Three Days in Chicago - Mott Street, Fat Rice, Siena Tavern, etc.
- uhockey Dec 12, 2013 06:47 AM
A bit of feedback on a recent culinary trip to Chicago - 11/29 to 12/1.
Dillman's - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14544
002 - Dillman's (1) 002 - Dillman's (5) 002 - Dillman's (6)
Separated from our Thanksgiving feast by nearly twelve hours plus a twelve mile run Black Friday began with the back-to-back “Jewish Deli” experience of Brandon Sodikoff’s new-school Dillman’s and oldschool South Loop favorite Eleven City Diner, the former a splashy new spot every bit as beautiful as the rest of the restaurateur’s empire with ample leather, chandeliers, and polish all around yet surprisingly empty for our 7:00am arrival – clearly a mistake on the part of everyone else who could have, and should have been there for a breakfast far superior to the traditional ‘diner’ in both comforts and cuisine. Clearly a space designed for the night as well as the day it was with a short explanation of the daily baked goods that we were introduced to the menu and with coffee plus tea freely flowing from large silver vessels it would not be long before the meal began with a trio of fresh pastry including a lemony yet toothsome pound cake, warm sugar cookie studded with oreos, and a superlative warm canele with an interior near liquid and a rival for the best in the country well worth its $1.95 price tag and difficult to resist ordering by the dozen. Amply impressed by the first round and hoping the best was yet to come it was with another refill or two of coffee as light music played overhead that our main courses arrived and with the latkes piping hot and crisp with handmade applesauce for garnish it was indeed the primary plates that wowed; for my aunt a duo of lightly sweetened cheese blintzes beneath brown butter and for myself two slices of custard-laden French Toast alongside light cream and warm maple syrup that redefined simplicity while easily ranking amongst the best in the city.
Eleven City Diner - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14570
With traffic in the South Loop sparse as we made our way from Dillman’s it was with a bit of surprise that our arrival at Eleven City Diner was met not only by ample free parking but also by a largely empty restaurant despite the post-holiday bustle just a few blocks north. Large in size but somewhat limited in menu to “breakfast only” according to our curt but efficient server it was admittedly with a bit of convincing that I eventually persuaded her that a Monte Cristo is, in fact, a breakfast item regardless of its place on the menu and with all the ingredients accounted for it would not be long before our order arrived in all its grandeur – all three items large enough to share but delicious enough that you may not want to. Beginning first with the aforementioned “Moshe Cristo,” a decadent sandwich stacked high with deli meat cut to order and sandwiched between crispy challah it was with a light smear of strawberry preserves that this was taken to new heights while the Matzo, not a favorite of my aunt, barely required syrup given its toothsome, eggy sweetness though I gladly added plenty with marvelous results before tucking into the highlight of the meal, a dense $8 slice of Red Velvet Layer Cake rife with dark cocoa notes but rendered mildly sweet and notably tangy by what might be the best cream cheese frosting in the Windy City.
Lao Sze Chuan - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14607
Gathering the family and making our way down through Pilsen to China Town it was again with good fortune that Black Friday had kept the masses at bay when we arrived at Tony Hu’s celebrated Lao Sze Chuan just after noon to find a six top ready and waiting as the immense menu of items both traditional and modern, tame and daring beckoned. Small and cramped but astonishingly friendly and efficient in service even as the kitchen was experiencing technical issues limiting their repertoire it was with some deliberation that we sat and pondered our options before negotiating a multi-course feast attempting to cover a large swath of the menu, the end result a bit of a mixed bag despite our best intents. Admittedly dining with a combination of palates both adventurous and decidedly not it was with rather run of the mill spring rolls and deliciously subtle shrimp mayo that the meal began and progressing then to a pair of sweet dim sum selections I think all were duly impressed by the execution until the large plates began to arrive, the spicy eggplant and pen fried noodles both showing a deft hand with the wok while the $30 “Peking” Duck proved a pre-carved disappointment of excellent flesh but regrettably flaccid skin and the Rabbit, although tender and intense with chili oil, provided so many bones in the rough-cut stew that it was actually unpleasant and onerous to consume no matter how delicious or authentic.
Interurban - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14611
When Lao’s dessert selection failed to wow my mother and Cone was inexplicably closed it was my sister who piped up suggesting a Portland-esque food-window whose name she couldn’t quite remember known for serving homemade pop-tarts, a quick search indicating suggesting “Interurban” to be the place and leading us up to Lincoln Park where a fifteen minute emergency-flasher ‘parking space’ in front of the now closed Charlie Trotter’s landed us a variety of sweets ranging from classic to contemporary and delicious to dreadful. Friendly in service and largely focused on American kitchen classics such as cupcakes and whoopee pies it was in these items that the small bakery excelled, the cakes moist and the frostings flavorful, and moving onward to the chilled bread pudding which was subsequently warmed in the microwave the trend continued, the texture dense but smooth with sweet and salty in admirable balance, though the bacon was decidedly limp. Moving next to the pop tarts, more ‘toaster strudel’ and soft than toasty and crisp both of the items would prove amply fruity if not particularly rave-worthy and rounding out the selections with an upside down cake that tasted more like sugar than pineapple it was the spongy, flavorless canele that truly appalled – a veritable disaster on all fronts and particularly when compared to the textbook version at Dillman’s just 6 hours earlier.
Fat Rice - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14631
Garnering considerable praise since opening its doors there was little doubt Abraham Conlon’s Fat Rice would play into my Chicago dining itinerary and planning advance while easily recruiting a friend the plan was to arrive just as the restaurant opened in order to avoid a long wait, our reward a corner seat on the edge of the bar with a full view of the kitchen where Abe and his staff worked with smiles and silence turning out plate after plate to a restaurant filled mere moments after it opened. Featuring stellar service and seasonal specials to accompany the more traditional Portuguese and Macanese menu staples it was admittedly with much deliberation that my friend and I weighed the options and with decisions eventually made it would not be long before the show began; a three savories and two sweets meal with enough food feed a small family and each plate a lesson in boldness and balance, tradition with creativity, but most of all the frequently misused/overused term “umami.” Sticking largely to the traditional Macanese items it was with creamy salted cod spread that the evening began and pairing the fish first with spice and brine but then scaling it back with mint this superb starter was only improved by the pillowy bread with light sweetness and a delicate crumb, a second roll proving equally amicable for sopping up the broth of the seasonal soup – a $34 masterpiece with nearly 6oz of foie gras scored and braised in an unctuous broth briny with pork and scallops yet intensely aromatic from the copious mushrooms. Moving on it was an obvious choice from the start that the signature Arroz Gordo would find its way to our table and although approximately 1/3 of the bowl went home with my friend it should go without saying that this is a dish well worth the price of admission, the complex flavors and textures running the gamut of the palate and the tea eggs, salted duck, and char siu pork particularly funky while the paprika from the linguica and chilies from the chicken tickled the back of the throat. Clearly not about to skip dessert after such a meal and unable to select just one despite being quite full it was on our server’s recommendation that we eventually opted for the restaurant’s two signatures and coming from entirely different places in terms of both taste and texture it should only be said that there is no ‘right’ answer as to which was better, the cake truly inspired in its construction and balance of sweet and savory tones but quite heavy while the more traditional serradura was a cloud with light sweetness up front and a mellow, tangy finish that lingered pleasantly at the end of such a heavy yet delightful meal.
Coalfire - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14660
Unable to fathom a trip to Chicago without pizza but realistic enough to know deep dish was not a logical option for a snack with family following Fat Rice it was at the suggestion of my sister’s fiancé that we found ourselves at well-regarded West Side staple Coalfire just prior to 10pm on Black Friday for a late night pie. Decidedly dark and expectedly trendy with a straight forward menu and smiling service it was without much effort that we agreed on a simple Margherita topped with house cured Mortadella and watching each step of the process from stretching of the dough to a final drizzle of olive oil from our seats I had little doubt the results would shine, the end product supple and lightly charred with a slightly open crumb more than capable of holding up to the ample toppings with a slight fold and outperforming any New York slice I’ve encountered to date, coal fired or not. Clearly a ‘do one thing and do it well’ sort of place with a focus on the pizzas while sweets are outsourced it was admittedly with caution that we placed trust in our waitress that the $4 cupcakes from locally owned “Chicago Cupcakes” were worth the price and selected four of the six daily options but true to her word each filled and frosted choice was excellent, the cookie dough particularly impressive with top notes of vanilla and cinnamon plus dark chocolate chips adding a bitter, crunchy finish.
Enoch's Doughnuts at Endgrain - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14668
Waking up early on the day of ‘The Game’ for a long morning run I was a bit surprised when my sister’s fiancé and my aunt volunteered to join me at Endgrain for a sampling of Enoch’s Doughnuts but having heard rumor that these may be the new “best in town” I was glad for the company which easily facilitated a “one of each” order from the disinterested clerk as an elderly regular held court at the end of the bar. Decidedly hipster-chic in design with exposed brick and taxidermy on the walls as Interpol played overhead our sampling of sweets plus a Nizza Americano began with the lightly salted, sliced, and filled caramel cake option before progressing onward to the sweet, raised honey glazed with excellent yeasty notes beneath the sticky, all natural lacquer and with these two selections setting the tone the quality and creativity would only improve with each subsequent bite. Personally believing that a great doughnut is one part quality and one part masticatory memories it was actually the later, and specifically the texture beneath the exemplary glazes that made Endgrain so great as both raised and cake selections feature a lightly crisp exterior overlying a supple, sweet crumb reminiscent of childhood Sunday’s in Port Clinton – the $3 Bourbon Vanilla and smooth, spicy pumpkin obviously worlds away from 50 cents for sprinkles but every bit as smile inducing no matter how hard the man behind the counter tried to focus on his frown.
Dinkel's - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14730
Moving from modern to classic the second stop on our morning tour was at iconic Dinkel’s Bakery, a Chicago institution since 1922 featuring old world recipe cakes, cookies, donuts, and more amidst cozy confines on Lincoln Avenue. Large in size and also in selection it was just prior to 7:45am when we arrived and with parking easily allocated we entered the shop along with a small trickle of traffic to peruse the options, clearly an affronting a rather unpleasant clerk as we inquired about the unmarked donuts behind the counter only to later see karma bite back when she spilled my aunt’s (admittedly dreadful and probably better off spilled down a drain) hot chocolate all over the pastry case and counter while packaging our order. Ordering lightly as we’d already indulged in Enoch’s Donuts earlier and taking our choices to the café next door it was with mixed results that we sampled the selections, the sour cream donut a warm, crisp, and textbook rendition while the both the yeasted option and the fritter were bready and boring, the later nothing like a fritter but rather a sort of cinnamon pull-apart nearly devoid of fruit. Moving next to the cakes, both the red velvet and carrot were light and flavorful if not particularly memorable but intentionally saving what I anticipated to be the best for last it was in the Rum Tart that Dinkel’s redeemed itself as the meringue remained crisp between layers of boozy buttercream while toasty, crushed walnuts and pecans proved an admirable foil to the sweetness.
Fancying myself as neither hipster nor particularly hip it was much to my sister’s surprise that I suggested Reno for Saturday breakfast but with jokes of PBR and bad facial hair aside I’d heard good things of the early morning pastry program and the wood fired bagels, or at the very least ‘good enough’ to justify the short walk to increasingly trendy Logan Square. By now a familiar paint-by-numbers theme with wood, exposed brick, and plenty of light alongside a list of clever libations and local-seasonal fare it was only moments after the 9am opening that we entered the large space and greeted with friendly smiles from not one but three employees including our server any questions regarding service were instantly cast aside, the duration of our stay only marred by a few menu misprints and misquoted prices mostly inconsequential when considering the quality of the cuisine. Undoubtedly the sort of place best suited for a group later in the day when Pizzas highlight the menu but equally amicable to the solos and large parties looking to sample and share in the morning it was with a bit of deliberation that we settled on our order and with sharing plates provided it was only the cheeseless poutine with an overcooked egg that failed to wow, the rest of the order inclusive of the smoky bagels, upscaled cheddar bay biscuit, and nontraditional but thoroughly impressive English Muffin serving as admirable warmup to a trio of well conceptualized sandwiches – the Hook perhaps the best thing ever done with cured salmon and a true stunner to someone who has never understood the sustaining popularity of the ingredient at any time of day, let alone breakfast.
Bub City - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14739
While the old jingle of “Baseball, Hotdogs, Apple Pie & Chevrolet” may have been as American as it got in the 1970s it would be hard to argue against Football, Barbeque, Whiskey and Country Music as an equal manifestation of the Red, White, and Blue in the year 2013; all those things present in plethora at LEYE’s newest Clark Street venture “Bub City” along with a flag made of beer cans, clever bathroom shenanigans, and some cute waitresses imported direct from Georgia to help the cause. Clearly a ‘theme’ restaurant and traditionally not the sort of spot I’d visit based on the music alone it was in all reality the fact that neither Smoque nor Lillie’s Q could guarantee a good vantage of “The Game” that brought us to Bub City and with no less than a dozen TVs it was with much emotion that we watched the Buckeyes best the Maize and Blue in dramatic fashion, the food and service clearly taking a back seat but all-in-all still quite good. Technically a bit sweeter and much less smoky than the ‘cue found in places like Kansas City and slightly more expensive given the branding it was actually the more complicated options and sides that shined the most amongst the savories, particularly the loosely packed ‘Big Pig’ patty with a marvelous texture plus plenty of heat and the almost-dessert sweet potatoes – the later a sign of things to come as post-game celebratory desserts proved substantial and satisfying, the banana pudding a particularly impressive rendition though I wouldn’t suggest leaving without tasting coconut cream pie, as well.
Mott Street - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14799
Thoroughly impressed by my meal at Ruxbin it was with clear from the day Mott Street was announced that it was only a matter of time and distance before I would visit, the stars eventually aligning in a truly superlative meal mere moments after Auburn shocked the Crimson Tide on a day I’ll not soon forget. Ostensibly a pan-Asian tapas spot one part hipster yet unequivocally personable and professional in service it was with my sister and her fiancé that I descended on the menu and attempting to order as broadly as possible it can only be said that many rewards were reaped; two complex yet mild cocktails, seven bold savories, and three delicious desserts each leaving us eyeing up the last bites secretly hoping the others would decline the opportunity to scrape the plate clean. In many ways a place where the menu seems more esoteric than it truly is our evening began small while working towards large, both in terms of portions and flavors, with sweetened sprouts and aromatic mushrooms before progressing to one of the most balanced and nuanced takes on sweetbreads I’ve yet to find and rounding out the first wave with crisp, sticky, and salty chicken wings the best was still to come. Clearly a restaurant where ‘umami’ matters it was next that we were greeted with the seafoam funk of supple crab brain fried rice finding its levity of curls of coconut and focused by bonito yet as much as this signature item shined it was the entirely familiar yet equally reimagined funky stuffed cabbage and fluffy hangtown fry that stole the show, the duo neck-and-neck for the best dish I encountered during my three and a half days in Chicago.
The Violet Hour - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14838
Disgusted by the ‘service’ at Graham Elliot to the point of walking out it was largely in hopes of quality in service and selections that I ended up at The Violet Hour, the former more or less ensured given the restaurant’s operation under Paul Kahan’s “One Off Hospitality Group” and the later assumed largely based on strong word of mouth, the swanky ‘scene’ and velvet curtain shtick notwithstanding. Dark and stark yet nicely apportioned with high back chairs to create personal space as nouveau-Jazz played overhead it would not be long before we garnered admission and with patrons both swanky and dressed down intermingling I personally enjoyed the scene, though my sister found it all a bit ‘precious,’ but any concern of such things went away the moment our server arrived with the menu; an ample listing of top-shelf libations and small bites from which we selected four. Typically the teetotaler it was with little coaxing that I opted for the cocktails noted to trend more closely to “sweet” while my sister and her fiancé opted for complexity yet while everything was quite good and surprisingly well priced at $13 per drink it was actually my “PB&J” plus the crowd-pleaser Milk and Cookies that proved the group favorites, the Tiger’s Milk especially lovely with a light bitter giving way to cinnamon and sweet.
Lou Mitchell's - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14841
A part of the Chicago dining scene since 1923 I was honestly surprised I’d not made it to Lou Mitchell’s sooner when I began perusing breakfast options in the Near West Side, but with my sister and her fiancé along for the ride on an early Sunday morning a visit long overdue was finally made. Proudly located at the beginning of Route 66 and unexpectedly large yet classic in every way from the smiling hostess offering up donut holes and Milk Duds as you enter to the beaten up booths filled with hungry Chicagoans even prior to 7am it was with good fortune that we arrived when we did, scoring both free parking plus one of the last open 4-tops, and with effusively friendly service predominating orders were placed; baked goods arriving within 5 minutes, plates in 15, and seemingly 20 coffee refills during our hour long stay. Every bit a diner and not meant to be mistaken for something upscale most of the food at Lou Mitchell’s was passable at a good price – the pancakes loaded with bananas and excellent with Lou’s house blend syrup, the enormous Americana omelet with top notch pan roasted apples and aged cheddar plus “3 or 4″ eggs for a mere $8.95, and the still warm donuts the standout of the morning in terms of their delicacy – the vanilla particularly impressive and nearly on par with Doughnut Vault for best yeasted doughnut in town.
Roeser's Bakery - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14881
A Humboldt Park mainstay predating even the classic Dinkel’s and Lou Mitchell’s of Chicago’s dining scene a visit Roeser’s Bakery was admittedly unplanned as we trekked back from Lou’s towards Longman & Eagle’s Sunday Donut Shop but in the end it was, in fact, the 1911 bakery that would prove the most memorable stop of the morning. Truly ‘old-world’ with a focus on cakes, cookies, and classic European tortes it was with great interest in the history of the space that we entered the small bakery and listening to the clerks tell the story of 100+ years in the business and a refusal to move even as the neighborhood shifted I couldn’t help but feel for their nostalgia the end result an order of a half dozen +1 doughnuts plus a modernized slice of the my favorite Hungarian torte taken home to share with largely impressive results. Beginning first with the torte, a mere $4.50 for a large slice despite the substantial time it takes to make the cake, perhaps the biggest surprise was just how subtle the nutella came across beneath the chocolate and moving onward to the doughnuts this theme would persist; all but the sticky and artificial tasting Strawberry proving excellent, particularly the seasonal trio of pumpkin, sweet potato, and pecan crunch cake options with a supple crumb and just enough sweetness to accent yet never overwhelm the natural savory undertones.
Longman & Eagle Sunday Donut Shop - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14952
Modestly impressed by the food but disgusted by the service during my first visit to hipster hotspot Longman & Eagle it was with guarded curiosity that we stopped in for the newly minted Sunday Donut Shop on the weekend following Thanksgiving, a first in line spot and expectedly disinterested service the reward for our pre-9am arrival along with four hot donuts ranging from entirely forgettable to prototypical. A surprisingly limited selection despite the seemingly special once-weekly concept and served “around back” at $3-4/per it was with two yeasted standards that out tasting began and with simple cinnamon-sugar plus dark chocolate toppings the results were simply mundane, the texture a bit doughy and creativity entirely for lack – a 69 cent donut at best. Moving next to the filled selection, in this case a divine roasted chestnut pudding inside a paczki-like pocket, results definitely improved along with complexity and at last tasting the rich, crisp vanilla bean cruller it almost seemed L&E had found its footing…until I realized better donuts, wider variety, and superior service can be found at no less than a dozen Chicago locations every day of the week.
Siena Tavern - http://endoedibles.com/?p=14957
Finally gathering my mother and aunt before we all went back to our respective lives it was at splashy downtown Siena Tavern that we would enjoy a final family brunch and although much of the press has been good none of it would have led me to believe it would be one of the more memorable meals we would enjoy together this year. A surprisingly large space with banquets, bars, tables, lounges, and private rooms awash in wood and bathed in light from floor to ceiling windows it was mere moments after entering that we found ourselves seated on plush leather and with exquisite service throughout the only difficulty was avoiding ordering too much…unless of course you share my opinion that there can never be “too much of a good thing.” Featuring a menu of brunch and lunch with subcategories savory, sweet, small, and large the meal started out well with the airy and crisp coccoli before moving to innovative brunch standards including slightly overcooked (and overpriced) Lobster Benedict over ratatouille alongside smoky, rich “biscuits and gravy” featuring buttery bread pudding in place of fluffy catsheads and as good as these were, the best was yet to come. Ostensibly an Italian restaurant but with pastas and secondi somewhat limited at brunch it was with elation that the restaurant’s oft cited gnocchi arrived as good as the rumors with potato clouds so light they’d have floated away without the hefty yet balanced sauce and not to be outdone the aromatic pizza would also prove admirable with a golden crust featuring robust crunch and a lightly yeasty crumb beneath a hefty layer earthy mushrooms and just enough truffle oil to enhance but not overwhelm. Certainly not leaving without dessert it can only be said that Siena Tavern saved the best for last and although the dessert-menu staple Monkeybread was excellent it was the DIY Bombolini and Saba and Custard soaked cheesecake parfait feigning as French Toast that stole the show; the later almost indescribably complex and a ‘must order’ for fans of sweet and savory alike.