Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Restaurant Cheat Sheet

While I haven't eaten at every tested standby or all the newest up & comers, I've been to many restaurants and this list contains places I've visited and feel are worth the time & effort. Crossing by neighborhood & meal type makes a handy guide.

 Obviously there are some neighborhoods that I've spent more time exploring, but I do believe it also reflects the quality of food in some areas vs. others. I also fully recognize that some of my neighborhood designations are a little off, but I'll take fewer columns over being perfectly specific. Be sure to scroll all the way to the right for a group of "all other" spots.

 Lastly, the occasion groupings are not strict in any way; just my judgments. Food, atmosphere, wait time / reservations, expense, etc., all weigh in.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012: Favorite Meals

This year was a fun year in dining.  Here's a summary of my favorite meals:

  1. el Bulli at Next.  This showcased creativity, set a reference-level for many techniques, and was presented with a historical narrative.  Delicious, educational, and occasionally mind-bending.
  2. Schwa in July.  Innovative taste combinations, raucous atmosphere.  At times the food showed impressive refinement while other dishes turned the volume to 11.  A singular experience that pushed the envelope of flavors.
  3. Bonsoiree in February.  I ate at 2728 W Armitage several times in 2012, and two meals were fantastic.  February's was a balance of refined Asian & rustic French fare presented with creative techniques & plating.  Unique & memorable; hate to see this closed.
  4. Brooklyn Fare.  The best available ingredients, creatively but conservatively served.  A few composed plates showed off deep technique, but the simple precision highlighted the flawless protein & supporting accouterments.
  5. Bonsoiree "Shin's Underground"  in November.  An homage to past Bonsoiree dishes with a look forward to Shin Thompson's next venture.  This meal highlighted refined, seamless merging of Asian & French fare enabled by a skilled imagination.  Fantastic meal; looking forward to Shin's next restaurant.
  6. Kyoto at Next.  Yes, impressive ingredients were great; rare fish & plants were intriguing.  But what made this meal great was the Midwestern integration--corn husk tea, chestnut tofu & apple, and a couple maple appearances--made this a fascinating local take on the Japanese Omakase framework.
  7. Marea.  The bridge of seafood flavors & pasta dishes created a heartfelt, fulfilling meal.  Inventive combinations of land and sea highlighted the menu.  Non-pasta plates & desserts were equally well-done.
  8. Butcher & Larder.  The shop's butchered meat was integrated into every dish, but the paths used to do so showcased cleverness (especially with multiple seafood courses).  When discussing with other attendees, we were unable to reach agreement on the best plate; every one was that singular & impressive.  A hearty meal far beyond meat-centric, this made me wish Rob Levitt still had a restaurant.
  9. Goosefoot.  Beautiful food, inventive presentations of flavors & textures.  Plate after plate brought a smile to my face.  Several impressive dishes highlighted a meal focused on execution and uncommon (and uncommonly good) flavor combinations.
  10. Maude's...Browntrout...The Bristol...all deserve honorable mention; maybe not as flashy as the occasions listed above, but these were hearty, soulful, standout meals that I'd gladly eat again.  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Finest Binge: Summary

Across 5 meals comprising significant critical acclaim across two cities, I was exposed to a broad range of ingredients, flavors, techniques, dining rooms and service.  I learned a lot about all of these elements and of my belief of what makes a meal great.  I tried to avoid comparisons across these restaurants in individual post, as each dinner certainly deserves space for its story & experience.  This post is the opposite; this post will compare everything experienced in this week of great eating.

It's hard to pinpoint which meal was "the best."  Marea was hearty & satisfying; Bon Soiree was creative & stunningly well-executed; Next's el Bulli was clever, and enjoyably hands-on; The Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare was a spectacle of precision applied to perfect ingredients.  I give the edge to el Bulli for its interactivity & historical significance.  The friend who was with me for the week preferred Bon Soiree.  I'd gladly have any of these meals again (including Eleven Madison Park, though I won't be funding their chance at redemption).

Most impressive was Bon Soiree.  I might be biased by the BYO aspect & enjoyable bottles I took, but to have that meal outperform EMP, challenge Next's el Bulli menu for overall quality, and come with such a relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere made a great experience.

Most memorable dishes: composed duck plate & the raw ingredients from Chef's Table (along with the spectacle of caviar scooping); pheasant dish with a chocolate-influenced sauce at EMP; pasta dishes at Marea; motoyaki, duck, "Chocolate 8 ways" at Bonsoiree; rabbit & shrimp dishes at Next.  These have all hung in my mind as standards for great dishes.

The lasting impression of those dishes, meals, and varied formats have been implanted in my mind and compared against all fine dining meals since then.  It's been over 6 months now, and the memories are still vivid.  This week will always stick with me as an educational experience and surely formative on all future food experiences.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Finest Binge: Next el Bulli

I already had planned a pair of 3-star dinners in New York when tickets for Next went on sale, so the purchase became an easy decision when the Friday following those NYC meals showed as available.  The stage was set for a great week.  I carried high hopes for the el Bulli dinner at Next.  I loved the Paris 1906 meal a year prior, enjoyed Ferran's biography, saw him speak a few months earlier, and was intrigued by the chronological perspective of the meal.  I read as little as possible about the menu and individual dishes so as to take in surprises as they came.  We were rushed to get to the meal on time, which guaranteed that minimal time was spent discussing, speculating, or anticipating--we sat down excited & happily uninformed.

A waiter explained a few finer points to us, outlined the available beverage options (I took all wine, she took the wine/beer/tea route..we both preferred the latter), and told us to get ready.  Our reservation was a bit on the early side, so only a few other tables were occupied.  Our spot was in a corner, where we had limited view of other tables' dishes--a good thing, in my mind, to preserve the element of surprise.  Small bites started showing up in waves.  The iconic spherical olives lived up to their fame; the iberico sandwich & golden egg were both delicious presentations of familiar flavors; and the carrot air with coconut milk was a blend of liquid & air in which the combination of flavors exceeded either individual component--a great dish.  My favorite of these early courses was the black sesame sponge cake.  It made me question: why aren't savory cakes used more often?  Least appealing to me was the smoke foam.  I typically enjoy smoke in all dishes, but a dish of only smoke flavor was overpowering & uninteresting.

The next 9 dishes came from earlier years (1987-2001) and began to showcase the interesting evolution of el Bulli's food.  A cauliflower dish & red mullet dish each showed explorations in creative plating; hot crab aspic & tomato ice were early signs of pushing the boundaries of texture.  While I didn't enjoy the tomato ice, it and the dishes around it carried a similarity: flavors true to their source.  The trumpet carpaccio showcased earthy mushroom flavors.  The nasturtium dish with eel & marrow was mind-bending in a challenging way that stayed with me for days.  A suquet of prawns was fantastic--my favorite dish of the night--and tasted more like prawns than anything I've tasted before or since.  A rabbit dish from 2000, included to feature the first ever hot jelly, perfectly balanced hearty rabbit & tart apple flavors.  By this point in the meal I was more than impressed.

Several of the following dishes featured interactive elements: cracking the ice of a mint pond, breaking apart a gorgonzola ball, guessing at ingredients on a plate of spices, and digging for marshmallows under waving inflated hands.  Some earlier dishes utilized interactive elements, and many bites throughout the night were taken without utensils, but these later ones stepped up the involvement.  The hands-on nature of these dishes was purposeful and--my impression--created to be fun for the diner (successfully).

The Saturday prior we visited the Guggenheim museum and saw 3 Picasso works in one room, all from distinctly different periods of his career.  This meal was that exact experience, displayed on plates instead of canvas.  I came out feeling like I had learned something about Ferran Adria & culinary history.  All told, this was the most enjoyable meal of the week and among the best of my life.  Each dish was thoughtful, the interaction was enjoyable, and the sum of the dishes was cerebral.  It provided benchmarks that I'll compare against future meals.  I'm glad I had the chance to enjoy Next's el Bulli; it was both a culinary education and memorable dining experience.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Finest Binge: Bon Soiree

A couple of weeks before my trip to New York, Shin Thompson of Bon Soiree tweeted that he needed a creative night out for Valentine's Day and would offer up a 5 course dinner for two as reward for the best idea.  He liked mine, so it only seemed right to fit it into the week of great meals.  We upgraded to 9 courses and set the reservation for a few days after we arrived back in Chicago.  After the highlights in New York & with the anticipation of el Bulli at Next (the night after Bon Soiree), we didn't spend a lot of time discussing or building up the night out in Logan Square.  In the back of my mind I knew it had a chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with other great meals of the week, but didn't mention that until the cab ride; I wanted us both to come in without expectations (though I'd been a couple of times previously).

The small, clean dining room is always welcoming.  Even though the room was less than half full when we arrived, the music & staff gave it an upbeat feel.  We picked a table & our waiter came by to open the wine I'd brought (Lallement Champagne & an 08 Rivers-Marie Summa Old Vines Pinot Noir, both were delicious).  Courses started coming:  "Consumer Advisory" sashimi, a seafood stew, and a wagyu short rib all brought "oh, wow" with their presentations & smiles with their flavor.

Three of the next four courses were plates of multiple components, built from a focus ingredient (shellfish, duck, lamb).  The scallop & crab motoyaki, duck roulade with pork belly, and lamb loin were highlights--all were among some of the best dishes of the week--and almost everything was great (one exception: a lamb sausage that was a bit dry).  While each plate centered on a single ingredient type, it seemed a bit odd to have both warm and cool pieces on the shellfish plate; similarly, the duck roulade & tongues could have justified separate plates.  Shin could have easily stretched this menu to 15+ courses.  Not a negative, but at minimum, interesting that so many unique bites were worked into the meal.

The last couple of courses were both fantastic.  Cheese with a "candied gooseberry ornament" was a delicious contrast of textures, bitterness, and sweetness.  Then came dessert: "8 presentations of chocolate."  A perfect, fun plate that took us a bit of time to work through and discuss--it was interactive and educational to compare the various forms & flavors.  Chocolate spaghetti was my favorite, but all were delicious & fun.

An incredibly humble Chef Shin came out front to chat with us.  He seemed to take little pleasure when we told him that his performance equaled or bettered the New York meals we had recently enjoyed.  His only reply was, "those are great restaurants, I'm glad you liked your meal here."  That soft-spoken humility belied the confident, creative, well-executed food we had just experienced, but it fit the restaurant's simple decor, BYO beginnings, and off-beat location.  Bon Soiree clearly reflects Shin's personality, showcases his wealth of culinary talent, and should be considered among Chicago's best restaurants.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Finest Binge: Marea

This marked my 2nd visit to Marea, both for lunch.  On this trip we came in around 2 o'clock and sat at the bar.  Coming off of a disappointing night at Eleven Madison Park, I looked forward to the comforting pasta.

We began with Polipo; grilled octopus.  The smoked potatoes were delicious and the octopus was meaty & tender--a great start.  Then came pastas, 3 of them: Fusili, Spaghetti, and Agnolotti.  The Fusili was as I remembered it: savory, rich, and full of flavor.  Probably the best pasta dish I've ever had.  The spaghetti was almost as good; the crab was a tasty addition.  The Agnolotti (a version not yet on the menu) was very impressive--a sausage filling & lentil puree brought spot-on saltiness and texture.  After a morning spent wandering the chilly city, these three pasta dishes were soulfully satisfying.

Next came a scallop dish.  The scallops were perfectly cooked and the many flavors on the plate worked well together--I'd have no hesitation eating this again.  Lastly, two plates appeared, each having both the carrot ("carota") and doughnut ("bomboloni") desserts on them.  Overly full and pressed for time, I recall these both being quite good but don't remember specifics.  Based on my earlier, November visit to Marea, in which I was served a mashup of several desserts in one bowl, I would not hesitate to order anything from the dessert menu--all of them have been perfect finishers.

The last of our weekend's Michelin starred New York meals, Marea absolutely hit the mark.  Great food, a refined & buzzing atmosphere, and enjoyable service were perfect on this occasion.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Finest Binge: Eleven Madison Park

On my trip to New York last November, I visited Eleven Madison Park for dinner in the bar area.  Several courses there were very good, and with high praise from Michelin and diners I trust, getting to experience the full menu was a top priority for this trip.  We were forced a bit of an early dinner--6 o'clock--because we had tickets to a concert that night, with plans to arrive at the venue by 10.  We arrived to a dining room with only a few other seated guests, but were in no way let down by the room's grandeur; large windows, a spacious table, and deep red roses as decor created great presence.

Our head waiter stopped by with a few questions: "any allergies?" (1 gluten in our table of 4).  "Any foods you don't like?" (no).  "Any time constraints?" (no; we had 4 hours & didn't want to rush service).  "Great.  You're in for a treat tonight; I'll fill you in when I come back."  He hopped away, giving the sommelier a chance to pour us each a glass of Champagne.  The waiter returned a few minutes later to describe the situation:
"Tonight is a special night.  Chef Christopher Kostow, of Meadowood in Napa, is working with us tonight.  He was formerly Daniel Humm's sous chef, and tonight they're collaborating on a special tasting menu.  As Chef Kostow has also earned 3 Michelin stars at Meadowood, we are cheekily calling this a 'six star Saturday'.  Would everyone like to participate in the full collaboration tasting menu tonight?"  
The four of us nodded in unison.  We were elated--if it weren't for the formality of the space, we might have been high-fiving and cheering our good fortune.  Given the murder's row week of meals this night fell into, my friend gave me a "is this real?" look.  Six star Saturday.  Fantastic.

Out came a succession of small bites.  A chickpea fritter might have passed as the best french fry to appear on this earth, and an egg & bacon bite was quite good; however, the curry-dusted goat cheese lollipop was unappealing.  Other bites were tasty, but couldn't quell our anticipation for the heart of the menu.

Finally, fuller plates began to arrive.  First was a cup of yogurt accompanied by black sesame, shiso, and plum compote.  All of us took a bite, considered the taste, took another bite, then exchanged puzzled glances.  I tried ingredients separately; I tried them together in various combinations, but couldn't find a pleasant flavor profile.  2 of my friends did not finish theirs.

At this point that the front of house manager came over to invite us into the kitchen.  We were served delicious edible cocktails (involved pomegranate foam, apple syrup, and liquid nitrogen, among other components).  Shaking hands and chatting with chefs Humm & Kostow was enjoyable; both seemed quite friendly and we appreciated that they did not seem rushed to leave us.  Brightened by that experience, we returned to the table with renewed excitement.

After a bit of a delay, because of our kitchen visit, next came a "cauliflower couscous."  We were, again, disappointed--rather crunchy, as raw cauliflower can be.  The flavors were quite simple as well.  We spent a while discussing the letdown we were all experiencing until the next course arrived.

With the next plate, cured venison with tuna, a positive course correction occurred.  It was tender, just a bit chewy (good thing), and quite meaty.  The next course, a lobster dish, was a knockout plate--the favorite of a couple folks at the table.  Of the next 4 courses (sturgeon, squab, pork, chevre cheesecake) only the squab was enjoyed by all--perfectly cooked and interestingly balanced with beets & chocolate jus.  As for the other dishes: some of the sturgeon components didn't make sense, most of the pork pieces were overcooked and on the dry side, and the chevre cheesecake was at worst bland; at best good with added salt.

The hit & miss food was frustrating, but perhaps more frustrating--and exacerbating the food frustration--was the service.  We did not experience the flawless service I'd been told to expect (except for our sommelier--he was great).  We frequently waited over 20 minutes between courses.  After the chevre cheesecake course (12 plates in) we had been at the table for nearly 4 hours.  This extremely slow pacing was a surprising failure and caused us to miss the concert.

One unique piece of service was the egg cream.  Our waiter, channeling his best salesman spirit, told us of the building and area's history while mixing a frothy cream cream drink on a tableside cart.  The monologue was interesting and the drink was good.  This was followed with a goat cheese, blood orange, and vanilla cheesecake.  This was nice, but the textures seemed overmanipulated--vanilla "snow" and an odd treatment to the fruit detracted from the flavors present.  The last dessert, a chocolate-based dish, was sadly unbearable.  Nobody at the table could understand why the components were put together, and nobody could finish it--our tastebuds told us to stop.

As a bit of praise, our frustrations were recognized.  Several of the waitstaff exchanged frantic looks during a few of our longer waits and a few drinks were comped.  But when it was all done, the 15 course meal took 5 hours, we missed the concert (only a minor complaint, really), and just a few dishes could be acknowledged as exceptional.  Our group re-hashed and discussed, attempting to make sense of the situation.  The collaboration must have caused kitchen issues, forcing slow service.  Also, many of the folks I have heard praise Eleven Madison Park opted for the 4 course menu or went for lunch; if those meals only incorporated the best dishes we were served, the food could come off as outstanding.  But as it were, we experienced many poor plates & frustrating service.  Not the room's presence, the free drinks, nor the inventiveness of a few good dishes could uplift us from severe disappointment.