Sunday, April 29, 2012

Frog n Snail

Frog n Snail is a beautiful, comfortable restaurant with roomy, gorgeous wood tables and terrific lighting that creates a simultaneously romantic, fun and practical ambience.  The staff were enthusiastic and friendly, and there were some delicious bites of food too.  So I hope that the missteps and bland dishes that stand out more in my mind right now were just new-restaurant kinks that will be worked out.

The best dish might have been the simplest: mussels cooked in a creamless, intensely citric and garlicky broth finished with absinthe and plenty of butter were the kind of dish you plan to share with companions, then subconsciously forget until they’re all gone.  Almost as good, the lyonnaise salad proved that in the deft hand of a chef who understand how to use it judiciously, black truffle oil can lend great complexity to a balanced, acidic dressing. Lardons, a runny poached egg on top and terrific French fries underneath make this a salad you might skip if you’re prepping, as a fair number of the beefy, skin-tight-shirt-wearing Frog n Snail clientele may have been, to participate in the Friday night shower show at Spin a couple of blocks away.

Unfortunately, my first bite of the night was a disastrous one.  The sweet pea risotto was woefully crunchy and chalky, having been either substantially undercooked or cooked too far in advance, allowed to dry out, and reheated improperly.  Restaurant risotto is often inferior to home cooked risotto on account of it being impractical for a restaurant cook on a busy weekend night to stir constantly while patiently adding liquid a little at time for 25 minutes, but there are techniques that manage this challenge while producing results far better than Frog n Snail’s.

The rest of the meal sat mostly in the middle of the mussels high and the risotto low.  A namesake dish of crisp, beautifully cooked frogs legs and minerally snails in a green peppercorn sauce showed excellent technique, but it was underseasoned and the frogs legs themselves were in especially desperate need of salt.  The broth in the French onion soup seemed too light in color and flavor, though some terrific, sweet spring peas lifted it, so maybe a certain light spring-ness was what the kitchen was going for with this traditionally rich, dark dish.  Two fish preparations – barramundi and trout – were good, though each seemed unfocused, with at least one too many ingredients.

For now Frog n Snail is byob, but a bartender said that will be changing soon with a cocktail list that he assured me would include “a lot of really awesome martinis”.  That, combined with the mixed bag of dishes, a well-meaning, hard working server who had no idea how to explain the word barigoule on the menu, and Spin shower show days that have long passed, left me doubtful that this will prove to be more than a very occasional spot for me.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Four Bowls, A Crock And A Jar

Four Bowls:

1) Salmon pasta with peas at Benny's Chop House. This disgusting thing was up there with the worst of Buca di Maggiano Garden. Limp, luke-warm noodles suffocating in a deep lake of heavy bisque flavored by dry bits of raunchy fish and starchy, tasteless peas. I should note that I once had a great steak at Benny's, served with an especially delicious Yorkshire pudding filled with oxtail jus. Why, you might ask, would I ever order pasta at a steak joint like this? According a prior visit's server, Benny's does or did share an executive chef with an Italian joint, and Italian cooking was, the server explained, the chef's true passion. She lauded the pastas in particular.

2) Seafood ramen at Ginza. Nausea and regret stemming from that Benny's bowl were cured by this one. The food at Ginza almost always has that effect on me, and this clean, light, seafood broth with fresh-tasting assortment including some of the plumpest, most delicious mussels in memory really did the trick.

3) Pea risotto at Markethouse. It's a shame that this place is where it is and doesn't do much to compensate, because the food always outshines the setting. The rice here was firm but gave easily to the bite, and was held in a creamy, buttery suspension flavored intensely by a wonderful pea puree. The peas themselves were tender and delicious, and the judiciously applied, earthy mushroom assortment were a nice little enhancement. As for the setting, for standard hotel-dining it's probably not bad; it's just that the restaurant absolutely screams WE'RE IN A HOTEL at you the whole time, from the name-plated staff and cheesy elevator music to the closed-off breakfast-cereal bar that sits prominently in the dining room during lunch and dinner service.

4) Linguini with clams at GT Fish & Oyster. I ate at Boka a few times when the GT chef was at the helm, and I always thought the food looked better than it tasted. I can't remember disliking anything, but every server's description that made me think, "Wow, that sounds fantastic," led to a taste that made me think, "Hmm., that's not bad." Would that this background info ended with me telling you that all has changed now that the chef has moved to a more casual place with less fine dining pretense. As with much of what I've had at Boka, the linguini was just too "refined" for me. The made-in-house pasta lacked the heartiness of dried, and I think of lingini with clams as a big, hearty dish. At GT it was loaded with butter - fine butter I'm sure - and the clams were quite good, but their flavor did not infuse the butter at all. In the end this was tender housemade pasta with an excellent butter sauce. Missing were toasty garlic, clam aroma wafting from the bowl, and good, pungent olive oil to finish the dish.

A Crock:

Chilaquiles at Xoco. Wood ovens may do great things for pizza and bread, but it turns out they are lousy at cooking chilaquiles. This crock of tortillas swam in liquid salsa, the two never coming together to improve one another. An egg or two which must have been pre-cooked before hitting the oven came out rubbery and dry atop the crock, once again not integrated at all into the dish. I understand that Xoco is limited by the fact that they don't have a stovetop or grill to use at service. What I don't understand is why, if that's the case, they chose to put something like chilaquiles on the menu.

A Jar:

Clam chowder at GT Fish & Oyster. This should have been called bacon-cream soup. Way too much heavily smoked pork in this chowder, and more of those tasty-enough clams that failed to infuse the broth in any discernible way. This looked and tasted like pure gimmick.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ribollita at Publican Quality Meats and Bar Toma. A Pizza Too

Ribollita is the humblest of soups - often a bunch of leftover stuff that’s about to go bad boiled into something hearty that fills the stomach for another meal. At home, I might might haphazardly throw it together out of pantry staples such as stale bread and wilting produce when I don’t feel like leaving the house, and if it comes out looking clumsy and tasting fair I’m OK with that. But when I order ribollita at a restaurant helmed by a famous chef I think I have a right to expect more. One such famous chef delivered on that expectation and then some, while another came up embarrassingly short.

Publican Quality Meats puts far more care into their ribollita than would your average Italian Grandma, and it shows. The broth is complex, with deep, porky flavor and tongue-tingling acidity. Each bean has retained its shape, and is creamy while maintaining a bit of pleasant bite. Kale, bread and other ingredients are cut thoughtfully into sizes that fit comfortably on a soup spoon, allowing the eater to focus on eating and enjoying rather than dissecting or, worse, choking. Perhaps best of all, the soup is topped at service with a hefty drizzle of some awfully good, pungent, fruity olive oil. At PQM, this humble soup is elevated into something immensely satisfying and special.

Bar Toma has been serving ribollita as a special. They need to stop. Plating this horrible bowl of salty, sloppy nothingness would embarrass any cook who tasted what PQM is offering. The broth in Bar Toma’s ribollita tastes like nothing but vinegar and salt. 5-inch strips of tough greens that are impossible to eat in any reasonable way fill the bowl, along with big globs of cheese and bread. This is a miserable bowl of food by any standards; that it comes from a restaurant named for the chef of Chicago’s most famous Italian restaurant is disturbing.

I posted some time ago about Bar Toma’s characterless pizza crust. A reviewer I like recently said positive things about it though, so I wondered if things had changed. Indeed, the crust on my more recent pizza was less bready, thinner, and texturally more interesting than the first time. Still not great, but better. Unfortunately, the kitchen’s sloppiness carried over from the soup to the pizza topping. As is apparent from the photo, sauce was applied in an extremely uneven way, leaving some pieces too saucy and others brittle and dry. The gimmicky tableside grating of dried oregano left a couple of ineble branches on the pie, and I think the anchovies should have been either sliced smaller and applied broadly, or rinsed of at least some of their unpalatable salinity.

If you’re one of those readers who just skip to the summary, here you go: Publican Quality Meats is wonderful. Bar Toma’s bad, careless cooking has placed it on my avoid-forever list. I'm sure they'll miss me.