Sunday, February 23, 2014

Carriage House - Brunch

For brunch this month, I chose a place that sounded interesting to me but didn't realize until after the fact that, despite the fact that I had never been there, I was somewhat familiar with it.  We went to Carriage House, a restaurant in Wicker Park that features Southern Lowland cuisine.  The space is large and open with a rustic feel.  Located on a corner, it has windows on two sides and additionally uses hanging Edison lights that are framed with lampshade frames. The entrance to the restaurant is toward the back, near the open kitchen.  There is a long wooden bar with several shelves of liquor on display behind it.  Most of the walls are white, but some of trim and the dining room chairs are a blue green color that I think of when I think of old farmhouses and 1950s kitchen appliances.  Seating is at a counter along one window, one of three communal tables, one of several four tops, or a booth in the corner that will seat six which is where we sat.  Southern Lowland cuisine is that food that is served in coastal South Carolina and Georgia and bears a similarity to Cajun and Creole cuisine.  It will generally feature a lot of rice, seafood, and cornmeal.  In the case of the Carriage House brunch menu, it meant that the menu focused almost solely on savory cuisine.  There were some sweet elements to some dishes but there wasn't going to be a sweet and savory brunch.  I did start things off though, with one of the few things that were close to a sweet dish, the Cornbread, which was served in a cast-iron frying pan and topped with Apple Preserves and Whipped Butter.  The corn bread was crisp on the outside and had a coarse and slightly crumbly texture which was still kind of moist.  As far as taste was concerned, it was on the sweet side which the apple preserves and butter emphasized.  The dish was also garnished with chopped chives which brought things back to the savory side a bit.  It was a good start that was enjoyed by the table.

For my main course, I went with Shrimp and Grits with Hunter Gravy and Tasso Ham.  I like Shrimp and Grits, but a few years ago, I had some at Mindy's Hot Chocolate which blew me away and I am now forever comparing to.  The shrimp and grits here compared favorably to those I had at Mindy's Hot Chocolate.  The grits were buttery, creamy, and had a good texture.  The shrimp were tender, fresh, and flavorful.  The gravy was warm and added a salty and savory flavor, and pork improves the flavor of everything.  What I remembered after I left was that the Executive Chef at the Carriage House, Mark Steuer, was the Chef that handled the savory side of things at Mindy's Hot Chocolate.  While there were different things used in the two dishes (Cremini Mushrooms, Bacon and Tomatoes at Mindy's, Tasso Ham at the Carriage House), the shrimp and the grits were similar and very good.  Brunch here was very good and I look forward to returning sometime for dinner.

Friday, February 21, 2014


Eating at a tavern, you can generally find burgers and sandwiches (with fries) on the menu.  They might be really good burgers and fries, but they are still burgers and fries.  Occasionally though, a tavern will expand their menu.  The food will still be relatively simple but they can still manage to do a really good seasonal menu.  Farmhouse, a tavern that I visited for dinner recently is just such a place.  They call themselves a Midwestern craft tavern with a local seasonal focus and I can go with this description.  The focus of the space is on the bar on the right side of the room.  There is a metal banquette for seating on the left side with high top butcher block tables.  The design is very rustic and vintage with light shade frames around the hanging lights.  There is a small picket fence winding around the unfinished ceiling, the shelves holding the liquor behind the bar looks like something you would see at an old apothecary shop, and there is even an old card catalog cabinet also behind the bar.  The walls are unfinished, whitewashed brick and there is an old refrigerator behind the bar for (local) beer that looks like it was built from an old jet engine.  It is round with a conical top, a brushed steel exterior, and a  turntable inside.  When I arrived, I was seated along the wall next to a stained glass screen.  While I was near the center of the restaurant, because I next to the screen, it was like I had my own corner.  I came during restaurant week so they were offering a prix fixe menu at a slight discount in addition to their normal menu.  I decided to go with the prix fixe menu because there was something there that I was interested in that was not on the regular menu.  I started with Beer Battered Wisconsin Cheese Curds with Spicy Aioli and Housemade Maple Ketchup.  Cheese curds are a byproduct in the manufacture of cheese.  They are slightly oddly shaped and have a rubbery texture and a mild flavor.  When they are fresh, they squeak when they are bitten into. While that isn't the most appetizing of descriptions, they are really good.  These cheese curds were beer battered and fried which added a malty flavor and a crispy exterior as well as the stretchy interior.  They didn't squeak because they were fried but they were still really good.  While the cheese curds were good on their own, they were served with an aioli and ketchup for dipping.  The aioli was tangy and garlicky with a nice spicy finish that went well with the curds.  The ketchup, on the other hand, had a maple flavor that really did nothing for me.  While I did try the ketchup a few times, if I dipped a cheese curd, it was going to be in the aioli.
 My main course was the item that wasn't on the main menu and I am not sure why because it was really good.  I got a Northstar Bison Meatloaf with Horseradish Potatoes, Redeye Gravy, and Crispy Tobacco Shallots.  I like meatloaf even if I don't eat it often.  Bison is more lean than beef and had a slightly different flavor, not exactly gamy but it did have a fuller flavor.  The mashed potatoes were creamy and well seasoned with enough horseradish to flavor it but not enough to take your head off.  Red eye gravy is made with coffee and the meat drippings and added another strong flavor that tied the potatoes and meatloaf together.  The shallots were served on top of everything like a garnish and added a crunchy, oniony flavor which went well with everything.
 When I saw the list of desserts, I knew what I wanted immediately.  I got the Chocolate Peanut Butter Tart with Salted Caramel Ice Cream, Spiced Peanuts, and Whiskey Caramel.  It lived up to my expectations it was sweet, rich, complex, and very decadent.  The different elements of the dish, while all good individually, brought different flavors and textures that all worked together to make something that was better than it's individual elements.  It was a great dessert and a great finish to a satisfying meal.  The food was good, but I also liked the service and the design and I will be happy to return.    

Sunday, February 16, 2014


As I have said before, I really like Chicago Restaurant Week.  For two weeks in February, about 300 restaurants in the Chicago area provide a prix fixe menu at a discount.  For most restaurants, the discount works out to getting a free dessert, but there are some restaurants whose discounts are substantially more.  For most restaurants, the prix fixe consists of an appetizer, entree, and dessert.  For pan-Asian restaurant Embeya, though, they offered their entire prix fixe menu for the entire table and it was served family style.  In other words, the entire table was served two appetizers, two main courses, two sides, and two desserts.  Admittedly, this could get a little ugly if a single person tried to eat it all.  Luckily, I did come with a few other people so it wasn't an issue.  The space was both modern and Asian and won this year at the Jean Banchet awards for best design. The front wall is a window, the ceilings are high and unfinished and the room is divided by several cutout screens with hexagonal designs.  The bar is long and marble topped with a great selection top shelf liquors and the kitchen is open.  The seating consisted of the bar as well as dark wood tables with light wood chairs and padded banquettes.  We were seated at one of the tables in the middle of the room, between the window and the bar.  While the meal consisted of many dishes, the meal was actually divided into appetizer, entree, and dessert, with all of the appetizers being brought out together, then all of the entrees (and sides), and all of the desserts.  For our appetizers we started out with a Green Papaya Salad with Cilantro, Crispy Shallots, and Vietnamese Beef Jerky.  The papaya, which made up most of the salad, was fresh, crisp, and slightly sweet and tart, as a papaya is supposed to be.  The cilantro added a little bitterness, and the shallots added a salty crunch like mini onion rings.  The beef jerky was cut into a thin strips and provided a spicy and meaty surprise.  You wouldn't find a piece of jerky in every bite but there was enough to let you know that it was there and to add flavor and texture to the dish.  I had had the papaya salad at First Bites Bash, the opening benefit for Chicago Restaurant Week although there it didn't have the beef jerky.  While it was good at the benefit, it was much better at the restaurant with the jerky.

Our other appetizer was Octopus with Confit Eggplant and Radish.  I wouldn't think that octopus would have enough fat to do a confit, but obviously it came from somewhere because it was very tender, flavorful, and not at all rubbery.  The eggplant was well cooked and soft, but it was not slimy as eggplant can become.  It kind of matched the texture of the octopus.  The only way you could really tell which you were eating was by the flavor.  The radishes were there to add a little spice and provide some much needed textural diversity to the dish.  Without the radishes, the eggplant and octopus tasted good enough, but the dish was a mass of mush.  The radishes gave your mouth something to crunch on and improved it immensely.

Our first entree was a Peking Duck Style Garlic Chicken with Confit Scallions  It was a very simple dish, but the chicken was very good and flavorful.  The garlic and scallions just added to the flavor.  It had a thin, crisp outer skin with tender meat and while most of it was sliced into medallions, there was one piece attached to a leg that i grabbed and enjoyed.

The other entree was called Thit Heo Kho and consisted of Braised Pork Belly with Coconut and Shallots in a Pork Broth.  The pork belly was obviously tender and flavorful.  The coconut was sliced into thin strips and added a little texture and flavor, but the shallots were interesting.  They were cooked whole and when I first saw them in the pan, I thought they were plums.  Trying to grab them with chop sticks, though quickly dispelled that idea because every time I tried to grab one by squeezing it, the inner layers came out.  We figured out the best way to grab them was by scooping them from the bottom.  Once we were able to get a hold on them, it was seen that they were tender, well cooked and flavorful.  All of the elements of this dish were good and I felt a little guilty for leaving the broth.  That was solved though with one of the sides.

The side was simple.  It was Sticky Rice with a little Chive for color and flavor.  On it's own it was very good.  It had a good flavor and it was fairly easy to eat.  If the pork broth from the Thit Heo Kho was added though, it was much better.  The rice and pork broth added to one another and it positively became comfort food.

The other side kind of went with the chicken, although it was very good by itself and was not necessary to finish the chicken dish.  It was Carmelized Brussels Sprouts with Crispy Scallions.  The brussels sprouts cooked to tender and had a slightly crisp and brown outer coating which showed an initial sweetness before the slightly funky (but good) cabbage flavor.  The scallions added a salty crunch to the dish.

After our appetizers, entrees, and sides came the desserts, and while they were both good, one was favored much more than the other.  The first dessert were the Cream Puffs.  The pastry was very good and was filled with Vanilla and Matcha (a type of green tea).  They were topped lightly with powdered sugar.  These were sweet and flavorful but the lesser of the two desserts.

The other dessert was Roasted Pineapple with Coconut Ice Cream and Peanuts.  This was sweet, tart, tropical flavored and the all around favorite.  It was a great finish to a great meal that made a good presentation of the menu.  The food was very good, the restaurant design was very cool, and the service was very good.  I will be very happy to return.      

Sunday, February 9, 2014


I am a foodie and love to experience new and different cuisines.  While I am a foodie, I try not to make it an exclusive thing.  I really like to give other people to stretch their boundaries, so for Christmas, I bought my brother-in-law a gift certificate for an 8 course tasting menu at a restaurant in the Detroit area called gastronomy (He lives in Michigan so it would be easier for him to get there than to Chicago).  The second in his party was my sister, his wife, but as I had never been to this restaurant and because my brother lives in the area, they invited us to dine with them.  I think though, that it was also because they had little experience with finer dining.  It was fine though, because I am always happy to try something new and to help understand what they might be having.  The word gastronomy means the art or science of good eating so I hoped the restaurant lived up to it's name.  I journeyed to the Detroit suburbs on the day of our dinner and we made our way to the restaurant.  While it wasn't that far from a major road, it was a little hard to find.  It was located in an office building in an office park.  There was a sign outside the park indicating that we were in the right place but the entrance was not obvious and we ended up driving around the office park, entering through the office building, and wandering around the building before finding an entrance.  We found that there was an entrance to the restaurant at the front of the building but it wasn't exceptionally obvious.  Once we arrived though, we were immediately seated.and presented with menus to let us know what we would be eating.  After our water was poured and when drinks were ordered, a bread course was presented to us.  It didn't count as one of the 8 courses but as it was a little different than your standard course, I thought I would include it.  The bread served was Naan, the Indian flatbread that is cooked on the side of a hot oven.  It is typically crispy on one side and fluffy on the other and has a slightly sweet flavor.  It was served with a Tzatziki Sauce, a yogurt sauce with herbs and spices and finely chopped cucumber.  The naan and tzatziki both lived up to their identities.  The naan was crispy on one side, fluffy on the other, chewy, and slightly sweet.  The tzatziki was more course than I would have expected but it had a good sour and fresh cucumber flavor and went well with the naan.
 Our first course was an Amuse Bouche.  In many restaurants, I have noticed that the Amuse is not counted as a course and is generally thought of as a little something extra.  I have noticed other restaurants counting it so I will let it pass for now.  The amuse bouche literally means happy mouth and is generally used by the kitchen as a pre-appetizer to try something new out or to use something for which there isn't enough for a complete dish.  The Amuse in this case was a Pancetta-Wrapped Date with Microgreens and a Lemon Sauce.  A common Spanish Tapa is the bacon-wrapped date which this was a variation of.  The pancetta was slightly crispy and sweet which went well with the sweetness of the date.  The microgreens added a little bitterness and the lemon sauce rounded out the dish with it's tartness.  While I might have a slight semantic disagreement with the naming or numbering of this course, it was very good.
 The next course was an Orchard Salad.   It contained Mixed Field Greens, Compressed Candied Apples that were candied with Cinnamon Candy, Sliced Radishes, Apple Cider Doughnut Croutons, Cracked Almond Brittle, and Cider Vinaigrette.  It was a vibrant and colorful dish with the green of the greens and the red of the radishes and the cinnamon candy that was used in both the candied apples and the almond brittle and the salad had a lot of cider and cinnamon flavor that played together well.  The croutons were less crisp than croutons normally are but that was okay because it was easier to spread the cider flavor.  The brittle was very crisp and spicy-sweet from the cinnamon and the vinaigrette added to the cider flavor.
 According to our menu, our next course was supposed to be a Pate course, but we were told when our next course, which was not pate was brought out that there was a miscommunication in the kitchen and the pate would come out next.  We were brought instead, the course that was supposed to come after the pate:  The Pan-Seared Diver Scallop with Miso Panko-Basil Sand, Champagne Sea Foam, Rock Chives, Sriracha Candy Coral, and a Littleneck  Clam.  This was a very creative and tasty dish, so I easily forgave the error in service.  The scallop was perfectly seared and tasted very fresh.  The miso panko-basil sand was creative and went well with the scallop and the clam was fresh and flavorful.  The candy coral was interesting.  It was bright red rock candy laid in the shape of a coral formation.  It wasn't exceptionally sweet although it did have a little sweetness to it.  What it was was spicy.  The Sriracha did not provide an immediate burn, but it did come as the candy dissolved in your mouth.
The next course was the pate.  It was a Duck Liver Pate that was presented with three different sauces to eat with it and some Housemade Chips.  The Sauces were Cherry Jam, Thyme Honey, and Blood Orange Candied Nuts.  Everything was very good separately and together, although admittedly I didn't try to eat everything together.  I think that the best combination was the pate with the cherry jam on a chip although the nuts and honey were both good together as well.
 The next course was an Intermezzo, a break with something brightly flavored to use as a palate cleanser.  We were served a Passionfruit Granita, a course frozen dessert similar to a sorbet although with a coarser texture.  This was bright, flavorful, very tart, and it readied our palates for our next course.
We were next served a Petite Filet.  It was a very complex dish with a lot of things served with it.  In addition to the filet, which was fork tender and very flavorful, it was served with Yukon Gold Potato-Bacon Risotto (potato and bacon prepared like risotto but with no rice), Sambuca Cress, Fried Brussels Sprout Leaves, Carrot Puree, Cranberry Caviar, and Veal Demi-Glace.  Everything was good and went together well.  There was so much variety here that if it was bigger, it could have been a meal in and of itself.

After our entree, the filet mignon, we were presented with our dessert.  It was a Sweet Potato Creme Brulee and came with a Toasted Marshmallow, Candied Walnut Dust, and Cherry Coulis (a thick fruit based sauce).  This really reminded me of a Sweet Potato Casserole that you frequently see at Thanksgiving and I really enjoyed it.  The sweet potato custard had a nice crust and the marshmallow was nicely toasted.  The walnuts and cherry coulis were flavorful and went together well with the sweet potato creme brulee. 
For our final course, the menu listed mignardises.  Mignardises are petit fors that serve the same way as an after dinner mint.  Our mignardise was a Chocolate Covered Strawberry.  The strawberry was large, fresh, and very flavorful and the chocolate was also very good.  It was a nice finish to a very good and creative dinner.  Despite the slight hiccups, I enjoyed my meal here and would enjoy to return.  I am not sure that I would again go for a degustation menu, the a la carte menu is exciting and there are several things that I would be interested in.


Saturday, February 8, 2014


Several years ago, my brother, when visiting Chicago, had lunch at the Atwood Cafe and loved it.  At the time, the Executive Chef was Heather Terhune.  She was one of the first chefs in Chicago to promote local and seasonal cuisine in Chicago and she was on my radar.  Shortly after my brother dined at the Atwood, she went to open Sable which immediately went on my to dine on list.  It has been now open for several years and while several friends have been there and really liked it, I had not yet made it.  Admittedly, Chef Terhune's stint on Top Chef, where she was portrayed as a bit of a bully, did not help.  The restaurant remained on my list, but was pushed back for other places.  Finally, after seeing them on lists as one of the best cocktail bars in the country in addition to having good food, I decided it was time to go.  Sable is located in The Loop and operates as the restaurant/cocktail lounge for boutique hotel, Hotel Palomar.  The main entrance is on State St. and Illinois St., a very high traffic area.  The hosts station is in the center of the space dividing the lounge and dining areas.  This can be a little confusing for diners entering directly into the Sable space because the entrance is directly into the bar which you then have to walk through to get to the host's station.  There is a second entrance across from the host's station but you have to walk through the hotel to enter from there.  The space is long and narrow, with with one wall a window looking out onto State St.  The colors are black, gray, and silver, similar to the animal sable.  I don't know that the restaurant was named for the animal, but it does seem to fit.  The bar, which is long and classic looking, parallels the window.  The host station is on the outer wall and sits across from the hotel entrance and is flanked by a leather bench sitting in front of a televised fireplace and a decorative table containing what looks like specialized scientific glassware.  I am going to guess the glassware is there as a reference to their high-end cocktail lounge.  The dining area is flanked on one side by the window and on the other by the open kitchen.  The space is divided by a half-wall with banquette seating on either side.  I entered through the bar and was a little confused because I didn't immediately see the host station to check in.  I did find it soon enough and was quickly seated at a two top next to the window.  As this place is noted for it's cocktails and the cocktail menu is several pages long, I felt obligated to try one.  Their cocktail menu is very creative and covers everything from the classics to new and different.  It is divided by the main liquor used and their were two pages of whiskey drinks.  I decided to go with something using an old spirit similar to gin.  The drink was called Damn the Torpedoes.  It contained Bols Genever, a Pumpkin Cordial, Lemon, and Egg White.  It also seemed to have Pumpkin Spice in it (Allspice, Cinnamon, and Nutmeg).  This was both floral and spicy and kind of reminded me of pumpkin pie (with whipped cream).  It was light and I really liked it.  I ordered my dinner when my drink arrived and began enjoying my drink while waiting for my appetizer.
 I was a little unsure of what I wanted for an appetizer when I ordered (there were several things that looked good) so I went with my waiter's recommendation.  I ordered Veal Meatballs with a Gorgonzola-Walnut Cream Sauce.  The waiter told me that it was very good and rich.  I believed him on the good, but I was a little skeptical on the rich part.  While veal is fattier than most beef, I wouldn't really consider it that rich.  What I didn't consider was that cheese sauce (like Gorgonzola) can be very rich.  The meatballs were tender and flavorful, the sauce was flavorful and very rich, and it all went together well.
 My next course was a salad and while it was largely green, it contained no lettuce and was kind of savory.  It was a Brussels Sprout and Farm Apple Salad with Pecorino Romano Cheese, Smoked Almonds, Pork Belly Croutons, and a Brown Butter Vinaigrette.  This was much lighter than the appetizer and actually helped revive me somewhat.  The brussels sprouts and apples were fresh and crisp, there was a lot of Pecorino Romano and the Pork Belly Croutons were a bonus.  They were crispy and bacon flavored and reminded me of  what you might get if you combined bacon bits and croutons.
 For my entree, I went with something that I didn't really expect to see on the menu of a restaurant that specializes in American comfort food.  Having said that, American cuisine takes elements from all over the world and twists and combines them into something that is both convenient and works.  I got a Rojo Pozole with Pork Belly, Hominy, Cilantro, and an Ancho Chili-Pork Broth.
It was accompanied by a tray of add-ins which included Red Onions, Crispy Tortilla Strips, and Avocado and Lime.  I didn't consider why they would have made the diner build their own pozole but not everyone likes raw onions, if the tortilla strips were added to the pozole in the kitchen they might be soggy by the time they reached the diner, as would the avocado.  It also allowed diners to less of an item if that is what they desired.  I liked it all so it all went in.  The pozole was spicy and porky with crunchy bits with some richness provided by the avocado.  It tasted very good and the only thing I might have wished for was more hominy.

While Sable has a pretty good dessert menu, when looking over it, I knew immediately what I wanted.  I ordered the Dark Chocolate Souffle Cake with Chocolate and Peanut Butter Sauce, Peanuts, and Salted Caramel Ice Cream.  This was very good.  The cake was moist and rich and with the different flavors in the dish it was like a deconstructed Snickers Bar.  I really enjoyed it and it was a filling finish to a very good meal.  While I can't say that I like the layout of the space.  The wait staff was friendly and professional and were happy to answer my questions and the food and drink were very good.  I may very well consider returning.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Siena Tavern

I generally am not a celebrity follower when it comes to restaurant.  I am concerned with whether the food is good, what the space looks like, and service.  If the restaurant draws celebrities or if it is owned by a celebrity it is worthy of note, but is not a deciding factor in coming there.  When Italian (by way of California) chef Fabio Viviani decided to open Siena Tavern, it went on my list, not because of his celebrity (he was on Top Chef and several commercials and talk shows), but because he has written a couple of best selling cookbooks and his food has reviewed well.  Located in the River North neighborhood, the restaurant takes it's inspiration from an unnamed tavern called simply La Taverna in Siena, Italy.  The room is large and open divided into a drinking side and the restaurant side.  The bar side has a large open bar with seating completely around it.  There are leather covered booths and several tables.  The restaurant side has a large crudo/pizza bar/open kitchen with several semi-circular booths and high banquette seating with high top tables.  The design is vintage and industrial with, besides the semi-circular booths, vintage incandescent hanging lights and a line of pictures along one wall that really remind me of Rene Magritte.  I came for lunch and was seated in the dining area at a high top banquette.  The menu is very wide and varied with selections possible from antipasti, salads, pasta, pizza, crudo, charcuterie, cheese, sandwiches and sides.  There were a lot of things that looked really good, so it was kind of hard to decide how I was going to put a meal together.  I started with an antipasto, Coccoli.  This started with Pancetta which was served with a couple of balls of Crispy Dough, Stracchino Cheese, and Truffle Honey.  Individually, each of the pieces of this dish were very good.  They were all very light and tasted very good.  The pancetta was delicate and flavorful, the dough had a nice and light crispy crust on the outside and was very soft and fluffy on the inside.  The Stracchino cheese tasted very fresh creamy and was similar to a Burrata, and the truffle honey brought both sweet and funk.  If the dough was opened, and eaten with everything else, it was like a rustic ham and cheese sandwich.
 I hadn't had a good pizza in a while and the pizzas here are flame cooked besides having good ingredients so I decided that a pizza was a must.  I would say that this may not have been the best decision except for the fact that pizza travels well and is good as a leftover.  This could also be considered as the best decision because it travels well.  I ordered a Truffled Mushroom Pizza with Wild Mushrooms, Garlic Cream, Mozzarella, and White Truffle Oil.  This was very close to a Neapolitan-style Funghi Pizza.  It was a white, thin crust pizza with a floppy body and crispy and chewy outer crust.  The truffle oil and mushrooms provided a lot of flavor and was very good but when it was served, I knew that it was more than I could eat.  I did want to have a dessert so I had half of the pizza boxed.

My dessert was Bombolonis. or Italian Doughnuts.  I was served four large, powdered sugar covered, fried dough balls which were texturally like yeast doughnuts.  They were served with three syrups that you could mix and match as you wanted.  The syrups were Whiskey Caramel, Chocolate Hazelnut, and Raspberry Chianti which were all good individually but I liked the combination of chocolate and caramel, and chocolate and raspberry best.  As one might expect, caramel and raspberry didn't really work, nor did a combination of the three.  It was fun trying them out though.

I really liked the look of the restaurant, and the food and service were very good as well, but it may not be the best place for a single diner to go.  I left stuffed and didn't eat for the rest of the day.  When I do return, it will be with a group.