Thoughts on 2 Sparrows, Bar Toma, and Yusho - half of my St. Patrick's Day experience in Chicago 2012.
The Gist: Upscale breakfast and brunch spot in the Lincoln Park area helmed by a former Charlie Trotter’s Chef and Dining Room Manager.
The Why: My fascination with kitschy breakfasts, dessert-like pancakes and French toast, and good coffee – plus foie gras poptarts and bacon donuts.
The Reservation: Not taken, walk in only, can get crowded on weekends. In Lincoln Park so parking is at a premium.
The Space: Upscale but cozy with a hostess stand near the door, dining areas to the back left of an open kitchen and up front near the floor-to-ceiling windows with great people watching on the day of my visit, St. Patrick’s Day. Sleek wooden tables and chairs with an industrial interior of metal and reclaimed wood, cement floors, and hand blown red-orange glass chandeliers. Plenty of space between tables and a light indie rock soundtrack plus sounds from the open kitchen, but not loud by any means.
The Service: Pleasant, efficient, and hip without being over the top. Coffee and water were refilled copiously and all the workers seemed to really enjoy their job, as well as the restaurant’s concept. My server, Jackie, was particularly entertaining and chatty, almost always a plus when dining solo.
The Food: Four Plates served in Three Courses, A La Carte.
Coffee – Considering my caffeine addiction, free refills are always a plus, but when those free refills are a single origin Ecuadorian bean roasted by Metropolis for $5 you pretty much had me at hello. Rich, velvety, and surprisingly well extracted coming from a pot as opposed to a press this is probably the best bean I’ve ever had with free refills and at a $1 upgrade from the $4 blend (also from Metropolis) which I asked to taste later on it was every bit worth it.
Maple and Bacon Doughnut –Without a doubt the best savory donut I’ve tasted, and by a decent margin. Yeast raised but at the same time more dense than that at Doughnut Vault (or Dunkin’) with a good sponge not dissimilar from the Baba the night before at Nellcote. Slathered with a smoky pork imbued maple glaze and further complimented by the addition of supple thick cut bacon this is a must order and all the better as it is served warm.
Foie Gras and Cherry Preserves Pop Tart – Having grown up (and grown fat) as a youth on frosted cherry Pop-Tarts each and every morning this was clearly a must order item and although my tastes and habits have clearly changed over the years there was such a degree of nostalgia to this that I do not even think I can judge it fairly. From the flaky butter pastry baked to a golden brown to the intense filling, half house-made black cherry preserves and half creamy duck liver, my only critique would be that the fillings weren’t exactly evenly dispersed leaving some bites as sweet as the treat of my childhood and some unctuous like a torchon on brioche... if only all of life’s problems were so enjoyable.
Belly Sandwich: My main course, featuring a fluffy buttermilk biscuit, perfectly cooked pork belly with crispy skin giving way to supple meet, a sunny side egg, and perhaps most interestingly a pile of lightly brined sweet pickled onion proving an ample foil to the otherwise rich flavors. Served alongside, “tots” and fresh housemade ketchup, the later sweet with notes of garlic and paprika while the tots were more like hashbrowns formed into nuggets and fried crisp with just a touch of salt.
Cherry Bread Pudding with Sour Cherry Caramel Sauce and Honey Mascarpone: First off, I did not mean to order this. I swear. I didn’t even know there was a dessert menu until I finished the sandwich and Jackie asked if I wanted to see the menu. At first I said no, but then I decided it wouldn’t hurt to look…and then there was this…the best fruit based bread pudding I have ever had, bar none. Beginning first with the bread, a thick cut brioche soaked overnight to form a custard-like consistency on the interior and then baked and finished in a skillet to caramelize the edges, it was perfect on its own and only better studded with fresh cherries. Moving next to the sauces – tart and salty caramel plus lightly sweetened whipped cheese – a deft balancing act in texture and flavor gilding the proverbial lily.
The Verdict: Best breakfast ever. Period. Perhaps Griddle Café has more absurd options and a better ‘scene,’ perhaps Southport Grocery Café has a whole store and bakery plus amazing food, and perhaps Bouchon at the Venetian is more ‘upscale’ but none of them put together the total package of amazing and unique food, great service, a hip but pleasant setting, and stellar coffee with refills the way 2 Sparrows does…besides, foie gras and bread pudding for breakfast. I’ll be back.
The Gist: Described as an Italian neighborhood pizzeria and bar by Chef Tony Mantuano with 20+ varieties of pizza, a mozzarella bar, gelato, an espresso bar, Roman-style fritti, Italian beers, aperitivi and wine.
The Why: New spot with a strong menu and positive word of mouth. While I very much disliked my experience at Spiaggia due to service issues, I loved Café Spiaggia and Mantuano’s style of Italian Cuisine. Great location just off North Michigan Avenue, small plates, and open constitutively from lunch to late night.
The Reservation: Reservations accepted but certainly not required. Showed up, was seated immediately, and watched Godfather on the Television at the bar while waiting for my friend to arrive.
The Space: A front patio with shaded seating and tables in the sun gives way to an atrium where the hostess stand resides in front of a pastry and espresso counter with a gelateria off to the left. Certainly a loud space towards the front, but substantially more peaceful towards the back where an open kitchen and tile pizza oven are flanked by two dining areas with both booths and tables. Extensive use of sturdy light woods in the tables and décor while padded seating features shades of grey and red beneath soft overhead lighting.
The Service: Competent, friendly, and knowledgeable. Offered suggestions without being overbearing and seemed to genuinely enjoy the job while assuring good pacing throughout the meal. Accommodating to requests and quick to refill water, deliver dishes, and clear emptied plates despite the restaurant being quite busy.
The Food: 4 plates, 1 pizza, 1 dessert served in four courses.
Hand Rolled & Stuffed Mozzarella with San Marzano tomatoes, basil: wanting to sample something from the Mozzarella bar but unwilling to commit the stomach space to one of the large tastings Rich and I opted for this choice based on Stephen’s recommendation and arriving only a few minutes after we placed our order the four sliced rounds could not have been better – the cheese creamy, the tomatoes bright and sweet, the basil fresh and aromatic, and a drizzle of olive oil actually adding to meld everything together while adding a glossy finish.
Baccala - House-cured cod, lemon: I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t part of the reason I decided to visit Bar Toma in the first place and served piping hot in a sealed jar it was definitely worth the price of admission. Slightly thicker than some versions of the whipped potato and salt cod amalgam I actually found this to be an interesting textural variant and while not quite as mesmerizing as the brandade at Minetta Tavern the addition of lemon was a refreshing twist, particularly when spread across the buttered and toasted baguette which was replenished with a simple request.
Crudo black bass, pistachio, satsuma mandarin, controne pepper: Another ‘fish in a jar,’ and this time served cold with crisp sesame puffs. My friend ordered this and enjoyed it but for me it was quite like eating acid and fire with a touch of crunch from the pistachios. Admittedly not one to order crudo or to prefer citrus I’m sure the dish was good for what it was since I trust my friend’s opinion, but it simply was not for me; a couple bites were plenty.
Modenese – Guanciale wrapped sweetbreads with Sage: An obvious choice from the grilled menu and an excellent one at that. Featuring three creamy sweetbreads bisected and divided amongst two skewers at the core and crispy house-cured pork jowl on the outside there really is not much to be said about this dish that you would not guess from the ingredients. Smoky and aromatic but at the same time slightly sweet I additionally loved the fact that the team opted to serve the skewers over a plate of sage and spinach, a bitter salad that wilted under the heat while soaking up much of the savory drippings.
Lorenzo – Mozzarella, Fresh tomatoes, Crispy pancetta, Basil: With so much to-do about the pizza at Bar Toma it was decided that we should go the simple route, but knowing that Mantuano cures most of his pork in house a simple Margherita seemed somewhat less inspiring than one with pancetta and to some extent this turned out to be true, even if the pizza itself was only average.
Fancying myself as a ‘crust first’ sort of pizza fan, I’ll start out by saying that from this standpoint the pie was superfluous – nicely leavened, full of flavor, thin and crisp but with a touch of chew and only slightly charred at the edges. Moving next to the house made items, the briny pork and the creamy mozzarella, they too were of good quality and amply applied yet not so heavy as to make the crust soggy or limp. Moving finally to the vegetables – this unfortunately is where the pie fell flat…very flat…with tomatoes that simply lacked sweetness and basil of questionable freshness thrown haphazardly onto one half of the pie and contributing minimal flavor. Perhaps an effect of the Midwest in the winter, but inexcusable considering what we tasted the day before at Nellcote (or in a city where I’ve had some of the best pizzas of my life.)
Amaretto Bread Pudding, Caramel Sauce, Riso Gelato: Heavily promoting the house made gelato – available in 14 flavors to-go on a cone or in a cup – there was no doubt I’d be ordering dessert before leaving Bar Toma, but with the sweets not posted online or in-store until we’d finished the plan received a substantial update the moment I saw the menu. Served as a thick rectangle swimming in bubbling caramel this bread pudding was clearly pre-made but also exemplary, a dense cake rife with boozy tones competently balanced by the intensely sweet sauce and served in a double-handled Staub baking dish the rustic presentation was also a welcome sight. Certainly not wanting to skip the gelato, an added bonus was Stephen’s willingness to replace the suggested vanilla with rice-pudding flavored gelato, an ample scoop a slight savory tone and rich cinnamon tone that for my dollar trumped local-favorite Black Dog for texture and quality.
The Verdict: Overall a hit and miss experience. On one hand I really like the layout, the fact that you can walk-in without reservations, and the style of the menu. Highs were high with the dessert, mozzarella, baccala, and sweetbreads quite impressive but the quality of vegetables on the highly-raved pizza a major failure. Service was efficient and friendly and prices are actually quite good for the quality considering the location just steps away from Chicago’s most notable shopping area. On the whole I’d consider going back to try some of the more dishes or to grab a gelato, but I’d be hesitant to recommend the pizza considering the fact that there are much better pies to be found in the Windy City.
The Gist: Matthias Merges, the Executive Chef of Charlie Trotter’s from 1996-2010 and the man responsible for my one excellent meal there reinterprets Japanese Street Food in the up and coming Logan Square area.
The Why: To be fair, I hadn’t planned to go to Yusho – not until the man who invited me to Next – El Bulli suggested it. Sure I’d heard good things from people I trust, but I already had reservations at EL Ideas that evening…but then again, when has that stopped me – particularly under the guise of ‘sharing a few plates’ with someone who not only likes Japanese cuisine but also has spent time in Japan and thus knows far more about it than I?
The Reservation: Accepted via the phone or through the restaurant’s own proprietary online system. As we were dining at 5:00pm on a Saturday the reservation was easily secured and although only the tasting menu is usually the only offering at the chef’s counter a simple request to sit there and order a la carte was honored as no one else had booked it during that time.
The Space: Prior to this visit I’d not spent much time in Logan Square and as I arrived nearly thirty minutes early for dinner I now know why – I walked around for the full thirty minutes and found nothing but older, relatively well maintained homes and a school. The restaurant itself sits on a street corner with simple signage, but once you get inside the décor is actually quite impressive with the space long and narrow with booths and a low bar with stools up front, tables in a larger dining room in back, plus a chef’s counter with high backed stools overlooking the entirety of the preparation area in between. Lighting is mostly soft overhead spotlights and hanging lamps of varied colors and bulb styles, plus large windows up front flooding the area with light during our meal. Music is light and nondescript, kitchen noise is minimal, and the use of reclaimed wood, concrete, brick, and exposed ceilings gives the room a comfortable minimalistic feel while colors and textures prevent it from being another nondescript ‘Japanese’ restaurant.
The Service: Competent, pleasant, and efficient with our primary server, Yolanda, handling the vast majority of the process including presenting the menus and daily specials, making recommendations, delivering dishes with excellent descriptions, and clearing plates. Admittedly there are some limitations to being served from behind as we were sitting at the bar and perhaps this could have been circumvented if we’d had ordered the tasting/omakase thereby allowing the chefs to serve us directly, but either way the service was everything one could want and the pace of the meal was leisurely with dishes arriving one or two at a time, always appropriate in temperature, and with good spacing so that we never felt rushed or bored.
The Food: A la carte. Two cocktails, Seven Savories, One Sweet.
With the menu quite extensive we started with a cocktail each while making decisions. For myself, Cate’s Esters – Lemon Hart Demerara Rum, Lime, Cane Sugar, Orange, Myrrh Bitters would prove to be just my style with quite a bit of sweetness, the smooth basenotes of rum, and the interesting use of an aromatic I most identify with incense that rose to the palate and sinuses but was virtually undetectable on smelling the drink.
Chicken Skin – Japanese Mustard, Garlic, Togarashi: Jon’s first choice as he was familiar with similar dishes from his visits to Japan. According to him, not quite traditional in that those overseas are more meaty I have to admit that for a dish I wasn’t sure I would like since I don’t fancy mustard or significant heat I actually really enjoyed the one skin I tasted – crisp and salty with the heat and garlic acting to level out the mustard.
2x Fried Chicken – Kanzuri, Matcha, Lime: Another choice of Jon’s, served up on a Japanese newspaper, and a very logical follow-up to the skin both in terms of the animal and in terms of the flavor. Featuring two breasts, split and fried not once but twice, to call this chicken ‘extra crispy’ would be an understatement as the crunchy coating rife with spices gave way to moist, tender flesh that was almost ‘soft’ in comparison, though in reality perfectly brined, cooked, and full of flavor. With a light tinge of flavor from both the acid in the lime and the bitter matcha, the real wallop of bonus flavor was the Kanzuri, a sauce I’d never experienced before that Yolanda explained was ‘hot and sour’ – an understatement to be sure as a little went a long way.
Grilled Hama-Hama Oyster with Cider, Yuzu, Sake: One of the daily specials, this was ordered by Jon and although I was offered a bite I declined. Reportedly very good I will note that I’ve never seen an oyster quite so large and considering the events of December 30th 2011 I remain a bit guarded about raw or lightly cooked oysters served on the half shell.
Salmon Roe Takoyaki, Chile, Bonito, Scallions: Perhaps Yusho’s most talked about dish, and the start of a quartet of fantastic plates that epitomized the concept of umami this plate featured four golf ball sized pockets of flour packed with briny salmon eggs that literally burst with flavor on each bite. Texturally not dissimilar from a hushpuppy with the crispy golden exterior and toothsome yet creamy insides the flavor profile of the dish was only enhanced by the briny shaved mackerel while scallions and chili oil added another dimension of flavor depth. Apparently more commonly made with octopus as opposed to the roe I’ll definitely seek the authentic version in the future, but all things being equal I find it hard to believe it can compare to such a stunning dish.
Cod Chawanmushi, Ginkgo Nuts, Shiitake: Arriving simultaneously with the eel as we continued to swoon over the Tokayaki, this dish would be the first of the evening where the form was quite different from what I’d expected, and yet it would still prove to be stunning as the crisp pieces of tempura-fried cod cheek were suspended via skewer over sweet custard flecked with crunchy toasted ginkgo nuts and fibrous shiitake mushrooms. Ever a fan of custards and puddings I personally felt this to be one of the strongest dishes of the evening and amongst the best Chawanmushi preparations I’ve experienced.
Eel Brandade, Hominy, Wasabi Mustard: The second of a dynamic duo, my second salt cod preparation of the day, and again vastly different than I’d expected in a very welcome way with the supple and sweet eel sliced into thin strips and rested over fried balls of creamy brandade that burst with a savory cream not dissimilar to the Takoyaki. Clearly not satisfied with a pairing that was already delicious, Merges instead upped the ante on this dish with the addition of griddled hominy at the base plus a dash of intensely spiced mustard (which was thankfully applied sparingly) creating a bowl of contrasts in flavor, texture, and spice that all came together masterfully in the mouth.
Foie Gras – Kabocha Squash, Kombu, Honey: Obviously if there was foie gras on the menu I was going to order it and as is usually the case, it proved to be the highlight of the meal as a surprisingly large slice of liver arrived crisp and caramelized on the exterior, supple and unctuous within, and flanked with an inspired composition of tender squash, crispy seaweed, and a liberal drizzle of honey plus bee pollen. Again an exploration of textures and flavors but here excelling to even higher highs in terms of sweet/savory balance it was the best foie gras of the trip by a substantial margin.
Logan Poser Ramen – Crispy Pigs Tail, Hen Egg, Cucumber, Thai Chile: Seeing that we were sharing all of our items the chef asked if we’d prefer this dish portioned out for two and thankful for the suggestion (plus the extra egg) we watched the dish being composed as we enjoyed the foie gras – a slow and careful process to be sure but one well worth the wait as both bowls arrived piping hot with the broth rife with the flavors of pork and the sea. Again utilizing a skewer to support the crisply fried deboned pig tail above the broth and balancing the brine with the creamy egg, crunchy cucumbers, and masked heat of the Thai chili this was a bit hearty so later in the meal, but delicious just the same.
Black Sesame, Coffee Sauce, Crunchy Business: Having been told by my friend Rich (who I’d be seeing in less than an hour at EL Ideas) that I “must” order this dish, well, I had to order this dish…and in the end I was very glad I did as the rich Black Sesame soft serve topped with salty caramel infused with Arabic coffee and a thin waffle described sesame brittle was far more than your typical boring ice cream. Beginning first with the ice cream – think sweetened soy sauce with a sort of cocoa undertone brought to a peak by the bitter/sweet balance of the coffee sauce – it was outstanding and far more impressive than that at Brushstroke only a few weeks prior. Next, adding texture, was the ‘crunchy business’ – a combination of the shattering waffle tuille, ground white and black sesame seeds, and house made sixlets. Generally not one to be wowed by Japanese desserts, Rich was right – if you go, you must order this.
The Verdict: You should go…you should probably go with another person…you probably should not have dinner plans afterwards…and you should slide up to that bar and either place yourself in the chef’s hands or order everything on the menu that sounds good because between a gourmand with minimal experience with Japanese cuisine and one with plenty we both left Yusho happy, sated, and impressed for $65/pp including drinks making Yusho a lock for Michelin’s Bib Gourmand, but with food, service, and setting certainly qualifying for at least a single star in the Red Guide.
Yusho before EL Ideas was amazing, but even for myself a ton of food.
That said, EL Ideas was a better meal than Next - El Bulli, and IMO the most exciting restaurant in Chicago right now. It might not be as 'good' as Alinea, but more exciting and 1/2 the price (1/3-1/4 if you're drinking.)