Friday, May 25, 2012

French Fry Roundup (burgers and French food too). And A Couple of Diners

The proliferation of places that serve hand-cut fries made from real potatoes is, for the most part, a good thing. Not everyplace does them well, but 3 recent versions were enjoyable.

The Bad Apple
I've had these a few times, and though they've caused some divisiveness on LTHForum, I have found the Bad Apple's fries to be consistently good. They have a dark color that translates into toasty taste, and althought they're not particularly crisp, there is pleasant texture contrast between the exterior and the fluffy inside. As for the rest of The Bad Apple's food, including the much-praised burgers, I'm not a big fan. They're OK, but the meat seems way too lean for my liking. I do like the refreshing, healthy, herb-laced quinoa salad on offer.

These fries are crisper than the Bad Apple's, and just as tasty. Served with pungent horseradish aioli (available for the asking), these are a nice snack with Troquet's well-curated beer list. What I really love about Troquet though, is that 12 bucks buys you what is essentially a chef-prepared, French version of a "Meat n 3" (actually a Meat n 2 at Troquet). On one occasion, I chose a crisp-skinned, moist piece of trout. On another, it was a generous helping of delicious German sausage. Each $12 entree comes with a side of those fries and an excellent, subtely-dressed mixed green salad.

Burger Joint
This place's biggest claim to fame seems to be that it's open late enough for the area's drunken club-goers to get a greasy, late-night bite on weekends. It just so happens that they also serve what were the best darn fries of this whole recent lot. Very crisp on the outside, very potatoey and soft inside, and generously seasoned with salt. The Heinz ketchup on the side is a significant improvement over Bad Apple's housemade ketchup, too. I liked Burger Joint's juicy, meaty burger a lot too, though like many places, they are too afraid of the salt shaker.

A quick word about two recently opened "modern" diners. I stopped in at Au Cheval for a drink on my way to dinner elsewhere, and was surprised by how cozy the place felt, and how unfussy and untrendy the staff were. They poured a fine gin rickey, and I enjoyed my brief visit enough to plan a return for a meal. At Eggy's Diner I was pretty sure I'd be let down, as that's almost always what happens when The Hungry Hound tweets high praise for some new place and I follow in his footsteps. A glutton for punishment, I ordered some pastrami hash and it basically met my expectations. The darkness of the potatoes and onions added nice flavor, but the pastrami itself tasted cheap and bad. Worse, it was cut into little squares that were chewy and squeaked like fresh cheese curds. Even for diner hash, you need to slice pastrami against the grain before cutting it into smaller pieces. The haphazard knife work ruined the dish.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


My inclinations point me toward places with straight-up, not-necessarily-creative but well-executed food, where cooks respect delicious ingredients and treat them with care.  After a fantastic recent meal, Leopold took a spot on the short list of Chicago restaurants that meet these criteria.

I was struck the kitchen’s ability to magnify the flavor of already delicious produce.  This was especially evident with the treatment of mushrooms in two dishes: the seafood risotto and the pierogi.  The description of a seafood risotto with tomatoes and morels worried me, as I typically find that those two ingredients clash.  Here, however, the morel flavor dominated with intense earthiness, and the tomatoes played a very subtle background role, adding just a hint of acid and a good dose of natural sweetness.  The menu advertises that  the pierogi come with “woodland mushrooms”.  I am no expert on mushroom varieties, but these thin, delicate white mushrooms with tiny caps looked more like what I’ve seen called “beach mushrooms," and that was a pretty cool thing because beach mushrooms are tough to grow and not often found on local restaurant menus.  The last place I had them was at L20 under Laurent Gras, where they were rubbery and bland.  The mushrooms topping Leopold’s pierogi were spectacular.  They were buttery and tender with just a bit of snap to them, and had an incredible, unique and robust flavor.

A lot of care at Leopold goes into prepping ingredients and combining them in ways that make sense.  A big bowl of steamed mussels was completely devoid the grit and broken shells so often found in lesser versions, allowing the plump, tender meat and aromatic broth to shine without distraction.  In the above-mentioned seafood risotto, not only was the mushroom flavor intense and the rice cooked just right, but each of the several varieties of moist, fresh-tasting fish was timed well so that it cooked through without disintegrating or drying out.  Even a boring-sounding endive-apple salad starred on account of superb flavor and texture balancing, with pungent buttermilk-tarragon dressing and hazelnuts chopped finely enough to be incorporated into every bite, but not so finely that you forget that they’re actually hazelnuts.

To me waffles are a meal, not a dessert.  Normally I couldn’t imagine ordering a big waffle with ice cream to end a multi-course dinner, but I’m very glad we were hungry enough to make an exception at Leopold.  On my first visit to Leopold a couple of years ago, one of my companions was a friend of the house and the staff really wanted us to try the waffle.  We did, and I frankly thought it was badly burnt, dry and not worth eating.  Gladly I remembered that only after my wife and I received our waffle last week, because much has changed.  Never have I tasted a better waffle, with an incredibly crisp exterior that gave way to a tender, luscious interior.  With the fantastic bourbon-brown butter sauce, this was a dessert worth violating whatever one’s dessert-eating principles might be.

While much of Leopold’s menu has stalwarts that appear unchanged from my first visit, there were also a lot of seasonal things that must change frequently.  I look forward to multiple repeat visits.

1450 West Chicago Avenue

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Notes from NY

Despite what has surely been oodles of publicity about Eataly, I actually knew very little about itt.  Batali and Bastianich have certainly taken other projects seriously, but for whatever reason I half-expected this to be a mail-it-in, hype-over-substance capitalization of celebrity at the expense of the tourist wallet.  I was wrong, and blown away by the volume and quality of goods – everything from the raw fish and meat counters and charcuterie case to the pizza, pasta and wine restaurants looked fantastic.  I tasted only two things: an espresso, and some made-before-my-eyes fresh mozzarella.  Both were wonderful.  Here’s hoping that Chicago's soon-to-come version is something close to this.  It would have been nice if one of our own, like a Tony Mantuano, could have put together something serious like this, but we’ll take what we can get.

Moshe’s Falafel
Forget food lists, this cart on 46th and 6th should be on NYC’s  Top 10 Sites to Visit list.  Where else can you get falafel that are ultra-crunchy on the outside, airy and well-seasoned inside, and served on the street by long-white-bearded, yarmulke-wearing guy who looks about 110 years old?  The $2.50 admission price includes 4 big, delicious balls and some excellent tahini.  If your midtown hotel concierge doesn’t tell you about this place, he sucks.

I’m not sure where people go for bagels in NY these days.  I tried a couple of random places on the upper west side, near Amsterdam and 79th where my hotel was.  They were no better than the NY Bagel and Bialy stuff we get in Chicago.  One thing that NY bagel places definitely have over ours though is that they all know how to hand-slice nova to order.  That’s a pretty big deal.

Danny Meyer and Bill Clinton are in the same category of people I liked before they decided to write a book.  Both wrote self-important, long-winded drivel that seriously dampened my opinion of them.  I was so annoyed by Meyer’s book that I almost decided to boycott his restaurants.  That, of course, would have been silly.  Add Maialino to a list of NY favorites run by Meyer.  Pastas were particularly wonderful, with a black-pepper-heavy, very rich spaghetti carbonara being my favorite.  A whole rabbit dish where the kidneys and everything else were included prominently on the plate was also delicious.

Yakitori Totto
I liked the simple, grilled skewers of meat here, but I liked the setting even more.  It’s a bustling, crowded place, but once you settle in the staff treats you well, pours some beer, and there’s instant camaraderie with the people sitting around you.  Everyone at Totto – from families with kids to young people on first dates was having a great time, and the place emanated warmth that’s a refreshing retreat from the cold, pressure-filled intensity of NYC. 

Bar Boulud
This was easily the best food I had on my NYC trip.  Onion soup was dark, sweet and super-oniony, with a rich, gelatinous broth that I could not get enough of.  Lyonnaise salad included the crispest, freshest frisee with thick, pleasantly chewy lardoons and slices of chicken liver cooked just-right.  I’ve never had a better version.