometime when I am in town.  While it isn't a great, high end sushi place, it is good for what it does.   

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Umami Burger

We all learned in elementary school that there were four tastes:  sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.  It has been acknowledged in recent years, however, that there is a fifth taste, umami, which was discovered in Japan about 100 years ago.  Umami is a savory flavor that provides depth of flavor in things like meat, mushrooms, tomatoes, or sharp cheese.  Recently, a small California-based burger chain called Umami Burger opened in Wicker Park.  There spin, as it might be guessed, is to create especially umami burgers.  In addition to the burger, ingredients such as truffles, parmesan cheese, bacon, tomatoes, and onions.  Everything is served a la carte, so while you can get fries with your burger, you have to order them separately.  While I did say that everything is a la carte, they do have a combo called the Trust Us Combo.  It comes with a burger, fries, and a drink (beer or soda, depending on the combo you order), but you don't get to choose which burgers, fries, or drink you're getting.  There were many things that looked good on the menu so I didn't think it was a big stretch to order it.  The Fries were not quite thin enough to be called Shoestring Potatoes, but they were Thin Fries.  Ordering them a la carte, you could get them as is or Umamified for an extra charge.  The choices for Umamification were to be Truffled with Truffle Cheese and Truffle Salt, Smothered (Poutine Style) with Short Rib and Brown Gravy, Make 'Em Manly with Beer Cheese, Bacon, and Onion Strings, or Sloppy with Lentils, Mushrooms, Tomatoes, Crema, Cheddar, Jalapeno, and Onion Strings.  With the Combo (or at least with my combo), I got plain fries.  I was a little disappointed at first because, while I like fries, the Umamified Fries looked much better to me.  With the fries though, came a bucket with dipping sauces and spoons to try them in.  Featured in the sauces were their House Ketchup which had Soy and Jalapeno flavors in addition to the standard sweet tomatoes, a Hot and Spicy Sauce which was exactly that, a Garlic Ranch, and a Truffle Aioli.  It was fun to try the separate flavors, but my favorites were the Ketchup and the Truffle Aioli.
For my burger, I actually got the burger I was looking at most closely.  It was called the Manly Burger and it had Beer Cheddar, Bacon Lardons, Smoked Salt, Onion Strings, House Ketchup and Mustard Spread.  The bun, like on all Umami Burgers was "tattooed" with a U.  The burger was very good.  It was savory obviously, but it was also juicy, salty,  and the bacon and onion strings add some crunch.
After the combo, I decided to try one of the Ice Cream Sandwiches that they carried.  They carry Coolhaus Architecturally Inspired Sandwich Cookies.  I got a Cara-Mia Lehrer, Salted Caramel Ice Cream between two Snickerdoodle Cookies.  This was really good.  The cookies are soft, chewy, and sweet, with a nice cinnamon flavor, and the salted caramel ice cream was creamy and the perfect combination of salty and sweet.  It was a good finish to the meal.

While the burgers at Umami burger are good, they are kind of one note, focusing on umami to the neglect of everything else.  As far as how they compare to the other burger bars in Chicago, they are not the best, but they are very definitely not the worst.  I would return, but it isn't a place that I would make a special trip for.  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Brasserie St. Feuillien Beer Dinner at Trenchermen

After I get to know a restaurant, it's fun to go to a special dinner that they are hosting to see what else they can do and/or how they handle different pairings.  I have been to Trenchermen several times including the recent Icelandic Dinner and really enjoy it.  They recently hosted Belgian Brewery Brasserie St. Feuillien (pronounced Foo-Yen) for a beer dinner, pairing their food with St. Feuillien's beers.  I may have heard of Brasserie St. Feuillien, but they were definitely not on my active radar.  While I didn't know much about them, I knew that I like Belgian-style beers and after a little research, I was interested in trying their beer, so I bought a ticket and attended the dinner.  We were seated in the same elevated area in the front of the main dining room where we were served the Icelandic dinner.  I actually sat in the same place I did before because it seemed like a good place to view the interactions and happenings in the dining room.  Unfortunately, this was also the night in which my phone, which is also my everyday camera, started acting up and while I did try to document every course in the dinner, some of them did not take, so while I have memories and descriptions, I do not have pictures for everything.  Dinner began with a drink, a Brasserie St. Feuillien Grand Cru, a Belgian Strong Pale Ale with an effervescent character, a light dry flavor, and a great head.  It served the same purpose as Champagne in a dinner, to open the palate. 
After our palates were sufficiently opened we were presented with our Amuse Bouche, Pickle Tots with Red Onion Yogurt, Caviar, and a garnish of Fresh Dill presented with the caviar.  This was a great start.  Every element exploded with flavor.  The pickles were breaded and fried but still maintained a strong pickle flavor while still having a crispy exterior.  The red onion yogurt had both the yogurt tartness which went with the tartness of the pickles as well as an onion flavor/smell that could be detected before even testing it.  The caviar was salty as caviar is and the dill brought it into the dish.

The next course was Chicken Fat Roasted Carrots with Smoked Fried Chicken and an Apricot Sauce which was served with a St. Feuillien Saison.  The dish was topped with a "chip" of Chicken Skin.  This was a good and hearty dish with both the chicken and carrots served as large chunks and a strong aroma of chicken fat.  This could have actually been a negative thing, but it played positively with a rich chicken flavor.  The carrots were tender and flavorful with a richness from the chicken fat and the chicken itself was very flavorful and spiced well.
The next course was a seafood course which was again very flavorful.  It started with Olive Oil Poached Shrimp in a Lobster Curry Broth and served with Quinoa and Herbs.  The beer pairing was St Feuillien's Tripel which emphasized the sweetness in the dish.  The shrimp was tender and tasted very fresh.  The lobster broth had a rich lobster flavor which went well with the shrimp but the curry added a spicy flavor which contributed to it's complex flavor.  The quinoa added some texture and the herbs connected through the curry of the broth.

For the entree, we were served Heirloom Duroc Pork, Grains, and Malt Roasted Vegetables which was paired with Green Flash Belgian Coast IPA, a collaboration beer they made with St. Feuillien.  The pork was tender, well prepared and flavorful with the grains adding a crunch to the dish and the vegetables adding additional flavors.
Our final course was, of course, dessert and it was a thing of beauty.  It was called a Biere a Misu, a play on tiramisu, and it consisted of a cake with Mascarpone, Golden Raisins, and Chicory.  It was bitter, sweet, and rich with a variety of textures from creamy to crunchy.  It was served with a St. Feuillien Speciale, their seasonal rich and sweet holiday beer.  This was a fitting end to a meal that I really enjoyed.  I enjoy trenchermen and I will definitely return for future special dinners.   

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Halloween Offal Dinner at Table, Donkey, and Stick

Maintaining my reputation as a foodie does take some work.  If people consider myself a relative expert on the local food and restaurant scene, I feel obligated to try expand my knowledge.  This means having an open mind and trying things that other people may find a little off putting.  Many restaurants will play to the season and present things that may be a little macabre or gruesome sounding.  In that vein, Table, Donkey, and Stick, for the second year has offered a 6 course Offal Dinner for Halloween.  I hadn't gone to it last year, I have liked the offal that I have tried before, it fit with the holiday, and I like Table, Donkey, and Stick, so I figured that they could make an interesting dinner with the various entrails of butchered animals.  Offal is simply the internal organs and entrails of a butchered animal.  As we eat a wide variety of animals and the classification of offal covers a very wide range, I could see this going anywhere.  Of those things that I have tried that could be considered offal, I have liked many, but there are a lot of things (like hearts, brains, or testicles) that I have not tried, so I figured that there were going to be a few things that were going to be new to my palate.  Things immediately started out with new flavors with a Veal Brain Custard with Arugula, Veal Fries (Testicles), and a Lemon Aioli.  This was actually very good.  The brain custard was very light.  It did have the irony flavor of those organ meats that might have a lot of blood flowing through them, but that flavor was actually pretty subtle.  Brains are also pretty fatty, so it had a rich flavor.  The arugula was fresh and crisp and added a lemony pepper flavor which also went well with the aioli.  The veal fries were interesting.  They tasted good, but the thing that they reminded me of most were very good skinless hot dogs.  The first course was a success for me.  It introduced me to a couple of things that are well outside my comfort zone and I really liked it, so I was set up for whatever they planned on presenting to me next.
For the next course, we went to seafood with Fried Shrimp Heads, Monkfish Liver Mousse, and Fennel.  I had had shrimp heads before and had sucked the innards out and have liked the monkfish that I had had before, so I was confident of this dish.  I had never had fried shrimp heads fried before and I had also never had monkfish liver, so it was going to be a new experience.  I liked the monkfish liver mousse.  It was smooth, creamy, and had a nice, rich flavor.  The fennel was fresh and crisp with a sweet and slight licorice flavor.  The shrimp heads, I wasn't so sure about.  I like shrimp which is what it tasted like, but the frying seemed to concentrate the flavor.  When eaten together with the mousse and the fennel it wasn't so bad, but by itself the flavor was a bit overwhelming.
The next course also had some familiarity to it.  It was a Foie 'Nduja with Greens and a Grilled Baguette.  I have had 'Nduja before, which is simply a spreadable salami.  I have also had foie gras which is fattened duck (or goose) liver.  I am not sure however, if the foie used in the 'Nduja was of the gras variety.  I have also never had foie 'Nduja.  This dish was simple and it wasn't bad, but it did need some work.  The 'nduja was spicy and flavorful, but it wasn't smooth and didn't spread exceptionally well.  The greens were limp, but it felt like that is how they were supposed to be.  They were fresh and flavorful and the baguette was crisp.  If the 'nduja was a little more spreadable, this could have been a very good dish.

I could also say that there was some familiarity with the next dish, but that would be a stretch.  I was served a Lamb Heart Tartare with Beets, a Potato Nest, and a Quail Egg Yolk.  I could say that I've had lamb before, and I have had tartares of many different kinds which are frequently served with egg yolks.  I have also had beets and potato nests many times.  The X Factor in this is the fact that the lamb is specifically lamb heart, which I had no familiarity with.  If would have had to guess about eating a heart, I would consider the fact that it is a muscle, so it might be kind of fibrous like the other muscles that we eat (any other kind of meat we regularly eat).  It is also an organ so it has a lot of blood flow and might have a bit of an irony flavor.  Lamb itself is kind of gamy, so I didn't have a lot of hope for this dish.  It came out and I saw that the heart had been roughly chopped so the texture of the meat could be seen.  As far as flavor was concerned, it did have a have a lamb flavor with some iron undertones.  The beets added an earthiness and some sweetness, and the potato nest mellowed things out.  The dish wasn't bad, which is actually better than I expected.  I might have preferred it more however, if the heart was chopped more finely.
The last savory dish had me wondering.  I wasn't really apprehensive, because I knew that it could be eaten, but I thought that there might be a texture issue that the chef would have had to work through.  I had seen Pigs Ears sold at the butcher shop that I go to for pork belly, but when I think of them, I think of them as chew toys for dogs.  I was served a Pigs Ear Terrine with Pickled Pigs Ear, Mustard Seeds, and Mustard Sauce.  The meat was thinly sliced and looked to have been formed by being pressed into a pan (which is how a terrine is formed).  The greens, mustard, and pickled pigs ear were presented over the three thin slices and the mustard sauce was presented under the terrine slices.  This was actually one of my favorite dishes.  The terrine slices tore apart easily if you went with the grain.  It was served cold and the meat, while fairly tender, also had a bit of a gristly crunch.  This was a good thing because it provided some textural variety.  It also had a very definite pork flavor.  The pickled ear was very tender and had a sour flavor that went well with the mustard.
 After five dishes that were fair to very good, I wondered about dessert.  In retrospect, I should have passed on the dessert even though it came with dinner.  I was served Chicken Liver Malt Ice Cream with Chicken Skin Toffee.  I will say that it was not terrible, but it was my least favorite dish.  The chicken skin toffee was actually pretty good.  It actually had a sweet and salty flavor that was both fudgy and crispy.  It was similar to a chocolate covered potato chip.  The ice cream wasn't terrible when eaten with the toffee, but by itself, the liver flavor just lingered, and it was not a pleasant aftertaste.

As it was Halloween, dinner finished with a treat which could also be classified as offal.  We were given a Halloween Treat Bag with Caramel Corn Chicharrones.  I am generally not a fan of popcorn because it feels like I'm eating styrofoam and while chicharrones are not bad, they don't really excite me, so I don't generally go out of my way to eat them.  Breaking up the chicharrones to popcorn size and putting caramel on them though was a win.  They were sweet and crunchy with a slight salty pork undertone and I really enjoyed them.

Overall, this dinner was a win.  It was thematically appropriate, I got to try several things I had not previously tried, and even though there were some things that I didn't care for, there were several things that I did like, and I know now what may not work for me.     

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Dawson - Brunch

My monthly brunch tour took me to The Dawson in October.  I had been to The Dawson for dinner and really liked it.  They have a vintage look and serve seasonal gastropub fare.  I noticed, when I came for dinner, that they had a pretty extensive cocktail list and having tried a few then, I saw that they were well versed in cocktail making.  At many places I have dined at for brunch, there are usually two or three, Bloody Marys and Mimosas being the standard with the occasional Bellini thrown in.  The Dawson had about 10 cocktails specifically for brunch plus a menu page for there house cocktails.  While I started things off with a very good cup of coffee, I decided to order a cocktail because it seemed that they put some effort in their creation and were not simply an afterthought.  I ordered a drink called a Ten & Six which came in a teacup with a "teabag label" tied to the handle.  The drink had a reddish tea color with an ice cube floating in it and was composed of Death's Door Gin, Tariquet Armagnac, Cocchi Rosa, Oloroso Sherry, Cranberry Apple Tea, and Lemon.  This was a great brunch drink even if it offered all day.  It very much has the style and flavor characteristics of tea.  It is very herbal and bitter, with some fruitiness and tart flavor and was very nice for sipping with breakfast.
As I make my own bacon, I am always interested in what other people/venues do with theirs.  The Dawson makes their own bacon and they had four types on their list.  Luckily, they also offered a flight, so all could be tried (and shared if so desired).  I ordered a flight for the table and saw, when it arrived, that it was a beautiful thing.  The four bacons were arranged on a wooden cutting board and there was more than enough to share.  All of the bacons were well cooked and at least had a crispy crust.  The bacons presented were an Allspice Jowl Bacon, Blackstrap Molasses Bacon, Maple Bacon served slab style, and Hungarian Bacon.  I tried all of the bacons on their own so I was sure I could get a good sense of their flavor.  Having said that, it probably made a difference in what order they were eaten and I may have eaten them in the wrong order.  The first bacon I tried was the Allspice Jowl Bacon.  It was cut into the smallest pieces and was very crispy.  It also had a nice spicy flavor as well as a definite pork flavor.  I next tried the Hungarian Bacon, which was cut into large thick slices.  It had a crisp exterior, but was still chewy and it had a very spicy flavor centered on Paprika and Garlic.  This was probably my favorite bacon after I tried it because its flavor was so emphatic.  I next tried the Blackstrap Molasses Bacon and this is where I may have erred.  This bacon was also sliced and had a crispy exterior, but it wasn't as thick as big or thick as the Hungarian Bacon.  This bacon did taste of molasses, but it was subtle, and after the flavors of the jowl bacon and the Hungarian Bacon, it was kind of lacking.  I wanted to like it, but it didn't stand up to either of the bacons I had just tried.  The last piece was the slab of Maple Bacon, and for this one, the flavor and texture were there.  It also had a crispy exterior, but the interior was tender and meaty.  It also had a very good maple flavor.  Overall, all of the bacons were made well, but my favorites were the Hungarian Bacon followed by the Jowl, the Maple Slab, and the Molasses Bacons.
For my main course, as I had already gone savory with the bacon, I decided to go to the sweet side.  I ordered the French Toast Terrine which was made with Figs, Pistachios, and Breakfast Sausage.  It was served with a Fig and Bitter Green Salad, Whipped Ricotta, sprinkled with Powdered Sugar, and Blis Maple Syrup on the side.  I liked every part of this, but I don't know if it completely came together.  the French toast was very good and flavorful and I thought that the figs and pistachios went well together with it.  The breakfast sausage was pressed into the French Toast and when it was encountered, it was good, but it generally played no part in the dish because I didn't encounter it in most bites.  The whipped Ricotta took the place of butter and while it was good and well prepared, there may have been a little too much.  The maple syrup and the salad were both very good as they were.  Overall, while this was good, it may have been better if there was a little less ricotta and more breakfast sausage.

I did enjoy myself here.  The space is vintage and classic, the service was good, they very definitely have a handle on their cocktail program, and despite my picking, the food was good.  Between The Dawson and its sister restaurant, The Gage, I like both, but I may still prefer The Gage.  The Gage, though, also has the advantage of location.  Given an opportunity to return to The Dawson for a meal, I would surely return.             

Sunday, November 9, 2014


While I like Evanston, I don't go there often because for me, it's kind of far and it takes some planning to get there.  I do make a point, though, to make a trip at least once a year for the Chicago Humanities Festival.  There are many cool restaurants there and since I will already be there, I make a point to try out a restaurant that I have not yet tried.  This year, the restaurant was Boltwood, an American restaurant named after the Freshman wing of Evanston Township High School by Executive Chef and Evanston native, Brian Huston.  Located in downtown Evanston, it was actually a little difficult to locate because it occupies the bottom floor of an office building and the sign is pretty unobtrusive.  The outer walls are glass as would be expected of an office building and the interior space is pretty open with the bar to the right of the room and the semi-open kitchen is in the back left corner.  The floor and tables are brown, and the walls that aren't windows are off white.  I arrived relatively early (on a Saturday night) and the place was already pretty busy so I sat at the bar.  I started out with some Popcorn, which is Boltwood's bar snack.  When I was asked if I wanted any, I told my bartender that I really didn't care for popcorn, but I would try it.  He told me to hold on to that thought and that it was addictive.  The popcorn arrived overflowing a cereal bowl sized bowl.  It was warm and tender and the bartender was right, it was very addictive.  It was the best popcorn I have ever had.  It was light and buttery with the right amount of truffle salt.  It had a salty flavor with a truffle funky finish.  I ended up eating about half of the bowl until it got cool and a little stiff (like most popcorn).
While I was enjoying the popcorn, I ordered a drink which gave me some more time to peruse the menu.  When drinking cocktails, my tastes tend to run toward gin.  The gin drink on the menu was called the Silver Lining and contained City of London Gin, Egg White, Velvet Falernum, and Grapefruit.  It was herbal, as most gin drinks are, with bitter and sour flavors and a very light foam head from the Egg Whites.  It was a very good drink and it kind of reminded me of a Last Word. 
The menu at Boltwood is divided into Bar Snacks, Meat and Fish, and Vegetables.  The menu is very much Farm-to-Table, meaning that it is fresh, seasonal, and local with very little waste in those products used.  As Chef Brian Huston worked under Chef Paul Kahan for many years, last as Chef de Cuisine at the Publican, a restaurant that focuses very much on local and seasonal.  I started things off with Grilled Brun-Uusto Cheese with La Quercia Prosciutto, Green Figs, Fig Jam and Arugula. The figs and the prosciutto brought a sweet flavor but the prosciutto was also savory which tied it to the grilled and bready flavor of the cheese.  The arugula brought a slightly sour and peppery finish and everything brought a different texture to enjoy.
The next course to arrive was the Grilled Delicata Squash with Black Garlic and Caperberry Gremolata.  I don't know that I have ever had Delicata Squash before but it was good.  It did taste generally, like many other squashes, but the flavor was also lighter and more delicate as the name suggests.  Gremolata is an herb condiment typically using lemon zest, parsley, and garlic.  The gremolata used in this dish had all of these things using black garlic instead of regular garlic, which is less pungent and has an additional caramel molasses flavor.  The caperberries, added a sour pickled floral flavor similar to that of capers but lighter.  Overall the dish was very flavorful, but it was also very light and delicate.
For my main course, I went with Dry Aged Duck Breast, Forest Mushrooms, Cipollini Onions and Dried Lemons.  I live duck and this duck was done very well.  The aging made it more tender and concentrated the flavor.  There were many mushrooms that added an earthy flavor.  The onions were sweet and tender and every bite gave a lemony flavor.
Having enjoyed my meal so far, I had to at least look at the dessert menu.  Looking at it, there were several dishes that interested me, so I asked my server for recommendations, she made a couple of recommendations, but then she said the magic words, "If you're adventurous, you should try the Thai Tea Float, with Chai Ice Cream, and Tapioca Pearls."  I was sold immediately, because most of the time I love flavors that will challenge me.  The dessert came out in two glasses with the tea, tapioca pearls, and ice cream in one glass and a glass of Soda Water on the side to dissolve the ice cream and to add a nice fizzy head.  The tapioca pearls were filled with beet juice which gave the tea a very red color.  I like Chai tea and this is what the ice cream tasted like.  When the soda water was added, it foamed everything up, but it was much less sweet than I had expected.  This was not a bad thing, it actually tasted very good, and it reminded me of a Boston Cooler.

I enjoyed my dinner here.  While the space is pretty low key, the food is very good as was the service.  Both bartenders were very friendly and knowledgeable about the menu and were able to give me good recommendations and answer my questions.  I will definitely keep Boltwood in mind for a future trip to Evanston.



Sunday, November 2, 2014

Trenchermen - Icelandic Cookbook Dinner

I like special dinners.  It allows restaurants to do something outside their usual areas of expertise or introduces something different.  It also allows me to try something different.  Special dinners are even better if the restaurant is notable to begin with.  In many cases, restaurant industry people will come both to try something new and to network.  I went to Trenchermen recently for a cookbook release dinner.  Icelandic Chef, Gunnar Karl Gislason, of Dill in Reykjavik, who was releasing North:  The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland.  We would be served a four course dinner, family style, with pairings.  I was seated with the parents of the Trenchermen Executive Chef and a couple of restaurant industry people (He worked for the Frontera Group with franchisees to maintain Frontera quality standards and she worked for Moet & Chandon).  It was interesting to talk with them to hear about things behind the scenes.  Our dinner started with a drink.  It was a drink that used many Icelandic liquors (plus Cava) that I was unfamiliar with, but it was good.   It was called Islenski Vor, Birkir, and Jurtir Cocktail and it had Salmiakki Dala Fernet, Birkir Snaps, Lemon, and Cava.  Fernet is a potable bitter, Snaps is Schnapps, and Cava is an Italian sparkling wine.  It was bitter, sweet, and sour with bubbles.  It was a sipping drink and it was a nice start.
Our first course was a couple of Amuse Bouches.   On the right, we were served Potatoes, Cabbage, and Spicy Sausage served on paper.  The potatoes were small, bite size and tender, the sausage was ground and the cabbage was on top.  It was spicy, sour and tasted very good.  The other Amuse was Crispy Pork, Egg Creme, and Rye Bread.  The crispy pork was a chicharron with egg cream (similar to an aioli) and topped with rye crumbs.  It was crunchy, tangy, and flavorful and while both courses were outside things that I eat regularly, the flavors were familiar enough to easily enjoy.
For our first official course, we were served a bowl of Winter Dried Catfish, with Pickled and Raw Root Vegetables (Potatoes, Radishes, Parsnips, and Turnips), Burned Butter and Dill.  The vegetables were crisp and there was a nice dill flavor.  The dish was different, but it was like a fresh potato salad with a lot of dried catfish that was shredded and reminded me of Japanese Bonito Flakes.  The fish was salty and flavorful, but not exceptionally fishy and added to the "potato salad".
Our entree was served individually and it was a lot of beef.  The dish was Aged Beef, Dried Beef, Mashed Potatoes, Celeriac, and Berries.  This was probably my favorite dish, with savory and sweet elements, and a variety of textures.  The aged beef was tender, the mashed potatoes were creamy, the dried beef was thinly sliced and like jerky.
Dessert felt very Nordic to me.  It was Apples, with Caramel, Creme Fraiche, Oatmeal, Porter Bread, and Hazelnuts.  It was like a deconstructed apple crisp and I really enjoyed it.  It was simple, relatively familiar, and a very good finish to a an adventurous dinner.  I had a good meal with some interesting people and really enjoyed myself.  I will definitely go to another themed dinner here.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


I first visited Moto about five years ago and was blown away.  At the time, there were only a couple of restaurants in Chicago that explored the bounds of what was called Molecular Gastronomy, using science to deconstruct and reconstruct, dishes and flavors.  While both restaurants took their work as culinary tour guides very seriously, Moto went about it with a sense of whimsy, starting with an edible menu and presenting a series of courses that really didn't look like what you might expect them to.  For example, a popular dish was a Cuban Sandwich that was presented as a partially smoked Cuban Cigar.  The entire dinner was filled with a sense of magic and whimsy and there was a sense of wonder about each dish.  For a long time it was my favorite dining experience.  When I found that one of my friends had never been to Moto and really wanted to go, I happily agreed to be his dining partner.  When we arrived, we were seated by the general manager, who I had actually met, a few weeks prior at a benefit for Common Threads.  He took care of us very well for the rest of the night.  When we were seated, a terrarium full of microgreens was brought over and sat with us with little explanation.  I suspected that it would be used som time during the dinner, but I would have to wait and see.
As I mentioned earlier, when I first came to Moto, the first course was the edible menu.  At the time it was a pita cracker with edible paper and vegetable ink.  Moto still starts things off with an edible menu of sorts.  They called it a Tasting of the Tasting Menu and we were presented a plate with 13 small bites representing our 13 other courses in our meal.  They were not entire courses of course, but representations of the major elements of each course.  It was fun tasting our way through the tasting menu and it helped to build anticipation for what was going to come next.  After we were presented with our edible menus, we were then presented with a personalized menu laser etched on thin wood that we could take home 9and which would at least tell us the name of what was coming next).
The next course was called Grow Room and it's where the centerpiece came into play.  We were presented with a beautiful Bison Tartare.  Our server (the manager) then came over, opened the terrarium, and trimmed the greens which were served over the tartare.  The first bite revealed that somehow, a very nice (and light) vinaigrette had been added to the greens which provided some brightness to the dish.  I would say that it was a great start except that the actual start was the menu.
I found the next course when it was presented to us, Radish, to be visually arresting, and it was one of those dishes that had me asking, "how do I eat this?"  It was a clear glass tray, on top of which was a clear glass plate on which were served a variety of Radishes, Sunchokes, Caviar, and a Mint Leaf over Aerated Hollandaise Sauce.  It did help when we were told to mix everything together and try to get some caviar in every bite.  The Hollandaise Sauce was like a pudding, the radishes and sunchokes were very fresh and crisp, and the caviar provided some salt.  It was a very good dish and I liked it a lot.
The next course brought the sense of smell into play.  It was called Flavors of the Ocean and was presented on a glass tray over seaweed.  There was a Sliced Scallop in the center of the plate with some White and Green Seaweeds, Fried Tapioca, Fish Chips, and a White Seafood Sauce.  For whatever reason, I didn't have a problem attacking this and I went about trying various things on the platter until my platter was clean.  It was interesting to try the different flavors individually and in various combinations and it actually reminded me of the Duck course at Alinea with 60 accompaniments that we were meant to try randomly.

Looking at the menu, I saw that the next course was called Which Came First? and I assumed that it was a chicken and egg course of some sort.  While I was right, it was nothing that I expected and would never have guessed.  We were presented with a piece of wood with a depression holding an opened eggshell behind which was a small metal rod with an alligator clip holding a Fried Cockscomb.  Inside the eggshell was an Egg Custard over which were Shaved Black Truffles.  We were told to unmount the cockscomb and dip it into the custard.  I did that, but I also tried both elements individually and while they were very good together, they were also very good separately.  The cockscomb was like a chicharron, the egg custard was very creamy and slightly salty, and the black truffle provided a nice funky flavor to everything.
After the chicken, our next course was Beans Almondine.  Beans with Almonds is a relatively common combination but this definitely stretched things.  It was an Almond Panna Cotta framed by Garlic Tuiles and topped with several different types of Beans, Garlic Sprouts, and English Peas.  It looked relatively simple but the flavors were pretty complex and it was very good.
From a very simple, almost zen like presentation, we went to chaos.  Having said that, despite the fact that it was chaotic, it made sense that it was chaotic. The dish was called Fallen Log and it was designed to look like a forest floor.  There were a variety of Mushrooms, Broccoli, Spinach, and a Jerky Log.  It was very savory, very good, and reminded me of a dish that I had the first time I dined here.  It also was a mushroom dish with a forest floor presentation, but it was a very different presentation.
After the complexity of the mushroom dish, we then went back to another very simple dish.  Called Grilled Goat, that is exactly what it was.  It was four different cuts of goat on a grill.  From left to right we had Goat Tenderloin, Goat Belly, Goat Shoulder, and Goat Sausage.  The cuts were small, only a couple of bites each, but it was enough to get a good taste of each, which were all very good.  All of the cuts were juicy and flavorful but I think I favored the goat belly most.
Reading the menu, we saw that the next course was called Thyme Capsule.  It was obviously a play on words involving thyme but we were curious as to how it would play out.  With that, we were presented with a wooden box with Moto branded on the top.
When we opened the box  we were presented with skewers of Pork Belly and Lamb Belly on a bed of fresh Thyme.  The bellies were both very good.  They were juicy, flavorful, and tender, but the best part of this dish actually was the smell of the fresh thyme.
From simple we went back to complex, chaotic, and a little confusing.  It was called Sus Scrofa which gave nothing to us.  We could tell it was a meat course but were still kind of clueless.  It turns out that Sus Scrofa is the scientific name for Wild Boar which was hunted to order at a ranch in Texas.  The dish came with a Roasted Tomatillo and Jalapeno Reduction, Red Mole Powder, Ancho and Guajillo Chiles, Chicken Skin, Puffed Wild Rice, and Boar Jerky.  It was tangy, spicy and very good.  While it wasn't a pretty dish, the taste made up for it.
For the final savory course we were served a course called Bird's Nest.  I figured that it was going to be a poultry course of some sort.  I was wrong.  It looked like a small bird's nest on a bed of twigs and dried leaves.  The "nest" though actually had nothing to do with birds and the presentation took me back to the first time I came to Moto and nothing looked like what it actually was.  The nest was actually Dried Beef with Malabar Spinach and it was a one bite dish that we ate with our hand.  It was clean, simple, and a very nice finish to the savory side of the meal. 
Generally, in larger tasting menus, after the savory courses and before dessert, a palate cleanser, usually a sorbet, is served. That was true in this case as well.  Called Berries and Whey, it was a Raspberry Sorbet with a Solid Milk Crisp.  The sorbet was sweet and tart and the milk was slightly sweet with a texture similar to a meringue.  It was very good at cleansing my palate and set us up for dessert.
Our first dessert was called Shades of Red and like it sounds, it was an exploration of the color red.  It included Pomegranate cells, Strawberry Sorbet, Mascarpone Cheese, and a variety of Tomatoes.  It was an interesting presentation, but honestly, it didn't quite come together for me.  It either needed something more to tie things together, or something less so things didn't need to be tied together.
The next course, Golden Oldies, was a celebration of the color orange.  It used Apricots, Oranges, Peaches, Pumpkins with Ice Cream and Pound Cake.  It was sweet, fruity, and flavorful with a variety of textures.  It looked pretty chaotic, but it tasted great.
For our final dessert course, we were brought a campfire.  It was a thick piece of wood with a flame in the middle and marshmallows on skewers mounted around the fire.  The course was called Toasted Marshmallows, but it was actually more than that.  We toasted the marshmallows and found when we bit into them that they were inside out S'mores.  They were sweet, gooey, and a great finish to the official dinner.
As our dinner was finishing, we were brought a menu of after dinner drinks.  I am a sucker for Amaro so that is what I ordered.  My dining partner had a coffee drink which actually arrived first.  This is when we found that the drink also came with a bite to go with it.  With the coffee drink came some hazelnut brittle.  My amaro took a little time and I found out when it arrived that it came with an Oatmeal Cookie that was made to order.  The amaro was smooth, sweet, and bitter, and went amazingly well with the oatmeal cookie which was warm, fresh, and sweet.
After everything came the Caramel Mignardises which were served on a sandcastle dish.  The caramels were buttery, sweet, and gooey, and a great finish to the dinner.  While dinner was finished though, our experience at Moto was not.  We were given a tour of the kitchen.
The kitchen is in the basement of the restaurant with the stairs near the front of the dining room.  We went downstairs and entered the outer demonstration kitchen.  It was modern and very lab-like with many scientific instruments including a Rotovap, a Centrifuge, Volumetric Flasks, Distilling Columns and a Periodic Table on the wall.  
The centrifuge looked large enough to make soup.

The final room that we were shown was the Grow Room.  It was a hydroponic garden that grew the greens for the dinner.  It was very cool to see and a great finish to the experience.  Moto has grown up.  They are still amazingly creative and the food and service is still great, but the presentations, for the most part no longer are plays on something else.  The experience was a lot of fun and I would happily return.