Monday, April 25, 2016

Two: Split-Rail Pop Up

I really like Two Restaurant.  The food, which is a seasonal American menu plays well in the rustic space.  I have been here for dinner and for special events (involving a special dinner) both.  I went recently for a special dinner, a pop up previewing Chef Zoe Schor's upcoming restaurant, Split-Rail.  Chef Zoe was the opening chef at another of my favorite restaurants, Ada Street, so it was a win on several levels and after seeing the menu, I was very much anticipating this dinner.  Dinner was five courses and a BYOB, so I brought a bomber bottle of Chaton Rosé, a collaboration Hibiscus Ale between Pipeworks Brewery and Avec Restaurant.  Hibiscus beers are generally not my style, but as the dinner was aiming to be a celebration of spring and sea, I thought the refreshing flavor might be appropriate.  It was and tasted good as well.  We started out with A Day on the Pier (all of the courses had names) which consisted of lightly smoked Littleneck Clams with Scallop Dumplings, Saffron-Seawater Broth, and Sea Beans.  When the bowl was brought out, I was immediately struck with the saffron aroma which was positively intoxicating.  The aroma enhanced the flavor of the clams and the scallop dumplings and the Sea Beans tasted very green and fresh.
The next course was called Saturday Morning at the Farmer's Market and as the name implies, it was very much about vegetables and things you would find at a farmer's market.  The dish consisted of Asparagus, Fava Beans, Morels, Sunchoke Puree, a 63 Degree Egg (the egg is cooked Sous-Vide so the white and yolk have the same texture), and Pt. Reyes Blue Cheese.  This had a wealth of textures and flavors.  The vegetables were crisp, the egg was soft, the morel was tender, and the sunchoke was creamy.  All of the flavors were pronounced and went together well and I really enjoyed it.
While I liked dining from a farmer's market, the next course, Where the Land Meets the Sea was outstanding.  It consisted of Linguini, English and Snap Peas, Spring Onion, Dungeness Crab, Uni Butter, and Garlic Breadcrumbs.  It was crunchy from the peas and spring onions with a nice seafood flavor and the perfectly cooked linguini.
The last savory course felt the most like an entree, featuring a well cooked fish filet.  It was called Dip Your Toes in the Water (And It's Still Freezing...) and featured a Crispy Chicken-Skinned Black Cod with Harissa Potato (mashed), Baby Turnips, and Heirloom Radish.  The skin of the cod was crispy and fried (like fried chicken) but the meat was tender and flaky.  The harissa potatoes were mashed, flavorful, and pretty spicy which went well with the radishes.  The turnips were crunch and actually kind of reminded me of a potato as well.  While it was good, my favorite dish was still the linguini.
Our dessert was called Hear the Ice Cream Truck Coming? and as the name implied, it was about ice cream.  It was a Waffle Ice Cream Sandwich with Vanilla Bean - Bacon Ice Cream and Bourbon Barrel County Stout Syrup.  While we were given silverware to eat this, the waffle was dense enough that the best way to eat this was to pick it up and eat it like a sandwich (occasionally dipping it in the sauce for additional flavor).  The waffle was crispy and the ice cream had the best parts of savory and sweet with the vanilla and the bacon featuring prominently.  The Bourbon Barrel County Stout sauce was bitter sweet and smoky and went very well with the sweetness of the ice cream.  It was a great finish to a great meal and I am excited to visit Split-Rail when it opens.            

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Small Cheval

While I typically go for a full meal when I go out (appetizer, entree, dessert), when I go out for a burger, I am almost always just going out for a burger.  There was no question about this when I went to Small Cheval.  Located in the former Roxie's By the Slice space and owned by the same group, there were no gross changes in the space between concepts.  It did change the seating layout, putting a counter along the outside walls with bar stool seating and adding a communal table in the center, also with bar stool seating.  Ordering is done at a counter at one corner of the dining room and a paging device is given to you which buzzes when your order is ready.  Small Cheval has, if not the simplest, then one of the simplest menus around.  It consists of two items, a hamburger and a cheeseburger (American Cheese).  The one side is Golden Fries.  The burgers come with Lettuce, Tomato, Grilled Onions, and Dijonnaise.  Bacon can be added for an additional charge.  The burger is based on the very popular burger served at Au Cheval.  There are slight difference between the two, but they are essentially the same.  For drinks, they have an 8 head tap serving beers ranging from the very cheap (Miller High Life and Schlitz) to selections from local breweries like Half Acre and Local Option, to some national craft brews like Ommegang and Founders.  They also serve a small number of cocktails and sell shots.  For my burger, I went with the Cheeseburger with Bacon with a side of Golden Fries and a Half Acre beer.  The Au Cheval burger has been listed as one of the best burgers in America.  The original restaurant, Au Cheval, will frequently have waits of several hours for their burgers and Small Cheval will have a line during hot times.  I will say that while they make a good burger, it isn't worth a several hour wait.  I would argue that a lot of the line is caused by hype.  While I would certainly have and enjoy their burger again, I wouldn't wait several hours for it and would quickly go elsewhere if that was the case.    

Monday, April 11, 2016

Analogue - Pho Q

I have been to Analogue a few times and like what they do.  They are a low key cocktail bar that serves some really good Cajun food, so when it was announced that they would host a pop up called Pho Q (careful about how you pronounce that), a dinner combining Vietnamese and Barbecue, I quickly signed up.  Now, on the surface, Vietnamese and Barbecue in a Cajun restaurant may not make a lot of sense, but if you look at it geographically, it might make more sense.  There is a large Vietnamese population in southern Louisiana and one of the regional barbecue styles is from Texas which is just west.  People that eat these different styles of cuisine actually live fairly close to one another in southern Louisiana.  The dinner featured four courses, but drinks were extra.  For this dinner, they did come up with a couple of cocktails.  You didn't have to stick to these cocktails though.  You could order a beer or something of of their regular cocktail list, but I decided to stick with the theme and ordered the Smokin' Indo, a cocktail consisting of Laphroaig Scotch, Indonesian Rum, Spiced Vermouth, and what they referred to as Blood Orange Bitters, which was specifically China China, a French bitter orange flavored liqueur.  As one might guess from the name and from the fact that it contained Laphroaig Scotch, it was pretty smoky.  It wasn't all smoke, the rum provided something of a vanilla flavor and the China China added a bitter orange flavor.  It is not my typical go-to cocktail flavor profile, but it wasn't bad.
The first course of the meal was listed as an App Sampler and was served on a metal serving tray as barbecue might be.  The sampler contained three things (or four if you count the pickled vegetables).  It started with a Smoked Gulf Shrimp Spring Roll with a Peanut BBQ Sauce, continued with a Crispy Smoked Chicken Wing with Scallions, Garlic, and Noc Cham (Fish Sauce), and finished with a Hoisin Glazed Pork Rib with Black Vinegar and Thai Chilies.  The pickled vegetables included Carrots, Cucumbers, and Red Onions.  Everything on this tray was very good.  The spring roll was light.  The shrimp were tender and had a nice smoky flavor to them.  The peanut BBQ sauce was very good and went well with the spring roll.  It had a nice spicy peanut flavor that complemented the flavor of the spring roll.  It was not, however, necessary to make the spring roll to taste good, it was good by itself.  The chicken wing was also very good.  It had a crunchy and smoky flavor and the chicken was cooked perfectly.  I could have probably eaten about 10 of these and been happy.  The same could have been said for the rib.  As it was just a sample, I only had one bone, but it was very good.  The meat was tender with bitter, sweet, spicy, and tangy flavors.
The next course very definitely had a Vietnamese name, but it was basically a meat salad.  It was also pretty big.  It was called Goi Bo Thit Heo and had Pulled Pork and Brisket with Bean Sprouts, Cabbage, Mint, and Cilantro, and was served with a Shrimp Chip on either side.  It was both meaty and crisp with a variety of flavors and the chip made a good delivery system to the mouth.  I used chop sticksto put a pile of meat and greens on the chip and took a bite of the chip.  There was more salad than there were chips, but it was very good even without the chips.

The namesake dish was the last savory dish.  It was served in a large bowl and was served with a large plate of fresh greens, which included Mint, Cilantro, Bean Sprouts, Lime and Hot Peppers which were to be added at the diner's discretion.  The pho contained Brisket, Eye of Round, Beef Tendon, a Lil' Smokie, and Smoked Stock and Nutmeg.  I didn't add all of the greens to my pho but I did add enough to add some crispness and fresh flavor.  I liked everything about the pho except the Lil' Smokie.  The brisket and eye of round were very tender and flavorful, the tendon had a nice chew to it, and the broth had a nice smoky and meaty flavor.  The Lil' Smokie was a small smoky link which would have been fine except that it was unexpectedly also very spicy.  I might have liked it more if I had expected the hit of heat, but it was a surprise.

The dessert was interesting.  Called a Cafe' Sue Da.  It was a scoop of Condensed Milk Ice Cream sprinkled with Chicory Coffee and Peanuts and served on a slice of Texas Toast.  I will say that I really liked the condensed Milk ice cream.  It was rich, creamy, and sweet, and the peanuts and chicory added some bitterness and nuttiness which went well with the ice cream, but I didn't understand the point of the Texas Toast as it was just a thick piece of bread.

While Vietnamese food and Barbecue aren't commonly put together, the combination did work well.  I really enjoyed my experience and will definitely return for a regular dinner if not for a special meal.   

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Strings Ramen

I seem to have been on a ramen kick of late.  I recently met a friend for ramen at Strings Ramen in Lincoln Park.  They also have a location, which is also their original, in Chinatown.  The location of the Lincoln Park location is a little confusing to find.  The sign for the restaurant is in front of a brownstone two-flat with an elevated first floor.  It made sense to me that the restaurant was on the main floor, but after walking up the stairs, I saw a sign on the door that said, "Strings Ramen - Downstairs", so I went to the basement unit and found the restaurant.  The space unsurprisingly looked like a basement with a low ceiling and high windows, but it was fairly nicely done.  The space was pretty open with a long bar on one side, which, I saw was not a bar as such, but a serving counter as the restaurant is a BYOB.  The lights were hanging lights that looked like Chinese lanterns and everything was done in light colored woods.  Seating was all at high top tables for four (plus the counter) with a banquette on the wall opposite the bar/counter.  The menu at Strings features the four standard ramens, Shoyu (Mushroom Broth), Shio (Sea Salt Broth with Chicken or Turkey Stock), Miso, and Tonkotsu (Pork Broth), but they also have premium versions of each and Hell Ramen which features five levels of hotness.  While the Hell Ramen sounded interesting, I went with the premium Miso Ramen which included King Crab Leg, Bean Sprouts, Asari (Clam), Scallions, Shichimi (Seven Color Chili Pepper), Black Sesame, Nori, and diced Kuro Buta (Berkshire Pork).  We also ordered Soft-boiled Eggs to cut into the ramen, because the egg yolk adds a richness to the broth.  While it did taste good and there were peppers in the broth, it was still pretty bland.  On the table was a couple of hot pepper mixes that you could add to make the ramen spicier or you could get a half mix of the peppers used in the hotter Hell Ramens.  We ordered one of these and it very definitely helped.  After adding the pepper mix, I really enjoyed the ramen.  The crab leg was split so it was easy to get to the meat and there were plenty of small shrimp and clams.  The Kuro Bota was bite sized and tender and also added a little richness. 

While this is not the absolute best ramen that I have ever had, it is good, especially after adding some of the hot pepper mix, and is well worth returning.  It is low key and friendly and the waiter was very helpful.   

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Ramen-San Dan Sall's Mexican Omakase

While I have been on a little bit of a ramen kick recently, I recently went to a ramen place not for ramen, but for Mexican food.  Ramen-San, Lettuce Entertain You's representative to Chicago's ramen scene, hosted Dan Sall's of The Garage and The Salsa Truck to do an Omakase dinner featuring cuisine from his upcoming Mexican restaurant.  While I assume most of the diners for this dinner were in a private dining room, I had a problem making a reservation, talking to three different people and they still screwed it up, so we ended up in the main dining room.  After a little talking, we did get things straightened out and while we stayed in the main dining room, we did get the omakase dinner.  The dining room was deep with high tables in the center of the room that reminded me of a high picnic table, and booths on the outside.  The furniture and floor were light wood with black iron support for the tables and chairs and old brick walls.  The soundtrack was old school rap, which is apparently a standard thing (One of their operating principles is that No one gets a room pumped up like Eric B and Rakim).  Our dinner featured four courses with four optional add ons and three cocktail choices.  The cocktail list featured two tequila based, and one mezcal based drinks.  I went with the Mezcal based drink, which was called The Diving Bell.  It featured Single Village Mezcal, but also contained Dry Gin, Yuzu, Caramelized Pineapple, and Cayenne.  It was very complex with smoky, herbal, and sweet fruit flavors and had a spicy finish.  I liked the flavors, but it did start to break somewhat as the drink aged.
For our first course, we started with Chicharones which were served with Sikil Pak, a creamy Mayan Pumpkin Seed Dip similar to Hummus in texture, and Valentina Hot Sauce.  We were given a couple of chicharones each which were light and seasoned with cayenne and to be dipped in the sikil pak which was light and tasted really good.  Unfortunately, there weren't enough chicharones to eat the sikil pak with.  While I did run a finger along the edge of the bowl, after the chicharones were gone and did taste really good, I did feel a little uncomfortable doing that and really wished for more chicharones.  This was, though, our first course, which was supposed to get us anticipating the next course which it did well.
For our next course, we progressed to Atun Borracho, or Drunken Tuna Salad which, in addition to the raw Tuna, was served with Avocado,  Pickled Mango, Tortilla Chips, and had Tequila poured over it.  This was another adventure in eating.  Although it did have a significant amount of liquid, like a ceviche, it was very unlike ceviche, and more like a tuna tartare.  I started by putting the tuna avocado and mango on the tortilla chips, but I was left with much tuna when the tortilla chips (which were very crisp and good tasting) ran out.  As we were in a Japanese restaurant, there were many chop sticks, so that is how I finished with the tuna.  While it did taste good, it was a little light on seasoning.
I was kind of excited for the next course, Cochinita Pibil Tacos, because Mexican Pulled Pork, which is essentially what Cochinita Pibil is, is very good and flavorful and you can't go wrong with tacos.  In addition to the Pulled Pork (and the Corn Tortilla), it also had Mango Salsa and Pickled Onions.  The tacos were good, but not great.  I was a little disappointed because thay felt like they were missing something.  They were, however, quickly wolfed down.
When we go to the last official course, we were considering adding another course, because the first three had still left us a little hungry.  We had not decided when our last course arrived, which was a good thing, because we would have had to take something home.  The last course was a Japanese-Mexican Fusion called Pozole "Ramen".  Pozole and Ramen occupy the same areas in their respective cuisines so it seemed to be a natural fit.  Pozole is a stew with hominy and pork and ramen is essentially a stew with noodles and a bone broth.  With the Pozole Romen, we had Hominy, Noodles, a Red Broth that is common with pozole, which was kind of spicy, Chashu Pork (a marinated pork belly which while with a Japanese name, is relatively common in pozole).  It was also served with a Bean Tostada, which while simple, was pretty good.  After we made it through this, we were actually happy that we didn't order anything else, because we were kind of full.  The pozole ramen was good and spicy with a lot of noodles and hominy.  The pork was tender and flavorful and it was a pretty good finish...
We thought.  While it wasn't listed, a small dessert was also included.  We were given Churros with a Honey Mango Dipping Sauce.  The Churros were very light and airy with a light and crispy crust and a covered with sugar.  The dipping sauce was sweet.  If it had been with just honey, it would have been too sweet, but the mango added a tartness to it that toned things down and definitely made for a good finish.

While everything was good, nothing was really great.  We did finish very satisfied, but it might have been nice to try some of the add on dishes which included Duck Carnitas, Mexico City Fried Chicken, Braised Lamb, and Braised Shrimp.  The problem with my reservation was a little annoying, but they recovered well and while I say that nothing was fantastic, I might still be interested in trying out Chef Dan's restaurant when it opens.