uhockey's thoughts on Chicago 11/4-11/6 including Alinea, Aviary, The Office, Sun Wah, Les Nomades, Next, Avec, Burt's, and more.
First of all, thanks to all the local hounds who helped me out with their wisdom and recommendations. Additional thanks to those who met up with me for meals - always a good time to be had in Chicago.
Reviews will be slow in arriving due to my schedule, but spots visited include:
Hoosier Mama Pie Company
Bleeding Heart Bakery and Cafe
Sun Wah BBQ
Les Nomades (Nugent's Last Night)
A Taste of Heaven
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
615 W Randolph St Ste A, Chicago, IL 60661
222 E Ontario, Chicago, IL 60611
108 N State St, Chicago, IL 60601
A Taste of Heaven
5401 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60640
5039 N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640
Burt's, Hoosier Mama, Intelligentsia, Beard Papa, A Taste of Heaven:
Full review with pictures in blog, text as below:
In my traditional fashion I overplanned and as usual the agenda contained far more stops than we would logically have time (or stomach capacity) for, yet when it was all said and done my most recent trip to the Windy City proved to be a ~66 hour jaunt with no less than 15 stops. With selections ranging from coffee and canele to a Chris Nugent’s last day at Les Nomades and from a scraggly pizza legend to not one or two but all four of Grant Achatz’s current properties it was a whirlwind trip filled with great art, better food, friends new and old, and the sort of stories I’ll remember for years to come.
Beginning with the small meals and ancillary bites of our trip, the first stop after my sister and her friend’s arrival to Chicago would not be in Chicago at all, but rather in the northern suburb of Morton Grove, home of Burt Katz and his twenty-plus year old eponymous pizza shack – a location that had long been on my to do list but a location I’d largely avoided in the past due to the odd hours, odder policies, and long waits generated by Mr. Bourdain.
For those unfamiliar with Katz, the 75 year old bearded man behind both Pequods and Gullivers oh so many years ago suffice it to say that he is every bit the pizza legend of Dom DeMarco in Brooklyn or Chris Bianco in Phoenix and like both of them his dedication to the craft comes with an ample side of eclecticism; in this case a small shop fashioned out of a former blacksmith shop and a “phone ahead for best service” policy – a policy we entirely ignored prior to our planned lunch largely because traffic in Chicago is questionable at best.
Arriving perhaps thirty minutes after the start of lunch and finding ample parking on Ferris Avenue our entry to Burt’s Place was admittedly a bit unexpected – we were the only guests and save for a lone woman sitting at that back booth with a stack of papers the restaurant looked every bit its age. Greeted by the woman, later identified as Burt’s wife – Sharon, we were greeted with a “did you call ahead” and stating that we had not her response was “Well, I guess I can seat you anyway” to which my sister mouthed to me “is she joking?”
Seated for a mere moment before the short but sweet menu was presented the three of us looked around the space while listening to classical music play overhead. With puppets, old HAM radios, and scenes from the Sistine chapel making up only a part of the odd decorations and the leather seating lumpy, cracked, and uncomfortable Sharon would next ask us where we’d heard of the place – implying “Tony” before motioning to the plaque denoting the seat where the celebrity had sat – before making her first of nine suggestions that we should order something to drink besides water; a suggestion we declined nine times instead opting for water and a large pizza.
With orders placed and another party arriving (and frequently talking out loud about Pequod’s just down the street much to Sharon’s dismay) our wait for the pizza would be perhaps forty minutes during which Sharon interrupted us no less than five times to offer us a “big salad,” suggest drinks, and discuss everything from the headline on the day’s paper (murder) to (once again) how we’d heard about Burt’s. Awkward to say the least I can honestly say I’ve never seen such…odd…service and while she was nice enough I can only say that I’m very glad I’d resisted previous thoughts of going solo.
When the pizza finally arrived and Burt peaked out momentarily from the kitchen the pizza was not placed on our table, but instead on a center table and doled out slice by slice by Sharon (each time with an offer of rootbeer, seven up, etc.) Having ordered a large pan pizza with mushroom and half with house made sausage when the slices finally arrived it was with great zeal that we all dug in and – well – the results would prove to be well worth the effort as every aspect of the medium-thick pizza just seemed to click. Beginning first with the mildly sweet sauce and progressing to the crunchy caramelized crust the backbone of Burt’s pies are exactly what I love about pizza while the fresh (and more importantly not to thick) cheese proved a lovely balance to the spicy chunks of sausage balanced and fresh fibrous mushrooms. With the pie itself oddly cut into seven slices we each enjoyed two and then split the third in half while my sister settled for a big glob of crunchy cheese and sauce at the center of the pan that may have been the best bite of the whole afternoon.
With the bill paid (cash only) we chatted with Sharon a bit more prior to our exit and on the way out we were offered grape fruit snacks left over from Halloween for dessert – a nice gesture I guess. An awkward meal for many reasons and perhaps not worth the drive all the way from downtown I realize purists will claim that what Burt is serving is not truly “deep dish,” but whatever your definition it is certainly deeper than average and the quality of the ingredients and craftsmanship definitely shows.
With the gelatinous fruitsnacks hardly a proper end to a meal we would once again find good fortune in swiftly moving traffic and making our way back from Morton Grove I posed a single question to my companions; cake or pie with the overwhelming answer pie and a few minutes extra driving leading us to the storefront shop of local pie maven Hoosier Mama Pie Company.
A long time staple of the local dining scene and perhaps known best for their carry-out pies or for providing their wares to any number of local eateries Hoosier Mama’s storefront is in reality just barely a store – as a matter of fact it is so small that it inhabits a 1/2 address and seating for six is a squeeze (particularly when some hipster and his MacAir are taking up the 4-top) but what the store may lack in size it more than makes up in charm…and pie; a rotating selection of at least fifty with an in store supply of more than a dozen during our visit.
Having already noted the store’s postage stamp size and the seating logistics our arrival to Hoosier Mama would see us greeted promptly by a pair of young ladies while at least four others worked in the back folding crusts, filling pies, manning the ovens, and boxing up orders to go. With decisions numerous it was with a bit of delay that we placed our orders, but in the end the selections would include three $4 slices of pie and one $7 “Pie Flight” of three small wedges served only on Fridays and grabbing an extra chair the three of us made do with a two top more appropriately fitted for one.
Beginning first with the flight, ordered by my sister’s friend, I have to say I loved the idea but with only a limited number of pies available I simply could not commit and skip over options that sounded best from the larger selection of pies by the slice. With his three selections including Key Lime, Chocolate Cream Banana, and Pear Apple Cranberry I tasted only the Key Lime and although I’m generally not a fan of citrus pies I found the flavor to be surprisingly mild and very naturally sweet as opposed to sour – almost a lychee foam, if you will.
With no Boston Cream available on that particular day my sister opined for her second favorite pie in the form of a hefty slice of Coconut Cream and although not a connoisseur by any stretch I will simply say it was without a doubt the best I’ve ever tasted with a light coconut tinge to the custard and cream admixture and a flaky buttery crust almost like that of a croissant.
Indecisive and gluttonous as ever my pie choice(s) would include my favorite pie – Pecan – in the form of Maple Pecan as well as Hoosier Mama’s signature “Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie.” Beginning first with the Maple Pecan, this was an excellent example of the classic with the added twist of rich maple syrup not only intertwined with the base, but also used to glaze the roasted nuts atop. Again with a flaky butter crust the only thing that could have made this better was a little bit of time on the skillet and some ice cream a la New Orleans.
Moving next to the Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie both of my companions’ first thoughts on this small wedge were “weird” and “too sweet” but to me the flavor was something I’d experienced once before in the form of Momofuku Milk Bar’s famous “crack pie.” Again featuring a crisp golden crust but this time replacing pecans with nothing but creamy brown sugar filling loaded with notes of egg and a touch of vanilla I will admit that this is not a pie for those without a sweet tooth, but with a texture somewhere between an egg custard and pumpkin pie all I can say is that my sweet tooth was quite happy even if my coronaries probably were not.
Continuing with the familiar, though this time something I’ve not had many years, another ancillary stop during my time in Chicago would be at the newly opened location of Los Angeles import Beard Papa – a filled to order cream puff station that I enjoyed with my mother at The Grove during an early 2007 visit. Still going strong and expanding both their geographic footprint and their selection I have to admit that Beard Papa was most certainly not on my original agenda and as a matter of fact I was not even aware of their Windy City presence until I happened upon the store while shopping on State Street, but the moment I saw their new options a visit became requisite and moments after entering the small shop I was seated at a small table outside with my bounty.
Having been doused with powdered sugar during my previous visit to Beard Papa and taking care to avoid such an incident this time my tasting of their all natural cream puffs would begin first with a crispy choux shell pumped full with strawberry cream; Sweet and light with an almost yogurt tang I particularly loved the crispness of the shell and how the buttery notes melded with the berries to form a nearly strawberry shortcake flavor.
Moving next to one of Beard Papa’s newer options, a fifty-cent price hike from the standard option, my second selection of the afternoon was the Éclair Cream puff stuffed full of thick vanilla cream with an almost custard consistency. A classical pairing and not soggy in the least due to the made-to-order nature of Beard Papa’s goods I don’t hesitate to call this one of the best éclairs I’ve had in the Midwest even if it is not exactly traditional and with a total bill of sale less than $6 the quality/cost ratio of Beard Papa remains quite impressive.
Never one to skimp on my caffeine and having finally used up my free Starbucks card from Bank of America a frequent stop during this visit to Chicago would be at the Intelligentsia near Millennium Park. A large shop consistently filled with mostly locals, hipsters, and scenesters (both behind the counter and waiting in line) but also the occasional tourist who stands perplexed at the front wondering why the coffee costs $5 this trip would be my first (and second and third) visit to this particular location though my experience with their beans and roasts were quite extensive walking in the door.
With central American coffees the focus of the week my visits would include two orders of Mexico Perla de Oaxaca via V60 Pour-Over and finally a Colombia Timbio via 16oz Chemex; all three deep, fragrant, and complex but the Perla more my style with substantial notes of cocoa and minimal acid punctuating the velvety body while the Timbio presented a slightly more acidic profile with berry tones that I personally think would have lent better to a less concentrated brewing method.
With coffee the main draw two other selections made during our visit would prove far less inspiring than the brew; the first an organic 72% Dark Chocolate Bar that was fine, though not particularly memorable given its $7 price tag and the second a $3 Canelle that ranks amongst the worst I’ve ever had – the exterior soft like the crust of Wonderbread and the interior similar to cake batter as opposed to the open sponge of a well crafted Canelle; a tremendous disappointment and since this particular location does not choose to list their pastry provider a disappointment I’ll have to attribute directly to Intelligentsia.
For the final snack stop on this particular visit to Chicago my sister and her friend wanted to grab some pastries for their brunch and studio tour with Martin Kastner of Crucial Design and being in the Edgewater area the decision was made to stop by Chicago stalwart A Taste of Heaven; a small comfort food cafe and bakery recommended to us nearly a year earlier by their neighbors at Great Lake.
Arriving at the restaurant and locating free parking with ease we made our way through the doors of A Taste of Heaven to find the space quite full but approaching the pastry counter we were greeted by a friendly young woman ready, willing, and able to help despite the hustle and bustle all around. With cakes, cupcakes, cookies, muffins, and scones abound I waited patiently while my sister made her selection – a Baker’s Dozen of scones offered at a discount and hot from the oven – before making a few selections of my own and with the modest tab settled we made our way back to the car.
With the scones permeating the air with notes of butter vanilla my sister noted that only eleven people would be attending the brunch and as such suggested I should take one, an offer I gladly accepted in picking out a hefty blackberry scone from a mixed batch including chocolate chip, apple cinnamon, and raisin walnut options. Warm, dense, soft, and studded with pockets of butter juxtaposing the sweet berries I have to say that all things being equal the texture of the pastry was more muffin or buttermilk biscuit than scone, but considering the quality of the flavor it is hard to nitpick because no matter what you call it the ‘scone’ was delicious.
Moving next to my selections, a requisite trio of cupcakes weighing in at $3 each, my first “Taste of Heaven” (sorry, couldn’t resist) would be the standard Red Velvet, a decent representation of the classic with a moist base and cream cheese frosting in a good ratio but the frosting a bit less tart than I generally prefer and easily overwhelmed by the cocoa notes of the cake.
Moving next to two of the more interesting options, the first titled Malted Milk Ball and the second “Elvis,” both of these options would prove to be quite good, though the first – a black and white base topped loosely with a cap of milk chocolate and small malt balls – was a bit dry while the second was by far the best of the group with a banana bread quality cake topped in peanut butter cream and a hemisected peanut butter cup – a great presentation that could have only been improved by a little bit of bacon...y’know, because I didn’t nearly have enough to eat on this trip as it is.
222 E Ontario, Chicago, IL 60611
1477 W Balmoral Ave, Chicago, IL 60640
108 N State St, Chicago, IL 60601
A Taste of Heaven
5401 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60640
>> another ancillary stop during my time in Chicago would be at the newly opened location of Los Angeles import Beard Papa
Beard Papa started in Osaka, Japan, where they are still headquartered, per their corporate website www.muginoho.com/english . (I think they're great too!)
Southport Grocery Cafe for their limited chocolate/vanilla standards, Sugar Bliss for more esoteric flavors. Molly's is also pretty good, imo while Sweet Mandy B's and More tend to lag behind a bit.
Sweet Mandy B's
1208 W Webster Ave, Chicago, IL 60614
Southport Grocery & Cafe
3552 N Southport Ave, Chicago, IL 60657
Xoco, Bleeding Heart Bakery and Cafe, Marmalade:
Full review with pictures in blog, text as below:
Without a doubt my favorite city for breakfast this most recent three day trip to Chicago would logically include three breakfasts – the first a solo jaunt to celebrity chef Rick Bayless’ highly regarded take on Mexican Street food, Xoco, that occurred no more than 60 minutes after my plane landed at ORD. Having been mildly impressed by the brunch at Frontera in the past and much more so by lunch at Michelin Starred Topolobampo shortly thereafter I went into my breakfast at Xoco with relatively high expectations and, thankfully, came away thoroughly impressed.
Having mentioned Xoco’s more laid back approach to Bayless’ cuisine I was not surprised to find the restaurant featuring a cafeteria style ordering format, but what I was surprised to find was the lack of a line – something that had prevented previous attempts to visit Xoco, particularly during a February visit when the temperatures were near zero. Greeted promptly on entering I was asked if I was ready to order and after a few questions regarding the daily rotating selection of pastries and empanadas I made my choices, was handed a number, and found seating near the door where I could watch the traffic on Clark Street.
Sitting for mere moments sipping my water (both still and sparkling are complimentary and on tap) while listening to the festive overhead soundtrack one of a trio of servers would arrive with my first item; the daily Muffin featuring Honeycrisp Apple, Pecan Frangipan, and Sugar Brandy Glaze served warm and absolutely full of shredded apples balanced adeptly by soft notes from the frangipan. Always impressed by Chef Bayless’ ability to incorporate a multitude of tastes, textures, and spices into his food the soft interior was only improved through the use of large Belgian vanilla sugars coating the outside and the slight nose of brandy punctuated by cinnamon; a truly great start and a veritable bargain at $2.50.
With my muffin only half gone as I coordinated a meeting place with my sister via text my “main course” of the morning would arrive perhaps ten minutes after seating in the form of “Torreja,” or “Mexican style French Toast” as it was described by my server. Beginning first with the French Toast itself, a personal favorite for vacation breakfast, it may sound like hyperbole but I’d place the Torreja amongst the top 5 I have ever tasted as the thick bread was perfectly caramelized on the exterior and nearly a liquid custard on the interior – a veritable bread pudding, if you will. With notes of cinnamon prevailing and topped amply with Gunthorp bacon-pecan sprinkles the sweet/savory balance was quite impressive to begin with, but all the moreso with the addition of local pure maple syrup. Gilding the lily? Absolutely.
With the French Toast still wowing me my “dessert” (yes, at breakfast!) would arrive last in the form of Xoco’s most famous item – a single “Mexican doughnut” or Churro heavily dusted with spicy cinnamon and sugar plus a “Hot Chocolate Shot” on the side for dunking. Crispy on the outside, soft within, and perfectly accented by the slightly fruity pure Mexican cocoa I cannot say this was the absolute best Churro I’ve ever had, but considering the price and the quality of the chocolate my only regret in ordering it was that I didn’t go for the trio and pair it with a cup of Xoco’s drinking cocoa, though all things considering there was plenty more eating to do on this trip and given the quality (and modest price) I’ve no doubt I will be back.
After a long night of fun at Alinea, the Aviary, and The Office I woke up early to run while my companions slept in but once we were all finally up and moving it was a quick trip to breakfast at a place that was familiar but different, the Bleeding Heart Bakery and Café near the Ukrainian Village.
Having once in the past visited the Bleeding Heart Bakery in Roscoe Village and leaving with a good impression I will admit that up until the day before our departure I was actually entirely unaware of the Café, but considering past experience and the diversity of the menu Bleeding Heart Bakery and Café became a “must visit” the moment I became aware of its existence; how could I argue with a place featuring three forms of French Toast, three types of pancakes, and an array of baked goods topping fifty that is open for more than fifty straight hours each and every weekend?
With reservations not necessary our arrival at Bleeding Heart would be just after 9am and with parking ample we entered the restaurant to find it surprisingly large and even more impressively damn near filled. Greeted by a hostess and led swiftly to a four-top as I dilly-dallied in front of the pasty case we would soon find ourselves seated amidst the hustle and bustle where we were soon greeted by our server, Adora, who handed us menus and offered us water and beverages; one tea, one coffee, and one ‘just water’ before heading back to the kitchen to drop off another round of plates. With the noise level loud and the restaurant clearly understaffed I have to admit that Adora actually proved to be quite the server stopping by frequently to check in on us and to refill beverages despite the fact that she was covering a minimum of fifteen tables.
With the restaurant’s decoration quite funky while an equally whimsical soundtrack played overhead we each spent a few moments perusing the menu and then the pastry case before Adora returned to take our orders and with our selections confirmed as “excellent, but that’s a lot of food” I next took leave from the table to check out the enormous bakery in back as well as the cake decorating station up front where a large heavily tattooed gentleman was designing a cake themed to Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. A clean operation from front to back I have to say I liked the atmosphere and design of the café much more than the dank Roscoe Village location and although the predominance of hipsters is substantial, the restaurant was definitely an all ages, races, and genders affair with everyone seemingly having an excellent time.
As our hot items were being prepared the first plate to arrive would be a quartet of baked goods including three doughnuts and a Sweet Potato Cinnamon Roll. With the cinnamon roll sweet, soft, and buttery but the sweet potato largely undetectable the more interesting doughnuts would all prove to be excellent and included the “Chicago Blues” Yeast donut with fresh opal basil and crushed seedling farms blueberry glaze, “Los Angelos” espresso fueled chocolate donut soaked in chocolate liquer, glazed in mocha syrup, topped with a “chocolate cigarette” and “The Death of John Waters Divine Donut” maple whisky soaked yeasted donut with candied bacon crust. Sharing and sampling it is hard for me to pick which was best, but overall I really loved the use of the minty lemon tinge of the opal basil in the Chicago Blues and the whisky notes in the John Waters, both every bit on par with the selections at Doughnut Vault for my favorite doughnuts all time.
Moving next to our main courses, four were ordered for the three of us, beginning first with the Wild Mushroom Polenta Benedict with Roasted Red Peppers and Persimmon Hollandaise, a nicely prepared pair of poached free range eggs resting atop baked rounds of cheesy polenta studded with mushrooms and topped with slightly sweet and spicy hollandaise. Never one to fancy peppers so early in the day I was happy to see that these peppers were cooked to a caramelized sweetness largely nulling the heat while the roasted potatoes accompanying were kissed with chives and thyme plus ample notes of butter.
For a second savory selection I simply could not resist the Vegan biscuits and gravy with wild mushroom gravy, a hefty plate with two large and fluffy almond and rice milk biscuits topped with thick and creamy gravy laden with woodsy notes and ample black pepper. Certainly not the most attractive of dishes (then again, when are biscuits and gravy attractive?) the dish was additionally complimented with two nicely poached eggs (double cooked tofu available for the true vegans) adding another layer of smoothness and flavor to the already decadent dish while also serving to slightly mellow the pepper, particularly after the addition of a dash of salt.
Moving on to more sweets, one of the driving forces bringing me to Bleeding Heart was the Chocolate Chip Pancakes with organic peanut butter, caramelized bananas, and candied maple bacon and thankfully it turned out to be every bit as good as it sounded. Perhaps not the most attractive of dishes at first glance given the plating of the peanut butter as a big glob I was willing to overlook this small issue the moment I took a bite of the fluffy pancakes (far less dense than those at Bongo Room, though not as light as those at m.henry) and the sweet/savory amalgam resting atop. Healthy? Of course not. Delicious? Amongst the best in the city.
For our final plate the selection came down to the doughnut sandwich versus the French Toast and given the fact that we’d already enjoyed a trio of doughnuts we opted for the later in the form of Chocolate Brioche French Toast with bittersweet chocolate ganache, chocolate shavings, fresh whipped cream, and seasonal fruit. Beginning first with the bread, both a pro and a con was the inclusion of a substantial amount of chocolate which although delicious prevented the toast from becoming truly saturated as such leaving it slightly doughy on the interior while the exterior was nicely cooked and delicious. Moving next to the toppings, everything from the chocolate ganache and shavings to the whipped cream to the fruits (save for honeydew which I dislike) was fresh, tasty, and all the better when complimented with pure maple syrup.
With everything served hot, quick, and with a smile while drinks remained full despite the busyness of the restaurant I can say without a doubt that Bleeding Heart Bakery and Café has now landed amongst my top three breakfasts in Chicago along with m.henry/henrietta and Southport Grocery Café. With a substantial menu and a bakery with at least twenty more options I’d have liked to try I’d definitely recommend Bleeding Heart to anyone except those with a low tolerance for noise and to those folks I’d still recommend it, just go during the “off hours” which should be easy to find since they’re open, quite literally, all weekend long.
For our final breakfast of the trip, after a night that included two dinners (the first at Les Nomades and the second a chance occurrence that landed me at a table at NEXT,) I found myself again with my sister and her friend at a newcomer to the local brunch scene, a space called Marmalade that has been getting some good word of mouth from a couple of trusted mouths especially in regard to their sweet breakfast options.
Arriving early, only perhaps forty-five minutes after Marmalade had opened its doors and again allocating free parking without difficulty but on our arrival to the doors we were instantly struck by just how packed the restaurant was – literally every seat was filled and parties of eight, four, and two preceded us on the wait list. Debating whether or not we wanted to stay the hostess informed us that in her opinion the wait would be “no more than fifteen minutes” and deciding to give her the benefit of the doubt we were pleasantly surprised when a number of patrons all seemed to finish their meal at once leaving us a nice seat near the window and with full view of the kitchen a mere ten minutes later.
With the restaurant clearly busy and menu present on the table as we arrived I took some time browsing the bakery items before returning to my seat and from this point forward we would wait while watching what may be the most inefficient restaurant in the history of overcrowded brunch spots. With servers racing here and there refilling drinks, bussing tables, serving foods, brewing labor intensive espressos, seating patrons, and just trying to keep up it would be at least fifteen minutes after we were seated before our server would even notice us to take drink orders – water only – before again racing off without taking our order. Finally returning only after she’d bussed a table and served another we finally had the opportunity to place our orders…and wait , wait, and wait some more with empty water glasses until our orders arrived.
Chuckling at the clever paintings and number of persons now waiting outside while musing about how much more efficient the restaurant could be by simply adding a dedicated bus-boy and barista/bakery worker the first item to arrive at our table would prove nearly worth the wait – a Sweet Potato and sour Cherry Muffin dense and moist with flavors of cinnamon and cloves punctuated by large cherries impressively ripe for this time of year. A bit small for the $3.50 price tag and certainly not as impressive as that at Xoco only 2 days prior this was still a good muffin and the streusel topping plenty sweet to offset the slight savory notes of the sweet potato.
Now nearly fifty minutes post-seating our main courses would finally arrive and although each was complicated none was as much so as the “Jason’s Omelette,” a three egg fold absolutely stuffed with sweet potato, butternut squash, pumpkin, caramelized onions, cranberries, cognac chicken sausage, goat cheese and topped with a red wine reduction. A difficult flavor to describe though largely predominated by the boozy notes of the wine and cognac melding with the savory notes from the cheese and the onions I’m really not sure that I “liked” this kitchen sink approach, though it was definitely novel and something I could envision myself making on the morning before I left on vacation to use up various odds and ends in my fridge.
Moving next to the sweets, my sister’s selection for the morning was the “Mango and blueberry cinnamon roll presented cut in half served with warm mangos and blueberries, smothered with cream cheese icing and sprinkled with granola.” Again an interesting option and arriving large and colorful this dish began and ended with the cinnamon roll, a decent representation that I had expected to be cooked something like French toast (a la Yolk,) which was simply plated and topped with the aforementioned ingredients – all a bit out of season and not particularly sweet without the addition of the icing. Overall a bit disappointing especially given the price I think Marmalade would be better served to alter the ingredients seasonally or to rethink the preparation of the cinnamon roll (or both.)
For the final selection my choice for the morning would be “Marmalade’s Breakfast Gingerbread Pudding,” the best option of the morning by far with the dense gingerbread perfectly soaked but toasted on the top and served piping hot. Good on its own the pudding was additionally complimented by the addition of raspberry marmalade, orange marmalade, and thick crème anglaise. A small portion overall but substantially sweet I would strongly recommend this dish to anyone and to Marmalade I’d recommend serving it all week long instead of only during weekend brunch as it was without a doubt their most well conceptualized and executed item.
With my sister and her friend now bordering on running late for their tour of Crucial Design studio the delivery of our check would again be delayed but once it arrived we were encouraged to pay up front at the hostess stand – another design flaw as this is also where people waiting for a seat are forced to stand – but in this case a lucky occurrence as the restaurant’s owner was standing there eliciting feedback – opinions I was more than willing to give and opinions that he was happy to receive noting that they were in the process of streamlining the service procedures and that they were “still learning what works” – a good practice for any restaurant, especially one that is already quite popular and functioning in a market with so many great alternatives.
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
1152 S Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60605
445 N Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610
Southport Grocery & Cafe
3552 N Southport Ave, Chicago, IL 60657
222 E Ontario, Chicago, IL 60611
I had a very different reaction to the Xoco "Mexican French Toast" in that I really thought the maple syrup dominated. It should have been served on the side, and threw everything out of balance. I found the dish to be overwhelming after a while.
I felt none of the sweet/savory balance you speak of -- it was all sweet to me. It could be that all of the bacon fell off since it was cut into matchsticks.
My bigger question is: vegan biscuits and gravy?! I checked the menu now and they have regular biscuits and gravy, why did you choose vegan? How were the biscuits in terms of quality and texture, given that they were almond and rice milk biscuits? Fluffy? Flaky? (Faux) butter-y?
Looking on their site I also see that the West Town location has the Cafe which is open 57 straight hours, not the Roscoe Village one, which isn't 100% clear in your post.
I'd been to the Roscoe one. I mentioned that. I stated the Cafe was in the Ukranian Village, which it is.
Xoco's french toast was most certainly not cut into match sticks for me - look at the picture.
We ordered the vegan biscuits and gravy because it was mushroom based, not sausage which sounded far more interesting (and was.) The biscuits, as mentioned, were fluffy while the flavor was slightly sweet and a bit faux-buttery.
Sorry, I starting reading at the next paragraph and missed the mention of the neighborhood. Thanks for the detailed reports! I just find your posts a little hard to read without section headers or something. :)
I meant that the bacon was cut into match sticks at Xoco. When I had their French toast, I split it with my husband, and I think a lot of the bacon fell off onto the bottom of the plate because it was cut into tiny sticks.
Alinea, Aviary, The Office
I'll apologize in advance for the length, but here it is in text and pictures (as well as a video) are available in the blog:
Those who know me will realize that I very rarely visit the same restaurant twice and save for a little breakfast spot in Hollywood the concept of visiting someplace three times is unheard of – unheard of until my most recent trip to Chicago when I once again willingly played the reservation game for nearly an hour to land a reservation at the best restaurant on this side of the Atlantic, Alinea. While perhaps a bit muted in light the recent successes and hype surrounding Next and The Aviary it goes without saying that Alinea remains Chef Achatz’s number one priority and with my sister and her friend visiting town for the SOFA art exhibit and a tour of Crucial Design studio it seemed only appropriate that they too should experience the magic happening at 1723 North Halsted and as such reservations were made for three persons at 6:30pm during our first day in town.
Without going into substantial details regarding my previous experiences at Alinea (they’re here in the blog to those who are interested) I’ll simply say that on the whole my first two visits were every bit as good as I’d hoped and although the second visit was slightly less magical than the first I had no reason to suspect that my third visit would be anything less than stunning Sure the two menus (tour and tasting) have since been condensed into one somewhat shorter experience while the average duration of the meal was slightly decreased to accommodate two seatings per night, but considering the fact that only three previously experienced items remained on the menu from nearly 18 months prior expectations were high for all and without belaboring issues such as our welcome, service, seating, and course presentations (all peerless) I will simply jump to what matters most – the food.
Having declined wine as we had plans for Aviary and The Office following our meal the night began shortly after seating and a welcome from our captain when the pumpkin centerpiece was lifted revealing the carved base to hold three service pieces supporting “Pumpkin, Curry, Sage, Coconut” a rich and creamy pumpkin cake with savory notes and the texture of pumpkin pie topped with coconut cream, bergamot flowers, and chili. Rich, satisfying, and impressively nuanced without being the least bit spicy – a perfect opening volley readying the palate for what was next.
For the second course of the night a large piece of driftwood draped with Pacific kelp would arrive to the table carrying a quartet of bites (each detailed as an individual selection on our 21 item menu.) With instructions provided to consume them in a specific order this “petit plateau of shellfish” would begin with a bite that was actually not seafood at all titled “Oyster Leaf, mignonette” featuring a locally grown import of the Scottish leaf topped lightly with shallot mignonette and tasting precisely like an oyster without any of the creaminess but plenty of brine.
Moving next to the proper sea creatures the trio would consist of “Lobster, Queen Anne’s Lace, huitlacoche, meyer lemon” topped with roasted tomatillo – a tasty claw with sweet, sour, earth, and acid all in nice balance, “Mussel, saffron, chorizo, oregano” – a briny bite well balanced by the spice of the pork and sweetness provided by orange juice, and finally “Razor Clam, carrot, soy, daikon” – the best bite of the quartet with the meaty bivalve first fried on the hibachi and then re-inserted in its shell and joined by savory xo sauce, crisp cucumber, and a delicate ginger/carrot tapioca; by far the most exquisite use of razor clam ever to grace my tongue.
With pace quite excellent and the room now full the next item to arrive at our table was a sealed vacuum pot similar to a coffee siphon and filled with a multitude of leaves and spices. With the burner lit we were instructed “don’t touch – this is for later” and left to watch the contraption bubble and brew for a few moments before our next course, the Alinea classic “Yuba, shrimp, miso, togarashi” would arrive. Having already experienced this dish twice I listened as the server again described the preparation of the fried soymilk skin wrapped in a gulf prawn and topped with sesame seeds, chives, pickled onions, orange taffy, and a “Japanese spice blend” before being dipped in miso mayo and with a “bon appetite” I once again took a bite and instantly remembered exactly why this dish has remained on the menu for so long; sweet, savory, crispy, creamy, and just a little bit of spice…the sort of dish that never becomes less compelling (even if it is the ‘worst’ of Alinea’s three ever-present signatures in my humble opinion.)
With the vacuum pot now beginning to percolate and generate pressure forcing the liquid contents into the upper bulb our captain would again return with a dish that didn’t particularly wow my sister, but a dish whose concept alone left me in awe. Describing the dish as being based on the fact that so many places try to make tofu taste like other things, “Scallop acting like agedashi tofu” was presented as Alinea’s take on making something the texture of tofu, in this case a scallop puree with soymilk and grapeseed oil steamed and seared to a nearly custard consistency and topped with carrot, radish, and shiso prior to being ladled with spoonfuls of broth from the vacuum laden with notes seaweed, chili, bonito, and garlic. A clever dish with a distinctly Asian spin I guess the texture may not be for everyone, but for myself this was chawanmushi at its best, sweet and smooth with just a bit of brine and plenty of umami.
For the next course we received not only a bowl but also a story and when it was all said and done “Brook trout reflections of Steve Stallard” would prove to be the second best dish I have ever had at Alinea. Named as an ode to Chef Achatz’s friend who normally provides his whole harvest of Brook Trout roe to Alinea this dish opted to pair the roe with the entirety of the fish – head, spine, tail, fillets, and fins – in a glass bowl along with Michigan maple syrup, pecans, wild puffed rice, nasturtium flowers, and white beans both whole and pureed. Again complicated in a way that very few can achieve with such finesse this was the sort of dish where each bite presented an entirely different experience – some intense and briny while others were creamy and sweet with the best for myself being half of the maple syrup bubble paired with a dollop of roe, a bit of the bean puree, and the crispy fish head in a single spoonful.
Described as a “fall classic” at Alinea, “Pheasant, apple, shallot, burning leaves” would arrive next via the squid and like both my previous experiences with items presented in such a manner the tempura battered sous-vide breast was paired rather simply – in this case with shallot and apple cider – before being speared and served on a burning aromatic in the form of burning leaves. A single bite and entirely delicious another part of the fun of this course was being the first table in our room to enjoy it as we had the chance to relive it thrice more as other tables were served the smoldering foliage.
With the crystal chalice and classic cutlery arriving next I knew it was time for the classic preparation of the evening but throwing us a curve ball this was not the Escoffier classic of past menus but instead a rustic dish served family style that Chef Achatz had experienced during a trip to Sicily. Entitled “Swordfish, caponata, mint, panella” and served with a spicy red wine labeled Tenuta della Terre Nere Etna Rosso 2008 this dish would feature a sweet and spicy caponata made with fried eggplant, caper, olive, pine nuts, and tomato alongside garlic mint wrapped swordfish, crispy chickpea crackers, and a light garlic mint pesto. Large in portion and bold in flavor each item of the trio was nicely prepared, but without a doubt the caponata was the star of the show, particularly when enjoyed along with a bite of the fish and a pinch of the provided sea salt.
With the largest savory of the evening having again proven the kitchen’s ability to perform beyond the realm of “modernist cuisine” the next dish would be the smallest savory of the evening – a single bite and my first experience with the antenna service piece entitled “Woolly Pig, fennel, orange, squid.” Surprisingly simple and precisely as described with the fennel served both cooked and raw this was actually my first taste of wooly pig and although mellowed by the citrus I quite liked the heavy degree of salinity provided by the 2 –year aged pig though I admittedly could taste none of the sea squid, a component seemingly used for texture only.
For the pillow course a dish entitled “Wild Mushrooms, pine, sumac, ramp” would arrive featuring Matisutake, Maitake, Chanterelle, and Hon Shimeji mushrooms in varying degrees of preparation mixed with pine cream, Sumac Breadcrumbs, pickled ramps, fried shallots, thyme, wild lettuce, and mushroom reduction. Slightly awkward as it always is eating off of a pillow the dish was presented with jokes about one of the servers frequently dumping this plate on guests (“just joking, just joking”) but once the pillow deflated a bit filling the air with the light essence of vaporized pine this course would prove to be my second favorite of the evening, a flawless “woodsy” amalgam that trumped even the much raved “Walk in the Forest” at Next the following day.
For the next course another classic would arrive in the form “Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter.” As good as ever and a favorite of everyone at the table there really is not much more I can say about this dish – it is simply breathtaking and one of those signature bites that all gourmands should experience at least once.
With a trio of purple flags arriving just before wooly pig the next course would be the night’s wrap, another favorite of everyone at the table and in this iteration “Venison, red cabbage, mustard, paprika” would deliver huckleberry roasted venison to be placed inside the red cabbage flag and topped with bell pepper salad, pearl onion, mustard bacon vinaigrette, potato custard with Hungarian paprika, and pilsner beer jelly. Described as “Alinea’s take on Hungarian goulash” I will simply say that coming from a Hungarian background this was most certainly not the goulash my grandmother made, but rather a sweet, savory, and smoky wrap that ranks amongst the best uses of venison, mustard, and pilsner beer that I have ever experienced.
Served in the rounded hand bowl “Pork Belly, eggplant, coriander, long pepper” would arrive next showcasing a tender piece of supple belly, roasted eggplant, and coriander on the fork with Vidalia Onion bisque and long pepper foam to be sipped in the base. Savory and tasty but probably my least favorite course of the night the highlight of this dish for myself was actually the intensely sweet and spicy bisque while my sister, sister not a fan of pork belly (“meat Jello”,) stated that her vegetarian version was “really good.”
For the next savory course Chef Achatz would find inspiration in a London housed painting by Miro for a tabletop arrangement appropriately titled “Squab inspired by Miro.” Beginning first by spraying and polishing the table with black tea this course was presented with nine forks and spoons arranged ‘as random as possible’ and containing “Squab, Foie Gras…and the rest is for you to figure out” as two large vessels spewed forth a light lavender aroma that washed over the table and permeated the air. With no specific instructions on how to eat this save for placing the used utensils in the silver vessels the next six minutes would prove an adventurous blind tasting of squab, foie gras, celery root with pumpernickel, Picholine olive, lavender noodle, duck fat with blis vinegar, yellow plum, and fig – all but the noodle and duck fat being guessed spot on by our trio and all in all a great bit of fun.
With the previous course being an exercise in whimsy the last classic of the evening would arrive as our final savory and for the third time “Black Truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan” would simply prove to be the best piece of pasta I have ever consumed; an assessment shared by both my companions and like hot potato/cold potato a dish that should be experienced by anyone truly interested in fine dining; a classic every bit on par with Oysters and Pearls or the L’Arpege Egg and a bite that if it was offered as a bite at Aviary I would gladly pay $10+ for over and over again.
Moving to desserts our palate cleanser would see the “transparencies” of past meals replaced by a liquid nitrogen chilled rolling pedestal entitled “Snow, yuzu.” Instructed to scrape and not lick this veritable snow cone the flavors were the very essence of yuzu, sweet but tart, and my sister compared it favorably to the frozen lemonades one would buy at the zoo or an amusement park, a childhood (and adulthood) favorite of hers.
For our nineteenth menu item of the night a geographic landscape would be presented as servers joked “you know how chef loves his squares” and with a color palate of whites, greens, and soft yellows “Anjou Pear, Jasmine, Basil, Balsamic” was described. Featuring gels, foams, papers, dehydrations, gelees, nougats, ice creams, and marshmallows of the aforementioned ingredients along with balsamic, almonds, and crème fraiche this complicated presentation would prove largely to be quite similar to a caprese salad with pears replacing tomatoes and bite by bite the plate provided at least fifty different experiences depending on your choice of ingredients; my favorite being the balsamic gelee, frozen basil, sous vide pear, and a touch of cubed crème fraiche.
Nearing the end and replacing the bubblegum I’d experienced twice in the past “Lemongrass, dragonfruit, thai basil, finger lime” would arrive in the long glass tube and with instructions to suck on the close end of the tube the admixture would rocket back into my mouth first with flavors of sweet and minty then followed by notes of cilantro and lime. Chuckling as I watched the expression on Nate and Erika’s faces this delivery mechanism really never gets old though overall I think I preferred the bubblegum flavor of the past slightly more.
For the final presentation of the evening the silpat would arrive first followed shortly thereafter by two large chocolate colored vessels, a quartet of small bowls, a steaming pot of liquid nitrogen, and finally by Chef Achatz with apron surprisingly stained and face appearing slightly sullen and stern without speaking a word (a trend we noted with each of the other tabletop presentations in the room as well.) Beginning first by placing the two vessels at the center of the table and filling each with an ample amount of liquid nitrogen Chef Achatz next proceeded to drizzle the table with reductions of Lingonberry Syrup, Citrus and butternut squash reduction, and Goose Island Caramel Stout before dusting the entirety of the table with edible citrus marigold flowers and subsequently lifting each of the vessels and dropping them to the table where they shattered releasing contents that can best be described as the result of breaking open a child’s Halloween basket or perhaps a piñata. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0Q_-s...
With chocolate notes predominating some bites while flavors of the squash, berries, and stout punctuated others this enormous dessert went slowly – easily over the course of twenty to thirty minutes as we playfully explored its contents; everything from cotton candy and fruit roll-ups to cookies and candies such as house made twizzlers and corn nuts. With bites of brioche, balls of butterscotch, and crumbles tasting both like gingerbread and kettle corn rounding out the experience all I can say is that was a dessert as well suited for a child’s dream as it was for fine dining and as we finished the final spoonfuls our server stopped by with a look of surprise stating “wow, impressive, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone clean the table quite so well.”
Having pre-arranged for a reservation at the Aviary following dinner we declined coffee with our desserts and with everyone satiated and my sister bordering on ‘full’ we requested the bill and thanked our servers before requesting a quick visit to the kitchen where we were handed a card to give to the doorman at Aviary in order to skip the line. Once again a stellar meal from beginning to end and equally enjoyable to the veteran and the first time visitor I will simply say that although I think we may have caught Chef Achatz himself on a rather ‘off’ night in regard to his mood the service, food, and experience at Alinea was still beyond reproach, a three hour opus that never fails to wow and a place that I will continue to visit whether solo, with friends, or with family just to see what they think of next.
With the car delivered by the valet and our golden ticket in hand it was with minimal effort that we found our way to Aviary and just as promised we arrived as expected guests and waltzed through the line as though we were somehow important (a strange feeling in the setting of a guy trying to bribe his way in the door by claiming to be a senator’s son) before being ushered inside. Greeted like old friends we were told that our table was ready and with a simple request we were additionally assured that “if something should open up in The Office we’ll take you right down” before being led all the way to the back, in the very heart of the action, where my sister and her friend took the couch while I occupied a comfortable chair that most certainly could have lulled me to sleep given the meal beforehand had the restaurant not been so loud.
Greeted next by our server, a slightly condescending fellow who opted to make assumptions that we’d never been to Aviary (or seen a menu) before we were first asked if we ‘understood’ how the menu worked and confirming that we did indeed he said “oh great” before running off only to return fifteen minutes later to take our order. Clearly overworked (and with his 18% tip already guaranteed) when the waiter finally did return he took our orders without further questioning or ado before heading back to the kitchen for yet another round of beverages while we sat chatting and trying to decide whether indoor sunglass wearers or the pumping techno were more disappointing.
With the lounge full and the lights dimmed even further as we sat it would be perhaps ten minutes before our beverages would arrive and at this point, as though replaced by an entirely different server, our waiter suddenly appeared bright, cheerful, and conversant as he described each of the cocktails in length beginning first with Maraschino, Barrel –Aged, Applewood, tequila, a stiff drink ordered by my sister because she thought it sounded “girly” but a drink that was in fact the most boozy of the night with sharp notes of tequila mingling with notes of smoke and sweet around an orb of ice carved to fit the glass.
Moving next to the more interesting selections, for myself and Nate we ordered the Cider, Cinnamon, White Verjus, Apple Brandy and Chartreuse, Pineapple, Blueberry, Honeydew, Mint respectively and with each came a lovely drink with a great degree of creativity. Beginning first with the hard cider served in the infuser bottle previously used for “Blueberry” the drink started out as merely a delicious golden cider but slowly progressed to a rosy herbal infusion with notes of cinnamon, rosemary, and pine beneath the sweet top notes – a perfect drink for those with a low tolerance as it encourages slow sipping and savoring. Moving next to the Chartreuse, cleverly served as three separate glasses in the box originally intended to contain the bottle this progression started with mild yellow chartreuse imbued with blueberry soda and a mint ice cube followed by green chartreuse laced with honeydew and a mint cube, and finally to an admixture of green and yellow blend with pineapple and yet another cube. With each tasty it was hard to call a “favorite,” but all things being equal I really enjoyed the sweetness of the yellow and blueberries never hurt anything.
Slowly sipping and progressively finding the “scene” to be less off-putting than when we first arrived it would be perhaps an hour after seating that the man from the door would approach us to ask if we would now like to “visit the office,” an offer we surely would not decline despite the time nearing 11:00pm and myself having been up since nearly 4:00am EST. Told that we could settle the tab upstairs while our seat was arranged downstairs we thanked our server and chuckled at the bill before paying and being escorted down the stairs to an unmarked room just next to the bathroom; a door opened with a key to reveal a dark room nearly 100% different than that above.
Admitting my respect for Chef Achatz and his creativity from the very first time I heard of Alinea I have to say that for someone who largely does not drink alcohol or (ever) go out to bars my reasons for wanting to visit The Office were mostly to see what it was all about, say I’d been there, and to check out the food menu; I feel no shame in admitting that and neither should anyone else because it is a simple fact of human nature that exclusivity (especially for something of high quality) has a direct correlation with desirability and all things being equal The Office is about as ‘exclusive’ as it gets.
Dark and serene with oil paintings dotting the wall and only two servers plus a bartender working the room it was mere moments after entering The Office and plopping down on the softest leather couch I’ve ever found that we were greeted by our waitress, a cheerful young woman who welcomed us in a style more befitting Alinea than Aviary and presented us with menus for both food and beverages. Making small talk and apparently informed that we’d dined at Alinea earlier in the evening she informed us that she would be going for the first time on Sunday and inquiring about the menu she appeared as much a “fan” as an employee and leaving us to make our decisions I instantly felt much more comfortable in the relaxed confines and low light of The Office than I ever could have upstairs.
With menu prices earmarked to fit the experience we spent a few moments debating our choices before our server would arrive and after asking about the portion size of the foie gras (5oz and topped with black truffles) I debated the order to which our server mused that if I could eat that after a meal at Alinea she’d place my picture on the wall (a tempting offer that if she had such authority I’d have certainly taken her up on.) Deciding against such gluttony largely because no one else in the group enjoys foie (and because it gives me an obvious reason to return) we instead placed our orders for three drinks and a something equally gluttonous but vastly more sharable.
With time moving slow down in the office due to the low light, low noise level, and lack of windows we spent some more time chatting and browsing the works on the wall before our beverages would arrive, my sister again ordering the most punchy of the group in the form of Bourbon, Pecan, Cinnamon, Thyme, Lemon, Sparkling Cider served with a similarly carved ice ball to the drink upstairs. Intense and spicy with the pecan notes particularly lingering on the finish this would prove to be the sort of drink that benefitted by letting the ice melt just a bit as the flavors better separated out as the alcohol was diluted.
Moving next to Nate’s selection, the sweet but slightly-too-hopsy-for-my-palate “Kirsch, Cherry, Thai Long Peppercorn, Flemish Ale” would prove to be a favorite at the table but at the same time also a confirmation that no matter how good the preparation or ingredients I’m simply not a beer guy.
For my choice, the “Gin, Huckleberry, Averna, Clove, Angostura, Eggwhite, Black Pepper” would prove to be my favorite drink of the evening with the frothy eggwhite head providing a smooth foil to the black pepper while the admixture of alcohol, berries, and cloves shined beneath with an almost fruit-punch smoothness punctuated by unique herbal tones that I’m guessing derived from the Sicilian Averna.
Enjoying our beverages the grand finale of nearly 7 hours of Achatz would arrive in the form of the “Ice Cream Sundae for two” modified for three ($12.50/each.) Beginning first with the arrival of a nearly twenty-inch diameter crystal Lazy-Susan laden with gummy bears, crushed Oreos and chocolate toffee bars, maraschino cherries, salty peanuts, fresh bananas, and hand whipped cream and subsequently followed by three silver chalices with at least two cups of hand churned vanilla ice cream in each plus a porcelain pitcher of melted milk chocolate the whole experience was quite like being a kid at a sundae shop and just like said children the next half hour was spent with each of us dabbling with the various ingredients to form the “perfect” sundae. With the ice cream dense, smooth, creamy, and intensely vanilla I will simply note that while some may think $37.50 seems expensive I personally found the experience to be every bit worth it for both the quality and the quantity of the ingredients and considering the cost of “designer” ice cream these days I actually did not find the cost all that substantial at all.
Returning to find our ice cream bowls, the chocolate vessel, bananas, whipped cream, and cherries gone as we picked at the Oreos and Toffee our server noted that she was “impressed” (the second time I’d heard this after dessert that night) and asking us if there was anything else we’d like I joked that I was still pretty sure I could handle the foie gras to which she laughed and said she’d get the tab – a hand written bill sealed in wax with tax and tip again included – and with the bill paid we relaxed for a bit more before making our way to the door, the hour now just after midnight and all of us with smiles on our faces for a night we won’t soon forget.
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
Bravo! Great report. I am very impressed by how much you managed to consume that night.
"Chef loves his squares," brilliant. The Miro spoon course does look like great fun, as well.
Although your Aviary server may have come off condescending, I think his asking if you knew how the "menu worked" was probably more for patrons who visited back Aviary was totally a la carte, back in the summer (or perhaps those who wander in thinking they can get a vodka tonic). The no substitution thing at Aviary is a little irritating if the one thing you want to try is only on the prix fixe.
BTW, any barrel-aged is typically all booze (negroni, manhattan, etc.) and doesn't contain any fresh ingredients like egg whites, citrus, etc. unless they've been added just before serving.
Fair point, but the crowd there is very.....not my crowd, if you know what I mean, and the "bro fist bump" group sitting next to us may have had something to do with his demeanor.
Interesting note on the "barrel-aged" - As I'm sure you've guessed I'm not a big drinker, but that makes sense.
Regarding the capacity....the next day was actually even more dramatic; first time I've really felt "stuffed" in quite some time.
Sun Wah BBQ:
Full review in blog, text as below:
E-mails to Sun Wah BBQ are responded to promptly and signed “quack quack! kelly” – I mention this not only for the humor but also because it is important to know that e-mailing or calling is a good idea since the enormous restaurant fills up quickly and in order to guarantee one of the off-menu “Beijing Duck Feats” a reservation is more or less required. Oh sure they take walk-ins and the menu tops one hundred items, many of which both look and sound delicious, but honestly I just can’t imagine going to Sun Wah and not ordering the duck, a $37 three course prix-fixe (or prixe-fix on their website) easily large enough to feed a group of four, especially after a full night of dining at Alinea et al. and breakfast at Bleeding Heart Bakery and Café.
With reservations secured well in advance our arrival at Sun Wah would occur on a Saturday just after noon and with free parking allocated just down the block our short walk to the restaurant would show us a part of Chicago I’d not yet seen – a largely unpopulated industrial area without much scenery but a steady stream of persons, almost entirely Asian, entering and exiting the space at 5041 North Broadway. Stopping first to snap a picture of the myriad creatures hanging in the window – ducks, squid, pigs, chickens, and a number of fishes all in varying states of curing, roasting, or carving – we next entered the doors to find a long line waiting at the take away counter and greeted by a friendly hostess were quickly led to a table big enough for six (or so it seemed) in the center of the restaurant.
With menus presented and our waiter confirming our order for the duck so he could begin its preparation we would all spend a few moments perusing the additional menu selections and the spacious restaurant absolutely thriving with activity while each commenting that we’d never seen a place quite like Sun Wah; an experienced diner though admittedly not a frequent patron of low-to-mid priced ethic restaurants I can honestly say I’d never visited anywhere in North America before that time where ours and our waiter’s was the only English we heard during the course of the afternoon.
With our waiter seemingly serving at least half the restaurant it would be a short delay before he would return – this time with a large pot of black tea, glasses of water, and ready to field questions and take any additional orders despite his warning that “the duck is very much for three” – a warning we clearly ignored opting for two more plates of the twenty or so that sounded unique, appealing, and shockingly low priced and with black tea poured we sat and took in the scene as plate after plate and bowl after bowl streamed from the kitchen.
Rather expecting our additional courses to arrive first since I really had no idea how long it takes to prepare a proper authentic Peking Duck I was surprised when a mere twenty-five minutes after seating a cart rolled up next to our table and a two plates of steamed bao, pickled daikon radishes, celery, carrots, and hoisin sauce were delivered by our server. Greeted with a smile and “hi” the next five minutes would be a tableside show well worth the price of admission as the young woman in charge carefully cleaned the duck setting the skin on one side of the plate and the meat on the other while discarding the fat and preserving the body of the bird with a great degree of skill. Smiling as she delivered the plate to our table and subsequently returning the cart to the kitchen it was at this point that I first realized our server was absolutely right – even without accounting for the other courses this was a whole lot of food.
With the duck now on the table and each of us tasting the slightly sweet and entirely crispy skin before gathering up the bao and garnishes I can only speak for myself when I say that although not the “best” or most “prestigious” duck I’ve ever tasted this dish instantaneously committed me to putting more ethnic restaurants on my travel agendas in the future. Crunchy and savory, sweet and moist, and all the better with a slathering of the sweet hoisin and some vegetables on a pillow of bao.
With the second duck course being prepared our two additional items would arrive along with bowls, spoons, and more silverware making me suddenly realize that the “table for six” I’d originally seen was barely enough room for three with all this food but all things being equal considering the price and quality of the food I was okay with an overabundance, beginning first with a “small” order of “Mike’s Fried Chicken” that seemed anything but small unless compared directly to the duck and although largely similar in texture to the duck a dish I was glad to experience due to the flavor unique flavor notes of chili and onion permeating the skin along with a slightly funky sweet undertone that I couldn’t quite place.
Moving on to our second bonus dish I decided to order something with Fish Balls as I’d heard great things about those at Sun Wah and on discussion with my dining partners we opted for a bowl of Fish ball and Shrimp dumpling noodle soup, a clear broth teaming with dried seafood flavors and large well cooked pieces of celery, bok choy, and onion plus a handful of ramen style noodles, four large Har Gow, and at least six ping-pong ball sized fish balls teaming with the flavors of what I believe was cod but infinitely smoother, a texture something akin to a hardboiled egg yolk but vastly more delicious.
Working slowly on the duck, soup, and chicken and realizing that we were either leaving leftovers or taking some home for later the second course of our Beijing Duck feast would arrive in a portion nearly twice that of the first with a bowl of duck broth, parsley, and winter-melon containing at least a liter of fluid and a plate of hearty duck fried rice with bits of dark meat, bamboo shoots, plenty of soy, and small chopped scallions that easily topped three cups in cooked size. With both nicely prepared and plenty of duck flavor to be noted I have to say that I felt somewhat bad sending much of the broth back to the kitchen and boxing up nearly 2 cups of the rice simply to save capacity for dinner later but at the same time I hear from my sister that it reheated quite well two days later for lunch en route back to Ohio and that it tasted even better with some of the leftover duck leg mixed in.
With our server returning to the table and chuckling “I told you it was a lot of food” but then complimenting how much soup and duck we’d actually managed to consume he asked if we’d like to box up the one left over leg, 4 bao, rice, and broth but fearing that the broth may spill in the car we opted to take only the solids home and returning with the standard Chinese take-out boxes he additionally presented three small bowls of ginger sorbet and a trio of fortune cookies, the first nearly impossible to cut with a spoon as it was so cold but overall quite tasty and refreshing after a hefty meal and the second informing me that misbehaving is okay while foretelling Nate’s demise and my sister’s continued happiness.
With boxes bagged and the bill paid – a bargain at $65 including tax and tip considering the $120 per duck price at Eleven Madison Park (better than Sun Wah) or the $38 match stick of duck breast at Meadowood (not better than Sun Wah) – we made our way to the door past an ever growing line of patrons picking up their takeout orders and emerged to the street quite full but not “stuffed” and ready to do some walking at the Robie house and myself more ready than ever to begin exploring more of the city’s lesser known ethnic eats on future visits.
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
5039 N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640
Rather expecting our additional courses to arrive first since I really had no idea how long it takes to prepare a proper authentic Peking Duck...
Typically 24-hours. Also, you had the Cantonese version of Peking Duck, which is different from the Beijing and Taipei versions.
The prep for Cantonese style Peking Duck is different - it really is just a roasted duck with far less of the lengthy machinations used in the traditional Peking Duck. That's not to say it isn't delicious. In the Cantonese version, they serve the duck in steamed mantou, not bao. (Bao by definition are stuffed with meat or vegies or both.) Most often Peking Duck is served on thin pancakes with just scallions and hoisin sauce.
Edit: Some Beijing style restaurants will offer Peking Duck "three ways." First is the Peking Duck, second course is the remnants of the meat from the duck carcass stir-fried with vegetables and the last course is duck soup.
Nice report. I used to live in that neighborhood and the smell coming home from the el would always make so hungry! If you ever go back, you should catch some jazz at the Green Mill. It goes back to the Capone days and it is like walking back in time.
The Green Mill
4802 N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640