Sunday, January 31, 2016

Mexique - Brunch, Chicago Restaurant Week

While most of the restaurants I have gone to for Chicago Restaurant Week I have dined at before, several are in a different context than in the previous time (or times) that I have dined there.  I had previously dined at Mexique, the Mexican restaurant that uses French techniques in their cooking and presentations headed by Chef Carlos Gaytan, for dinner and I had their wonderful tasting menu.  For Restaurant Week this year they were also offering a brunch and lunch menu (lunch during the week and brunch on the weekend), so I decided to come on a weekend afternoon to try their brunch menu.  The restaurant, while not full when we arrived, was definitely getting busy and it kind of struck me funny that we were seated at basically the same place I was seated the last time I dined there (It wasn't the same table, but it was one table over) so my point of view was essentially the same.  We started things of with Pozole Verde, a Hominy Stew made with Roast Pork and Salsa Verde and also included Red Onions, Carrots, and a Chicharron.  It was very hearty with pork that was so tender it basically melted in your mouth and a spicy flavor that provided a good burn at the beginning, but dissapated quickly.  The Chicharron was crispy and flavorful and went well with the flavors of the pozole.
For my main course, I went with a Huarache de Asada, a fried corn cake with steak.  In addition to the Flank Steak, which I had Medium Rare, it also had Fried Black Beans, Spinach, and a Goat Cheese Fondue Topping and a thinly sliced Radish garnish which was crisp and flavorful.  This was very good, but a little surprising because other huaraches that I have had were thicker and were able to be eaten with your hands, similar to a tostada.  It probably was a good thing, though, that the huarache was thinner because with the wealth of meat and the fondue topping, if it had been attempted to be eaten by hand it would have made a mess all over the place.  The steak was very tender, the beans provided a depth of flavor and the cheese fondue provided a lot of sour goat cheese goodness.
The other entree that was offered was a Chorizo Crepe with Fried Potatoes and topped with Salsa Roja.  One of my companions ordered this and loved it and while I did only have a small taste, I found that it did have some great flavors and textures.
I don't normally eat dessert for brunch, although I do try to do both sweet and savory.  As dessert was part of the meal, I decided to struggle through it.  We were served a French Toast Bread Pudding with Orange Juice Marshmallows, Pepitas, Coffee Ice Cream, Raspberry Sauce, and a light sprinkling of Powdered Sugar to top things off.  This had all of the flavors of a traditional breakfast and I felt that with the traditional flavors represented, it brought us full circle.  It was an excellent finish to an excellent brunch and one I may definitely have to repeat.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Boarding House - Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week is an event that I participate in every year.  Restaurants participating in Restaurant Week will offer a 3 course prix fixe menu for $22 for lunch, or $33 or $44 for dinner.  While the menu is limited, it does allow me to both see what a restaurant that I have not yet visited is about or to revisit a restaurant that I have previously visited and liked at a discount.  Admittedly, you do have to do your research beforehand because the offerings that some restaurants make are not a discount and in some cases, you will pay a premium for a reduced menu.  This year, there were about 300 restaurants participating in Restaurant Week.  I am obviously not going to visit all of the participating restaurants, so I pick restaurants that I think that I will enjoy and may offer a good deal.  The first restaurant that I visited for Restaurant Week was The Boarding House, a restaurant/wine bar run by former Check Please! host and Master Sommelier, Alpana Singh.  The restaurant, is a multistory space that was formerly a fairly high profile nightclub, Club 720, but there were obviously a bunch of changes made in order to become its present incarnation.  The first floor is occupied by the high-ceilinged wine bar.  The bar is three sided and occupies the center of the room with tables surrounding the exterior of the room.  Above the bar is an enormous installation made up of over 9000 wine glasses.  It is just awesome in it's size and the number of glasses that it contains.  It is apparently held together by museum quality hanging wire. The wine cellar for this large space is located in the basement, which is also open for private parties.  The second floor is for the kitchen and a private dining room.  The third and fourth floors are the main dining room.  There is an elevator that transports you up to the dining floor with a host station posted just into the room.  The host stations between the first and third floors communicate via tablet so the third floor host is prepared for a party arriving.  I arrived after my friend who I met in the wine bar.  When we were ready, we were directed to the elevator, met by the host at the entrance to the dining room, which had an even higher ceiling than the wine bar and also had a large hanging installation, this one composed of wine bottles.  Our seat was on the fourth floor which was actually a balcony overlooking the third floor (and the wine bottle installation).  I should have taken a picture of the view, but I didn't think about it at the time.  The Restaurant Week menu was $44 unless you ordered the Risotto as a main course which was offered for $33.  They also offered an optional wine pairing for an additional $28.  I figured that if I was going to be dining at a restaurant run by a Master Sommelier, it would be an absolute shame not to try the wine offered.  I started things off with a Grilled Baby Octopus with Confit Potatoes, Chorizo, Shishito Peppers, Grilled Lemon, and Squid Ink Aioli.  I liked this even before I took a bite because the presentation was done so well.  The octopus was served in large chunks which gave diners something to bite into.  The potatoes were small potatoes served whole and served as a base of the tower that was the dish.  They were nicely tender and added depth to the dish.  The Chorizo (Spanish), the Shishito Peppers, and the Grilled Lemon were chopped finely and added flavor and textural variety.   The wine served with this was a lightly flavored Rose which went as well as I would have expected.
For my main course I went with the Risotto option (the other options being King Salmon or Amish Chicken).  While the other options did sound good, the risotto was what spoke to me most.  The Risotto was a Mushroom Risotto with Porcini Broth, Wild Mushrooms including Oyster, Shiitake, and Maitake, Parmesan, and Truffle Cream.  The risotto was very creamy with plenty of mushrooms and had a fairly prominent truffle aroma (but not overpowering).  The pairing for this was an Italian white that was not exceptionally tannic and went even better with the risotto than the rose did with the octopus.
For our dessert, while we technically only had one choice, it was actually a tasting of three different desserts.  We were offered Julia's Carrot Cake, an Oatmeal Raisin Sandwich Cookie, and a Flourless Chocolate Cake.  The carrot cake (named for Julia Fitting, the Pastry Chef) had a high bar to cross because my mother makes a fantastic carrot cake, but it was a win.  The cake was very moist with a sour cream frosting.  The oatmeal sandwich cookie was also very moist with a cream cheese filling, and the flourless chocolate cake was rich and dense and was topped with a chocolate disc that looked familiar when I remembered I had seen her using it as a garnish at a Buche de Noel competition at Cafe Des Architectes in 2014.  The wine pairing was a very sweet red with raisin and plum flavors.  It was a great finish to a very good meal and I would be happy to return for both a good dinner and the wine.     

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Wood - Brunch

Years ago there was a French Restaurant in Boystown that I really liked (despite the fact that I only went there twice and hadn't been there for a few years when it closed).  When it did close, I was sad, but as I said, I hadn't been there in a few years.  A new restaurant called Wood opened in it's place around 2012 and it has received high praise, receiving a Michelin Bib Gourmand (very good food at a value) in 2013, 2014, and 2015, but I still didn't go partially because I missed the other restaurant.  I did happen to come across Wood at a benefit that I was attending so I got an idea of what they did and I put them on my unofficial and always changing list of places to dine at.  A few months ago, they held a fundraiser for Secours Populaires Francaise, a French non-profit that fights poverty and tries to bring people together, after the terrorist attacks in Paris.  They invited several other restaurants to serve snacks with them.  While everything was good, I really enjoyed the stuff that they brought out.  This firmly convinced me that I needed to get here for a meal.  While I do plan on coming for dinner one evening, I recently came for brunch with some friends.  The space is long and narrow with a bar running the length of the dining room.  The kitchen is in the rear of the restaurant.  The space opposite the bar has several large, semi-circular booths with seats covered in white leather.  Our table, which was in the front of the restaurant, between the bar and the front window (and next to the entrance), was a large high topped wooden table that seated 6.  As one might expect from a restaurant named wood, there was a lot of wood in the design, with wood walls, hardwood floors, our wooden table, and the large wood bar.  We started things off with coffee and cocktails, they served Colombe Coffee and had my favorite breakfast cocktail, the Corpse Reviver #2 so I had one of each.  Looking over the menu, I saw that I could get both sweet and savory, so I ordered a Cinnamon Roll for the table.  It was a good thing that I ordered it for the table because it was enormous.  There were six people in our party and even after everyone taking a slice from it, I still ended up taking a third of it home.  The roll was soft and slightly spongy with a nice cinnamon flavor to it and wasn't exceptionally sweet (It was sweet, but not overwhelmingly so).  It was topped with a cream cheese icing.  It was good as a sharing plate and as breakfast the next day.
For my main course, I went with something that was both sweet and savory by itself.  They had a set of breakfast sandwiches, Waffle, Corndog, English Muffin, and Biscuit.  I decided to go with the Waffle which had Fried Chicken, Bacon, and Honey Hot Sauce.  I should have expected it after seeing the cinnamon roll, but I was very surprised, when the sandwiches arrived , at their height.  I mused how I was going to eat them and I did actually try to squeeze one and get a bite out of it, but it was too big.  I ended up deconstructing them and eating the individual pieces separately which were very good on their own (although I did get sticky hands from the honey).  The waffle was crisp on the outside and soft on the inside with a good fried flavor and the sweetness from the honey.  The chicken had a nice crispy breading, was very juicy on the inside, and had the flavor that good chicken should.  The bacon was crispy, sweet, bacony goodness.  I really enjoyed brunch here and I will have to return one day for dinner.  The space looks very nice, the staff is friendly, and the food is very good.  

Sunday, January 10, 2016


When I go out, I will typically choose a place that does something new or exotic or different.  I generally choose a steakhouse because, while I like steak, there are any number of places where you can get a good steak so it isn't usually that exciting.  Never mind the fact that a good steak can be pretty expensive.  Sometimes though, I just want a steak, so I recently went to a relatively new place that opened up in Ukranian Village called Boeufhaus to see what they do.  Located in a small storefront that used to be a butcher shop, Boeufhaus puts a French and German spin on a steakhouse.  It is a small space, seating about 40 including the bar, and has kept a lot of elements from the butcher shop like the display case at the front where the host station now is and and big, heavy looking freezer doors behind the bar.  The space has a hardwood floor and bar and tin ceiling tiles with hanging lights that focus on the tabletop.  While the dining room is generally dim, the tabletops are bright enough that a flash is unnecessary.  While Boeufhaus bills itself as a steakhouse, and I am sure that is what most of the orders are, the snacks and appetizers French and German inspired and there is also some seafood, duck, and pork on the entree menu.  While several of the entrees did look good, I figured if I was going to be at a steakhouse, I should really have the steak.  Before that though, a good appetizer was needed.  While looking at the menu, there were several things that excited me including the Tarte FlambĂ©e, a caramelized onion tart with bacon and white cheese, but there was also on the menu one of those things that didn't look like it made a lot of sense so I had to order that.  What I ordered were the Short Rib Beignets.  I like short ribs and I like beignets, but in my mind they don't seem to be two things that should go together.  Beignets are a light and yeasty fritter that are generally topped with powdered sugar and eaten at breakfast.  Short ribs are the beef version of spare ribs.  For this dish, the meat was braised and stuffed into the beignets, which were not covered in powdered sugar.  They were light and airy with a small piece of short rib wonderfulness in each one.  The braising liquid was reduced and used as a dipping sauce.  It was very good, I enjoyed it heartily, and it was a good opening for what I expected to be a very good steak.

As for their steaks, Boeufhaus has a relatively short list:  two dry aged ribeyes, 35 day and 55 day, a New York strip, a filet mignon, and steak frites, a hanger steak and fries.  I decided to go with the top of the line and ordered a Medium Rare 55 Day Dry Aged Ribeye with an order of Bordelaise Sauce on the side and a Side order of Roasted Mushrooms.  I was actually a little surprised when it came out because the way it was sliced and presented, it looked to me a little smaller than I expected.  It was a 22 oz steak (with bone) which would be a pretty big steak as one piece, but didn't look as big sliced.  Having said that, it was about an inch and a half thick with five slices plus the meat on the bone.  The steak was very good.  Aged 55 days, it was tender (although not fork tender) and had a blue cheese funk to it.  The funk wasn't strong, but it was definitely there and it went well with the stronger beef flavor that comes with the aging.  The Bordelaise Sauce was good, but it really wasn't necessary as the steak had enough flavor on its own.  It was a little darker than other Bordelaise sauces that i have seen and it did have a good beef flavor.  The mushrooms, though, were a nice addition.  It was a mixture of Shiitake, Maitake, Trumpet, and Portabello Mushrooms combined with Fresh Thyme and Vinegar.  The mushrooms added a variety of texture to the steak and the meaty flavor along with the vinegary bite added to the flavor.
With the appetizer and a large steak, I was a little surprised that I could handle dessert.  Even though I was a little full, there is always room for dessert.  I ordered a Brown Butter Almond Cake with Toasted Coconut and Lemon.  There was nothing about this that I didn't like.  It was sweet, but just slightly and very nutty.  The toasted coconut was added both as a chip on top and a garnish and the lemon was a sauce that went well with everything.  It was delicate and a great finish to an otherwise pretty heavy meal.

I really enjoyed dinner here.  The space has a very nice vintage look, the staff is friendly and helpful, and the steak, of course, was very good.  I will definitely consider it again when I am in the mood for a good steak.      

Sunday, January 3, 2016

dos Urban Cantina

Armitage Avenue, the road that I live off of, seems to be the newest exploding restaurant scene.  Between Western Ave. and Kedzie Ave., (4 blocks) there have opened about 10 restaurants in the last four years, with four having opened in the last year (and with 2 more in the planning stages).  I went to a new restaurant in that strip recently, dos Urban Cantina, as a pre-theater dinner stop.  Opened by a couple of Topolobampo alum, the menu features a good selection of craft beers, cocktails, and wine, with a modern Mexican menu based on regional cuisine and local ingredients.  It is located in the former Katakana and Koko Sushi restaurant and like that restaurant, the outer walls were uncovered brick and the ceiling is unfinished.  The restaurant is divided into two rooms, the lounge, where the entrance is and the dining room.  The kitchen occupies a space behind the bar between the two rooms.  The lights are a variety of hanging lights with some additional track lighting and unlike many restaurants, there is enough light so that you can actually read the menu.  When I was looking at the menu, I was going to start with a beer, but I was told that their Aviation cocktail (Gin, Creme de Violette, Lemon Juice, and a Maraschino Cherry) was especially good.  As the Aviation is one of my favorite cocktails, I decided to go that way.  When it arrived, I was surprised at how violet it actually was.  Part of it may have been the light, but I seem to remember others being lighter colored and on the rocks.  This is not to say that I disliked what I received, in fact, I thought it was very good.  With an herbal flavor and a sweet and slightly floral finish.
The food menu is divided into four sections: Vegetable, Masa, Seafood, and Meat, with the appetizers and large plates in the same sections and the large plates indicated in bold.  There were things in every section that looked good, but I thought if I tried to order from every section, I would be stuffed and uncomfortable when I left.  I decided on ordering from the Vegetable, Seafood, and Meat sections with my waitress coursing them into two courses, bringing the Seafood course first and the meat and vegetable being served together.  For my seafood course, I ordered Octopus in Squid Ink Sauce served with White Rice.  The dish was striking in its contrast, with the black of the octopus and squid ink on one side and the rice on the other.  The octopus was tender and cooked perfectly with some spiciness in the very black squid ink sauce.  The rice was tender and flavorful and altogether, it kind of reminded me of an Asian dish, though the burn was different. 
My meat dish was (were?) the Goat Albondigas (Meatballs) with Masa Gnudi and Black Mole topped with Black and White Sesame Seeds.  With the Black Mole and the light Masa Gnudi, this dish was also a dish that had a wide contrast and also would look good in black and white.  The meatballs had a little funk to them, as would be expected of a goat dish, but the gnudi were were lightly flavored which allowed them to go with the 23 ingredient mole and moderate the flavor of the albondigas. 
My vegetable dish was also the best selling dish at the restaurant, Grilled Mushrooms.  They were Maitake and Shimeji Mushrooms with Oaxacan Red Mole and Chestnut Cornbread.  I could tell while it sold well.  The mushrooms were well cooked and flavorful, the chestnut cornbread was nutty and cornbread sweet with a little grit, and the mole was sweet and spicy and very good.  While It was a good dish, my favorite savory dish was the octopus.
While all of the savory dishes (and my cocktail) and I liked them a lot, I had yet to try the dessert.  I have had several desserts in the past that were eye-roll good and the pastry chef at the late lamented one sixtyblue, Hilary Blanchard-Rikower, regularly wowed me.  The dessert here was to that standard/  What did I order?  I had a Piloncillo Sugar Pie (raw cane sugar) with Malted Whipped Cream and Pecan Toffee.  It was an amazing dish with a flaky crust and sweet and salty flavors with a little bitter thrown in.  I wish though, that I had taken a better picture because it was almost as pretty as it was good tasting.  My waitress told me that there were a few other desserts that were at least as good as the sugar pie, I will definitely be back if only for the desserts, but more probably for another very good dinner.