Friday, May 27, 2016

42 grams

A Chicago food writer made a comment about the Chicago food scene and Michelin Stars and said that with few exceptions, Chicago is a One Star town and that is what most restaurants should aspire to because Chicago is very relaxed about their dining and as the number of stars goes up, so does the formality.  While I would agree with this in many cases, there are notable exceptions.    Alinea and Grace are both Three Star restaurants, but they are also both very formal.  42 grams, which I went to recently, is a small BYOB (18 seats total) with a tasting menu with two seatings a night.  The first seating is at the Chef's Counter, which overlooks the open kitchen and has eight seats.  The second seating is at a communal table seating 10.
I chose the counter because I always like to watch what is going on in the kitchen.  I was seated at one corner, which was ideal because I was also sitting next to the staging area and was able to watch what would be coming out next and how it was plated.  With 18 seats, it was a very intimate setting to the point that there are only four people that work there, Chef Jake Bickelhaupt, his assistant, whose name has escaped me, Chef Jake's wife, Alexa Welsh, who runs the front of the house as hostess and server, and a 4th employee who works as a busser and dishwasher.  Aside from the counter and table, the room was fairly spartan with one major wall hanging consisting of wine corks.  As 42 grams is a BYOB and I was by myself, I didn't want to bring a bottle of wine because I wanted to be able to bike home so I brought a Belgian-Style Sour Ale from Une Anee called Le Seul V which was flavored with Kiwifruit.  While I didn't know what the menu was going to be beforehand, I figured that a fruity sour ale would go well with many things that might be served in the spring.  For the most part, this was the case.

Our first course was served on what looked like a pewter oyster shell.  The dish did feature an oyster so it was appropriate.  The Golden Nugget Oyster sat on top of a Sweet Corn Panna Cotta and a slice of Speck.  It was framed with the leaves of a plant called Oysterleaf (which is named such because it tastes of oyster) and crowned with fried Cornsilk.  It was small enough to be eaten in one bite which was how it supposed to be eaten.  Despite the small size, it had a wealth of textures and flavors and was a great start.

Dinner proceeded with another seafood course which was served in a bowl similar to a ramen bowl, deep with concave sides.  In the bottom was a Gyokuro (a green tea grown under shaded conditions) Gelee with Tofu, Carabinero Shrimp (with Head Foam), Finger Lime, and Rice Noodles flavored with Phytoplankton.  Looking at the dish left many people wondering how to eat this.  The noodles were light and crisp and couldn't really easily be separated from one another.  We were instructed to use the back of the spoon that we were given to eat the dish with to crush the noodles into the dish and to mix everything together.  It had a very saline flavor from the noodles and the shrimp (which was cooked perfectly) with some creaminess and a light green tea finish.
The next course was one of the most beautiful courses that we were served.  It started with thinly sliced Hamachi served with with Tom Kha (Chicken Coconut Soup), Dulse (Red Algae or Sea Lettuce, which was fried), Cucumber Blooms, and Radishes.  The hamchi was tender and delicate, which went well with the textures of the flowers and the flavor of the soup.  The dulse provided a little crispness to the dish.
The last of the seafood courses finished with Mussels which were served with Curry, Cauliflower, and Wild Fennel Foam.  This was one of my favorite dishes and I am generally not a huge fan of mussels.  It had a multitude of colors, flavors and textures.  The mussels sat in the curry broth which was thick, creamy and very flavorful and went well with the multicolored cauliflower.  The wild fennel foam was surprisingly flavorful and also went well with the curry as well.
The first of the meat courses was not something I would have expected, Lamb Neck.  It was braised so it was very tender and was served with Fermented Lily Puree, Fried Enoki Mushrooms, Cara Cara Orange, Carrot, and a Dandelion Green to provide some bitterness.  Lamb has a bit of a strong flavor although I imagine it would be less so in the neck because a lot of the flavor of meat resides in the fat.  There was a definite strong flavor with the meat although it was moderated by the bright flavors of the vegetables and the bitterness of the dandelion.
From tender meat and a lot of brightness, we went to Thanksgiving.  It wasn't actually supposed to be a Thanksgiving dish, but that's what the flavors and spices reminded me of.  We were served Squab Breast with shredded Black Truffles, Ground Cherry, Caramelized Onions, Ancient Grains Porridge, and Sage.
If there is anything like a signature dish at 42 grams, it would be the next course, which has never left the menu.  It was a slice of A5 (highest grade) Miyazaki (breed of cattle) Wagyu Beef served with Baby Bok Choy, Umeboshi (Salted Asian Plum Sauce) and a line of white powder that turned out to be a mixture of Bone Marrow and Beef Tendon.  The meat was very tender and there was a lot of umami.  It was a very good dish, although for me, I would say it was only my third or fourth favorite (out of 11 courses).
There was one more meat course after the Wagyu that, while it was kind of a step back in formality, it was one of my favorite dishes.  It was Jamon Mangalica, a Hungarian Pig sent to be finished in Spain like Spanish Iberico served with very fresh Cheese, Flax Crisp, and Siberian Pineapple Jam.  We were given a spoon to eat this with and instructed to spoon the very soft cheese with some ham onto the flax crisp and eat it like cheese and crackers.  The crisp was very delicate, so the operation was to break off a piece of the crisp, spoon the cheese and ham with some jam onto the crisp and bite carefully to prevent it from shattering.  The cheese was very soft and tart, the ham was tender and flavorful, and the crisp was delicate.  It was fantastic in it's simplicity.
In a standard progression, there will be a palate cleanser between the savory courses and the desserts.  This is generally a tart sorbet.  In this case, the progression followed tradition, although it was very different in form and very creative.  It was simply called Tart and consisted of a very thin globe of White Chocolate fixed to a spoon with Honey, topped with a Pineapple Sage Flower, and filled with Calamansi Juice.  Because the shell was so thin and delicate, we were instructed to have it completely in our mouth before biting down because it would shatter and make a mess for the diners if they did not.  Despite having said this, there were still some people that kept their moth open or tried to bite into it and had the sour juice dribble down their lips.
Like the previous dish, Tart, our dessert was simply called Sweet. It consisted of a scoop of Aloe Vera Gelato with Miso Caramel, Oxalis (Red Clover), Dried Pears, on Ginger Carrot Cake.  It was sweet, but it was a lot more than just sweet.  The aloe vera added a floral flavor, the miso caramel brought some savoriness, and the ginger carrot cake added some spice.  It was complex and I really enjoyed it.
To finish things we had Coffee.  It was a special blend made by Sparrow Coffee called the 42 grams Blend and was served as a Cappuccino with Cardamom.  It was a nice looking cappuccino, but it wouldn't be a fine dining restaurant if there wasn't a twist.
The coffee was semi-solid, like pudding.  I didn't get a picture of our hostess turning it upside down, but I did take one of my own.  It was a nice cappuccino and the cardamom added a nice twist  9not to mention the creamy texture).

I really enjoyed my dinner here.  It was one of my favorite fine dining experiences.  I enjoyed the intimacy and Alexa explaining the dishes, not to mention the great flavors and textures.  After the dinner service was finished they actually took pictures with us.  It was a lot of fun and I would definitely do it again.  

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Kai Zan

While I really like sushi and have been to many sushi restaurants, somehow, I have not managed to do an Omakase menu.  Omakase basically translates to Chef's choice and it the sushi equivalent to a Chef's Tasting menu at a fine dining restaurant.  I recently read an article listing Chicago's best and most affordable Omakase menus and I happened to notice that a restaurant that has been on my radar for a while, Kai Zan, was on the list.  I decided quickly, that it must move up my list so I could try the Omakase.  The restaurant is a small place with the bar on one side and booths on the other and it was pretty busy when I came, but they were able to seat me and at the bar, although I was told that my window was a little limited because they would need the seat for a reservation in 50 minutes.  I agreed to this and while I never felt rushed even after I went slightly past the time for the reservation, courses did come pretty quickly.   The next time I go, I will plan on making a reservation.  My position at the bar afforded me a great view of the action in the kitchen and there was a lot of action in the kitchen.  While the Omakase is listed on the regular menu, what is on it or even how many courses, is not.  If you order the Omakase, they will bring you a printed menu to keep before anything arrives.  I am not sure if it was a factor of time, but while I did receive everything on the menu, the first several courses were out of order.  It wasn't a huge issue though it was slightly confusing to try to keep track.  The first course to come out was actually the second course on the menu, Escolar and Maguro Pearls which consisted of Seared Tuna and Escolar, Sushi Rice, Spicy Mayo, Truffle Oil, and Scallions.  The course was served on a long plate with pickled ginger and wasabi on the side as were many of the fish plates.  While many people think of sushi as raw fish, many of the courses were at least seared.  While the two fish were served with the same accompaniments, they had very different flavors, the lighter colored escolar having a buttery flavor and the tuna tasting like tuna.  While the course was officially the second course, it fit well as a first course, introducing the diner to the flavors and styles that they would be experiencing.  It was very good and I really enjoyed it.
The second course served which was the first one on the menu was called Madai Carpaccio.  As might be expected from a dish called carpaccio, it was very thinly sliced and served with olive oil and greens.  In this case, it was Japanese Red Snapper with Basil, Toro (Bluefin Tuna Belly), Black Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe), and Olive Oil.  It was very delicate and flavorful and also served on a long narrow plate.  I will say here that while I am sure that silverware could be had if you asked, it was not automatically given to diners and the only dining implement provided for the sushi were chopsticks.  I will admit that while I can use chopsticks, I am not an expert with them, and the carpaccio was harder to eat with chopsticks than was the first course which had a regular shape and something to hold onto with the sushi rice.
The third course that showed up was actually the fourth course on the menu.  Called Angry Crab, it was Spicy Crab wrapped in Tuna with Tempura Crunch and topped with Spicy Mayo.  This was a one bite wonder with a variety of flavors and textures.  It was spicy and sweet with a nice beginning crunch and a good firm texture.
The next course were Shooters and while they didn't look exceptionally appetizing, I like them.  I was served one Oyster and one Scallop Shooter both of which were prepared the same way, with a Quail Egg, Tabasco, Scallions, and Black Tobiko in Ponzu Sauce.  Ponzu is a thin citrus-based sauce that essentially works the same way that the citrus in ceviche works, it tenderizes the seafood.  A shooter is supposed be swallowed like a shot, slamming it down, although it is possible to chew whatever shellfish is in the glass.  I generally will give it a minimal chew before swallowing it.  The shooters were very tart and the seafood was tender, but chewable.  The quail egg provided a depth of flavor and the Tabasco added a spicy finish.  The tobiko were salty and texturally similar to tapioca.
The rest of the courses that followed came in the correct order according to the written menu.  The next course was called Orange Rush and was a lightly seared Scallop wrapped in a lightly seared Salmon with a Citrus Glaze served on a Scallop Shell.  This was another one bite wonder that was as fun to eat as it was good looking.  It was tender and flavorful with a nice and tart finish.
The next course confused me a little with its placement within the meal although it was good.  It was a Tuna Dashi which was Dashi Broth with Shiitake Mushrooms, Little Neck Clams, Nori, Sesame, and a Tuna Skewer.  It was good and very flavorful,the mushrooms were plentiful, and the clams were like little bonus bites in the bottom of the bowl.  The tuna was tender and the flavor paired well with the dashi.  As I said though, the placement within the meal confused me a little because soup is generally served at the beginning of a meal.
The next course called the Main was actually four courses in one.  The first was Shrimp dotted with Tobiko and served with a Sliced Lemon.  It was very fresh and tender and had none of the bad flavor that shrimp gets as it gets old.  The next is one of the kings of Japanese Street Food.  Called Takoyaki, it's Fried Dough containing Sliced Octopus and topped with Takoyaki Sauce, which is similar to Worcestershire Sauce.  The next course was Char Siu, a Grilled and Barbecued Pork Belly that was served with Broccolini.  The last dish was called Tako Wasabi which was Wasabi-seasoned Squid and Octopus.  All of it was good, but I think I liked the Takoyaki best.
After the main, I was served my first and only roll and it was definitely something else.  Called Fiesta Maki, it had a little of everything.  Wrapped in Nori and the Rice, of course, it had Salmon, Tuna, Avocado, Cilantro, Masago (a small forage fish in the Smelt family also known as Capelin), Chili Oil and Jalapeno.  This was flavorful with a variety of textures and with the nori, pretty easy to eat.
After the maki, I was served another shellfish called Dynamyte Mussels.  While it did have a New Zealand Mussel and was served in a Mussel Shell, it also included several other things that enhanced the flavor.  It also included Masago, Black Tobiko, and Scallion Mayo with a slice of Lemon on the side.
The savory portion of dinner finished with Sashimi.  I was presented with four fish on a single plate in a very nice presentation which could be differentiated by color.  I was served a couple of slices of Salmon, which was red, Hamachi, which was pink, Escolar, which was rolled and white, and Snapper, which was striped.  Also on the plate were some Pickled Ginger and, on the other side, Wasabi.  I was also given a shallow dish with some Japanese Soy Sauce specifically used with sushi.  While I did eat the pickled ginger between fish to cleanse my palate, I was very light with the soy sauce and the wasabi because I wanted to taste the fish.  The fish was tender and tasted very fresh and was a nice finish to the savory side.
While dessert was not part of the Omakase and I generally don't think much of Japanese desserts, I will try them because, while I can't say that I have really liked many, I also can't say that I have disliked many and I am open to being surprised.  For my dessert, I had a  Coconut Milk Panna Cotta with Kiwifruit, Mango, Mint, and topped with a Blackberry.  It was fresh and refreshing with a sweet and tart flavor.  I was very happy with this and found it to be a nice finish to a very good meal.

I really enjoyed my meal here.  The food was very good and the staff was friendly although I will say that the next time I return, I will make sure to make a reservation so I don't have to be as concerned about time.    


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Del Seoul

Whoever came up with the ideal of combining Korean and Mexican cuisines was a genius.  Korean and Mexican flavor profiles are similar, so fish, shrimp, and barbecued beef are natural fits.  I went recently to Del Seoul Korean BBQ, which, among other things adds Korean seasoned proteins on Corn Tortillas (Flour tortillas for the fish).  There are six tacos listed on the menu, I picked the three that were listed as the most popular:  Sambal Fish, Sesame-Chili Shrimp, and Kalbi.  The Sambal Fish Taco came with Tempura Fish, Pickled Red Onions, Napa Slaw, Sambal Aioli, and Flour Tortillas.  The fish had a light and crunchy coating, the vegetables were crisp and also added a little sweetness, and the Sambal aioli added some garlic and spice.  The Sesame-Chili Shrimp, as one might guess, had a pronounced sesame and spicy flavor.  It had Hand-Battered Panko Shrimp, Cilantro-Onion Relish, Secret Slaw, and Toasted Sesames.  The vegetables were also crisp with a significant cilantro flavor which is found both in Latin and Asian cuisines and went well with the shrimp and sesame-chili flavor.  Kalbi is Korean Barbecued Beef.  While the ingredients of the Sesame-Chili Shrimp and the Kalbi Tacos were the same with the exception of the protein, the proteins did make an enormous difference in flavor (although they were both very good).  The Kalbi was spicy-sweet with a pronounced beef flavor.
In addition to my tacos, as I was in a Korean restaurant, I was obliged to have their Kimchi.  I like kimchi.  It is essentially Korea's version of Sauerkraut.  They both consist of pickled cabbage and both are pretty sour, but kimchi is decidedly spicier.  Kimchi is also frequently cut into larger pieces than is sauerkraut.  I only ordered a small size because I assumed that the tacos would go well toward filling me up.  I was correct.  The kimchi that I did have was crisp, sour, spicy, and very good.  As it might be guessed, I really liked this place and I will definitely be back.