Sunday, March 26, 2017

HopCat - Around the Bend Beer Dinner

I enjoy beer dinners and am always interested to see what a given chef can do when working with a specific brewery.  HopCat, part of a Michigan-based chain of beer bars with food is doing one a month, with the one this month with Around the Bend Brewery.  HopCat is a beer bar with over 120 beers on tap, so it;s a good place to come if you want to try something different.  They also have enough taps to support the small breweries as well as the big ones.  They have a large space with several dining rooms, so they can easily carve out a space to work with a brewery to do a special dinner without shutting down the rest of the business.  The room we were in was a side dining room on one side of the space with 3 large communal tables, and several semicircular booths along the walls.  There were also several colorful paintings/prints of rock musicians including, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Garcia, and Frank Zappa hanging on the walls.  Around the Bend Brewery is a small Chicago brewery that takes standard styles and twists them to see what's up "around the bend."  The beer we started with, our Welcome Beer, if you will, was Vera, which was a Pistachio Cream Ale.  While there were many people that liked this, I do not typically care for cream ales, and while the pistachio flavor was nice, I found the overall flavor to be a little astringent.  It was, however, a good example of the type of twist that we might get in our beers.
For our first pairing, we started with Silk Road, an American Pale Ale made with Galangal (Thai Ginger), which was paired with our first course of Marinated Jumbo Shrimp with Pickled Vegetables.  The beer was a copper-red color and cloudy with a nice head.  It had a mild hoppy flavor with some bread with an undertone of citrus and flowery ginger.  The ginger flavor wasn't strong, but it was very definitely there and it was persistent.  It went very well with the shrimp and the pickled vegetables, which included Carrots and Jicama.  The shrimp was tender and flavorful both as good shrimp and with the marinade which was spicy and tart with a little heat to finish.  The vegetables were very crisp and their flavors came through the pickle though the pickle did contribute to the overall flavor.
Our next pairing went with Villainous, Around the Bend's IPA, which was paired with an Endive Salad.  While many IPA's are pretty one note and salads are pretty simple, both members of this pairing were anything but simple.  The IPA was built with nothing other than the malt, hops, yeast and water, but it uses several hops giving it both a pine and citrus flavor, and several yeast strains which, reacted with the malt, give it a very complex bready flavor.  The salad, while called an Endive Salad was much more than that.  It also included Bacon, Apples, And Walnuts and had an Aigre Doux House Vinaigrette.  This was a wealth of textures and flavors, so much so, that while I am a huge fan of bacon, I thought that it was kind of unnecessary.  The bacon was good.  It added texture and flavor, but with everything else going on, it was kind of overkill.
For the main course pairing, we started with Mr. Marmelade, an Imperial IPA made with Seville Oranges and Orange Blossom Honey.  This was paired with Lime and Honey Glazed Chicken with Baby Spinach, Broccolini, and Asparagus.  Both pieces of this were my favorite of the meal both as a pairing and individually.  The IPA was bittersweet with a strong citrus flavor and a floral aroma.  It went very well with the flavor of the chicken.  The glaze had a strong and immediate flavor that started with the lime tartness and had a sweet finish which went well with the orange flavor of the beer.  The bitterness of the vegetables played well with the bitterness of the beer as well as with its floral quality.  It was a great pairing, overall.
Dessert finished with a Stout and Bread Pudding which is kind of standard for desserts (and their pairings).  The Stout was an Imperail Stout and was very appropriately named Black Forest because it was thick and black and finished with Cherries, which went well with the chocolate flavors that are inherent in stouts.  The bread pudding included Cocoa Nibs and Berries that had been soaked in the Black Forest beforehand.  To sweeten things up, they included some very fresh housemade Vanilla Ice Cream.

I really enjoyed the dinner here.  The food, while not the epitome of high end cuisine, was done very well and paired well with the beers that we were served.  HopCat plans on hosting a beer dinner every month, I will definitely keep an eye on their listings, because I would really enjoy this again.



Sunday, March 19, 2017


I really like Spanish cuisine.  I also like Seafood.  When a restaurant can combine the two, it is a total win.  I went to mfk., a Spanish Seafood restaurant recently and on paper, it was a total win.  mfk. is located on the border of Lakeview and Lincoln Park on the Lakeview side.  There are several restaurants located close and the sign is pretty easy to miss.  The restaurant is actually below ground and the windows are kind of small.  Walking in, there is a guy standing on a landing before the stairs turns to the dining room with a tablet to check diners in.  There is a two-sided bar on the left side of the dining room and two and four-top tables for seating and a padded banquette.  There is also a small counter between the bar and the open kitchen where I was seated.  I had a good view of both the kitchen and the dining room and it was cool to be able to watch the goings on.  The dining room was mostly empty when I arrived, but quickly filled up.  The entire space seats about 30 people.  The walls were white painted brick with some art on the walls and mosaic tile on the wall below the front windows.  The light was provided by hanging lights.  The space did look like a basement, which it was, but it also had a very Spanish feel.  I started things off with a cocktail called Ranch Water which started with Mezcal and had Lime, Orange Bitters, and was topped with Topo Chico (Mexican Sparkling Mineral Water).  It had the smoky flavor of Mezcal, but it also had a citrus flavor and was light and refreshing.
For the start of my dinner I started with a staple of Mexican and South American cuisine, Ceviche, but this ceviche was done a little different than the standard ceviche.  This was Suzuki Japanese Sea Bass with Avocado served with Squid Ink Tostadas and Lime on the side.  One of my favorite parts of ceviche is the tartness, and this ceviche was definitely tart.  The sea bass was very tender, the avocado was very creamy, and the black squid ink tostadas had a nice crunch to finish things off.  The lime was nice for extra tartness, but I ended up eating it on its own.
A standard of Spanish cuisine is the Tortilla Espanola, something that is a favorite of mine.  When I saw it on the menu, I knew that I had to order it.  A standard tortilla espanola is essentially a thick egg and potato omelet that is served cold. I knew, going into it, that the one that I was ordering was going to be a little different because it had more than eggs and potatoes.  It was actually very different.  The dish included, in addition to the Eggs and Potatoes, Salt Cod Brandade, and Frisee.  It was also served warm.  It was creamy, and salty (but not too salty), with the fish flaky.  While it was not the standard tortilla espanola (it was more a standard brandade with mashed potatoes), it was very good and I did enjoy it.
 For the entree, I had a Whitefish with Potato Veloute, Spinach, Fresno Chilies, Farro, and Sumac.  It was a very good dish with a lot of flavor and texture.  The whitefish was flaky, tender and flavorful, with the potato veloute adding a richness, the farro adding a chewy texture, and some spice from the fresno chilies.
I finished things off with a Basque Cake, a rich, sweet, and savory cake from the Basque region of Spain.  It has a crusty exterior with a pastry cream interior.  In this case it had a crushed almond topping and a crumbly interior.  It was salty and sweet, very rich, and a fantastic finish to a very good meal.  I really enjoyed my meal here.  The staff was very friendly and the food was very good, I will definitely return when I am in the mood for Spanish seafood. 


Monday, March 13, 2017

Sunday Dinner Club - Cassoulet

Most of my posts are about restaurants or events.  I will occasionally write a post about a specific food, but it is usually a single encounter or experience.  I will write today about a specific food item I had in two different contexts.  Every year, Sunday Dinner Club does a series of dinners featuring their Cassoulet, a hearty peasant stew with beans and 4 meats.  They also collaborate several times a year with Half Acre Brewing for a beer dinner.  One of these dinners featured their Cassoulet.  I actually went to both a Cassoulet Dinner in their space and the beer dinner at Half Acre Tap Room that featured their cassoulet.  The dinner in the SDC space featured an appetizer, salad, the cassoulet, and dessert.  The tap room just had the cassoulet and dessert, but everyone got four beers and it was at a lower price point.  The dinner at SDC space started with a Celery Root and Potato Pancake with Celery Leaf Creme Fraiche and Pickled Shrimp.  I really like Potato Pancakes and this was very good coming with a vegetal tang from the creme fraiche, celery root, and the pickled shrimp.  It was really good and I would have happily eaten one twice as large.  With the Half Acre Dinner we started with beer.  We were able to drink any of the beers featured on their tap list.  I started with a With With Belgian Single, but also tried the Pony Pilsener.  The Single was a little richer a little sweeter and had a better head than the Pilsener, but The Pony is a nice easy drinking beer that I would call a lawnmower beer, a nice relief on days when you are out doing lawn work.

The salad served at the SDC space was pretty complex and different.  It was an Endive Salad, (a bitter green in the lettuce family) with Dates, Citrus, Raddicchio, Fromage D'Affinois (a soft cow's milk cheese similar to Brie), and a Citrus Shallot Vinaigrette.  It was bitter, sweet, tart, cheesy, and had a wide variety of textures from the crunch of the lettuces, to the chew of the date, to the creaminess of the cheese, it was a very good salad.  At Half Acre, we picked up our second beers around the time that we went for our cassoulet.  I went with one of their Nitro beers, the Shrub Tundra Coffee Brown Ale, the other beer was a Cape Dune India Pale Lager (IPL).  Most nitro beers are of the heavier types, brown ales, porters, and stouts.  I didn't think about this when I ordered it, although I did drink it and enjoy it.  It was very smooth and soft with a nice coffee flavor.  The IPL was a hoppy lager and kind of had a sharp flavor, but it was also pretty good.  Considering the timing of when I picked it, I think I would have preferred Cape Dune as my primary beer.

And then came the Cassoulet.  The recipe was the same for both versions:  Garlic Sausage, Duck Confit, Leg of Lamb, Bacon Sausage, Slab Bacon, Duck Gelee, White Beans, Duck Fat Croutons, and some amazing Dijon Mustard.  The presentation was different in both places.  At SDC, it was presented in a large round ceramic bowl which was served to us with the mustard spread along one side.  At Half Acre, we stood in line and were served our cassoulet in a rectangular fiberboard "dish" with the mustard spread along one wall.  The presentation was better at the more permanent place, as might be expected, but at the tap room we were more easily able to get extra mustard, which is a part that greatly contributed to the dish (There was an eyeroll moment with the mustard on a piece of sausage).
The cassoulet was fantastic, but the dessert, was just as good.  It was an amazingly light Chocolate Mousse with Honeycomb Candy and Salted Honey Whipped Cream.  The mousse and the whipped cream had similar textures and it was like eating a sweet cloud (with a good serving of crunchy honeycomb candy).The presentation at the SDC space was again better, but we got beer at Half Acre, in my case a Nitro Chocolate Camaro Chocolate Milk Stout which went very well with the mousse.  We may have gotten a larger serving at SDC, but with the beer that we were served, we were amply full at the end of the night.
Having said that, I did have one more beer to drink after finishing the cassoulet and mousse.  I hadn't had an IPA up until this point because I think the bitterness of the hops could affect my sense of taste (he says after drinking a strong flavored brown ale and stout).  I do like IPAs and there were a few on the draft list, but I decided to go for one that I had not yet tried, the Wicca IPA.  It was hoppy bitter, but with a 6% ABV, it was on the lighter side IPAs and it actually kind of reminded me of Daisy Cutter, which while also hoppy, they do not consider an IPA.

Both dinners were very good in their own ways and I left both very satisfied.  While the presentations were different, the atmospheres at both places were very welcoming and the food itself was fantastic.  I will definitely do this again.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Hopewell Brewing Company - Monday Dinner with St. Lou's Assembly

I really liked the last Monday Dinner at Hopewell Brewing (with Bang Bang Pie Shop) so I decided to do it again.  Their last session was with St. Lou's Assembly which is a "Meat and Three" in the West Loop.  I have not yet been to St. Lou's, but they have been at a few benefits that I have attended and I have really liked what they served.  A "Meat and Three" is a casual counter service restaurant where you choose your main course (meat) which then comes with three sides of your choice.  In the case of St. Lou's, the courses served are a step up from the standard meat and three.  Hopewell's Tap Room is a big open area with high ceilings, a street side wall that is all windows (covered with shades), tile floors, and large communal tables.  There is also a bar, but for dinner it wasn't used for seating.  After we checked in, we were given our first drink, a cocktail that they named the Saison 75.  It was a spin on the classic cocktail the French 75 containing Letherbee's Gin, Hopewell's Friends and Family Saison, Lemon, and Sugar.  It was sweet, tart, and very complex, with the flavors of both the gin and the saison coming through.  I wandered around and found a seat to my liking and sat, noticing the schwag we were given pre-dinner, a pin and a box of matches with St. Lou's logo.  Our menu broke things down into seven courses of which, the cocktail was first.  It appeared that most of the courses would be small, which is unsurprising considering most of the courses that a meat and three would make would be sides for their main course.  After I sat, I was joined by a small group across the table that included my State Representative, which made for some interesting conversations.

Our first beer and first course were essentially a very standard "gateway" beer served with a shooter.  The beer was Hopewell's First Lager (while I do like Hopewell's Beers, they do lose points for beer name creativity) which is a simple standard lager that is done very well.  The shooter was a Cheddar-Beer Soup made with the First Lager.  The shooter was thick with a nice cheddar flavor, some tartness from the lager, and a little heat from the Red Pepper Garnish.  It finished quickly, but I would have been happy with a bowl of it.
The next course didn't seem to be an obvious pairing, but it worked surprisingly well.  We started with a Very Nice Belgian Strong Ale (That is actually the name.  As I said, they lose creativity points for beer names).  Very Nice is very nice.  It is heavy and strong with a boozy and malty flavor and very good.  The food portion of the course was a (shucked) East Coast Oyster with Cucumber Relish, House Hot Sauce, and Beer Foam.  Served in a large ceramic spoon, the oyster was served with its liquor giving it a salty flavor which played well with the vegetal flavor of the relish and the vinegary heat of the hot sauce.  The flavors of the beer and the oyster contrasted quite a bit, but they cotrasted in such a way that they complemented the flavors well.
For the salad portion of the meal, we were served Endgrain Dark Lager, a lager with a red color and a bigger flavor than the First Lager.  As it was red and kind of had the flavor of a red, it went well with the salad that we were also served.  It was a Roasted Beet Salad with BBQ Carrots, Fennel, Taleggio, Cheese, Pepitas, and Celeriac Chips.  The salad was rich and both sweet and savory with a crunch to it.  It was kind of like eating a salad of vegetable chips which kind of struck me funny.
After several appetizers and small plates, we finally reached our entree course.  The beer side was The G.O.A.T. Doppelbock, a dark lager with a roasted malt flavor although not as heavy or thick as a stout or porter.  This was served with a Braised Short Rib, Celery Root Puree, Fregola, and a Foie Gras Emulsion.  The Short Rib was fork tender and sweet sitting on a bed of Fregola, a Sardinian Pasta similar to Cous Cous.  The Celery Root puree added a bitter flavor and the Foie Gras Emulsion added a rich and savory flavor.

After our meat, we were served the most complex and flavorful of our beers along with the first of our desserts.  The beer was a Letherbee Absinthe Barrel Aged Red IPA.  This was a very complex flavored beer,  with the barrel aging in an absinthe barrel and the hops, it almost had a gin flavor.  As gin is my favorite liquor, this was my favorite beer.  With the beer, we were served Banana Bread, with Creme of Banana Caramel, Streusel, and Allspice Whipped Cream.  The caramel was served over the banana bread and really amped up the banana flavor, the struesel was served in crumbs on the bottom and added a buttery flavor and the Allspice Whipped Cream added a spicy flavor both adding to the complexity of flavor of the banana bread and pairing well with the beer.

The last course was technically the end of the dinner.  It was definitely the end of the beer.  We were served a digestif and a mignardise to finish things off.  Our digestif was a Fernet from Letherbee's.  Most people that know Fernet know Fernet Branca, the most common type.  It is based on grape distilled spirits and has a lot of herbs including Myrrh, Rhubarb, Chamomile, Cardamom, Aloe, and Saffron.  It has a bittersweet flavor that is very much an acquired taste and is very viscous (syrupy).  Letherbee's Fernet is thinner, smoother, and easier to drink and it was paired with a Lemon Tart Bite which was a nice, tart, one bite wonder to finish off a very nice dinner.  I enjoyed my food, drink and company.  I will definitely do the Monday Dinner Series again and I will definitely have to go to St. Lou's Assembly.  


Saturday, March 4, 2017

Seven Lions - Restaurant Week

The last restaurant that I went to for Chicago restaurant week that was not a place where I have previously gone was the second restaurant in Master Sommelier Alpana Singh's growing restaurant empire.  Located on Michigan Avenue, across from the Art Institute, Seven Lions is a modern take on a classic supper club.  Done in shades of brown and using a lot of stone and leather, the space is large with banquettes on two walls as well as large semi-circular booths with a classic design.  There are also a few high tops close to the large rectangular bar located in the center of the dining room.  The dining room was only half full when I was there, but with the high ceilings and construction of the room, I have to imagine that it would be pretty loud if the room was full despite the fact that there is space between diners and they are not sitting right next to one another.  The floor is hardwood and the lighting is electric chandeliers.  There was also a mural on the wall closest to us of a classic and crowded city scene.  With lots of people, a bicycle, drawbridges, and a lot of buildings.  We were seated in a large booth with leather seats that could have easily seated six.  There was a wine pairing available for our dinner and, as Alpana Singh is a Master Sommelier, I am sure that it was fantastic, but I was not in the mood for wine on that evening, so I went with a cocktail.  Called the Cool Hand Luke, it contained Tito's Handmade Vodka, Cucumber, Lime Juice, and though it was not listed, soda I am sure because it had some fizz to it.  On paper, this sounded better than it turned out to be, Tito's is very smooth and Cucumber and Lime both go well with vodka, they just didn't meld especially well.  It wasn't terrible and I did drink it, it just wasn't my favorite drink.
I started my meal off with a Roasted Brussels Sprout and Squash Panzanella Salad.  When I think of Panzanella, I think of Bread, Tomatoes, and a Vinaigrette.  While this did have bread, it was unlike any panzanella that I have ever had.  It was very good, but it was different.  The main ingredients were Shredded Brussels Sprouts and Golden Squash with Bread, Glacier Gorgonzola, and a Sage Dressing.  It was crisp, fresh, and had a lot of flavor, with the gorgonzola providing a nice blue cheese start and the sage a nice herbal finish.
My entree was a spin on the classic pot roast.  It wasn't actually Pot Roast, it was Braised Short Rib, but it was presented similarly to how pot roast is presented.  It was served with White Bean Puree, which took the place of Mashed Potatoes, Carrots, Tokyo Turnips, and Sassafras Jus.  The short rib was fork tender, juicy, and very flavorful.  The white bean puree, while it looked like mashed potatoes, had more of a savory flavor, and the sassafras jus added a flavor similar to root beer, which actually worked very well.
For my second cocktail, I went with something, that to me, sounded like a spin on a Moscow Mule (Vodka, Lime, and Ginger Beer).  Called Mr. Pink, it had CH Distillery Peppercorn Vodka, Ginger Beer, Strawberry Puree, Peach Bitters, and a Lemon garnish.  I took my first sip of this and my head exploded.  There was a lot going on and it was very good.  The peppercorn vodka gave it a strong peppercorn flavor, with the strawberry providing tartness, the ginger beer adding spice and the peach bitter adding a bitter peach flavor.  If I were to see this again, I would definitely order it again.
For dessert, we finished with a classic, Chocolate Espresso Tart served with Salted Caramel, Strawberris, Black Raspberries, and Whipped Cream.  It was bitter sweet and chocolatey with an undertone of strong coffee.  The whipped cream added some lightness and cut some of the bitter and the strawberry and blackberry added some fruit tartness.  It was a good finish to a classic style meal.  I enjoyed my meal here and the space is very nice.  The food, while not exceptionally groundbreaking, does taste pretty good and it is a good place for those who might be a little timid.