Sunday, January 25, 2015

Carriage House - Dinner

When most people think of Southern food, there mind will go toward the Mississippi delta or Georgia, but the South also encompasses Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Virginias, the Carolinas, and possibly Florida.  While there are similarities in food from these areas, there are also distinct differences, barbecue styles being but one example.  There are several restaurants in Southern cuisine in the Chicago area.  The Carriage House, a restaurant where I dined recently,  is one that specializes in Low Country Cuisine, a branch of Southern cooking centered around the Carolina and Georgia coastlines, that uses a lot of seafood and rice, and brings in influences from Caribbean and African Cuisines.  It actually has some similarities to Cajun cuisine.  When I last came, the entrance was on a side street and opened into the dining room near the kitchen.  When I most recently, the entrance used was on the main road behind a wind shelter commonly seen around around Chicago bars and restaurants in the winter time.  The door from the street does not open directly into the dining room like the rear door does, with a second door further sheltering the dining room from cold and wind.  When I arrived, there weren't many people there, so I decided to sit at the bar in order to make things easier for service.  The bar sits in front of the entrance and runs back into the dining room, so if the door had opened directly into the dining room, the people at the bar would most noticeably feel the cold.  While I did come for dinner, I wasn't really in the mood for anything elaborate, so I started things off with a beer and a Kitchen Pickle Jar.  While the term pickle is commonly used to mean pickled cucumbers, I have noticed that many restaurants use the term generically to refer to any pickled vegetables.  This is what I expected in this case and I was not disappointed.  While there were many sliced pickled cucumbers, the jar also included Pickled Onions and was topped with halved Pickled Okra.  The pickled cucumbers were very good, as I expected them to be.  They were fresh with a nice sour flavor and a crispy crunch.  The okra was a bit of a surprise because I had never had it before other than in gumbos and jambalaya.  I had heard that it could be slimy so I didn't really know what to expect.  There was no sliminess with the pickled okra and it was pretty crisp, which to me, implied freshness, and under the expected spicy sourness coming from the pickling brine was a flavor similar to asparagus.  It was good and I enjoyed it.
For my main course, I went with a classic of Southern cuisine, Chicken and Dumplings.  The chicken was a Fried Chicken Thigh, with Buttermilk Dumplings, Winter Vegetables consisting of Potatoes, Carrots, and Radishes, and Rosemary Gravy.  The chicken was tender and juicy with a crispy skin and was very flavorful.  The Dumplings were small bites of pillowy goodness with a slightly sour buttermilk flavor and the vegetables were at that perfect space between the crisp and tender found in vegetables that are perfectly cooked.  The gravy was a brown chicken gravy liberally seasoned with rosemary which went well with everything and helped to tie things together.
For my dessert, I went with a classic of Southern cuisine, Pecan Pie, which was served with Vanilla Ice Cream and topped with Bourbon Caramel.  The pie was a personal sized pie instead of a slice and had a great crust.  The body of the pie was sweet and sticky as a good pecan pie should be and had a ton of pecans.  The vanilla ice cream topping the pie was good vanilla ice cream, creamy and sweet with a good vanilla flavor, but really not anything you couldn't find at any number of other places.  The bourbon caramel, though was something special.  It had a wealth of flavor and in addition to the sweet found in the pie and ice cream, added salt, butter, and a little smokiness from the bourbon.  It was all very good and I made a special point to get every bit off the plate.  If I thought I could have gotten away with it, I may very well have licked the plate clean.

I again enjoyed my dinner at Carriage House.  The food was very good, my bartender/waitress was very friendly and helpful, and the atmosphere was pretty low key.  While the space had few people there when I arrived, things picked up by the time I left.  The place is a lot of fun and I will return.          

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Nico Osteria

When Paul Kahan opens a new restaurant, it's news.  The celebrity chef and restauranteur has opened eight restaurants and while I have been to several, I am a few restaurants behind.  I, and several of my friends were very excited when we heard that Nico Osteria, an Italian Seafood restaurant was opening in the Gold Coast and while I really wanted to go, we could never find a time that would work with me and someone else.  I finally decided that if I really wanted to go, I shouldn't let schedule conflicts with someone else stop me, and I made plans to go on my own.  Occupying the same space as the former Whiskey, the space is much more welcoming.  The space has a lounge feel with leather seats and window walls along the outer walls and muted lighting (but not dark as some restaurants are).  There is also a photo portrait of German model/singer, Nico.  The kitchen is open with a chef's counter along two sides.  Diners can sit and watch the kitchen staff cut fish and finish dishes before they are brought to the diners.  This is where I sat.  While it does have a limited list, they have an extensive liquor selection and I would imagine that if you wanted any common or classic drink, they could make a very good drink for you.  As one of Paul Kahan's restaurant group's places is Classic cocktail lounge, The Violet Hour, I imagine that they have a pretty good library of drinks that are not listed on the menu.  While I was looking over the food menu, I started things off with a drink called a Swan Dive.  It was Vanilla-infused George Dickel No. 8 Tennessee Whisky, Grilled Grapefruit Juice, Spices, and Smoked Salt on Crushed Ice.  This was a very good drink with a wealth of flavors.  It was sweet, smoky, and tart, with a salty finish and could go with a lot of foods.
Nico has a large menu divided into several sections.  The menu starts out with a listing of Crudo (raw fish) followed by Fettunta (bruschetta), Antipasti, Pasta, Whole Fish, and Piatti (Large plate courses) in addition to the dessert menu.  There were a lot of things on the menu that would make returning to explore some more extremely enjoyable, but I started with the Crudo.  There were 9 fish, ranging from Needlefish to Mackerel, two oysters, and scallops.  All of the fish had different accompaniments.  The fish that I chose was the Blue Marlin which was served with Seaweed Sott'olio (marinated in Truffle Oil), Star Grapefruit, and Scallions.  This was very good and flavorful.  The fish was some of the most tender fish that I have ever had.  The seaweed added salt and a subtle truffle funk, the grapefruit was tart, and it was all good.
 After the Crudo, I was brought a complimentary bread board.  The board had thick slices of Olive Bread, Wheat Bread, and Sourdough Bread and was served with a bowl of clarified butter for dipping.  They were all very good and were eaten before the next course arrived.  The olive bread was like a focaccia with a very airy texture and whole olives.  The texture was light and airy and the flavor was slightly salty.  The wheat bread was whole wheat with bits of the kernel interspersed throughout the dense bread providing a slightly nutty flavor to the sweetness of the bread.  The sourdough fell in the middle as far as texture was concerned and being sourdough, it was obviously somewhat sour.  The clarified butter was also good, but the bread was so good, it almost wasn't necessary. 
As this is nominally an Italian restaurant, I figured that it would be a sad thing not to have the pasta.  I went with the Paccheri with Calabrese Sausage, Zolfini Beans, and Hama Hama Clams.  Paccheri is a large tubed pasta like Ziti that originates around the Southern Italian states of Calabria and Campania.  It was perfectly cooked and lightly toothsome.  The Calabrese sausage, also from Calabria, was ground and had a nice spicy pork flavor.  I had never had (or heard of, for that matter) Zolfini Beans.  They are small white beans that are similar to Cannelini beans, but smaller.  Size and texturally, they actually reminded me of Bulghur Wheat.  I had also never heard of Hama Hama Clams.  They are clams that are farmed in the brackish water of the mouth of the Hamma Hamma River in Washington.  They were small and very good.  Overall, there were a lot of textures and flavors that went together very well and I really enjoyed it.
My dessert was amazing.  It was a spin on a Tiramisu served in a parfait form.  It contained Marsala Zabaglione (custard using a sweet wine), Aged Lady Finger Crunch, White Coffee, and Cocoa Powder.  It was a very nice creamy custard tasting of coffee and chocolate.  In the center of the custard were several stacked thin, round lady fingers.  It was very good and was a great finish for my dinner.
I thought my dessert was the finish for my dinner.  Actually, I was served a couple of petit fours.  A Dark Chocolate Truffle and a Raspberry Gelee.  These were sweet, very flavorful, and a great finish to my dinner.

I really enjoyed my dinner here and I was glad I went despite the fact that I was unable to coordinate with one of my friends.  The space was very nice, the staff was very friendly and very willing to answer questions.  I was even offered a taste of the Foie Gras Pastrami that one of the kitchen staff was cutting for service.  And the food was great.  The only problem was that there so many things that looked good and interesting that I will have to return to get a more complete idea of their food.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Uncommon Ground on Clark - Brunch

I don't often do brunch two days in a row, but events played out that way and I like brunch, so after enjoying brunch at Marmalade on Saturday, I went to Uncommon Ground on Clark (there is a second Uncommon Ground with a different menu that is also on my brunch list).  I have been to Uncommon Ground a few times and really like it.  Their emphasis on on organic and local and the fact that they have been listed as the Greenest Restaurant in America can give people the idea that their menu might be pretty boring.  This is not the case, as can be seen when the menu, which is printed on recycled printed paperboard, is looked at.  We were seated in the dining room off to the side of the main room where musicians play in the evening.  With hardwood floors, walls, and furniture, it really reminds me of a hunting lodge.  The only thing that is really missing is a fireplace and that is in the main room.  There are a lot of veggies on the menu, and it is very veggie-friendly, it has many brunch standards enough bacon, sausage, corned beef, to make most people happy.  My goto for brunch is generally a hash and their hash looked really good to me, so that is what I ordered.  Served in a bowl, it was a little surprising to me, but it still looked good.  The hash had House-Corned (salt cured) Slagel Farms Beef Brisket, Fingerling Potato Confit, and Roast Brussels Sprouts, and was topped with a Poached Egg, Baby Kale, and Lemon Hollandaise Sauce.  It was served with a side salad of Augula, Radicchio, and other leaf vegetables, Butternut Squash, and a House Vinaigrette.  The salad was relatively simple, but it was very fresh and provided a little lightness to a dish that would have been very heavy by itself.  The hash was very good.  All of the elements, the brisket, potatoes, and brussels sprouts, were very tender and flavorful.  The poached egg was perfectly cooked, and after breaking the yolk to let it run and mix with the rest of the hash, it made sense why it was served in a bowl.  The hollandaise was applied lightly, but provided a nice lemony taste, which paired well with the brussels sprouts and brought the egg in well. 

I again liked my experience at this Uncommon Ground.  The food was again great and while there were a few hiccups in service, they were taken care of quickly, and with the appropriate apologies.  I will again enjoy returning here and look forward to also dining at the other Uncommon Ground.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


About once a month, on a Saturday morning, I am in Ravenswood to volunteer.  After we finish we frequently go to Glenn's Diner which has become a favorite for brunch.  I was in the area recently and we were again scheduled to go to Glenn's, but circumstances were such that we had to change our plans, and subsequently, the restaurant that we were going to.  We decided to go to Marmalade which I had seen several times and had heard was pretty good, but I had not yet dined there.  Located on a corner, Marmalade had windows on two sides and the look of the place kind of reminded me of a 1960s style diner.  The dining area was built with two tops and larger parties were served by pushing tables together.  The walls were light and from where we sat, there were two chalkboards, each with a different set of specials.  There were several items that would look right at home at a Greek or Mexican diner.  In any case, everything on the menu, both printed and written on the chalkboard, looked amazingly good and it took a little time to make a decision.  There were many versions of many breakfast standards, Omelettes, French Toast, Pancakes, and Eggs Benedict, I decided to start with a side of Applewood Smoked Bacon.  I was given three thick slices of crispy, bacony goodness.  It was sweet and meaty with just enough smoke and was something that I could eat all day except that I also had one of their signature dishes waiting for me.

For my main course, I had Chef Efrain's Texan Bennie, which I (correctly) took to be a Texan-style Eggs Benedict.  It contained Potato Rosemary Flatbread, Potatoes, Slow-cooked Pork Shoulder, marinated in Marmalade’s own secret-recipe House Brine, topped with Pineapple Chutney and Poached Eggs, drizzled with Pesto Hollandaise, and garnished with a slice of Orange and Pineapple.  Everything about this was very flavorful.  It was both sweet and spicy (as in spice flavored, not hot) and everything was cooked perfectly.  The pork was very tender and pulled apart very easily.  While I did like this, I will say that the rosemary flatbread was a little much on it's own.  The fact that it would have been extremely difficult to eat it on its own because it was buried by everything else was undoubtedly by design because it added a lot of flavor to whatever it was eaten with.  I really enjoyed brunch here.  The food was good, the service was very friendly, and I would be happy to return.    

Monday, January 5, 2015

Geek Bar Beta

It had been a while since I had been out to a restaurant of note and so I had a decision for my start of the year.  Was I going to go low key or high end?  I decided that since I will undoubtedly make it to some high end restaurants, I will take it easy to start the year off and picked a low key place.  I went to Geek Bar recently to start things off.  Geek Bar is an idea that welcomes geeks of all dimensions and is now in it's Beta Version (known as Geek Bar Beta).  It is in an extended pop-up in Wicker Park until it's permanent home is open sometime this winter.  The space is narrow with the bar on one side and the dining room next to it with a projection screen at the back of the room.  The floors, wall, and ceiling are all white with some black design and bottle cap wall hangings in the image of video game characters.  It has the feel of a basement game room.  There seemed to be many games going on at many tables with people bouncing between tables.  It seems very friendly, but I would think that it might be hard to keep track of checks (which may explain why it seemed a bit on the slow side).  On the night that I went, they were playing X-Men: Days of Future Past which was luckily captioned because it was hard to hear.  It was nice to watch though while I was there.  I started things with a beer that I thought was very appropriate for the space, 8 Bit Pale Ale from Tallgrass Brewery.  I had never had this, but I really liked this.
Looking over the menu, which came in a three ring binder, it took a little while to decide what it was that I wanted, I do have to admit though that part of that was my fault because I kept on getting distracted by the movie.  I started things off with Gold Coins.  Named and modeled after Mario Brothers, they were Goat Cheese Fritters with an Arugula Salad with Eggplant Puree and Chickpea Relish modeled after a mystery square in Mario Brothers.  The fritters had a nice crispy crust with a creamy interior and a sour taste that comes with goat cheese.  The arugula salad was peppery and went well with the fritters.
For my main course, I went with Poggles in a Blanket.  Now admittedly, I really have no idea where the name came from, but they were really good.  They were Pork Belly Tacos with Tomatoes, Green Peppers, and Crispy and Melted Cheddar.  A Lime wedge was served on the side.  It was meaty, savory, and served in soft corn tortillas.
My dessert was a presentation which required a twenty minute wait.  This was fine because I had the movie to watch and I imagine, after having it presented, that it was made to order.   I got the Hellboy Souffle which was a Red Velvet Souffle topped with Raspberry Puree and Cheesecake Gelato topped with Graham Cracker Crumbs and Raspberry Pop Rocks.  This was really good.  The souffle was sweet and fluffy, with a good chocolate flavor.  The raspberry puree was sour, as might be expected, but went well with the souffle.  The gelato was creamy went well with the souffle, but it was good on it's own with the pop rock topping.  There weren't a lot of pop rocks but there were enough to provide a tingly texture for a great finish.

Despite the fact that the service was a little slower than I expected, I liked Geek Bar.  The food was good, the staff was friendly, and the atmosphere was welcoming.  I will probably return several times before it moves to it's permanent in Lincoln Park.