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.


A Compact History of Everything I have Eaten Since May

Dead Week and Finals Week – Lived off Sarpino’s, the occasional dining hall meal, minimal sleep.

Last day of Spring Quarter- Paris Club and Aviary
Awesome awesome.  We started with a bottle of Reisling, croque monsieur fingers, and a foie gras and short rib terrine.  (A terrine is a sort of roughly blended mixture of meat, not unlike a pate, refrigerated in a mold.)  I had duck confit with dried cherries for my main.  The dining area is very open and efficiently packed, sort of like Cafe Iberico but more reserved and less chintzy.  Dinner was wonderful, the food was delicious – a perfect way to begin an evening out.  Come here with people who make you laugh.

The one gripe I have was that the waitress inspected our ID’s for about a minute each – long enough to put me on edge as to whether she intended to eject my of-age friends from the establishment.  To be fair, this should probably be registered as more of a nota bene than gripe, as I’ve often been told I don’t look a day over 20.  I can’t really hold the scrutiny against her.

Afterward, we took a cab to Aviary for drinks.  When we arrived, there was one table available for our group of four – a standing table, by the kitchen.  We ordered a round – a Ginger, a Root Beer, a Rooibos, and a Blueberry, and a few selections from the “bites” menu.  Watching the mixologists work in the kitchen was engaging and the source of much speculation, but standing for 90 minutes did end up being a bit of a bother.  The presentations were fun and though I didn’t think any of the drinks were blow-your-socks-off amazing (though I admittedly don’t know a whole lot about cocktails, and in retrospect am worried that my experience may have spoiled me for bars in the future), for under $20 a drink, it’s easily justifiable for a night out and has wide appeal to all types of drinkers (unless you plan on getting blitzed, I guess.)

The next morning, I flew to London.  I am told the food has improved over the past few years.  Most of it was good.  We did eat at La Petit Maison (on Gwyneth Paltrow’s recommendation) which was very good.  The pork belly and lamb stand out in my mind as being especially great, the treatment of the proteins and vegetable accompaniments was technically flawless.  Each course was flavorful and well balanced – after the mains arrived, the table fell quiet so we could taste each bite properly.

Norway was okay.  We stayed on the Queen Mary 2.  The food we actually ate in Norway was forgettable, though favorites include smoked salmon and pancakes with raspberry jam and sour cream.  The food on the ship was very good, though almost all of the menu items seemed to be fairly standard luxury cruise fare (read: generic “fancy food.”)

I give the country of Norway three stars:

When I arrived back home (after a brief interlude in LA for my cousin’s wedding), I immediately set to work undoing the damage I had done to myself over 3 quarters of school and 2 weeks of indulging in Europe.  I followed a raw food diet for about a week and gradually adjusted to a less extreme “healthy” meal plan consisting of low sodium soups, salads, health bars, and snacking on fruits and vegetables.  (With the exception of a few allowances for baking extremely fattening desserts, namely, Crack Pie and Better-Than-Crack Brownies.)  I combined this diet with working out 5x a week (note to self: difficult to adopt strict workout routine on a raw food diet) and went from running barely a mile before collapsing to completing a 10k less than 3 weeks after my return.

And now it is the last day of July and I have just finished summarizing the last two months of my adventures in eating.  From here, I will likely post simple lunch and dinner ideas/recipes, which may be worth revisiting when I am back in Chicago for the school year.  It’s great to be home and have such a bounty of fresh produce within arms reach, but a part of me still misses the Chicago restaurant scene.  I will post about eating adventures here if I come across any of note (SF Street Food Festival on Aug. 20th, perhaps?) but any food writing ideas are welcome.

Happy summer.  Go eat a peach and bask in the sun.

L

PS, If you do feel like staying in, here are two highly recommended recipes I have test driven in the past week for you to try your hand at:  http://momofukufor2.com/2010/02/momofuku-milk-bar-crack-pie-recipe/ and http://www.howsweeteats.com/2010/08/better-than-crack-brownies/.


Quick Reviews on All the Restaurants in Hyde Park I’ve ever Gone to (Part 1)

Bonjour Bakery and Cafe

Good fresh bread, even better fresh and slathered with some fresh butter and sea salt or goat cheese.  Pastries are good but expensive.
The French bread here has a finer crumb, which makes it better for cooking with in many recipes (brioche for bread pudding, sliced baguette for crostini, etc).

Cafe Corea

One of the few safe places to sit down and have a good meal in Hyde Park.  (An exaggeration, but not by much)  Staff is friendly and accommodating, I believe the restaurant is family owned.  The Jap Chae is a good bet, as are the hot soups.  Marginally more expensive than most Asian restaurants in Hyde Park, but markedly better.  Comforting food well prepared.

Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen

Overall, disappointing.  Hyde Park’s attempt at a mid-range “Mediterranean” attempts to make up for in ambiance what it lacks in originality and quality of ingredients.  The dishes I’ve sampled have been hit-or-miss, but there is better, cheaper food to be found at the Nile.

Chant

I went here for dinner last spring quarter, I will never come back.  The “Asian fusion” concept is poorly executed in every sense.  The decor and layout are tacky and impractical, and the food is uninspired and in some cases highly contrived.  The reason I have a hard time liking Asian fusion restaurants is that so many times the product of the fusion ends up being a compromise of the originals rather than an innovative and nuanced approach to an old classic.  Noodles Etc’s attempt at a trendy, mid-range fusion restaurant is no better than most cheaper restaurants in Hyde Park.

Edwardo’s Natural Pizza

Edwardo’s offers inconsistent food and consistent poor service.  Giordano’s has better pizza, service, and atmosphere, though it’s farther from the quad.  Either way, the only time I eat deep dish is when I’m going to dinner with friends from out of town, in which case I have better things to do than watch servers argue with each other and ignore patrons for 90 minutes.

Giordano’s

See above.

Harold’s

A must.  Sometimes the quality of the meat is poor, but apparently they have a 7 day return policy (?!) so I guess if you want to, you can ask for a new one.  Or just shell out another $3.51 and wait 10 minutes for a second half dark meal if you’re too embarrassed to ask for a refund.  Perfect when paired with a crisp champagne.

A note: everyone has their own preferences when it comes to ordering Harold’s.  I usually go with the half dark fried hard mild sauce salt and pepper.


Pastoral – For the Love of Cheese

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

Four stars: