Sunday, September 28, 2014

5411 Gourmet Empanadas

While the laws regulating food trucks in Chicago are cumbersome, there are several companies that have been successful enough to expand their enterprises into Brick and Mortar stores.  I first encountered 5411 Empanadas as a food truck and I really liked what they were doing.  Empanadas are the Hispanic version of Hand Pies or Pasties.  Crusty and savory pies that are eaten by hand and can be filled with a variety of things.   They are a very popular street food in Argentina.  I had first encountered the 5411 Empanadas truck a few years ago.  Last year, they opened up a brick and mortar store in Lakeview which I did not go to, but when they opened up a spot in Wicker Park, it became a must go to.  The space is a small storefront with a glass front with 5411 painted on one side of the window.  5411 is the dialing code for Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the owners are from.  The (Wicker Park) space is small, with seating for about 14 at tables by the windows and about 6 more seats at the bar.  The space looks like a coffee bar and while it does serve coffee, it also has a small selection of beers and wine.  Ordering is done at the counter with a large chalkboard listing what is available.  The food is brought to you and at the table or bar, there is a listing of what each empanada looks like.  This is very convenient because the empanadas are relatively small (about 4 or 5 bites), so several will generally be ordered.  If they didn't have crust differentiations, it would be a crap shoot for both the diner and the baker both.
I ordered 5 empanadas and one sauce.  The sauce was Chimichurri, the traditional Argentine sauce of  Herbs, Garlic, and Olive Oil.  It reminded me somewhat of a pesto and it served as a nice dipping sauce for the different empanadas.  All of the empanadas had a nicely browned crust that had some flakiness to it, but still held together when a bite was taken out of it and all of the fillings were very good and flavorful.  The empanadas also came out pretty hot.  While I did order multiple empanadas, I did eat them one at a time (from top to bottom and from left to right as they sat on the plate).  I didn't think about it at the time, but I also ate them from most to least vegetarian.  I started out with the Mushroom, Thyme, and Blue Cheese.  I then went to the Ratatouille, the Bacon, Date and Goat Cheese, the Chorizo with Patatas Bravas, and finished off with the Malbec Beef.  While they were all good and I liked them all, I think that I liked the Bacon, Date, and Goat Cheese best.  It was both sweet and savory and had a little gaminess from the goat cheese which added to the overall flavor.
After my empanadas, I decided I wanted some sweetness.  The store carries a few desserts including flan, cheesecake, and housemade Alfajores, a soft sandwich cookie that is covered in glazed sugar, or chocolate, and is very popular in Argentina.  I decided to stick with the Argentinian theme and got a couple of Alfajores, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  One was chocolate and one was glazed and filled with a pistachio filling.  They were light, sweet, and very good.

I already knew when I came to the store that I liked the empanadas from 5411.  I am glad to see that they are able to maintain it in their brick and mortar store.  They make some very good empanadas with a wide variety and I will definitely be back.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Publican - Brunch

Paul Kahan is one of my favorite chefs/restauranteurs.  As one of the owners of One Off Hospitality, the James Beard Award winner owns and runs seven, and soon to be eight,  restaurants.  I have been to (and written about) two of his places (Blackbird and Big Star).  I have also had the food of Publican Quality Meats although I have never been inside the restaurant/butcher shop.  The one problem with these restaurants is that they are so popular that they are sometimes hard to get reservations.  This was what stopped me from going to The Publican.  What I didn't consider was the fact that The Publican keeps a certain number of seats free for walk ups, so I had not been to this highly lauded restaurant.  Recently however, a friend came in from out of town and suggested this place for Saturday Brunch.  Some phone calls were made and a reservation was made for our large group.  The Publican is a large space modeled after a European beer hall.  The dining room is open and most of the seating is on the U-shaped communal table in the center of the room.  There are some booths on the outside of the room and a very long bar on the inside with some standing high tops, which are more for waiting, in the middle.  The floor, tables, and chairs are all a heavy looking, light colored wood, as are the pillars in the middle of the room.  Lighting is provided by a combination of a very large window in the front with smaller windows on the booth side of the restaurant and a large number of hanging globes.

The menu at The Publican is pretty wide ranging but it concentrates on pork, oysters, and beer, and we made sure to partake in two out of three of those.  We started with the Oysters.  There were six oysters on the menu (which vary based on the season).  We went with the large Chef's selection which gave us a selection of all of the oysters and allowed everyone that wanted one (or more) to try them out.  The oysters were served on ice with a cocktail sauce and crackers on the side.  While some in the party were taking the oysters out of their shell and eating them on the crackers with the cocktail sauce, I prefer my oysters al fresco and sucked them directly out of their shells.  I did use the crackers as palate cleansers so I could recognize differences in the oysters, but I didn't try the Cocktail Sauce even though I am sure that was stellar.  Visually, you could tell the difference between the oysters by the shape of their shell.  There were some textural differences as well, the one that I remember specifically was the deep shelled oyster that was more dense than the others, but they all tasted like oysters as you might expect.  They were all briny and had a slightly fishy flavor, but they were all clean and fresh and very good.
As this was brunch, I had to try some of their baked goods, which they make in house.  They had a coffee cake, a doughnut, and a pecan sticky bun on the menu.  I went with the Pecan Sticky Bun and was very surprised when it arrived because it was enormous.  It would have been easy to share with others at the table, but they all had their own things to work on.  The pastry was a couple of inches thick and, as it was a sticky bun, very sticky.  I could have eaten it with my hands, but it would have been very messy, so I attacked it with a knife and fork.  It was everything you would expect from a sticky bun.  It was sweet and sticky with crispy edges and a pillowy soft interior.  The pastry itself tasted like bread fresh out of the oven, but it was liberally covered with sweet and buttery caramel and pecans.  It would have been great to share with someone, but I labored through it and was able to enjoy this by myself.
While we were waiting for our main courses, someone in our group ordered another side dish for which The Publican is famous, their Pork Rinds.  I am generally not a huge fan of Pork Rinds, which is not to say that I don't like them, I just am generally indifferent to them.  Having said that, I had seen and heard about The Publican's Pork Rinds, so I was interested in trying them.  They arrived in a paper cone and looked very light and lightly spiced.  While these were obviously pork rinds, they were a step above everything that I had tried previously.  They were very light and positively melted in your mouth.  As these are very light, the flavor is light as well but their is a very definite fried pork flavor.  The seasoning was light as well, but it was sufficient to add some salt and a little spice.  These were a definite win and I would definitely have them again.
The main course that I had is a course native to North Africa and Israel and while it doesn't necessarily sound great on paper, having had a version of it before, I knew that I liked it and was interested to try it here.  I ordered Shakshouka which is a dish of Eggs that are poached in a sauce of Tomatoes and Red Peppers and frequently spiced with Cumin with bread on the side to sop up the sauce.  In this case, it was also prepared with Morcilla - a Spanish Blood Sausage, Spigarello - a leafy relative of broccoli, and a white cheese that was uncredited.  It was also served with Focaccia to sop up the sauce.  It was cooked and served in a steel pan which came out very hot, so I had to be careful when starting to eat it.  The dish was very rich, with a good spicy tomato flavor from the sauce and a meaty flavor from the morcilla.  The eggs, the feature part of the dish, added a richness to the entire thing.  It was very good and interested other people at the table.

I was very glad I finally had the opportunity to try The Publican.  I will definitely make an effort to return, both for brunch and for dinner.  The food was very good as was the service even if the open space made for a loud room.           

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Knife and Tine

I became a fan of Moto even before I went there.  I liked the idea of whimsy and science in their creations and I have tried to follow and support chefs that have come from there.  Nate Park, who started with Moto before going to Moto's sister restaurant, Ing, before joining some other teammates for Baume and Brix and now, working with the Perennial Virant team, Knife and Tine which is is in the old Sprout space.  My first impression, when I arrived there, was that they really didn't do much with the design of the place.  In reality, there really wasn't a lot that they could have done with the space because there isn't a lot of space to work with.  The entrance is through a stone hallway with windows looking into the enclosed patio located in the front with the door opening into the main dining room and bar.  The bar is pretty long and runs the length of the dining room and has a glass top and light wood front with dark wood trim.  The seats for the bar are brown high cushioned chairs with tan cushions.  This is also the general color scheme of the dining room.  The walls are light brown and about the same color as the chair cushions.  The banquette was a darker brown and the tables were all dark brown.  There is table seating in the dining room for about 24.  The front patio seats about as many people.  It has gray stone walls, black tables, and hanging lights, with a skylight and windows that look out onto the street and into the entry hall.  Despite the stone walls, the patio has a more open feel than the dining room and that's what I felt like when I came, so I sat at a table by one of the windows looking out onto the street.  Knife and Tine has a pretty good wine list (although not the book that some restaurants have) and their cocktail list is a bunch of classics.  I decided to start things off with a classic favorite of mine, The Last Word, which contains Gin, Green Chartreuse, Fresh Lime and Maraschino.  It was herbal, floral, tart from the lime, and had just a touch of bitter sweetness from the maraschino.  It was also very good and allowed me to make my food decisions while it was being made.
I looked over the menu and after some thought and questions, I made my decisions.  The menu at Knife and Tine is elevated comfort food and there were several things of interest to decide between.  Before my appetizer arrived though, I was brought a Bread Plate that was served with Whipped Horchata Butter.  The bread was crisp and the butter was creamy and slightly sweet with the cinnamon finish that you would expect from horchata.  It was simple, as bread and butter is, but the horchata really added to it.
For my appetizer, I went with Pappadew Peppers that were stuffed with Bacon Goat Cheese and served in a narrow bowl with Golden Raisins and Almonds.  Pappadews are sweet and slightly spicy and the goat cheese and bacon was a great pairing.  There were eight peppers in the dish that were about a single bite each and were all a taste explosion.  They were sweet, savory, creamy, and fresh with a slightly spicy finish.  The nuts and raisins complemented the peppers.  The dish tasted very good and was fun to eat.
My entree was the Horseshoe.  This is obviously not the u shaped metal implement that is nailed to the bottom of a horse's foot.  This is an open face sandwich invented at the Leland Hotel in Springfield, Illinois.  It originally consisted of two thick slices of toast topped with ham or a hamburger, cheese sauce, and french fries.  This Horseshoe consisted of Brioche filled with White Cheddar, topped with Braised Short Rib, Kale and a Russet Potato Nest.  While the original Horseshoe sounds good, this version elevated the quality of ingredients and still kept it feeling like comfort food and tasting very good.
While the food up to this point was good, dessert was over the top.  Called a Superbrownie, it was exactly that.  Served in an offset bowl, it consisted of a Blondie Brownie,  Hot Fudge, Caramel, Candied Walnuts, Housemade Whipped Cream, and a Brownie Crumble.  It was sweet, rich, and flavorful, with a variety of flavors of and textures.  It was a very good finish to a nice dinner.  I enjoyed my dinner here.  It was friendly and a good neighborhood restaurant that elvated comfort food while still keeping it friendly.