Sunday, February 22, 2015

Riccardo Trattoria

I really like Italian food although I really don't go to many Italian restaurants often.  In my mind, it seems a lot of Italian restaurants serve their food family style which doesn't work well if you are dining by yourself which I do frequently.  Family-style service is generally not the standard despite the impression I have and I will occasionally go to an Italian restaurant to enjoy some good hearty food.  Riccardo Trattoria was recently recommended to me as a very good Italian restaurant so I decided to visit during Chicago Restaurant Week.  The restaurant is located in Lincoln Park and looks like a house in the area.  It is also located across the street from the location of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre which has nothing to do it, but I thought it a little funny that an Italian restaurant was located across the street from a location so infamous in Chicago Italian Mafia history..  The dining room is kind of small, seating about 40 people, but it has a homey feel to it.  The ceiling is high and arched, the walls are light colored with Audobon Prints spread throughout the room and a small bar is located in the center of the room which is used for service.  All of the tables are dark brown wood with most being large round tables set for 4 and the rest being two tops, one of which I was seated at.  The menu looked very good, showing both classic and adventurous elements sometimes in the same dish.  I made my order and was brought a slice of Bruschetta to start things off.  It was a classic bruschetta with diced tomatoes and olive oil on a crunchy slice of bread.  It was simple, classic, and very good with a lot of flavor.
If the bruschetta had been the only starter, it would have been fine, but after the bruschetta came the bread plate.  It contained several slices each of an Onion Focaccia and a Sourdough.  Both were very soft and flavorful and I had to stop myself to ensure that I would have enough room for what I actually ordered.
As for what I ordered, I started with something both classic and adventurous.  It was a Carpaccio (classic), but it was a Peppered Elk Carpaccio (adventurous) with Shaved Parmesan and Shaved Black Truffles (classic) with a Honey Truffle Emulsion (adventurous).  The elk was very thinly sliced, tender, and delicate, but with a surprising amount of flavor.  The Parmesan was in thin slices and added to the flavor of the carpaccio.  The truffles were thinly sliced and scattered across the top of the cheese and elk and while they were thinly sliced and scattered, truffles provide a lot of flavor so it is best to use them minimally lest they overpower the dish.  The truffles were used enough to add to the flavor of the dish without overpowering it.  The honey truffle emulsion was used lightly as well and provided some sweetness along with the truffle funk to finish.

For my entree, I went with Orecchiette Cinghiale a pasta named after it's small ear shape served with Wild Boar Sausage.  The plate also had Sun Dried Tomatoes, Rapini, and was topped with Pecorino Cheese.  The pasta was a perfectly cooked al dente, and the tomatoes and rapini provided a lot of flavor.  The wild boar sausage was also well cooked and flavorful, but it really was a minor flavor point in this dish.  It did however provide a nice meaty texture.  The Pecorino cheese provided a nice finish to the dish.
When I dine out at an Italian restaurant, I will frequently have tiramisu or cannoli.  While I do like both of these, and they were both on the menu, I wanted to try something a little different, so I went with a Tortas di Ricotta or a Ricotta Cheesecake.  While the flavor is similar to a regular cheesecake, it's a little drier and the top had a slight crust on it.  It was also sprinkled with powdered sugar.  It was lighter than a regular cheesecake and texturally different, but it was just as good and made for a great finish.  I really enjoyed my meal here and will be sure to keep it in mind when I am craving some good Italian food.      

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Wintertime is typically the slow season for restaurants, so several years ago, the city of Chicago started restaurant week, an event in which a restaurant will offer a three course prix fixe menu that will typically be at a discount from regular prices.  This year, there were over 300 restaurants that participated with lunch prices at $22 and dinner prices at $33 or $44 (plus drinks, tax, and tip).  I like to use restaurant week as a way to explore restaurants that I haven't yet visited.  In addition to the prix fixe menus, many places will also often offer their regular menu in the event that diners might be interested in something else.  While I will frequently stay with the prix fixe menu, I will occasionally order from the regular menu if there is something that strikes me there.  The first restaurant that I visited this year was Travelle, located in the Langham Hotel on the Chicago River.  I have never been to Travelle, but I have tasted a few of their offerings when they have been at various benefits.  I liked what I have had so I was very interested in the restaurant offerings.  The hotel is easy to find, being in the downtown area, but the restaurant entrance is not obvious.  There is an area that looks like a waiting area off the main lobby with a bank of elevators.  The restaurant is on the second floor opposite a lounge overlooking the Chicago River.  The dining room is large and modern looking with an open kitchen.  Opposite the kitchen is the wine rack which is well lit and enclosed in glass.  The chairs were beige padded leather and matched the general color scheme of the space.  The prix fixe at Travelle was $44 and offered a couple of choices each for appetizer, entree, and dessert.  For my dinner, I started things off with Chestnut Soup with Sherried Pears, Peeky-Toe Crab with Rouille Sauce (a sauce consisting of Olive Oil, Bread Crumbs, Garlic, Saffron, and Chili Peppers and served with seafood) and garnished with Paprika Sauce.  The soup was creamy and nutty, with some tang from the pears.  The pears were very flavorful and didn't have the grit that is normally found with fresh pears.  The crab and rouille sauce was very flavorful and added it's flavors and textures to the soup.  The paprika sauce contributed a nice spicy finish.  It was a great start to the meal and charged me with anticipation.
For my entree, I went with a dish that could very well be called comfort food with an exotic spin.  I had a Grilled Pork Chop with Mashed Potatoes, Caramelized Treviso (a red, spear shaped variety of Radicchio), and Sumac Barbecue Sauce.  The pork chop was tender and juicy.  The mashed potatoes were very smooth and had a nice garlicky finish.  The treviso added some texture and sweetness, and the barbecue sauce had earthy, tangy and spicy flavors that tied everything together.
Dessert was kind of funny because it sounded better than it looked, but it also tasted better than it looked.  This is not to say that it looked bad, it just looked kind of boring.  Dessert was a Cherry Pistachio Tart with Housemade Whipped Cream.  The tart had a pronounced pistachio taste.  It was served with cherries and crushed pistachios, but it was also cooked with cherries and pistachios.  It was very cake-like which, while good, is not something that I expect of a tart.  In any case, it tasted good and the whipped cream added a slightly sweet finish.  Overall, I enjoyed my dinner.  The food was good and adventurous, the space was clean and modern, and I would happily return.


Monday, February 2, 2015

Hub 51 - Green Flash Beer Dinner

One of the biggest restaurant groups in the Chicago area is Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.  Started in 1971 with R.J. Grunts, they presently run over 60 restaurants, in Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, Minnesota, and Nevada, with a wide variety of styles and price points.  The common points for most of the restaurants is a flair for the theatrical and a good value.  This can even be said of their high end restaurants such as Everest and Tru which while expensive provide very high quality cuisine presented in an artistic manner with excellent service.  There are many people involved in the running of the company, but the one name that consistently comes to the forefront is Rich Melman, the founder.  The company opens new restaurants by forming partnerships with those that are interested in starting a new concept.  In recent years, he has brought his children into the company as partners and the first concept that sons RJ and Jerrod presented was Hub 51.  While I have gone to and liked several of LEYE's concepts, I have pointedly avoided those restaurants run by the younger Melmans.  This is because they seem to be aiming to create places that are about the scene first.  This is not to say that the food might not be good, but I do not like the vibe of exclusivity that seems to draw those with an oversized sense of entitlement to the place.  Hub 51 has also been accused of being without focus.  Having said that, I do like beer dinners, and Hub 51 was hosting Green Flash Brewery for a beer dinner, so I decided to swallow my attitude and try it out.  The dinner itself was in Hub 51's private lounge Sub 51, so I only briefly saw the restaurant dining room.  What I did see though, did not dissuade me from my initial thoughts.  The dining room which was light colored and open was crowded and loud.  I had to walk through the dining room to find the stairs to the lower level leading me to Sub 51.  As opposed to the light colors upstairs, Sub 51 is done in black with chrome accents.  The leather seats were gray and lifted up to provide a space for coats and bags.  There was an island in the middle of the room with banquette seating on either side.  There was also bench seating along the walls and a bar opposite the entrance.  I was welcomed and handed a beer when I arrived and was shown my place setting which was in a chrome picture frame on one side of one of the banquettes.  As it turned out, I was going to be sitting with the beer distributor and the brewery guy which I was fine with because it provides for interesting conversation and gives me a view behind the curtain, so to speak.

We started dinner out with our beer and passed appetizers.  We were first presented with first Ahi Tacos on Corn Tortillas with lettuce and a Spicy Tartar Sauce and were then presented with Green Curry Chicken Satay.  The dishes were simple, but they tasted good.  They both had a nice bit of spice to them, but they weren't just spicy, they were pretty flavorful and the size and simplicity of the dishes made it easy to walk around and talk to people.  After we had drank and socialized a little, we were seated so our dinner could start.

The dinner was listed as a three course meal (plus passed appetizers) but the food was served family style and there were at least a couple of dishes per course, so in actuality, it was closer to a six course meal with much more food than people could eat.  For the first course, we were served Spinach Salad with Orange, Fennel, and Pistachios and a Smoked Ham plate with Cilantro, Peppers, and Olives.  The spinach salad was very fresh and the oranges provided some brightness both in color and taste, but what really made it was the pistachios.  The Ham was light and buttery with a smoky flavor that almost seemed like Prosciutto.  We were provided with some very fresh bread on which to eat the ham, and the peppers and cilantro to garnish it with.  The olives were also very fresh and unpitted, which I think I prefer to canned and pitted olives.  They are less salty and their flavor is somewhat muted when compared to canned olives.
 For our entree we were served something pretty simple and something pretty complex.  The simple dish was Grilled and Skewered Shrimp with Quinoa and Brussels Sprouts.  The shrimp was perfectly cooked and served atop the quinoa and brussels sprouts.  The brussels sprouts were caramelized and the quinoa had a nice nutty flavor which went with the sweetness of the shrimp.

The second part of our entree was supposed to be a Lettuce wrap that we built ourselves using lettuce (of course), Smoked Pork Shoulder which we self pulled, Kimchi, Cilantro, Rice, and Korean Chili Paste.  While I did use all of the ingredients, it didn't end up as a lettuce wrap.  Everything about this was really good and while I did eat everything together, I didn't see the point in trying to eat it with my hands.  The pork was tender, smoky, flavorful, and pulled easily.  The kimchi was crisp and spicy, the rice was perfectly cooked and helped cut the spice of the kimchi and the chili paste and the cilantro provided a nice garnish.
Dessert was simple, classic and very good.  We were served a Double Chocolate Brownie, Salted Caramel Ice Cream, and Salted Caramel.  The brownie was served warm and the ice cream was cold (obviously) and they provided both the sweet/salty and warm/cold contrast that works so well together.  I enjoyed my meal here.  The food was good, my company was interesting, and the space was interesting.  While I would come back for another beer dinner, after looking at the scattered menu and seeing what is was like in the main dining room, I am not sure that I would return otherwise.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Belly Shack, Belly Taqueria, Half Acre Beer Dinner

I really like to go to special dinners hosted by various restaurants, not only because it let's the restaurant's kitchens the chance to explore and try different things which allows the diners to get to try things that may not be on the regular menu.  At these dinners diners also frequently get to try new beers and wines that may not yet be available to the public.  The thing I like about these special dinners though, is that frequently, industry people come to them, and it gives me the chance to meet some of the people that work behind the scenes and learn about things that might be in the works elsewhere.  I attended a beer dinner at Belly Shack for Half Acre Brewery recently called Belly Taqueria, which allowed the restaurant, which serves a fast food fusion of Latin and Asian cuisine, a chance to explore more of their Mexican side.  I really like Belly Shack and have been there many times.  I have even been filmed there (a quick shot of me eating showing the atmosphere of the place) when Chicago's Best was filming there for there Best Balls episode.  I am not sure how it has managed to be written up by me in normal circumstances.  The place is kind of small and has an Urban/Industrial Cool kind of look to it.  The place has cement floors and steel furniture with fake graffiti on the interior walls.  The front of the space is glass and the windows extend about halfway along the two adjoining sides.  There are four tops tables on either side of the room and a large communal table that will seat about 12 in the center of the room.  The counter for ordering is at the back of the room.  Under normal circumstances, people will place their orders at the counter, be given a numbered piece of angleiron, and find a place to sit.  The food is brought out as it's made.   For this visit, as there was a set menu, I didn't have to worry about ordering and I was seated at the communal table.  The beers we would be drinking were displayed at the front of the communal table actually next to where I was sitting.  We started things off with Half Acre's Pony Lager which was pretty good.  I am generally not a fan of lagers, because many have too little flavor for me. The Pony is modeled after a German Pilsener (as opposed to an American Pilsener like Miller high Life, PBR, or Budweiser) and was pretty flavorful.  After enjoying our first beer for a few minutes, our first course arrived.  It was a Beef Tendon Pozole with Pho Broth, Hominy, and Pork.  Neither Pho or Pozole are things that are served at Belly Shack, but it the combination falls right in line with what they normally serve.  The soup was warm, spicy, and very flavorful with a lot of meat and hominy to chew on.  It was very good and a nice start to the dinner. 
While the first course was served individually, the next several courses were served family style.  They were serving a lot of food, so I imagine that it made it easier for service.  The next course was the salad, which was actually sort of two salads in one. On one side was Chayote which is like a Mexican Summer Squash, and on the other side was Arugula.  A Poblano Peanut Dressing was served over both sides, although only the arugula seemed to have sliced peanuts.  Crispy Rice Noodles topped everything and provided a nice crunch.  It was fresh and flavorful with a little spice and lots of textures.
The next course was brought out on a large platter, but could actually be eaten easily without dividing anything up.  It was a sope, kind of like a thick tortilla with a rim.  It was topped with Braised Pork, Pineapple, Pea Shoots, and Kimchi.  Everything about this was good and it was one of my favorite dishes.  The sope was crispy and flavorful, the pork was tender, and the pineapple provided some sweetness.  The kimchi was both sour and spicy and the pea shoots provided a fresh vegetal flavor.

For our next course, we were served tacos that we had to build ourselves.  We were given fresh soft, corn tortillas, and on two separate plates we were given Nopales and Bean Curd on one plate and Oranges and Blood Oranges on another with Queso Fresco.  I built my tacos with everything, and while I don't regularly eat vegetarian tacos, I am not averse to having vegetarian food (especially since there was already a lot of meat with the meal), and the tacos were very fresh, and flavorful.

After all of this, we still hadn't gotten to the main course, this came next with a main course and two sides.  We were served some Roasted Chicken in Green Curry Mole Sauce with Dirty Rice, and Refried Lentils for sides.  This felt very Mexican to me despite the curry and the refried lentils instead of pinto beans.  The Asian ingredients added to the flavor of the dish(es), but it was so close to something that you would find in a Mexican household that I totally would have built this into a taco if there had been any tortillas left.

At this point, I was pretty full and I would have been happy ending things here, but the only thing left was dessert, and dessert was a must have.  We started out with Horchata, the sweetened rice milk flavored with cinnamon that is a favorite of mine.  I would have been fine with this, but it was paired with Churros with Soft-Serve Vanilla Ice Cream and Horchata Caramel.  They both went together very well and it was a great way to finish dinner.

I like both Belly Shack and Half Acre Brewery and will continue partaking in both.  The dinner was great and the food and drink were paired well, but the service and the company I had at the table was very good as well, and I predict that this will go down as one of my favorite dinners of the year.