Monday, July 30, 2012

A scene and a pizza at Nellcote

I'm going to Vegas in a few days, and I think Sunday brunch at Nellcote will have prepared me well. At Nellcote it's a party all day long, which includes a short-skirt wearing DJ blaring dance music from a raised, caged booth during the early afternoon. I had a beer and bobbed my head to the beat while smirking at the ridiculousness of this scene, wondering who supplied the ecstasy to all of these people who seemed to still be on their Saturday night highs.

I also had a pizza. A simple one with buffalo mozzarella, sauce and basil. The sauce was a smooth, thick, puree that I loved, with high acid balancing terrific natural sweetness. I don't know what brand of tomatoes they're using, but it's either better than anyone else's or the kitchen is doing something to make it taste that way. Neither the cheese nor crust struck me as anything special, and I thought the latter was dry and overdone. It was a homogenous, almost crackery-crisp texture throughout. Fresh basil had been cooked onto the pizza, so it was browned and brittle at the edges when it came out. I prefer pizzas with fresh basil added after the cooking is done.

If this has sounded negative, I guess that's an accurate idea of where my feelings about Nellcote lean. But the pizza wasn't bad, and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't an intoxicating vibe about the place. There have been eras of my life where I suspect Nellcote would have been exactly what I was after.

833 West Randolph Street
(312) 432-0500

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bland on Bland at Grahamwich

Mush on mush was the other title I considered. This is the green garbanzo sandwich at grahamwich, advertised as having "cous cous + yogurt raita + preserved lemon + shredded carrots + flatbread". The cous cous was clumpy and heavy. The raita lacked tang. There were no carrots to be found. The flatbread was an insipid, cold pita that likely came from a defrosted batch of wholesale foodservice product, as I caught the word "Olympia" on the bag. They're a local company, but not the kind of local that implies anything artisan, or even particularly good. The garbanzos themselves were the opposite of the great-textured ones I described in my post about Stout Barrel House. These were soft, under-seasoned and uninteresting.  A perfect match for the rest of the sandwich, I suppose.  It was served, inexplicably, with a side of sweet, thin peanut sauce.

Followers of my blog know that there is some potential for bias when I post about Graham Elliott. Some will probably think I went to lunch today for the sole purpose of finding something I could bash.  That's not the case.  I indeed hoped to find something interesting at grahamwich about which I could post, but my main purpose, as someone who works a few blocks away in an area with scant quick-service and good lunch options, was to try to add another place to the rotation.  Not gonna happen.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Stout Barrel House and Galley

Though I’m sometimes cynical about the food scene, one can’t help but think things have changed for the better when a stereotypical sports bar - “a total bro place” as a friend described it – serves food that’s as real as at Stout Barrelhouse.  Stout has more big screen TV’s than you can count, the servers are all young, cute and female, and the tables are high tops.  It’s a sharp-looking place, but I wouldn’t be able to differentiate it from some Depaul-area sports bar.  Until I tasted the food.

On my first visit I ordered what you’re supposed to order at a sports bar: the burger.  Served on a thoroughly buttered, well-toasted potato bun, this was a loose, juicy patty with a nice exterior crust.  It was served with mustard aioli, some barely-melted sharp white cheddar and peppery arugula – pungent, quality ingredients that told me someone in the kitchen is sourcing products with care.  On the side were some picture perfect fries – crisp on the outside, potatoey in the center and well-salted.  I also ordered the house pickles -a seasonal assortment of carrots, radishes and more stuff that tasted as if it had come straight from the farmer’s market.

On visit two I ordered house made lamb sausage, a flavorful, loosely formed link cut into thirds and served as 3 mini sandwiches inside New England style split, toasted bun thirds. Each mini sandwich was topped with a couple of pieces of curried cauliflower, with crunch and intense flavor that served as a delicious reminder that the chef is getting his produce from a good source.  If I had to quibble, I’d note that though each component was delicious they were constructed in a way that was tough to eat – I couldn’t really treat the sandwich as a sandwich, needing instead to pull it apart and eat each delicious component on its own.  Perhaps the best part of this dish was a refreshing chickpea salad with beans that had that just-right, not-quite-crisp, and definitely not mushy, texture.

Both of my visits were on a Friday afternoon, the only weekday that Stout is open for lunch.  At that time the dining room was pretty sparsely filled with what appeared mostly to be neighborhood business people.  The staff was relaxed, friendly and efficient, though in food knowledge terms definitely more like the people you’d expect to see working in a sports bar than those you might expect at a chef-driven restaurant.

I will not suggest that Stout is a must-visit Chicago restaurant, but if you find yourself in the mood for a sit-down, casual lunch in the neighborhood I can’t think of anything better.  And on the list of places with a gazillion giant TV’s tuned into sports, I’d have a hard time believing there’s one with better food than this.

Stout Barrel House and Galley
642 North Clark Street  
(312) 475-1390

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Day One at Piccolo Sogno Due

There is some interesting-sounding stuff on the Piccolo Sogno Due menu, including bread made with squid ink, raw fish rolled into pasta sheets with what looks like spicy mayo, and a dish that features house made saba. Some items sound more appealing (the bread) than others (the maki-like tuna tartare), but none of it worked particularly well for me.

Twice during lunch, I had to spit food from my mouth into a napkin. The first spit yielded a pebble-sized, rock hard piece of bone or stone from a bite of lamb meatballs, for which I suspect the meat had been ground in house. The second spit produced an impossible-to-chew, plasticky layer of artichoke that had been part of a pasta dish with clams, and should have been peeled off during prep.

Though it's hard to forgive such carelessness - even on a restaurant's opening day - I would have been inclined to do so had the rest of the food showed more promise. I detected no sea flavor in the aforementioned squid ink baguette, but it did deliver an unpalatable overdose of salt. That pasta dish with the tough artichokes also had tiny, mushy clams and a lot of butter sauce that just pooled at the bottom of the plate rather than adhere to and flavor the linguine. The garlic slivers were sweet and nicely toasted, at least. Aside from the near tooth breaking bit in the lamb meatballs they were fine, if a little tougher and denser than I would have liked.

It's a 100 degrees out today, so when my server came over to take a drink order, I requested a Spritz, which I am inclined to do on days like this. A few minutes later he came back to report that the bartender gave him a look that made him feel like an alien when he asked her for the drink. Neither of them had any idea what a Spritz is, which is OK I guess; but was there not someone on staff at this completely empty, massive restaurant run by vastly experienced Italian restaurateurs who could have explained it? Could someone have googled it instead of just saying "Can I get you a prosecco instead?"

A very nice guy in chefs whites, who I assumed was Tony Priolo, and a couple of men in expensive-looking suits spent the latter part of my meal glad handing people they knew around the now-filling-up dining room, and I was reminded of the time I ate at The Pump Room when it first opened. Back then, with Jean George doing similar glad handing I wondered what power Brad Phillips - whose cooking I like a lot - really had over the menu. He didn't last, of course, but perhaps Todd Stein's experience working for the Marriott and some famous chef's Las Vegas outpost will better prepare him for what looked to me like a similar set-up.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Restaurant Ecuador

Years ago, an Ecuadorian cab driver recommended Restaurant Ecuador to me. I kept it on my radar for a few months, but it closed down before I could get there. A few days ago around lunchtime, I noticed a few people in and around the tiny storefront, so I parked and walked into a bustling restaurant with a 20 minute wait for one of it’s dozen-or-so tables at 1:30PM on a weekday afternoon. This seemed like a very good sign.

That cab driver years ago lauded Restaurant Ecuador’s seafood, and said that the best ordering strategy was to simply ask the staff what’s freshest that day. That sounded like sound advice, so even though I had already learned that the place is now under completely new ownership, I went with it. My server told me that the corvina had just come in that morning, and the owner was in back right now cutting it into steaks for the corvina frita, which she recommended with rice and plantains. An outstanding suggestion. The corvina had a light coating of flour that had been pan-fried crisp, with juicy, fresh-tasting flesh under the surface. Crisp iceberg shreds with lightly pickled/ marinated onions were a refreshing counterpoint. The rice was somewhat sticky, which may or may not be an intentional style in Ecuadorian cuisine. Either way, it seemed to work well to stab a forkful sticky rice and eat it layered-kabob-style on the same fork with a piece of fish and a marinated onion piece.

Even better than the excellent fish was the bolon de verde I ordered as an appetizer. This very substantial $2.50 oval of mashed green plantain, butter, onion and very crispy chicharrones was flavorful, and a textural pleasure to eat. After being stuffed and rolled, the ovals are oven roasted and basted frequently with lard to crisp up the exterior. It’s a wonderful snack, but if you order it as a starter you really want to share it with at least one more person. I could see the bolon de verde being an excellent meal on it’s own, and in fact my server explained that in Ecuador it is a coastal specialty that’s eaten most frequently for breakfast.

The sense I got from talking to a bunch of congenial patrons who took my struggles to communicate in Spanish with good humor is that while there are numerous Ecuadorian restaurants in Chicago, this is the one where Ecuadorian “foodies” congregate. One gentleman who teaches at a high school across town told me that he is here almost every day. When his coworkers chided him for never joining them, even when they go to an Ecuadorian place a few blocks from the school, he explained that “It’s easier to drive across town for food like this than it is to fly home.” The menu at restaurant Ecuador is expansive, and a young couple told me that in the evenings the place is often filled with a lively crowd taking full advantage of the byob policy. That sounds like fun to me, and I’ll definitely be back.

Restaurant Ecuador
2923 W Diversey Ave
(773) 342-7870