Monday, May 19, 2014

Ceres Table - Lakeview

We sent about half the dishes back, uneaten.  Grilled octopus had good flavors on the plate, but I chewed for a good 30 seconds before spitting it into my napkin and deciding that the flavors were not worth the choking hazard.  Two pasta dishes were the worst I can ever recalling receiving at a restaurant of this supposed caliber.  Spaghetti nero was overcooked to complete mush, and was swimming in a lagoon of mucilaginous mud.  The dish had the precise texture of something you’d pour from a can of Chef Boy R Dee.  Linguine alla chitarra had so many problems that I’m not sure where to begin.  First of all, it was not linguine.  It was angel hair pasta.  It too was woefully overcooked and served in a congealed state such that when I put my fork in to twirl out a few strands, the entire thing lifted off the bowl in one solid chunk.  I am not exaggerating.  It was truly horrible.
 
Our server at Ceres Table was a polished professional, with good knowledge about the menu and a clear passion for food.  I was embarrassed for her every time we brought an issue to her attention.  She’d clearly worked in successful restaurants and took pride in her job.  I wonder if she is trying to figure out how the heck to get out of this horror show before it puts a black mark on her career.

The manager she kept bringing over to our table seemed to be trying his best too, but he didn’t execute quite as well.  After a gap between our first course and second, he came over to explain that the crudo we ordered had been 86’d.  With his apologies, he said he was going to bring something over to us “on the house” to make up for it.  That never happened.  Between that incident and the multiple times he’d come to our table in response to us sending dishes back uneaten, we’d seen each other enough that by the end of the night, we all knew it was over.  He apologized again for all of the mishaps, and said he really wanted to bring us something – anything we wanted – to make up for it.  He practically pleaded with me to ask for something, but I think we both knew that it just needed to end.  The last thing I wanted at that point was to get another dish that I’d have to send back.
We didn’t starve at Ceres Table, as our meal started with a hefty portion of burrata, wax beans and bread, all of which was delicious and filling.  After that bright initial note, it was hard to believe the steep downturn the rest of the meal took.  I’m trying to think of a way to wrap this post up with something hopeful.  But no, the level of ineptitude I experienced last night offers not even a glimpse of hope about this place. 

Ceres Table
3124 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL 60657
773-922-4020

Monday, April 28, 2014

Yum Cha

From a quick scan of media reports, I gather that Yum Cha is a collaboration between a celebrity chef called The Food Buddha, a couple of suburban restaurateurs, and  Phoenix Restaurant, the much-loved traditional dimsum restaurant in Chinatown.  Certainly there were hallmarks of all three when I ate there.  The Buddha, I presume, is responsible for lily-gilding stunts such as topping classic Chinese egg tarts with foie gras.  The suburban restaurateurs are probably the ones that pushed for the shredded lettuce salad with every lunch entrĂ©e.  And Phoenix Restaurant, I guess, is the partner that teaches Yum Cha how to serve a fairly broad selection of traditional dimsum offerings.  If this type of please-everyone approach scares you, as it probably should, let me assure you that as long as you stay focused on what that third partner is bringing to Yum Cha’s table, you’ll be OK.  The traditional dimsum here is quite good. 

I tried a few different varieties of steamed dumplings, and all were excellent.  Har gow (shrimp dumplings) were perhaps not as translucent as the best versions, but the wrappers were still light, while managing to hold together without sticking to the paper in the steamer basket.  As with all of the steamed dumplings at Yum Cha, the filling was well-seasoned and not overcooked, as lesser versions can be.  Chive, scallop and leek dumplings were more translucent and delicate, and even more flavorful than the har gow.  Best of all was what the menu called “Giant seafood and pork dumpling in broth,” which had an extremely delicate wrapper enclosing firm, delicious filling, served in a piping hot little pot of excellent chicken stock with a film of chicken fat glistening at the top.

Fried items were more of a mixed bag.  Fried sesame balls were outstanding, with a crisp, toasty exterior giving way to a glutinous layer and then some not-too-sweet, tasty bean paste.  Pan fried vegetable rolls, on the other hand, were greasy and bland.  There are two kinds of fried vegetable rolls at Yum Cha – the greasy, bland pan fried ones, and others that were called “crispy soy curd vegetable rolls,” which were texturally more pleasing, and had some good, earthy mushroom flavor.  Go for those.
I’ve seen pictures of the Food Buddha.  He has an infectious smile.  I’ve seen video interviews.  He’s engaging.  You want to like him.  You want to eat his food.  So, you might think, if he puts foie gras on a traditional egg custard tart and triples the price, it must be worth it, right?  Wrong.  The foie gras slivers were so tiny that I couldn’t even taste them.  The $11.95 foie gras egg tarts at Yum Cha taste exactly like the $3.95 egg tarts.  Don’t be convinced by the Buddah’s oxtail potstickers either.  The filling has the mushy texture of canned pet food, and the $11.95 price is nearly triple the price of the vastly superior traditional steamed dumplings, for the same serving size.

I joked on Twitter that heading east, you’d have to travel at least 150 miles to find a Chinese restaurant on par with Yum Cha (the restaurant overlooks lake Michigan).  The reality is that this is the best Chinese restaurant within a pretty big range north, south and west too.  It blows away Tony Hu’s first attempt to bring a bit of Chinatown to downtown Chicago, and it should be a most-welcomed restaurant for anyone who lives or works in the area.
Yum Cha
333 E Randolph St
Chicago, IL 60601
(312) 946-8885

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