Saturday, April 25, 2009
Unfortunately, a heavy summer storm emerged and I retreated back into my house to do some chores. The rain passed quickly, and while the sky remained dim it was a warm day. I wandered out to my favorite local breakfast place, Ina's. Ina Pinkey's accolades are numerous and Chicagoland diners have been titillated since she was crowned the "breakfast queen" several decades ago.
The charm of this West Loop institution is like a country homestead in the city. One of the unique trademark salt-and-pepper shakers sits on each table. The staff is friendly and efficient, and nice touches like Ina's signature baked goods and a full carafe of coffee on each table appear within seconds of arrival. I should note that while I have been to Ina's on dozens and dozens of occasions for breakfast, brunch and lunch, I have never been there for dinner, despite the award-winning fried chicken and other good homestyle options.
So, I hope you don't mind if I focus on the sweet and savory breakfast options for this post. Whether it is the signature dishes like "Heavenly Hots" (thin pancakes with hot fruit compote), Scrapple or Frittata; the fine omelets and other baked goods; or the fresh made soups, salads and sandwiches - Ina and her kitchen turn out wonderful, fresh (and largely organic) treats. The coffee is strong and good, and all-natural, fresh-squeezed orange, tomato, grapefruit and other juices are on hand.
It is the perfect spot for a casual family gathering, an informal business luncheon, or even a quiet spot to read a newspaper or a book. This morning, I had the pleasure of sampling the oatmeal pancakes with blueberries and fresh syrup while I read an exceptional newly published tome (The Whole Five Feet, but Christopher Beha). The perfect start to a weekend.
Monday, April 13, 2009
The first shot the Halls and their crew took at this were the popular Matilda, Bourbon County Stout, Pere Jacque, and Demolition about two years ago. This year, they released the evolution of this concept with four new beers: a new Demolition, Naughty Goose, Juliet and Sophia.
These four evoke flavors of their intended opponents. For example, the Naughty Goose is the beer equivalent of a Pinot Noir, whilst the new Demolition is a competitor for a heady white. I sampled two of the four while waiting for the Cubs' home opener to start after an icy rain delay in early April.
The Naughty Goose is a dead ringer for a pinot. Light but solid "American Brown Ale" served in a pint glass, backed with the rest of the tall 22 ounce (excuse me, "1 Pint 6 Fluid Ounces", according to the bottle). The bottle is meant to be drank within a half year of initial bottling. The beer is indulgent while light for a brown ale, with some hint of chocolate. Very good, very tasty.
The bomber of Demolition was a "Belgian Style Golden", with some bitterness and a heavy body for a golden ale. Some honey citrus flavour pares down the bitterness, and my British female drinking companion preferred this to the Naughty Goose.
More to come when Juliet and Sophia are released later this month. . . . .
Saturday, April 11, 2009
I will concur that the space is a nice one. Located in the former 27th Ward Library space, the decor is understated and comfortable. A decent sized bar area unfolds into the larger two-tier dining room and finally into a unique skylight/atrium room. The tables were full, but the spacing was adequate and one did not feel as "crammed in" as would be typical at such a restaurant.
But, dear readers, I am sorry to say that the big names behind this new spot focused more on the PR than on the food and service.
Granted, I was there in the first week of opening, so I will give some wide berth for errors and mistakes in service. However, before we even began dining, the combination of too-infrequent wait service (one of our party of four always had an empty glass) and too-frequent bus service (many of us lost plates / utensils if they were left idle for a second) was disappointing. Too, several of the beers on the well-compiled beer list were unavailable; which seems a bit of a gaff for an American bistro (I could live with one beer being "sold out", but 3 or 4?).
On the subject of food, I am of two minds. On the one hand, the PR around this opening is painstaking to differentiate the spot in its simplicity / lack of "fussy" food. As such, "normal" dishes that might not excite me relative to the latest and greatest the culinary scene in Chicago has to offer should be forgiven or handicapped. However, these "normal" dishes tried to evoke some creative flair: mozzarella egg roll (served lukewarm and flavorless), mussels & frites in interesting dishware (again, lukewarm and less than exciting to the palette), a highly recommended half chicken (very fatty, low-grade chicken and cold brussel sprouts). The flatbreads with exotic toppings were a highlight of the kitchen's talent, but the last two pieces were whisked away as entrees arrived without regard for us wanting to finish.
So, I may try it again to see if the visit was premature on the first open-to-the-public Saturday, but with my long list of new spots to try, I was disappointed that this restaurant was so over-hyped by the literati of the food world.
The Grocery Bistro opened a few weeks ago in a star-crossed spot near Washington and Halsted, which has played home to fast food, sushi and offices over the last dozen years I have lived in the West Loop. For the sake of anyone who enjoys fine food and a convivial setting, let's hope that this is the last change we see for some time.
First, kudos to the staff for not flinching at my terribly inappropriate attire. I had come straight from having a small surgical procedure performed, and was famished - and my dedicated handler thought she would treat a somewhat still-anesthetized patient in sweats to a very late lunch.
We arrived a few minutes before five, hoping to grab a quick bite in an empty restaurant before my pain medication began to wear off. However, even at this early hour, the restaurant was fully booked (in its third week of being open). Rather than turn us away and scoff at the badly dressed rubes who had stumbled into their establishment, we were welcomed to sit at the large, central communal table.
[Note to those of you not under the influence of hospital administered narcotics: the Bistro is BYOB, and conveniently located next door is Perman Wine Selections (former home to Bennett Wine Studio), which sports a relatively small but very nice selection of wines and some craft beers for every price range.]
Upon entering the restaurant, I was reminded of the elegant yet "city farmhouse" chic elements of a number of bistros I have visited in the past year in Brooklyn (iCi, L'Epicerie). Absent the red-striped banner sign on the glass (which makes it look like an actual grocery store), I would applaud the owners on their design touches. This is transcendent through the place settings and the very cool long, thin silverware.
Now, for the important stuff. The food. As aforementioned, we arrived at the very beginning of the dinner hour, only to find that the Bistro has an early bird special - a 3 course prix fixe menu for only $25. This, friends and loyal readers, is a true steal.
Perusing the ceiling-height chalkboard menu, we studied an interesting type of French fusion cooking; comforting French fare with spices from around the globe, as well as a few more "new American" dishes.
For starters, I tried the steak tartare, which was very rich and cut with only a modest amount of capers and onion. As a result, the amount of steak was more substantial than a typical tartare. A small quail egg and thick peppery crackers also accompanied the dish. In sum, as the waiter promised - "5-star" - but could use some more capers to enhance the high-quality meat's spice.
My charming orderly had the night's special "tuna two ways"; a tempura tuna roll and tuna tartare. The tuna roll was decent but the tuna tartare, mixed with a spicy sauce and bits of corn and Japanese beet, was exemplary.
The main courses, however, really stole the show. The waiter convinced me the while the burgers were solid, I should really try the lamb. I had a taste for burgers, but this thirst was slaked by the steak tartare.
The roasted chili-crusted lamb chops were served with a yogurt creamed spinach and curried couscous. The lamb was perfectly cooked and well-spiced, and while I am not a big lamb guy, I would order this dish again.
My partner ordered the highly recommended roasted garlic risotto with artichokes and mushrooms. The very nicely-sized portion was a deep gray color, as the risotto was further flavored with simmer mushroom and truffle sauce. Excellent and a must-have.
For dessert, we sampled the banana and bacon tiramisu, which was both inventive and scrumptious.
I truly enjoyed this dining experience; in addition to the food, the attitude and feel of the restaurant seemed different than the traditional "new hot spot". It felt like an authentic modern bistro. And it backed up its sensibility with excellence in dining.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
It is with some pleasure that I went to try the second outpost of authentic Italian cuisine by Bruno Abate. Housed in a stark, modern space in lower Bucktown, Tocco's interior is a contrast to the trendy, yet reserved Mediterranean hues that decorate Follia, Bruno's original spot in the West Loop. I would deem the post-modern art deco, black and white interior and sharp, clear tables to give the feel of a European club.
We arrived early for our reservation, an our table wasn't ready, but we were offered the communal table if we didn't want to wait. We opted to sit communally and begin our dining experience.
Our helpful server gave us the run down on the menu (which is similar to Follia, but with a few additional wood-fired options including a range of calzone), and left us to peruse the short but well-chosen wine list. Also similar to Follia, the largely Italian wine selections provide for all budgets, from simple Italian staples to reserve selections including an amazing '04 Ornelliaia, which we splurged on.
After sampling the fine wine, we started with one of the appetizers unique to the Tocco menu, fried gnocchi. The fried dough was a little chewy and served with three shaved meats; an amazing tender shaved ham, a light mortadella and fine prosciutto. We also had a Follia favorite, breseola with a small salad of fresh arugula and shaved parmigiana.
For our main dish, we chose to sample some of the house made pastas, and were not disappointed - it was clearly prepared fresh and cooked to perfection. We shared a pappardella simply served with fresh tomato, basil garlic and some fresh pepper; as well as a spaghetti carbonara, which was unexpectedly light but without sacrificing any of the flavor.
As we finished our wine, we tasted the four cheese selection of the day, and enjoyed all of them - parmigiana, gorgonzola, and two other soft cheeses I can't recall, but both were excellent, topped with truffles and honey.
Bruno happened by the restaurant as we were finishing, and like the true restaurateur he is, welcomed us warmly, making even this trendy reclaimed piece of urban jungle feel like an a friend's Italian kitchen.
I think I can say with certainty that Chicago is lucky to be graced with another outpost for real, fresh Italian delicacies.