Sometimes people at my school have friends or family visiting for a weekend and want to know where they should dine out.
Of course, faithful readers should know by now that my food answers almost always being with “it depends…” and could likely anticipate that this case should be no different. Despite my waffling tendencies, I do think it’s possible to build a relatively streamlined food itinerary, which some people should find suitable for their purposes.
An additional introductory note: the methodology behind this system assumes that the briefer the visit, the more valuable the visitor’s time. In this case, I think it makes sense to start with a small agenda and work up from there.
One day visit:
If you’re looking for a place to get dinner with some old friends, I would recommend The Gage and The Bristol. Both are very easy to get to VIA public transit and conveniently located in the loop which facilitates expedient sight-seeing. David Burke’s also has some great lunch offerings, and is a good place to have a great steak during the day. (During January they had a ShakenSTEAK special, which featured a filet mignon and martini for $15.50)
For lunch, I would recommend The Purple Pig, or (on a weekday) The Blackbird three-course prix fixe (see earlier review).
If your purposes tend more toward catching up than sightseeing, a leisurely brunch may also be a viable avenue to take. There are tons of decent brunch places sprinkled across the city, but in my mind the most quintessentially Chicago brunch is easiest to find at M. Henry, Longman & Eagle. Brunch at The Bristol looks similarly irresistible, but I will need to investigate this further to confirm. I might also add that brunch is a great way to try out some of the best restaurants in the city for about half of what dinner would cost.
Of course, these suggestions are by no means definitive. They’re just the results of my own experiences with dining in the city. Though I do think that most of these suggestions hit a good compromise between being accessible, affordable, and showcasing a facet of the Chicago food scene. I’ll continue to expand this list in the near future.
After lunch at Topolo, I headed over to Pastoral to do some cheese shopping.
Pastoral is a small, artisan cheese and specialty food shop in the loop, by Michigan and Lake. I walked in around 1:40 on a Tuesday afternoon and ended up spending more than an hour sampling cheeses at the counter. What follows is my (very) detailed account of my shopping experience.
I should preface this review by stating that I have a pretty minimal knowledge of cheese. I actually felt intimidated before I walked in, since cheese is (to me) one of those complex and intricate universes of expertise I feel totally lost in. Objectively, I have very limited knowledge of different processes by which cheese is made and technical differences between different types. I was also in doubt of my ability to taste the difference between different types of cheese and appreciate them fully.
Fortunately, these concerns were (mostly) quelled by the nice lady who helped me at the counter. When she made eye contact with me as I approached her burgeoning display, she quickly asked whether I needed any help. I responded that I might need a few minutes to decide, as I unsure of how to properly convey my neurosis/obsession with food optimization to the friendly stranger. She responded by offering to help me sample any cheeses in the display which looked interesting, and I tentatively obliged.
I was immediately struck by the Ascutney Mountain, a raw cow’s milk cheese from Vermont. It was the featured cheese of the week, but besides that something about it looked very right to me. When I tasted a shaving of it, I think the woman was both amused and unsurprised by my reaction (my eyes opened very wide and I started nodding as the flavors spread across my palate). I did like it a lot, but knew I had many more cheeses to try and was intimidated by the relatively expensive price ($34/lb). I ended up buying a medium sized wedge, which was the right decision. This ended up being my favorite cheese.
I also asked to try a goats milk cheese, the Leonora from Spain. I liked the chalkiness and tangy-tart flavor of the center, and the contrast with the milder, creamier area near the rind. I ended up buying a good sized piece of this cheese.
I next tried a soft cow’s milk cheese, with a strong mushroomy flavor. I ended up buying a small wedge, but it stood out among the other cheese I selected as being the most “funky”.
I then picked up some very cute looking goat cheese rounds in the display. They were two small Bijoux rounds which I decided to buy solely on the basis of how cute they were. When I tried them back in BJ, I found them to be pleasantly rich, buttery, and salty.
I also bought some 12 Month – Mimolette. It was a very particular shade of orange, different from any other cheese in the case. The label also noted that it was Charles De Gaulle’s favorite cheese.
To round out my stash, I bought a few ounces of the Toscana Salame on the recommendation of the woman behind the counter, who indicated that it was her favorite.
I hope you forgive me if this post is too lengthy and detail oriented. Over the course of the hour or so I spent in Pastoral, I felt as though I learned more than I had ever known about cheese. The staff was unreasonably patient with my many, many questions. I also love being able to sample everything I’m considering buying (it does a lot to complete the information I need in my complex food-decision making algorithm). I ended up spending around $35 here, but since I knew how almost everything tasted (except the Bijoux) I was completely satisfied with my purchase.
I had such a positive experience at Pastoral, I don’t think I can recommend it highly enough. They also make sandwiches and sell other gourmet items. I will likely come back for a sandwich during my next Michigan Avenue shopping trip. God bless the wonderful people who make and sell the cheese at Pastoral.
1.5 lbs+ cheese – $35
On Tuesday, I went to Topolobampo (Rick Bayless’s upscale Mexican restaurant on Clark and Illinois) for lunch and had the restaurant week menu.
To start, I had the Sopa Azteca, a sort of tortilla soup. The soup was tomato-pepper with avocado, chicken, jack cheese, topped with tortilla strips and served with a wedge of lime.
Even though I tend to avoid soups when dining out (mostly because I find them tiring), the Sopa Azteca at Topolo was a pleasant surprise. I particularly enjoyed it because I found the course to be very three-dimensional. When I say I find soups to be tiring, I mean that many of them are sort of one-note. I really liked this soup because it allowed me to incorporate different components into each spoonful. It was well balanced, thoughtful, and fun to eat. The bowl should have been heated, given how shallow it was. But overall, a good beginning to the meal.
For my main, I had the Puerco con Mole. I had high expectations for this dish, as Rick Bayless won season one of Top Chef Masters with his mole (a traditional Mexican sauce with over 20 ingredients. Bayless supposedly spent several years perfecting his rendition). I’ve had mole before, from Mexican restaurants in California. I was actually unimpressed with most of the components of this course. The mole I found to be thin and a bland. The pork was well roasted, but I question the choice of protein – this course was served with several corn tortillas, but the pork loin was not so tender that it could be elegantly bitten through when folded into a taco. The black beans and the green beans didn’t do much to round out the dish, and the whole plate tasted a little dull.
Dessert was a crepe with plantains (sort of in a bananas-foster style), served with sour cream sorbet, cajeta (a sort of caramel like sauce), crushed peanuts, and some chocolate sauce. I liked this course, but I didn’t love it. It was a nice end to the meal, but I think more crepe and less sorbet would have helped the sweet-tangy balance.
For $22, a decent restaurant week deal, but one which left me with no desire to return and sample the menu further.
Lunch at Topolobampo – $28
Quail Egg Raviolo at from Schwa
Quail egg, ricotta, brown butter, parmigiano-reggiano, white truffle
I can’t think of anything I’ve eaten before or since which has made me feel the same way. Of course, having read up on Schwa before going, I was anticipating this course as soon as our reservation was confirmed. But nothing could’ve prepared me. It was like eating sunshine.
Why do I consider this to be the best eating experience I’ve ever had?
Whether I should or shouldn’t, I turn to food to find contentment and satisfaction. The single-minded pursuit of finding food is obviously primal at the core, but beyond the basic provision of nourishment, there are several much more complex factors at play.
Finding great food is a detailed process of optimization. The most obvious factors to consider are price, nutrition, taste, and convenience, but there are many more which I will not enumerate now. Suffice to say, many of these factors can be left out of the decision making process, but the more they are considered, the more likely the experience is to go from good to great. All of these factors contribute overall to a happiness quotient, which can then be augmented through reflection and meditation. Even in writing this post now, I am deriving satisfaction from an experience which occurred in the past.
But at the time of eating, I felt fulfillment and happiness. As I tasted the raviolo, the luxury of the flavor and texture were intoxicating. It wasn’t until after I finished that I noticed my dining companions were laughing at me in disbelief.
I’m not sure if it’s vulgar to enjoy food so much (especially in public), but if I can find a way to replicate that raviolo I swear I will never leave my house.
As promised, the results from this year’s Iron Chef competition:
I’m not going to make you read to the end to find out what happened.
In the end, we didn’t win, but we made some really tasty food.
The theme was released at 9:00 AM yesterday, an excerpt from the email:
BURTON-JUDSON IRON CHEF
February 5, 2011 5 p.m. Judson Lounge
“REINVENTING HOOTENANNY AND TAILGATE FARE”
“A hungry man is not a free man” (Adlai Stevenson, born February 5, 1900)
In the liberal spirit of the illustrious Illinois governor, Democratic Party presidential candidate, and ambassador to the United Nations, who was born today at the beginning of the last century, let’s have some liberally, classily, and—if you so choose–multiculturally reinterpreted AMERICAN COMFORT FOOD!
To get into the spirit of American folkways and foodways, please note that today is the 50th anniversary of the First University of Chicago Folk Festival (February 3-5, 1961), which featured such American traditional music luminaries as the old-time string band, The New Lost City Ramblers, and the bluegrass virtuosos, The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys (now of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” fame). And tomorrow is, of course, Super Bowl Sunday!
In light of such a past and future, please prepare 3 of 4 dishes of broadly construed, liberally reimagined American cuisine. Your dishes should include:
–a super bowl of something;
–(in honor of old-time string band music) old-time string beans;
–(in honor of American folk tunes like “Crow Black Chicken,” “The Old Fish Song,” and “Cowboy Waltz”) somechicken, fish, or beef.
Soon after the email came out, we began menu planning.
I saw a recipe for duck consommé about a week ago in the Atlantic, so I really wanted to make duck consommé with duck liver ravioli. But I when I called Treasure Island I was informed they had neither duck stock nor duck liver. So instead we made a chicken consommé with a chicken liver ravioli for our first course, as a play on chicken noodle soup.
To make the consommé, I used 6 cups chicken stock, various herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme), egg whites, some chicken thighs with skin (which we put through a food processor) and about 2 cups mirepoix (finely diced carrots, onions, and celery). To make consommé, it’s necessary to start with cold stock and then to make a raft out of the other ingredients by mashing them together and making a “raft”. This keeps the ingredients together and the consommé clear, while the egg whites pull the fat from the soup.
To make the ravioli, I took a bit of a shortcut. I used wonton wrappers. To make the filling, I sweated some one onions, one shallots, a few cloves of garlic, and some lemon zest and set it to the side. Then I browned 8 oz ground chicken thighs in a pan and set that to the side. To prepare the chicken livers (we used about 8 oz), we washed them, patted them dry, and seasoned them with salt before I threw them in the pan and browned them for about 7-8 minutes on med-high heat with olive oil. Then I deglazed the pan with some red wine. After all that was prepped, we pureed all the ingredients, threw in 8 oz ricotta and 4 oz Parmesan and filled the wonton wrappers. A note: the filling is very rich, so we only used about 3/4 tsp per 2×2 wrapper.
Sidenote: chicken livers are so cheap and so delicious. The ones we bought were organic and cost less than $3 a pound.
These turned out very well and were actually the judges’ favorite out of all of the things we prepared. I was pleased with them as well.
For our main course, we served a braised short rib with some red wine reduction, haricot vertes, and Parmesan potato puree. The shortrib was prepped in the other kitchen, so I can’t really say much about them. I think they were just braised with red wine, garlic, and mushrooms and cooked on low heat in the oven. They turned out OK, I think we dressed them with some lemon juice to add some brightness. The green beans were just sauteed in some cream and butter. To make the puree, I boiled some potatoes, ran them through the food processor and added cream, butter, salt, and Parmesan. The whole dish represented a pot roast with green bean casserole and mashed potatoes, keeping with the theme.
For dessert (see my earlier post on dessert), I decided to do a duo of desserts: flourless chocolate cake and fried banana bread pudding. We needed a “super bowl” somewhere in our menu, so I decided to use the chocolate cake as a bowl for ice cream, so I scooped a hole out of the center of each round and filled it with vanilla ice cream.
I actually found the recipe for the chocolate cake earlier this week, when I was baking over the course of a snowday. The recipe comes from epicurious and is actually fairly simple.
To make it, we used:
1 c. water, 3/4 c. sugar, 18 oz. semisweet chocolate, 1 stick butter, 6 eggs, 8 oz bittersweet chocolate, and 8 oz. heavy whipping cream.
First, I preheated the oven to 350 degrees.
I heated the sugar and water to make a simple syrup, allowing it to boil for 5 minutes. Then I melted 18 oz. chocolate and butter, stirring in a pan until glossy. I added the syrup and mixed together well before adding in the eggs and pouring into a heavily foil lined 9 inch round springform pan, which I placed into a roasting pan filled 1 inch deep with hot water. After the cake baked for 50 minutes, I topped in which a ganache, which was just 8 oz chocolate and 1 c. heavy whipping cream. Then we let this set in the fridge for about 2 hours. When the ganache set, I took the cake out of the fridge and cup rounds out with dining hall cups, which I plated. Then I scooped out the centers and filled them with vanilla ice cream.
The fried banana bread pudding was based off of Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at home recipe. It was made in the other kitchen, so I include the link to the recipe here: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/nov/04/food/la-fo-watchrec4c-2009nov04
The entire meal ended up looking like this:
Overall, I’m happy with the way everything turned out. I think it was a pretty cohesive meal, and I was happy with the progression of the courses. If I could do it again, I would’ve started the short rib earlier and plated the ice cream a la minute, but it was really nice to cook all day and not have to spend my own money on ingredients. I think, if I were served this food in a mid range restaurant, I wouldn’t complain, except for the short rib being a bit tough. I do recommend epicurious’s La Bete Noir recipe though. It’s very simple to make if you have a springform pan and it’s probably the best chocolate cake I’ve ever made. I’ve made it three times in the past week. Additionally, the ravioli provided a good cheap thrill and made the kitchen smell great. I would make them again as a first course, but I also suspect they would go very well with Sriracha. I do have some left over, so I will possibly fry them up and update with results.
Dinner from Linn Matthews – $0 (BJC Subsidized)
Three and a Half Stars: