Updated Short List

Old List:
  1. Girl and the Goat
  2. Nightwood
  3. Piece
  4. Great Lake
  5. Next Restaurant/Alinea (this is more of a fantasy dinner)
  6. The Publican
  7. Hot Doug’s
  8. Birrieria Zaragoza
  9. mk
New List:
  1. Next
  2. The Publican (have reservations for post-Thanksgiving Sunday brunch)
  3. Hot Doug’s – so far away and ridiculous hours
  4. mk – interesting but not urgent
  5. ruxbin
  6. Arami
  7. GT Fish & Oyster
  8. The Pump Room
  9. The Bedford
  10. Perennial Virant

Same deal.  Look out for my review of Lao Hunan in this week’s issue of the Chicago Weekly.


My Personal Short List of Chicago Restaurants for this Quarter

At any given point, I have a list of restaurants I plan on trying in the near future.  This is a list of restaurants on my short list (generally defined as restaurants I am embarrassed to admit I haven’t visited yet.)

  1. Girl and the Goat
  2. Nightwood
  3. Piece
  4. Great Lake
  5. Next Restaurant/Alinea (this is more of a fantasy dinner)
  6. The Publican
  7. Hot Doug’s
  8. Birrieria Zaragoza
  9. mk

In conclusion, if anyone wants to go to any of these places with me some time during fall quarter, drop me a line.


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 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/.


Practical Matters – Where to take Visitors with One Day in Chicago

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.


The Best Thing Ever.

=
OhGodOhGodOhGod

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.


Review – Cafe Iberico

Well first off, having publicized this project to friends as “my food blog”, it might be appropriate to clarify what I mean by this.

This isn’t a blog about cooking, it’s actually a blog about eating.  There may be some offhand references to recipes, baking, and the like.  But ultimately, I came here to eat and write about eating.

I went to Cafe Iberico last night for dinner, on LaSalle in the North Side.  My party arrived at 7 and we were seated around 7:45.  Even for a Saturday night, this place was completely packed.  Fortunately the restaurant has several dining rooms, so the parties ahead of us were seated at a fairly steady rate.

The menu was extensive and vegetarian friendly.  The portions were generous and the pricing was fair.  We ordered about 2 dishes per person and the price per plate ranged from $6-12.  The food came out in a timely manner, though the service was spotty.  The food was decent.  We ordered the salpicon de mariscos, ensalata mixta, mushrooms, paella iberico, queso de cabra, and some roasted red peppers.  We had dessert, as well.  A banana in caramel sauce with vanilla ice cream.  Though the food tasted fine, it left me feeling unsatisfied.

Maybe the vague sense of dissatisfaction is a part of the tapas experience.  Eating tapas is basically like eating a bunch of appetizers.  They do taste good, but there’s little substance.  Beyond that, there’s no sense of a progression in courses.  There are no specials and after a little while, everything starts to taste like well executed bar food.  I noticed that almost every person in the 60 person dining room was holding a glass or pitcher of sangria (which went a long way to explain the noise level, which escalated steadily through the night).

But I know that this isn’t the way tapas has to be.  Take Avec, for instance.  Avec is an excellent restaurant in the West Loop on Randolph (right next to Blackbird) which features small plates and communal style dining.  Avec is more expensive than Cafe Iberico, and certainly less group friendly, but the food at Avec is much better.

My problem with Cafe Iberico isn’t necessarily with the food.  It’s with the menu.  I’ve eaten at restaurants with humbler aspirations than Cafe Iberico and I’ve eaten at restaurants with loftier aspirations than Cafe Iberico.  But the point is, these other restaurants have aspirations.  Iberico lacks a sense of direction and inspiration and is not, to me, a great food experience.

Dinner at Cafe Iberico – around $25
Two Stars:

Banana in Caramel Sauce with Vanilla Ice Cream