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.   


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Boka revisited

A new chef in an established restaurant can make an enormous difference.  Having said that though, the change that Boka underwent after hiring Chef Lee Wolen was positively transformational.  Chef Wolen came from The Lobby in Chicago, which he had raised to a Michelin Star, but he has a very impressive CV as well with stints at Moto, Butter, the world famous El Bulli, and Eleven Madison Park.  He was coming to Boka, which already had a Michelin Star.  I imagine that they wanted, at least to maintain that.  I came for dinner a few years ago and really enjoyed my dinner and the design of the place.  I had sat in the "Sail Room" that reminded me of an old corset and I had a very good dinner that included Scallops, Pork Belly, and an Indian dessert similar to Ice Cream.  The last time I came, I had a little trouble finding the entrance because it was inside a courtyard.  The entrance is in the same place, but as I knew where to look and there was still daylight when I arrived, I didn't have a problem finding it.  The host station is still in the same place inside the door, but the wall behind it was now decorated/covered with antique door locks.  I like the antique/vintage look so it played to my sensibilities well.  I was seated in a different room than I was the last time I was here and I didn't notice this room so I am uncertain what was there before, but I do know that there was a very dramatic change made because there has been much comment made about it.  The room is next to the hot station and I could see from where I was seated in a large round white leather booth who was coming and going.  The room used black and white tiles of four different designs to make a larger dramatic design.  The ceiling was a large skylight with an old design.  The wall next to me was  off-white and behind me was painted in a semi-graffiti style, "Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken - Oscar Wilde."  I liked it and it made me smile, but the talk of this room is the "Living Wall".  The wall opposite my booth was covered in plant life.  Most of it was fairly short, but there were several plants scattered on the wall that had longer leaves/branches/stems.  Also on the wall among the plant life were about 15 portraits of animals in old-style formal wear.  There were dogs, cats, monkeys, various birds, a puma, and a squirrel, who looked very serious and stern.  It was both very dramatic and whimsical and I really liked it.  As far as the other rooms were concerned, the bar was in the same location and while there appeared to be some changes, they didn't appear to be that dramatic.  The "Sail Room" has had the sail removed and with the wooden beams in the wall and the ceiling, it now has a lodge-like appearance.  The wine list at Boka is still fairly impressive, although they seem to cut down somewhat on the number of cocktails.  I was, however, able to find a cocktail to satisfy my tastes.  It was called a Cold Shoulder #2 and had Bombay Dry Gin, Averna, Spiced Pear, Lemon, and Egg White.  I am generally not a fan of pears, but the flavor moderated both the sour from the lemon and the herbal flavor from the gin.  The egg white also gave it a nice creamy head.
My dinner started with an Amuse Bouche.  I was brought a shot glass-sized portion of Roasted Cauliflower Soup with Ras Al Hanout (a north African spice blend that literally means "head of the shop" and frequently includes cardamom, clove, cinnamon, ground chili peppers, coriander, cumin, peppercorn, paprika, fenugreek, and turmeric), and Blackberry Molasses.  It was very creamy with small bits of cauliflower, had a slight curry flavor and slightly sweet finish from the molasses. 
The food menu was divided into Cold,  Hot, and Entrees (with a separate Dessert list).  There was a lot on the menu that really interested me so I had trouble deciding and relied on the waiter to help me make my decisions.  I started out with the Heirloom Carrots which were served with Amaranth (a plant used as a grain by the Aztecs), Pistachios, Smoked Goat Cheese, and a round fruit that felt and tasted like a Date.  The carrots were served both thin slices and as the stems.  They were tender and very flavorful and everything went together very well.  There were many flavors and textures, I really enjoyed it, and I had much anticipation for the rest of the meal.
My bread plate arrived after this.  I received two rolls, A Ciabatta Bread with Dates and Pecans, and a Roll with Olives and Sea Salt, and a dollop of Housemade Butter.  The bread was very crusty with a very soft interior like the best baguettes.  They were also very tasty.  The butter was lightly salted and very soft.  It would have been very easy to use all of the butter on the rolls, because it was good and soft, but I also wanted to taste the very good bread so I went light on the butter and enjoyed both.  
For my Hot Appetizer, I went with the Salt Cod Ravioli which was served with Corn, Arugula, and Radishes and had a Corn Form.  I liked the corn, radishes, and, and arugula, and the ravioli was also very good once I found it.  Cod has a relatively neutral flavor, although salting it does intensify the flavor that is there.  The ravioli was tender and had a good salt cod flavor.   I was really not a fan of the foam, though.  There are places that foam works, I just do not think it worked here.
At The Lobby, one of the dishes that was renowned was the Chicken.  He brought this to Boka and I did think about getting it, but I ended up getting the Beef Short Ribs.  It was served with Grilled Lettuce, Shiitake and other Mushrooms, with Corned Tongue.  This was really good and while I am still wondering about the Chicken, I really liked it.  The short rib was very tender and the lettuce and mushrooms went well with it.  The tongue was tender and was mixed in with the mushrooms.  It added an additional meaty flavor to the dish.
For dessert, I thought I was going to go with a relatively standard Chocolate Cake until the dessert called Coffee and Mascarpone was described to me.  It contained Coffee Gelato, Honey Cake, Mascarpone Gelato, Whipped Cream, Gingerbread, and Elderflowers.  It was a great looking dish and the it tasted at least as well as it looked.  Coffee is a common after dinner drink.  This was essentially a deconstructed coffee drink.
I don't see it often, but some fine dining restaurants will offer petit fours at the end of the meal.  Boka was one of these restaurants and they brought me a Housemade Thin Mint.  It was light, it was sweet, and it was a great finish to a great meal.  There have been a lot of changes to the restaurant, but they have all been good changes.  I really enjoyed my meal and would happily return.       

Friday, October 10, 2014

Lockdown Bar &Grill

I have long claimed that Kuma's Corner makes the best burgers in town.  They are without question the most creative and there are many places that take aim at them.  Lockdown Bar & Grill is one of the most blatant Kuma's knock-offs.  They also are primarily a burger bar with a good beer list and a heavy metal soundtrack and a staff with a lot of ink.  They do differentiate themselves somewhat though by playing concert movies on their many flat screens instead of just having a very loud metal soundtrack.  The bar is also designed with a prison motif with black walls, a lot of steel bars, and chain link, and liberal use of deck plating.  The movie that was playing on the evening that I went was an Iron Maiden Concert Film.  I dined there on a Tuesday night recently when they have a half-price burger special.  I was happy to see that I picked the right night to go.  They have a pretty extensive beer list so it actually longer to pick my beer than it did my burger.  I ended up going with Evil Twin's Hipster Ale because I figured that I may never see it again.  Evil Twin is a gypsy brewer originally from Denmark and now from Brooklyn that produces limited edition and one-off beers.  I figured, if I saw something from Evil Twin, because their brews are short runs, I probably won't see Hipster Ale again.  As far as the beer was concerned, it was an American Pale Ale that was a bit simple of flavor, but done well.  I enjoyed it and would be happy to try another beer from Evil Twin.

The burgers at Lockdown, like the burgers at Kuma's, have a theme, although the theme at Lockdown is about crime and punishment.  The burger that I got was a minor crime but a major burger.  It was called a Public Disturbance.  It had Bacon, Gorgonzola, Onion Rings, and BBQ Sauce.  It was enormous and with the barbecue sauce dripping down, it looked like a crime scene.  It came with a side of Hand Cut Fries.  The burger was hard to get my mouth around, but it was very good.  The barbecue sauce was sweet, the bacon and onion rings were crispy, and the Gorgonzola had a good blue cheese flavor.  While the combination was not that unusual, it was very good and the burger itself was probably one of the best around.  It was tender, juicy, and very flavorful. 

The burgers at Lockdown, while not incredibly creative, are very good as is the beer list and the Tuesday burger deal is a win.  I will definitely be back for more.

Saturday, October 4, 2014


I mentioned the Sheerin Brothers previously by reputation, if not explicitly by name (Mike and Pat).  The two of them have helmed several high profile restaurants including Blackbird, The Signature Room, Three Floyd's Brew Pub, and opened Trenchermen together.  Mike later left to open Cicchetti, an Italian small plates place.  I have really liked the restaurants run by both Sheerin Brothers, so i had much confidence in this place.  Fortunately or unfortunately, I decided to dine there on Mike Sheerin's reported last day.  I did not know that it was Chef Sheerin's last day until after I had dined there, and it really shouldn't matter as the staff and menu should be the same until the new chef has some time to put his stamp on the restaurant (besides the fact that an Executive Chef rarely cooks).  The space is located in the new Northwestern Hospital building in Streeterville and has a very open footprint.  It has a nice patio, but it was a bit chilly when I went there, so I dined indoors.  The outer walls of the space are windows, so the only thing that you are missing by sitting indoors is the weather.  Despite the modern window walls, the space had wooden pillars and floors and a very rustic look.  Even with an open space, the dining area was divided into three rooms, the front room contained the entrance, several tables, and a large and long bar.  The middle space, where I was seated, had seating for about 40 people and an open kitchen.  The rear dining area was the largest.  All of the spaces had a high, unfinished ceiling with hanging lights.  The menu at Cicchetti is roughly divided into two sections.  The first section is Cicchetti, Italian for snacks (and very similar to Spanash Tapas) where you will find things such as meatballs, bruschetta, cheese, sardines, and beef carpaccio, which was what I ordered.  It was an Aged Hanger Steak Carpaccio which was served with Crispy Cauliflower (dried), Fennel, and Raisin Caper Aioli.  The presentation of this very much reminded me of fall with the fennel leaves and dried cauliflower.  Unfortunately, while the cauliflower tasted good, the texture also reminded me of eating dried leaves.  The carpaccio itself was paper thin and very tender and the raisin caper aioli had the right amount of sweetness and sour.  Were it not for the textural issue of the cauliflower, this would have been a great dish.
The rest of the menu was divided into salads, soups, vegetarian, pasta, and meat and fish.  I my mind salads, soups, and appetizers occupy the same space in a meal, so unless it's a multi-course meal, I will usually only order one of these.  As I had what was essentially an appetizer, I went for the pasta.  I ordered the Corn Fettucine which was served with Smoked Pink Shrimp, Black Pepper, Pepita Crumble, Broccoli, and Corn Cream Sauce.  Every element of this dish was done right and cooked perfectly.  The shrimp was sweet and tender with a little smokiness.  The Fettucine was al dente.  The pepita crumble added some crunch and a little nuttiness.  The broccoli was tender, the black pepper added some bite, and the corn cream sauce was creamy with a lot of corn flavor.  It was a very good dish but it might have been better with a little counterpoint like an acid or something like that.
For my Secondi (main course), I ordered the Duck, which was served Two Ways, Breast and Sausage.  With the duck came three types of Cauliflower, Purple, White, and Romanesco. and over everything was poured a Duck Jus.  The cauliflower was tender, crisp and good tasting, but while there were examples of all three varieties in the dish, it was mostly white.  The breast was tender and flavorful, but the sausage had a stronger flavor which really shouldn't be a surprise.  It was also nicely peppery and the jus added a nice duck flavor to everything.
After my Secondi but before my Dolce, I was brought an after dinner shot of Limoncello.  I didn't order it, it was on the house, and I wasn't complaining.  I like Limoncello.  It was served very cold and was very thick and sour with a sweet finish and it was a very nice opening for the sweets that are dessert.

There were many things on the menu that interested me a lot.  They did have some of the usual suspects:  gelato, sorbet, a cannoli, and cheese, but surprisingly, no tiramisu (as such).  What I ordered sounded positively sinful and the presentation confirmed it.  It was called the Cicchetti Sundae and it had Tiramisu Gelato, Fernet Branca Menta Fudge (Fernet Branca is a potable amaro bitter, menta means mint, so what this was was Bitter Mint Hot Fudge), Pistachio Brittle and Amarena Cherries with the Housemade Whipped Cream to top things off.  This was ridiculous and ridiculously good.  It was sweet with bitter from the fudge the gelato, and the cherries, with a nice crunch from the pistachio brittle and the mint flavor to counter things.

I really want to like Cicchetti.  The space was both modern and rustic, the staff was friendly and helpful, and the food, while not great in every aspect, was good.  I do imagine that the new chef, who was part of the team that opened Cicchetti, will put more of his own spin on things as time goes on and that, in and of itself, makes it worth another look.