Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mercadito - Dia de los Muertos Experiential Dinner

Around Halloween, I like to celebrate the season.  I have many times gone to restaurants that have "dressed up" as another place, but I have also gone instead, to places that celebrate a piece of Mexican culture with a dinner celebrating Dia de los Muertos.  This year, I did the latter, and went to the Dia de los Muertos Experiential dinner at Mercadito.  The dinner was held in their downstairs lounge, La Mex Agave Lounge with tequila supplied by Casamigos Tequila, a company owned by George Clooney and Randy Gerber.  The door to the lounge was a heavy wood door, behind which was a holographic Aztec God.  There was also a large bowl that had been filled with dry ice and water that I told a guy might not be such a great idea to stick his hand into (because the temperature of dry ice is -109°F).  He, of course, couldn't be bothered to listen and burned the tips of his fingers, but I did tell him so I wasn't going to worry about it.  I was seated at the bar on a corner which was fine for my left handedness, but I was next to the silverware table, so it was a little awkward for the staff to get around me at times.  It was fine, because the people sitting next to me were fun and interesting to talk to.  The room was decorated in Dia de los Muertos fashion, black with a lot of bright color accents and with many Calaveras.  There was also a demonstration table in the center of the room where the chef was going to do a demo of the Pan de Muertos that we would be having for dessert.  The menu for the dinner listed five food courses and five cocktails which would have been good, but as it turned out, we could also sample all three Casamigos tequilas, and because I was sitting at the bar, I got to try a couple of other things.  We started out with a Welcome Drink which didn't really have a name.  It consisted of Casamigos Reposado, Champagne, and a Dried Strawberry.  It was light, bright, and sparkling.  Champagne is generally served at the beginning of many high end meals to open up the taste buds and make them more receptive to different flavors.  This served the same function and tasted pretty good as well.
The food and drink were not really paired, but were alternated.  Our first food course arrived after we had had our drink for a while and was Sopa de Calabaza, or Squash Soup.  It consisted of  Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, Huitlacoche Croutons, Chile Morita Powder, and Wild Mushroom Oil.  It was very creamy with a squash flavor and mushroom accents, and a nice lightly spicy finish.  The croutons added texture and a nice huitlacoche flavor (cross between corn and mushrooms).  It was a great start and I was excited to see what might be next.
Next was our second cocktail followed quickly by our first shot of tequila.  The cocktail was called Kali's Culture Crisis, referencing the Hindu God of Death, it used Garam Masala, Pumpkin, Casamigos Reposados, Coconut Milk, Allspice, Cinnamon, Egg White, and a Marigold.  It was very flavorful with all of the spices and they went well with the tequila, despite the Indian references.  The Casamigos Blanca is their base tequila.  It is rested for two months and is very smooth, crisp, and has a very soft mouthfeel.  While I don't generally drink a lot of tequila, this would be excellent for sipping.

Our second food course was Tamales, very much a Mexican seasonal dish, served in two ways, followed quickly by our second cocktail.  The tamales were a Sweet Corn Steamed Tamale, using a Fresh Corn Husk that had already been removed, and topped with Chorizo (right), and a Corn Masa Steamed Tamale, using a Corn Husk that had been removed, topped with Queso Fresco and Rajas Poblanas (left).  They were sitting in a Poblana Crema and topped with Cotija Cheese.  They were similar, but their textures were slightly different.  The Sweet Corn Steamed Tamale had whole kernels while the masa was very smooth.  There was obviously a lot of corn flavor, but it did have a nice spicy finish.  The cocktail was called Spanish reminder and referenced the Spanish heritage of many Mexicans.  It started with Cynar, and included Casamigos Blanco, Malbec, Mexican Coke, and Decanter Bitters.  There were a lot of varied flavors in this drink and it wasn't as sweet as one might expect.  It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't my favorite.  I think it needed something like a little spice to finish it.

We then got another shot of tequila, Casamigos Reposado, their flagship, and our next course, Tacos de Chicharron de Camaron.  The tequila had a little color, as opposed to the Blanco which looked like water.  It was also very smooth with a soft mouthfeel, but it also smelled of vanilla and had an oaky flavor because it was aged in oak barrels for seven months.  It was smooth and silky, but it wasn't my favorite.  The taco, on the other hand, was pretty great.  It was a Pork Rind Battered Shrimp Taco with Caramelized Pico de Gallo and Mexican Cole Slaw (on a Corn Tortilla).  It was fresh and crispy with a wealth of flavors.  The pork rind and shrimp flavors went together amazingly well and the pico de gallo and slaw provided a fresh and crisp finish with some caramel and spicy flavors added.

Both the next cocktail and food course were very complex with a lot of pieces that went together amazingly well.  The cocktail was called Doctor's Orders and started with Sweet Corn Infused Casamigos Anejo, and added Caramel, Apple, and Clove, and finished with a salted rim.  The bartender said that he was aiming for the Apple Pies made with a Masa Crust that are made for his family's Thanksgiving and I have to say that he nailed it.  It was sweet with flavors of apple and clove as would be expected from an apple pie, but the corn worked amazingly well with the other flavors.  One of the extras that I was offered because I was sitting at the bar was a taste of the sweet corn infused Anejo tequila which was even softer than the other tequilas with a nice corn finish.  The food course was a Taquiza de Birra Rez, Ancho Guajillo Marinated Braised Short Rib with Blue Corn Tortillas, Pickled Jalapenos, Cabbage Tomatillo Salsa, and Pickled Onions.  Individually, everything tasted great, the short rib was amazingly tender and flavorful, the jalapenos and onions had a nice sour flavor which moderated the burn, and the salsa provided some crispness and fresh flavors.

During the meal, the chef was demonstrating how he made the Pan de Muerto, which we would be having for our dessert.  Before that came out, we got our last shot of tequila and our last cocktail.  The last cocktail was called Family Recipe and had Casamigos Blanco, Genever, Sage, and Raisin, as well as some citrus.  It was a nice cocktail finish that reminded me of fruitcake (in a good way).  The Casamigos Anejo is aged for 14 months in oak barrels.  It brought out flavors of vanilla and caramel, as well as the oak, and I thought that this was my favorite tequila.  The reposado might be good for mixing, but this is great for drinking.  I received another freebie because I was sitting at the bar, the bartender heard me talking about gin, which is generally my go to when I'm drinking liquor, and he offered me a drink of some gin that he made.  It was pretty good.  It was herbal with a lot of lemon flavors (lemon, lemongrass, lemon thyme) as well as thyme and ginger.  It also had juniper, and you could taste it, but it was very mild.  The Pan de Muerto was served with sweet potatoes and a tequila-sweet milk mixture that you were supposed to dip it in.  It was pretty good and would have made a good picture, but my camera decided to crash at that point, so I didn't get a picture of it.  The way it worked was to take a piece of bread, put it with the sweet potato, and then dip it.  It was sweet and starchy and it all went together very well.  It was a great finish to a great meal.  The food and drink was very good, the shots and bonus drinks were a bonus, the staff was very friendly, and watching the chef was a lot of fun.  Mercadito periodically does special dinners, I will definitely have to keep my eye out and return when they do another one, if not before.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Southport and Irving SIP - Brunch

For brunch this month, we went to a Wine Bar/Market/ Restaurant with one of the most obvious names ever.  SIP Southport and Irving Restaurant is located at the corner of Southport and Irving Park with the entrance to the wine bar right at the corner.  There is a second entrance to the main dining room on Southport, but most of us did not know this and entered the main dining room through the bar via a long winding hall.  The building is an old brick building obviously divided between the bar and the dining area.  The floor is hardwood as is the bar and furniture.  The hall to the dining room is darker and has several turns before getting to the host station which is where the entrance to the dining room also is.  The dining room is laid out like a market (which it is) with several large wine racks in the middle of the room as well as on the front wall.  There are also several large communal tables made of a heavy wood along the walls.  There are also smaller tables between the wine racks.  The seats along the wall used a padded banquette with a hardwood bench seat.  The drink menu features the usual coffee, tea and orange juice, as well as beer, wine, and cocktails.  There were a few cocktails ordered, and I was interested in the Espresso cocktail, but I decided to go with a cup of coffee, which was good, but not terribly notable.  The food menu was divided into Sweets, Eggs, and Lunch.  As I like to try both sweet and savory for brunch, I started things off with an order of Beignets for the table.  The order was served on a piece of slate and came with four beignets which were covered in powdered sugar and served with a buttery sweet dipping sauce.  While they had a lightly crusty exterior and a very airy interior, they were pretty big.  This is not a complaint.  I was happily surprised to see how big they were.  While we had 9 people at the table, one plate was sufficient for all of us.
My main course was also listed under Sweets, but I think that that was only because it couldn't easily be included under eggs (my order did come with eggs, but that was an extra charge) and it almost certainly was not Lunch.  I had Chicken and Waffles with 4 Buttermilk Waffles, Cajun Fried Chicken, and 2 Eggs, served to order which, for me, was Over Medium).  It was served with Harissa Honey which I poured over everything and added a sweet and slightly flavor.  The chicken was crisp and crunchy on the outside and moist and juicy on the inside.  The breading did have some spice to it, but it probably could have used a little more.  The eggs though, were cooked perfectly.

I enjoyed brunch here, the atmosphere was rustic, the staff was friendly, and the food was good.  There was a hiccup in the service of one of my friend's orders, but, while it did take a little more time, they were very apologetic and took it off the bill.  I would happily return for brunch and I might want to try it for dinner sometime.         

Saturday, October 22, 2016


There are a lot of things I can say that lead up to Giant, the new American restaurant in Logan Square, before I even talk about the restaurant itself.  The chef, Jason Vincent, is well known in Logan Square, first gaining notice working under the other Jason in the neighborhood, Jason Hammel, at Lula Cafe, as sous chef.  After several years as sous chef, he decided to take on the roll of chef at Nightwood, which was also owned by Jason Hammel, where he came into his own, winning Food & Wine's Best New Chef, Cochon 555 King of Pork, and was a James Beard Award Semi-Finalist.  Two years ago, he left Nightwood so he could actually be a parent to his two small children.  After taking two years off, showing up at the occasional pop-up or benefit, he has returned and people are happy for it.  The restaurant space he chose at 3209 W. Armitage Ave. is a small space (1400 sq. ft).  When I moved into the neighborhood nine years ago, it was a cheap Thai BYOB that had just closed.  It eventually reopened as another cheap Thai BYOB and over the next 8 years it was a cheap Thai BYOB changing names and owners three times.  The food wasn't bad, it just may not have been the place for Thai food.  Walking into the new place, I saw that they had made many changes.  It's still small, but the space is well used with banquette seating on both sides of the room.  The walls are white painted brick with some wall hangings on both sides including the poem, Me and My Giant by Shel Silverstein from his book, Where the Sidewalk Ends.  The background music for the restaurant is provided via record collection.  There are two turntables mounted behind the bar that play records vertically, which saves space and also looks pretty cool.  The music is widely varied.  When I was there, I heard some indie rock, jazz, and folk.
The restaurant has a very nice wine list, with a few beers and five cocktails, four of which were gin based or in a gin style and one was a whiskey cocktail.  I didn't want to think about wine and I thought the menu deserved more than beer, so I went with a cocktail from their short list, a Gin and Tonic with Cottswolds London Dry Gin, Fentiman's Tonic, and a Lime.  It was a good and simple classic cocktail, although I will admit that it may not have been the best choice when paired with some of the food that I had.
The menu is widely varied although most is designed for sharing pretty easily.  The one thing that can pretty conclusively not be shared is the first thing on the menu, which is also one of the more popular things on the menu.  The dish is called a Super Uni Shooter and while it does have some ingredients common in a shooter, a shot made with soy sauce and sea food frequently served in sushi restaurants, it is not served in a glass.  It is served as as something that looks like a hushpuppy or an arancino.  When it is presented, the waitstaff instructs diners to eat the ball in one bite.  Frequently though, people don't listen and make mistakes.  This almost happened to me despite the fact that I knew why we were instructed on how to eat it.  The reason that people are instructed to pop it into their mouths and eat it in one bite is that it's filled with liquid and if you bite into it, you will end up wearing it.  What this is is Uni mixed with butter, aged for a day, breaded and deep fried.  This allows a crust to form and the center to melt.  It's a very good one bite wonder that is served with grated Cucumber and Soy Sauce.  It was very good and I am glad that I was caught and didn't end up wearing it.
For our first shared plate we had Marinated Zucchini, Pumpkin Seeds, and Cilantro with Chihuahua Cheese.  I like Zucchini, so for me, it would have been good just sliced up on the plate by itself (although admittedly, that would have been pretty unexciting visually).  The marinade seemed to be some sort of vinaigrette which added a little tartness to it.  The pepitas added texture and a nutty flavor and the cheese added the nice savory flavor that cheese adds.

We then ordered two different types of pasta, both of which were made in-house.  We had a Cannelloni with Smoked Lamb and Arugula Pesto and Pici (which was a pasta that similar to a pappardelle, but with a little more texture which they just made up) which was served with Jalapeno, Anchovies, and Bacon in a Pasta Water Sauce.  While I will eat it, I am generally a little leery of lamb because it can be pretty gamy.  In the case of the cannelloni, I think the fact that it was smoked helped.  The lamb was tender, pulled, and wrapped inside the cannelloni which was nicely browned and topped with Sour Cream.  The arugula pesto was a little more bitter and peppery than standard pesto which is frequently made with basil, but with the lamb, it worked.  The Pici, I wanted to like.  The pasta was perfectly al dente, the bacon and the anchovies added a nice salty and savory flavor and it had a nice spicy finish from the jalapeno.  The problem I had was self inflicted because the sweetness from the Gin and Tonic really clashed with the flavor.  It took me a minute to figure out what the problem was, but after I did and had some water to clear my palate, it was much better.
We finished our savory courses with Swordfish which was served with Tomatoes, Giardinera, and Fried Clams.  The swordfish was lightly browned and tender.  The light flavor went well with the vegetables, but I was surprised by the clams.  They were listed on the menu, I had just forgotten about them and it was like a bonus.  They were chewy, flavorful and went well with everything.

There were two desserts on the menu and because there were two of us, we had to get both.  The first was the Cajeta Ice Cream.  It was similar to Mexican Fried Ice Cream using Housemade French Vanilla Ice Cream, Cut Strawberries were wrapped around the ball of ice cream  and then everything was coated  with Butter Pecan Crunch which was also used as a garnish.  It was like Mexican Fried Ice Cream with Strawberries and it was pretty great.  The other dessert was called Smoregasbord and was positively decadent.  It started with a German Chocolate Dump Cake which was topped with Marshmallow Cream, Chocolate Graham Crackers, and Mini Oreos.  It was then put in the oven to lightly brown the marshmallow and served warm.  I really enjoyed my dinner here and am really glad it's close, because I will surely return. 


Sunday, October 16, 2016


New burger joints are opening up every day in the Chicago area.  While I prefer solo restaurants (as opposed to chains), if the chain is small and allows each restaurant to have a personality of its own, I am willing to check it out.  A friend of mine and I recently tried out a new burger joint, Bareburger, that recently opened in Roscoe Village.  It is a small chain based in NYC (The first Bareburger opened in Queens although the burgers were based on a burgers made in a former bar in Brooklyn).  They emphasize local, organic, and sustainable, which are all good things, so I was interested.  Restaurant is located on an odd corner on Lincoln Avenue that is almost, but not quite a six-way intersection and the building oddly shaped with the entrance on the narrow side.  The dining room is vaguely L-shaped with the bar and kitchen occupying the area inside the corner.  We sat on the long side of the L where there is three rows of seating, tables by the outside windows, a center row of two-tops, and the bar.  The floor, bar and furniture are light wood, polished smooth, but not shiny.  There is also a lot of wood trim on the walls, as well as bust portraits of farm animals in more formal attire (not tuxedos, but nice suits and dresses).  It kind of reminded me of the animal portraiture at Boka.  The menu is divided into Crops (salads), Greens (large salads), Shares, Wiches, Burgers, and Sides.  All menu items also have the calories listed.  There is also an interesting selection of shakes.  They have a nice beer selection (served in 12 or 20 oz sizes) and a small list of house cocktails. As we were both interested in the burgers and the beer, that is what we focused on.  I started with a Temperance ESB (12 oz), which was pretty good, and decided to share an order of Rings and Fries which were served with Smoke Sauce (BBQ), Special Sauce, Habanero Mayo, and Curry Ginger Ketchup for dipping.  They were served in a cardboard boat on wax paper marked with a bear and a burger.  My friend also noticed that the white plates with blue striping around the outer portion also had a bear and a burger opposite each other in the area of the striping.  Both the fries and rings were crisp and flavorful and while the dipping sauces were nice and very good (I liked the Habanero Mayo and the Curry Ginger Ketchup best), they were really not necessary to enjoy either the onion rings or the fries.
The burgers were interesting.  While they had a very wide variety of options to build your own burger (11 different patties, 4 buns, 4 bacons, 15 different veggies, 11 sauces, and six spreads), I was very happy that they had a good number of preselected burgers, because, in the past I have run into what sounds good does not all necessarily go together.  While I was deciding to build my own burger or go with a preselected burger, I ordered a Maplewood Fat Pug Milk Stout, which while flavorful and tasted like a stout should, was also eminently drinkable.  I went with a burger called the Grindburger, which started with Elk Burger, and added Manchego Cheese, Piquante Relish, Green Leaf (lettuce), and Paprika Mayo on a Toasted Brioche Bun.  This was a good burger.  The elk had a gamy flavor to it, as should be expected, but the rustic flavor of the manchego, and the spice from the Piquante Relish and the Paprika Mayo went well with it.  I am not going to say that this was a burger for everyone, as it was a bit strong, but I thought that the flavors worked well together, and made for a good burger.

Bareburger has differentiated themselves from the many other burger joints that are opening and have opened in Chicago recently.  I like their aim, to be local, sustainable, and organic, and the fact that they have a lot of choices on their menu.  It is worthy of consideration when you are looking for a good burger and a beer.