Sunday, January 1, 2017

The 12 Most Memorable Things I Ate In 2016

(12) Buckwheat scone from Crumb at the Green City Market  - real, full-on buckwheat flavor without sacrificing texture.  Impressive.

(11) Eggplant parm sandwich at Lucia - bright flavored sauce, breading stayed crisp for a long time and didn't overwhelm flavor of the eggplant.

(10) Smoked paprika and cheddar croissant from Crumble & Flake in Seattle - I'm not usually a fan of attempts to mess with a croissant, but this was remarkable.   

(9) Corn sundae at Spoon and Stable in Mpls - Hard to believe that dessert at this place could top what was already a tremendous meal, but it did.

 (8) Creamed hard boiled eggs with truffled mornay and toasted brioche at Taus Authentic -  decadence at its very best.

 (7) Gnocchi short rib ragu trattoria Ultimo - pillowy texture, light as a cloud with an intensely meaty sauce.  A real surprise from such a humble byob storefront.

(6) Blood orange flan at Salero - soft and luscious with intense acidity and sweet bitterness from a saba caramel

(5) Isaan sausage at Mott Street.  Juicy, funky, spicy - hard to believe that a hip place like this is making better Isaan sausage than the great, authentic Thai restaurants in Chicago.  But it's true.

(4) Clams with Chinese sausage in some kind of amazing broth at Bad Saint in Washington DC.  All around, perhaps my favorite meal of the year.  The hype is completely justified.

(3) Chermoula marinated sturgeon at Honey's - served with a charred tomato vinaigrette - a dish that had both intensity and finesse.  The most memorable thing at what was my favorite new Chicago restaurant of the year.  The chestnut pasta with truffles was almost as good.

(2) Tomato salad at The Loyalist - height of season tomatoes with surprising bits of pear that worked wonderfully.  An amazing salad, though they kept it on the menu a week too long.  Not as good second time, early fall when local tomatoes were just OK.

(1) Fries at Roister - yes, fries are at the very top of my list.  These were fried so perfectly and had such great potato flavor that that might have made the list even without the visually mesmerizing and utterly delicious bonito flakes that took them over the top.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, you’ve got to live in the moment - one second to stop at a corner to contemplate which way to turn will get you trampled by a crowd or flattened by a bus.  Even my NYC roots could not prepare me for how fast everything moves in Hong Kong, and I find myself on edge almost constantly.  I’ve adapted by becoming very reactive, which includes the way I’ve described the food.  In one moment I’m in awe of how vibrant and fresh things are, and in the next I’m shocked by how tired, processed and bland much of it seems.
The street-style markets here are amazing.  Food that is literally alive is everywhere, frequently killed on the spot and cooked before your eyes.  I expect and have experienced that kind of freshness on the shores of Mexican beaches, but I was not prepared for it in such an intensely urban setting.  It’s really something to  watch skilled fishmongers pull twitching creatures from a  seawater tank, clean them precisely in seconds, then hand them to a partner who puts them on a  stick and fries or boils them before handing it over to you, all in a matter of about 4 minutes. 
This setting produces one of the best bites of food I’ve ever had.  It was a 4-inch piece of octopus that had been skewered and par-cooked.  When I ordered, it was dunked for about a minute into intensely spiced boiling liquid, redolent with Szechuan pepper and star anise which adhered to the sea creature the way the spices do to crawfish at the best Louisiana boils.  It was tender and tasted so fresh, with the sweet flavor of the octopus somehow able to stand up to all of that spice.  $1.50 bought me a food memory I’ll never forget. 
I’ve appreciated the food recommendations I’ve gotten from friends who have been to Hong Kong, and have followed some of them with good success.  But when I travel, I also like to follow my nose and the locals.  I look for crowds, see what they’re eating, and join them.  This is a dangerous method in Hong Kong.  There are a lot of people here who like terrible food.  Some of the most crowded spots are serving mushy spaghetti with ketchup sauce (that’s literally what it is) or limp elbow macaroni with cheap hot dogs in bland broth.  These people are not tourists.  Most of the above is served in places that have no English menu, and you won’t find a Caucasian face in sight.  It’s authentic Hong Kong cuisine, perhaps even the archetype.  I tried one of these places after waiting 20 minutes for a seat, and while I’m glad to have experienced this part of HK culture, suffice to say that the food tastes precisely as it sounds.
You can’t go to Hong Kong without having dim sum, and I did so at a super-crowded spot called The Dim Sum Corner, which I stumbled upon while walking around.  Despite the unusually English name, the place didn’t seem touristy at all – it was teeming with local businessperson-types who were waiting in line for a seat at prime lunch hour.  I had standards that I get regularly at dim sum places back home: egg custard buns, shumai, steamed rice rolls, and turnip cake.  I wanted to see if these standards were better at a mid-tier HK place than they are back home.  Better doesn’t begin to describe it.  This was whole different league.   The turnip cake was especially delicious, with a more varied, interesting texture on account of unprocessed turnip pieces, and more robust seafood flavor than I’m used to.  The egg custard bun was oozing in a way that I haven’t seen before, and the liquefied yolk was contained by dough that’s much thinner than what I’ve seen before.  A greater level of skill went into all the food here, and it showed.
I had a few higher end meals too, which ran the gamut from disappointing to revelatory, with one sort of in between.  A ha-ha-named place called Ho Lee Fook has been touted quite a bit by local bloggers, but its version of Modern Chinese food tasted just like regular Chinese food to me, at quintuple the price in a dungeon-like setting with horrible Springsteen music playing.  Ronin, a supposedly-izakaya style seafood place from a much celebrated chef who used to work at Masa had some really delicious bites (oysters with cucumber-pear juice and yuzu kosho), but also a few elements that seemed more style-over-substance (“mandarin salt” served on the side of some fish tempura).  Ronin staff were also annoying about upselling luxe ingredients and drinks (yes, I like uni, but I’m not ordering your tiny $30 uni supplement and stop asking already).  The revelatory meal was at a place called Serge et le Phoque, run by a 2-Michelen-starred French chef and his Parisian business partner who came to Hong Kong a couple of years ago.  The restaurant has an all-French wine list and French-accented staff, but the food transcends borders, with a focus on Japanese ingredients and styles perhaps more than anything else.  Every morsel of food I tasted at this place was spectacular, highlighted by things like dried fugu skin with teriyaki glaze, sea bass with a “risotto” made from land-based seaweed (samphire) cut into rice-sized bits, and an amazing lemon custard served with capsicum jelly and tarragon.
I’ve eaten more noteworthy things that I’ll lump together here for the sake of expedience.  Pineapple buns (which don’t have any pineapple) are really wonderful, and are described well here: .  Portland Street in Kowloon is a mecca of diverse cheap eateries, and the one I settled into was a Yunannese places serving “mountain goat noodle soup,” a giant, $4 bowl of very gamey deliciousness.  Egg custard tarts are everywhere, and the ones I’ve tried at random bakeries have been OK, but surprisingly not as good as the ones at Cai back in Chicago.
Hong Kong is massive and dense, and it’s impossible to make much of a dent in the city’s food with just a few days.  I’m glad to have heeded bits of advice from people, but nothing beats the enjoyment of just wandering around and trying what looks good or interesting.  I even loved the experience of sharing a table (this is how it’s done in HK –people just sit wherever there’s a chair) with a cigarette-smoking cab driver while eating terrible macaroni soup.

Monday, February 9, 2015


Our remarkably ill-conceived first dish at Formento’s was an unfortunately good predictor of what was to come.  Italian-American pizzerias and restaurants have been serving pretty much the same garlic bread for decades.  Slice open some bread, spread garlic butter on an exposed side, and toast it.  Simple enough, and undeniably tasty.  For $5, I knew Formento’s would do something to try to improve on this standard.  Use especially good, fresh, house-baked bread perhaps.  Maybe some kind of special organic garlic.  What I didn’t think is that they would utterly reinvent the dish in a way that made it impossible to eat.  Instead of cutting the loaf open and toasting it, they served a whole loaf, untoasted and scored so that the “slices” came just halfway down the loaf.  Then, inexplicably, a server lifted a carafe with some kind of thick, emulsified garlic sauce and started pouring it over the top and between the crevices.  I wanted to scream at him to stop, or grab the carafe from his hands.  But it was too late.  He had created a gooey, Cinnabon-style mess.  When a manager came by to ask about our meal, I asked her how we were supposed to have eaten the garlic bread.  Some people try a knife and fork, she said.  Others try with their hands but fail.  She didn’t really know either.

Formento’s tried to improve on eggplant parm too.  The downfall of many versions of this dish is that the fried eggplant quickly becomes soggy under layers of sauce and cheese.  Formento’s came up with a way to prevent that from happening: burn the hell out of the breading in the deep fryer.  It stayed crispy.  I’ll give them that.

Speaking of soggy, that’s the way to describe the Caesar salad at Formento’s  A Caesar salad is crisp.  It’s the defining principle.  Formento’s used too much of the leafy green part of romaine lettuce, and way overdressed it .  With plenty of whole anchovies on top, this dish was a fishy swamp.  Most bizarrely, instead of serving croutons on the salad, they served a block of some kind of gooey, bread-pudding-like thing which had been pan fried or something to give it a dark color on the outside.  Croutons rock on a Caesar salad, Formento’s.  If you want to upgrade a Caesar salad, just make the best damned croutons in the universe.  Not pudding.

The breading on the fried calamari was like beach sand.  So dry and chalky.  The good thing about that is that the texture made the breading easy enough to wipe away, revealing calamari that was tender and delicious.  They plated it with a sauce that tasted like ketchup.   Scrape off the breading, avoid the sauce, and squeeze some lemon over the top, and this was the one dish of the evening which could be rendered palatable.

The same cannot be said of the orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage, which I could not stomach after 2 bites.  The homemade pasta was very poorly executed.  It was gummy.  It was swimming in some kind of thickened, overly acidic wine sauce.  What surprised me most about it though was that the presentation revealed that the kitchen does not understand what this pasta shape is about.  The point of orecchiette is that the little cups are great at catching bits of stuff that form the dressing.  That’s why sausage works so well, as long as it’s crumbled.  Crumbled bits of sausage inside little orecchiette cups are one of life’s great joys.  Formento’s decided to “update” this dish by using 2-inch-long pieces of sausage instead of the crumbled kind.  With some of the other failures of the evening, I could perhaps chalk them up to growing pains of a new restaurant.  This one was more disturbing though, as it showed an utter lack of understanding of the fundamentals of Italian cooking. 

A day after dinner, I read this recap of a Formento’s preview dinner that my friend Mike Gebert attended.  Two of the dished I had are pictured there.  At the preview dinner, the garlic bread looked like normal garlic bread, and the Caesar Salad had actual croutons.  Why they changed these things, I have no idea.  But maybe there is some hope that they’ll go back to the old ways and get this place figured out. 


Monday, December 29, 2014


I was confused by conflicting media and patron reports about berrista, so I decided to try it for myself to set the record straight.  I suspect that many professional writers who have written about the place so far have not actually been there.  That's probably fine if you're just reporting objectively about a new opening, but I have a problem with it when you report subjective descriptions about a donut being "delicious" and another item being a "must-try dish".  Anyway, that's a subject for a later post.

Much of the berrista hoopla has been about its use of the miracle berry.  Some reports claim that the berry powder is cooked into the food.  Others say that you take the berry first, then eat the food.  The latter is correct.  According to the guy at the counter and a cook in the back, the berry is not cooked into anything on the menu. 

There are media reports that say the whole menu is designed to go with the berry.  According to the same 2 guys above, that's not really true.  For most of the stuff, they say the berry wouldn't have any effect.  The place also has a menu board with icons next to the items that are supposed to be good with the berry.  According to the description, these items are good with or without the berry, but the berry works with them.  Most of the menu items don't have an icon.  That said, I ate part of a "monte cristo panini," and while it didn't have an icon, I can't imagine that the lifeless, watery strawberry jam served wasn't made with the berry in mind.  So who knows? 

All of the pastries have the miracle berry icon next to them. I tried what was described as an orange-cream donut with chocolate frosting, and also a piece of raspberry coffee cake.  I ate part of each before the berry, then part of each after the berry, which is available for purchase for 50 cents.  Before the berry, the donut had absolutely no orange flavor, and left an intensely bitter, unsweetened-chocolate aftertaste.  It was weirdly spongy.  The coffee cake had the texture of playdough, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to swallow it.  There was also a heavily spiced cream cheese frosting that tasted like the Grinch got to the Christmas dessert.  Before the berry, these were probably the worst pastries I've ever tasted.

After the berry, the transformation was minimal.  The bitter donut aftertaste was lessened somewhat, but there was still no orange flavor.  The coffee cake was still highly unpleasant.  Concerned that I had eaten the berry the wrong way or had gotten a dud, I cut open a lemon and ate a slice.  Nope. Sure enough, the lemon tasted like sweet lemonade.  Delicious.  In fact, I ate the whole darn thing by itself in an effort to get the taste of those pastries out of my mouth.

4219 W Irving Park Rd
Chicago, IL 60641

Monday, August 11, 2014

Knife & Tine

When you hear that the chef is a Moto alumnus, you may think of food in test tubes or chemistry tricks that make sour things taste sweet.   That’s what I thought before I ate at Baume and Brix last year, but here’s what I know now: this particular Moto alumnus uses straightforward, varied cooking techniques to get the absolute best out of seasonal vegetables.  Sure, there are some creative liberties taken too, but at its core, Nate Parks’ food simply brings out the best in well-chosen ingredients.

“Charred sweet pepper bisque” tasted like just that.  Wonderfully sweet peppers with subtle smokiness, enlivened by some herb oil and thinly sliced leeks.  A somewhat thick, mouth-coating texture without tasting heavy.  Maybe there was some fancy Moto-esque thermomolecular reverse lipidation or something going on.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that this was a delicious, warming bowl of soup.

Cauliflower risotto showed further evidence that if there’s one “trick” Park has mastered, it is charring vegetables.  The charred purple florets that garnished this dish were sensational.  Even more impressive was the variety of ways in which cauliflower had been prepared, each bringing its own element to balance out the others.  There were tiny pickled white florets to provide tartness, dried cauliflower chips that tasted quite sweet, and the charred purple florets bringing more sweetness and a touch of bitter.  Plumped golden raisins and a scant scattering of walnut pieces complemented it all fantastically.  As good as this dish tasted, it was even more of a marvel to look at, with a color palate reminiscent of those remarkable photos floating around of Alain Passard’s food.

On the more “out there” side of the menu, Parks is serving something called “Pimento Burrata”.  Burrata is one of those fantastic, just-leave-it-alone products, such that this was a dish about which I had plenty of skepticism.  It appeared that the inside, creamy part of the burrata had been removed, blended with elements of pimento cheese, and then stuffed back into the burrata skin, along with a crispy, thin piece of dark rye inserted at the equator.  Mixed greens with pimento vinaigrette surrounded the alien-ish cheese ball.  Was it good?  Yeah, it was quite compelling, actually.  Better than a plain ball of burrata with, say, a tomato?  Probably not, but you can only that so many times in a summer.

The only dish that I wouldn’t order again unless it changes was the Sweet Corn Humitas.  The flavors here were wonderful, but texturally, it just didn’t work for me.  The humitas were formed into U10 scallop sized discs, then seared in a pan before serving.  They were dry and dense.  Again, excellent flavor, but I think this one could use some tinkering.
Save room for dessert.  It’s a limited menu of just a few pies, but if the dutch apple pie I tried is representative, you don’t want to miss it.  As good as any apple pie in town.  It’s big enough for 4 people to share, or for two to order and take home a piece for breakfast.

As with Baume and Brix, Knife & Tine has an interesting wine list with a focus on less common domestic places such as Michigan and New York State.  We had a remarkable $38 bottle of Finger Lakes chardonnay that paired very with the food.  It’s nice to see a place like this doing something a little different than the norm with the wine list.
The high ceilings and comfortable table spacing make this a very nice place to linger over a meal.  Service was attentive without being overbearing.  A couple of people who looked like owners or managers came by to check on us, and they seemed genuine about the desire for feedback, and their hope to become a neighborhood fixture.  I enjoyed Knife & Tine a lot, and will do my part to help them make sure that happens.

Knife & Tine
1417 W Fullerton Ave, Chicago, IL 60614
773) 697-8311

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

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