Sunday, August 28, 2016

Ixcateco Grill

While I do like Mexican food, I am very picky about it because I know that it's more than beans and rice, tortillas, and tacos.  While I love a good taco, I prefer them spiced up a little and with something other than just some grilled meat.  One of the best Mexican Chefs around is Rick Bayless, who has been teaching the general public about Mexican food with Frontera Grill and other restaurants for over 30 years.  As with most successful chefs that have been around for a while, there are many up and coming chefs that have come through his organization who now have restaurants of their own.  I recently went to one of the "children of Frontera Grill", Ixcateco Grill in Albany Park, which is headed by Chef Anselmo Ramirez, who came up through Frontera Grill and Topolabampo.  I came in early on a weekday which explained the apparent emptiness of the dining room when I arrived.  The space did become substantially more full by the time I finished my dinner.  The space is narrow, seating about 60, with a large window in the front which lets in a lot of natural light.  The walls are bright and multicolored with a lot of art on the walls in traditional Mexican styles.  The ceiling was black and unfinished with track lighting providing additional light than that provided by the large window.
As is traditional in many sit down Mexican restaurants, Chips and Salsa were served at the beginning of the meal, the Mexican equivalent of a bread course.  The chips were self made and arrived at the table very warm, likely because they just came out of the fryer.  The tortilla chips were crunchy, very flavorful, and while the salsa was amazing, it was unnecessary to enjoy the chips, which were great on their own.  This is not to say that I didn't finish the salsa as well, it was actually finished well before the chips were, which is how I know that the chips were good on their own.
I started my meal with an appetizer I thought sounded very similar to a gordita (not the Taco Bell version).  Called a Picadita, it started with a thick masa canoe filled with Chicken Carnitas, Acocado Crema, Queso Ranchero, Yellow Peppers, and Pickled Cactus.  The masa had a crispy exterior with a chewy interior and was very easy to handle by hand.  The chicken carnitas were tender and flavorful and the peppers, cheese, avocado crema provided additional great flavors and textures.  The pickled cactus provided a nice finish, both crisp and sour and kind of reminded me of pickled green beans.
For a place that is a BYOB, I was a little surprised by the entree that I ended up ordering.  I had a Puerco Tequilero with Wood Grilled Pork marinated in a Chile Tequila Sauce that it was served with along with Mashed Sweet Potatoes.  I wasn't surprised that tequila was used, but I was surprised that the tequila flavor in the sauce and the meat itself was so pronounced.  It was tender, very juicy, had a pronounced tequila flavor that complemented the flavor of the smoky pork,  The sauce was strong and spicy, but the Mashed Sweet Potatoes on the side took the edge off the bite.

For my dessert, I went with a classic, Tres Leches Cake.  It was dense, sweet and very moist, and was served with a Cream Cheese Frosting, Mint, Whipped Cream, and Caramel.  There is very little I can say about this except it was very good and fulfilled my expectations.

I enjoyed my dinner here, the food was very good, the staff was very friendly and helpful, the space was small, but comfortable and looked inviting.  It was very good and I will definitely return.          

Friday, August 26, 2016

Finch Kitchen and Brewery

Those of you that read this blog regularly know that I enjoy going to different breweries, both for the beer, and in the case of those places that are also brewpubs, to try the food that they serve.  I recently went to a brewpub in North Center that I had previously been to and liked before when it was known as Breakroom Brewery.  I was kind of sad when Breakroom went away, but it was nice to see another up and coming local brewery, Finch's Brewing Co., now known as Finch Beer after also buying out Hopothesis Beer Company.  I had had several Finch Beers before and liked what I had had.  I knew that they had been looking for a place for a taproom for a while, so while it was a little sad to see a good brewpub go away, it was good to see another local brewery move in quickly bringing in their own celebrity chef.  The opening chef for Breakroom was Dirk Flanigan (formerly of The Gage), the opening chef for Finch Beer Co. and Kitchen is Matthias Merges (Yusho, Billy Sunday, A10).  As the space simply went from one brewery to another, only minimal changes were made in the dining room.  The space still has a high ceiling with exposed rafters, hardwood floors and furniture, garage doors at the front, and brewing tanks on either side of the dining room.  The major change came in the back of the room.  The woodshop that made bars that was in the back is now gone and is now an expanded brewing area.  The wall that separated the bar making company from the brewpub used to have a large wooden flag on it.  That has been replaced by a neon yellow finch which is the symbol for Finch Beer.
As far as the beer is concerned, they have a flight menu that is also used as a serving coaster.  There are 8 beers offered on tap that you can order as part of a flight.  There was also a cider, a guest tap, and a Hopothesis beer offered on tap, but which had to be ordered in 10 or 16 oz sizes.  When I was there, flights of four or eight were offered, it seems that they are now offered as three or five.  As it was early and I had other places to be, I decided to just go for a flight of four.  At the time that I went there, they seemed to be focusing on IPAs as there were 3 IPAs and an APA on the flight menu.  The flight menu now seems to be more widely focused with a variety of styles including a saison, a lager, a Mexican Lager, a dubbel, a wit, and one of the IPAs that had been on the menus previously.  The flight that I ordered included  Skull Hammer American IPA, Liquid Swords APA, Shards of Narsil American IPA, and Western Exposure Belgian Witbier.  As the name suggests, Skull Hammer hits hard and was pretty bitter.  Between the two IPAs that chose, I preferred the hops of the Shards of Narsil which had a more tropical flavor.  Liquid Swords was a hoppy pale ale that does not quite reach IPA levels of bitterness, and Western Exposure had a grassy coriander flavor and a higher ABV than a standard ABV.  Overall, the beers weren't bad, but I liked the Shards of Narsil best. 
When looking at the food at a brewpub, you have to look at the bar snacks offered.  Pretzels and nuts should be expected, but pork rinds, sausage,  and crispy chickpeas were a surprise to see on the menu.  I ordered the Crispy Chickpeas with Smoked Paprika which were served in a sealable plastic bag with a window which was brought in a bowl.  It was a good thing that they were brought in a sealable bag, because I got more than I would eat in a single sitting (actually I got more than I would eat in several sittings).  The chickpeas were crispy, flavorful, and well coated in smoky paprika, which gave them a spicy and smoky flavor.  They were also a great palate cleanser so I could better differentiate between the beers.  They were very addictive and reminded me of corn nuts and while I didn't eat them all in a single sitting, I made sure that they came with me when I left.
The rest of the menu is divided into For The Table, shareable dishes, Sausages, Sandwiches, and Dessert.  While there were a few things on the shareable menu that looked good like the Raclette Cheese Platter, Charred Beets, and Beer Steamed Mussels, I was by myself, so I wouldn't be sharing, and while the sausages looked interesting, I went with a Crispy Chicken Sandwich with Kimchi, Fried Shallots, and Sesame Aioli which were served with a side of Kennebec fries.  The chicken had a crispy breading with a tender, juicy interior, and a great flavor.  The kimchi and the aioli gave the chicken some sour, some spice, and a nice Asian accent.
Dessert basically worked out to be a choice between ice cream and donuts and while I like ice cream and they were serving Black Dog Gelato, I really was not in the mood for ice cream, so donuts, it was.  The Donuts in question were Chocolate Stout Donuts with Ginger Caramel Dipping Sauce topped with Powdered Sugar.  The bartender suggested that I order a Finch Secret Stache Chocolate Stout, which was the stout used in making the donuts because it would make a great pairing.  While I thought it sounded like it would be a great pairing, I tried to wave it off.  The bartender though, noticed that I am a great guy to give free stuff to, and decided to give me a tasting glass of the stout.  The donuts were hot and fluffy with a great chocolate flavor and a bitter malt undertone.  They did pair perfectly with the stout and the dipping sauce provided a creamy and spicy sweet finish.  I enjoyed my beer and meal here and will return to try more.      

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Café Marie Jeanne

While there are a few places that are really good there, I generally don't think of Humboldt Park for dining out.  I happened to be in the neighborhood one morning for other reasons and I hadn't eaten, so I decided to check out a place on a corner that I knew to be blowing up.  From the outside, Café Marie Jeanne looks like one of the many independent coffee shops or small restaurants in the city.  It sits on a corner and has large windows on both sides of the corner.  The sign is nice, although understated, with painted script on the lower part of the windows.  Walking in, the look is of a cafe, with hardwood floors, a painted tin ceiling, several tables laid out cafeteria-style (straight lines), and a few booths.  As you walk in, there is a small display counter with some beer, sodas, and produce, and pastries, which is one end of a long slate topped bar.  While they operate primarily as a restaurant, you can also buy fruit, milk, coffee, some produce, beer, and wine for take out, as in a market.  There seemed to be another dining room in the back, but I was happy in the front at the bar where the beer, wine, coffee, and liquor were.  While I was given a couple of menus consisting of breakfast and drinks to look at, I also noticed that there were several chalkboard menus at different places that emphasized specials, coffee, and beer and liquor.  While I was looking at, and comparing, all of the menus, I decided to start things off with some coffee.  I had not had a Capuccino in a while and they used a good coffee (Metric), so that's where I started.  I was happily surprised that, in addition to good tasting coffee, I also got some nice Latte Art.
The a la carte menu features a lot of meats, cheeses, produce, and pastries, so it potentially could take a little work to put together a composed meal, but a pastry is a good start.  I ordered a Ham & Comte (Cheese) Croissant and from the start, it reminded me of something I might find at a French Patisserie.  The plate, in fact, had a blue design around the edge and a blue farmhouse painting in the center.  It really reminded me of something I bought in France years ago.  The croissant was very light with a crispy and flaky crust and a nice chewy interior.  The ham was thinly sliced in the center and was very tender and flavorful and the Comte, while mostly melted into the croissant , still provided a nice funky cheese flavor.  I would have been happy with this alone, but there was more to come.
While I said that there were a lot of pieces and it could take a little work to create a composed dish, Café Marie Jeanne provided an easy way to do it.  On the menu is a Breakfast Sandwich that you essentially choose yourself.  How it works is that you choose two items from the Breakfast A La Carte Menu which are then placed, with cheese (White Cheddar) and an egg to order, on Country Wheat Bread or an English Muffin.  You could also build your sandwich on a muffin for a premium.  For my sandwich, I chose Smoked Brisket, and Jowl Bacon on an English Muffin with my egg over medium (so I get a little yolk, but it doesn't explode), which with the egg and cheese, made for a seriously hearty sandwich.  Everything about this sandwich was very good (although it was a little work to be able to get a good first bite because it was pretty big).  The brisket and jowl bacon were very flavorful and slightly crispy, but not charcoal, the egg was cooked perfectly and the cheese was melted.  I really enjoyed this, as well as my breakfast in general, and will definitely have to return to try different versions of the sandwich. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

RPM Steak

As with the last restaurant that I went to, I was a little skeptical before going to RPM Steak, and for very similar reasons.  There are a number of restaurants in Chicago where you can get a really good steak.  Going into any of these restaurants, you should know that you will be paying a significant amount more than any number of other good restaurants that do not feature steak.  A good steak that is well prepared is not going to be cheap.  Having said that, RPM Steak is one of the more expensive steakhouses in town and the question is whether it is worth the premium.  RPM is part of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and stands for partners, Bill Rancic, Doug Psaltis, and RJ, Molly, and Jerrod Melman, the children of Rich Melman, Founding Partner of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.  Lettuce Entertain You's restaurants, for the most part, while not outstanding are pretty good in all categories.  They have many restaurants that simplify ethnic styles for Western palates.  The restaurants that the younger Melmans have opened up, however, seem to be focused at least as much on the scene as the food.  While the food that is serves at their restaurants is also pretty good, they seem to aim for an atmosphere of exclusivity which kind of turns me off.  The aim for exclusivity means that they will aim for a higher price point than other restaurants serving similar food.  I was a little turned off before I walked in because I had to park my bike a block away because there was nowhere close to park it.  From the outside, the restaurant looked like a nightclub.  The building is black and the windows had blackout curtains on them.  Walking in continued with the black theme, adding accents of white, glass, and chrome.  The bar is elevated from the "dance floor" dining room and is where I sat.  It was large, and black, with a white marble top and wrapped around in a square shape, so patrons sat on the outside and the bartenders floated around on the inside.  While I was trying to decide on my food, I ordered a cocktail called the Tuxedo.  It's a spin on a Martini with both Belvedere Vodka and Bombay Gin, Dolin Blanc Vermouth, and an Absinthe rinse.  It was served in a martini glass with a bow tie lemon peel garnish.  It tasted very smooth though the fact that it was all booze did give it a slight burn going down.  The crystal clear drink with the clear glass on the white bar and chrome background made for a great picture.
The appetizers included the usual suspects with bacon, foie gras, crab, caviar, and a nice selection of seafood, both raw and cooked.  I went with some of the cooked variety with the Mediterranean Octopus with Potatoes and Jalapeño Crema with sliced jalapeños.  The octopus was well grilled and had a little char.  It was very tender and meaty-flavored and went well with both the potatoes and the jalapeño which added some depth of flavor and some heat to the dish.

For my steak (there were other things that I could have ordered instead of steak, but come on, I was at a steak house).  I ordered a Medium Rare 14 oz Strip Steak from Slagel Farms.  In my opinion, you should order a vegetable and a side with your steak, so I ordered the Curried Brussels Sprouts for my vegetable and Golden Chanterelle Mushrooms for my side.  The brussels sprouts were crispy and had a nice spicy flavor to them.  While they tasted good, they were served as peeled leaves instead of the heads which I actually prefer.  The heads could have been cut, but I would have prefetred to have something to bite into instead of whole leaves.  The steak itself was fantastic.  It was well seasoned, very juicy, and a perfect medium rare.  The mushrooms were buttery and very flavorful and went very well with the steak.

While I was enjoying my steak, I was also talking to the bartender about their top shelf liquors, specifically their scotches.  While they did have a pretty good selection, I was a little disappointed that they had no Auchentoshan.  She told me that they had run out and if people asked for it, they had them try Oban, which she gave me a sample of and it was very good (though not exactly what iwas looking for).  I decided to hold off on the Scotch for the evening and decided to finish things with a Coffee Custard with Salted Caramel Pearls and Dark Chocolate which I paired with a Sambuca Lucano with Espresso Beans.  Coffee is a common after dinner drink, so I decided to do it a littel different with both the dessert and the drink.  They were both good and sweet with a little bitter and paired marvelously well together.

My dinner was very good and I was treated very well.  I enjoyed talking to the bartender and watching her work, but the meal was the most expensive non-tasting menu dinner that I have ever had.  I have actually had a few tasting menu meals that were cheaper than this.  While it was nice and very good, I am not sure that it was worth the premium over other very good steakhouses.    

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Duck Inn

It is really nice to be surprised positively.  I had heard about the The Duck Inn when it opened about a year ago.  On paper, it had a lot of things going for it, number one being that it's headed by Executive Chef Kevin Hickey, a talented chef who has headed several high profile restaurants (Allium, Bottlefork).  I was skeptical though, because the place is backed by Rockit Ranch, a group that seems more focused on the scene than on the dining experience.  While the food at their restaurants is generally pretty good, the prices also seem to be inordinately high, which promotes that this is an exclusive place that only the rich and beautiful would be welcome.  The place is also located in an out of the way corner of Bridgeport (a south side neighborhood) which has to make it a destination place for northsiders (It's a place you plan to go to vice going to spontaneously).  Looking at the menu before going did not dissuade me from the idea that this was a scene place, the food looked good, but the prices also looked inordinately high.  I had read a lot of positive press about the place and one of my friends had gone and really liked it, so I decided to try it out.  From the beginning when I arrived it was not what I expected.  As I said it was an out of the way corner of Bridgeport, very close to the Illinois Sanitary and Ship Canal.  The building, while it does have a sign, is pretty inobtrusive and just looks like a small corner bar painted black.  Walking in did little to dissuade me of of that idea, although it did have a definite 70s vibe.  I was a little taken aback though to see the chef standing at the Host Station.  I was by myself so he walked me to the dining room behind the bar where he handed me off to one of the waitresses who seated me in the dining room.  Generally, I would have no problem sitting at the bar, but in this case, the bar apparently only has an abbreviated menu, so the dining room it was.  The dining room is also basically black with a 70s vibe with high windows, a door to a patio in the rear, and a window to the kitchen.  I was seated in the center of the room so I got a good view of the movement of the staff and who the clientele were.  With that I was surprised again because this very much seemed a neighborhood joint.  There were families and people of all ages here.  Looking at the menu beforehand, the menu seemed to have many of the typical bar food standards (Burgers, Hot Dogs, Cheese Curds), they also, unsurprisingly, had a lot of duck on the menu including a Whole Rotisseried Duck that you had to pre-order, but they also were pretty all over the map with items such as Lumpia, Potted Foie Gras, and Scallop and Clam Stew.  There was also a 4 course Chef's Tasting Menu for $58, which I thought a little expensive, with a beer pairing at $16, which I thought pretty good.  After finding out that 3 out of the 4 courses came from the regular menu, and quickly comparing prices, I decided to go with the tasting menu.  For the first course, we started with the Spot Prawns with Seven Year Aged Risotto (the cheese in the risotto is aged seven years, not the entire risotto), Uni Butter, Eucalyptus, and Pickled Sea Beans.  It was paired with a Hottenroth Berliner Weisse from The Bruery.  The prawns were tender and flavorful and went well with the butteriness of the risotto and the saltiness of the sea beans.  The Berliner Weiss, a sour wheat beer paired well with every part of the course, bringing out different flavors with the different elements, the sour playing well with the sea beans and prawns, and the wheat pairing with the risotto.

The second course I may have bought whether or not I got the tasting menu, but then I may not have have had the beer to pair with it.  For the second course I had the Braised Pork Belly with Kale, Parsnip Tostones, and Heirloom Beans, and topped with Chimichurri.  Pork Belly is where bacon comes from.  It's generally served as a slab as this was and had a very tender interior as well as a chewy exterior.  It was like pork candy.  The parsnip tostones were unusual because when I think of tostones, I think of plantains.  As they are both starchy, it worked.  The flavor was more potato than banana, but it went with the pork belly well.  The beans were like pintos, the kale was similar to a stiff spinach, and the chimichurri  added a spice to everything.  The beer pairing was Marzcal Kolsch from Marz Community Brewing which was really unusual for a Kolsch, but went with the pork belly.  A Kolsch (named after Cologne, Germany) is generally a lower alcohol beer with a light color, and is a good summer beer.  This Kolsch used Smoked Malt, Blue Agave Nectar, and Sea Salt and is 7.2% ABV.  It was like the beer version of Mezcal and while it was almost nothing like a standard kolsch, it went well with the pork belly.

The next course was the cheese course which was listed on the dessert menu which I didn't see.  It was a simple cheese course paired with a nice dry cider.  The cheese was a semi-soft cheese similar to Camembert called Green Hill Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, Georgia.  It had a light flavor, but it also had a light funk to it.  With the cheese was served a Cherry Marmalade, Fig Preserves rolled in Marcona Almonds, and a Baguette.  While it wasn't much on its own, it spread well and was great on the bread with or without the cherries or figs.  The cider was great. and it paired well with the cheese.  It was a dry cider from a cidery in Tennessee that I wish I could remember the name because it's not listed online and I would definitely buy it on my own.  It was very tart and crisp with a nice cider flavor and minimal funk.

I will say that while I really liked my dessert, I can't say that I was exceptionally excited by the pairing.  I was served a White Chocolate Cremeaux (similar to pudding) with Strawberry Sorbet, Fresh Strawberries, and a Shortbread Crumble.  It was sweet, very creamy, tart, and very fresh tasting.  It was paired with the Nonsequitur Metaphor Cream Ale from Solemn Oath Brewing.  I understand the pairing because it was creamy and sparkling, but I can't say that I am a huge fan of the flavor of cream ale which just reminds me of a light lager without much flavor.

Overall, my dinner was very good.  The staff was friendly and it was nice to actually meet the chef.  The food is very good, but it is not cheap, so it would not be an every day stopping place, even if it was close.  I liked the vibe and I would really like to return if for nothing else than to try the rotisseried duck.     

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Whisk - Brunch

While Parks and Recreation character, Ron Swanson, is a manly man who loves whiskey, grilling, and breakfast foods, he is not a character around which I would build a real life restaurant that serves brunch and burgers.  Having said that, that is exactly what the restaurant Whisk, in Ukranian village has done.  The small restaurant is a temple to Ron Swanson with paintings and other images covering the two long walls of the restaurant.  The front wall is the windows at the front and the back is the kitchen.  At the front of the dining room, there is counter seating on one side and banquette seating on the other.  In the back, there are booths on the counter side and a bar (that does not serve alcohol) on the other.  The tin roof is painted brown and the floor is hardwood.  There is a patio for dining behind the building that you have to leave the restaurant and go through an alley at the side to get to.  This is where we sat.  The furniture on the patio were the standard metal four tops with a large umbrella.  It wasn't uncomfortable as such, but between the size of the plates and the condiment and napkin rack (made of wood), the table should have been a little larger or the plates a little smaller because my plate almost hung halfway off of the table.
The brunch menu was enormous divided into Savory, Sweet, Omelettes, Sandwiches, Salads, Hashes, and Benedicts (along with the standard brunch sides).  To make the choices a little easier, house favorites were indicated with a fork printed next to them.  There were many things on the menu that caught my eye, but what I decided to go with was the Pulled Pork Benedict (a menu item that was not marked with a fork, but still damn good).  It included the standard Eggs Benedict Stuff, a Poached Egg on an English Muffin topped with Hollandaise Sauce, but it also included House Braised Pulled Pork and the Hollandaise Sauce was Chipotle Seasoned and topped with Queso Fresco.  The English muffin was fresh, the egg was cooked well enough that it held together well without becoming rubbery as an overpoached egg will, the pulled pork was tender and flavorful and the spicysmokiness of the Hollandaise went well with it.  It was served with House Potatoes, which were well seasoned, also with a little bit of a spicy bite, and were nice and crispy.  I was a little disappointed that there was nothing on the menu that was really shareable, but I did order a side of bacon on the side, which was nice and crispy and did get shared a little.

I really enjoyed Whisk, the food was great and even with the oddness of being a Ron Swanson themed restaurant, it did look good and was friendly (not something that I would expect from Ron Swanson).  The BYOB is also a little out of the Ron Swanson character, although I'm not sure that shots of whiskey would sell well for brunch.  I will definitely return and I am interested in their new sister restaurant in Logan Square.