A recent Chicago Foodie Extravaganza - 3 days from Bongo to Doug's to Spiaggia to m.henry to Alinea to North Pond and more.
Day #1) Bongo Room - http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2009/07/b...
…you hop off the plane at O’Hare at 7:30am with bags in hand – you’re scheduled to meet your family who is driving in at 10:30 at the art museum - you catch the subway into town and hop off at Jackson – you make your way to Wabash – Hello Bongo Room…er, well, hello construction with Bongo Room Hidden behind it. After a wonderful experience at the Wicker Park location back in December a return visit to the alternative location was only logical – what better way to kick off my first day out of the inpatient setting in nearly 2 months? Making my way into the restaurant I was actually surprised at how empty the place was – but the smell of eggs, baking bread, and candy coated pancakes was anything but unexpected. Seated quickly at a booth up front and handed a copy of the local paper I quickly browsed the menu – 4 pancake options and 2 french toast – decisions, decisions.
“Are half portions available?”
“Which two would you recommend?”
“Have you eaten here before, our pancakes are pretty big?”
“Yes, I was too full after two full orders and I’m planning on lunch around noon, so which two would you recommend??”
Orders placed, coffee filled, I watched my neighbors tuck into a big pile of wonderful looking eggs and pulled out a copy of GQ to finish up the Tarantino article I’d been enjoying on the plane. Waiting for approximately 20 minutes for my order I notably had to flag down an alternative waitress to fill my coffee as my waitress literally seemed to have disappeared after taking my order – but when she did return it was bearing the object I’d been craving; two heaping plates of dessert-style pancakes. Denny’s commercials be damned – “Grown Up Breakfast” is for the work week!
Starting with the option recommended by my server (along with the caramel pretzel version which I declined as I had it on my last visit) I dug into my Black Forrest Cakes with Brandy Soaked Cherries, Warm Vanilla Panna Cotta Cream, and Chocolate Creme Anglaise. On first taste I must admit I was struck by the wonderful flavor of the panna cotta cream and how it contrasted with the doughy pancakes. Unfortunately once this initial impression passed I was suddenly aware of just how flavorless the cakes themselves were – literally doughy and sporting maybe 4 small cherries each (none of which tasted like Brandy.) Without the absolute dousing of cream and crème I can honestly say these pancakes wouldn’t have been much better than the standard McDonald’s Hotcake – and had my server not stopped by and challenged me by asking “you doing all right, would you like a take home box?” I’d have likely not finished the plate. Hey now, don’t judge, I have my reputation of vacation gluttony to uphold!
My second option, selected on my own accord because it simply sounded amazing fared much better than the Black Forrest – MUCH better indeed. Entitled Banana Nestle Crunch Bar Flapjacks with warm Toffee Cream Sauce and Fresh Bananas the dish is exactly what it sounds like – banana accented flapjacks with a muffin-like texture absolutely loaded with melted and gooey nestle crunch bar and topped with a salty toffee sauce and at least 2 whole chopped bananas. Comparable only to my one previous experience with banoffee pie this creation was smoothness contrasted with crunch, sugary sweet tempered by creamy savory, and absolutely excellent – on par with anything experienced on my past visit to the Bongo room, for sure.
Sitting around waiting for my family to call I finished the issue of GQ and drank another 2 cups of coffee while watching the place slowly fill up and listening to a mix of The Decemberists, The Shins, and Radiohead, and Regina Spektor play over the stereo – I was never pressured to leave and everyone was friendly. While not as great as my previous experience with the Bongo Room in Wicker Park (I like their décor better, as well) I would definitely like to return for the seasonal brioche French toast – the option I’d originally considered until being steered toward the Black Forrest. Like the Griddle in LA, the Bongo Room is a MUST for all future visits to Chicago.
That's it. Thanks to all of you for the advice on places to go - it was a damn good trip. Thanks also for the comments in this thread.
I'm bringing my sister back for the U2 show on the 12th and taking her out to dinner the day before the show (Friday, the 11th) for her birthday. Trying to decide between L2O, Arun's, Everest, Avenues, or Graham Elliot for the first night - will probably do Avec before the show on the 12th. Cheers.
For your list on the next trip, Avenues would be my top rec. It is my favorite these days among the high-end restaurants in the city. L2O is second, although there are enough opposing views here, so you be the judge.
Avec, now that the weather is nice, the wait time is about 3 times more than normal. Got there at 10pm on a recent Friday night, got seated in a little over an hour. It is my #2 favorite place in the city, so wait time is never an issue for me. Enjoy.
Avenues is excellent, but pales in comparison to Alinea and the style of food is pretty similar. Graham Elliot is very playful and upscale with comfort food (formerly chef at Avenues) and most dishes succeed but there are often misses. I love L.20 . . . if you do a tasting menu . . . otherwise still excellent but not as good (bread service amazing). I have not been to Everest in a while so I won't comment. If you can get over the crowded, loud, communal dining at Avec, you'll love it b/c the food is outstanding.
With respect to your one non-Avec meal, I would choose Spoon Thai above all of the others you mention. I'm one that likes Arun's, but the decor and location are not striking, and I can think of three Thai restaurants in Chicago (Spoon, TAC Quick and Sticky Rice - perhaps more, but I'll stick with those 3 now) where the food is 20% of the price of Arun's, if that (and not exaggerating), and the food is actually better (and measurably better).
My personal favorite is Spoon Thai, it's byo, and when you sit down they will bring you the standard Thai menu (like you've seen at a million Thai restaurants around the country, the Chicago Tribune recommended dish menu (includes a favorite of mine, banana blossom salad . . . and a few other very good dishes), and a translated Thai language menu which offers mostly dishes not found on the standard menu.
On this board, I've recommended a number of dishes but I would suggest that if you really want to experience Spoon at its best, speak to them when you arrive and have them design a menu for you. They are great at that and the food is outstanding and very memorable. One meal at Spoon and you'll be angry you ever paid several times more per person to eat at Arun's . . . really angry.
But some of my favorites (and always subject to change) other than the banana blossom salad are the catfish curry custard, one bite salad, Isaan-style sausage, dried beef jerkey w/ tamarind dipping sauce, shrimp paste rice w/ apple, pork and egg, crispy pork w/ Chinese broccoli and duck larb. My recs are not balanced particularly well in flavor for a meal however, so that's why I recommend speaking with them.
Wow - detailed recs. How is Spoon Thai at lunch? Honestly, I don't have a whole lot of experience with Thai, in general.
On reading about Avenues I sort of got the impression regarding it being Alinea but less excellent - the chef progression from Alinea to Avenues to Greham Elliot did intrigue me and I like not having to order a tasting if we did that.
L2O intrugues me a great deal as I've been to the other "elite" US seafood/french fusion houses in Aqua and Le Bernardin.
Amazingly, I've never had lunch at Spoon Thai, not even on weekends. It's near my home so I've only gone there for dinner. I could not even promise you that they have all of their Thai specialties available all day. By the way, I forgot to mention their desserts, which are outstanding - mango and sticky rice (amazingly, always perfect), fried bananas, taro balls in coconut milk.
As for not having experience with Thai food, I wouldn't worry about that. You just need to ask and they'll guide you well (although again, it might take speaking with 2 or 3 of the people there to make sure communication is clear).
Here are a few links which include pictures and descriptions of food at Spoon which might help you out. As I re-read them, they remind me of other favorites of mine which I did not even mention above (Thai fried chicken w/ tamarind sauce is one that immediately came to mind)
Most of the Thai specialties are available at lunch, but they are not always all available every evening. There may or may not be any items on the specials board. There is also a weekday lunch specials menu of pretty standard dishes. Spoon usually is not really busy at lunch on weekdays and is a great place for a relaxing lunch. There may be only one person handling the front of the house on a weekday lunch. However, that person will probably be the female half of the couple who own Spoon Thai, so you will be in good hands.
re: Eldon Kreider
I'm at Spoon at least once every two weeks and I've very rarely run into a situation where they're out of something. When it has happened, it's almost always with respect to dessert. Of course, they do offer some seasonal items (soft shell crab for example) so I can see where they might not have all offerings all of the time.
Interesting you mention the Alinea/Avenues/Graham Elliot progression. Alinea is no doubt the best restaurant in the country right now. Avenues as i've said is at its own level with Chef Duffy. Chef Bowles, personally, is the least successful of the 3. I admire his doing what he does. Have personally replicated dishes i've had at Graham Elliot. But as there are knock outs, there are also misses. The use of plebian, nostalgic ingredients are fun the first 2,3 times. Gets old after a while.
It's not fair to compare Avenues and Alinea, food wise, neck to neck. Chef Duffy came from Alinea, but he has definitely carved out his own niche. One thing for me though, every time i go to Alinea, i'm physically and emotionally exhausted after the meal. With Avenues, i feel relaxed, pampered, and might even stop in at The Bar. Or The Terrace.
L2O's tasting menu (the 12 course, not the kaiseki) is fantastic! from your list, that would be my pick. Avenues is also excellent. it's a close second for me. Everest's food is quite solid among the upscale French in the city, but last time i went (around Feb.), the seating was quite cramped, and the service was spotty (not bad, just not great) for that price range. it has a view, but of the southside, not of the city (at least from where i sat). i love Graham
Elliot - but it's more of a casual place to eat at, not on the same scale as L2O or Avenues.
Day #3) North Pond - http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2009/08/n...
After three days of gastronomic delights in Chicago, my family and I parted ways around 5:30pm on Sunday with them having a 5 hour drive back to Toledo and myself catching a plane back to Cbus at 9:30. Goodbyes exchanged I had them drop me off to meet a friend I hadn’t seen since a particularly memorable meal at Charlie Trotters on December 30th 2008 – a meal that still ranks in my epicurean top 5. Our destination, North Pond, proved a little tricky for me to find (especially carrying all my luggage) but I arrived approximately 2 minutes before our 5:45 reservation. Relaxing in the bar I chatted with a couple while sipping water – the view of the pond truly is excellent – the amount of green-space in Chicago never ceases to amaze.
Unfortunately, despite his GPS, my buddy Dave didn’t plan quite as well ahead as I did and ended up requiring two calls (myself facilitating conversation between him and the host through my cell) in order to find the valet – and arrive at 6:30. While I understand the setting is part of the “deal” with North Pond, they really do need to clarify their directions a wee bit better. No harm no foul though, my bags were checked and my friends car parked and we were seated by the window in the back of the room. Notably missing the “no jeans at dinner” policy, I was glad that no one mentioned it, but I did feel a little self conscious as we sat amongst the well dressed of Chicago.
Having already browed the online menu quite extensively myself and my friend more or less knew what we wanted on arrival, but our orders were delayed by a large party apparently containing a famous author towards the front of the room. While I’ve no idea who the man was, his table commanded much attention and one man was voice recording him while another snapped pictures on a very high end SLR. Eventually our waiter returned to deliver bread and take drink orders. While the bread itself was good enough, the flavor was rather mild and the ice cold butter was nearly impossible to spread – given Chef Sherman’s reputation I rather expected a more impressive bread selection.
With our waiter arriving with drinks (water for me, beer for my friend) my friend inquired as to whether one portion of a dish could be substituted out and was given a very abrupt “no substitutions.” While I told him this would be the case, I did find the waiter’s attitude and reasoning a bit condescending – “we will substitute for allergies but not personal dislikes as the chef is very passionate about his creations.” Not dissuaded we selected one sharable appetizer and while my companion selected hearty main I went the multiple small plates route.
Arriving first, a gift from the kitchen – fitting North Pond’s two ingredient description this captivating little bite was called Hamachi, Avocado and consisted of a flawless piece of hamachi sashimi with avocado paste served over fresh summer melons and what I do believe was zucchini spiced with paprika and perhaps coriander. Unexpected flavor combinations in general but certainly showing a deft hand this dish definitely peaked my interest for what was to come. My friend, not a fan of raw fish, noted “wow, that was good.”
Arriving shortly after the amuse was our shared dish, Charcuterie, Condiments and it featuered House-Made Soppressata, Prosciutto, Chilled Presskopf, Shaved Lardo, Frisée, Candied Pecans, Fig Marmalade, Toast. Having had all but the Presskopf (a vinegary and excellent headcheese made from steer and cow tongue) I was quite impressed by the selection’s myriad flavors and textures with the fatty Lardo (not as good as Batali’s at Otto,) Sweet and Spicy Soppressata, and salty/smoky Prosciutto all proving great examples. While I can’t say the single piece of dried raisin toast added anything to the meal, the candied pecans were excellent with strong accents of cinnamon and the fig marmalade was superb. For added crunch, the cornichons and Frisee were excellent, as well.
Following the Charcuterie closely was my first small plate, served as an appetizer. Entitled Spot Prawns, Mint the dish featured Alaskan Spot Prawns a la Plancha, Mint Handkerchief Pasta, Charred Carrots, Pignolis, Citrus-Anise Hyssop Butter, and Purslane. Admittedly most of my spot prawn experience has been with the significantly larger Santa Barbara version and as such I was confused when this dish arrived. Featuring well prepared and clearly fresh prawns with a good deal of sweetness and great consistency, the combination of flavors in this dish was clearly Oriental inspired with the mild mint pasta hidden beneath the prawns and complimented with smokey carrots, creamy/earthy pine nuts and bitter purslane. Bringing the dish together, ostensibly, was the sweet and decadent butter – unfortunately I found this flavor to be a little cloying and it overwhelmed the fusion of tastes beneath. While certainly not a bad dish, the combination of different expectations of the prawns and the heavy-handed butter just didn’t work as well as had been anticipated.
The next part of the meal was our mains – for my friend the Grassfed Beef, Cauliflower featuring a medium-rare Grilled New York Strip Steak, with Warm Purple and Gold Cauliflower Timbale, Almond Bulghur, Shallot Cream. As I do not eat beef flesh I cannot really comment on the flavor of this dish, but it certainly had a great smell and appearance. Noting that the steak was “great” my friend was additionally impressed by the Cauliflower which he’d originally tried to swap out stating “I didn’t realize cauliflower could be so good.”
While we talked and my friend dined, I started on the first of my two small plates, Farm Egg, Tomato - Soft-Boiled Farm Egg, with Grilled Polenta, Red and Gold Baby Tomatoes, Chicken Nuggets, Ancho Bacon Cream, Nasturtium. Ranging the gamut from crispy and savory polenta to sweet and tart tomatoes, creamy savory bacon cream to sweet and mild nasturtium, and all topped with an incredibly delicate and wonderfully presented soft egg that spilt forth a creamy golden yolk on piercing. Further enhancing the dish ad added even more “breakfast” nuance were the chicken nuggets – literally pieces of “popcorn” chicken fried crispy.
The second dish, the other savory outside of gnocchi and egg dishes that I’ll order pretty much anywhere I go was the Foie Gras. Foie Gras, Apricot – featuring seared Foie Gras, Rosemary-Poached Apricot, Citrus French Toast, Black Raspberries, Coffee Reduction was actually an excellent dish that arrived from multiple angles. While the foie itself was good, I will note that there were two prominent veins in the dish that proved tough to cut – the ancillaries, however, were something to behold. Starting with the Apricot – excellent, I’d have never thought to pair Rosemary with this fruit, yet the effect enhanced both ingredients to a new level. The citrus French toast, essentially a apricot glazed brioche, was excellent for texture though I do wish there had been more. Topping all of this, a tangy blend of black raspberries and the very essence of a bold coffee/fruit-sucrose reduction – while the coffee itself honestly didn’t add much “flavor,” what it did do was create a strong base for the sweets and anchored them to the fatty and rich foie. A very smart dish.
Following dinner we received absolutely no pressure as the place was not crowded and after a short while our waiter asked if we’d like coffee or dessert. Mostly pleased with the meal and service we decided to go ahead with desserts and placed our order – my friend ordering Sorbet, Ice Creams - Blackberry Sorbet; Dark Chocolate and Peanut Brittle-Caramel Ice Creams; Mousse Crisp, Ricotta Donuts, Berries which he said was excellent, though not as good as Trotter’s cake that he still claims is the best dessert of all time.
For myself, dessert was Cherry, Vanilla - Frozen Vanilla Souffle, Brown Butter-Pepper Financier Cake, Bing Cherry-Basil Salad, Sour Cherry Sorbet. A fan of the new-age fashion of adding savories to the dessert course I simply couldn’t pass up the basil and pepper aspects of this dish – but unfortunately one of them was a no show. Featuring a luxurious vanilla ice cream I’m not really certain what was “soufflé” about it – moreso a wonderful ice cream sandwich. Below the icecream was the Financier which although appropriately buttery and tasty sorely lacked anything resembling pepper. Atop the pseudo-soufflé sat a dollop of wonderfully complex and tangy cherry sorbet while the front of the plate was dominated by the highlight of the dish – poached bing cherries tossed with a balsamic and basil reduction. While individual components were all good, topping the rest of the dish with the salad was where the money was at – after doing this I still wondered where the pepper was, but was quite happy without it.
At the end my buddy picked up the tab (a nice gesture! Thanks, Dave!) while I grabbed the tip. As we sat and chatted the room remained largely calm despite the growing crowd and watching the kitchen work was fun. When the clock reached 8:15 we decided to make our way to the door and were wished a good evening. With the valet delivering the car we made good time to O’Hare and I was checked in and ready for my flight by around 8:55. After many hits and a really pricey miss in Chicago, I found North Pond to be somewhere in between. While the setting and service were good, there is definitely an ‘attitude’ to this place that somewhat outstrips the consistency of the food that, although good, is not so refined that it comes out unbelievably over and over. Like a lower end Gramercy Tavern in a much nicer setting.
Day #3) Lou Malnati's - http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2009/08/l...
Having visited Art of Pizza when my family was too full to enjoy it, we opted for another go around with the windy city’s pizza after spending a few hours in Millennium Park and wandering about Michigan Avenue. Parking all the way back at the park and hiking the three quarters of a mile was not my mother’s idea of fun given the city’s street/sidewalk quality, but the weather was beautiful and a walk was in order after the gluttony of previous days. While Chicago foodies will argue back and forth until the end of time about whether Uno’s founder Ike Sewell or employee Rudy Malnati (whose sons own both Lou Malnati’s and Pizano’s) originally invented the deep-dish, all I wanted was an excellent pie. As my sister had been to Uno and we’d all tried Giordano’s in the past, the choice was Lou Malnati’s or Gino’s East – we opted for Lou’s.
Arriving just after 1:00pm the patio was open but we opted to eat indoors at the River North location on Wells Street. Greeted promptly by a friendly young waitress who I honestly couldn’t believe was old enough to serve a beer, our waters were filled quickly and my sister opted for a local Goose Island 312 while my aunt and mother chose their standard iced tea. Orders placed we sat and waited while examining the kitschy bar interior and laughing as the crowd burst into boos while watching the Yankees put up a few runs on the White Sox.
Waiting for about 10 minutes we were brought our first item, Lou's Bruschetta with fresh chopped tomato and basil tossed with olive oil and served with homemade garlic toast. Excellent and crisp Italian toast with a mild although notably clean tasting olive oil and subtle use of garlic was matched well by the impressively fresh tomatoes and aromatic basil. While it wasn’t listed, I detected a bit of rosemary in the dish that added additional complexity. At less than $5 the portion was generous and the quality excellent.
Finishing our bruschetta it was another 20 minutes before the young lady arrived to tell us our pizza would be out soon. Interestingly, my mother began sorting plates from the center of the table at this time and noted one to be quite dirty. Showing this to the server the server stated “hmm, well, all our plates are in the washer now but I’ll see if I can find one.” With nearly twenty Lou’s operating in Illinois, I’d like to think their flagship would have a bit more tableware – or that someone in the place could hand wash a dish.
Arriving in about 10 minutes, along with a fresh plate, was our main event – a medium Lou with Buttercrust, Fresh spinach, mushrooms and sliced tomatoes covered with a blend of mozzarella, romano and cheddar cheese. Served in prototypical deep-dish glory the pie came steaming hot with cheese still bubbling and the thick buttery crust layered all the way to the top of the pan. An intoxicating aroma I had to bear in mind the temperature to make sure I didn’t burn my mouth digging in. Slicing the pizza with an enormous pizza cutter we were each plated a hefty slice and waters and teas were refilled.
Not quite as traditional as the standard sausage/cheese variety of deep dish, this glorious pile of cheese and veggies topped with a hearty tomato sauce was quite excellent with a great juxtaposition of buttery, creamy, savory, sweet, and crunchy. While the sauce wasn’t quite as impressive as Art’s, the use of multiple cheeses added a lot of nuance to the dish and really set it apart from “other” Chicago Pizzas – the whole tomatoes and garlicky mushrooms were also excellent and I particularly loved the butter crust as it was crisp on bite but gave way to the teeth and nearly melted in the mouth. While the menu stated a “medium” would be enough for 3, the heft of this pie made that a challenge that took some time to complete – with myself doing most of the legwork.
When the meal ended we were asked if we’d like dessert – and while I still do regret not experiencing the deep dish chocolate chip cookie, I had dinner plans with an old friend at North Pond later in the evening and didn’t want to chance it. All told really enjoyed Lou’s and the price can’t be beat – were it not for the beverages we’d have likely been out of there under $25 all inclusive. While I must say I liked Art’s Pizza better, the service and style at Malnati’s was excellent and it’d be a great place to catch a game with friends. A long walk back to Millennium Park interrupted by more shopping was a great way to close out the trip with my family and I’m glad we had a chance to try Lou’s. Gino’s East or Uno is next.
Day #3) M. Henry - http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2009/08/m...
After Alinea I passed out – despite a 2.5 hour nap between Primehouse and Alinea the nearly 270 minute experience left me thrilled, full, and exhausted. Waking up the next morning about an hour later than I normally would have and taking a trip to the gym I rallied the troops, we checked out of our hotel, and we were off to breakfast – though admittedly I could’ve easily gone to midday without being hungry. Having missed out on m.henry on our previous trip and having heard great stories of their breakfast bread pudding, however, skipping breakfast wasn’t going to happen. Arriving shortly after 9:30am we found the place bustling and busy – but only a 20 minute wait. Wandering around North Clarke street we killed time walking into La Baguette Panaderia – don’t go there, the food is awful – one bite of their caramel empanada was more than enough to warrant its place on the curb for the pigeons.
Taking our seats at a small back table in m.henry after only a 12 minute wait I was instantly reminded of Over Easy in decoration and Griddle Café in efficient hustle/bustle. Waiters, plates, and patrons everywhere our friendly server stopped by to get drink orders – coffee, tea, oj, oj. Within minutes he returned with our beverages and was ready for orders. Selecting a couple “appetizers” first, just as we did at Yolk, and then ordering our mains – myself asking for a recommendation amongst 3 – I was surprised at how quickly the line had grown – out front I heard the lady saying an hour-or-so wait – arrive before 10am, people.
Arriving first, a cinnamon roll – shared by the table and ever so fluffy, albeit somewhat bland compared to the stellar version at Yolk. While appropriately cinnamony, the overall essence of butter was lacking and the frosting was somewhat too sweet. While certainly not bad or grainy/low quality like Cinnabon, it wasn’t Yolk’s.
The second arrival was essentially the reason we came in the first place, the bread pudding. Thick cut brioche, milky custard, blackberry, peaches, raspberry – M. henry calls it ‘amazing’ and I can’t say I disagree too much. Sharing this around amongst 4 people the helpings were still quite ample. Having had only a few versions similar to this selection I can’t say it was the “best” I’ve ever had, but it is undoubtedly a great representation with the heavy notes of butter, cream, and egg custard coming through beneath the wonderful fruits.
Following the bread pudding was a long period during which coffee wasn’t refilled – I realize the place was busy, but they need a system – whether it be the circulating coffee lady like Cici’s or the individual pots/presses like Griddle Café. After I finally flagged down a server the cup was kept full and I was actually given “one for the road.” While not quite as excellent as the Intelligentisa, I did like the Metropolis Blend they were serving.
Arriving soon, the main events – first for myself the Cinnamon Raisin French Toast with Peaches, Raspberries, Cream suggested by our server. Featuring house made and THICK-CUT cinnamon raisin bread that would’ve been awesome on its own and absolutely loaded with fresh sweetened cream, incredibly plump and flavorful berries, plus a crunchy granola with accents of apple and cinnamon – this blew the bread pudding out of the water. Crispy on the outside yet pillowy and fluffy on the inside the bread actually stood up well to the cream throughout the indulgence – though admittedly this didn’t last long.
The second dish, again ordered by my mother because she didn’t want something “too sweet.” Bacon wrapped baked eggs with polenta & mixed field greens – well, I admit I like bacon, baked eggs, and especially polenta – and this was really good. While I personally would’ve preferred the yolks a little runny, that would not have been ideal for my mother and as such this dish was very much a crowd pleaser with its rustic feel presented in a totally unique way – essentially a bacon cone filled with the two organic eggs and atop a creamy polenta mash. Topping the salad, to note, was a wonderfully tart fig vinaigrette that m.henry should sell or publish the recipe too – it worked really well with the savory bacon tinged dish.
Back to the sweet stuff with my aunt - Heavenly Four Berry Hotcakes - Raspberry, Strawberry, Blackberry, Blueberry. M.henry refers to their pancakes as “blisscakes” and I can’t really say that description is too far off. Similar in texture to Dennis Leary’s absolutely mind-blowing souffled strawberry pancake at Canteen these cakes were wonderfully light and fluffy and then topped with more fluffiness in the form of powdered sugar and a thick and airy strawberry cream sauce.
The final dish, ordered by my sister, may have been the best of the bunch. Key lime & apricot brioche french toast – quite honestly, you have to taste it to appreciate it, but suffice it to say this was better than any Key Lime pie I’ve ever tasted and I think a lot of that was due to the complimentary flavor of the Apricot, but also to manner in which the buttery and sweet brioche interplayed with the creamy and nearly panna cotta thick lime cream – the apricot reduction didn’t hurt either. Like the cinnamon bread, I imagine this bread is only modestly presoaked and then cooked on a very hot griddle as the interior was still bready while the outside was flawlessly “French toast crisp.”
High end ingredients, wonderful preparations, a staff with great suggestions, and a really cool little setup with good prices – I really can’t ask for too much more than that. Actually, yes I can, free parking – and they had that too. Not as childishly decadent as Bongo Room yet every single dish hit it out of the park. A much longer wait here than Yolk or Over Easy, but to be fair I’d wait 3x as long at M.Henry than either. When it was all said and done we walked out of M. Henry realizing exactly what all the hype is about – “Chow for Now” is their slogan, but this Chow will easily withstand the test of time.
Thanks for all of the excellent, detailed reviews. Always nice to hear the latest going-ons and menu items at these places. Sorry to hear about your negative experience at Spiaggia. It sounds very atypical, although that can't be of much satisfaction to you since I know you dropped a pretty penny.
As for bakeries, unfortunately Chicago is a big letdown in general in this area. Pasticceria Natalina is fantastic, but where are the great French bakeries? The two best croissants in town (in my opinion) are to be found at Nhu' Lan Bakery (Vietnamese) and Patisserie P (Chinese) . . . Vanille usually has excellent croissants, but I've had a couple of average (and tiny) ones there. And Bittersweet has excellent scones and a couple of other tasty items, but their croissants are not flaky. As for Fox & Obel, it's bakery is usually excellent, but a top notch bakery would not keep stale cupcakes in stock - that's unacceptable and I suspect it was held over . . . but who knows for how many days. I would have handed it to the manager and offered it as a "gift." :)
Day #2) David Burke's Primehouse: http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2009/08/d...
After a lot of walking at the Gold Coast Art Festival, my family and I headed for our reservations at David Burke’s Prime House in the James Hotel for lunch. After the experience the night before at Spiaggia I don’t think anyone was too keen on another overpriced meal served with pretense – thankfully Burke’s offers neither at lunch and actually has a very nice looking “No Bull Feast” 3 course menu with appetizer, main, and dessert included. Having contacted the restaurant ahead of time and made reservations I additionally asked if there was any way dinner items could be prepared for lunch at an additional charge and was told that would be perfectly acceptable provided the ingredients were in stock. To avoid belaboring service issues, every aspect of our experience from my first e-mail to the moment we left was flawless service – they didn’t even bat an eye when my sister stated she was cold at our window table to move us to an another warmer area.
Seated promptly with water, iced tea, and hot tea (sister) filled by our server we were next brought our menus and told what was available on the dinner menu. Excited, we each opted for the No Bull Feast plus I added on something that couldn’t be missed. Orders taken our server ambled away and we sat and chatted in the largely uncrowded but beautiful restaurant – while clearly in the lobby of a hotel, the space was very quiet and I actually enjoyed watching the street, the movement in the kitchen, and the other tables receive foods from the rolling carts. If I did have to utter one complaint it would be the bizarre lyrical techno playing overhead – not my cup o’ tea and didn’t really need to be on quite so loud.
Arriving prior to our appetizers we first received one of Burke’s famous popovers served in a copper sauce pan. Clearly not made in the pan but a very nice effect, the popover was crispy on the outside and largely hollow on the inside aside from the strong vapors of butter and yeast. An excellent dinner roll, my aunt complained there wasn’t enough substance and that she wished she’d have gotten more than one – of course this was stated before she failed to finish her meal – I think Primehouse is aware of their portion sizes and I’m glad (for once) I didn’t fill up on bread.
Having a limited (but great looking) number of selections for lunch we ended up getting only 2 different appetizers. For my mother and sister, they each chose the Lobster Bisque with Green Apple essence and Lobster Spring Roll. Not overwhelmed with cream and butter like most steakhouse bisques I was very impressed by the quality of Burke’s bisque and compare it favorably to the broth-like version we’d had at Crop in May. Rich and complex with quite a bit of lobster, the brine of the dish was well tempered by the underlying tones of apple and garlic.
For my aunt and I we each opted to go with the Pretzel Crusted Crab Cake with Poppyseed Honey, Citrus, Mango-Mayo – in a word, excellent! Featuring pretzel’s lengthwise with a well proportioned crabcake baked and pan-flash finished inside plus notable aromatics provided by spices, the cake itself was both unique and tasty. What set the dish apart, however, was actually the light accents provided by the mild honey and the creaminess added by the sweet yet savory mango-mayo. Certainly a novel take on the steakhouse favorite and it worked well.
My addition from the dinner menu was served along with my crabcake and was worth every cent of the $18 price (note, the app/main/dessert feast was only $20.09) Entitled Foie Gras Terrine with Green City Market Rhubarb, Strawberry Pinot Noir Jam, and Toasted Brioche this item was every bit as good as it sounds – better than the foie at Alinea and probably #3 on my all-time list behind The French Laundry and Alto. While I fully admit to preferring terrine over roast, this version was particularly decadent with the luxurious and creamy liver served beneath a layer of rendered fat/Pinot/Strawberry and topped with chopped, poached, and sweetened rhubarb. Spreading thin in order to savor I requested extra bread which was delivered, grilled, within 2 minutes.
Happy already a short while passed while we waited for our mains – during this time a crowd of four persons in tattered T-shirts and ripped jeans came in and were seated towards the front of the restaurant. Given their dress I was surprised they were allowed to be seated – and the volume/tone/language of their conversation certainly didn’t befit a high end steakhouse…clearly the low price point of the lunch menu brings all sorts. Largely unaffected our mains arrived via yet another push cart and everything looked great. Starting with my aunt’s dish, she selected the Lobster Pasta with pea tendrils, morels, and roasted shallot butter. While the pasta itself was largely boring and a little soft for my liking, the shallot butter was superb, the lobster fresh, and the morels…amazing both in quality, quantity, and texture. Quite frankly, in Columbus the Morels and lobster on this plate alone would’ve cost $20.09 at Whole Foods.
The second main, my sisters, was Tempura Shrimp Salad with Cucumber, Carrot, Bell Pepper, Ginger Soy. Vibrant, enormous, flavorful, and featuring very fresh vegetables with an incredible texture I was very impressed by this dish despite not being a “Salad for a main” kinda guy. The Tempura Shrimp were ginger glazed prior to frying which added an unexpected and pleasant degree of complexity.
The third main, ordered by my mother and myself was Pan Roasted Chicken with basil whipped potatoes, asparagus, roasted garlic jus and when it arrived all I could think was “chicken – are you sure it wasn’t a turkey?” Quite honestly, the dish was enormous – and I can eat! A whole half an Amish chicken, easily 3/4 lbs of potatoes, a half bundle of perfectly poached garlic accented asparagus, and an ample helping of chicken/garlic pan jus. Well cooked, great tasting, probably the best chicken I’ve had in half a year or more – superb.
Already quite full we were informed that dessert would be up next – it was around 2pm and I had dinner at Alinea in 6.5 hours, hopefully desserts would be small…nope! Arriving first, my aunt and mother’s option was the Gianduja Creme Brulee with Milk Chocolate Hazelnut Brulee, Coffee Ice Cream, Caramel Hazelnuts. Though not a big fan of crème brulee in general, having experienced Gianduja multiple times in the past I expected this to be good – and excellent it was. The “worst” of the desserts, I still preferred this to anything we’d had at Spiaggia the night before and found the flavor much akin to nutella with a hearty coffee ice cream that featured great top notes of hazelnut.
Second, my dessert – entitled “A Slice of Prime” and described as layers of chocolate mousse, chocolate cake, and fudge s'mores ice cream I found the presentation with a dense chocolate bulls-head lollypop quite attractive. Thick, rich, almost too decadent for one the cake was actually great on its own but enhanced to a new level by the ice cream which helped to not only cut the sweetness but also to add a degree of nuance to the dish with its notably “marshmellowy” tones.
The final dessert, once again what I’d have ordered if I was solo, was “The King” - Banana Cake, Chocolate Cream, Peanut Butter Ice Cream, Peanut Bacon Brittle, Tempura Banana. Just read over those ingredients and tell me how this could possibly be anything less than awesome? Sweet/savory, hot/cold, chocolate/peanut butter, soft/crunchy…with bacon. Dense cake, hefty cream, smooth ice cream, a perfectly prepared tempura banana, and the crunch of whole peanuts with bacon – a designer dessert in a non-designer setting – superb.
When it was all said and done our total bill for 4 was less than my personal bill at either Spiaggia or North Pond and I enjoyed the meal more. While the food may not be as “high end” and the view not as spectacular you simply can’t say enough about great food in a comfortable setting with fantastic and accommodating service. As a non-beef eater I must say my last two steakhouse experiences (CUT in LA and Burke’s) have been wonderful – and at $20.09 for three great courses I’d strongly recommend Burke’s to anyone for lunch – I’ll be back for Dim Sum sometime soon.
Day #2) Mollys Cupcakes and Fox & Obel - http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2009/08/m...
Fresh and made with high quality ingredients will get you far in my assessment of your cupcakes – but so will flavor and texture. Sprinkles cupcakes may be made of all organic substances by the hand of Thomas Keller himself (they’re not, in case you were wondering) but that doesn’t make them delicious, worth the line, or worth the price. On the other hand, who can argue that those cheap and entirely low quality hostess cupcakes still make you think “wow, those are pretty damned good?” Those things in mind, during our daily snacking in Chicago my family and I opted to stop into two high end cupcake shops and compare Chi-town to others across the US.
Our first stop admittedly wasn’t just for cupcakes – having been there once before we went into Fox and Obel because A) The parking is free, B) They have a great stock of vinegars (something I can never have enough of,) C) They sell Intelligentsia by the 12oz bag, and D) okay, yeah, the cupcakes. Shopping around and first grabbing coffee, some cheese samples, and a bottle of fig balsamic we next proceeded to the bakery where we bought two cupcakes – one chocolate with chocolate ganache and one red velvet with cream cheese frosting.
Starting with the Red Velvet – and ending with the red velvet. Dry and dense – nearly a biscuit as much as a cupcake – this was bought at 10:00am on a Saturday, I can’t even fathom as the day went on. Mild airs of cocoa and an admittedly mild (Albeit not very ‘cream cheesy’ in texture) frosting were just about the only thing notable in this stale cake. As disappointed as I was I actually only had 1 bite before handing it off to my aunt, another red velvet fan, who also noted it was pretty bad – odd since she enjoyed the F&O Red Velvet Fatboy last time. With the Red Velvet that bad I can honestly say I didn’t even try the Chocolate cupcake, but my mother and sister said it was pretty dry and boring. The intelligentsia coffee was excellent though – so was the free cheese.
Following F&O we made our way North to Molly’s Cupcakes – a small shop on a college campus that reminded me of Dessert Club: Chickalicious in NYC. Utilizing fine ingredients, supporting a good cause, featuring a “sprinkles station,” and allowing you to design your own cupcake in addition to their daily selections seemed like a can’t-miss combo – largely it was. While cupcakes were pricey and the lack of parking was a tad annoying, the customer service was great, the store was kitschy, and the selections were unique – blending the same Intelligentsia I experienced at Alinea that evening (at $3 instead of $8) I regret not getting a cup.
Selecting our cupcakes, 6 in total, only one was consumed right away while the others were eaten throughout the next 24 hours. An overarching theme of all the cakes is the fact that the quality of the ingredients DEFINITLEY shined through – much like Kara’s in SF. Each cupcake had great frosting to cake ratio, the cakes held up well to bite and knife, and the cake itself was moist without drying out despite the delay in eating. The first cupcake tasted was the Cookee Monster – a wonderful vanilla cake filled with raw cookie dough and topped with a mild buttercream frosting and small cookie. I ate it solo and was glad to do so.
The subsequent cupcakes were eaten as a “tasting” of sorts after a post-lunch nap…sort of a pre-Alinea snack, if you will. With each divided into quarters we sampled first the Red Velvet with Cream Cheese frosting –Easily a top-5 Red Velvet option with a significantly sour cream cheese frosting that really set off the cocoa in the cupcake. While not quite as good as the version at Bouchon, I’d place it on par with the choices at Two Little Red Hens or Grandma Freida’s as second best – the frosting REALLY worked.
Following the Red Velvet was Boston Cream – good texture and flavor but really not all that memorable, lemon-meringue – I demolished this attempting to cut it but found the extremely intense lemon cake very well balanced against the creamy and airy meringue, and Peanut Butter Nutella – excellent but so Peanut Buttery that the Nutella was largely overwhelmed – had I gone into it with different expectations I’d have thought “Damn, that is an AWESOME peanut butter cupcake.” The final cupcake, the Ron Bennington, I actually did not taste as my family finished it while I was at Alinea – but I am told it was good too.
All told I quite liked Molly’s, but found the price to be just a tad excessive. While the cupcakes at Bouchon are similarly priced, they are larger and for about 1/2 the price of Molly’s a place like Grandma Freida’s or Two Little Red Hens serves an equally good if not better cake. If I lived in the area I’d definitely return to try more, though – they are a darned good cupcake.
More is a personal favorite these days. They have cupcake flights, six little morsels so you can taste more. It is on the expensive side, but anything that can be labeled 'designer' doesn't come in a 12 pack at your local grocer. Sweet ones i love the salted caramel, and valrohna. Savory ones, the bacon maple is a knockout, anything with foie gras, or the white cheddar truffle which they don't seem to have anymore. :-(.
Day #2) Yolk - http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2009/08/y...
At home breakfast is the same nearly every day – after a good workout it is a filling salad with chicken, fried eggs, and a parfait of yogurt, fruit, salt, and protein powder. When on vacation breakfast is the same nearly every day as well – after a good workout it is pastries, pancakes, donuts, or whatever childish combination of flavors I can find – vacation is a time for fun and breakfast is fun! Having already done both Bongo Rooms and Over Easy in Chicago the decision for the morning meal before Alinea was Yolk on Michigan Avenue before heading over to the Gold Coast Art Show. Opening at 7am with our group arriving at 8:45 the place was jammed – but thankfully parking was close-by and cheap – with a line so long I expected good things and surprisingly we were seated in less than 15 minutes.
Having already browsed the pastry case and seated in the middle of the large room I must say I was impressed by the food but taken back by the noise level – between the close packed tables, loud voices, and clatter of utensils I simply found the music unnecessary – even if it was Neko Case who is superb. Greeted by our friendly server our water was filled and drink orders were taken along with an order for three pastry appetizers. Arriving in short order my sister’s tea selection, my coffee, and mom/aunt’s orange juices were all good and my coffee was kept refilled quite adequately – thankfully I brought my own nutrasweet, though as Yolk had only Splenda and Equal (does Steve Wynn own this place?? :-))
Following the beverages were our pastries – dessert before dessert-esque breakfast? Sure! Ever since I was offered dessert at breakfast in LA this has been my mantra. Starting first with the blueberry muffin – lets just say it was still warm, super buttery with hints of vanilla, and loaded with very fresh blueberries – all told I liked it ($2) better than my Blueberry Baba at Spiaggia the night before.
The second pastry was their “famous” cinnamon roll. While I can’t say I’ve heard of their cinnamon roll before (as compared to Ann Sather’s) I will state now that it has replaced Omega as my favorite cinnamon roll to date. Creamy and luscious with heavy hints of cinnamon, vanilla, and butter the frosting was an additionally wonderful addition with its sour cream cheese essence lingering throughout the palate – I need to taste Sather’s on my next trip to see if it even compares.
The third pastry – homage to the previously mentioned LA meal – was a griddle grilled Pecan Roll. While good and perfectly prepared with a crispy/buttery exterior I simply must state that after the cinnamon roll it didn’t have a chance. Good, but not “amazing” – just get the cinnamon roll, it costs less too.
Sharing our appetizers around we were all primed for the main event and once again Yolk produced quite quickly – we had our mains within 20 minutes of seating and lingered over them for some time without feeling rushed at all. Starting with my option – mostly because I always wait to see what everyone else orders before making my decision (in order to maximize tasting options) - Semi-sweet Chocolate and Strawberry Cakes. While tasty, I personally found the cakes to be a bit doughy and (like Bongo Room the day before) more like McDonald’s Hotcakes than I’d prefer. Draped with a small dollop of whipped cream and even less chocolate I was fortunate that the strawberries were of good quality – but regardless the dish required a lot of extra syrup to be as tasty as hoped.
The next dish, one of the two I’d wanted to order but was glad others had chosen so that I could sample, was my sister’s Cinnamon Roll French Toast – essentially one of Yolks previously mentioned awesome cinnamon rolls cut lengthwise and griddled. Without adding any additional cream cheese frosting aside from that which topped the original I’m not really sure why there was a $4 increase to simply pan fry this item and my sister noted that the top layer was way too sweet while the rest was way too bland. The taste I had was quite tasty and well complimented by the maple syrup, but I’d stick to the plain cinnamon roll sans grilling.
Ordered by my mother, Cheese Blintzes with Raspberry and Sourcream was a dish I’d not have ordered, but she didn’t want something “too sweet.” Very well formed and appropriately airy crepes were served filled with creamy cheese and along with fresh sour (and I mean SOUR) cream and a wonderful raspberry compote. Not a fan of sour cream in general I took one taste of the dish with sour cream and reconfirmed my belief. Thankfully my mother opted to top each Blintz individually I did re-taste the dish sans sour cream when she couldn’t finish and did appreciate the quality of the presentation and how the creamy cheese mellowed the sweet compote.
The final selection, the dish I’d planned to order on browsing the online menu, was ordered by my aunt - Peanut Butter Banana Nut Bread French Toast. Having had Banana Bread Pudding French Toast at Brenda’s in San Francisco and Norma’s famous Banana Bread in NYC I only hoped this dish could live up to my expectations – and mostly it did. Thick cut and crisply fried banana bread, a small degree of egginess, strong hints of cinnamon, and all the better when topped with Peanut Butter. My only complaint would actually be the quality of the Peanut Butter – clearly a canned/jarred non-natural I would’ve much preferred something with less added sweetness – I’m picky about my Peanut Butter.
When it was all said and done I do believe Yolk was our cheapest meal of the weekend and I enjoyed the experience moreso than our meal at Spiaggia the night before – despite the packed seating I didn’t get elbowed once! With that noted, I can’t say I’d return to Yolk on future trips simply because better options exist – specifically Bongo Room and m.henry.
Wow seems your family all have sweet tooth. My favorites at Yolk are the Irish Benny (basically a Benedict with corned beef hash) and the Zamboni crepes (spinach, egg, ham in crepe).
Have you heard or been to Orange? It's sort of a mini empire these days with 4 locations. It is another of our creative brunch options. Top Chef runner up Dale Levitski was opening chef at the original Orange after he left La Tache. The fruishi is an interesting appetizer, and i like their french toast kabobs.
Day #1 Spiaggia - http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2009/07/s...
I’d almost given up on “haute Italian” before my May trip to New York. After less-than-amazing experience for excessive prices at Valentino, La Botte, and Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles/Santa Monica and vastly better quantity/quality experiences at “mid-range” Italian places in multiple cities I’d begun to think that perhaps “fine dining” should be reserved to French, American, and Mediterranean cuisine – thankfully my trip to New York brought me back to my love of Italian with sublime meals at Scarpetta and Alto. Having had a great experience at Café Spiaggia on my previous trip to Chicago and traveling with my family who loves Italian I decided that our one group splurge meal for the trip would be at the main house overlooking North Michigan Avenue.
Speaking with dining room manager Chad Bertelsman before our arrival I was provided a copy of the updated menu and although I’d heard comment from others that Spiaggia’s price vastly outstripped the quantity and quality of its food the dishes on the menu and the reputation of sublime service sold me that it would be worth the expense…unfortunately I was wrong…while the food was wonderful and the view sublime, the service was bad and actually offensive.
First off, while Chad himself suggested he would be looking forward to greeting us the experience and service I received was anything but "welcoming." Chad never presented as he was called to manage the café that evening – and clearly his guidance was missed as the entire staff seemed to have their nose in the air from the moment we arrived - the hostess actually "greeted" us with her back to us before sauntering off to see if our table was ready. Seated eventually at a beautiful window seat our server Erin literally stood there almost GLARING at my family after stopping by the fourth time (in less than 10 minutes) to see if we were ready to place orders. After orders were placed she never once returned other than when casually walking by once and saying "is everything good?"
Additional service issues marring the evening seemed to occur from the moment we stated we weren't wine drinkers – from there on it was as thought our $400 bill didn't matter. Most notably, while we're on the subject of price, my aunt ordered the crab salad as an appetizer and the lobster spaghetti. Without explanation Erin simply stated "I'll make that your main" and increased the price by $15 without indicating that would be the case. Next up on the hit list, the incessant reaching across people to fill water (once, lifting the glass and actually managing to spill ~1/8 to 1/4oz of water onto my uovo ravioli.) Finally, the largest offense was when the waiter behind me elbowed me hard in the back of the head while assisting the other table. I saw stars, literally, and received and ancillary "oh, sorry about that" as condolences. While "mistakes" do happen, it certainly is not like the tables were jammed together.
Service issues aside and the fact that communicating this to the restaurant and Chad himself has led to not even an apology – but rather denial, I will state that the food was impressive, albeit pricey. Beginning first with a presentation of breads including Ricotta Rosemary, Ciabatta, Cheese Sticks, and Whole Wheat served with a wonderfully creamy butter and an amuse of Tuna Crudo with summer Radish, Mani Olive Oil, and fresh Microgreens each subsequent dish displayed a degree of expert craft, great presentation, and top quality ingredients.
Arriving first, our selection of antipasti and pastas –
#1) GAMBE DI GRANCHIO CON FINOCCHIO, CIPOLLA DOLCE E FAGIOLINI Warm Dungeness crab with baby fennel, sweet onions, green beans and 2008 Manni Per Mio Figlio extra virgin olive oil. Ordered by my aunt this dish was well prepared with delicate and flaky crab perched atop a buttery toast, crisp green beans, and an amalgam of fennel and onions – adding a wonderful degree of texture and nuance was a dab of Per Mio Figlio Olive Oil from Manni – incredible.
#2) RISOTTO NERO CON POLIPO E PESTO GENOVESE Organic Acquerello risotto with octopus terrine and bone marrow finished with squid ink and Genovese pesto. Ordered by my sister this dish was certainly not plentiful, but the flavors and presentation were certainly attractive. Flawlessly prepared risotto, but no better than that at Alana’s in Columbus and served with less than 1/2 ounce of octopus, 1/2 ounce of creamy marrow, and accented by the salty ink and tangy pesto I can’t say there was much to share, but what I did taste was pleasant.
#3) RAVIOLETTO DI CRESCENZA E TARTUFI NERI CON FAVE Crescenza cheese and Umbrian black truffle filled pasta with fava beans. Ordered by my mother this single long noodle was well prepared al dente and stuffed with an admixture of truffle and creamy cheese. Adding a degree of texture were the fava beans which were very well prepared and added a meatiness to the dish without overwhelming the delicate flavors inside the pasta shell.
#4) UOVO IN RAVIOLO CON GUANCIALE E PISELLI Organic Yuppie Hill Farm egg filled pasta with guanciale, Pecorino Romano and fresh peas. Having tasted a similar dish at Osteria Mozza I expected a lot from this dish but was unfortunately underwhelmed. While certainly good I simply found the flavors to be lacking compared to Batali’s version and the Farm Egg was nowhere near as creamy (or plentiful) as the duck egg at Mozza. Additionally, clearly annoyed by the water splash, this version was more expensive than that at Mozza.
#5) Ostensibly the reason for my visit, GNOCCHI DI PATATE IN SALSA DI RICOTTA E TARTUFI NERI Hand rolled potato gnocchi with ricotta sauce with Umbrian black truffles was actually worth the price of admission. Having tasted and been wowed by Café Spiaggia’s gnocchi in the past these pillows of potato were of a similar texture – literally melting in the mouth. The gravy, additionally, was absolutely transcendent with the creamy and smooth ricotta accenting the sexy essence of the truffles – a truly beautiful dish that is rivaled only by Keller’s gnocchi preps at TFL and Bouchon for best all time.
#6) Moving onto our main courses, three of us opted for secondi while my aunt got the previously mentioned up-charged pasta. Entitled SPAGHETTI NERI ALLA CHITARRA CON ARAGOSTA, AGLIO NUOVO, PEPERONCINI DI CALABRIA E MENTA Hand crafted squid ink spaghetti with lobster, spring garlic, dried Calabrian chilis and mint the dish reminded me somewhat of the incredible lobster spaghetti at Scarpetta and somewhat of the lobster risotto at Valentino – but smaller in portion and less tasty than either. Salty and savory with just a hint of heat tempered by the mint – but certainly not $42.
#7) My sister’s main for the evening, SALMONE IN CROSTA DI ZUCCHINE CON POMODORI GIALLI Olive oil poached Neah Bay king salmon with baby zucchini, Italian yellow tomato and basil was a relatively standard fish preparation utilizing clearly fresh and invariably unfrozen salmon lightly poached on the outside and nearly raw on the inside – paired with sweet zucchini and sweeter tomatoes heavily accented with fresh chopped olive oil both my sister and I thought this amongst the best Salmon we’d ever tasted.
#8) A selection off the tasting menu, LONZA E PIEDINI DI MAIALE CON LENTICCHIE DI CASTELLUCCIO E MOSTARDA DI CIPOLLE Wood grilled Becker Lane Berkshire pork loin and crispy trotters with Castelluccian lentils and onion mostarda was my mother’s selection – and a good selection at that. While not as delectable as the pork options at either Batali’s East or West coast flagships this perfectly prepared loin was well complimented by the creamy onion compote and al dente lentils. As my mother does not enjoy trotters I was able to eat this item in whole and can only say that it was by far and away the best pork I’ve had outside the pig’s head dish at The French Laundry. Creamy, smokey, fatty – glorious.
#9) The final savory and the most expensive item on the menu was selected by myself - GAMBERI ROSSI E POLENTA AL FORNO CON ERBE CIPOLLINA RICCIO DI MARE E CAVAILE Wood-roasted Santa Barbara spot prawns with yellow polenta, sea urchin, Italian Osetra caviar and chives. While not exactly what I expected from the description this dish was absolutely fantastic – albeit quite petite. Six medium prawns and three cubes of polenta – polenta blended with creamed uni and fan fried crispy then topped with approximately 30-40 eggs of caviar – once again, flawless execution from a clearly intelligent and ambitious chef.
Having been elbowed in the head mid-mains I have to say I was rather surly when our waitress finally returned to offer dessert. Clearly oblivious and myself not wanting to make a scene I accepted the dessert menu and left it up to my family to decide whether to stay or go. Browsing the menu they each found an item that sounded appealing and thus we stayed. Dish #10, therefore, was TORTA AL MASCARPONE IN SALSA DI CAFFE ILLY with Chilled Mascarpone cheese torte with espresso sauce and it was ordered by my sister – a tiramisu addict. Attractive and well presented this dish was nearly a panna cotta in texture and was topped with a glorious chocolate gelato and lying atop a puddle of espresso cream sauce. Good, not great, but my sister liked it.
#11) PANNA COTTA DI LIMONE CON BISCOTTO DI POLENTA with Lemon panna cotta with polenta cookie and Meyer lemon vodka. Ordered by my mother this dish was the most intriguing of the desserts and the combination of tart/bitter alcohol flavors worked beautifully with the superbly sweet panna cotta. While the polenta cookie didn’t add much, its lemon tones were quite well paired with the rest of the dish.
#12) SEMIFREDDO DI CIOCCOLATO CON CREMA D’ARANCIA E ZAFFERANO Semi-frozen Valhrona chocolate mousse with orange and saffron was ordered by my aunt and while good was largely unmemorable. Like a haute-chocolate-orange with an element of savory, I much preferred the chocolate-orange dessert at Scarpetta.
#13) BABA AFFOGATO CON PANNA Rum syrup soaked brioche with Mick Klug Farms blueberries and apricots topped with whipped cream. My selection for the evening – after stellar Baba au Rum presentations at both MiX and The Modern perhaps I expected too much, but this dish was relatively underwhelming with the Brioche over-baked and rum largely understated. The highlight of the dish for me was actually the delicate interplay between the sweet and fresh berries and the incredibly fresh and velvety cream.
Served along with the desserts was a plate of largely forgettable cookies – the only which was truly notable being the ball of pistachio cream.
All the above combined with a generalized "stuck up" staff who acted as though it was a privilege to eat at Spiaggia left a very poor taste in my mouth - especially when compared to the genuine and truly gracious, friendly, and refined yet (dare I say) casual service at places like Charlie Trotter's and TRU in the past. This isn't even to mention the following night when I dined at Alinea - a place where it truly is a "privilege" to eat and received refined and attentive, yet down to earth service for 4+ hours.
All told, Spiaggia has great food and a great view - for some that may be enough. For myself, I like the service to match the chef's vision and I certainly don't appreciate nickel and dime up charges, snooty pretense, or a stiff elbow. I also don’t like excuses – whether it be from the dining room manager or from customers who act as though somehow Spiaggia’s location justifies their prices – I’ve had better Italian in finer setting for less.
As an addendum to this long post I will note that a friend (whom I ate with at Alinea earlier this year) decided to take his wife to Spiaggia for their anniversary, despite my warnings. An Italian man who still claims Scarpetta in New York as the best meal (not made by his mother) and an avid wine drinker he had heard good things from a different friend......well, unfortunately (in this case) he e-mailed me to let me know "you were right."
Small portions, incredible wine markup (on a list he says is very impressive,) and a server he said treated them like it was their priviledge to experience the restaurant (I rather wonder if it was the same woman we had) - I guess she even flaunted "well, we were nomintated for a Beard Award this year" when he commented on how stunning the room was.
Admitting, as I do, that the food was impressive he said the service was stiff to downright rude, he felt they were trying to turn tables very quickly, and for $500 inclusive of wine and tip he said he'd much sooner go back to Alinea, Avenues, L2O, or elsewhere in the future. He additionally noted that for his dollar there are many places in Chicago where he could have spent 1/2 as much and had a much better meal.
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
2300 Lincoln Park West, Chicago, IL 60614
980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611
Day #1) Hot Doug's, The Art of Pizza, Vanille Patisserie - http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2009/07/h...
While the "Chicago Steakhouse" holds some significance, ask most persons what they think of when they hear the phrase "Chicago Style" and you get pizza and hot dogs or hot dogs and pizza - simple "common" American comfort foods served in a very distinctive style and not really obtainable in their authentic form anywhere else in the US. After an early morning breakfast at the Bongo Room and meeting up with my family near the Art Museum the next stops on our list were two of Chicago's more unique places to order the city's staple specialties - Hot Doug's and The Art of Pizza.
Having heard that Doug's frequently generates a 1-2 hour line shortly after opening we decided to check out the hot dog scene first - arriving at 11:00am (only 30 minutes after opening) this proved to be a good call as the line was already 30 persons deep (a far cry from the 60+ waiting when we left.) Waiting in line all we heard was locals discussing how it was "totally worth it" and raving about previous experiences with Doug's specialty encased meats and (Friday and Saturday only) Duck Fat Fries. Chatting with the friendly crowd our 45 minute wait brushed by and we soon found ourselves standing in front of the big board of common and not-so-common choices.
Kitschy décor aplenty and Doug himself managing the register we approached and placed our orders – each of which was “approved” by Doug who, despite the lines, was personable and pleasant telling us about some of his button collection and making suggestions on whether each choice should be fried or broiled – heck, he didn’t even laugh at my mother’s request for a “plain hotdog” – but I certainly did. Taking our seats and listening to the radio we filled our sodas and waited about 10 minutes before our orders arrived.
Starting first with my aunt’s and mother’s boring orders – namely a plain hotdog and duck fat fries for my mother and an Elvis (Polish Sausage with tomato and onion) for my aunt. Additionally ordered by my aunt as a more adventurous option was the Teuben of Corned Beef Sausage with Russian Dressing, Saurkraut, Swiss Cheese. As I do not consume beef I did not taste any of these options but all three were noted to be “awesome” by the ladies and the duck fat fries were quite good with their crispy exterior giving way to a soft and fluffy center – while not as good as Michael Mina’s signature fries I think this was likely more due to the lack of designer ketchups than the actual fries.
The next duo of dogs, ordered by my sister – an absolute hater of hotdogs in general and a naysayer walking into the experience – was the Spicy Thai Chicken Sausage with Thai Peanut Sauce and Toasted Coconut and the Saucisson Alsacienne of Bacon Sausage with Creme Fraiche, Caramelized Onions, Double Cream Brie. First digging into the Thai option both my sister and myself were very impressed by the subtle nuances encased in the meat – namely a great degree of heat that was tempered well by the creaminess of the peanut butter and coconut fats. While not exactly “authentic Thai” or an “authentic hotdog,” I liked the encased meat more than either.
The second selection, entitled a bacon sausage was decidedly more fatty than the chicken sausage and reminded me more of jowl bacon or porkbelly than a true piece of bacon. Akin to Chang’s pork buns at Momofuku in texture the fatty pork’s saltiness paired well with the sour crème fraiche while the savory and pungent onions proved an excellent foil to the sweet and hearty helping of brie. While my sister wasn’t particularly thrilled with the texture of this option, I found it to be quite excellent and gladly helped her out with finishing the dog.
For my options, two dogs were selected – namely the Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse, Sel Gris and the Smoked Shrimp and Pork Sausage with Cajun Remoulade and Goat Cheese. Beginning with the Shrimp/Pork option I was instantly struck by the impressive manner in which the pig and the shrimp worked together – smoky and well blended in texture the dish was further enhanced by the remoulade and hefty helping of goat cheese which created an almost gumbo flavor with a bit of heat and a whole lot of savory saltiness.
The final item – the piece de resistance for myself – was indeed the Foie Dog; not since The Bazaar’s Foie Cotton Candy with Corn Nuts had I seen a more obscure way to use the most decadent of all foods. Presented as a sizable piece of terrine atop a sublime duck sausage with the classical flavors of sauternes built right in the dish was put even further over the top by the addition of crunchy grey salt and a creamy and aromatic truffle cream aioli. At $9 the sausage certainly wasn’t cheap, but it was oh-so-worth it.
With tax, tip, and drinks the family ended up walking out of Doug’s full, happy, and smiling for less than $15 a person – something I don’t think we ever expected from “a hotdog joint.” Kitschy décor (check out the bathrooms,) an incredible down-to-earth owner, and top notch food. Having waited in lines for other “hype” restaurants in many other cities I can definitely say Hot Doug’s lives up to the substantial hype. Perhaps the two best words in the English language are indeed “Encased meats” – provided those meats are of the quality of Doug’s!
Following our gluttony at Doug’s, I had Pizza on my mind – alas my dining companions were stuffed and holding out for dessert. Never one to let the appetites of other stop me from my culinary adventures my plans went on undeterred – a stop at The Art of Pizza was programmed into the GPS and off we went. Arriving toward the middle of lunch hour I was surprised at the lack of cars surrounding the small strip mall, but glad that our wait would be short.
Walking into Art’s I was instantly struck by the heavy scents of tomato, pepper, and butter in the air – exactly like a pizza joint should smell. Approaching the counter I was…I guess the word is “greeted” but a sullen looking young man who acted as though it was a great inconvenience to tell me which pizzas were available by the slice. Listening to the options I decided on a slice of deep dish Art’s Special which was plated and handed to me without further warming and without as much as a smile - $3.25 please.
Making my way to the table I must admit the décor left a lot to be desired - but thankfully the pizza did not. Thick, hefty, and absolutely loaded with fresh toppings the sausage, onion, mushroom and green pepper special had just the right amount of toppings versus cheese, a wonderful buttery and crisp crust, and the best pizza sauce I’ve tasted in many moons. Starting with a fork and knife then later proceeding to pick the slice up and eat it by hand I was amazed how the crust was able to support the heft yet how delicate it was in the mouth. While the pizza could’ve stood to be a little warmer, the flavor certainly topped Giordano’s or Pizzapapolis (Chicago and Detroit, respectively, and my only previous Chicago-style experiences) and rivaled the famous Lou Malnati’s with Butter Crust that I had two days later.
The final stop on our lunch foodie tour on the Northwest side of Chicago was dessert – specifically dessert from a place I was recommended by a fellow foodie – Vanille patisserie. Purportedly sporting “the best Macarons in the city” and “amazing Entremets” I had to admit I went in with high expectations. Arriving around 1:00pm three of us hopped out while my mother circled the block (for lack of parking) and browsed the selections. While I must admit I was perplexed by the fact that a box of 8 Macarons cost more than 8 individually selected cookies everything did look very appealing and we emerged with 7 individual macarons, two entremets, and a chocolate croissant. Service was adequate but I have to say I was put off by the server’s smug attitude as we asked about the various entremets.
Beginning first with the cookies that were shared by myself and my mother, our selections entailed Coffee x2, Chocolate x2, Lemongrass Strawberry, Yuzu, and Coconut. Beginning with the chocolate, I was glad I did as the macaron was quite terrible – more a brownie in texture than the traditional crackling shell with fluffy interior. Following this the selections were definitively better with the Lemongrass Strawberry and Coffee being particularly memorable with their jam and cream fillings, respectively, and perfect shell with pillowy interior. While certainly not as good as La Maison, Pistachia Vera, or Bouchon these were certainly high quality cookies prepared with good technique.
Admittedly quite full at this point my sampling of the additional items was somewhat limited – one bite of the chocolate croissant was enough as the pastry itself was largely forgettable and the chocolate ganache although good was far from that loading the versions at Payard or Bouchon. The entremets, on the other hand, proved quite delicious and actually well priced for the quality. Selected by my sister, the bar of caramel with vanilla pound cake and lemon filling surrounded by chocolate was quite delicious – the lemon particularly was well thought out and added just a slight amount of sour to the otherwise incredibly sweet and smooth dish. My aunt’s option, a buttery pastry topped with a creamy peanut butter ganache and coated in a chocolate lacquer was also quite good but certainly not as complex as the other dish – like a haute-peanut butter cup with a buttery crust.
All in all I can’t say I was overwhelmed with Vanille, especially given the attitude of the service and the strict lack of parking. Competent and well prepared overall, nothing about the shop wowed me on the level of experiences elsewhere and I can’t really imagine a reason I’d return unless I lived in Chicago. Overall my macarons were a nice end to great foodie tour – but for the priced I’d have opted for another dog at Doug’s.
re: ms. chow
re: ms. chow
Hong Kong style rolls are bread buns that usually have fillings inside, or topping. It can be sweet or savory. The most typical savory ones are bbq pork, or curry meat. Sweet ones run the gamut of simple egg custard, bean paste, coconut cream. They also have other types of Asian sweets and pastries. And of course, western style cakes and pastries.
I agree with your view on Vanille. Having heard a lot about it, but never having been able to find a place to park, I made it there for the first time a couple of week ago. ended up with a stale almond croissant and three entremets. I thought the entremets were very high quality and not overly expensive, but they were lacking in flavor and complexity.
I would take Pasticceria Natalina on a good day over Vanille (PN often has a limited selection depending on when you show up).