Friday, September 30, 2016

Summer House Santa Monica

I seem to have been going into the last several restaurants that I have gone to skeptical.  I really hope that it doesn't become a trend.  I received a gift certificate from friends to any Lettuce Entertain You Restaurant for my birthday.  While I was happy to receive it, I tend to be a little skeptical of most of the restaurants in the group because, while the food is generally pretty good, it also feels kind of dumbed down to me.  I took some time to consider which restaurants in the group I would feel least skeptical about that I haven't been to.  From the much shorter list, I chose Summer House Santa Monica, a California Wine focused restaurant in Lincoln Park with an casual vibe and a very eclectic menu.  The space is very open with the front of the restaurant with garage doors opening onto a patio.  The walls were white slat boards that reminded me of a seafood shack on the beach.  The floor was cement and much of the furniture was similar to patio furniture.  The look was very casual which extended into the dress of the wait staff, blue jeans and navy blue gingham shirts.  Much of the dining room had a large skylight, the rest was open with exposed ventilation and trellises.  The wine list features a lot of reasonably priced California Wines as well as cocktails and beer.  While there was some nice looking wine on the list, I wasn't in the mood for wine and ordered a cocktail to start things off.  My drink was called High Tide and featured Few Breakfast Gin, North Shore Aquavit, St. Germaine, Lemon, Tarragon, and a Cucumber garnish.  While it wasn't listed, I think it also had some tonic water, because it was sparkling.  In any case, it was cool and very refreshing and I enjoyed it while I perused the food menu and waited for my order.
Looking at the many choices on the menu, it took a little thought to decide on how I wanted to construct my dinner such that it was something that I might like and actually made sense.  I decided start with Ahi Tuna Tostadas which came, in addition to the raw Ahi Tuna and crispy Corn Tortillas, with Watermelon, Thai Chili, Avocado, Crema, Cilantro, and Lime.  The plate came with five tostadas built on tortilla chips about the size of Tostitos.  The chips were very crunchy and the tuna was tender, flavorful, and fresh.  It did taste good, although admittedly, the watermelon did get lost among the other flavors.
One of the categories listed on the menu was Little Vegetable Plates.  It didn't look like I would be getting much in the way of vegetables with my other plates, so I decided to order some vegetables.  Among the choices were Caramelized Brussels Sprouts, Roasted Cauliflower, Fire-Roasted Beets, and Elote-Style Sweet Corn.  In my mind, considering my dinner, I thought that the Brussels Sprouts would have made the most sense, but I frequently have Brussels Sprouts when I go out, so I decided to go in a different direction and ordered the Fire-Roasted Beets.  The beets did have an obvious pairing with Goat Cheese, but there were some surprises with Hass Avocados and Red Apples.  Everything was topped with Watercress and then served with a Mustard Vinaigrette.  I like beets and think the pairing of beets and goat cheese, while obvious, is also very good.  The bitter greens also make sense.  The apples and avocado, while a surprise, paired very well, the sweetness of the apple pairing well with the earthy sweetness of the beets and the texture and flavor of the avocado pairing well with the goat cheese.
With my entree, I could have gone any number of directions from sushi to seafood to sandwiches to fish tacos.  I decided to split the difference somewhat and went with Orecchiette and King Crab, which was served with Candied Lemon, Chives, Lardo, Parmesan, and Fresno Chilies.  This was excellent and may have been my favorite dish.  The aroma of crab was obvious when the plate came out and the candied lemon showed prominently and paired well with the crab.  The orecchiette was perfectly al dente and liberally coated with parmesan cheese.  The slow medium burn from the Fresno chilies made for a nice finish.
Sitting with the idea of a casual restaurant, the desserts were similarly casual with an Ice Cream Sandwich, a Chocolate Cake, a Roasted Apple, Ice Cream, and a Cookie Counter.  Nothing on the menu was really speaking to me, but I did want to finish with something sweet so I settled on the Handmade Ice Cream Sandwich.  It was made with two Malted Chocolate Chip Cookies, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, and lots of Chocolate Chips.  When it came out, I was surprised at how large it was, about 6 inches in diameter.  There was also a lot of ice cream which was liberally covered with chocolate chips.  I was again surprised at the crunchiness of the cookie and the softness of the ice cream.  This did make it a little difficult to eat, because biting into it tended to squeeze the ice cream before the cookie broke, so you had to watch to make sure you didn't lose any ice cream.  Having said this, it was very good and a lot of fun to eat and there were plenty of chocolate chips that jumped off to eat on their own.

I will say that while the food was good and the staff was friendly, I had a little problem with the pricing versus the casual atmosphere.  A casual restaurant should be a little less expensive.  While the food served was appropriately priced, it was too nice for a casual restaurant.  While I may return, because it is friendly and the food is good, it won't be a solo endeavour.     

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Half Acre Beer Dinner at Bread & Wine

Even though I don't go there often, Bread & Wine is one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants.  The farm-to-table neighborhood restaurant that was a former laundromat in Albany Park had a beer dinner featuring Half Acre Brewery, one of my favorite local breweries, so it was a given that I was going to go.  The space has a large front window and off street parking, with a bike rack next to the entrance, which makes it really convenient to me.  The dining room is L-shaped, with the wide part at the front.  There are tables and a market which sells wine, beer, and some gourmet snacks at the front, behind the host station at the entrance.  The bar wraps around the inside corner of the Land this is where I usually sit (and where I sat tonight).  The rest of the dining room is filled with tables and a counter looking into the open kitchen.  When I arrived, I was seated at the bar and was quickly brought my first beer, Half Acre's Pony Pilsner.  I also saw, as in the past, I had my own placecard.  The beer was like a much better version of what AB InBev and Miller-Coors brews, which it is what it is.  It was crisp and bitter with a nice head and was a good way to start things.  Paired with the beer was something that makes sense for a German-style beer, House Sausage and Cheese, Sauerkraut with Rye Seeds, House Mustard, and a great loaf of house made bread and butter.

For our first actual course (the charcuterie and cheese with bread and a pilsner was a starter course), we started out with a Half Acre Beer I had never actually had, Sunday in Saigon Saison.  It was a nice saison with a good head that dissipated quickly that did not have the overt funk that some saisons do.  While it did have a saison funk, it also had flavors of lemongrass and basil with a little citrus.  It was paired with a Hamachi Crudo with Yuzu, Thai Basil (which went very well with the beer), and Radish.  The hamachi was very fresh with a good texture and the yuzu, basil, and radishes added sweet and herbal flavors that, as I said, went very well with the beer.

They turned the course progression a little from standard by putting the vegetable course after the fish course, but it still kind of made sense because the fish was raw and the vegetables were fried.  We were first served Half Acre's most popular beer, the Daisy Cutter Pale Ale (which could easily pass for an IPA).  As the picture indicates, I like it and it went quickly.  The vegetables, Green Beans, Onions, and Zucchini were tempuraed and served with a Daisy Cutter Miso Butter Dipping Sauce.  The Tempura batter was very light and crisp which allowed the freshness and flavor of the vegetables to come through.  This was my favorite course yet served.

The standard course progression returned for the next course with red meat, or in this case, pork.  For pairing with red meat, you will want a big beer, which they chose in spades with Half Acre Navaja Double IPA, another beer that I had never had, but was happy to try.  It clocked in at 10.00% ABV and around 100 IBUs.  It is sweet with flavors of pineapple, orange and grapefruit, with some breadiness and is very easily drinkable which is kind of dangerous considering how big it is.  The pork that it was paired with was a very tender pork tenderloin with whipped sweetness, braised kale, and pear compote.  The pork was tender, juicy, and flavorful and the sweetness from the sweet potatoes and pear paired very well with the beer.  While the vegetable tempura was probably my favorite course, this was my favorite pairing.

Beers paired with desserts are generally stouts or porters.  This makes sense because stouts and porters frequently have flavors of chocolate and coffee, frequent key components with dessert.  The heavy flavor of dessert also needs a heavier beer to pair with it.  While the beer in this case was neither stout nor porter, it did fall in the same ballpark.  Half Acre Heavy Feather is a Black Ale that poured with a great tan head.  It had flavors of coffee and caramel, but finished quickly and paired well with our dessert, a Sticky Toffee Pudding with Candied Black Walnuts and Whipped Cream on the side.  It was sweet, dense, and slightly bitter with earthy flavors from the walnuts which were moderated somewhat with the light vanilla flavors in the whipped cream.

As I said before, I like Bread & Wine and I like Half Acre Beer Company.  They worked together very well in their pairings and I really enjoyed this dinner.  I will continue to return to Bread & Wine and drink Half Acre Beer, and if either does a beer dinner elsewhere, I will try that as well.   

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ground Control

While I am willing to try almost anything, there are things that I like more than others.  While I am generally an omnivore, I have no problem limiting my diet and being a vegetarian for a meal.  While I have no problem going meat free, I will admit that their are very few vegan dishes that I have tried that I would really want to come back for.  While I respect people who decide to live that lifestyle, ultimately, I have found vegan food to be very boring.  This does not mean that I am not willing to try vegan food, in general, I just expect that I will probably be bored and not care to have it again.  A vegan restaurant opened in my neighborhood a couple of years ago and it seems to be pretty popular, so I decided to try Ground Control out recently.  The storefront is presently pretty narrow (although they will be expanding to the adjoining storefront soon) seating about 24 at tables and another 6 at the bar.  There is also patio seating that will seat about another 12.  The dining room is painted black and has an unfinished ceiling with some local art hanging on the walls.  The kitchen is in the back of the space with a small serving window near the bar and their are a couple of chalkboards on the back wall listing cocktails and desserts.  Their beer, wine, and cocktail list, while small, is well curated, with some very nice selections.  As I was going in a little skeptical, deciding what I was going to eat was going to take a little time, so I started things off with a beer.  It was warm, so I decided to start with a Two Brothers Dortmunder Lager which is crisp, a little bitter, and a great summer beer.
The dinner menu is divided into appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and entrees, with a small selection of sides.  As the entrees listed were tacos and tofu, I didn't feel that an appetizer (as such) would fit.  I decided that I would go with tacos and a side.  My tacos were Baja Style and included Breaded and Fried Tofu, Pickled Red Onion and Cabbage Slaw, Roasted Seaweed, Cilantro, Togarashi Spice, and Avocado, served with Beans and Rice, and a Salsa Verde.  The tacos were very colorful and had a great tart flavor.  The tofu and avocado provided the differences in texture that made them somewhat interesting.  While rice and beans are Mexican staples, the ones served with the tacos were a little boring, but the Salsa Verde was pretty good, flavorful, and added some spice to both the tacos and rice and beans.
As a side, I went with one of the few things on the menu that was not actually vegan and was only vegetarian, the mac and cheese.  It was actually listed both as an appetizer and as a side, although, because it's larger than the other sides, it had a premium over the other sides prices, but at $6, it was still pretty cheap.  It was made with (besides the macaroni), Gouda Cheese, Red Pepper, Scallions, Cotija Cheese, and some heat (hot peppers).  It was creamy, spicy, and tasted very good.  It was good whether you wanted to call it an appetizer or a side.
While they did have a separate dessert menu, their desserts were also listed on one of the back chalkboards.  I did not, however, notice that until I had actually ordered.  They had three vegan cakes, listed:  Chocolate, Raspberry Lemon, and Chocolate and Peanut Butter.  Vegan chocolate, even when it is chocolate and not carob, in my experience is even more boring than regular vegan food.  While I had been satisfied thus far, I was still a bit skeptical about dessert, so I went in the direction that I thought to be safest, the Raspberry Lemon Cake.  I picked well, my waitress also told me that it was her favorite.  I was kind of surprised that it held together as well as it did.  The cake was moist and flavorful with raspberry preserves and lemon between the three layers.  The frosting was firm and sweet and overall it was a nice finish.

After having my meal here, I will say that I was kind of surprised.  The food was much more interesting than vegan food than I have had in the past.  While the food was simple, it was good for what it was and while I will not be becoming a regular here, I would not have a problem returning occasionally when the mood hits.       

Monday, September 12, 2016


Years ago when I moved to the neighborhood, there was a bar and grill called Streetside that had a pretty good beer list and bar food that was a step up from the standard bar and grill.  While I did like the place, I wasn't really a regular, and I was only mildly disappointed when it closed.  The disappointment was more than relieved when I found that the place that would replace it, Scofflaw, would be a gin-focused cocktail bar.  While the space has the same layout as the previous bar, the design is much more rustic, with a darker color scheme and antique tractor seats used as bar stools.  The space has two rooms, plus a patio.  The main room has a door on a corner with a large window in the front and a heavy and vintage looking bar, which seats about 12 people, running back into the room.  The exit to the patio and the entrance to the other room are at the back of the room on opposite sides.  The patio sits to the side of the building along a side street and will seat about 20 people, the back room (actually parallel to the main bar) is also dark, and while it does have a window as well, it is covered with blackout curtains.  The food service window is at the back of the room and there is a fireplace in the center of the wall opposite the side that you enter into the room.  While this is a cool room to hangout with small groups, when I go, I will generally just sit at the bar which I did the last time I went.  The drink menu at Scofflaw changes frequently, and while they will announce new drinks on Facebook and Twitter, they do not have one single place where you can see what the current menu is before you come.  That doesn't bother me a lot because I have no problem trying something new and I like gin.  There were nine cocktails listed on the menu, five of which were gin based (in addition to a pretty good beer list and an incredible gin list).  I started things off with The Standby, which had Gin, Cognac, Boomsa Cloosterbitter, Lucky Falernum, Tonic, Lime, and Orange Saffron Bitters, served on ice.  It had a very complex flavor that I liked trying to take apart, but the overarching flavors were bittersweet, floral, and tart.  It had the herbal flavors of a good gin without being too pine-flavored.  It was a complex cocktail and I really enjoyed it.
The food menu at Scofflaw is also not listed online.  There a lot of bits and pieces including charcuterie and cheese, vegetables, sandwiches, and fries, that can be put together into a coherent meal.  I started off with some Charred and Chilled Cauliflower with Mint and Yellow Curry which I enjoyed, but which my dining partner thought could have been charred a little more to bring out a little more sweetness and texture.  I will not argue that point, I will say that I thought that the flavors went extremely well with gin cocktails.  With the char, the cauliflower was slightly sweet, and the mint and curry complemented the herbalness of the cocktails.
For my "main course", I had a Crispy Chicken Sandwich with Dill Pickles and Swiss Cheese.  The chicken was crispy on the outside with a tender and juicy interior and the Swiss cheese and Pickle reminded me a little bit of a Cubano (although a Cuban is made with pork).  While it was pretty good, I was very glad to have some hot sauce close to add to it.
For my second cocktail, I went with one of their non-gin based cocktails.  Called a Swizzle #17, it started with White Rum and had Fernet Branca, Strawberry, Lime, and Salt Tincture.  The drink looked pretty and I liked the strawberry, but I can't say that I really liked the taste of it.  Fernet Branca has a strong flavor and while I like it on it's own, I can't really say that I liked the combination with the white rum, lime, and salt.
Our last bites were Frites served with Aioli.  They were crisp, salty and flavorful, and tasted good with the aioli.  It was very simple, but sometimes the best dishes are simple dishes done very well.
To finish things off, I ordered something off the menu that I was sure that they would be able to do.  My favorite cocktail is The Last Word which is made with Gin, Green Chartreuse, Maraschino Liqueur, and Lime Juice.  It is sweet, tart, floral, and supposed to be slightly green, and as suspected, Scofflaw hit all points and made a very good cocktail.

I like Scofflaw, and while Swizzle #17 was not my favorite cocktail, I enjoyed the experience and now know that I don't care for that combination.  The food, while relatively simple was done well, and went well with the cocktails.  The listed cocktails change frequently and if you are there at midnight, they serve cookies.  I will continue going, and trying different drinks, even if I probably won't make it to midnight.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Wyler Road

When I first moved into the neighborhood, there was a small sandwich shop about 3 blocks away called The Brown Sack which I really liked.  After a few years, it moved to a bigger place, which was a block further away, but I actually passed it regularly, so it was easy to stop.  I didn't visit it often, but I did go occasionally and I was sad when it closed a couple of years ago.  Last year, another place opened in their space.  I am not sure if the new owners bought the place from them, or bought it after it closed, but in any case, a new sandwich shop called Wyler Road opened in The Brown Sack's former space.  Other than a new paint job and different wall art, the space was not changed a lot.  One big change was that it now has a liquor license and the sandwich counter is now a bar.  There is a chalkboard at the front that lists the beers on tap and the cocktails.  When I go there, I like to sit at the bar because I can always be guaranteed a conversation.  The last time I went, I sat at the bar and ordered a Destihl Counter Clockweisse, a sour weisse from a brewery that does several very good sours.
While the sandwich menu between the two sandwich shops is similar (Wyler Road does not have a BLAST (Bacon, Lettuce, Avocado, Shrimp, Tomato)), Wyler Road has restaurant style sides.  I decided to go with a side that I seem to frequently go with when I come here, Fried Cheese Curds with Fried Basil and House Ranch.  The curds are served warm and have a nice crispy shell surrounding a gooey and chewy inside.  While the ranch dressing is good with the curds, it really isn't necessary, because the curds are good on their own.  I would not pass, however, on the fried basil, which was sprinkled on the ranch dressing.  It provides a flavor explosion.

For my sandwich, I went with a Short Rib Sandwich served shredded on a Batard (French roll similar to a Baguette although more squat) with Moody Bleu Cheese, Beef Gravy, and Fried Shallots.  It was also served with Housemade Chips.  They were offered in Plain, Spicy, Salt and Vinegar flavors, I went with the Salt and Vinegar.  The beef itself was a little dry, but the gravy provided enough moisture to the sandwich.  The shallots were crispy, and, along with the bleu cheese, added some great flavor.  The bread was crusty and chewy, and as a whole it made for a substantial sandwich.  The chips were thick, crunchy, and provided a great complementary flavor to the sandwich.  While I do miss the Brown Sack, Wyler Road does a great job at more than replacing it and I will continue to go for a good sandwich and a beer or cocktail.