A Review for Lao Hunan

http://chicagoweekly.net/2011/11/16/the-peoples-spice/

A review I wrote for the Chicago Weekly.  An upgrade, if not an update.

I’m currently writing a review of my experience at EL ideas tonight which will likely be published in the forthcoming issue of the Weekly.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone (all four of my friends/family members who follow my eating blog.)

 

-L


Goat Week @ UChiFood

A busy weekend for UChiFood: Girl and the Goat on Friday and Birrieria Zaragoza on Saturday.

I left from Hyde Park around 7:30 Friday night with two friends and arrived at Girl and the Goat (hereafter referred to as GatG) around 8:30, without a reservation.  We were quoted a 45 minute wait and seated within about 30 minutes.  With one dining restriction to consider (no pork) we quickly set to work making our menu selections.  After some discussion, we decided to start with the Bloody Mary Bread and order two selections from the Veg, two from the Fish, and one from the Goat.  We ordered the chickpea fritters, hen of the woods ragout, hiramasa crudo, mussels with lamb chorizo croutons, and the goat belly confit.

The bread was very good, soft, dense, and fresh from the oven.  I don’t miss free bread service at most restaurants and this was a much better way to start the meal than serving a recycled mixed bread basket.  There are three choices to select from – the bread we chose came with a Worcestershire butter and celery pickle relish.

Next came the chickpea fritters.  The flavors were great, but the textural and temperature contrast between the different components of the dish really allowed for it to stand out.  The cool mozzarella balanced out the crisply fried fritters and the dish was rounded out by the caponata (mix of fresh chickpeas, eggplant, and other vegetables.)  I would order this dish again.

We came very close to not ordering the hiramasa crudo after seeing the plate delivered to the couple next to us.  It looked to be a few thin slices of yellowtail topped with a sauce and meager accompaniments ($16).  After taking a bite, the couple insisted that the dish was a “must order,” so we decided to try it on their recommendation.  This dish stood out that night as being one of the only courses which tended toward restraint or minimalism.  The yellowtail was excellent, it was topped with small green chili slices, a sort of cream sauce, and confit pork belly.  I enjoyed it, but there were about eight bites to share between the three of us.

After the crudo came the hen of the woods ragout and the mussels.  The ragout was very creamy (almost like a bisque) with a nutty spice which lent the whole dish a sort of sweet kick.  It was an odd combination of flavors which brought out the sweetness in the mushrooms and the sweet potato agnolotti.  My table probably enjoyed this course the least and I don’t think I would order it again.  It seemed as though many of the dishes at GatG were focused on delivering on flavor rather than balance and I think that was most apparent in this course.

The mussels were very good.  They were exceptionally large PEI mussels (some of the largest I have seen anywhere) served with lamb sausage croutons in a wonderful broth.  This was probably my favorite course of the evening, along with being the best value ($12.)

We rounded out the meal with some confit goat belly with crab ‘n’ lobster (?!)  The goat belly was excellent, well cooked with some crispy parts (think carnitas.)  The accompanying crab and lobster was strange, but not untasty.  The whole dish tasted good, but I was still confused about the flavor pairings afterward.

Declining dessert, we settled the bill and ended up paying around $32 per person, less than I was expecting to pay.  I was anxious that GatG would not be able to meet up to the hype, but I was not disappointed.  All in all, a very reasonable night out with ambitious flavor pairings and interesting dishes.

I give GatG  four stars:

On Saturday, I ventured out to Archer Heights to try Birrieria Zaragoza.  Birria is a mexican stew from Jalisco so a Birrieria is an establishment which sells birria.  Birrieria Zaragoza has a narrowly edited menu, which includes birria in two portion sizes, quesadillas, salsa mocajate, birria tacos, and tomato consomme.  The restaurant closes at 7:00, and in typical college fashion we arrived 20 minutes late (at 6:40.)  Despite our last minute arrival, we were treated incredibly graciously.  When I tried to order a beer, I was informed that they did not serve alcohol but were a BYOB establishment and we could run out and buy beer a few blocks down Archer.  We placed our orders for salsa and a quesadilla and plate of birria each an left to find beer.  After walking several blocks, we arrived at the store they had directed us to only to find that it was closed for renovation.  We ended up walking around for several blocks in an attempt to find beer and ended up at 7-9-11 25 minutes after we’d left the restaurant and picked up a 12 pack of Pacifico.

When we finally, sheepishly walked back into the restaurant it was already 10 minutes past 7:00.  Our friend who had stayed had been talking with the owner, Johnathan, for half an hour.  The kitchen had held off on bringing out our food until we came back.  Rather than being annoyed, our waitress was concerned that we’d gotten lost.  We were served within a few minutes of getting back and the food was absolutely outstanding.  The quesadilla was perfect, especially with the home made fire roasted tomato salsa, onions, limes, chilis, and cilantro.  The birria was like a plate of the best, most succulent pot roast I’ve ever had.  The tortillas were hot and fresh – tender and pliable so as not to break under the heaping portions of goat and consomme piled on.  After we’d finished our meal, we stayed to talk with Norma, Johnathan’s wife.  The restaurant is family owned (almost all of the staff are family members) and the emphasis on authenticity and service is commendable.  Birrieria Zaragoza is another restaurant which has received lots of hype and recognition, but this dining experience completely blew my expectations out of the water.  The food is outstanding, but beyond being talented restauranteurs, the members of the Zaragoza family are some of the warmest, funniest people I have met in Chicago.

I will definitely be back soon – taking care to arrive earlier and with beer on hand.
I would be incorrect in giving Birrieria Zaragoza anything less than five stars:

Coming up this week: I attempt to knock another two restaurants off my shortlist, Nightwood and Piece.  And maybe going blonde in between.


Kuma’s and Davanti – Burgers and Beer

I figured I would do a post on burgers for a few reasons:

  1. I had a burger at Kuma’s and Davanti Enoteca this week.
  2. Burgers are delicious, affordable, agreeable, and low key and thus good for early-fall-quarter catch up dinners.
  3. I have not updated in a while and sometimes when this happens I get yelled at (I’m starting to think the only thing less cool than having an eating blog is having a poorly maintained eating blog.)
This is problematic.

Burgers are delicious.

Kuma’s

I landed back in Chicago last Wednesday and somehow the stars were in line and I ended up going to Kuma’s a few hours after I arrived in Hyde Park and ran some errands.  We left at 9:00 and arrived some time after that, happy to find that there was no wait.  This was my second trip to Kuma’s and the time before our five-top waited about an hour for a table [This was thankfully a shorter wait than the touristy-looking couple who had arrived before us were made to sit out.  The rumors about wait-time discrimination appear to be true, though ymmv.]

I had an unmemorable beer while I pored over the menu and anxiously considered my options and tried to avoid being pressured into ordering Mac’ n Cheese.  I ended up ordering the Plague Bringer, mostly because I had seen it on TV two days prior, which inspired me to return to Kuma’s in the first place.  I ordered another beer – this time a Dogfish Head Midas Touch, which was good.  I tried the milk stout as well, which I also liked.

The Burger: is hefty.  A 10 oz. patty on a pretzel bun with various toppings (in this case, roasted garlic mayo, tortilla strips, hot sauce, garlic, Pepper Jack, and sliced jalapenos)  Served next to a bed of fries – I think these are fresh cut, different from the waffle fries I was served when I came a few months prior.  The fries were acceptable, at the very least they did not distract from the burger (unlike the perfectly crisp fries I had Friday at Del Seoul – a difficult act to follow.)  The burger was spicy hot, by which I mean it hurt me to eat it.  My eyes watered and I saw stars along the dimly lit bar.  In my relatively limited experience, Kuma’s burgers are juicy, a characteristic which is complemented well by the soft and dense pretzel rolls.  The burger toppings are also assisted by the bun (the canvass of the meal) and its springy cushioning – Kuma’s burgers are large, but not top heavy.  The bulk of the mass is concentrated in the bottom half of the bun and everything is held in place by the spongy bun.  Overall, a great burger.  I ended up paying about $30 for two beers and a burger, which is not unreasonable considering I hadn’t eaten that day as I had been traveling.

Davanti Enoteca

I first visited Davanti Enoteca in mid-November of last year, soon after they first opened on West Taylor.  The experience was memorable – we arrived on Saturday around 6:00 as a hungry party of eleven, waited 90 minutes for a table, and left as a happily content party of ten.  This time, I came for dinner with a friend and we arrived at 6:30 on a Monday to no wait.  As it was a Monday, my friend and I both ordered the burger and a beer special for $10, and decided to start with an order of the “vasi” (Tuscan toast and toppings served in small mason jars.)  We went with the buratta, olive oil, and black pepper vasi, which was tasty but not transcendent.  Buratta is an exceptionally creamy and delicious form of mozzarella (sort of a purse of mozzarella filled with ricotta cream, roughly the size of a fist) and the vasi was simple and good but did not exceed my expectations for buratta.

The burger and beer were exceptional.  I had the burger the last time I came and was very happy with my decision.  This time, I had essentially the same burger, plus a pint of Peroni, for a buck less.  I’m not really sure how an $11 burger + $6 beer = $10 burger and beer but that it exists is more important than how.  To be honest, I did not expect a great burger from an Italian wine bar, but the Davanti Burger hits all the right notes.  It’s a decently sized burger (6 oz?) topped with bacon jam, cheese curds, roasted tomatoes, arugala, and garlic mayo.  I’m sure everyone can agree the bacon jam is amazing, but the cheese curds really did it for me in this case (confession time: I am a sucker for ooey melted globs of fat).  The bacon jam adds some extra flavor beneath the patty while gracefully resolving the issue of having to chew through too-thick-too-thin-too-chewy-too-crisp bacon in a burger.  The fries were shoestring, which I do not prefer.  I am not especially particular about my fries but shoestring fries are a pain in the butt to eat.  It take a bit of work to gather four suitable toothpick-like fries and dip them in ketchup together and the reward is only about half of a regular french fry.  That having been said, I ate all of them.

Both burger beer experiences were very good, though in distinctly different ways.  Kuma’s takes its burgers very seriously, as evidenced by their aggressively worded list of rules posted throughout the establishment.  Davanti is more laid back and friendly (the manager stopped by our table after we had settled the bill and thanked us for coming, +1.)  Kuma’s has an extensive list of burgers, each named after a heavy metal band and given a unique set of toppings.  Davanti only has one burger, but it somehow manages to strike a wonderful balance without compromise.  Going to Kuma’s is something of an ordeal, partially because it is in Andersonville, partially because of the wait, partially because of the noise, and largely due to the heft and size of the portions.  Both times I have gone I have cleaned my plate, but not without some sense of struggle or achievement (as a side note, when I went to Kuma’s last week, one of my friends ordered the Dark Castle set of four sliders and managed to eat one and a half.)  Davanti is more manageable, but not less satisfying.

If pressed to evaluate Kuma’s and Davanti quantitatively–

Kuma’s Corner – four stars:
Davanti Enoteca – four and a half stars:

While it may appear through a review of my recent reviews that my rating system suffers from a Yelp-like inflationary problem, rest assured that my reviews are largely centered around the eating experiences I have found to be more interesting and worth sharing, so there is some degree of cherry picking.  Also, I do my best to avoid eating at bad or poorly reviewed restaurants.


A Tale of Two Weekends (Part 1)

I’m happy to report that both food odyssey’s from the past two weeks were completely successful.

The first, in Napa, was a whirlwind daytrip to the gourmet mecca of Yountville in Sonoma county.

For lunch, we ate at Addendum (basically, Ad Hoc to go) and had fried chicken, baby back ribs, pulled pork, corn bread, corn succotash, potato salad, and Chardonnay.  I’ll add commentary in later, but I thought I would upload some pictures first.

Menu for the Day

Menu for the Day

Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Cornbread

Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Cornbread

Baby back ribs, pulled pork, corn bread... corn succotash hanging out in the back.

In short, totally delicious.  Worth 6 hours of driving.  Add this to the category of Michelin quality food for under $20, because each lunch was only $16.50.  Every component was totally perfect, but I’d have to say my favorites were the fried chicken and the cornbread.  The cornbread was wonderfully soft and moist, without being crumbly or soggy.  I think my companion put it best when she remarked “It’s like they took a million needles and injected butter into every crumb.”  Well said.  The chicken was impossibly crispy, flaky, tender, and juicy.  Perfect.

This is the sort of food you can pick up to go eat under a tree by a vineyard a few blocks away and forget what decade you’re in.  Suffice to say, it was an unforgettable lunch (I hope to be back this weekend for more of the same.)

Afterward, we headed over to the Bouchon Bakery to pick up a few pastries from home.  A picture of what I ended up buying:

Clockwise from bottom left: Thomas Keller Oreo (TKO), brioche bun, strawberry almond croissant, plain croissant, paladin roll, a bouchon, and TLC cookie.

Also purchased: macarons and a loaf of olive bread.  These were actually the most delicious things, besides the strawberry croissant.  It was an amazing trip all in all and I can’t wait to go back.  I’ll post pictures from San Francisco and Outside Lands soon, so check back in a few days.


3 Course Lunch at C-House – $15

http://chicagoist.com/2011/03/03/15_three-course_lunch_at_c-house_ea.php

Where I’ll be this Friday for lunch, after a trip to the Art Institute.
I’ll post a review after I go, of course, but just in case anyone reading is planning on making a run downtown this week.

Mmm… lobster avocado club.


Excellent Meals for Around $20 – Longman & Eagle

I know I tend to write long reviews, so if you read nothing else of this post know this: you should try this restaurant.

Longman and Eagle is an award winning restaurant/bar/inn in Logan Park.  Last fall, L&E had the distinction of receiving the most eyebrow raising Michelin star in all of Chicago (excepting perhaps L2O).  L&E is very much the black sheep out of the Michelin selections for this year.

Which isn’t to say the food is subpar.  But it’s not what I associate with Michelin.  Longman & Eagle has a hip, lumberjack-y vibe and a simple, unpretentious menu.  Before L&E received it’s star, I never would have expected that  a Michelin starred restaurant would offer a PBR breakfast, unless it was ironically priced at $120.  Longman & Eagle offers one for $8.

My recommendation?  Go for brunch on a weekday.  L&E doesn’t take reservations and the wait on weekends can be unbearable.  Brunch is served every day from 10 AM – 3 PM.  Admittedly, it’s difficult to get to from UChicago without a car.  A one way trip takes a little over an hour.  But if you love food or just want to make a day of it, it’s worth the trip.  (Protip: if you’re taking public transit and anticipate having several stops across the city, use a day pass.  They’re $5.75 and available at some L stops and retail locations.  It’s useful to keep a few stashed in your wallet.)

I had the Peeky Toe Crab Benedict ($13).  It was wholly satisfying. Granted, eggs benedict is less about innovation and more about flawless execution.  But I was impressed by the layering of the flavors.  The old bay infused hollandaise was a nice touch.  A solid brunch offering overall, though perhaps lacking textural contrast.  Nonetheless, I was very happy with my choice.

My friends had the Wild Boar Sloppy Joe and the Roasted Beet Salad, which they both enjoyed very much.

To drink, I ordered a Bitter Whisper (a gin cocktail).  As a side note, Longman & Eagle takes whiskey very seriously (their slogan is “Eat, Sleep, Whiskey”) and offers $3 whiskey shots every day.

A great brunch and an excellent example of gourmet food within the reach of a student’s budget.  Deserving of a Michelin star?  In my opinion, definitely not.  Which isn’t to say I think L&E isn’t as good as a Michelin starred restaurant.  I just don’t think L&E provides anywhere near the same experience as the other starred restaurants in the city.  For one, there’s a lack of precision in the cooking and plating.  Michelin starred restaurants adhere to the strictest standards of quality, and the difference between two dishes of the same name should be near imperceptible.  My experience at L&E was excellent, but not Michelin worthy.

That being said, I would still highly recommend L&E for brunching in the city (and I actually prefer it to Lula Cafe,another popular brunch destination located about two blocks down the street).  The food, beverage, atmosphere, and value are tough to beat.

Brunch at Longman and Eagle – $25 (food, beverage, tax, and tip)

Four stars:

Longman & Eagle

The interior dining room of Longman & Eagle


Excellent Meals for around $20: Blackbird

This is the first post in a series on top restaurants in Chicago which offer meals for around $20.

I realize that for many people (including myself), $20 is an amount of money which requires some amount of consideration before spending.  Which is why I’m all about maximizing deliciousness per dollar.  Some of the restaurants in this series will admittedly cost $10-15 more than your standard Hyde Park fare, but I promise that if you love food, the experience will totally be worth it.  (And if you need someone to go with, I’d be happy to accompany you.)

The first restaurant I’d like to mention is Blackbird.  Blackbird is located on Randolph off the Clinton Green Line stop (it’s also right next to Avec, another well-known restaurant I highly recommend).  Monday through Friday from 11:30-2, Blackbird offers a $22 lunch prix fixe  which includes an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert.

The last time I ate there (some months ago), I had the prix fixe and was not disappointed.  My selections were:

  • Ahi tuna tartare with smoked buttercream, capers, and puffed rice
  • Duck confit with blackberry sauce and house sausage
  • Hazelnut dacquoise with apricot sorbet

For $22(!)

I was not expecting much of the tartare, since it usually strikes me as an uninspired appetizer offering.  I chose it over the grilled baby octopus salad and the soup of the day.

I am not exaggerating when I say it was the best tartare of my life and I talked about it months afterward.  The tuna was so fresh and accompanying elements were so well-balanced that I could not stop eating it.  I actually wanted to take the plate with me into a separate room so I could savor it in private.  It’s not often I come close to losing my composure over food in nice restaurants.  (Though I probably do this more than most people.)

The confit was tasty.  In my experience, duck confit is usually a safe bet.  The high fat levels of dark duck meat preserved in fat make it difficult to do wrong, except in the tragic case of overcooking.  I enjoyed this course.

The dacquoise was refreshing and understated.  Desserts are hard to do at nice restaurants (forthcoming post on this), but I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the interplay between the components on the plate.  There was the hazelnut dacquoise (a thin slice of layered cake), apricot sorbet, espresso granita, and a sort of caramel crisp.  (I may be misremembering.)

The entire meal was well balanced, thoughtful, and refined.  The decor was pleasantly modern, but the interior of the restaurant was a little too crowded to be perfectly comfortable.  Our waiter was knowledgeable and professional, but lacking in warmth and familiarity.  Overall a good lunch experience, perfect for starting a day of shopping or indulging whims in the Loop.

Why is it worth it?  Blackbird is one of the top restaurants in Chicago.  Last November, it was one of the 23 restaurants in Chicago to receive Michelin stars.  The dinner tasting menu is 5x more expensive than the lunch prix fixe ($110).  The prix fixe is an affordable luxury and a great way to sample excellent food for a reasonable price.

Lunch at Blackbird – $22

Four stars:

Blackbird on Randolph

Restaurant Website

Eatings tips: the rest of the lunch menu is fairly affordable as well.
Blackbird is part of a restaurant group which also runs Avec (next door), The Publican (a restaurant centered around beer and pork), and the Violet Hour (one of the most popular places to get a cocktail in Chicago).  If anyone would like to run the gauntlet by going to all of these in one day, he or she should find a way to contact me.