Ada Street: Nothing Pong With a Little Cocktail Love
By: Jay @stockyardpalate On: December 19, 2012
Getting to Ada Street requires just enough effort to keep the riff-raff and boring suburbanites away. Can I get an amen? The place is a laid back cocktail lounge with an open kitchen and a dark vibe reminiscent of many of the more popular cocktail bars around town. Chef Zoë Schor was plucked from California to run the kitchen, which seems appropriate given the laid back feel that they are trying to achieve here.
I bellied up and waited for a friend to arrive. A quick perusal of the menu revealed some really interesting ingredients and combinations such as confit chestnuts with maple and bacon and Octopus with canellini beans and tabasco mash. Score. The cocktail menu was also pretty slick featuring North Shore Gin, Yellow Chartreuse and earl grey molasses. Serious business.
The restaurant soundtrack was pretty spectacular. Beetles deep cuts. Chicago blues. Classic Dylan. They have an elaborate collection of vinyl and you can grab a record and ask to put it on which is fucking amazing. No shitty music, no electronic nonsense. All classic shit, all the time. It’s like the Touch Tunes for grown ups up in herrr.
We fired up a cocktail order of a Martinez and a Fistful of Dollars (I like bourbon, meng) and they were really damn good – perhaps a cut below Scofflaw or Violet Hour, but just barely. You can tell that these are carefully crafted cocktails, boozy, refreshing, not too sweet. Nailed it. Also, most of the cocktails are named after classic songs, which really ties nicely in well with the music thing. If you start out with tremendous cocktails you’ve really got a leg up on the night from my perspective.
The menu features a lot of rustic, innovative small plates… or, said another way, bar food with a lot of soul and attention to interesting flavor combinations. We fired up the confit chestnuts with bacon and maple syrup which was an absolutely wonderful combination of fatty, sweet goodness with the chestnuts providing a wonderfully firm texture contrast that really brought the dish together. This was probably the best thing that we ate all night. We moved on the chicken mousse, which was quite tangy, smooth and light.
Next came the brussel sprouts with lemon aioli which were excellent as well, the acidity of the aioli really cutting the richness of the sprout nicely. We rounded things out with the goat cheese and acorn squash because – cheese, that’s why… this was a tasty cheese course indeed very creamy, smooth and delightful with a nice tangy aftertaste. The octopus plate had a little bit of heat and crunch and made me wish that I had ordered two. The final dish that we ordered was the only debacle of the night: the lamb ribs plated in a sauce that can be best described as neon orange Cambell’s tomato soup from a can. Aside from being unpleasing to the eye, the ribs had almost no meat on them whatsoever and were relatively dry… one bite and – (pushes plate to side).
Dessert? Didn’t even bother to look. There were more cocktails to dRANk and I need a little room for my libations. That is what makes Ada Street a good time. It’s a place to go and have great cocktails and conversation, enjoy a lively room that is relatively douche-free and have some simple but serious bar food cooked by a chef who does fantastic work, and whose ambitions do not exceed her abilities. She even came out to check on every table and generally seemed to be enjoying herself. Honestly, how could you not? If you want a laid back night out for drinks and a bite without the see-and-be-scenesters and the folks pining for 18 course gastronomy tours head to Ada Street. More proof that they don’t take themselves too seriously – they have an Astroturf patio with Ping-Pong in the summer and movie nights on Monday’s. PING PONG? In the wrong hands this could potentially be an embarrassing abomination that sinks a restaurant concept entirely, but here, in this quirky spot… it just works. Everything does, really. In a laid back kind of way.
|Ada Street||The Stockyard 10|
|Vibe||Dark cocktail bar aesthetic with open kitchen and creative small plates menu|
|Crowd||Mid-twenties all the way up to middle-aged DINKs|
|Soundtrack||One of the best in the city: think Stones, Dylan, Buddy Guy, Strokes|
|Drinks||Craft cocktails are truly top-notch and they take them very seriously The martinez is almost as good as the gold standard at Scofflaw|
|Cost/person||$100 for 6 plates and 4 cocktails|
|Revisitability||A- Do you like to cocktail and eat some tasty things? Do you hate douchebags? OK, eat here.|
|Service||B- Drinks took quite a long time to get to the table as did water. It’s a busy spot, so – hey, ya know…|
|Food||B+ We loved all but one dish here (afore-mentioned tomato soup broth ribs) and cleaned our plates|
|Highlights||Very good cocktails, soundtrack and laid back feel. Tip a few drinks back and enjoy yourself.|
Ada Street 1664 N. Ada (773) 697-7069 http://www.adastreetchicago.com/
Rural American gone Urban Italian.
By: Johhny Offal Posted March 1, 2012
New opening abound these days but one place has quietly opened along a bustling section of Clark Street in Andersonville. Bar Ombra.
While I often resist change, in a lot of cases it’s for the better. Such is the case with Acre when it turned it’s Andersonville dining room into Ombra. The redesigned dining room has been turned into a cool, retro cicchetti bar. Rebuilt using completely reclaimed materials the designer has created wood booths with seats made from old leather jackets, broken up with reclaimed tin ceiling tiles all of which breaks up the former cavernous room up into small intimate spaces. Walls covered in antique Italian newspapers give a warm feel and the cicchetti bar proudly displays the bill of fare.
Owned by the minds behind Antiprima, Ombra has a very reasonably priced wine list as well as a nice selection of cocktails.
The menu consists of a fairly extensive list of cicchetti. We tried the baccala (I’m a sucker for baccala) which was a nice version. The tounge in salsa verde features slices of tongue that weren’t falling apart tender, as I had expected, but had a bit of chew to them, but not in a bad way at all. The salsa verde was bright and fresh.
Next we tried the tripe with sopprosetta, cannellini and pickled veg. A very nice dish with tender tripe that I think could have used a bit more sopprosetta. The pesce in saor was a mackerel, which can be oily, but was offset nicely by the vinegary marinade. But the must try of the cicchetti is the ricotta with blood orange. Impossibly light and creamy ricotta topped with an ever so slight drizzle of olive oil is foiled by tart blood orange supremes.
The menu doesn’t end there though. There’s also a list of panini, tramezzini, buscetta, and salumi. None of which we tried.
From the Fritti section we had the pesciolini, which, if you’ve had this dish at Antiprima you’ll recognize. Crisp fried little fish served with ultra thin slices of fried lemon and crisp, lighly fried parsley leaves. Yum.
The crudo di mare was scallop. Sweet scallops over baby arugula. The arugula overpowered the delicate scallops just a bit, but everything was really fresh.
From the Piatti Unici section of the menu (really the only larger dishes available) we tried the calamari neri, which I had some reservations about since, to me, squid ink can often be overpowering. Not in this dish however. Super tender pieces of squid are braised for what must be hours with a sauce of ink that, suprisingly, to me, really complimented the dish wonderfully. This was a real home run.
We finished out meal with a selection of Italian cheeses.
From the dessert selection go with the faro, sweetened ricotta and preserved fruit. A very adult dessert which isn’t too sweet nor right. As with any propper Italian meal you have to have some bitter after the sweet. For this Ombra features a good selection of Amari.
Prices range from $4 to $8 for small plates and from $10 to $13 for the larger plates.
Service can be a bit quick as would be traditional in an Italian cicchetti bar but you never feel like you’re being rushed out the door.
I really like Ombra and will be making it part of my regular rotation.
Ombra The Stockyard 10
|Ombra||The Stockyard 10|
|Vibe||Retro 70′s basement in Rome|
|Crowd||Locals and foodies|
|Soundtrack||Eclectic, Jazz, Classic Rock|
|Drinks||B Well priced wine list and nice cocktails and Amari|
|Revisitability||A Easy place to pop in for a bite|
|Service||B+ Knowledgeable but sometimes hurried|
|Food||B Extensive menu of fresh, flavorful cicchetti|
|Highlights||Ricotta with Blood Oranges. Calamari Neri|
5310 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60640
Au Cheval: First Impressions of Cool
By: Jay Doughnuts Posted February 28, 2012
(Editors note: what follows is merely a “first look” at Au Cheval. Only a few menu items were sampled during our recent visit. Complete review to follow in the coming weeks when we have had more time to sample more of the menu.)
I walked southbound on Halsted, a much maligned street in Chicago (as a result of the eternally “under construction” status of the Halsted Street bridge) and peered out at the activity on Randolph Street. This is the West Loop, a part of town that appears to be in the late stages of a full-blown culinary renaissance. This was evident by the cars whizzing by the intersection, the beer geeks making a pilgrimage to Pete Crowley’s Haymarket across the street and the passers by shuffling off to make 7 their o’clock reservations. Many will tell you that pound for pound, the West Loop represents the very best of the Chicago dining scene. On Randolph Street alone, one can find Avec, Blackbird, Girl & the Goat, Maude’s DeCero, Grange Hall Burger, and Chef Curtis Duffy’s soon to be opened Grace… and other heavyweights like Next, Publican, Vera, Aviary within shouting distance.
So with all that said, I made this West Loop pilgrimage to visit… a Diner?? Don’t sleep on the diner my friends. Previously the domain of late-night drunk-food excursions and greasy-spoon family breakfast stops, the Diner is now a genre of restaurant being explored by top Restaurateurs and Chefs as a vehicle for delivering outstanding dishes at a reasonable price point without all of the overhead and pretense of the formal dining experience. Steph Izard is set to open her diner concept called “Little Goat” virtually next door on Randolph later in the year and some feel that the reinvented diner could be the next concept to make a big splash in 2012.
If you had to hand pick someone to walk into the Greektown Gyros space on 800 W Randolph and create an exciting new concept, Brendan Sodikoff would have to be on your short list. The guy was recently featured by Chicago Magazine as one of the 100 most powerful people in the city driven by the success of his first two resturants. The first, Gilt Bar on Kinzie and Franklin, brought attention to the craft cocktail scene and focused on simply prepared quality plates offered at a reasonable value. It also established what I like to call the “Sodikoff Smoke”. What I mean by this is the overall aesthetic and vibe of the place that closely resembles what the instagram photo/filter app does to a photo taken on an Iphone. The lights are exceedingly dim, the décor is decidedly rustic and antique (think cozy booths and white antiqued brick) and the space just feels comfortable and lived in… and dare I say it- “cool”.
The cool factor is also evidenced in Gilt’s underground bar “Curio”, a subterranean speak easy of sorts that Andre 3000 would refer to as “Ice Cold” that produces pitch-perfect cocktails for Vampires and people terrified of seeing the light of day. The Sodikoff Smoke creates a distinct first impression when going into the space and I think that it is his unique contribution to the dining scene in Chicago. This vibe was replicated with his second restaurant, Maude’s Liquor Bar on Randolph Street with more of a focus on authentic Parisian bistro food driven and a great raw bar by run Jeff Pikus, a chef who trained under Grant Achatz at Alinea. Maude’s recently celebrated its one-year anniversary and is a great spot to grab a Lyonnaise Salad, Pomme Frittes, Escargo and Bone Marrow. So what did Sodikoff dream up for restaurant number 3… in a former Gyro hut space just a half a block east of Maude’s?
The outside signage and aesthetic of AuCheval is very similar to what one would expect of Maude’s. It looks like an old Parisian bistro has been inhabiting this space for quite some time, and one quickly forgets that the garish awning of Greektown Gyros ever lived here. Upon opening the front door, you do get that smoky visual. The lights have been dimmed to a level that resembles that of Gilt and Maudes (if not a touch darker). There are several plush tufted brown leather diner booths along the right side of the space, along with more booths and tables at the very back. To the left is a relatively long bar with rotating diner stools facing a completely open kitchen. At the very end of the bar is the proper drink service area featuring over 30 beer taps and a craft cocktail prep area.
Given that there was no wait and a few seats open, I decided to take my perch at the bar with Mrs. Doughnuts- after all, this was a diner-food night and not a romantic-dinner night. Also, fellow Stockyard writer Johnny Offal recently wrote that the best seat in the house at Yusho was at the bar because you really got a sense of how the guys prepare your meal. From this perch- you are immediately taken by the mechanics of the kitchen. Two large Viking broilers sit high over the open grill. A large oven containing rolled towels to be served with the (presumably messy) General Tsao’s fried chicken is on the far right. A prep area for plating entrees and prepping salads faces the bar and expeditor station stands smack in the middle of the bar seating area.
We first perused the beer menu and were pleasantly surprised by the quality and diversity of the craft beer program at Au Cheval. While initially disappointed that they were poring Bud, I came around when I got to fully inspect the beer menu and spotted several of my favorites on the list. The Beer list is wisely separated into 4 sections: Light, Specialty, Full and Rich and the selections were grouped appropriately. This is a list that will warm every beer geek’s heart featuring great offerings from Mikkeller, Half Acre, Three Floyd’s, Jolly Pumpkin, Evil Twin and Lost Abbey among others. On this night, we sampled the deliciously fruity Clown Shoes Clementine wit from Boston, the creamy Urthel Saissonniere from Belgium and the dark and complec Ayinger Celebrator from Germany. I was so impressed with the beer program that I have added Au Cheval to my list of the best beer bars in the city. There are few places that go over 30 strong on a tap list and they have got the craft beer thing humming in this space.
Well, what about the food you say? The menu does feature a few Maude’s tribute items by design- the French Fries (no longer being called Pomme Frites here), and the Lyonnaise Salad to be specific. Scrolling down the menu, you find a number of interesting choices that one would not typically see at a diner. The foie gras and pork-stuffed cabbage, the foir-gras terraine, the pork porterhouse and the chopped chicken liver with butter and toast are all decidedly un-diner. You also have the more traditional items like the omelet, the single and double cheeseburgers, the bratwurst and potatoes, and the fried bologna sandwich. Taking a look at the plates coming out of the kitchen before us, it soon became clear this is house-made artisinal cuisine in a very casual setting… and this setting just happens to be a diner. Mrs. Doughnuts and I ordered the fries with mornay sauce, garlic aioli & fried farm egg and a single cheeseburger. I whole-heartedly admit that this was an exceedingly small order! I will definitely come back and provide an update once I have a chance to sample more of the menu and what follows is a qualified report on the handful of items that we sampled.
After ordering, I gradually began bopping my head to some Fugees tracks being played relatively loud throughout the restaurant. The lyrics of Wyclef and Pras seamlessly transitioned into some Common tracks and other 90’s/00’s hip hop. They were definitely spinning the deep cuts as opposed to the hits- which I generally approve of. What was more interesting was that the kitchen staff was jamming out to the beats as well. I swear, the chef in the bandana was dancing just a bit as he fried up eggs and flipped burger patties. Everyone cooking the food was in a groove and having a great time. There was no yelling, there was no tension or stress. Good vibes back there, it was a cool to witness that kitchen camaraderie.
Our burger and fries came out in less than 10 minutes – a turnaround time befitting a proper diner. I was disappointed that the fries did not come in the stainless steel buckets from Maude’s, but I learned that this was only because we went with the fancy fried egg and mornay sauce version. These were fantastic fries, some of the best I’ve had – but they were not the “very same” as the glorious Maude’s creations as the server promised. They came very close, but the Maude’s fries are indeed more crispy, golden and flavorful. The burger is an interesting study in technique. It seems that – of late- restaurants like hand-grinding their meat and building a formidable meaty slab of beef. AuCheval takes a completely different approach, offering instead, burger patties that are thin and separated by wax paper. A “single” burger translates to two of these thin patties and a “double” is three, which can be a little confusing. This burger eschews the popular pretzel roll in favor of a light, buttery brown brioche bun and is adorned simply American cheese and a pickle. There is no asking for temperature on this burger- they serve it medium rare as God intended. I haven’t had a thin patty burger in quite some time, but I really tasted the flavor and fat of the beef and this taste was not muted by elaborate cheeses, sauces, garnishes or even secondary meats that are often heaped atop other burgers around town. The thin patty might be making a comeback; it succeeds in its simplicity. I can see this place being an absolute late-night hit in this neighborhood with industry people looking for a bite, a beer and a whiskey after finishing up a shift. I noticed that the chilaquiles are only available after midnight- so there definitely is a focus of going late into the night here.
Now that you have a feel for the food- let’s move to the service. Sitting at the bar can be a little awkward at times because you actually have to rotate away from the kitchen in order to speak to your server, whose only opening is to your left or your right to take your order. The servers are not Flo and there will be know witty banter with Mel in the kitchen. I found the servers to be relatively knowledgeable and attentive throughout, and they were more then willing to tell us about certain menu items and give you a recap of the first few nights of service. Your first instinct is to give your drink and food order to the cook in the kitchen facing you – and this takes a little getting used to. Once you get accustomed to scanning around the room to track down a server, things move swimmingly.
Having satisfied our need for cholesterol and grease, we inquired about the dessert options. Most traditional Greek Diners feature a giant display case at the entrance to greet diners and make a statement about the goodness that can be found inside. No such case of pastries here, but we soon learned that they offer draft Root Beer floats and Black Dog Gelato with real hot fudge. They don’t make the gelato in-house, but Black Dog offers the best product in the city in my opinion and we are a little Black Dog obsessed since having the Crimini mushroom flavor at Girl & the Goat last summer. The mint gelato was an explosion of fresh herbal goodness and the milk chocolate was a rich creamy compliment… the hot fudge was a welcome sweet indulgence that put this dessert over the top. Again, this is simple food- done very well- that will leave you with a smile on your face.
On the way out, I stopped to ask about the 70-s vintage reel-to reel machine that was turning toward the entrance of the restaurant. Since nobody has been using a reel to reel for the better part of 30 years, I naively asked if the reels were running as a decoration. Scotty McNiece explained that it was in fact a functioning machine that was supplying all of the music that we had been enjoying all night. Apparently, Scotty starts out with digital tracks, records the music onto tape, and perfects the tape reels that will supply the soundtrack for the restaurant. I thought that this blending of an old antique technique in brand new space and concept was emblematic of what they are trying to do at AuCheval for it symbolizes the juxtaposition of new- old, antique and contemporary in a simple and artistic way.
It should be noted that I visited AuCheval on the third day of service… because I’m a fan. I really enjoy Gilt, and Maude’s is absolutely one of my favorite places to eat in Chicago. I came here because I like what this group has done in each of their first two projects and I wanted to see what they had dreamed up for number 3.
For much the same reason, I can recall springing my MacBook to life in January of 2006 to download “First Impressions of Earth” the third album by New York based rock band The Strokes. The Strokes were, and are one of my favorite bands. I feel this way, because I have experienced their career in full (their debut album “Is This It” was released a few weeks after September 11th in 2001). From the first rush of excitement upon hearing “Last Night” as a young adult – I had a distinct feeling that this band would carve out a niche in the rock hierarchy as a result of their unique sound. The music of The Strokes is undeniably and effortlessly cool – it is just in their musical DNA and they have carved out a style that is all their own. In many ways, I feel like the Gilt/Maude’s teamhas had the same trajectory here in Chicago.
Sodikoff is a lot like lead singer Julian Cassablancas of the Strokes – the stately frontman, songwriter and figurehead – the guy laying down to vocals that drive each track. GiltBar was Sodikoff’s debut album- which compares nicely to “Is This It” by the Strokes which received 5 stars by Rolling Stone and near universal acclaim. Sodikoff then brought the “Smoke” to Maude’s Liquor Bar – which is a lot like the “Room on Fire” album by the Strokes – an ambitious sophomore project that was highly anticipated by critics and a represented a further exploration of their gritty sound. That leaves us with project number three for Sodikoff… Au Cheval… a deal ringer for “First Impressions of Earth”, album three by the Strokes.
With two successful projects under his belt, Sodikoff is now expected to deliver ground breaking restaurants in this town, much the same way that the Stokes were at that time expected to drop the “album of the year” each time out of the box. Perhaps, on the weight of these expectations alone, Sodikoff decided not to try to top his previous two concepts and instead focus on a more humble Diner/Beer Bar concept. Similarly, on their third project, the Strokes were maturing and getting back to the “bare bones” of the sound that made them famous and inspired them to make music in the first place. This bare bones motivation is artfully displayed at AuCheval, where simple, hearty yet unpretentious food is the focus. Further, on the standout track on “First Impressions of Earth”, titled appropriately “You Only Live Once” , Cassablancas croons about “Twenty-nine different attributes, only seven that you like”. This is a great way to capture what is going on here at AuCheval… you have this great big food scene going on here and this group could have gone in any number of different directions for project #3, but instead Sodikoff choose to focus on the seven or so things that he thinks people will really like and come back for again and again at his no-frills diner. I find this pretty cool… in fact it’s music to my ears.
Maybe Scotty will even throw a little Stokes on one of his reels the next time I come in late night for a burger and a beer.
|Au Cheval||The Stockyard 10|
|Vibe||Dimly lit, antique hip speakeasy aesthetic|
|Crowd||Young, interested in beers, comfort food|
|Soundtrack||Scotty McNiece plays old-school hip-hop on reel to reel machine|
|Drinks||Over 30 craft beers on tap (great list) & craft cocktails|
|Cost/person||$24 for half burger, egg-fries, gelato and 3 beers|
|Revisitability||A- If the wait stays light, I could come here a LOT|
|Service||B Beers took a while to get there, not very chatty|
|Food||B+ I dig the burger & gelato and the fries are a close 2nd to Maude’s|
|Highlights||Burger, expansive beer list, gelato, music|
800 W Randolph
Next vs. el Bulli: A Culinary Tour de Force
By: Lauren Zajac Posted: February 24, 2012
Next’s season ticket madness has come and gone (and I finally sleep on a normal schedule again, which is nice), so it’s fitting to review the newest menu incantation, el Bulli. My husband and I were lucky enough to have the opportunity to dine during the opening weekend, and even with the much-discussed near-$500 per diner price tag, the meal will be on my shortlist of best dinners for years to come. With the tagline of “Legends Never Die,” Next’s tribute to El Bulli is a love letter to a closed restaurant that reshaped thinking about how food could function, look, and be enjoyed.
I’m a fangirl of Next, so it’s really hard for me to be unbiased in my opinion. There were dishes that I liked more than others but nothing that I could call a misstep. If anything, seeing Next pay tribute to the greatest restaurant of the past decade and seeing how far ahead of the game that Ferran Adria consistently was is enough to inspire anyone.
Twenty-nine courses is a lot of food to power through, and 29 pictures of food porn is a lot to work through as well, so I’ll break it down in terms of what I loved and what didn’t work as well for me.
The caipirinha was a solid start to the meal. As Adria liked to welcome guests to el Bulli with snacks and cocktails, I anticipated a refreshing start to the meal; the caipirinha didn’t disappoint. Crisp, bold, and strong, backed by a smattering of tarragon on the spoon, this opener really helped to put this meal into perspective. With the emphasis on history, it was near impossible for me to not have a running narrative going through my mind comparing what Adria was doing in certain years compared to my own life. 2004: Ferran Adrian plays with liquid nitrogen and creates an insane cocktail; I slam down Jaegerbombs in a dive bar. Clearly, Adria wins this round.
This dish was a surprise, especially as I am an avid avoider of tomatoes. The acidity from the tomatoes, paired with the richness of the almond milk pudding at the bottom of the glass, was a nice play on texture and flavor. Super surprising, as I was not expecting to like this at all.
After about four hours of eating, I was running low on energy. Spice plate put me back in the game, both with the mix of flavors and the spice quiz that came with. Fun and a bit on the whimsical side!
Carrots aren’t usually a standout to me. I eat them with meat and potatoes and forget about them a few minutes after I’m finished with them. Carrot air is anything but. The sweetness of the carrot foam, mixed with the almost milk, creates a heavenly concoction.
All of the above were standouts, for different reasons. The coca’s flavor combo, simple as it seems, just worked. Iberico is as good as it gets, ham-wise, and the puff of bread created a light, airy snack. The best of the bunch were the spherical olives, which were one of the earliest dishes teased by Next. The manipulation of shape and construction, not flavor, convinced me early on in the evening that el Bulli was going to transcend most dining experiences I had had prior.
So, I’m not a gorgonzola fan, but this was too cool not to share. The balloon was rich and decadent though melted quickly, so it’s definitely not a bite to stall on.
Not My Thing
Of course, there were a few things I didn’t care for as much. Sadly, I don’t have a picture of Smoke Foam, a dish that considered a provocation (a dish to make diners think about what they’re eating, though they may not like the flavor). While I appreciated the concept, I couldn’t stand the flavor. However, I’m still talking about my dislike of Smoke Foam, so it clearly provoked me.
I enjoy foie gras, and I love flan, but apparently I don’t like the two together. 2011 was a year that was punctuated with foie gras accents at many restaurants, so I think I’m just a bit burned out on it as an accompaniment.
Not pictured, but definitely worth mentioning, are the beverage pairings. Much like with the Tour of Thailand menu, Next teamed up with Half Acre to create a custom beer, the result being Sanguis, a flavorful ale that paired well with some of the larger courses. If you loved it as much as my husband did, definitely ask if you can purchase some on the way out.
As I had to work at 7:30 the following morning, I made the decision to go with the non-alcoholic beverage pairings. Next has done a stellar job with beverage pairings for each menu, but el Bulli is a standout with the combo of juices and teas. Props to Bobby Murphy for his creations!
Service was, as always, impeccable. The blend of knowledge, history, and humor really creates a special experience that I haven’t had elsewhere. While a five-hour meal sounds draining in theory, the servers kept the courses moving swiftly and made the experience incredibly enjoyable.
So, is El Bulli worth spending nearly $1000 per two diners? It’s a subjective call and a personal choice; obviously, if it’s going to be a financial strain, sit this one out and wait for Kyoto and Sicily. However, if you have the opportunity, by all means, go. Next is still offering Same Day and Next Day tickets via Facebook, so opportunities to visit still exist. As a newly-minted Season Ticket holder, I’ll be back to check the menu again later in the season, and I can’t wait to see how it’s grown.
Oh the Brunchsanity:
The Publican dominates your Sunday Brunch
By: Jay Doughnuts Posted February 15, 2012
As chronicled by our expansive approved Brunch List, there is no shortage of top notch brunch options in Chicago. Take a moment pursuing that list and you might experience a bit of paralysis by analysis. How to navigate a robust list of 30+ brunch options. What if I want boozey… or Mexican… or sweet… or hangover-cure inducing… the possibilities are endless. While there are a plethora of fantastic options for your brunching pleasure, no restaurant delivers an all around tour-de-force experience quite like the Publican. The Publican is indeed all things to all brunchers.
The Publican was opened by the great Paul Kahan (recently of the Chicago Mag 100 most powerful people in Chicago fame) 3 and a half years ago to great fanfare. After hitting home runs with Blackbird and Avec, Kahan focused his sights on simple Beer, Pork (and Pork Rinds) sausage and fish with this gastro-dining delight in the West Loop. As good as Publican can be, and the protein driven courses are a great accompaniment to the diverse and interesting beer list, I would argue that it’s finest hours are between 10AM and 2PM on Sundays.
We arrived a few minutes early for our noon reservation (after taking a peek at Publican Quality Meats across the street- more on that later this week) and were seated immediately. Upon strolling into the large open dining room, I was immediately reminded of two things: 1) The iconic globe lights hanging from the ceiling are a perfect metaphor for the simple beauty of the Publican menu and 2) the large wood communal dining tables and serving china immediately conjure up memories of dining at some of the big open bier houses that I visited in Munich in September (think Hofbrauhaus, Spatenhaus, etc) to the extent that I had a strange urge to request an HB liter bier stein. Needless to say, the setting alone brought a smile to my face and brought back some pleasant, trippy nostalgia. Our busboy filled our waters immediately and offered to fill our coffee as well. One of the bus boys was a dead ringer for Vincent Chase from Entourage which was pretty funny which made you do a double take. The guests to the right of us were celebrating a cooking related accomplishment of a young family member from what we could gather by eavesdropping, and it is always a good sign when people “in the business” choose to eat brunch at your establishment. It felt good to have booked a proper reservation here as about a dozen people were camped out at the round- bar area high-top counters waiting for seats to open up. Demand is high.
Truth be told, this was my first full-brunch experience at the Publican. My wife booked a birthday dinner reservation for me in July and I must admit that eating inside under the globes is far more pleasant than eating on the outdoor patio. Although unassuming, there is something magical about eating inside with the bier-hall like vibe and paintings of cartoonish animals that remind us that a living creature had to die to deliver the tasty goodness on our plates. Needless to say, I dig the atmosphere. We quickly peruse the menu and spot the items that have been recommended to us by countless people. Waffle… check. Bacon… check… Bloody Mary- with a Three Floyd’s Zombie Dust chaser! Enthusiastic check! Now for the final plate… we went with red wine poached eggs on sourdough with prosciutto and arugala. Boom! That’s an order.
The Publican’s understated simplicity and quality ingredients really shine through with its brunch offerings. The square waffle or squaffle was first to arrive. It was generously slathered in a lemony butter with a side ramekin of maple syrup. The waffle was reminiscent of the delightful treats we tried in Brussels in the fall. Not too heavy- crispy and cooked to perfection. The lemon butter was a flavorful but not overpowering accompaniment. The Bacon was kind of pork-bellyesque. I don’t like pork belly very much, but oddly the bacon has pork bellies best qualities (flavor) without the squishy fatty texture that turns me off. This is one of the best pieces of bacon I’ve ever had. The red wine poached eggs were quite delicious as well. The runny yegs spilled over the sourdough toast and the seasoned arugala and prosciutto all played nice together on my fork.
This was the yin and yang of sweet and savory breakfasts. Accompanied by a bottomless Intelligensia coffee and a few beers (A Jolly Pumpkin Sour Brown and a pint of the afore mentioned Zombie Dust), you have the makings of a perfect Sunday afternoon dining experience. We had 3 wonderful plates of food and did not feel like we needed a nap after it. This is a great place to recap the previous week or weekend, enjoy a few laughs and enjoy a best-in-class leisurely dining experience. I didn’t have to buy a season pass or wait in a 2 and a half hour line to get in to the Publican either (they take reservations… score!).
That Publican dining room on a Sunday just feels like home. Glance around the crowded room, and you see Chicagoans with smiles on their faces. Nobody is posing or posturing or hoping to get picked for the basement office bar or upstairs private room. It’s just not that kind of party. Relax, have a drink, enjoy a laugh, order a waffle and let Publican brunch have it’s way with you… it will start to feel like home to you too in no time.
|The Publican (Brunch)||The Stockyard 10|
|Vibe||Munich bierhouse meets warm snowglobe ceiling|
|Crowd||Bedheaded Chicagoans happily nursing hangovers|
|Soundtrack||Very good beats! my kinda jams|
|Drinks||12 excellent beers and killer Bloody Mary ($7)|
|Cost/person||$25 per person before tip|
|Revisitability||A The best brunch in town takes reservations|
|Service||A- Knowledgable and didn’t push for us to order more|
|Food||A- Waffle ($8), Bacon ($8) Red wine poached eggs ($12)|
|Highlights||Warm, inviting, Publican = best brunch in town|
The Butcher and Larder: A Noble Experiment
By: Jay Doughnuts Posted February 15, 2012
Two Saturdays ago, on Superbowl eve (can we add this as an unofficial official Holiday please?), the great Bill Lo Mein called me and proposed a rare thing among heterosexual men… he asked if I was free for lunch. Lunch? On a Saturday? Surely he must ne kidding… then again, he is from L.A., a place that made “doing lunch” exceedingly fashionable. Lunch on a weekend was a concept that I hadn’t considered in quite some time. Not brunch, not beers but just lunch. Most of the time, Saturdays and Sundays are 2 meal kind of days. Brunch + Dinner (and on a rare occasion, late night drink pantry raids – I’m not proud of it). The prospect of a leisurely Saturday lunch was unusually novel and appealing in its simplicity.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked. We soon decided that we had not explored our A La Card deck (wonderful holiday gifts by the way – props to Natasha), 52 cards that entitle you to $10 off your tab at some of the coolest spots in town. We had read great things about the Butcher & Larder and this was a no brainer because we wanted to get some choice cuts of meat to grill up for Superbowl feasting anyway. Done and done.
Where was B&L again. Noble Square? Have I even been there? Having lost my bike (more appropriately left it locked overnight and it was stolen) after a raucous night out with the BYOBandits and Eddie from Chilam Bilam driving was the only move. Noble Square is a little sketch as evidenced by the awful, heart-wrenching story of three Frontier workers shot this past week while trying to break up grand theft auto. Fronteir is about a half a block away from Butcher & Larder. Sketch or not, it was the middle of the day and I was craving meats.
We were greeted by a friendly young lady (Danielle, I think) who helped us put together our order and explained the spicy chorizo fig jam “Avec” sandwich to us. Anyone who has dined at avec knows the deliciousness of the Chorizo stuffed dates and the promise of delivering this goodness in the form of a sandwich for lunch had me salivating like Joakim Noah at a head shop window. The sandwich alone just would not do, so I pressed Danielle for what was “good” that day for Superbowl grilling purposes.
This is where Rob Levitt stepped in. Rob opened B&L with his wife after closing the highly regarded mado about a year ago. He remarked that the “marrow burgers” were regarded by many as the best burgers that they’ve ever had and had a bone morrow center filling. Sold. I also grabbed some NY Strip Steaks cut thin to order, spicy chicken wings (for the superbowl), and some Brats and some pastured farm eggs (I could only get ½ dozen because they were just about sold out). Bill added some pate to his order because he gets down with delicate stuff like that.
Danielle kindly told us that she would keep our order in the fridge while we waited for our sandwiches (she was very sweet). Now I must warn you, the Butcher and Larder is first and foremost a butcher shop. There is no ambiance, there are no ornate decorations or dreamy soundtracks. Rob and his crew are cutting up meat. There are no seats, so you can’t sit and linger and pontificate the meaning of life… but who the hell cares? When you can lean on a counter and enjoy deliciousness like the Avec sandwich, all in life is good. They get their meats shipped in daily from local farms like Slagel and have a strong commitment to bringing local humanely slaughtered meats to the public. Danielle started churning out hand made sausages in the back which was pretty cool to see – kind of a throw back 1950’s process going on there. I dug it.
About that sandwich, it is served on a top quality white Deli roll (tasty by itself) and the heat of the spicy tomato sauce was perfectly balanced by the sweet hints of fig goodness in the center. The quality of the chorizo is the real star here. For $10 you get one of the best sandwiches you will ever have, a big bag of kettle chips and a drink (we went for the craft root beer – root beer consumption is alarmingly low of late and I’m going to do something about it). Tell me this isn’t one of the most fair deals in town?
Rob swung by and asked “how are the sandwiches boys?” and seemed unsurprised by our praise and admiration. He knows he has a good thing going here and judging by the steady stream of people lining up for choice cuts of meat, Chicago is learning the same. We waddled out into the Noble Square afternoon stuffed to the gills after taking down this mammoth sandwich with our bags of hand-cut meats and decided to grab a brew to discuss the goodness that is Butcher and Larder.
We journeyed up to Lincoln Park to have a brew at Goose Clybourn. Fortunately for us, we pressed the bartender for some Bourbon County action and were lucky enough to score an off menu bottle of the BC Bramble Rye. Now this is the delicious, powerful flavor bomb that can stand up to a sandwich as formidable as the B&L Avec. If only we could sneak brews like this into Rob’s shop… we might never leave… and I’d risk a bullet for that Avec bomb – it’s just that good. (Side note- the marrow burger and the steaks were all fantastic made for an epic superbowl spread. I may have severely undercooked each while manning the grill at the commercial breaks- but when the meat is this good- it hardly matters).
|The Butcher & Larder||The Stockyard 10|
|Vibe||Counter service no frills community butcher shop|
|Crowd||People in need of good meat|
|Soundtrack||Don’t remember any tunes|
|Drinks||Root beer, Italian sodas|
|Cost/person||$10 for epic sandwich, chips and a soda|
|Revisitability||B Will be back for a lunch date soon, a bit sketch of an area|
|Service||B+ Happy to help you put in a solid order|
|Food||A- Avec sandwich is really top notch|
|Highlights||Friendly people, good service, local farm meats cut to order|
1026 N Milwaukee Avenue
Knockout or Not? The Butcher & Burger
By: Johnny Offal Posted on: February 7, 2012
If you’ve ever spotted a head turning beauty, I mean an absolute knockout the likes of Sofia Vergara of ABC’s Modern Family on the arm of a homely looking average Joe, you’ve probably said to yourself “What’s the catch?”. I think it is pretty well documented that 8s date 8s… 2s date 2s and so on. To see a breathtakingly gorgeous woman (Let’s call her “Sofia”) with a guy that looks like he should be hanging ceramic tile in your bathroom is kind of a jolt to the system. I’ve found that in these circumstances, often when you peel back the onion and actually get to have a conversation with the beauty in question, there is generally some kind of equalizer that helps to explain the apparent attractiveness delta. Maybe Sofia has an unfortunate personality flaw and is a handful to deal with or maybe she has nothing intelligent or pleasant to say. In some cases, you might think that this 9 and a half (based on looks alone) is really a 5 after all once you’ve had the opportunity to get to know her a little better. This was kind of my experience with Butcher & The Burger.
As far as hip and attractive goes, Butcher & the Burger fits the bill. It has the cool ampersand in the name, a chic location on Armitage, an Ipad POS system, and it’s doing the very trendy artisan burger thing. The space looks great; clean, red and white tiled walls, wood floors and cool butchering antiques adorn the walls.
Ordering can be a bit of a trick for the first timer here. First pick your meat. They offer several types of beef, pork, veggie, chicken, game and fish patties. Next, pick your spice mix to blend in. You can get anything from the basic salt and pepper to chili or curry blends or even an umami blend. Then pick your bun($0.50 extra for a pretzel roll.) Finally pick your toppings. Standard toppings are free but for an extra charge you can get bacon, a fried egg, foie gras and more.
Clearly you can build quite a burger, with quite a price tag to match. The staff are all quite friendly and knowledgeable. I wanted to see what the burger here was all about so I wasn’t going to muck it up with a bunch of extras and exotic spice blends.
I ordered the house blend burger with salt and pepper seasoning, slice of American cheese, ketchup, mustard, pickle, lettuce and onion, on a pretzel roll, an order of the Kennebec fries, and a Mexican coke (This excited me!). When my food arrived I was pretty excited. The burger was aesthetically pleasing. Kinda like that hot chick you sometimes go out with. Stacked high, a thick juicy looking patty, on a nice looking roll, served on a wood cutting board with a pile of fries along side. Unfortunately this hot chick is all style and no substance.
The patty was incredibly bland, virtually no flavor at all. I figured that maybe it was that I ordered the wrong spice blend (Really? Flavor isn’t included and I have to ask for it?) On a follow up trip I ordered a chili blend that ended with the same results. Just flavorless.
The patty seemed to be pressed very firmly together which may have resulted in the odd texture. It didn’t feel so much like ground beef as much as a soft form of beef like substance. I also have an inkling that the burger may have been par cooked as it came out just 3 or 4 minutes after placing my order. Not only did it come out that quickly, but it came out way past the medium rare I had ordered. That being said the burger was not dry at least. My friend, who also ordered his burger medium rare had his come out closer to well than mine. If you’re going to ask me how I’d like my burger cooked please don’t cook it however you damn well feel.
The pretzel roll had all of the complexity of a pretzel roll bought at Dominic’s, which is to say none. For this sad excuse for a pretzel roll I had to pay $0.50 extra. The Kennebec fries, while slightly salted (I saw the salt on there) were also very bland. To top it off, they were poorly cooked too, not greasy, but not crisp in any way.
Now, I don’t mind paying for quality, but when I pay sixteen and a half bucks for a burger, fries and a coke it had better be really good. This was not. It wasn’t bad, because it didn’t taste bad, but it just didn’t taste of much at all.
There are so many other burger joints that serve much better food for the same price or less that there is no need for me to go back.
So just like Sofia, this knockout of a burger looks absolutely gorgeous and will turn peoples heads, but when you get right down to it, she’s actually kind of unspectacular; all style with very little substance.
|Butcher & the Burger||The Stockyard 10|
|Vibe||Cool old school butcher shop feel|
|Crowd||Lincoln parkers grabbing lunch or BYO dinner|
|Soundtrack||Don’t recall any|
|Drinks||N/A although Mexican coke available|
|Revisitability||C- Pricey and there are better burger options|
|Service||B Very knowledgeable and friendly|
|Food||C Not bad at all, just bland and flavorless on multiple visits|
Butcher & the Burger
1021 W. Armitage ave
Chicago, IL 60614
Vera: Sherry Spanish, Sherry Good
By: Johnny Offal Posted: January 31, 2012
There’s something magical about the corner of Lake and Carpenter in the West Loop. Outside, you find yourself in a gritty, noisy, kind of bleak urban setting. The EL rumbles overhead, and you really don’t want to know what’s in the shadows down that alley (You’re totally safe, even though you may not feel that way). But cross over to the southeast corner, climb a few steps and open the door at 1023 W. Lake, and you’ll find you’ve been magically transported into a bright and vibrant dining space in the heart of Barcelona. This contemporary wine and tapas bar is both inviting and sophisticated.
This is Vera, the new tapas spot by Chef Mark Mendez and his wife, Elizabeth. The couple left the cavernous, Nuevo Latino, Jerry Kleiner owned, Carnivale to open this gem in the former Rushmore space. The long room features two bars… you heard me right, there are two bars in this smallish space. The wine bar greets guests as they enter, and a separate, 6-seat bar dedicated to cheese is set at a slight angle a few feet beyond the wine bar.
A warm brick wall and dark wood floors offset the cool linen colored walls and ceiling.
Like a tapas bar in Barcelona, Vera features a good selection of well-priced wines by the glass, several excellent beer selections, and even a few wines on tap. Don’t come here looking for a mixed drink. It’s a tapas bar, stick to the tried and true wine list. Vera is also very proud of its Sherry program. Now, I have to admit, I try to like Sherry. Hell, I WANT to like Sherry. I love wine, port, and Madeira, but I just can’t, for the life of me, get into sherry. I figured maybe I just didn’t know enough about it to order it correctly, or perhaps I’ve never sampled “the good stuff” so, on a recent visit to Vera, while having dinner at the bar, I had a very knowledgeable bartender pair Sherry for me. Nope, still wasn’t working. It just ain’t my bag, baby. A tenuous relationship with Sherry, however, will not stop me from loving this place.
The food at Vera elevates tapas to contemporary artisanal levels. Sure, there are a number of solid traditional tapas bars in Chicago, and they do a fine job. But if you’re looking for refined rather than just fine, head to Vera. Chef Mendez has left the sometimes overly complex, Nuevo Latino style of Carnivale behind and is turning out clean, sophisticated, delicious dishes here.
Start off by ordering the bread and butter course. Like the ”in” trend of wine on tap, Vera also follows another “in” trend by not providing free bread service. Now, you might balk a bit at $6 for bread and butter, but trust me, this is money well spent. The crusty warm bread is served along with three composed butters that might include, goat butter, duck crackling butter (basically duck fat with just enough butter to keep it solid), garlic butter, or even, on one trip, uni butter. All are delicious. There’s also a bit of super peppery, uber fresh Spanish olive oil served along with the bread. It’s just bread and butter… but at Vera it is transformed into an interesting, flavorful and innovative course in and of itself that sets the table for the pleasing dishes that are to follow. It also gives you something for sauce sopping on later courses.
Follow up the bread with a serving of some of the fine cheeses on offer from the cheese bar all garnished with appropriate accompaniments, but I save these for dessert. Also available are a selection of hand sliced hams which include prosciutto, Serrano, and two types of Iberico, one of which is proudly displayed on the hoof at the cheese bar.
Start with the lights-out Anchovies with pickled garlic and celery. If you’re afraid of anchovies, these aren’t the salty, gritty canned creatures that you’re accustomed to. This amazing dish takes the simple fresh, fishy, and salty flavors of the anchovies and pairs them nicely with sweet garlic notes and a hint of brightness from the celery. The bacalao, not currently on the menu, was a super light whip of salt cod and potato that was a revelation. I would come back for this dish alone. A classic garlic shrimp with lemon and chilies is also a great way to start. Don’t forget to suck the head! (that sounds really dirty… moving on) Or, go for the tender grilled octopus with pimenton.
Vegetable dishes include wonderfully roasted brussel sprouts with lardons of crispy Iberico ham. Or try the sweet Squash puree with honey and marcona almonds. The real star of the vegetable dishes, however, is the earthy roasted Mushrooms with thyme, and a smooth mushroom puree. The only miss of the vegetables I’ve had was the roasted turnip with esplette powder. Not only was the dish under salted, I couldn’t detect any esplette at all.
For the meat eaters out there: try the traditional and tasty Beef tripe with morcilla and garbanzos. Morcilla is a blood sausage. Chef Mendez is now making the morcilla in house, but this sausage isn’t as funky, nor does it have that strong iron-like flavor of the morcilla he used to source from local purveyors for use in this dish. This follows a recent trend that I’ve seen around town, namely unspectacular, “hot doggy”, house made blood sausage being offered for the novelty of saying that they are made on premises. This hearty dish is soulful and spectacular, but I really look for more blood and iron flavor in my blood sausage. The tripe is tender, the garbanzos are perfectly cooked, and eating this makes me feel like I’m in some farmhouse on the Spanish countryside. Another meat dish that you must order is the Elysian Fields lamb chorizo with roasted onions and winter greens. This house made sausage really hits the mark delivering some spice that pairs wonderfully with the sweet onions and bitter greens.
Since my last visit to Vera, they have begun serving a house-made charcuterie plate, which I must try. This plate comes with chicken liver, pickled tongue, lamb pate, and foie gras. While Spain is the focus here, Chef Mendez sources locally from the likes of Spence, Slagel, Green Acres and a number of other local, sustainable farms.
Elizabeth runs the dining room charming customers with her charismatic smile. While reservations are not accepted, waits are typically short. Have a glass of wine while you wait and prepare yourself for a fabulous evening. Good things are coming your way before you step back through the portal and are transported back from Spain to the gritty underbelly of The Windy City. Put a rose in my mouth and call me Don Flamenco.
|Vera||The Stockyard 10|
|Vibe||Warm, contemporary slightly hip|
|Crowd||Well dressed, mixed ages|
|Soundtrack||Pleasing beats played at a low volume|
|Drinks||B Good value wines, no cocktails (which is fine) Knowledgeable Sherry service|
|Revisitability||B+ Great food, charming service|
|Service||B Knowledgeable, although sometime food comes out too quick.|
|Food||B Cleans sophisticated flavors|
|Highlights||Tripe and Morcilla, Roasted Mushrooms|
1023 W. Lake Street
Sun: 5pm – 11
The Bristol: A Good Second Banana
By: Jay Doughnuts Posted: January 19, 2012
We excitedly counted down the hours to our date with the Bristol last Friday after reading press clippings and articles lauding this Bucktown farm-to-table mainstay. From what we read, John Ross and Phillip Walters have assembled a virtual murderer’s row of heavy hitters up front and in the kitchen. You’ve got Chef Chris Pandel whose food we tried this summer at the Perrenial Virant outdoor Quickfire competition in Lincoln across from the Green City Market in which he bested the great Chef Paul Virant. Behind the Bar is Debbi Peek who has received praise around town for making a killer cocktail and has won cocktail competitions around the country. The Mariano Rivera “closer” of the operation: Pastry Chef Amanda Rockman, recent contestant on Top Chef Just Desserts. I’m not saying you break out the dry ice and start celebrating “multiple championships” like Lebron James, before walking into the space, but you have a certain expectation of what the evening will be like when you read such fantastic things about the superstars making the engine go.
On this night, Mrs. Doughnuts and I were to meet with our newlywed friends from Denver who were in town to visit. I was the first to arrive and was warmly greeted by an attentive host and promptly seated even though the rest of my party had yet to arrive. The server meandered (more on him later) over and took my standard cocktail order – the Sazerac. We had the back booth under the understated chalkboard of specials with the Bristol logo which is probably the best seat in the house – it faces the bar and gives you a wide shot of the dining room and the windows to the outside. The big reclaimed wood tables make a nice setting for a rustic farm to table meal.
My wife was first to arrive and ordered the Sarsaparilla, an ingeniously simple cocktail of Makers Mark and Goose Island Root Beer. My Sazerac came with the Sarsaparilla (probably a 20 minute wait for my drink) and both drinks were good. I have to say, the Sazerac that I had at Maude’s the week before was a bit tastier and included a fun garnish (no garnish on this one). I was surprised because Deebi Peek has such a strong rep in Chicago, but competition makes everyone better.
Our friends finally arrived and we began scanning the menu for winners. Fellow Stockyard writer Johnny Offal suggested that I order more interesting dishes than the duck fat fries or monkey bread, but alas the table could not resist. We had a chat with our waiter and explained that in addition to the starters, we would also like to try the Trout dish, the Raviolo and the shaved squash salad. Our server seemed displeased and warned us that we would likely need to order more. He told us to peruse the menu and that he would be back once we had made out mind up regarding additions. The table was not pleased with this turn of events and I have to say that we felt pressured by the server to order more. His comment made us feel like paupers for not ordering the right amount of food. My wife was particularly upset. “That’s not OK” she said. We always seem to order more food than is needed. I can’t remember one time that a server remarked “Whoa Nellie! That is just too much food! You might want to scale that one down a notch Paula Deen- think of your diabetes”. In fact the advice is typically quite the opposite and so we ordered a cheese plate to placate our rather obnoxious server. To boot, this guy didn’t really explain the dishes particularly well and didn’t give us any insight on how they were cooked, the ingredient selection and what the presentation/texture, etc. would be like.
The monkey bread, which was first to arrive, was a tasty take on bread, has a cool name, but ultimately was not particularly memorable… a little salty and sweet with an unassuming green dipping sauce. Next out was the cheese board and the shaved squash salad.
The salad was satisfying and had a tasty dressing and pleasing texture due to the pomegranate seeds rounding out the dish. The standout of the cheese board was a sheep’s milk with pineapple and vanilla jam.The table did a collective fist pump in honor of this cheese. The smoked trout plate came out next and I was the only one that went back for seconds. It was kind of like pureed smoked creamy salmon with some pretty accompaniments, but not the strongest smoked trout dish I’ve ever had.
Next came the brown butter giant Raviolo and the duck fat fries. Were the duck fat fries a starter? Yes? Did the come out near the end of the meal. Yes they did. Did our server have an explanation? Not at all. The fries were delicious, but I couldn’t fairly evaluate them coming off the transcendent fires I tried the previous week at Maude’s. The brown butter Raviolo was the magnificent saving grace of the meal.
It was tough to split four ways, but this savory, sweet, creamy giant ravioli with an egg in the middle made everyone smile.
The sweet and savory combo warranted a jump kick which I was unable to perform in the close quarters of the Bristol dining room.
We went with the Nutter Butter dessert and the legendary Basque cake. We understand that there will be a chocolate basque cake for Valentine’s day, but alas we had to go with the old reliable on this night. First the magnificent Basque cake. This has to be one of the tastiest desserts I’ve ever had. Rich, buttery, crumbly, moist and not too sweet. This is the one that made the entire table moan in unison “Mmmm” upon first bite. We greedily tore it apart in rapid succession. Next, we moved on to the Nutter Butter. This sounds unbelieveable and I’m sure they sell the hell out of it, because – hey – who doesn’t have fond memories of a nutter butter? The consistency of the peanut butter sandwiches was a little soft for my liking, the peanut butter flavor not pronounced and the chocolate-dipping vat failed to put it over the top. This was clearly a let down compared with the truly sublime Basque cake.
Having completed our meal, while chatting with good friends, we began to ponder our experience. The much hyped Bristol was indeed a fun evening and there were several notable dishes that we were sincerely excited about. A few things, however did not hit the mark and live up to the high expectations that I had for the Bristol. Most prominent here is the service. Mrs. Doughnuts declared when we got home “I think that we could have had a completely different experience if we had another server”. I tend to agree and at the moment recognized how important it is to have a competent, articulate and well intentioned server to guide you through your maiden voyage to a restaurant. Our guy dropped the ball here. Next: the food. Was the Raviolo fantastic? Indeed it was. Was there another highlight? I’m not so sure. Maybe Chef Pandel is a bit distracted preparing to launch the Italian concept Balena in Lincoln Park next month, but we were not wowed by every dish served that night. In particularly, the gushed about monkey bread and duck fat fries are probably best avoided. In all fairness, perhaps the seasonal farm-to-table cuisine will be far more impressive in the summer when many more ingredients are in season. Did the dessert knock our socks off? Damn straight. That Basque cake is the stuff of legend. Top it off with good cocktails and you have a really good evening. The question then becomes: is anything about the Bristol great? How can you fairly describe The Bristol.
- Bristol = Boozer?
- I would liken the Bristol to a much-hyped star player. We live in Chicago so my best comparison will be to a Bull. I call the Bristol Carlos Boozer. No, the staff did not go to Duke or famously rent a house out to Prince. I feel that the Bristol is the Boozer of restaurants because it arrived on the scene and quickly generated buzz around town. You had been reading the press clippings about its achievements (like Boozer when signed by the Bulls), were impressed by its pedigree and really want it to be a superstar in Chicago. Ultimately, once you get to see the Bristol live (like the Booze-man) you quickly realize that it is a talented player. It does several things exceptionally well, it makes plays, it is a championship caliber contributer. Will it ever be “the man” in Chicago… a “franchise-player” so to speak? (ala Derek Rose)? I think not. The Bristol, like Carlos Boozer, is a fun second banana on the Chicago dining scene… and there is no shame in that.
|The Bristol||The Stockyard 10|
|Vibe||Rustic farm tables, chalkboard, brick, quiet elegance|
|Crowd||Youngish, discerning foodies. Hip but not overly so.|
|Soundtrack||Pleasing background beats played at a low volume to promote convo|
|Drinks||A- was expecting a bit more from Debbi Peek drinks, just sayin’|
|Revisitability||B+ fun evening, will be back hopefully different server|
|Service||C- He was pretty slow and pressured us to order more. Not cool.|
|Food||A- Raviolo was epic, Rockman Basque cake = killer. Other dishes not as polished.|
|Highlights||Raviolo ($15), Basque Cake ($11)|
2152 North Damen Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 862-5555 | M-Th 5-10, F-Sat 5-11, Sun 10-2, 5-10
A Novel Idea: An Over-the-top, Interactive Night at EL ideas
By: Lauren Zinfandel Posted: January 18, 2012
Note: As announced earlier today, Chef Andrew Brochu will be leaving EL ideas to accept the head Chef position at Graham Elliot starting February 1. This review is based on a visit to El ideas with the talented Brochu in the kitchen. Only time will tell if El ideas can deliver the same experience with a different supporting cast going forward.
The trend of the micro-restaurant isn’t new to Chicago. With places like Schwa and Crux operating small dining rooms, the micro-restaurant concept allows chefs the opportunity to connect with diners and have greater creative control over the menu. One such restaurant, EL ideas, takes such a concept and elevates it (pun intended) to a new level. Chefs Phillip Foss and Andrew Brochu have collaborated to create a dynamic, entertaining meal that could be considered one of the best I have ever had the pleasure of eating.
EL ideas, located at 2419 W. 14th St. (roughly 14th and Western), wasn’t what I was picturing as I drove there. The area’s a bit sketchy, and I ended up parking my car in a giant, muddy pothole that took ages to get out of later. So, don’t come to this location expecting valet. Also, due to the lack of taxis in the area, diners can arrange for a town car when making reservations. These are definitely considerations to keep in mind while planning a visit.
Already being familiar with Chef Phillip Foss’s over-the-top persona as the head of Meatyballs, as well as his previous work at Lockwood, I was imagining overused ball puns, flashy colors, and chaos. What I found, instead, was an understated, tasteful dining room, with two tops or four tops scattered about. The dining room is separated from the kitchen by a low wall, so the kitchen is completely accessible to diners at all times. There is one throw back to the Meatyballs empire – a poster of Chef from South Park keeps the mood light.
Chef Foss is also joined by Chef Andrew Brochu (formerly of Kith & Kin and Pops for Champagne), whose talent shines through on every course. The Chefs’ attention to detail, along with their inventiveness and genuine excitement about what they are doing at EL, is clearly evident in every plate.
The most exciting element of EL ideas is how interactive the experience is. Chef Foss encourages diners to walk into the kitchen, ask questions about the dishes, and even serve a plate or two, if one so desires. While I am definitely too clumsy to attempt to serve anything that looks as pretty as Foss and Brochu’s food, I did enjoy going back to the kitchen to watch the chefs work. My husband was equally psyched to get some scoop on how better to use our sous-vide machine.
With EL changing the menu weekly, I may be making a few moot points as I rave about my favorite dishes. Hopefully some of these dishes will hang around a bit longer for others to try them as well. Either way, one of the best things that I have eaten all year (and I don’t throw this phrasing around) was Sassafrass, a dish that combined venison, pecan, and cranberry. The venison was tender and complimented nicely with the pecan and cranberry to create an earthy, Thanksgiving dinner feel. Another standout was the Banana, which was rolled in bacon and placed atop a piece of peanut brittle. I wish there was a snack version of this, as Banana was a flavor combo I wouldn’t mind eating every day for the rest of my life. I loved the combo of the sweetness and saltiness, and the crunch of the peanut brittle sent the dish over the top.
This particular menu had two dessert courses, which tended to be quite savory in flavor. I really enjoyed Rum, which blended elements of egg, vanilla, and sweet spice to create a hearty yet refreshing end to the meal.
Although the menu is 13 courses long, the pacing is done well so that there’s aren’t large gaps between courses, nor is the food pushed out at a rapid pace. I tend to get antsy during a 2+ hour-long meal, but Foss and Brochu kept the dinner right on track so that I wasn’t checking the time frequently.
Since EL ideas is BYOB, I can’t help much with suggested pairings. The good news is that prior to your reservation, you’ll receive an e-mail with suggested red and white wine pairings. I’d recommend at least one bottle of each; it’s a long meal and servers Bill or Dave will make sure to keep the drinks coming.
Reservations can be a bit tricky to come by, due to the nature of being a micro-restaurant. Still, I was able to get two reservations within a two-month window, and it’s well worth the wait. To reserve, sign up on the EL ideas site and you will be contacted to book. Occasionally, cancellations are posted on Facebook and Twitter as well, and both accounts are definitely worth following.
If the overall goal is to provide a memorable, interactive dining experience, then EL ideas gets it right. The talent is apparent, the experience is a blast, and I’m still dreaming about some of the food I ate two months ago. EL is worth a visit (or two or three)!
|EL ideas: The Stockyard 10|
|Vibe||Like hanging out at your friend’s house; super relaxed!|
|Crowd||Youngish hipsters (only 12 seats, so it’s hard to judge)|
|Soundtrack||Weird, playful mix from the servers’ iPods, a bit heavy on the Glee soundtrack|
|Drinks||Create your own drink experience from the pairings you choose|
|Cost/person||$135 13 courses overall (tax and tip extra)|
|Revisitability||B+ I’ll be back as soon as I can afford it again|
|Service||A It’s amazing how one server can work the room so well|
|Food||B+ Creative, whimsical, and you might even get the chance to plate it yourself!|
|Highlights||Banana, Rum, Cauliflower, Jidori Chicken, SassaFras|
2419 W. 14th St.
Chicago, IL 60608
Yusho: Japanese for Bomb Yakitori
By: Johnny Offal Posted: January 18, 2012
Yakitori Bomb? Is that a new shot offered at a divey Wrigleyville dirty sushi shop? Does it describe an epic WWII battle? No, quite the contrary; this dated colloquial expression is being used to express my love for newly opened Yusho in Logan Square. This new yakitori-inspired restaurant by Charlie
Trotter’s former Chef de Cuisine Matthias Merges, is a place that should be
generating considerable buzz, but, for some reason, it doesn’t seem to
be getting the media love that it deserves. Having dined
here a number of times, it strikes me as odd
that there isn’t as much social media/print media buzz about this
exciting newcomer, but looking around the place you wouldn’t know
that at all. On a recent Monday night, while seated at the bar, I noticed no
fewer than 4 chefs of local and national celebrity separately roll through the
door for dinner. There were also a few tables of other industry folks
dining there that evening. Much like Avec, this joint is a place
where chefs want to eat… and you should too.
Yusho is located along a sleepy stretch of North Kedzie just south of
the Kennedy expressway. Street parking is easily accessible.
The warm brick and timber room is long and narrow with booths along
the wall, flanked by a strangely high bar with equally high stools.
Word is, because food prep is done behind the bar, in view of
customers (as in any good yakitori joint); city code requires a
barrier of sorts. The high bar and stools helped the designers get
around having to install some sort of sneeze guard. It seems strange
climbing so far up onto a bar stool but I manage. In a back dining
room there are more booths and several tables.
However, sitting at the bar is what yakitori is all about. It’s where the
action is. Chef/owner Merges expedites from the bar and the folks working
the line are as comfortable interacting with the diners as they are
with cooking Chef Merges’ menu.
Before ordering food you have to try one of the cocktails
created by Alex, Yusho’s mixologist. Each is highly refined, using
ingredients that are uncommon, yet not rare. One example: The
Alderman’s Hodo which has quickly become one of my favorite cocktails in town. It’s a
bourbon based drink using Johnny Drum 101 Bourbon, gomme syrup (sort
of a highly reduced simple syrup) bitters, acid phosphate, and soda.
It’s refreshing and aromatic. Aside from the cocktails, Yusho offers
an interesting selection of wine, sake, and beer. The only on-tap
offering is Capital Brewery’s Supper Club, which pairs nicely with all
of the food I’ve had here.
The menu is broken up into two sections, “Grilled Birds” and “Land and Sea.”
Plates are yakitori in style and are meant to be shared. Because these
dishes are quite small, plan on ordering between 3 and 4 per person.
However, just because they’re meant to be shared doesn’t mean they’re
always easy to share. On a recent visit we ordered a beautifully
grilled mackerel fillet. It was presented off the skewer
but there was a minor problem. Have you ever tried to cut
a fish fillet with a chopstick? I have, not so fun.
That being said, food here is as good as you’d expect coming from a
chef with the pedigree of a Trotter’s vet. Silky smooth chicken liver
mousse is offset nicely by tart yuzu and pickled shallots, and served
with crisp sesame crackers. A grilled roulade of chicken thigh with
Savoy cabbage, Anaheim peppers, and basil combines nice meat around a
skillfully crafted, smooth forcemeat. The grilled oyster is something
everyone at the table should get. Fresh, briny, tasting of the sea,
these plump beauties are garnished with apple cider, sake, and
tapioca. An absolute standout, is the Beef Tongue. Originally done with lamb
tongue, (better than the beef in my opinion) this skewer of amazingly
tender, grilled thin slices of meat served with crisp and
refreshing daikon and just a touch of spicy sambal: an absolute grand slam.
Also, don’t miss the twice fried chicken. It is a large dish that
includes several pieces of boneless chicken, fried twice for a super crunchy texture
without a load of batter, lightly dusted with green tea, and served
playfully atop a wooden board lined with Japanese newspaper. The
chicken is as juicy as it is crunchy.
Dessert selections are limited to a trendy soft serve ice cream dish
and a Mochi with hazelnut and chocolate. These dishes almost seem like
an afterthought when paired against the thoughtful savory parts of the
Service is friendly and professional, although, while seated at the
bar, the bartender performs waiter duties. While this doesn’t impact
the running of food to the diner at the bar, which is often done by
the Chef, food runners, or even line cooks, placing orders and getting
the check at the end of the meal can meet with long delays as the
bartender has the tendency to get slammed while making cocktails.
Prices range from $3.25 for the oyster to $18 for the foie gras and
strip loin, but most dishes are in the $8-$10 range.
Aside from dinner which is served from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. seven
days a week, Yusho also does a late night menu until 1:00 a.m., great
for industry people to unwind with after a shift.
For some reason Chicago hasn’t yet embraced the yakitori or izakaya
style of restaurant, and perhaps that’s because of a rather lackluster
group of attempts at pulling these concepts off around town. Yusho however, is
doing it right: quality drinks, quality dishes, in a hip, relaxed
environment. Check it out.
|Yusho: The Stockyard 10|
|Vibe||Hip, relaxed… bar seats are where it’s at|
|Crowd||Lots of industry people grubbing grub before/after shift.|
|Soundtrack||Did not take note of music, probably a good sign|
|Drinks||A- Creative, tasty cocktails (Hodo!)|
|Cost/person||$40 Including 3 dishes & 1 drink (tax, tip extra)|
|Revisitability||A- I will definitely be back for a yakitori fix|
|Service||B Friendly, professional, occasional delays|
|Food||B+ Delicious, quality techniques and craftsmanship|
|Highlights||Beef tongue, Alderman’s Hodo cocktail,|
Maude’s: Reluctantly Hot
By: Jay Doughnuts Posted January 9, 2012
Lately, when I’ve asked “people who know things” about where they have enjoyed eating and drinking of late, I’ve regularly been peppered with the same enthusiastic response “You’ve Got to Try Maude’s!” I admit, I’m often the last guy on the bandwagon; I was on a 3-year delay with catching on to epic TV series “The Wire”, “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”. 1 I finally bought rolling luggage about 5 years too late after lugging heavy duffle bags around airports and doing irreparable damage to my shoulders. I was the last guy “in” on board shorts after slowly realizing that it was socially unacceptable to hang out on the beach in threadbare Patrick Ewing-era basketball shorts. I didn’t catch on to how much fun it was to sing Toto’s “Africa” in the car with the windows rolled down until- – - well let’s not got there. I have a track record of being late on many things and Maude’s Liquor Bar is just another example… but as with many things, better late than never.
Mrs. Doughnuts and I booked date-night reservations for Friday (1/6/12) at this Parisian bistro inspired spot on Randolph Street in the West Loop and hoped for the best. The dim lighting and ambiance immediately reminds you of GiltBar by Brendan Sodikoff which stands to reason because they are sister restaurants. I bellied up to the bar and ordered a sazerac2 The cocktail was carefully stirred and prepared with the same skill and precision that I’ve come to expect from Gilt. My wife ordered an off-menu French Old Fashioned as recommended by the waitress when she mentioned that she enjoyed bourbon cocktails. Kudos to the waitress for going off menu, always a crowd pleaser because it makes you feel like an insider.
We sipped the cocktails and perused the small menu having a fairly good idea of what to order based on recommendations from die-hard Maude’s supporters. Chicago restaurants need to take a queue from this menu designed by chef Jeff Pikus. The people have spoken and we don’t want a menu that reminds us of a Diner.3 Cook 10-12 things and cook them well. That is all you really need4.
Out first course was the elegantly displayed order of West Coast Oysters. As an oyster newbie, I knew that they were good, but not quite equal to the gold-standard oysters that I’ve sampled many times at GT Fish. Our next course was escargot served with an exceedingly generous side of fresh crusty bread and the lauded pommes frites. I’ve never eaten snails. I have nothing against them as slow-moving living creatures or as tasty appetizers. Slathered on top of bread, they taste like nothing more than an elaborate garlicky, buttery spread. There was no noticeable fishy or meaty flavor… they were actually decent.5 Now on to the freedom fries.6 served with a garlic mayo (remember when mayo on fries was so novel that it blew Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield’s minds in Pulp Fiction?). Sacrebleu! I’ve consumed a lot of French fries in my day, and these are game changers. I’ve had some of the best in both Brussels and Amsterdam and nearly every variety at the Bad Apple on Lincoln, but these are undoubtedly the finest I’ve ever had…and it’s not even close. They crispy, golden, flaky, buttery and moist goodness left us speechless. I turned to my wife and asked “Are these sprinkled with crack? … Why can’t I stop eating them?”
Eat them we did. Even as the servers presented the final items in our order, the bone marrow and blackened brussel sprouts, we proceeded to greedily paw at the fries7. Fries finished, I moved on to the bone marrow, another item that I was sampling for the first time in my life. The bones were similar in size to the ones that Fred Flinstone would find in his Brontosaurus steak. I scooped the gooey marrow on to my bread and discovered…. it tastes like fat. There is nothing wrong with food that tastes like fat… it is very rich and pleasing but I was hoping for some other hint of flavor. Next we moved on to the brussel sprouts, which were magnificent. Rich, mustardy buttery charred goodness. I don’t know what Pikus is doing to these sprouts, but I’ve never eaten a green vegetable so enthusiastically in my life. Regrettably we could not bring the brontosaurus bones home to the pup.8 Having gorged on this feast we were too stuffed for desert, but lingered to soak in the cocktails and the pleasing scene around us.
So what is the appropriate comparison for Maude’s? I thought about it and decided that the best analogy for the restaurant would be a particularly stylish, understated, approachable, young, talented and self-aware Hollywood actress. An actress that makes you say, “I bet if I met her and struck up a witty conversation, I might actually have a chance… she has no idea how hot she is.”. An actress that actually went to college and was interested in things other than simply being hot. I call it reluctantly hot. The poster child of reluctantly hot over the last 10 years is probably Natalie Portman circa 2004 (think Garden State not Black Swan)9. Maude’s is similarly charming, confidant and at the height of her powers (before having the baby and generating the big Oscar buzz, although you can totally see it coming). She’s got the goods and you are just interested in seeing how it will all come together.
Maude’s is a destination worth returning to again and again and I place her firmly on the Mt. Rushmore bubble. Chicago needs more restaurants like this. Commit to a simple menu of dishes that you can make exceedingly well driven by a skilled chef. Lean on a bar staff that makes craft cocktails as well as anyone in town. Set a chic yet understated atmosphere and <newsflash> people actually stay to hang out in for a drink or two… or four. The restaurant feels solid, authentic and carefully constructed… it virtually screams for you to add it your rotation… like an unrepentant and evangelical fan of Breaking Bad.
Just like 2004 vintage Natalie, Maude is gorgeous, friendly, affordable, approachable, fun and unpretentious… and she is completely unaware of her hotness. If you play your cards right, you might even be able to negotiate a regular thing with Maude … oh and she accepts reservations on Open Table… if only getting intimate with the beautiful people was this easy.
|Maude’s Liquor Bar||The Stockyard 10|
|Vibe||A- Stylish, vintage without trying too hard or being too trendy|
|Crowd||B+ Median age about 30, laid back yuppies/ Light hipster|
|Music||A Interesting tracks, good taste, near perfect background tunes|
|Drinks||A One of the best cocktail programs around|
|Revisitability||A I will be back many times for fries, drinks, fun|
|Service||B Should have asked if we had eaten there before; solid otherwise|
|Food||A- Delicious preparation, we enjoyed everything|
|Highlights||Pommes Frites ($6), blackened sprouts ($8), Sazerac ($12)|
|Overall||A- ( * * * ½)|
1 If you still aren’t “in” on these shows, you may have to be tied down with your eyes clamped open . They are that good.
2 Sazarac has become my standard order at a place renowned for good cocktails much like pulled pork is “test” order for a new BBQ joint.
3 Unless you are Izard’s upcoming Little Goat, in which case we want that.
4 Call me crazy, I don’t think you can make everything on a 4 page fold out menu well.
5 Snails are slimey as hell, I lost one while setting up my bread-snail delivery system.
6 America… F. yeah!
7 We were in a race to the bottom of the wax piper lined silver tin of French fries and I was NOT going to lose this battle.
8 Another case of the 1% (woman whose Chihuahua hurt its tooth on a sharp bone) messes it up for the 99% of us normal dog owners.
9 Initially compared Maude to Maggie Gyllenhaal before remembering that both were awful in their respective Batman roles… and, conversely, Maude’s is very, very good.
Big Jones- Has Southern-inspired hotspot lost its soul?
By Bill Lo Mein
We journeyed to Big Jones in Andersonville for a second time this weekend (1/07/12) and were mostly disappoined with our dining experience at Big Jones. The first time we visited Big Jones several months ago almost seemed magical – we had the gumbo, great beers, but it seems that either my tastes have changed or the restaurant has lost its way. We started with an order of the Lion’s Pride Whiskey: incredibly smooth and definitely got the meal started nicely. The charcuterie plate had a nice variety. The head cheese, pate, and the blood sausage were all delicious. They had a cumin-spiced cured meat that unfortunately tasted as though I licked a jar of cumin.
My partner ordered the soup of the day – which was billed as a bean/pea soup but ended up tasting like canned bean dip. She had the risotto for an entree, which she admitted was a risky order at a Southern inspired restaurant and it did not pay off. The gold rice was hard and undercooked, making it taste like a health freak’s breakfast. The seasonal sweet tea-brined pork loin was one of the saving graces of the meal.
Based on our experience Saturday evening, we may not be returning for a 3rd meal unfortunately.
Ambiance: mellow/low key
Booze: Wine list very limited | Spirits list – whiskey-bourbon galore | Beer – nothing on draft about 10 bottles of craft beer, decent variety