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

Monday, March 24, 2014

Nico Osteria

Dinner at Nico probably costs about the same as dinner across the street at Gibson’s, which ought to make one feel quite foolish for eating at the latter.  There were some exquisite bites at dinner last night, but I still left feeling the way I always feel when I eat near Rush & Division.  Nico fits right into a neighborhood where the people and the restaurants are just not my speed.
We started with a striped jack crudo.  Four paper-thin, miniature slices of fish totaling maybe an ounce in weight were topped with radishes, chiles and lemon oil, all of which complemented the fatty, mackerel-like flesh quite well.  It was fantastic, but $20 for what amounted to an amuse-bouche-sized serving of raw fish was tough to swallow.

I had the same problem with the lobster spaghetti, though this time I started to feel as if I was being genuinely conned.  We were told about the $45 price in advance (it’s listed as MP on the menu), but the server described it as a 1-1.5 pound lobster cooked with classic stuff and removed from the shell before stuffed back in, its roe then tossed with the pasta along with other stuff from the cooking.  This was no 1-1.5 pound lobster.  It looked like one of those langoustines you get at Mexican restaurants.  Half a pound, three-quarters at most.  Maybe 4 or 5 forkfuls of meat.  I’ll take part of the blame for being enough of a rube to order something like this, but they didn’t have to take advantage so blatantly.
If dishonesty was the problem with the lobster, it was the opposite that really baffled me with the fritto misto, which last night included razor clams, oysters, and some kind of white fish.  When the dish arrived I popped a fried oyster in my mouth, and the server came over at that moment to ask how everything was.  As I nodded with approval, he gave what would turn out to be the first of two very strange explanations of this dish.  “Yeah,” he said, “We got some pre-shucked oysters in by mistake, and thought, what the heck are we going to do with these?”  He explained that they contemplated sending them back to the purveyor, but then the chef said “What the heck, let’s just throw them into the fritto misto.”  That’s the $25 fritto misto, in case you’re wondering.

It got worse.  We kept eating the fritto misto, which was all pretty good if a bit too greasy, and he came by again to inquire about how we liked it.  I think I said something like “It’s quite good,” to which he replied, “Yeah, we use the same fantastic fish we use for the crudos in the fritto misto.  When they’re not fresh enough to serve as crudos anymore, they become fritto misto.”  Did he really say that?  As I’m typing it now, I have the same incredulous look on my face as I had in the restaurant, with what now tasted like a perhaps-just-a-little-rancid piece of fish in my mouth.  But yes, I’m sure about it.  That’s what he said.  For better or worse, we’d lost our appetite for fried fish at that point, and the rest was taken away by the runner.
Too full for pastry (or perhaps too queasy), we opted for a couple of small scoops of ice cream and sorbet to end the meal.  Both were disasters.  Blood orange sorbet was loaded with ice shards and tasted like nothing more than sugar-water.  Pistachio gelato had decent texture but no pistachio flavor at all.  There’s quite a bit of dessert pedigree in this kitchen, but I can’t believe that anyone deserving accolades ever tasted these concoctions.

Given the choice between Nico and Hugo’s Frog Bar or Carmine’s or whatever other hell holes exist around there, I guess I’d go back to Nico.  But more than anything last night reinforced that, respected newcomers or not, this neighborhood is to be avoided.

Nico Osteria
1015 N Rush St, Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 994-7100

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Radler

There are a lot of reasons I love The Radler.

Near the top is its unique beer list, which sources a ton of German-style beers from local breweries, and some great ones from Germany as well. The list is focused and committed to the theme, with just a few outliers. There's nothing like this list in the city, and one could spend a most-enjoyable time doing nothing but sampling from it.

Service is fantastic at The Radler - friendly, very knowledgeable, willing to sample anything. So are the prices. I spent the same here as I did at Resi's Bierstube for a meal with similar amounts of food and drink. I even like the decor.

Where's the food on this list of reasons to love The Radler? I'll answer that with one dish description: Crispy bread dumplings with horseradish roasted mushrooms, spinach, pickled beef tongue, kohlrabi and currants. It's the best dish I've had in a 2014 that's seen quite a few good ones so far. It may be the best dish I've had in a much longer time than that. It's just perfect. Contrasting textures. Rich flavors balanced by tangy ones. A little earth. A little sweet. I need to stop writing about it. I want it again. Now. Badly.

Go to The Radler. Enjoy all the things there are to enjoy about it, but don't miss the crispy bread dumplings. The dark, warm and crisp bread dumplings. The tangy, tender pickled tongue. The earthy roasted mushrooms. The little strips of cool, crisp kohlrabi. The bursts of dill that seem to appear from nowhere to enliven your palate just when you think you can't eat anymore. What a dish. My goodness.

The Radler
2375 N Milwaukee Ave
(773) 276-0270


Monday, January 6, 2014

Next - Chicago Steakhouse Menu. Exclusive First Look!!!!

Next – Chicago Steak


2” by 2” cube of double-purified, blast-frozen Hydrogen Dioxide from Lake Michigan.  Topped with spirits.
Hors d'oeuvres

91 hand-carved semi-ovals of marble-sized transparent, odorless liquid that has been aged in our own temperature-controlled enclosure for at least 24 hours.  Served with carrot sticks.

Fluid matter that has been transformed through nucleation and crystal growth into a solid state, then pommeled with a blunt instrument to form irregularly-shaped shards that are then hand-placed into a 26 degree metal bowl.  Shrimp garnish.

Latent heat is released through an exothermic process from 5,000ml of a non-linear molecule in its liquid state, causing solidification which takes place in a proprietary capsule designed just for us by famous Japanese box-maker Yakimoto Toto.  Greens.

Warm meat to cleanse the palate for the final course

“Sno Cone 86”  Each diner is provided with a vile filled with raspberry-flavored syrup, along with an eye dropper.  86 small mounds of shaved ice, each with a distinct water source and texture, are provided in an engraved cooler chest.  Diners are instructed to place a drop of syrup on each mound one-by-one, to experience the subtle profile each brings to the experience.


Executive Ice Chef – Hans Frigidein