Sunday, April 30, 2017

Cellar Door Provisions

I have been very interested in Cellar Door Provisions since it opened a couple of years ago.  The problem is that as it a breakfast/lunch place, I can't get there during the week and as it is very popular, I can't get in on the weekend.  Recently though, something happened that gave me a free morning during the week, so I decided to check it out.  Having looked at the menu before hand, I expected a small place with a coffee shop cafe feel.  Located on a corner, it has large windows on two sides and looks like a neighborhood coffee shop with a handwritten menu on paper in the window.  Walking in continued the coffee shop vibe with a small cafe.  There is art on the wall (for sale) and seating is with banquette and tables on both sides of the room.  There is another chalkboard menu at the back of the room on one side.  There is a counter at the back of the room that abuts the open kitchen where yet another menu is available if you hadn't seen the other two. The counter contains a display case showing their available pastries, most of which run to the savory side.  The pastries all looked very good and while I recognized the Caneles and the Croissants, which I ordered, there were several pastries that I did not recognize, but still looked really good.  Caneles are small French pastries about two inches tall that look like mini bundt cakes.  They are made with vanilla and rum and have a crispy outside crust and a firm custard center.  While they do have a sweetness about them,  they are also pretty savory.  For the one that I ordered the crust was very crisp and the inside was like a solid egg custard.  there was some sweetness, but it was also salty and savory.  I liked it so much that I had to buy another one for the road.  The croissant was flaky, buttery, and crisp, and while it was pretty big, it was also very light.  With these, I had an iced coffee.
While the pastries were very good, I wanted to try some of their "real" food.  This is not to say that their pastries were bad, in fact, they were pretty fantastic.  Substantial might have been a better word.  Their cafe menu is pretty veggie friendly although they do have some dishes with meat as well.  I went with something that was not strictly vegetarian, but it was pescatarian.  I got Cured Trout with Whipped Cheese, Ponzu, Bok Choi, Soft Boiled Egg, and Seared Bread.  The trout was very tender and flavorful in a flavorful broth with whipped cheese.  The cheese was a bit tart and kind of tasted like goat cheese (although I am not certain of this) which paired well with the trout.  The ponzu and bok choi were served on top and were very crisp and fresh.  The soft boiled egg was cooked well with a solid white and thick but liquid yolk.  The bread was crisp and tasted like it had just been baked.  It was very good, but it came in very handy to soak up the broth and yolk.  This also was pretty fantastic.

I really enjoyed my breakfast here and now understand why it is so popular.  I will definitely return if I happen to have another free weekday for the pastries if nothing else, but the cafe menu will certainly deserve a look.        

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mana Food Bar

Every Fall, local public radio station, WBEZ,  holds an event called Chicago Chef Battle in which five chefs are given an ingredient to work with and make a dish to compete with the other chefs.  Several years ago, I went to one of these at the Goose Island Brewery in which the chefs were each given a specific Goose Island Beer to work with.  Most of the dishes were pretty good, but there was one from Chef Jill Barron, of vegetarian restaurant, Mana Food Bar that I was thoroughly underwhelmed by.  I don't specifically remember what it was that I had, I just remember that I wasn't impressed.  This isn't because it was vegetarian, I like vegetarian food and there are some vegetarian restaurants that I really like, it was just this specific dish.  First impressions, though, do make a difference, and I was kind of leery to visit the restaurant.  In the years since then, Mana Food Bar has gotten a lot of good press and it has been a Michelin Bib Gourmand for the last 4 years.  This made me wonder what I had missed and I decided to visit it and actually try the food in person.  In order to make sure I might hit the right points, I decided to bring a vegetarian friend who had been there and liked it to guide me a little.  The restaurant, located on Division St., is small and actually pretty easy to miss.  It had a sign on its covered doorway that was black on black, so unless you knew where to look, it was almost like an underground dining club.  Inside, it was pretty small with a bar with attached chairs on one side and booths on the other side, all made of light colored wood.  The walls were also finished plywood.  We were seated in a booth near the front of the restaurant and were quickly served.  We started things off with cocktails while we were working out what we were going to eat.  Both cocktails looked very familiar, but with small variations from classic cocktails and different names.  Between the two of us, we had a Geisha, which had Sake, Rhubarb Shrub, Pomegranate, and Lemon, and a Gypsy, which had Hendrick's Gin, St. Germain, Chartreuse, and Lime.  I'm not sure what the Geisha was based on, but it had a nice tart flavor.  The Gypsy is a classic drink with a floral, herbal, and tart flavor based on The Last Word, my favorite cocktail.  A gypsy is more floral to The Last Word's sweet flavor, but it was very good and I liked it.
The food menu is divided into Cold and Hot and is supposed to be eaten similar to tapas.  We decided to order several small portions and share, so we could cover more of the menu.  I would have expected the cold dishes to arrive first and then the hot, but the dishes were sent out when they were ready and some of the hot arrived before the cold were finished.  In fact, the first dish to arrive was the Sweet and Sour Tofu with Seared Tofu with Pineapple Sweet and Sour Sauce over Sauteed Greens.  The tofu was mild with a crispy outside and soft interior.  The Pineapple Sweet and Sour Sauce added a sweet and sour flavor with pineapple.  As tofu is flavorless and takes on the flavor of whatever it's cooked with, this was a very good thing.  The greens were mostly Green Beans, although there were also onions (which aren't green).
Our next course was a cold, and it was one of my favorites, Golden Beets with Amish Blue Cheese, Hazelnuts, Arugula, and Sherry Vinaigrette.  The beets were tender and sweet and the bittersweet flavor of the blue cheese went well with it.  The plentiful hazelnuts added a nice nutty flavor, the arugula added a peppery bitterness, and the sherry vinaigrette finished it with a tart flavor.
The course that we ordered first, I was actually hoping would remind me of a favorite dish at another restaurant that is no longer on the menu, didn't actually arrive until almost mid-meal.  It was Wakame Seaweed with Cucumber, Five Spice Tofu, Tangerine Chili Dressing and Micro-Greens.  This was very good with a tart and spicy flavor and lot of different textures, but it didn't get me to the dish that I was missing, Seaweed and Potatoes (with a lot of butter).
Our next course was another favorite, but it was a simple dish that would be hard to go wrong with.  It was Sauteed Mushrooms over Creamy Polenta.  The mushrooms and polenta were both cooked perfectly and went well together.  The mushrooms were tender, savory, with a very hearty flavor, and the polenta provided a light and creamy base to build on.  It was creamy, savory, mushroomy, and very, very good.
Our most complex dish was Bibimbap, a dish that I really like, but which usually has meat.  It had a lot of vegetables, as bibimbap usually does, including Carrots, Peppers, and Onions, and a Hot Pepper Miso all over Brown Rice and topped with a Sunny Side Up Egg.  This was very good and flavorful, the miso really helped, my one complaint was that in many cases, the rice has a crispy edge to it, it was not the case here.  This was a good dish, but I think I will stick with bibimbap with meat.
We finished with a dish which can be found on many tapas menus, Baked Goat Cheese with Spicy Tomato Sauce and Toast.  By the time this arrived we were starting to get a little full, so we didn't dive into it like we might have otherwise.  It was good, and I liked it, but I can't say that it's any different from any other baked goat cheese dish that you might find around at tapas places around the city for good or bad.
We could not leave without trying the dessert.  We were both kind of full, so we decided to go a little light (as much as we could do with dessert) and ordered a Rhubarb Tart with Fresh Caramel.  I really liked the caramel and the tart was good, but it wasn't what we expected.  This is not to say that I disliked it or allowed it to remain uneaten, but it had a crisp top and a texture like a cheesecake below that.  It was very good and went well with the caramel, but it wasn't what we were expecting.

After trying several dishes and the cocktails at Mana, I will say that I was mislead by by initial encounter.  It is very good and I would definitely return.  There are things that I might prefer with meat, like the bibimbap, but the beet salad and the mushrooms and polenta could not be improved upon.  If I am in the mood for vegetarian cuisine, this will definitely fall onto the list of possible options.


Monday, April 10, 2017

SBK Supper Club - Bistro By the Sea

Sauce and Bread Kitchen does some great dinners.  I have been to several and have enjoyed them all.  Last month, they did one that they claimed was simple food.  They called the dinner Bistro by the Sea and as can be guessed, featured bistro-style dishes with seafood.  While I will grant that there were a few simple dishes, like the first, even the simple dishes were done very well.  We started out with a couple of Oysters, one East Coast and one West Coast.  The East Coast Oyster was from Misty Point, Va and the West Coast was from Willapa Bay, Wa.  They were served with an Apple Cider Vinegar/Hot Sauce Mignonette, Lemons, and Horseradish.  I will frequently eat oysters in the shell in one swallow, so admittedly I probably lose the finer details of the taste, but while they did have slightly different tastes and the West Coast Oyster was bigger, they were both briny and tasted very good.  Due to the shape of the shell, it was smooth, the West Coast Oyster was easier to swallow.
For the second course, they did something that falls right into their wheelhouse, It was a bread plate called a Pissaladiere, which is a bread dish originating in Nice, France, with Olives, Caramelized Onions, and Anchovies.  For our course, it was served in squares loosely stacked on a bread board with Canned Anchovies.  The bread used Green Peaches, that were treated with lye like olives, Caramelized Onions, and Tomatoes.  We put the oysters on the bread as we liked.  The bread actually lasted longer than the Canned Anchovies, which was fine because the bread was fantastic on its own.  It was soft, fluffy, and very salty and flavorful, while the oysters were good with it, it was good on it's own.
From the bread, we went to a Salad Course.  It was a Smoked Trout and Spinach Salad with a New Potato and Heritage Weisse Cheddar Waffle, Crispy Shallots, and Mustard Vinaigrette.  The spinach was very fresh, crisp and flavorful.  The mustard vinaigrette was had a nice spicy mustard flavor, the trout had a lightly crisp exterior, but was pretty tender and flaky.  The most creative part of this though was the waffled cheddar.  It was crispy, chewy, waffled, and had a great fried cheddar flavor.
For our main course, we had Bouillabaisse, a fish stew that originated in Marseilles using bony fish that the fishermen were unable to sell, as well as sea food and shellfish.  This version actually had no fish.  It had Mussels, Shrimp, Clam, Koji Cured and Smoked Pork, Fennel, Magic Broth, a Mayonnaise based sauce that we mixed into the broth, and Baguettes.  There was a lot of shellfish in the stew, so it was a good thing that we had an extra bowl for the shells.  the meat in the shellfish was big and flavorful and the sauce added a richness to the broth.  The baguette was crusty and was great for soaking up the broth, but admittedly, I ended up tipping the bowl up and drinking the broth after the shellfish and baguettes were gone.  It was very good.
Finally, came our dessert.  It was called a Tarte Fromage Blanc avec Black Raspberry Meringue Coulis.  Translated, that would be a White Cheese Tart (Cheesecake) with Black Raspberry Sauce.  It was also served with Ice Cream.  It had a nice crust on the outside and the tart was a little more savory than your standard cheesecake.  The Black Raspberry Coulis was tart and the ice cream added some sweetness.  It was a nice finish to a very good meal.  I really enjoy the creativity that SBK brings to their evening meals and I will continue to go to them.         

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Publican - Chef's Menu

While I have been to most of One Off Hospitality's restaurants, have liked them a lot, and have been to brunch a few times at The Publican, I had never been to dinner there.  After my last fantastic brunch there (and the fact that a few close friends had missed it), I decided that this must be a thing so when things fell together, I scheduled it and a few of us went for dinner.  I decided that if we were going to do this, we should get the full experience, so we went with the Chef's Menu, which I thought, considering the price, was going to be something like a five course meal.  As I mentioned before, The Publican is modeled after a German beer hall with a high ceiling, with hanging lights and much of the seating on a large U-shaped communal table.  There are also some high top tables at the front of the restaurant and some booths along one side, but we sat at the communal table.  On the walls were some very large paintings of some very fat pigs which fit with the theme of the restaurant, which is Oysters, Pork, and Beer.  To that end, we all started with some nice beers.  Their beer list is large, international, and very German-centric.  They do have some very good American craft beers on the list though and I started with a Dogfish Head Midas Touch, a beer based on a 1700 year old recipe with Honey, Saffron, and Muscat Grapes.  As for the food, I will quickly say that I was mistaken about five courses, there were many more than that and at times the progression was fast and furious.  It was all served family style.  If there is a dish for which The Publican is famous, it is their Spicy Pork Rinds.  They seem to be distributed very freely, it is where our brunch started last fall, and it is where we started our Chef's Menu.  Served in a paper funnel, the pork rinds are large, and very light, but are full of flavor.  They melt in your mouth and it was like eating clouds of porky goodness.
After the beer and the pork rinds, we had had two of the three parts of the base on which the Publican was built, the natural progression would be to go to the third, the Oysters, which was what came next.  The oysters (east coast) were served raw on the half shell on ice with a spicy sauce to eat with them, some lemon for squeezing over them, and some House Made Crackers to cleanse the palate afterwards.  There was an oyster for each of us (obviously, it would be very difficult to share a single oyster).  They tasted very fresh and briny and finished a nice representations of the basics.
After the oysters, we progressed back to pork with some duck.  We were served a bowl of Pulled Pork and Duck with Peach Preserves which were to be spread on Sourdough Toast that was served next to the bowl as build your own Rillettes.  Everything about this was very good.  The pork and duck made a great flavor combination.  The toast was crisp and flavorful with the peach preserves adding some sweetness to the mixture.  The sour of the sourdough contrasted well with the sweetness of the pulled pulled pork and peaches and it was all good.
After we had hit the Oysters, Pork, and Beer, our progression made a foray into the world of vegetables.  We were served, in quick succession, a Beet Salad with Burrata (Cream-filled Mozzarella), Pickled Red Onion, Flaxseed Tahini, and Spiced Peanuts, and a Grilled Cucumber Salad with Mojama (Fileted Salt-Cured Tuna), Zhoug (Hot Chile Sauce), and Grilled Pita.  I really like beets, so between the two, even though they were both very good, that is the one that I preferred.  The beets were roasted perfectly, but were still very juicy and had a nice bittersweet flavor.  The picled red onion added a sweet and spicy flavor and the tahini added a savory nutty flavor which was added to with the spiced peanuts.  The cucumber salad was also bittersweet, but also had flavors of salt, spice, and tuna.  The pita was like a soft cracker with a crisp exterior and a softer interior and made a good delivery system for the salad.
From the vegetables, we received a Hamachi (Yellowtail) Escabeche (a raw fish "cooked" in acid, similar to Ceviche) which was served with Green Goddess Dressing, Fava Beans, and Salsa Verde.  The Yellowtail was very tender and fresh which went well with the richness of the Green Goddess and the spice of the Salsa Verde.  It was nice, light, full of flavor, and a nice progression before the heavier meat dishes started.
While we were eating the hamachi, our next dish, which looked like another rillette arrived because it was meat served on bread.  It was not, however, if you will excuse the pun, for the faint of heart, because it was Duck Heart.  It was served with Boursin, a soft cheese french cheese made with garlic and herbs, Pepper Jelly, Dill, Treviso, a red spear-shaped relative of radicchio, served on Sesame Toast.  I will say that the idea of the dish might have annerved people that were skittish, but other than the creamy texture and the garlic flavor of the Boursin, I really don't remember much about this and I said this very quickly after eating it.  It sounds to me as if it should have been pretty good, but it was quickly swept out of my memory and didn't stick.  I would actually like to try it again to see if it was that forgettable or if I was just overwhelmed by the other great dishes that were served.
The meat continued with another couple of  dishes that were disguised by greens, but quickly revealed themselves.  We were served Boudin Noir (a French Blood Sausage) with Pickled Ramps (Wild Onions that come out in the early spring), Potatoes, Fresno Chiles, Goat Cheese, and Dill, and Country Ribs with Pickled Carrots, Turmeric, Cilantro, and Cashews.  I started with the ribs which were done simply to emphasize the meat (instead of a rub or barbecue sauce) and presented with vegetables.  It tasted very good, but did require a little caveman-style eating (gnawing on the bone) and the pickled carrots, cashews, and cilantro, provided for a light accompaniment.  The Boudin Noir was a nice hearty, savory, flavorful, and well cooked sausage.  The flavors presented with it, the ramps, chiles, and dill, added some spicy and tart flavors.  While the sausage was easier to eat, I liked the rib better.
The course progression took a little bit of a left turn, next and we were presented with some Fried Cauliflower.  It was presented with Brun-Uusto Cheese, a Scandinavian-style "bread" cheese that grills well, Spiced Honey, and Scallions.  This was another course that I liked everything about.  The cauliflower was crispy on the outside, while still retaining a soft and juicy interior, and had a great flavor.  The Brun-Uusto Cheese also had a crispy exterior with a chewy interior, that added a depth of flavor to the cauliflower.  The honey provided a nice hit of sweetness with a hint of heat to finish, and it was good all together.
With all of the food that we had received so far, we were starting to slow down, so it was good that we were receiving our final savory dish.  It's presentation, however, was a bit daunting.  We received a large metal bowl of Bouchot Mussels with a broth made with Publican Lambic, Bay, Celery, Butter, and Garlic.  We were also given some good French Bread to sop up the broth.  While the mussel shells were about standard size, the mussels inside looked enormous and there were a lot to eat, but we managed to make it through the bowl and enjoyed the mussels and the broth.
We were not given a menu to tell us how many courses we would be getting, what we would be getting, and in what order, so after we quickly passed the five courses that I had expected we would be receiving, we were kind of flying blind.  It came as kind of a relief then when our desserts came.  We were given three desserts, all served at once.  First to hit the table was the Cookie Jar, which was filled with a variety of Cookies.  We also were served A Pineapple Upsidedown Cake, and a deconstructed Apple Tart.  I started with the cookies, grabbing a sweet and chewy bite that was similar to a caramel.  I also had a Chocolate Chip and an Oatmeal (and took another couple home when everyone else had hit the wall).  The Pineapple Upsidedown Cake was sweet and soft with a lot of Pineapple, and Crumbles. and the Apple Tart was tasty and really interesting with pieces of very delicate pastry covering, sweet Fried Apples, Brown Sugar Crumble, and Ice Cream.  It was all very good, it was a great finish to what was a fantastic, surprising and very filling dinner.  It was a lot of fun and I definitely would do it again, but it definitely would not be an everyday thing.