Monday, March 24, 2014

Nico Osteria


Dinner at Nico probably costs about the same as dinner across the street at Gibson’s, which ought to make one feel quite foolish for eating at the latter.  There were some exquisite bites at dinner last night, but I still left feeling the way I always feel when I eat near Rush & Division.  Nico fits right into a neighborhood where the people and the restaurants are just not my speed.
We started with a striped jack crudo.  Four paper-thin, miniature slices of fish totaling maybe an ounce in weight were topped with radishes, chiles and lemon oil, all of which complemented the fatty, mackerel-like flesh quite well.  It was fantastic, but $20 for what amounted to an amuse-bouche-sized serving of raw fish was tough to swallow.

I had the same problem with the lobster spaghetti, though this time I started to feel as if I was being genuinely conned.  We were told about the $45 price in advance (it’s listed as MP on the menu), but the server described it as a 1-1.5 pound lobster cooked with classic stuff and removed from the shell before stuffed back in, its roe then tossed with the pasta along with other stuff from the cooking.  This was no 1-1.5 pound lobster.  It looked like one of those langoustines you get at Mexican restaurants.  Half a pound, three-quarters at most.  Maybe 4 or 5 forkfuls of meat.  I’ll take part of the blame for being enough of a rube to order something like this, but they didn’t have to take advantage so blatantly.
If dishonesty was the problem with the lobster, it was the opposite that really baffled me with the fritto misto, which last night included razor clams, oysters, and some kind of white fish.  When the dish arrived I popped a fried oyster in my mouth, and the server came over at that moment to ask how everything was.  As I nodded with approval, he gave what would turn out to be the first of two very strange explanations of this dish.  “Yeah,” he said, “We got some pre-shucked oysters in by mistake, and thought, what the heck are we going to do with these?”  He explained that they contemplated sending them back to the purveyor, but then the chef said “What the heck, let’s just throw them into the fritto misto.”  That’s the $25 fritto misto, in case you’re wondering.

It got worse.  We kept eating the fritto misto, which was all pretty good if a bit too greasy, and he came by again to inquire about how we liked it.  I think I said something like “It’s quite good,” to which he replied, “Yeah, we use the same fantastic fish we use for the crudos in the fritto misto.  When they’re not fresh enough to serve as crudos anymore, they become fritto misto.”  Did he really say that?  As I’m typing it now, I have the same incredulous look on my face as I had in the restaurant, with what now tasted like a perhaps-just-a-little-rancid piece of fish in my mouth.  But yes, I’m sure about it.  That’s what he said.  For better or worse, we’d lost our appetite for fried fish at that point, and the rest was taken away by the runner.
Too full for pastry (or perhaps too queasy), we opted for a couple of small scoops of ice cream and sorbet to end the meal.  Both were disasters.  Blood orange sorbet was loaded with ice shards and tasted like nothing more than sugar-water.  Pistachio gelato had decent texture but no pistachio flavor at all.  There’s quite a bit of dessert pedigree in this kitchen, but I can’t believe that anyone deserving accolades ever tasted these concoctions.

Given the choice between Nico and Hugo’s Frog Bar or Carmine’s or whatever other hell holes exist around there, I guess I’d go back to Nico.  But more than anything last night reinforced that, respected newcomers or not, this neighborhood is to be avoided.

Nico Osteria
1015 N Rush St, Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 994-7100

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Radler

There are a lot of reasons I love The Radler.

Near the top is its unique beer list, which sources a ton of German-style beers from local breweries, and some great ones from Germany as well. The list is focused and committed to the theme, with just a few outliers. There's nothing like this list in the city, and one could spend a most-enjoyable time doing nothing but sampling from it.

Service is fantastic at The Radler - friendly, very knowledgeable, willing to sample anything. So are the prices. I spent the same here as I did at Resi's Bierstube for a meal with similar amounts of food and drink. I even like the decor.

Where's the food on this list of reasons to love The Radler? I'll answer that with one dish description: Crispy bread dumplings with horseradish roasted mushrooms, spinach, pickled beef tongue, kohlrabi and currants. It's the best dish I've had in a 2014 that's seen quite a few good ones so far. It may be the best dish I've had in a much longer time than that. It's just perfect. Contrasting textures. Rich flavors balanced by tangy ones. A little earth. A little sweet. I need to stop writing about it. I want it again. Now. Badly.

Go to The Radler. Enjoy all the things there are to enjoy about it, but don't miss the crispy bread dumplings. The dark, warm and crisp bread dumplings. The tangy, tender pickled tongue. The earthy roasted mushrooms. The little strips of cool, crisp kohlrabi. The bursts of dill that seem to appear from nowhere to enliven your palate just when you think you can't eat anymore. What a dish. My goodness.


The Radler
2375 N Milwaukee Ave
(773) 276-0270

  

Monday, January 6, 2014

Next - Chicago Steakhouse Menu. Exclusive First Look!!!!



Next – Chicago Steak

 
Cocktail

2” by 2” cube of double-purified, blast-frozen Hydrogen Dioxide from Lake Michigan.  Topped with spirits.
 
Hors d'oeuvres

91 hand-carved semi-ovals of marble-sized transparent, odorless liquid that has been aged in our own temperature-controlled enclosure for at least 24 hours.  Served with carrot sticks.
 
Appetizer

Fluid matter that has been transformed through nucleation and crystal growth into a solid state, then pommeled with a blunt instrument to form irregularly-shaped shards that are then hand-placed into a 26 degree metal bowl.  Shrimp garnish.
 
Salad

Latent heat is released through an exothermic process from 5,000ml of a non-linear molecule in its liquid state, causing solidification which takes place in a proprietary capsule designed just for us by famous Japanese box-maker Yakimoto Toto.  Greens.
 
Entree

Warm meat to cleanse the palate for the final course
 
Dessert

“Sno Cone 86”  Each diner is provided with a vile filled with raspberry-flavored syrup, along with an eye dropper.  86 small mounds of shaved ice, each with a distinct water source and texture, are provided in an engraved cooler chest.  Diners are instructed to place a drop of syrup on each mound one-by-one, to experience the subtle profile each brings to the experience.

 

Executive Ice Chef – Hans Frigidein

 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Marching With The Sheep for Italian Food - Eataly & Cicchetti

I lied my way into an Eataly pre-opening party, then spent 5 consecutive days visiting during its initial week in Chicago.  Ready to move to the newest hotspot, I showed up at Cicchetti on the Sunday before it opened, having misunderstood internet postings about the place's grand opening.  Unable to talk my way into a mock service they were doing to train staff, I had to wait until they officially opened today for lunch.  Make fun of me if you want, but I am hungry for good Italian food in a city that sorely lacks it.  And my office is steps away from these places.  And I am a sheep.  I couldn't resist.

More has already been written in this town about Eataly than about The Bears, so I'll keep this brief and highlight a few specifics I haven't yet seen described elsewhere.  Eataly is very, very good.  There are interesting products that simply don't exist anywhere else in town, and there is a focus on handcrafted goods that's wonderful in some cases (the filled pastas and the mozzarella ), and admirable even where it works only modestly well (the bread and the pastries).  Among the many restaurants, I've already found some truly special dishes.  The pizza is now my favorite in town, with a crust full of character and flavor, quality toppings that are applied judiciously, and the wet center characteristic of many great Neapolitan pizzas - a characteristic that was sadly abandoned by other local pizzerias in deference to customer complaints.  At the restaurant focused on fried stuff, there's an ultra-simple radish dish that I can't stop thinking about.  No breading or coating - just the carefully-cleaned radishes with their greens still attached, deep fried in olive oil and drizzled with honey and salt when they come out.  I've never had anything like it, and I want it more and more.

At Cicchetti I ate a soup and a pasta.  The white bean soup was served with whole beans, pickled greens, toasted garlic and speck-infused whipped cream in the bowl, the server then pouring the piping-hot pureed bean soup over the top tableside.  The flavors worked well, with the each element powerful on its own in a way that balanced things out well in the end.  I had a small problem with the texture of the beans, some of which seemed rubbery and chalky, as if they'd been undercooked.  Still, it's a dish I'd happily eat again, which I can't say about the pasta.  The squid ink orecchiette were clearly handmade, because only about half of them were actually orecchiette.  The others failed to curve into the characteristic shape and texture, so were essentially just uniformly round coins.  The point of a shape like this is that it forms a little cup that captures and holds sauces, so this was a real failure in pasta-making execution.  The dish also had an American-style oversaucing problem, with way too much tangy tomato sauce for a restaurant with any real Italian ambition.

I'll be back to Eataly many, many times.  There's some terrific food to eat in, interesting handmade and imported products, and staples like bananas and milk and reasonable-enough prices that one could easily make Eataly a primary grocery shopping venue.  I'm sure I'll return to Cicchetti too.  The soup was good, and Mike Sheerin and Phil Rubino have each cooked food I loved at former venues.


Cicchetti
671 N St Clair St, Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 642-1800


Eataly
43 E Ohio St, Chicago, Illinois 60611

(312) 521-8700




 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Michoacanito

On the outside, Michoacanito looks like a hundred other humble Mexican restaurants - bright pictures of menu items, Mexican flag-themed signage, handmade signs touting tacos, tortas, etc.  But after a few observant seconds insite, I could tell this place was different.  The cooler was filled with fully-gelled stocks in see-through storage containers.  A woman in the kitchen was peeling and chopping papayas with the utmost precision and care, while a man pressed tortillas by hand.  The stove in the fully-open kitchen was filled with steaming pots emitting powerful aromas of meat and spice.

I ordered the consome de borrego (lamb soup) per my server's recommendation.  A hunk of lamb and bone sat starkly in the center of a bowl of not-quite-clear broth with bits of fat floating atop.  On first glance, it appeared that this soup would be just pure lamb without much other flavor.  The kind of thing that, though occasionally enjoyable, I expect more from a Central Asian place than from a Mexican restaurant.

As I started to dig in, the server brought a plate of accompaniments intended to Mexicanize the soup.  I added the onion, cilantro, lime, and a bit of dried chile.  Then when my spoon reached the bottom of the bowl, I realized that there were other goodies - lots of nicely cooked hominy, and a reconstituted chipotle pepper that had been part of the broth-cooking.  The fruitiness of the chipotle balanced the gaminess of the lamb broth beautifully.

Michoacanito makes tortillas by hand, and the homey,very thick, haphazardly-shaped rounds make that clear.  Be warned, these are probably triple the thickness of most tortillas, so they fill you up fast.  They were great for dipping in the soup.

There's a big menu here, filled mostly with stuff you can find all over town.  With a menu so large it's possible that not everything is a winner, but I feel very confident about the soups.  I also learned from someone at the next table that Micoacanito has something of a secret menu.  People in the know seek out the cook's gazpacho and special fruit cocktail recipes, none of which are on the regular menu.  Ask about fruit, I was told.


Michoacanito
4315 N. Kedzie
773-267-2820
byob

Monday, October 7, 2013

Mexique

I walked into Mexique with negative biases.   The attention given to the Michelin rating system is something of a joke to me, so I’m prone to discount anyplace with a star.  When restaurants take to Groupon, as Mexique did last year, I view it as a sign of decline.  Finally, the place is called Mexique.  Have you ever tried Mexican restaurants in France?  If so, you would know not to name your restaurant after that take on the cuisine.
With my first taste of the night, I was nearly converted.  A spoonful of the “spiced bouillabaisse broth” served in a bowl with something called a “Pescamal”, though more like a thick mole than a broth, was packed with intense roasted chile, complex spicing, and a shellfish undertone that made it unlike anything I’d ever tasted. 
Had the kitchen served this compelling puree simply with fresh tortillas instead of the sad rectangular starch plopped in the bowl, it would have been great.  The Pescamal , described on the menu as a corn tamal, had the texture and taste of a bake-and-serve dinner roll, stuffed with rubbery bits of fish that were devoid of flavor. 
A trio of sopes furthered the possibility that the chef might be shopping in the Trader Joe’s frozen food section.  The masa pucks were equally sized and perfectly rounded as if by a machine, and they were dense, greasy and tasteless.  The toppings tasted far more pedestrian than their menu descriptions implied.  Bizarrely, two disparate-sounding sauces tasted identical – like balsamic vinegar reduction.  Maybe the kitchen made a mistake with the plating.
The best dish of the night was one featuring braised veal short ribs served with orange-scented mushrooms and peppercorn gastrique.  A well-executed dish even though every component pushed the sweet, fruity side a bit too far.  Had the advertised escabeche de fresas actually tasted pickled instead of just macerated in sugar, this might have been a nicely balanced dish.
Worst was a special of seared tuna loin with chile-infused polenta and “mole de la casa”.  The tuna was seared nicely, but the polenta was so full of lumps that I was shocked that a restaurant of this ambition would serve it.  The mole was way too sweet and overpowered by cinnamon.  Put a straw in it and call it an horchata, and I’d believe you.
The chef at Mexique is mixing a lot of different flavors and techniques, and I suspect there are cases where this produces more winners like the broth served with the Pescamal.  Unfortunately, everything skews very sweet and there is a lot of flawed cooking, including a special level of ineptitude with cornmeal based dishes.  For a place with any degree of Mexican makeup, that’s hard to forgive.

Mexique
1529 W Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60642
(312) 850-0288

 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Mott Street and the Lens of Asian Food Experience


“…flavors are as safe and unthreatening as a night on the couch with a bong.”  - Mike Sula, Chicago Reader in an article titled “Playing it Safe at Mott Street”
“…the cooking equivalent of driving 45 in a 55 mph speed zone.” – Kevin Pang, Chicago Tribune


Chicago and other major cities have dozens of humble, first-generation-run Asian restaurants which, even though we Americans are welcome, are cooking food targeted mainly at fellow recent immigrants.  Because of this, and because so much of this food is cheap, there isn’t a food writer or aficionado in Chicago that hasn’t tried pungently fermented kimchi, scorchingly hot curry, and salads flavored with fishy funk. 

I think it’s through the lens of that experience that we end up with what I believe are misguided sentiments expressed in quotes such as the ones above.  Mott Street is “safe,” perhaps, when compared to the translated Thai-language menu at Sticky Rice.  But why compare it that instead of to restaurants with similar ambition, chef pedigree and price.? Are the dishes at Mott Street “safer” than those at Avec, La Sirena Clandestina, Le Bouchon or Vera?  Pang did compare Mott Street’s crab fried rice with Balena’s uni pasta, but that is even more bizarre and useless than comparing it to something one might find at TAC Quick.  Past experiences are valuable, but Mott Street is its own place and it would serve writers well to remove their lenses and evaluate the place on its own terms.

Some of the dishes at Mott Street are far from “safe”.  Grilled mackerel with incredible, crispy skin and moist flesh is served with head, tail and spine all attached – a bold decision that most restaurants with similar ambitions and customer bases would not make.  Wok-fried Gai Lan uses greens so intensely bitter that I’m sure many people refuse a second bite, along with oyster sauce that’s fishier and funkier than any version I can remember having.  Kimchi udon challenges safety-seeking palates with tiny bursts of fish roe and a delicious set of complementary garnishes.   I found all three of these dishes highly compelling. 
The kitchen at Mott street shows creativity too, which produces a winner and a loser.  The “stuffed cabbage” bears no resemblance to its moniker, but it is a fantastic combination of contrasting textures and bold flavors.  “Everything wings,” on the other hand, have a mess of bland seeds and a too-mild effort at tzatziki dipping sauce that would have paired poorly even had it been bolder.

I found the service at Mott Street welcoming and knowledgeable.  We had a drink and a snack on the nice patio and were made to feel like part of the crew.  In the dining room for dinner, everyone served us efficiently and with a smile, including members of management who stopped by a couple of times to check on things and solicit feedback.
We all have our own lenses through which we evaluate new restaurants.  Through mine, Mott Street is a winner.


Mott Street
(773) 687-9977
1401 N. Ashland Ave.
Chicago IL 60622