Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dinner Lab - Heterarchy

I was again invited to an underground dinner hosted by Dinner Lab recently.  This dinner was part of a chef tour in which they brought 10 chefs to 9 cities and the chef that was liked best overall would get their own restaurant in one of the cities that they toured.  The chef for this dinner, Jacob Cureton, was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, but he spent much of his culinary career in New Orleans in such places as Cuvee, Johnny V's, Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico, and Bacchanal.  The food that he was serving was inspired by the food he grew up eating in Alabama and Louisiana.  His restaurant concept was called Heterarchy which is defined by Wikipedia as a system of organization where the elements of the organization are unranked.  I read this in the context of restaurant organization as a system where there is no single leader.  Personally, I am not sure how this would work in a restaurant organization, but I wish him luck if he gets the opportunity to try it.  The space where we had our dinner was a partially rehabbed building that was formerly occupied by the Salvation Army.  The space we were in was enormous and open and the five tables that we were using for dinner were practically swallowed by the space.  The ceiling was unfinished as were the columns holding the ceiling and there was some damage to some of the walls, but the hardwood floor looked as if it had recently been refinished.  The finishing/serving area was open and close to where the tables were so we could see what was going on if we were interested and the bar was situated in one corner of the space.  There is a separate prep kitchen that is actually a kitchen where the cooks can actually get started.
Our first drink, before dinner, was a spin on an Arnold Palmer using tea-infused vodka and lemonade.  While it was creative and definitely Southern, it was also a bit too sweet for my tastes which seemed to be a recurring theme with my alcohol.
We were seated and served our first course which was Cured Cobia and Duck Liver with Sugar Snaps (Peas), Popcorn, Chili Oil, Spring Onion Puree, and Crispy Shallots.  For the most part, I really liked this.  There was a wealth of flavors and textures in this and the chili oil added spice.  I wouldn't have thought that cobia and duck liver would have gone together, but they worked.  As the cobia was cured, it had a texture that was a bit more firm than would normally be expected.  The duck liver seemed not to be the fattened duck liver that would be foie gras, but it still had a relatively mild flavor.  The peas were fresh and sweet, the crispy shallots were like mini onion rings and added a little crunch.  Eaten with everything else, the popcorn added some crunch, by itself though, it was popcorn and I would have been happy without it.  With this dish, we were served a cocktail that they called Death From A Buzz which had Gin, Honey and Cucumber in it.  Gin is my favorite liquor, and I do like honey and cucumber, but the cucumber overwhelmed everything else.
For our second course, we were served a classic combination in an interesting way.  The menu listed the course as Summer Root Vegetables with Charred Eggplant, Pan-Seared Black Eyed Peas, Chevre Crumble, and Fried Herbs.  What the course was was essentially a beet and goat cheese sandwich with black eyed peas.  The beets were both solid and pureed, the chevre was firm, and the kale was crispy.  The black-eyed peas were on the bottom and added some depth of flavor.
 The next course was very definitely Southern.  It was a Corn and Groundnut Stew with Shiitake Bacon and Boiled Peanuts.  The groundnuts in the groundnut stew were peanuts, so this was a very peanuty dish.  I was a little confused as to what shiitake bacon might be but it turned out to be shiitake mushrooms fried crispy like bacon which added a crispy texture.  Boiled peanuts have a slightly different flavor than do fried peanuts which most people are used to.  They have a more bitter peanuty flavor and don't have the salt that most peanuts do.  I have had ground nut stew before as an African dish, and while this was not bad, it needed something like the spice found in the African groundnut stew.
The last savory course was Coriander and Sumac Crusted Venison with Pickled and Roasted Carrots, Blueberry Infused Butter, and Kohlrabi.  While this is not a complaint, I generally do not think of venison as a Southern meat even though deer are found throughout the United States.  The blueberries, carrots, and kohlrabi as well, make this feel like a very midwestern dish.  In any case, I liked many things about this a lot.  The venison was perfectly cooked, the spices with which it was crusted added a bright and fresh flavor.  The carrots and blueberries were firm and fresh and everything tasted good, but it could have done with a little less sauce. 
Immediately before dessert was served we were brought a small glass of champagne with slightly macerated strawberries.  I figured that it was to be paired with dessert (especially since champagne was listed as one of the dessert elements), so I waited for dessert.  We were served a Chocolate Panna Cotta, with a Vanilla Muffin, Dried Strawberries, and Sour Cream Sherbet.  There were many things that I liked about this.  There were chocolate chips in the shortcake that tied it to the panna cotta, the sour cream sherbet was good on its own.  The strawberries with the sherbet and muffin made it like a strawberry shortcake and also tied it to the strawberries in the champagne.  While I liked the edible parts of this, the champagne kind of fell flat (pun not intended).

I enjoyed my experience at this dinner.  The staff were friendly and professional, the space was entertaining, and I liked the chef.  While I did like the food and wish the chef much luck in his future endeavors, I do think that his menu could do with a few more tweaks.    

Monday, June 23, 2014

Smalls Smoke Shack and More

The size of a restaurant has little to do with the quality of food that comes out of it's kitchen.  I have been to some small places that put out some good food, but I think I may have recently found a definite competitor for the smallest restaurant in town.  The place has a very apt name, that being Smalls. Smoke Shack and More.  Located in Albany Park, it is a counter service restaurant with six counter seats (which are different counters than the order counter).  The room is a light brown with the counter, the seats, an order window (where orders come out), a drink refrigerator, and that's about all.  There was a sign written on a brown paper bag by the counter that listed the specials in addition to the menu above the order window.  I went there thinking that I wanted some barbecue and making my standard barbecue order so I could compare it (half-rack of baby back ribs) but then I saw the Brisket Bibimbap.  I really like bibimbap and I thought if I ordered it, I could get an idea about both their barbecue and their Asian food so it would be a win-win.  With the bibimbap, I ordered one of the vegetables on special, the Long Beans.  While I had heard of long beans, I had never tried them, so that's what the order would be.  The order came out on a metal try like what you might expect at a barbecue place with the long beans in a Chinese takeout box.  The bibimbap was separated into it's component parts, as bibimbap is generally served, with the fried egg on top of the rice.  With this Bibimbap, it included, in addition to the Soy Maple Sesame Glazed Brisket (which was also sprinkled with Sesame Seeds), Carrots, Bean Sprouts, Garlic Fried Rice, the obligatory Fried Egg, and Korean Chile Paste.  It was also served with a small side of kimchi.  I am used to seeing a little green and Daikon Radishes in Bibimbap, but I suppose it depends on what's available.  I did taste everything separately before combining it all and everything did taste fine on it's own, if a little plain.  Eaten together as it's supposed to be though, it was very good.  The brisket was shredded and was sweet and tender with soy, maple and sesame flavors, that played well with the garlic flavor of the fried rice.  The carrots and bean sprouts were very fresh and crisp, and the egg was well fried.  The chile paste was thick and spicy and had what I thought was a peanuty flavor, but after a little research think that it may have been the fermented soybeans.  While it was pretty spicy, mixed with everything else, it was toned down.  It provided a spicy finish to a flavorful dish without being overwhelming.  The Kimchi that was served on the side was fairly standard kimchi composed mostly of cabbage.  It was sour and spicy, but still pretty good.  For the Long Beans that I had ordered on the side, I had never had them before, so I didn't really know what to expect.  I had heard of them, and I knew that they were eaten in Asian cuisines, but as far as texture and taste, I was clueless.  I had read that like their name implies, they are very long.  Wikipedia states that they grow to about eighteen inches.  When served, they looked like haricot verts (French green beans that are slightly more slender than regular green beans).  They were cut into more manageable size pieces and not served long which was fine because I don't know that it would have been that fun to try and eat a whole long bean.  Texturally, they were like also similar to green beans, but they had a flavor more similar to asparagus.  They were very good and a good complement to the bibimbap.  I really liked my lunch here.  The food was an interesting combination and I will definitely return or at least stop for take out to try more of the menu.  

Friday, June 20, 2014

Tweet ...Let's Eat - Brunch

I will admit that when I choose a restaurant whether for brunch or for some other meal, I tend to rely on online buzz.  I will listen to opinions of friends occasionally, but if I haven't really seen much online, I may be a little skeptical.  This was the case when I planned a brunch at Tweet ..Let's Eat.  Some friends recommended it and while I knew that it was associated with Big Chicks Bar, a very popular gay bar in Uptown, but that's all I really knew.  I was told that Tweet was very popular, that it took no reservations and was cash only, so I warned the people that were joining me and I planned for a visit a little earlier than I usually plan my brunches.  I arrived a little early and confirmed what my friends said, that it was a very popular place.  The fact that we went on Father's Day may have contributed to the crowd, but I saw enough people that didn't seem to be or be with parents that I would guess that it's popular in any case.  I also saw that it looked rather small, or at least has a small storefront.  When I entered, I saw that while the patio was small and the entrance was narrow, it did have two rooms and was fairly deep.  The room was set up with banquette seating on both sides with a walkway between the two sets of tables.  The banquette was wood but it did have throw pillows which did add some comfort.  The walls were covered with pictures, both photographic and painting that are curated around the notion of space, interior, exterior, urban, and rural.  The images were very good and it was interesting to look at all of them.  When we were seated, we were greeted with a plate of Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake that was sprinkled with Powdered Sugar.  The cake was moist, sweet, and had a lot of chocolate chips.  I am sure that it would have been very good with coffee had I actually ordered coffee.  I ordered a breakfast cocktail which I enjoyed.
We made our orders and found that all of our dishes came with a Fruit Salad.  The fruit was very fresh and sweet, but I would have enjoyed it much more had it not included Cantaloupe.  Other than the cantaloupe, the salad included Pineapple, Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries, Blackberries, Honeydew, and Watermelon.  With the variety of fruit, the salad was a joy to eat and if it didn't have cantaloupe, I would have really enjoyed it. 
Between the coffeecake and the fruit salad, it was unnecessary to get a sweet to pair with my savory main course.  So on to my main course, the menu was pretty big, and included, in addition to the standard eggs, pancakes, French toast, skillets, and omelettes,  hash, a variety of quiches, and a good selection of breakfast burritos, which is where I went.  I ordered a Numero Ocho also known as the Dirty Man.  It was a meat lovers burrito that contained Chorizo, Ham, Bacon, Scrambled Eggs, Onions, and Hash Browns.  It was topped with Cheddar Cheese and Cilantro, and served with Creme Fraiche, Pico de Gallo, and Salsa.  The tortilla, if not made in-house, was fresh and it was stuffed.  Unfortunately, for the first several bites, all I got was scrambled eggs and hash browns.  I thought at first, that I had the wrong burrito, but I eventually found it on the other side and it was much better with the meat.  The salsa did have some spice, but it was not exceptionally spicy and it did add flavor to the burrito, as did the creme fraiche and the pico de gallo.

I really enjoyed my meal here.  The space looked really nice, the art was nice, the staff was very friendly, and the food was good.  I was surprised that it stayed so far under the radar online and have to think that the crowds are locals.  In any case, it was very good and would enjoy returning.    

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Stanley's Kitchen and Tap

All bars and grill are not created equal.  I first encountered Stanley's Kitchen and Tap at Roscoe Village Burger Fest a few years ago and I new that they made some good burgers.  I also knew where they were located was pretty much a straight shot between where I live and Lincoln Park (the park not the neighborhood that it is located in).  I went there recently with the intention of getting a good burger.  There are some very good burger joints that are actually closer but I was interested in something a little different than what I usually have.  While it was my intention to get a burger, the menu tempted me otherwise.  I walked in and after my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I was seated at the bar.  Looking around, I noticed it had a very rustic look with a wood floor, wood rafters, wood bar, and wood furniture.  It reminded me both of the inside of a barn, and a saloon out of the old west (minus the swinging doors).  There were many references as far as flags, accessories, and the menu, to Texas and Louisiana.  I also noticed a large number of bottles of Tito's Handmade Vodka (a Texas product) under the bar.  Despite these many references, I would not say that the dinner that I ordered was very Southern and my beer very definitely was not (Half Acre Akari Shogun American Wheat Ale).  I started out with a variation of a very popular Quebecois street food, poutine.  Standard poutine is made of french fries topped with cheese curds and gravy.  Stanley's Poutine is made with Tater Tots before being topped with Cheddar and Gravy.  You could also optionally add Pulled Pork which I did because, well, why wouldn't you?  I saw, after it arrived, that it may be a challenge if I was also going to have an entree and dessert.  I was hungry, but the serving size was enormous.  It also tasted very good.  It was sweet, salty, cheesy, meaty, and pretty filling.  After finishing this, I could have conceivably stopped, but there was more food to be had.
While I thought the serving size for the poutine was large, my entree was bigger.  I had to question the size of the people that they serve here.  I ordered the Bacon Laced Meatloaf, with Housemade Ketchup, Country Fried Onions, and Mashed Potatoes.  Despite the fact that this was huge, I also thought it was very good.  The meatloaf seemed to have been made from some very good meat.  It wasn't exceptionally greasy and if it weren't for the size, I would also say that it wasn't exceptionally heavy.  The bacon was thinly sliced and very good, the onions had a crispy breading and they were sweet, flavorful,  and tender inside.  The ketchup that was used on the meatloaf was pretty spicy and the mashed potatoes were smooth and very tasty.  While it would have been nice to finish this, I don't know if that would have been possible even if I hadn't eaten the poutine previously.  This went home in a box and made my dinner the next day.
I was very happy with what I had had up to this point, so I made a point to leave room for dessert.  I ended up getting something that would not be a surprise to be seen at a county fair, Deep Fried Chocolate Chip Cookies.  They were topped with Powdered Sugar and served with a Vanilla Sauce on the side.  They were served warm and were very sweet and gooey.  The cookie seemed to be light and a little crumbly and the chocolate chips melted throughout.  They were fun to eat, but they were also potentially very messy so I did have to eat carefully to prevent wearing it. 

This dinner was a heart attack on several plates.  While it was good and I did like it, it was not something that I would be eating often.  The staff was friendly and helpful and I would be happy to return.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Two Brothers Beer Dinner at The Signature Room

When talking about the view at area restaurants, while there are some restaurants with some very good views, there is one that is far and away much better than any other and anyone who has been there would agree that it has the best view in the city.  This would be The Signature Room on the 95th Floor of the Hancock Building.   I had gone there several years ago and while the food was good, it wasn't great.  I felt that they were using the view as the draw and the food was kind of an afterthought.  This changed with the arrival of Pat Sheerin as Executive Chef who remained for 6 1/2 years.  He has since gone on to open Trenchermen, but he left The Signature Room in the capable and talented hands of his chef de cuisine, Cardel Reid.  I came to The Signature Room for a Two Brothers Beer Dinner.  I mentioned that The Signature Room has an amazing view.  Unfortunately, it was foggy on the day that I went, so while we could see out the large windows, all we could see below us were clouds.  It was kind of like being in an airplane.  The dinner took place in a private dining room on the lounge floor on the 96th Floor.  Two of the walls were the fantastic windows with a third being a mural of the view of the city if the wall wasn't there.  The dining room was carpeted and had 6 large round tables that would seat 10.  There were two long tables that were used for staging before serving along the wall with the mural.  Overall, with the exception of the view and the mural, the room itself was not that exceptional and it actually kind of reminded me of an office building.  In any case, when I arrived, they were friendly and professional.  They gave me a placeholder with my name and table number and when I was seated, I was poured a Two Brothers Prairie Path Golden Ale.
Before the dinner officially started, we were served an Hors d'Oeurvre consisting of a Fried Frog Leg Drummette with a Dipping Sauce.  Frog Legs are not something that you see on a lot of menus so I was comforted that they had upped their game since the last time I had dined there.  The breading was crispy and peppery and the frog leg itself tasted very good.  Frog legs are said to taste like chicken.  I will say that the meat was very mild like chicken, but the texture was a little different.
For our first course, we started out with Seared Scallops with Creamed Corn Grits, Popcorn, and Shrimp Roe Butter Sauce that was served with Two Brothers Ebel's Weiss.  I have said in the past that popcorn doesn't do anything for me.  I will say that while it added to the aesthetic of the dish, it really did nothing for me as far as taste was concerned.  The scallops were perfectly seared and the grits and butter sauce paired well with it.  The beer was light and soft with a slightly sweet flavor.  I will say that while I didn't think it was a perfect pairing, they also didn't interfere with one another.
For our next course, we were served Grilled Octopus and Asparagus Salad with Coriander Vinaigrette it was paired with Two Brothers flagship beer, Domaine DuPage French Country Ale .  This was a very simple dish that was done very well.  The octopus was well cooked and flavorful with a light char as was the asparagus.  The greens that were served with the asparagus were very fresh and the coriander added a peppery flavor.  The full flavor and the breadiness of the beer paired well with the pepper and the char flavors of the food.
The entree left the ocean and went to the woods with Seared Wild Boar, Morel Mushrooms, Cranberry Beans, Haricot Verts, and Two Brothers Outlaw Reduction which was paired with Two Brothers Outlaw IPA.  The boar was tender and flavorful, the morels added an earthiness, the cranberry beans added depth, and the haricot verts were crisp and juicy with a vegetal flavor that tied the hoppiness of the reduction to the boar and the beans.  The pairing with the beer was very good although I have to say that it was undoubtedly helped by the fact that the beer was used as the reduction for the food.
I will say that while I had liked everything that I had had up to this point, everything about dessert was a win.  We were served an Orange Chiffon Cake with Citrus Whipped Cream, Toasted Almonds, Basil Simple Syrup, White Balsamic Vinegar Reduction, Blueberries, and Toasted Almond Ice Cream which was served with Two Brothers Night Cat Hoppy Dark Wheat Beer.  The cake was moist and sweet with sweet tartness from the citrus whipped cream which tied in the balsamic reduction and the toasted almonds on the cake tied in the toasted almond ice cream.  The beer was unusual, having flavors and aspects of a wheat beer, a stout, and an IPA.  It was good though and the broad flavor spectrum paired well with the cake.
 The dinner finished with a cheese course with small bites of several cheeses and assorted accompaniments which were paired with Two Brothers Bare Tree Weiss Wine Barley Wine Weiss Beer.  Our cheeses were Vermont Creamy Coupole, Mitica Quadrello di Bufala, Five Spoke Creamy Cheddar, Harmony Lemon White Stilton, and Bongrain Cheese Company Saint Agur Blue served with Raisin and Walnut Bread, Polenta Bread, and House Made Chutney.  All of the cheeses were good and it was a good finish especially with the hearty and fruity beer.

I really enjoyed my dinner here and I will have to consider it for something other than the view.  It seems that they are taking their food seriously and the view is something to behold.   


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Hot Doug's

I have been to Hot Doug's many times and it is probably my favorite hot dog joint that I have ever been to.  I figured that since it has announced that it would be closing in October, I should come and actually write about it.  Located in Avondale, it is actually much more than your average hot dog stand, they bill themselves as an Encased Meat Emporium and Sausage Superstore.  While it does have the standards that you would find at your average hot dog stand, the Chicago Dog, Polish, Red Hot, Corn Dog, Brat, Thuringer, and Italian dogs, (named after celebrities) as well as fries and fountain drinks, the lines form, and there are very long lines, for the specials.  They have such things as Alligator Sausage with Cajun Shrimp Remoulade, Steak Au Poivre sausage with Four Roses Bourbon Mustard, Emmantal Cheese, and Crispy Fried Onions, and Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse, and Fleur de Sel.  If I'm going to talk about the restaurant, the first thing that I should talk about is talk about the line.  Part of the line is probably due to the fact that Hot Doug's is only open essentially for lunch (10:30 am to 4 pm) and it is only open when Doug Sohn, the owner/creator of Hot Doug's is there to run the cash register.  The place is small, seating maybe 40 people, it's open only for a limited time, and the hot dogs are really creative and good.  It's a perfect storm for creating a long line.  On the day that I went, it was the Friday before Memorial Day, a long weekend, when many people start there weekend early.  Add to that the fact that Doug had recently announced that he would be closing and that he said that he would be taking the next week off and the line was especially long.  Despite the long line, the people that join the line know ahead of time what they are getting into and are generally pretty good spirited about it.  Many people brought things to occupy there time in the line.  I had my Kindle as I saw other people have and other people had their smart phones and video games.  I talked with the people that I stood in line with and we ended up playing several rounds of Heads Up.  We waited in line for 3 hours which is exceptionally long and if I had know beforehand how long it would take, I may not have taken the plunge despite the fact that I got along well with the people with whom I was in line.  However, once I was committed to standing in line and had no plans for the rest of the day, I was not going to leave the line.  The interior of Hot Doug's is brightly colored and filled with pop culture and kitsch.  There is a counter along the front of the restaurant but most of the seating is with two tops along the wall and larger round tables in the center of the dining room.  After you place your order with Doug and pay, you are seated and your food is brought to you.  I sat at a round table with the three people that I had spent the last three hours with.

As I stood in line for three hours, I ended up ordering two specialty dogs and some Duck Fat Fries which are only offered on Friday and Saturday.  The duck fat fries are only offered in a large size and are amazing.  They are like the best fries, salty and crisp, with a soft interior.  I assume that the large size is because they are so popular that the smaller size was never ordered and people were just wolfing down the large size.
For the first of my specialty dogs, I ordered a Merguez Sausage with Halloumi Cheese and Harissa Sauce.  Merguez is a spicy lamb sausage that originated in North Africa.  Halloumi Cheese is an unripened semi-hard Cypriot cheese similar in texture to fresh mozzarella made with goat and/or sheep's milk and Harissa is a hot pepper sauce that originated in Tunisia.  Everything originated in the same region of the world so they went together well.  It was spicy, as I had expected it to be, but I also expected it to be fairly gamy as lamb generally is.  It did have a different and stronger flavor than pork or beef does, but it wasn't especially gamy and I did enjoy it.
The other sausage was definitely different.  It started with an Escargot and Guanciale Sausage (snail with pork jowl) to which was added Parsley-Garlic Goat Butter and Double Cream Brie Cheese.  The sausage was a combination I wouldn't have thought of putting together or would have guessed would work.  Escargot has an earthy and savory flavor but texturally, I don't know if it would hold a sausage together well.  I imagine that this is why the guanciale was used.  It has a baconish flavor that is both stronger in flavor and more delicate in texture than regular bacon (kind of similar to Prosciutto).  While the color of the sausage wasn't exceptionally appetizing with a grayish flavor which would have come from the escargot, it did taste very good with the escargot and guanciale complementing each other well..  Texturally, the sausage was pretty delicate but the garlic goat butter and the brie added some depth to it.  Having said that, I wasn't a huge fan of the how the brie went with the sausage.  I think that I would have the sausage again if it wasn't matched with the brie.

I enjoyed my trip to Hot Doug's.  The people were friendly, both the people that I met in line, Doug, and the employees, and the food was very creative and good.  I will probably visit at least a couple of times before it closes for good in October.  Hopefully, I won't have to deal with another 3 hour line.