A Quick Trip To Chicago - Reviews of Bleeding Heart, Over Easy, Charlie Trotter's, TRU, Bongo Room, Cafe Spiaggia, Moto.
- uhockey Jan 2, 2009 12:51 PM
www.uhockey.blogspot.com for full reviews with pictures. Text reviews will be posted below.
A huge thanks to everyone on this board for the great recommendations - think of these reviews as a thanks to you all and my contribution to others searching for information in the future!
As an advocate of healthy eating and the total avoidance of trans-fats, High Fructose Corn Syrup, and other horribly unnatural ingredients I must admit I avoid most bakeries and almost all pre-packaged goods. With that said, a good bakery is a thing of beauty and while baking is something anyone can do, it is something is truly special when it is done well. A great bakery that is also organic and delivers Ace of Cakes quality presentation? I couldn't resist.
Arriving in Chicago around 10am on 12/30 and starving from a long drive, our first stop was indeed Bleeding Heart. Parking was easy, cheap, and directly in front of the building - something we'd not experience on the rest of our trip. Entering the building one is instantly struck by the punk-ethic, crazy decorations, and the delicious smell - this ain't your standard "organic smelling" store. The line was approximately 5-6 people long and while we made our myriad selections we got a good chuckle out of the skinny girl asking the punk-chique clerk about the carb content of a muffin...."Get out, this is a bakery you jackass" would've been my response, but the clerk handled it slightly more professionally :) While waiting I also wandered to the back and saw the owner and 4 others mixing batter in the back room which was full of ovens and other kitchen tools, all incredibly clean.
For our selections we opted for a good mix - A vegan Pumpkin Chocolate Cupcake, a Red Velvet Cupcake (a must at ALL bakeries), an Elvis Brownie, a S'mores tarte, a key lime bar, and a serving of the fresh made Pear And Apple Bread Pudding (Bread Pudding is my favorite dessert item, by far.) The total bill was $20 for a whole lot of food and we sat down to enjoy the items at a booth in the back. Browsing the wall art I was very impressed that all the pieces were for sale, alas when I inquired about the price of an intriguing heart wearing an apron the clerk was unable to provide me with the information and the artist was not reachable by phone. Digging in, we each sampled the selections and were wowed to varying degrees by each item.
Of the two cupcakes, both were plenty moist and good representations of the genre, but both suffered from far too much topping and far too little texture to the cake. The red velvet, while tasty, was overpowered by the sweetness of the frosting and paled in comparison to many others - especially the versions at Yummy in Santa Monica and Bouchon in Vegas but also the one later tasted at Fox and Obel. The Pumpkin Chocolate was excellent, however the chocolate was undetectable under the heavy handed flavor of the pumpkin spice.
Next up, the Smores Tarte - decent, but not great. Served cold from a chilled case, the texture was creamy enough, but the marshmallow seemed a tad dry and rubbery while the graham cracker was burried under the thick texture of the carob/chocolate gnache. The Elvis Brownie, like the Tarte, suffered from a very dark chocolate obscuring the taste of the peanut butter and banana - another "decent but not great" choice.
Impressed that the food was organic, but unimpressed by the tastes thus far we next tried the key lime bar - Holy cow! While I admit I'm not a big fan of Key Lime Pie in general, I have had some stunning representations in Florida and at Mastro's in California - this bar topped them all, by far. Smooth and creamy, tart yet sweet, a little bitter and balanced with a buttery crust....a great palate cleanser after the heavy chocolates.
In a hope that I was saving the best for last, we next opened the Bread Pudding container that had been topped with just a little bit of warm vegan caramel. Without overstating I can definitively say this is the best fruit based bread pudding I've ever experienced. Better than that of Thomas Keller, better than the Refectory......possibly better than the non-fruit version at Gramercy Tavern.......possibly the best ever. Dense brioche, wonderfully sweet fruits (There were some unadvertised cherries in there too), and flawless density without being "heavy" it was perfect.
All told, Bleeding Heart is a revelation and something much needed in America - no, its not health food and no you shouldn't eat it every day, but if you're going to indulge why not do it with top quality ingredients prepared by a chef who truly believes in what he/she is doing? If you love super dense chocolate I imagine nothing would disappoint you one bit, but if you prefer a lighter touch I'd suggest checking out the fruit based items - especially that transcendent bread pudding.
Glad you enjoyed your trip to Bleeding Heart -- I couldn't agree more. Bleeding Heart Bakery's superb commitment to quality without sugar and fat for sugar and fat's sake is remarkable. Their vegan Take-A-Hike scones make for the densest, heartiest breakfast food around -- rife with cranberries, apricots, apples, oats, and pumkpin and flax (?) seeds. Generally I stock up at the Lincoln Park Greenmarket, but thank goodness that King Cafe carries them year-round, otherwise I'd be making biweekly trips to Roscoe Village. If you are looking to splurge, I'd recommend their chocolate-dipped bacon (and, yes, it's exactly as described).
Although I was thoroughly disappointed by the baked goods at Bleeding Heart Bakery recently, I can heartily recommend the scones at Bittersweet Pastry on Belmont, which were perhaps the best scones I've ever had. (Other items at Bittersweet tend to be hit-or-miss, but the scones are a big hit.)
This was the first time I can remember a pastry I disliked so much I couldn't finish it. It was just plain awful. I posted details in the topic on local pastry ( http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/542316 ), where I ranked Bleeding Heart Bakery 21st out of 22 Chicago bakeries.
Next time you're here, check out either Vanille Patisserie - very small selection, but the quality is awesome, particularly if you like entremets (individual-sized mousse cakes) and/or French macaroons - or Fox & Obel, for a huge variety as well as top-notch quality.
We went to Fox and Obel (I actually changed from street clothes to a suit in their bathroom en route to Moto....lol) My aunt got something called a Red Velvet Fatboy that was pretty bland from the single bite I tried - but that store is amazing and I picked up 3 bags of Intelligentsia to bring back to Cbus in order to comp the $20 parking garage fee. That coffee is addictive.
As my daily breakfast is usually vegetable, egg, fruit, and yogurt based I tend to go all out for the sweet temptations when on Vacation and during my recent trip to Chicago I kept true to form in electing to check out Over Easy Cafe for one of my two breakfasts. Conveniently located with unique dishes and cozy size and appearance, Over Easy is the kind of place that would be at the top of the breakfast food-chain in most major cities, but on my visit there was something lacking....that something was service. To avoid bashing the place entirely, as my food was quite delicious, let me just suggest avoiding the chubby female waitress with the nose ring - unless of course you want to have her avoid eye contact while she helps her myriad other tables.
All service issues aside, I found the setting to be very quaint and the prices to be about what one would expect for a restaurant of its ilk. Parking was cheap and plentiful, Coffee was Intelligentsia and refilled rapidly by our bus-boy, and the original service of our food took only approximately 15 minutes from the time we ordered. For our dishes we selected three of the specials, the famous banana french toast, and a glass of the speckled orange juice - Pretty, but $4 for 8oz? Skip it.
Dish one, selected by my aunt, was the Banana Stuffed French Toast with whipped creme fraiche, bananas, caramel, crumbled walnuts, and powdered sugar and it was worth every bit of the hype. Not overly sweet, the Brioche was perfectly grilled and wonderfully soft while the filling was airy and light, yet smooth and creamy. The crumbled walnuts provided a modest crunch while the caramel and dusting of sugar allowed for just enough sweetness without burying the subtle flavors. A winner, by all accounts.
The second choice, my sisters, was vastly less impressive. Titled Blueberry Crunch Pancakes with granola, candied pecans and blueberries, cinnamon butter and whipped cream, the dish was excessively dry and modestly flavorless until syrup was added...syrup that we saw poured from a large container akin to those you'd buy at Sam's Club behind the bar. For the prices charged, I rather expect pure maple syrup at restaurants like Over Easy; if they can do it at Griddle Cafe in LA and Bongo Room in Chicago, Over Easy should be able to do it too.
Dish three, my mothers, was Spicy Corn Cakes with Scrambled Eggs and Berkshire Ham and another knockout. The Corncakes were like fantastic corn bread with a slight hint of sweet and an undertone of spice that perfectly offset the salty pork and airy cooked eggs. While a better syrup choice would have made the plate an even bigger hit, I was glad my mom had eaten too much sweets at Bleeding Heart and left me a whole pancake to endulge in.
The final selection, and second only to the Banana French Toast in appeal, was my Cannoli French Toast with brioche and sweetened mascarpone cream, chocolate chips, strawberry coulis, pistachio, and whipped cream. Another stunning example of perfectly prepared brioche, this dish was similar to the other French Toast in its subtlety and excellence at bringing forth multiple flavors and textures while still maintaining a cohesive concept. While not as sweet as a typical Italian Cannoli, the smooth mascarpone was brilliantly highlighted by crunchy mini chocolate chips and chopped pistachio. The strawberry coulis was a wonderful addition, but far too little graced the plate to have any meaningful effect on the taste.
Great concepts handicapped by corner cutting and service that suffered from both inadequate staffing and poor attitude - All told, Over Easy is a good little place for breakfast and we happened to luck out with immediate seating when we arrived (When we left there was quite a line,) but it isn't the sort of place I'd rush back to on subsequent visits to Chicago - or the kind of place I'd wait more than 10 minutes to grab a seat at. Try it once, then head over to Bongo Room...repeatedly.
Going into my meal at Charlie Trotter's I can honestly say I didn't know what to expect. As I was meeting a friend I hadn't seen in some time I certainly expected a good time, but despite Trotter being one of the most celebrated American Chefs of all time it seems as though many recent reviews have not been as wowed with the landmark restaurant in the same way as they are by Iconic restaurants like TFL or Jean-Georges, or even the local temples of Molecular Gastronomy like Alinea or Avenues. Additionally, after having the most fantastic meal of my life at Alex in Vegas earlier this year I certainly didn't want to go in with expectations too high and end up diappointed. Oh wait, did I say Alex was the most fantastic meal of my life.......make that second most fantastic....
Arriving prior to my friend I snapped a few pictures of the unmarked exterior and subsequently made my way into the festively decorated bar. Greeted immediately by a doorman and two hosts inside my coat was taken and I was offered a wine list (or should I say phonebook) to puruse while I waited. As I sat and chatted with the bartender for approximately 10 minutes I watched many well-heeled Chicagoans arrive and make their way through the vast expanse of the old brownstone to their tables - clearly the current economic downturn isn't effecting everyone the same - the place was booked solid. When my friend arrived we were immediately escorted upstairs to a wonderful booth overlooking the very bar I'd just been in and as we chatted we watched the snow begin to kick up outside. After a short discussion with our waitress about likes and dislikes (no beef for myself, no raw fish for my friend) a complimentary glass of champagne was poured, butter and the first bread course - a fantasticly crispy mini baguette - were served, and the somellier appeard to help us select an appropriate bottle of red to go with the meal. Throughout the meal the service was exquisite and without flaw - all questions answered, all requests granted, never an empty glass or crumb on the table....they even rush to open the bathroom door for you.
Course one of the meal on this particular evening was Japanese Kindai Bluefin Tuna with Cucumber and Wasabi, a perfectly light dish with minimal spice from the wasabi foam and a slight crunch from the sprouts and cucumbers that paired perfectly with the fatty melt-in-your-mouth tuna. For my friend, a Sake sorbet was provided which he commented was quite potent and tasty. Both dishes paired well with the champagne and along with this course a second bread, a 5 seed wheat, was also served. After much oohing and ahhing from myself plates were cleared, crumbs removed, more wine poured, and onward our journey went.
Course two of the evening consisted of Maine Day Boat Lobster with Beets, Chestnut, and Bull's Blood and although each dish that followed was spectacular, this was without a doubt my favorite of the savories. A perfectly butter poached lobster claw lied trisected on the plate interspersed with thinly sliced chestnuts, fine diced bulls blood beets, yellow beet juice, vanilla saffron cream, and heirloom red beet reduction. Somewhat salty, mostly sweet, light and fresh in every way - quite possibly the best lobster dish yet to grace my palate and certainly as good as the blue lobster at Alex and Ducasse's famous Lobster Au Curry....simply breathtaking.
Prior to course three we were served yet another bread, this time an incredible Emmenthal Cheese Roll - a bread so delicious that it will haunt my dreams for months...and warranted us both asking for seconds...and thirds.
Course three was another winner and possibly the most "complex" of the evening's dishes - Poached Pennsylvania Duck Egg with Perigord Black Truffle, Torpedo Onion, Parsley. A 14 hour poached Duck Egg was served next to a Vidalia Onion chip and literally covered with shaved Black Truffle and a reduction of torpedo onion with a drizzle of parsley broth. Multiple textures, multiple flavors, both potent and subtle with basenotes of taste from the onion and topnotes of aroma provided by the truffle - a true masterpiece of composition.
Course four was my least favorite of the savories, but a good dish none the less. Whole Roasted Squab Breast with Birch, Black Trumpet Mushroom, and Devil's Club was just a little too heavy for my liking and although the squab was perfectly cooked, the woodsy tone of the Birch and Devil's Club overwhelmed the bird while the hearty and earthy Trumpet Mushrooms stole the show with their flawless texture. Plated but unnamed was also a wonderful puree of brown butter and spices that paired nicely with the mushrooms, but less-so with the squab.
Course five was preceded by the best bread of the evening, a hearty rye absolutely stuffed with Vermont Maple Syrup and Berkshire Bacon. Soft, succulent, sweet and savory there is no doubt I would have eaten a basket of this marvelous bread had I not four (er, five) courses to go and dessert tasting restervations for later at Tru.
Course five was a substitution for myself and consisted of Roasted Free Range Bison with Date, Gingerbread, and Pomegranate - incredible, the best red meat I've had in years. Perfectly seared rare, the bison was expertly complimented by the sweetness of Date 'barbeque sauce" and gingerbread flash fried matsutake mushrooms provided a unique contrast of crispy spice while the pomegranate was served chilled as another bold contrast to the rest of the dish.
As a transition course to dessert we were nexed served course six - Satsuma with Clove, Sauternes, Tangerine. A tad potent for my tongue, my friend thought this dish was excellent and specifically loved the manner in which the super-sweet satsuma was cut by the bitter and spicey cloves. Having never tasted Sauternes myself, I found the dish intriguing but definitely not a favorite...especially compared to what followed.
Dishes seven and eight were served together and each were mesmerizing in their own way:
Honey Crisp Apples with Cider Granite and Ginger Jelly was an apple served in no less than 5 different ways - from flash fried over a sweetened semifreddo to an unadourned finely chopped slice over a spicey bread pudding, and finally a pairing of spicey icey cider granite and a ginger jelly compote - a true work of art and amongst the best desserts I've ever experienced....yet not even the best dessert of the meal....
Black Mission Figs with Shaved Fruit Cake, Marcona Almonds, Pedro Ximenez, Proscuitto, and Bacon Fat - possibly the single most impressive combination of unexpected flavors yet to grace my palate. Essentially the dish was a piece of nutty fruit cake topped with Raw Cows Milk Icecream, chopped almonds, fresh figs, and a slice of Proscuitto that was then topped tableside with a reduction of sherry and bacon fat. Sweet, savory, crunchy, spongey.....nearly indescribable.....possibly perfection.
After completing this phenomenal dish our server arrived to ask us if there was anything else they could do for us. Jokingly I suggested another half-dozen servings of the dessert and much to our surprise we were met with the response - "well, I think we could do another one." When I stated I was joking she quickly quipped "I'm not" and disappeared with a smile, returning less than 10 minutes later with another more substantial portion of the figs and fruit cake concoction. Along with this dish we were served a tray of 5 mignardises - a passionfruit jelly, a hazelnut "nutella cup," an "after eight" mint, a cranberry nut nougat, and an incredibly creamy caramel - and the bill.
With the bill settled we prepared for our departure and as a final treat were offered a tour of the kitchen, the display kitchen, and the wine cellar as well as complimentary copies of the menu as take home souvenirs. All throughout the tour the staff, from server to chef to dishwasher, was notably smiling and working in flawlessly clean and gorgeous surroundings. Nothing appeared overly stuffy, nothing extremely pretentious, everything simply gracious and wonderful.
Without overstating I can absolutely say that my trip to Charlie Trotter's on 12/30/08 was the best overall dining experience of my life and although not every dish was "perfect," the meal was as close to perfection as one should ever expect. Flawless service, immaculate presentation, progressive flavors and wonderful innovation.....when is Michelin coming to Chicago so Trotter can get the same respect as that lavished on Keller and others?
I'm so glad that you had an awesome time.
As you know, some people tend to trash Trotter. I for one think he is still at the top of his game.
I've also seen Chef himself described as humorless but here's a little story. We were there for NYE and friends of ours from Austin, Tx couldn't make it so I asked Chef to do a shout out to them that I filmed on my cell. It was hysterical and our friends loved it!
Thanks so much for regaling us with your trip details! (I look forward to hearing about the rest of your stops.)
>> when is Michelin coming to Chicago so Trotter can get the same respect as that lavished on Keller and others?
I don't know about Michelin, but Trotter's gets plenty of respect. It's still in the most recent list of the top 50 restaurants in the world (compiled by Restaurant magazine and sponsored by San Pellegrino):
and has been in the top 40 for all seven years that that list has been compiled.
Most of the reports I've seen about Trotter's recently have been overwhelmingly positive in praise. I'm not saying there's never been a negative, but I've seen at least a handful of negative posts about *every* restaurant, even the very best ones around (a group which IMO includes Trotter's).
I'm back on service tomorrow, but I'll get the others done sometime in the coming weeks.
I realize that fact about Trotters, but for some reason it seems that "the foodie world" overly values the Michelin Guide. Don't know why they don't do a Chicago version, honestly.....the dining scene is better than LA, IMO.
I'll agree with you on that last point, 100 percent. Although SoCal's dining scene has improved considerably in recent years - like almost everyone's - and I've had some excellent meals there in my frequent trips there over the years, I don't think it offers anywhere near as much variety and quality as ours does. Most cities do some things better than others, but Chicago is unusual in doing so many things well, in addition to our local specialties. And there are some cuisines (e.g. Mexican) that they *ought* to do better than we do, but don't; although we have a large Mexican- and Latin-American demographic, theirs is considerably larger, both numerically and percentagewise, yet we have numerous creative and provincial Mexican places that seem to be lacking there, from what I've seen.
At the high end, SoCal restaurants are rarely mentioned as among the very best in the country, whereas we have a good half dozen that are worthy of consideration for that category. Not that that San Pellegrino list is the only measure around, but just to cite it as evidence, Chicago has two restaurants on the list, and SoCal has zero, although there are two that are 400 miles north of there. And, although Michelin doesn't publish a guide for Chicago, they don't give three stars to any restaurants in their Los Angeles edition. (They give them to four restaurants in New York and one each in the SF and Vegas editions.)
Still, there are lots of excellent places to eat in SoCal, and I enjoy checking them out when I visit.
Oh, and according to this article, Michelin is considering publishing restaurant guides to Chicago as well as to Boston, Miami, and Washington: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap_travel/200...
Getting out of Trotter's a bit later than expected I said goodbye to my pal and hopped into the waiting car on Armitage. I quickly flipped open my cellphone and placed a call...we were going to be late. "Not a problem" said the voice on the other end, "we'll see you soon." ...and what did you do after the grand tasting and an extra dessert at Charlie Trotter's, sir? I went to TRU with the 3 most important people in my life for the dessert tasting menu - that is what I did.
Arriving at TRU a short man in a suit took our car while another held open the door - "You made it, please have a seat in the lounge while we prepare your table" said the hostess. 5 minutes passed and another man appeared to escort us to our table in the main dining room; chairs were pulled out for the ladies and purse-stools impressed my mother and sister while the synchronized pouring of water caused me to chuckle. Napkins - white or black, your choice - were handed out with tongs - menus too were passed out in-synch. Call it contrived, call it unnecessary - I call it an unsurpassed and impressive level of service...especially since this level continued throughout the entire 2 hour experience. Orders were placed - 4 dessert tastings, 3 coffees - and we were off.
Less than 10 minutes (and a cup of bold Intelligentsia poured from a truly ornate pitcher) passed before we were brought our first item - the bread basket. A bread basket, really? Of course, this is a tasting menu! In the bread basket were slices of cinnamon almond brioche and dark chocolate madelines - both stunning representations with rich flavors yet a subtle simplicity that went well with the coffee.
Following the breads we were informed that our first course, the fruit course, would be coming soon and we were provided a palate cleanser which was prepared tableside - Key Lime Soda with Mint and Melon. Slightly tart yet generally smooth the thin and slightly carbonated mix in a small glass provided a very unique sensation and did its job quite adequately.
For our fist true (no pun intended) course, two servings of two different dessert were brought and served (again simultaneously) to opposing diners - perfect for sharing. Dessert one - 'Greek Yogurt ' with Mint, Honey, Grapes, Raisins, Frozen Mint Julep was absolutely sublime and consisted of a sweetened Yogurt Pana Cotta with a core of organic clover honey, a chip of smooth and creamy mint candy, fresh and delicious golden and red grapes and raisins, and a heavenly mint julep icecream. Each item was spectacular on its own, but when consumed together the effect was completely different and the sum was certainly greater than its individual parts. This was my mother's favorite selection, by far.
The second dessert in course one was 'Pear' with Port Poached Bartlet, Pepper Crumble, Lemon Meringue, and Spun Sugar. While delicious in its own right, the portion of this dessert was simply too small to share between two persons and fully experience its nuance and subtlety. While the lemon and sugar flavors were pretty to look at, they were largely forgettable - especially compared to the richness of the pear and the sharp contrast of the peppery crumble.
Plates were cleared, more coffee poured, and as we discussed the dishes just consumed we got our first glimpse of the cheese cart and some of the savory items being served to a couple to our left....between the food, the opulent setting, and the service I definitely need to come back for dinner some time.
Dessert course two was the 'custard' course and once again provided two items. The first dish, 'Carmelized Banana Crepes' with Peanut Butter Curry Ice Cream, Peanut Praline, Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce was named my aunt's favorite of the evening and was undoubtedly fantastic, albeit simplistic compared to the complexity of the Greek Yogurt. A small delicate crepe was absolutely stuffed with sweet fingerling bananas that were bruleed for crispiness and then covered with a smooth caramel with hints of vanilla and cinnamon. Along side the crepes was a flawlessly smooth peanut butter ice cream with hints of spice akin to and better than the Queen-City Cayenne served at Jeni's back home. For crunch, small pieces of candied peanuts were paired with a dense chocolate smear - the King himself would've loved this dish.
The second dessert of course two was certainly the most challenging in concept and potentially the best overall. 'Nutella' with Hazelnut Panna Cotta, Tellagio Cheese, Milk Chocolate, Creme Fraiche, Grapes, Grape Sorbet can only be described as the best peanut butter and jelly you've never had, Creamy smooth hazelnut panna cotta combined with lucious milk chocolate and creme fraiche provided an experience like Nutella, yet immensely more refined while the grape sorbet tasted like icey grape preserves, For texture, crisp cut grapes and crumbled hazelnuts made an appearance and the oddly placed Tellagio cheese chip provided a savory element that simply brought dish to a peak on the palate. Piece by piece or eaten as a whole, this dish was as much a work of art as a dessert and rivaled the figs at Trotter's early for most complex and wonderful dessert in a very long time.
With the time nearing quarter after eleven our third course arrived, this time with some decaf Intelligentsia, and once again mesmerized. Dessert one,'Chocolate Bar' with Wattleseed Ice Cream, Burnt Caramel Mousse, and Malted Caramel was quite literally a molecular gastronomy take on the Snickers...and it really satisfied. From the thick and heavy chocolate gnache to the heavenly smooth and airy mousse every single aspect of this dessert just "worked" and when consumed as a whole perfectly replicated the flavor of a snickers ice-cream bar - yet so much better. This dish would have been a "best of" during any other meal, but at Tru qualified only as the second favorite of the third course.
The final dessert of the evening was specifically requested (despite the fact that the tasting is supposed to be chef's choice) and thankfully delivered - for it was the best of the night. 'Hot Chocolate Souffle' with Cayenne Pistacchio Crumbs, Saigon Cinnamon Ice Cream, Vanilla Marshmellow, 5-alarm Chocolate Sauce was nothing short off perfect and absolutely the best souffle to ever grace my tongue. Wonderfully light, spicy yet sweet, 'hot' yet refined by the ice-cream - not as complex as other dishes of the evening, but 'better.' Despite being very full I'd have eaten another two servings if I had the chance.
Fully satisfied by the meal, we were further wowed ten minutes after plates were cleared when a small man (earlier seen with the cheeses) arrived with the cart of mignardises - and my what a cart. Being ladies, my mother, sister, and aunt each made a few dainty selections from the cart. but for myself I simply couldn't resist sampling everything the chef had to offfer - one of each please (mom says I need to eat more, anyhow.) Selections included a Coconut cookie, Rum Cake, Lemon Drop, Anise Lollypop, Opera Cake, Caramel, Chocolate Bark with gold leaf, and a Goat Cheese Macaroon. While each was delicious, specific highlights included the superb rum cake and the goat cheese macaroon - the best macaroon I've ever tasted and oddly the item my mother praises the most as single "taste" from the meal.
Feeling quite full at this point, I was once again tempted when the waiter again returned with a plate of candies - and after asking the ladies for their selections simply conceded to giving me one of each with a smile and a nod of approval. Four choices - Eggnog, Blood Orange, Gingerbread, and Caramel - each wowed in their own way, with the gingerbread and blood orange a particularly peaking my interest and the Eggnog wowing my aunt.
As a final nightcap after the candies, each of us were served a stellar passionfruit hot chocolate to "keep us warm in the Chilly Chicago weather." While I'd never really thought of these two flavors as going together, more credit is due to the chef for such a brilliant combination. While my sister did not prefer this dish, I was very pleased with the bold contrasting flavors......pleased enough too finish mine and hers as well.
Completely stuffed and incredibly happy with the choice to come to Tru I finished my last cup of coffee and requested a copy of the menu which was provided in a decorated envelope and we settled the bill - an incredible amount for just dessert, yet worth every single penny and then some. As the valet went to get our car we were each provided with a raspberry financier to go with our morning coffee - a financier that rivaled Mastro's buttercake for density and deliciousness when consumed with my Folgers at the hotel the following morning.
All told, between Trotter's and Tru I spent nearly $250 and six and a half hours on the nights festivities and don't regret the choice one bit - it was the best food day of 2008 and a wonderful way to spend time with friends and family both. For anyone looking for one of the best experiences in quality, quantity, service, and setting I would HIGHLY recommend checking out Tru - I will certainly be back.
The Bongo Room:
Columbus and even more-so Ohio in general lacks good breakfast spots. Somehow over the course of many years Bob Evans and Cracker Barrel have become the standard with the occassional IHOP thrown in for variety and trans-fatty repulsiveness. Sure, Columbus has recently received a gem of a breakfast spot in the form of Zen-Cha, but in general the places that serve a good pancake or french toast have a single option and lack the kitsch that makes them fun. With that said, along with fine dining dinners and unique desserts an awesome breakfast/brunch spot is always a must when I travel. From Griddle Cafe and Doughboys in LA to Norma's in New York to Tableau, Payard, and Bouchon in Vegas I've had some hits and misses along the way......on 12/31/08 Bongo Room hit it out of the park.
Arriving around 9:30am at the Wicker Park location we managed a parking spot directly in front of the building and were met by a restaurant that was only half full - none of those obsurd waits of legend.....of course when we left at 10:45 there was a line out into the cold streets. On entering the Bongo Room our server, a friendly young lady named Lani, greeted us with a big smile and a spring in her step and were were seated immediately at a booth for 6 - good thing, we ended up needing the room.
Menus were delivered and my eyes danced with delight at all the decadent choices......on the recommendation of a fellow Chowhounder I inquired regarding half orders and was informed that this indeed was no problem. With 6 wonderful sounding choices we opted for eight half orders (doubling up on the two most sinful sounding) and a side of bacon - little did we know just how much food this entailed! Shortly after ordering we were once again served Intelligentsia coffee as well as a wonderful collection of teas that were refilled frequently at no extra charge. While we waited for our food I watched the wide open kitchen work with fervor while our waitress prepped some wonderful looking drinks - both alcoholic and virgin - at the long bar.
Approximately 15 minutes after placing our orders the food began to arrive....and arrive....and arrive....and it looked amazing. Prior to entering Bongo Room I was pretty sure I'd never see anything quite as obsurd as Griddle Cafe's Black Magic Pancakes.....I was wrong. Options selected included each of the days pancake and french toast options and each was amazing in its own way.
Enamoured with the sheer decadence, both my sister and I opted for a half order of the White Chocolate and Carmel covered Pretzel pancakes. Between the two of us we received four of these crushed pretzel coated pancakes topped with white chocolate cream and buttery caramel and of all the options it was these that were closest to completion at the end of the meal. While my mother and aunt both contested it was simply too sweet, the pretzle pancakes were without a doubt my sister's favorite choice of the meal. With notable crunch from the pretzel topping and absolutely smothered in creamy white chocolate and drizzeled with caramel the dish was moist, sweet, succulent and absolutely over the top in every way.
My sister's second 1/2 order, also ordered by my aunt, was the Banana Peanut Butter Chip Pancakes with warm white chocolate sauce, chocolate crème anglaise, and fresh bananas. Named by my aunt as her favorite choice of the meal, these four monsterous pancakes also neared completion between the four of us and the delectably fresh bananas paired with natural peanut butter and milk chocolate was nearly as tasty as the banana crepes at Tru the night before, yet clearly less refined. Amazing.
My aunt's second half order was the only miss of the meal, in my opinion, and that is only because everything else was so darn good. Apple-pear and Dried cherry French Toast composed of Brown Sugar Crusted Brioche with warm apples, pears, dried cherry compote and apple pie spice crème anglaise with candied pecans, while tasty, simply had too much going on to be "great" and despite the multiple ingredients lacked the sweetness necessary. While the addition of pure maple syrup (heads up Over Easy) helped, the dish just wasn't up to par with the other wonderful choices.
The next 1/2 order was Pumpkin Carrot Cakes comprised of pumpkin spiced cakes with shredded carrots, vanilla bean cream sauce and cinnamon orange crème anglaise. Expecting something 'pumpkin pie like' this dish was a fantastic surpise in its taste, texture, and consistency which more closely represented a moist carrot cake topped with sweet icing. Honestly, had there been some raisins in this dish it may have rivaled even the best carrot cakes I've ever tasted (Bouchon and Worthington Inn) but even without it was truly remarkable.
My mother's other 1/2 order, the Red corn and Cranberry Flapjacks entailed ground red corn cakes with cranberry pieces and toasted pecan honey maple butter and was decidedly her favorite of the meal. With or without syrup the dish was incredibly hearty and Thanksgiving-esque, like a GREAT cornbread but more fluffy. This was likely my second favorite option of the meal.
My second 1/2 order, and my favorite of the meal, was the Pear Tarte-tartin Hotcakes comprised of buttermilk hotcakes topped with torch-bruleed pear slices, warm caramel sauce, and vanilla bean icecream. Perhaps it was the buttermilk, perhaps the icecream, perhaps the carmelized pears, I'm not really sure....but this dish rivaled Keller's Famous Bread-pudding French Toast for my favorite breakfast item of all time. The buttermilk hotcakes were simply fluffier than the pancakes of other dishes, the icecream sublime, the bruleed pears crispy and perfect. Amazing.
When all was said and done, the morning after a 6.5 hour eating extravaganza at Charlie Trotter's and Tru, there was quite a bit of food left on the table and I felt somewhat bad leaving food - especially after conquering my stack at Griddle Cafe earlier this year - but with plans for a late lunch and dinner it was important to pace myself. On future visits, I think 5-6 1/2 orders for 4 people would be more reasonable, or perhaps 8 single pancakes if there were more options.
Great/friendly service, great quality ingredients, great prices, a good vantage point of the kitchen, wonderful coffee.....a strong competitor for "best breakfast ever" and a DEFINITE return visit on my next trip to Chicago.
Great report - keep 'em coming!
Incidentally, my experience (which consists of several visits entirely at the South Loop location, although the location shouldn't matter) is that all the pancake orders consist of three very large pancakes, usually with a sauce on top. You actually have the option to specify a ONE THIRD order (one pancake) or a TWO THIRDS order (two pancakes) in addition to full orders. So if you like, you can use the one third order option to try more things without overdoing it on the quantities. I haven't heard them offer me a "half" order (not that it matters, and no I'm not doubting you) but if those were two pancakes in a serving, you still have a smaller option than that. ;)
Thanks again for capturing what I love about Bongo Room so well in your report!
I'd like to add that Bongo Room also has savory dishes in addition to its pancake specialties. They serve omelets and other egg dishes for breakfast, and their lunch menu includes salads and sandwiches. I ate there at lunchtime a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed a sandwich and accompanying salad, as well as a partial portion of the luscious white chocolate sauced pretzel pancakes you described. The latter made me finally lose my obsession with my previous (and no longer offered) favorite there, their blueberry pancakes with almond panna cotta sauce.
Of course, those savory dishes are for the benefit of some of our dining companions, less so for those who love sweeter dishes like you and I do on occasion. I don't always want sweet dishes for breakfast, but when I do - when I'm in the mood for "dessert dishes as a meal" as I like to describe it - Bongo Room is my go-to place.
I also ate brunch at Bongo Room last weekend. My sister really wanted to impress me with it but I have to say it was a bit of a let down. The french toast that we split (apple-pear-cherry) was good but not great. The bread was soft, no textural contrast from the outside to the inside. The flavors were nice and well balanced but the effect was somewhat like applesauce and cinnamon poured over thick slices of white bread...everybody at the table was more interested in their own order.
My order was the salmon benedict. Again it was good but not great, the salmon was a tad overcooked and the bottom of the muffin was so hard that I needed a steak knife to cut through it, and I'm a guy that lifts cars and 250 pound stones for fun. The coffee was good and the service was perfunctory.