Sunday, August 30, 2015


While there are a lot of Mexican restaurants in Chicago, I tend not to go to them often.  It isn't that I have anything against Mexican food, in fact I quite like it, but when I go out, I like to explore, and Mexican food generally feels too familiar to me.  I had heard of Mexique, a few years ago, and while a Mexican-French fusion sounded really interesting, I still battled familiarity issues so it was always "another time" when I chose a place to go out.  When Carlos Gaytan, the executive chef at Mexique was on Top Chef and when the restaurant won a Michelin Star, it moved up on my list of places to go, but it still took a while to get here.  The day finally came recently.  I didn't have a reservation so I made a plan to get there early when it would probably be easier to get a seat.  I was correct.  When I arrived, the dining room was mostly empty, but by the time I finished my dinner, it was mostly full.  The place is very unobtrusive from the road, so if you don't know the address, it's easy to pass without noticing it.  The color of the restaurant is done in shades of brown.  The space is narrow, with banquette seating on one side and a bar on the other, with a row of tables in the center of the room after the bar ends and another row against the wall.  I was seated in the center row, which gave me a good view of the restaurant flow.  The kitchen was at the rear of the restaurant with the serving line parallel to the line of the tables.  The walls on either side of the restaurant had large solid color block paintings with wall cutouts exposing the brick behind the wall on either side of the paintings.  I think that this was supposed to parallel the contrast between the fine dining and the rustic elements of the menu.  The white tablecloths also implied the fine dining aspect of the cuisine.
There were a lot of things on the menu that looked really good, so it was going to be a little difficult to make a choice.  Fortunately, they also had a tasting option that offered six courses and took the choosing out of the diners hands.  I went this route.  Before my first course arrived, I was presented with the bread plate.  This started showing the fusion aspect of the restaurant.  The bread was a white bread with a crusty exterior and a soft and fluffy interior.  With it, instead of butter was served Chicken Liver Pate on the right side with Black Bean Puree on the left.  Both spreads were very flavorful and tasted good, but the black been puree was easier to spread.
Dinner in a French/Fine Dining restaurant follows a standard progression:  Appetizer, followed by soup, salad, fish, fowl, light and dark meats, and finishing off with dessert.  Dinner at Mexique followed, more or less, the standard course progression.  When the first course came out, I sort of thought it was a salad of some sort.  It was a bowl with sliced Tortillas, with cubed Zucchini anf Potatoes, Corn, and dollops of Goat Cheese.  I found when they poured the Cream of Poblano broth over it that it was the soup.  It was creamy, flavorful, and very fresh with a mildly spicy finish.  This was very good and while it did make me look forward to the rest of the meal, it also made me wish for a bigger bowl of this soup.
The second course looked very nice and tasted very good.  As far as the course progression is concerned, it was fine where it was, although it could have been also presented as the first course.  It was a Steelhead Trout Ceviche with a Mango Puree to provide the acid to cure it, and served with Zucchini, Avocado, Mangoes, and Black Radishes.  It was tart and the fish was very tender, but the radishes provided a crunch to the dish.  The Tomatoes and Avocadoes almost gave it a Guacamole flavor and the sliced Mangoes provided some fruit sweetness.
The fish course looked, on the surface, pretty simple, but had some amazing complexity.  It was a pan-seared Swordfish served over Caramelized Mushrooms and Lentils with very finely pureed Potatoes and Fennel with Fennel Shoots.  The top side of the plate was layered with Parsley Oil and the bottom half with Paprika Oil divided by the potatoes and the mushrooms and lentils.  The swordfish was garnished with thinly sliced Radishes and Fennel Fronds.  The swordfish was tender and flaky and the mushrooms and lentils tasted really good.  The potatoes were actually a little finer than I would normally prefer and the oils added some additional flavor and spice as well as giving the plate a look similar to the Mexican flag.
The next course, as far as a course progression is concerned, may have fit as the last savory course, although it could be argued that they were in the right order because the most savory course was the last course presented before dessert.  This course was a Mole Glazed Braised Pork Belly topped with Apricots, Radishes, and Fennel, and served with Fried Brussels Sprouts, and More Mole topped with Sweet Potato Puree with Cocoa Nibs.  This was sweet and spicy, but it was also also very complex.  The mole was made with 27 ingredients and while chocolate and spice were key flavors, there were also many flavors that presented themselves like garlic and cinnamon.  
The last of the savory courses was a Seared Duck Breast served over a Tamarind Chipotle Sauce and Parsley Oil.  The plate was dotted with more Tamarind Chipotle Sauce, which was dark, and some Mango Habanero Sauce, which was light colored.  On the side was served a Corn and Blackberry Tamal topped with a fried Kale Leaf.  It was a very nice presentation, but since Duck is my favorite meat, I may have liked it without the fancy presentation.  The duck was very good and I was happy to see it, but the sauces and the tamal added a wealth of additional flavor.
 And then came dessert.  Dessert was a tasting in and of itself.  It started, on the left with a Blackberry Sorbet which was sweet and tart with a lot of blackberry flavor.  Next came the Tres Leches Cake topped with Strawberries.  The cake was rich, sweet, and very moist, with the very fresh strawberries on top.  The last of the major portions of the dessert was the Mango Panna Cotta which was very tart and reminded me of the Key Lime Panna Cotta that I really enjoyed years ago at the late lamented restaurant onesixty blue.  All of these together would have made a great dessert tasting, but there was also an Apple Coulis (like a thick sauce) between the main pieces and Nutella Powder was spread liberally around the three pieces.  It was a great finish to a great dinner.

I'm glad I was finally able to make it to Mexique.  The food was great, it was a true fusion, and the service was excellent as well.  It very definitely does not fall under the standard Mexican restaurant and I would be happy to return.        


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Knife & Tine - Brunch

If I go to a restaurant that I like for dinner and they also do brunch, I am also interested in that as well.  I like brunch and I am interested to see how the two meals compare or contrast, other than their menus.  I had gone to Knife & Tine for Dinner and liked their elevated comfort food.  As brunch is pretty much all about comfort food, I thought that brunch at Knife & Tine should be a good fit.  We were seated in the enclosed patio in the front, that, despite the fact that it gets a lot of natural light, reminds me of a castle with its stone walls and hanging lights. I generally go for something sweet and savory for brunch which generally means starting off with some sort of pastry.  They did have a French Cruller Donut on the menu, but it was not yet ready when we ordered so I started with bacon.  Bacon generally is considered to fall on the savory side of things, but it does have a natural sweetness, and this bacon was cured with Brown Sugar, Coffee, and Cinnamon, which emphasized its natural sweetness as well as adding some more.  The bacon was crisp and was served in a long and narrow serving dish.  It was actually the same kind of dish in which my Pappadew Pepper appetizer was served when I came for dinner.  There were 4 long pieces of bacon in the dish which were very good.  While it wasn't my standard sweet side of brunch, it was very good and fulfilled that purpose well.
My savory course was very good as can be seen by the empty dish in the picture.  It started out as K&T Hash, which consisted of Crispy Kennebec Potatoes, Apple Smoked Bacon, Crispy Brussels Sprouts, Caramelized Onions, Sriracha Creme, and topped with a Sunny Side Up Egg.

An empty dish doesn't give you much, so I did an internet search and found a picture of the hash on Yelp.  It was crispy, flavorful, and filling, with just the right amount of spice from the Sriracha creme.  I cut the egg in after tasting the different elements to add flavor and tie everything together.  The food was good, service was friendly, and while the space is castle-like, it gives a feeling of security, opposed to claustrophobia.  I enjoyed my meal here and would be happy to return.   

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Dove's Luncheonette

I have talked about Paul Kahan several times and have raved about every restaurant that is under his umbrella that I have been to (Blackbird, The Publican, Nico Osteria, Big Star).  He is a master chef and a great mentor who is able to find and lead talented young chefs with the many concepts that he has undertaken.  There are some restaurant groups in which most of their restaurants have a common theme and are very similar.  The several concepts run by One Off Hospitality, the restaurant group in which Paul Kahan is a partner, are very different.  The one common theme between the various properties are their devotion to local farmers and seasonal food.  I went recently to their most recent restaurant, Dove's Luncheonette, an old style diner that serves mostly Mexican food and is located in Wicker Park, next to Big Star.  The restaurant is kind of inobtrusive, with the sign painted on the window next to the door.  The building in which Dove's is located is a beautiful vintage building with wood framed windows.  The inside looks as an old diner should, with stainless steel counters facing the windows as well as a dining counter looking into the open kitchen.  The walls are paneled on the lower half and covered in numerous old photos on the upper half.  There is an old jukebox in the corner as well as a turntable behind the corner with a great collection of old blues and soul records.  The menu is one page (both sides listing all meals including the all day breakfast).  In addition, there is a board behind the counter, near the ceiling, that lists the daily specials.  While there were several things on the specials list that looked really good (the Pork Milanese Cemita), I decided to stick with the menu and started with the Pepper and Potato Hash which in addition to the Fried Potatoes and the Shishito Peppers, had Aioli, Charred Scallions, and Queso Fresco.  Shishito Peppers are long and green and look similar to Jalapeno peppers, so while they are sweet, it was a little annerving to see all of those peppers among the potatoes.  I did try a pepper before anything else and found it to be fresh, crisp and sweet and went well with the crispy fried potatoes, and the slightly spicy aioli.  The queso fresco added a little salt and texture to an excellent dish.
For my main course, I ordered Enchiladas de Cochinilla, or Suckling Pig which was roasted, shredded and wrapped in Corn Tortillas.  The dish was served in a cast iron pan giving it kind of a homey appearance.  They were served with Mole Verde, Pepitas (fried sunflower seeds), Onions, Queso Fresco, Chicharrones, and Cilantro.  The pork was very tender as would be expected and the dish was a wealth of flavors and textures.  It was so good, that while I try to change what I order when I return to a restaurant, it would be difficult not to return to this.  I liked everything about this place and I will definitely return.        

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Oak + Char

It's interesting to visit a space that you had known as a different restaurant if only to see how the space has changed.  I visited Oak + Char recently which I had previously known as Graham Elliot.  Starting with the outside, the face of the building is the same which is to be expected, but there has been a serving window added to the front to serve the patio that has been added to the sidewalk.  The sign for the restaurant hangs over the sidewalk as well vice being mounted on the building.  The entrance to the restaurant is essentially the same and the desk is in the same place.  The room is black and very open as I remember Graham Elliot to be, but I believe they added a private dining area.  The ceiling is unfinished as it was at Graham Elliot, but there have been some odd puffy light shades? (I'm not sure what to call them) added around the lights that kind of reminded me of clouds.  I am not sure where the bar was at Graham Elliot, but at Oak and Char, it is large and sits along one of the side walls close to the serving window.  There is a half wall with banquette seating facing the bar which kind of separates the bar area from the restaurant.  Other than the fact that the bar is there, there really is no difference between the bar and the restaurant, the menu is the same on both sides of the wall and the people seated at tables are served by restaurant servers.  I was seated at a table in the bar area because the hostess thought that I might get better service there.  Looking at the menu, I saw that they had a nice selection of house cocktails.  While I was interested in them, I went on National IPA Day, so I decided to look at their beer list which was also pretty good.  They had two IPAs on tap and two bottles.  I decided to go with one from Solemn Oath Brewery, a Belgian IPA creatively named Butterfly Bandanna while I was perusing the food menu.  They claim to be a very Midwestern gastropub, but I saw many international influences in different combinations on the menu.  I guess that is truly what the definition of American food is, taking ethnic cuisine and using it in new and different combinations.  The midwestern comes in, I guess from the farms where they receive their produce.  My first dish was the perfect example of fusion cuisine.  I had Bacalao (Portuguese) Wontons (Chinese) with Aleppo Chile (Turkish) and Farm Honey (Midwestern).  Bacalao is dried salt cod.  It was flaky, tender, and very flavorful in the crispy won tons.  The aleppo was added to the honey, so when the won tons were dipped into the honey there was a flavor explosion of sweet and salty with a slow burning finish.  I really liked these and looked forward to the rest of my meal.
My next course was also a fusion course with Tandoori Octopus, Guanciale, Pimento Fingerling Potatoes, and a Fennel Salad.  Octopus is generally not prepared in a Tandoor, an Indian clay oven, nor is it often served with guanciale, bacon made from pork jowl.  I gather that there is a small window, when preparing octopus or squid, between under and overcooked.  I have come to expect a certain amount of rubberiness when eating either of these things and it is a rare and very nice thing when I bite into squid or octopus to find nothing but tenderness.  This is what I had here.  The octopus was very tender and flavorful and the accompaniments all went very well with it.  The guanciale added a porky meatiness, the fennel salad was fresh and sweet with a slight licorice flavor, and the potatoes added depth.
While I could have continued with the seafood theme with my entree, I decided to go with some red meat.  Specifically, I had the Korean Braised Short Rib with Toasted Barley and Radish Salad.  The rib was boneless and while they did give me a steak knife to cut it with, for the most part, it was fork tender.  The Korean barbecue sauce that the rib was covered in was thick and sweet with a spicy finish.  On it's own, the sauce on the rib could have been a bit overwhelming, but the toasted barley provided a moderating influence.  Texturally, it was al dente and it provided a bit of a nutty flavor to the dish.  The radish salad was a good contrast to the rib, providing some crisp freshness with the slight spiciness that radishes provide.
While everything on the small dessert menu did look good, I ordered a special that hadn't made it either to the regular menu or the specials menu and was told to me by my waiter.  (Thank you to my waiter.)  I had a Chocolate Pie with Caramel, Sea Salt, Sesame Crust, and a slightly sour Whipped Cream.  This was positively decadent with some pretty intense flavors.  The pie had a very rich chocolate flavor and was sprinkled with large crystals of sea salt.   it was one of those dishes that I would have licked the plate if I had thought I could have gotten away with it.  The caramel was thick, sweet, and buttery, and there were crumbs of the sesame crust spread around the dish (besides acting as the crust on the bottom of the pie or the side as it was served).  The whipped cream was also thick and had a slightly sour tang to differentiate it which is good because I think that if it was simply sweet, it would have just gotten lost.

During my dinner, I must have looked thirsty, because they brought me a second beer before I had finished my first and without my ordering it.  What was nice was that it didn't show up on my bill.  Other than the lighting treatments, which I thought looked a little weird, I liked the space, and the service and food were very good.  When I return, I will have to bring at least one other person, because in addition to the single serving plates, they have a section of the menu called Chef's Boards which serve 2 to 4 people, all of which looked really good.         

Sunday, August 9, 2015


When I think of Wasabi, I think of my first experience with the Japanese horseradish.  It was actually my first real experience with sushi.  A friend of mine took a few of us to a sushi bar and ordered a bunch of stuff.  When the plates arrived, there was a blob of green sitting at the edge of one which I took and popped in my mouth without knowing what it was.  That probably was not the smartest move ever made.  As one might guess, this was wasabi and it was very painful going down.  While I have since learned how to handle it and i have actually come to enjoy it, this first experience still comes to mind when I here the word.  A few of years ago, a Japanese restaurant opened in my neighborhood called Wasabi, I thought that it was another sushi restaurant, which would have been fine, but there are many sushi restaurants in the area, so I kind of put it on a back burner to visit at some future time.  I found out recently though, that while wasabi has sushi, it focuses on small plates and specializes in ramen.  There have been several very good ramen places that have opened in Chicago recently, and as I like ramen, I decided to check it out.  The building that Wasabi is in is a former Mexican restaurant and has a shape like a Spanish Mission.  The walls, inside and out, are all dark gray with the exception to the brick wall behind the sushi bar/dining counter.  The room is rather narrow with the bar and the tables (all four tops) are a bit close, so it could be a bit difficult to move through the dining room when it gets crowded.  I sat at one end of the bar so I had a good view of both the open kitchen and the dining room, which did get crowded by the time I left.  Wasabi does have a good list of sushi, but I was there for the ramen so I didn't try it and will have to return for that.  While I was having the ramen, I figured that I would also have room for a few things on the small plates and skewers menu.  I started with Takoyaki.  Takoyaki is supposed to be a fried ball of dough with a lot of chopped Octopus which is usually served with a dipping sauce and Bonito Flakes.  This was all of that and it was very good.  I say supposed to be though because I have run into several restaurants that were serving takoyaki that was not takoyaki and contained something other than octopus.  I was very happy to have octopus.  The balls were fluffy and flavorful and the bonito flakes, while plentiful, were not overwhelming.
My next small plate was something highly recommended by my waiter.  He recommended getting a skewer and specifically, the Fried Chicken Thigh.  His argument is that the ramen takes a long time to make and has a lot of ingredients so you should expect that it should be very good.  The skewers are very simple and focus on a single ingredient, so it should take some skill to make it stand out.  The best of the skewers, in his opinion was the fried chicken leg because the thigh has the most fat and hence, the most flavor.  With his glowing recommendation, I tried it.  It was very simple as could be expected and the meat was well seasoned, juicy, and flavorful.  While it was good, it wasn't as exciting to me as it apparently was to him.
For the vegetable portion of my meal, even when I go out I try to have at least one dish that has a good focus on vegetables, I had Crispy Brussels Sprouts.  They were well browned, cut, and served with Toasted Almonds and Miso Sauce which provided an even more savory flavor than would normally expected.  As they were browned, they were pretty crispy as the name stated and very good.
I saved the Ramen for last because that kind of made sense to me.  In actuality, everything arrived, for the most part, at the same time, so I could have eaten it in any order that I wanted to.  I just had it in the order that made the most sense to me.  The Ramen that I had was called Spicy Roasted Garlic Miso Ramen.  It actually starts out with a pork base broth like tonkotsu and is actually very similar to their Tonkotsu Ramen.  In addition to the broth and the noodles, it contained Pork Belly, a Soft Boiled Egg, Marinated Bamboo Shoots, Bean Sprouts, Sesame, Scallion, Roasted Garlic, Garlic Chips, Chili Threads, and Sesame Oil.  The difference between this ramen and the tonkotsu is that this has bean sprouts, garlic, and chili threads, and the tonkotsu has wood ear mushrooms.  In any case, it is really good.  It's rich and spicy and has a lot of noodles in addition to the many other ingredients.  While there is a little bit of a learning curve for eating ramen, use the large spoon to take a scoop of the ramen and eat off the spoon with chopsticks, the food is satisfying, so the experience is good.

The menu at Wasabi is pretty big so you have to make multiple trips to become an expert.  From what I tried though, I would very much enjoy returning to further become an expert.  The food and service were very good and the waiter was very helpful.     

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Old Oak Tap

If you want to check out a new restaurant/bar, but are not sure if you want to spend the money for dinner, going for brunch is a good way to check out the space (and possibly the dinner menu) without having to spend the money for dinner.  You obviously won't be able to go at a time when dinner is being served, but it will give you an idea about the place  I went recently, to Old Oak Tap for brunch and to check it out.  Located in West Town, it is in an area that, while on a main road, is just starting to happen.  It has a stone half-wall on either side of the entrance enclosing a large patio.  The front wall of the restaurant can be opened in good weather and, as the weather was nice when I went, it was open, making the main restaurant an extension of the patio.  The space has high ceilings so it feels very open, especially with the open front wall.  The space has a very rustic look, with light green walls and a lot of wood decoration.  There is stone fireplace off to one side.  The floors are hardwood and the lights are mounted on hanging wagon wheels, like a rustic chandelier, although with all of the natural light from the open front, they really weren't necessary.  The space had a feeling of a lodge.  There was a large bar at the back of the room which was where I sat.  I started things off with a breakfast cocktail while I perused the large brunch menu.  I ordered a Pimm's Cup with Pimm's #1, Cucumber, Lemon, Angustura Bitters, and Ginger Ale.  Pimm's #1 is a gin based tonic with fruits and spices and, while the flavor is strong and herbal, it is very refreshing and went well with the strong ginger ale with which it was served.
I started my brunch off with an order of Maple Glazed Nutella Donut Holes served with a side of Maple Syrup.  The donut holes were more small fritters than donut holes, but that was okay because they were really good.  They were covered with powdered sugar and had a crisp outer shell and a fluffy center.  It seemed that the dough balls got a shot of nutella into them instead of having it combined with the dough because they all seemed to have a brown nutella center, like the prize in the center of a piece of candy.  While the maple syrup went extremely well with the donut holes and it was good maple syrup, it really wasn't necessary as the donut holes were really good on there own.
For my main course, I had a pizza.  Pizza is good at any time of the day, but a breakfast pizza is something special.  This was more a flatbread than a pizza per se, but it was still really good.  It had many things you would expect for breakfast:  Potatoes, Applewood Smoked Bacon, Provolone Cheese, Rosemary, and Truffle Oil, and was topped with a Sunny Side Up Egg.  The crust was thin and cracker crisp, but sturdy enough that it held together when I tried to eat it with my hands.  The egg yolk was runny, but it was hard enough that it didn't explode when I broke it and I was able to spread it around the pizza without making a mess of it.  As far as my overall thoughts on brunch here, I really liked the space here and the food was really good.  I would be happy to return even though the service was a little casual.