Friday, April 26, 2013

Foods I Like (Yes, you read that right)

People tell me that I have a reputation for hating everything.  Though the pages of this blog already show that such criticism is unfounded, I’m devoting this whole post to a bunch of stuff I’ve had and liked recently.  It’s the first beautiful Spring Friday of 2013.  Here’s a little extra sunshine:

Jerk wings and festival from Jerk – Modern Jamaican Grill Food Truck.  This truck is one of the first in Chicago to cook onboard, and they’re doing a fantastic job with a simple menu that uses just a grill and a deep fryer.  Wings are juicy and fresh, and have hot, no-holds-barred jerk seasoning with an especially  potent garlic component.  Hand-cut fries are well-seasoned but a little limp and greasy.  Skip those and opt instead for a side of festival  - crisp, slightly sweet corn fritters that do a great job cooling down all that spice.

Smoked whitefish Caesar salad from Bavettes.  Most of the time when people mess around with toppings on a Caesar salad, they ruin a good thing.  The salty, slightly-smoky fish here was an exception.  It tasted great and had a firm enough texture to hand up to the crisp greens.  This was a well-executed salad with a little something to take it up several notches.  This dish stood out even at a meal where I liked just about everything that was served (except the” creamed spinach”, which had cream and spinach, but was not creamed spinach).   

Lentil soup at Salam.  The food at Salam is generally much better than at any other local place serving similar food, and this soup is a real highlight.  It has a refined, creamy, extra-strained texture you’d expect at a French restaurant, with lightness and balance unmatched by other lentil soups.  I love it, and it’s my 3 year old’s favorite delivery food (mango lassi is a beverage, not a food).

Smoked salmon at Jam.  I will never understand why Jam serves a piece of frosted chocolate cake as an amuse bouche for dishes like this, but recently I’ve been able to put that incongruity aside and simply enjoy the good things about the place.  The smoked salmon dish is a real standout.  House-smoked fish with great flavor and texture, a brilliant bĂ©arnaise sauce, crisp potato pancakes, gorgeous, gooey poached eggs, and some nice crunch from salsify slaw.  A dish of beautifully contrasting colors and complementary flavors.

Granduca cheese from JP Graziano.  This Sardinian pecorino is incredible.  It’s hard and I suspect intended mainly for grating, but I’ve just been eating it straight with young, cheap Southern Italian wines.  It’s very nutty and only mildly salty as compared with other pecorino cheeses, but what makes it so special is the underlying flavor of high-quality goat milk with complex, but not overpowering funk.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Jekyll & Hyde at Howells & Hood

If you order the seafood salad at a massive, corporate-looking sports bar at the bottom of a downtown Chicago office building, you deserve the mushy, tasteless fish with gloppy dressing you’re likely to get.  It is a marvel that at Howells & Hood, the dish rivals the best versions at seafood-focused restaurants in places like Boston and San Francisco.  Tender, well-charred octopus mixes with a variety of delicately poached shellfish, all adorned simply but robustly with lemon and oregano.  Eat this and you can reasonably imagine being at seaside restaurant in Sicily.  You’ll have to tune out the very-American couple next to you as they order their burgers to be made without salt, and the very American sorority girl a few feet away as she requests a round of Sex on the Beach for her table.
The good vs. evil theme suggested by my post title is inaccurate.  Howells & Hood is not 2 things.  It’s not 3 things, 4 things or 5 things.  Howells & Hood is everything.  It’s a restaurant for locavores, run by a chef who passionately espouses things like rooftop gardening and hyper-local cuisine.  It’s a sports bar for the heavy-drinking frat crowd, such as the ones who, during one of my visits, did shots of Jack and high fives every time their school’s basketball team hit a 3-pointer.  It’s the place where 14 office workers grab lunch together and ignore the gigantic beer list while they drink diet cokes and make fun of the boss.  It’s where tourists go to lay out their guidebooks before planning their Mag Mile shopping adventures.  It’s the spot for beer geeks who want to explore what must be the city’s largest tap beer list. Howells and Hood has high tops and low tops and medium-sized tops.  Indoor bars and outdoor bars.  Booths, tables, and semi-booth-tables.  It has everything.
Not surprisingly, Howells & Hood even has a burger.  A very, very bad burger.  At about 6 inches tall, this burger is inedible as a sandwich unless you pull some of the parts out first.  I started with the inch-thick onion rings, breaded so thickly that the batter inside was still gooey and raw.  I took out the tasteless tomato next, and then brushed off some of the slaw-like shredded lettuce.  I was barely able to get my mouth around the thing now.  Then I sneezed.  The pepper in this monstrosity was ground very coarsely, and there was so much of it that my nostrils were not able to cope.  The next flavor to hit me was carbon.  The exterior was blackened with a burnt crust that obliterated all other flavor.  I had ordered the burger medium rare and there was indeed a corner of the thing that was cooked that way.  The rest of the burger ranged wildly – parts of it were reddish pink and juicy, but more parts were totally grey and dry and there were some parts in between – signs of a cook that doesn’t understand how to manage a fire.
I’ve been to Howells & Hood several times, and for the most part I’ve liked the food.  The seafood salad is special, and I expect to find other gems as I continue exploring the menu.  Howells & Hood is everything, so it takes a bit of time to sort through it all to find the somethings you like.  I work steps away, and with the limited options for good food around, I will be happy to keep exploring.  One can eat at The Purple Pig only so many days in a row.
Howells & Hood
435 N Michigan Ave.  312-262-5310