Archive for the ‘Restaurant finds’ Category

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Alinea!

July 20, 2010

“I want to have dinner at Alinea. Would you like to come?” my mother asked (presumably rhetorically) out of the blue a few months ago.

I know I’m no restaurant critic (and I have no desire to be one, at this point), but some friends insisted I talk about this one.

What an experience! The building is unmarked, grey, with the shades drawn. The only thing that says “Alinea” is the valet parking sign. Once the doors open, though, you’re quite sure you’re in the right place.

We walked down a red hallway with a sloping ceiling, giving it kind of an Alice in Wonderland effect. A door whooshed open just at the right moment, and the hostess knew exactly who we were and where we were going. Absolutely seamless.

Alinea does not take parties larger than 6, and they will not break a party of 8 into two tables. So my cousins went on a date night a few days before the rest of the gang: my mom, brothers, aunt and uncle. We were seated at a large round table by the window, and the service was absolutely impeccable. About halfway through the meal, we noticed that the servers had noticed that my brother is left-handed. They were placing his silverware at a different angle on the little pillow they used as a “tablecloth” for each of us, so that it was easier to pick up with his left hand!

The sommelier was both a character and really knowledgeable. They had a Lucien Crochet rosé—the same vineyard that bottled the white Sancerre we drank at Le Clos de la Violette in Aix five years ago—but, alas, they had just sold the last glass. The sommelier (who also acted as a waiter? Not sure what his title is) gave me a taste of something else and I ended up ordering an Austrian sparkling wine that was delightful.

Ok, you’re saying, enough about the set-up—tell us about the food! Everything was amazing. Although a lot of it was transformed through culinary wizardry, other ingredients were just incredibly pure versions of themselves: wonderfully tomato-ey tomatoes, tremendously lamb-y lamb, etc.

The first course was a pretty good indication that we were in for a treat. The menu says “English peas, iberico, sherry, honeydew.” What it means is: some kind of concoction that, on first bite, tasted like the best frozen pea I’ve ever had—I used to eat them straight from the freezer when I was little—with little capsules of sherry that burst on your tongue, burrata, a little ball of honeydew (that we mistook for a grape) and several other unidentifiable delicious things. The whole dish was startlingly cold (liquid nitrogen?) but melted pretty much immediately into creamy deliciousness.

“Lobster, lychee, gruyère, vanilla fragrance” turned out to be a definite highlight of the evening: a single incredible bite of something fried, skewered on a vanilla bean and served into a fantastical wire holder. The incredibly light tempura contained a succulent piece of lobster, melty gruyère, lychee (somewhere) and a hint of ginger, and the vanilla bean gave the whole thing a delicate scent. It definitely left us all wanting more. Imagine how great/insane it would be to buy the cookbook and curl up in front of the TV with a whole basket of these on a movie night! (OK, never happening…I don’t even know if that recipe is in the cookbook, for starters.)

“Tomatoes, pillow of fresh cut grass aroma” was also amazing. There were a variety of powders (red pepper, bread crumbs, Parmesan, tiny bits of balsamic onions) to accompany the heirloom tomatoes, with little fried things on top. Absolutely the best tomatoes I’ve had this summer, never mind the stuff that came with it! My brother, who disliked tomatoes violently for most of his life, said this was one of his favorite dishes of the evening.

After that, we were all presented with a lovely glass of a clear liquid that turned out to be a “distillation of Thai flavors”—salty cucumber and a whole bunch of other things that lingered on the palate to “prime” it for “pork belly, curry, cucumber, lime.” We made spring rolls, fashioned from the pretty rice paper centerpieces (there were flowers and herbs in the paper, and they were hanging from chopsticks for the early part of our meal). I’m not a fan of either coconut or curry, but once I tasted the pork belly that was cooked in those flavors, I stopped caring exactly what I was being served and just ate.

“King crab, rhubarb, lilac, fennel” was a three-part course in a lovely bespoke ceramic piece. On top, there was a chervil gelée with some buttermilk and lilac sorbet surrounded by a crab mousse. When the lid came off, there were three perfect little bites of crab, avocado and rhubarb with a mung bean salad and other delicious bits. Under that was a warm crab and rhubarb concoction in a cream sauce—amazing.

“Lamb, a reflection of Elysian Fields Farm” honors a supplier dating back to Chef Achatz’s days with Thomas Keller. The plate consisted of the best lamb I’ve ever had: a small bite folded onto a sprig of rosemary, with a creamy popcorn sauce and a tiny bite of breaded polenta that burst with butter and corn flavors. Oh, and panko-crusted, deep-fried saddle fat from the lamb, which is both brilliant and evil.

“Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter” was another big favorite of mine. The dish arrived in a tiny wax bowl, with a number of items including a cube of butter and a potato ball topped with a generous slice of truffle skewered on a pin. We were instructed to pull the pin out of the bowl to drop the skewered items into the sauce below it, which turned out to be a chilled, rich truffled potato soup. We were instructed to eat it quickly—no hardship, as the dish was creamy and indulgent and delicious.

Following that, the table was reset with antique flatware and an ornate goblet. “Tournedo à la persane” is an Escoffier recipe, as it turns out: a piece of extraordinarily good meat on top of a grilled tomato (with a tiny basil leaf), a fried banana slice and a pepper stuffed with rice, all in a perfect Châteaubriand sauce. I can’t say I’ve ever eaten beef with banana before, and it’s a great combination. The dish was served with a bit of Callet wine (or housemade soda), which was a great pairing.

From here, we entered the realm of dessert. “Earl Grey, lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate” didn’t look like a dessert at all: hunks of grey tea cookies, yellow frozen chocolate noodles, scoops of lemon curd that looked like egg yolks, and crisp candied pine nuts. Fantastic all around!

“Chocolate, coconut, menthol, hyssop” contained one of our favorite elements and one of our least favorite elements. The former would be a frozen chocolate mousse that had us all giggling on our first bite. It melted into a traditional mousse texture—really fun to eat, and tasty to boot! The latter would be the menthol, which was just too strong for us. I made the mistake of drinking the last of my sparking wine with the menthol, and it was an awful lot like swilling Robitussin.

Rounding out the evening was another dish that had us all giggling as we ate it: “Bubble gum, long pepper, hibiscus, crème fraîche” arrived horizontally in a hollow glass tube. We sucked it out of the tube (making unavoidable gross noises in the process) and the darned thing tasted just like bubble gum! Whatever the pink stuff was had tapioca balls, so you even ended up chewing it for a little while.

And there you have it—a complete roundup of our evening at Alinea. Truly memorable. I’m so glad we went!

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Ladies Who Brunch, or The Tenacious Tomatoes

October 26, 2009

I freely admit it: I’m a sucker for brunch. I love a good omelette, nice and fluffy, and I’m a bit more partial to a nice crispy hash brown than is probably good for me. It seems so casual yet civilized to get up and go have breakfast in a restaurant with friends.

I was lucky enough to have brunch twice this weekend, but sadly neither experience was particularly civilized.

The first brunch was at Orange, a trendy little place around the corner from my apartment. Orange seems to consciously differentiate itself from your average diner. I mean, a brunch place that won’t let you build your own omelette? The words “mousse” and “infused” appear often on the menu–too often, in the latter’s case. I usually have poached eggs there, probably as a subconscious act of rebellion to the omelette hegemony. The eggs are always tasty and perfectly cooked. The potatoes that come with them taste like they’re at least 50% butter–I usually try (and fail) not to eat the whole serving.

I’ve never been to Orange during the weekend before, and the experience is much more pleasant during the workweek, when things are slower. The kicker was when a busboy asked if he could clear my plate after I had literally taken one bite of my breakfast. Um, no!

But even that lapse in service looked great compared to my brunch at Sarks in the Park yesterday. Right across the street from Orange, this little storefront in the basement courtyard of a big apartment building bills its fare as the “world’s best breakfast.”

It was quite busy when my friend M and I arrive there a little after noon. So busy, in fact, that the only available outdoor table had no chairs. We asked if we could sit there, and were told that it was a bus station. Since gorgeous, warm, sunny days in late October are a rarity, we decided to wait for an outside table.

While we were waiting, a less polite couple put chairs at the bus table and were promptly served. Irksome, to say the least. The waitress looked quite uncomfortable about the situation.

Another group got up shortly thereafter, and we immediately moved in to occupy their table. After five minutes or so, we asked the waitstaff to clear the previous occupants’ food and other debris from the table. Then we were finally given menus.

Given the breakfast-centric motto, I was surprised to see that only a quarter of the single-page menu was devoted to, well, breakfast. (As a clear sign that a very strange symptom is sweeping Lincoln Park breakfast joints, Sarks does not offer a build-your-own omelette, though to its credit it doesn’t have a large note saying that custom omelettes are impossible, unlike its swanky across-the-street neighbor.) I decided on a bacon and cheese (only two choices: American and “white.” I didn’t specify and got the former) egg white omelette. I passed on the hash browns, since I assumed it would be an extra charge and I don’t need them. I was expecting to receive a plate with just an omelette on it, and I was fine with that.

I should pause here to say that my dining companion is a picky eater. M really does not like tomatoes, she’s vegetarian, and she’s generally conservative about what she’ll eat. So when she ordered the veggie quesadilla, M took care to ask for no tomatoes.

It felt like an eternity between the time we ordered and the arrival of our food. We spent almost two hours at the restaurant, and most of it was during this lull. The golden moment was somewhat tarnished, though. M’s plate had an inexplicable garnish of plain, chopped romaine lettuce, a thimble-sized cup of salsa, and three tacos…which contained tomatoes. She sent it back.

When her plate next appeared, the tacos were tomato-less. Bizarrely, though, the kitchen had decided to augment the strange romaine garnish with a giant scoop of…wait for it…chopped tomatoes. M was really hungry by this point, so she didn’t send it back again. I ask you, what must have been going through the mind of the person who added the chopped tomatoes to the dish that came back because it had tomatoes? The world may never know.

Unfortunately, after all that, M didn’t really like the quesadillas. Their veggie mix included broccoli, which wasn’t listed on the menu and is kind of a strange filling for a quesadilla.

That said, my omelette was really quite good, though the pieces of bacon were larger and fattier than I had anticipated. The dish was not empty, as I predicted, but instead had a very large helping of very good hash browns and toast, in the form of pressed Cuban bread. Any kind of grilled bread is usually delicious, but this could have done with some salt. (I was glad it was kind of flavorless, because I wasn’t tempted to eat it. I already had my fill of sin between the bacon and the scrumptious hash browns I didn’t order.)

It’s a shame the service was so slow, because the breakfast food actually was very good. Clearly, though, communication could do with some general improvements at Sarks in the Park.

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Dinner at Perennial

August 30, 2009

I just had a superb dinner at Perennial on Clark.

We had been planning to go to Shanghai Terrace, but they’re closed on Sundays. Jenny’s only rule was that we go somewhere I hadn’t eaten before. Perennial fit that requirement, and I’m so glad we went!

I began with a sweet corn soup with spoon bread and corn relish. It was AMAZING–very sweet and very, well, corny. The creamy soup was poured over a corn relish that had great texture. It tasted like pure corn–not surprising, given the relationship the restaurant has with the Green City Market, conveniently located across the street from the restaurant. It was quite possibly the best soup I’ve ever had.

Jenny had a salad of tomato and watermelon with basil. The salad had been marinating for a while, and the flavors had blended perfectly. I’ve never had basil with watermelon before; I’ll be trying to replicate that combination pronto.

For the main course, I ordered the chicken and dumplings in a roasted chicken veloute. The chicken had been cooked sous vide before being grilled and it was remarkably tender. The veloute was really rich, and the biscuits had soaked it up. Delicious.

Jenny had the pork belly with grilled peaches, thyme doughnuts, kale and a gastrique. The pork belly was crispy on the outside and just melted away when you bit into it. Absolutely delicious, and I’m not usually a pork person. (Ditto for the kale.)

For dessert, we shared a fudge brownie topped with a quenelle of malt ice cream. Both were excellent, of course, but we got it for one simple reason printed on the menu: “fried ganache.” Yes, you read that right. A ball of ganache, battered and deep-fried, sitting on some malt powder. When we broke into it, the liquid ganache spilled out. Mmmmm.

All in all, a fabulous dinner. I’ll be going back.

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Fifteen London: Food That Makes You Feel Good

September 21, 2008

I’ll be honest: when my mother told me that she had made us a reservation at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant during a layover in London, I had very little idea what she was talking about.  I did some research, however, and got pretty excited about it.

Fifteen is actually a job training program, designed to give youths marketable skills, as well as a restaurant.  It’s a pretty nifty idea, and it seems to be working pretty well.  There are now several Fifteen restaurants throughout the world.

The appointed day arrived and, after pushing our reservation back to account for Eurostar delays, we arrived at the trattoria.  It is a very modern, noisy, engaging space.  We were shown to a table and got down to business.

After chuckling about eating Italian food on the way home from a trip to Italy, we noticed that the house prosecco was from a town we had actually visited a few days before.  Valdobbiadene is a beautiful area in the Veneto, and we were told that it makes the world’s finest prosecco.  Unfortunately, the vineyard we visited produced fairly standard sparkling wine, though the views were stunning.  (As a sidenote: I have since discovered that my favorite prosecco, Jeio, is also from Valdobbiadene.)  Naturally, we had to order some prosecco after all of this.  It was light, dry, very drinkable and generally excellent.  While waiting for our food, our server arrived with a basket of bread and a clay cup, which was filled in very short order with excellent balsamic and olive oil.

And there you have it: some of the finest food we ate on our trip to Italy, in a small side street in London.  In the foreground are some of the lightest, fluffiest and, as you may have noticed, largest gnocchi I have ever tasted.  They are dressed with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil.  Divine.  You can also see my mother’s equally excellent vegetable risotto across the table.

So, in short, Fifteen London is worth a visit if you are in London.  We made our reservation well in advance, and people were being turned away as we arrived.  You can find more information about the Fifteen restaurants and the Fifteen training program at www.fifteen.net.

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A Summer Classic: Drier’s Meat Market

June 3, 2008

I’m always happy when summer finally rolls around. Summer means more time in Michiana, and more time in Michiana means grilling, and grilling demands regular trips to Drier’s Meat Market in Three Oaks, Michigan.

Every time I decide that I “don’t like” something, Drier’s comes along and proves me wrong. I “didn’t like” bologna, until I tasted theirs. It’s really a summer sausage, and each ring we buy seems to somehow vanish in under a week. To accompany Drier’s bologna, one simply must eat Drier’s horseradish mustard, which to this day remains the only mustard I have ever really liked. (Regular readers of this blog are probably familiar with my anecdote about bringing a jar of mustard to live in France with me. That would be Drier’s mustard.) As a fairly young child, I was horrified to discover that my beloved bratwurst was made with veal, a meat that I detested (mostly on principle, as it turns out). And then there’s the smoked ham–like the mustard, really the only ham I’ve ever liked. Some might argue that I prefer these products because I grew up with them, which is partially true–but for the fact that in many cases my parents had to make me try something I thought I didn’t like.

Then, of course, there’s the tub cheese, creamy, salty, and an excellent contrast to the mellow sweetness of the Carr’s Whole Wheat crackers we keep on hand for just this purpose. And the roasted turkey breast that tastes like Thanksgiving all over again. And the unbelievably sharp New York Herkimer cheddar. Like a good, old-fashioned smokehouse, Drier’s even has dog bones. (I’m afraid that I can’t comment on these, as they are quite possibly the only Drier’s product I haven’t personally sampled.)

Drier’s is one of those places that seems like it’s been there forever. It’s a quaint little storefront with sawdust on the floor and an old-fashioned door that closes itself with a weight. Nothing smells quite like Drier’s–the sawdust, the smell of smoke, the vague hint of spices. This is all well and good, but what keeps my family coming back for close to 20 years now is the meat. When it comes down to it, Drier’s is just a small, family-run shop that takes pride in the quality of its food–and the cult of loyal Drier’s customers proves that pride is entirely justified.

Drier’s Meat Market is located in Three Oaks, Michigan, about an hour and a half from Chicago. It is closed from January 1 until 2 weeks before Easter. During the summer, it is open 7 days a week: Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information is available at Driers.com or by phone at 888.521.3999. In my opinion, no trip to Drier’s is complete without picking up some aged steaks (must be ordered in advance at 269.426.3224) at nearby Falatic’s Meat Market in Sawyer, Michigan–but that, as they say, is another story.

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Itto Sushi: Fall Roll

November 22, 2007

Itto Sushi is a charming little neighborhood sushi bar.  The staff, some of whom have been working there since I was an infant, speak rapid-fire Japanese to one another.  The sushi chefs deftly make some of the city’s best sushi under a playful clock, on which chopstick hands point to a different type of sushi for each hour.  Chopstick boxes bearing the names of regular diners are stacked rather precariously in a corner.  We invariably go there during cold weather, but it’s always warm inside.  It’s the sort of place where the sushi chefs will remember to ask after my brothers, even though they haven’t eaten there with us for a year or so.

When I say that I’ve been eating at Itto Sushi for my entire life, I’m not exaggerating.  My parents went there on a weekly basis, and once I entered the picture, so did I.  As soon as I had teeth, they got into the habit of letting me gnaw on some tuna sashimi.  I loved it, though I did go through a brief sushi rebellion once I realized exactly what my parents were feeding me.

I am not a picky eater, but when it comes to sushi, I tend to stay close to what I know.  With the exception of a somewhat-infamous, hand-sized oyster that I encountered in Japan, I’m not afraid of trying new things.  It’s just that I’m so darned fond of maguro that I can’t see why I would order anything else.  (Naturally, I blame this on my parents and their sashimi indoctrination methods.)  I do like maki, and I will frequently try new rolls.  That said, I rarely find anything good enough to deter me from ordering nigiri on my next visit.

Last night, I had one of those rare experiences.  My mother and I went to Itto for dinner; she’s a bit of a toro addict, and the quality of their fish is unparalleled.  We decided to split a Fall Roll.  The menu’s description was a bit cryptic, but I knew that the roll involved some combination of spicy miso sauce (which I opted out of, as I’m a spice wuss), escolar (one of the fish marketed as “white tuna”), grilled mushrooms, cucumbers and “rice crack.”  When the roll arrived (beautifully presented, as always), we were surprised to discover that it was topped with little brown balls, about the size of your average silver dragée.  These baked rice crackers added a brief initial crunch and a pleasingly subtle smoke flavor (similar to the flavor that toasted rice adds to genmaicha) to an otherwise normal maki.  The roll was sublime; the toasted rice complemented the grilled mushrooms in the roll.  The cucumber provided a more enduring crunchiness, and the escolar was smooth and not at all fishy.  It was quite possibly the best maki I’ve ever had.

I told my mother that, while I do love her, she should order her own next time, because I won’t be sharing.

Itto Sushi is located at 2616 N. Halsted in Chicago.  The Fall Roll (8 pieces) costs $10.  Further information is available at http://www.ittosushi.com or (773) 871-1800.

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