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.


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.


Part-Time President of the Clean Plate Club

A question I get asked a lot is “So, are your parents, like, really into food, too?”

This question doesn’t have a simple answer.  At best, it has a compound answer (since I have two parents).
But I would say neither of my parents has a great love of food.  My mother eats small portions of simple food, usually quite slowly.
My father is often very busy with his work, leading him to eat quickly and indiscriminately.

Neither of them are very invested in food, which is fine.  Food, I think, is another one of those things that you get out of it what you put into it.  Sometimes I think I could be just as interested in video games or coleopterology, but I guess somewhere along the line I chose food.

I wonder sometimes how much people really enjoy food, relative to one another.  I went to an exhibit at the Renaissance society about two weeks ago where the assistant director gave us a tour.  During the tour, he mentioned that he never liked to go to art shows with friends and family.  Just a day earlier, I started thinking about how I’ve stopped going to the movies with my friends and family.  When I was in high school, and especially the summer after high school, going out to eat and watching movies at the cineplex constituted a huge part of social interaction.  Of course, there were kids (especially math/science kids) who liked to go on hikes together and other people (more mainstream math/science kids and the people they were friends with) would go rock climbing.  And there were other people who liked to do other things.  But eating and going to the movies were the two generic, agreeable passive activities people my age would tend toward.  And it made sense for us to do them when we did get together.  Each activity would take up about three hours of time, which is about the length of time you can appropriately multitask and make small talk without running out of things to say.

So, I think my own interest in food really developed the summer after I graduated high school, when there was nothing else to do.  I had a car, no job, a decent amount of money saved up and no shortage of dining companions.  Since food was really the only decision I had to make, I started spending lots of time drawing up lists of things I wanted to try.  Within a few months, I acquired a good  breadth of knowledge of South bay dining options.  Similarly, my goal for last quarter was to gain an introduction to haute cuisine in Chicago.  I decided to retire my project this quarter and focus on something new.  So I decided to try writing.

I did want at some point to clarify that I don’t really think of this as a “food blog” (even though I sometimes refer to it as “my food blog”).  In my mind, it’s really more of an eating blog.  Additionally, I’ve never considered myself (nor have I referred to myself as) a foodie.  I know the term “foodie” isn’t exactly well-defined, but there’s something about it which I find off-putting.  When I hear “foodie”, my mind processes the word as a portmanteau of food and yuppie.  A foodie (to me) is a person who gets overexcited when things like bacon or cupcakes or bacon cupcakes come up in conversation.  I find this sort of reaction is contrary to my understanding of my own relationship with food.  I like to think that I care about food just the right amount, or at least approach it with a basic rationality.  I don’t think food should be treated as an object of worship or subject to fanaticism, but with thoughtfulness, reflection, and moderation.

Coming from me, that last word may have caused some of you to choke on your coffee, but it’s true.  To further clarify, for me, competitive eating and regular eating are two distinct ideas.  It takes a relatively small amount of food to satiate me (small relative to the amount it takes to actually make me full).  I like to eat and I like to compete, but when it comes time to competitively eat I’m all about the sport as opposed to gluttony.  That being said, I’ve never been one to leave portions of uneaten food on my plate (more as a display of frugality and appreciation than overindulging).  But either way, I think a good attitude toward food requires a degree of self control, which is often downplayed or omitted by self-described foodies.  Lately I’ve been realizing that truly enjoying eating requires taking food down from its pedestal and appreciating it for what it is, rather than glorifying and objectifying it.

While most of you had probably reasoned out these conclusions years ago, these are the food thoughts which have been going through my mind this week.

Happy eating,
L

Since I've received some complaints about my posts being large blocks of texts without any pictures of food to break them up. Dinner from Saturday - Oxtail Pho from Pho 888.


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.


Topolo – Restaurant Week Review

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

Three stars:


The Highly Anticipated Return of UChiFood

Hey everyone,

It’s been a grueling fourth week but it’s good to be writing about food again.  I think now is as good a time as any to make some formal announcements.

The First:

I’m interested in building a team to attempt this challenge: http://bartolinis.com/85bart.pdf

We’ll compete either this weekend or the next (2/6 or 2/12) and I’m fielding a team of four so there are three spots to fill.
Since I think there are more than three people interested in competing, I’m going to hold a preliminary competition in South Campus Dining Hall later this week.

The Second:

I’m planning on spending Chinese New Year dinner in Chinatown at Lao Sze Chuan.  If anyone is interested in going, they should email me and I will make reservations appropriately.

The Third:

BJ Iron Chef is happening next Saturday!  The theme will be announced at 9:00 AM this Saturday morning.  I will post a description of the competition and the menu we design when it is over.  If you’re in Linn Mathews and interested in participating, I will definitely be there.  Or, just come watch.  But it’s sure to be a lot of fun.  I am going to take this very seriously.

Relevant Rules:

BJ Iron Chef Competition 2011

The BJ Iron Chef competition will take place on Saturday, February 5. The theme will
be announced at 9 a.m. House teams will then shop and cook and bring their tasty
concoctions to Judson Lounge for judging at 5:00 p.m.

Each of the 6 houses of BJ dormitory will be invited to produce 1 team of Iron Chefs.
Houses will be limited to $35 for shopping for preparation of their prodigious meal
platters. Houses will be expected to show receipts both to provide (inconclusive) proof
that they have not exceeded the expenditure limit and in order to be reimbursed by the
beneficent Masters. Houses are not allowed to tap into their funds, even if they have
raised copious amounts of money by selling “ What Would Durkheim Do?” T-shirts on E-
bay.

The theme will be announced on Saturday, February 5, at 9:00 a.m. by email to the
BJ listhost, and the house teams will have to submit a meal of 3 or 4 dishes whose
relevance to the theme they can articulate with suave and pithy U of C eloquence –even
though of course the ultimate proof will be in the pudding (or soufflé)! Possible (though
highly unlikely) themes could be e.g., “ The Culinary Core (With Carrots!),” “ That Kid’ s
Caramelized Onion Comeuppance,” “ We Make It All from Scratch, NOT SCRH.” 2
NEW THIS YEAR: Each team should also prepare three copies of a menu with the
house’ s name and a list of their dishes, which will help the judges remember who is who
and what is what and be edifying for all.

The judges will consist of a distinguished panel of 3 hungry yet discerning VIPS
(Andrew Abbott, Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor
in the Department of Sociology and the College; John Boyer, Martin A. Ryerson
Distinguished Service Professor in History and Dean of the College, and Jolie N.
Nahigian, food culture scholar, co-instructor of Anthropology 25305 [“ Anthropology
of Food and Cuisine” ], and former sous-chef at world-famous restaurant, Charlie
Trotter’ s, Chicago). The dishes presented should therefore be large enough and divisible
enough for each judge to get a tantalizing morsel and houses may choose to prepare 3
separate plates containing all their dishes for easy tasting by each of the 3 judges. The
scrumptious scraps will go to the contestants and bystanders (in a manner to be peaceably
determined at the event).

The teams’ creations will be scored according to two basic categories: taste and
creativity. “ Taste” refers to (yes, you guessed it, ever-so-quick BJer!) taste; “ creativity”
refers to the creative process that went into the platter’ s concoction, including its
surprising yet incontrovertible pertinence to the designated theme; attractive or
interesting presentation; and the house teamwork that the platter ideally exudes like
aroma.

The judges will taste each house platter, consult the house menu, listen to the brief house
patter, ask any questions they have, and then retire well-nourished to top-secret Judson
Library to make a speedy yet judicious decision. While the houses eagerly await the
judges’ unerring judgment, they will be sustained by study-break foodstuffs and soothing
background music. The judges will return to announce the first and second-place winners.
Awesome prizes will be distributed. Although in the end, we all know prizes are mere
supplements to The Glory, the true motivating force behind BJ competitions. Everybody
will go home sated and proud to have been part of the SIXTH ANNUAL BJ IRON CHEF
COMPETITION. Yeah!

(rules written by the eminent Josh Scodel.)

I hope to see you all there!

Also, brief food update: although most evenings this week were met with disappointing dinners from the dining hall or pre-packaged shrink-wrapped box, the next week promises to be a great week in food.  I’m planning on having Chinese New Year dinner, dinner at Kuma’s (finally), and probably somewhere interesting and exciting on Saturday.

In  the near future: expect a review of my experience at Z&H last week, a review of my dinner at Les Nomades, a review of dinner at Schwa, and possibly some discussion of the significance of plating (particularly following my involvement in Iron Chef).  Also, an overview of restaurant week and my top picks for lunch and dinner.

As a side note, I will be instituting an open door policy this Thursday for my room starting at 11:00 am to the time I leave for dinner at Chinatown.  Feel free to stop by, say hi, and hang out for a bit.  We can talk about food or other things (if it comes to that).


Making Good Life Decisions (about dessert)

Next in my series of “My Life is So Hard! (what should I eat?!)”, some thoughts on dessert selection.

James Beard (one of the greatest food revolutionaries of the 20th century) once said:

A gourmand who counts calories is like a tart who looks at her watch.

If you really love food, either work out or be happy being plump.  If you are eating at a good restaurant, nutrition should not be a factor in menu selection (unless you have allergies, I guess.).  Don’t eat junk food and especially don’t eat trans fats.  Do eat foie gras, duck confit, pork belly, and other naturally delicious things.

Onto dessert.

If you read my earlier post on brunch, you should know that I’m a very careful decision maker.  Every meal is an opportunity to make good life decisions and I always want to select the optimal bundle (this is how I rationalize this loveable quirk in my head).  If you thought brunch sounded like a halting dilemma, you ought to watch me try and order dessert.

An outline of my decision making process:

First off, dessert is not always a given.  The first difficult decision (which sometimes comes up before I have even had time to begin my pre-thinking) is whether I would like dessert or just the check.  Sometimes they ask if I would like coffee, dessert, or just the check which is even worse.

A few things can happen at this point: I can want dessert and ask to see the menu.  I can say I am uncertain and ask to see the menu.  I can ask for the check and suffer from plate envy as I watch desserts walked past my table as I settle the bill.  I can ask for the check and seek dessert elsewhere (a bakery, a gelateria).  Or I can ask for the check and contentedly call an end to my meal.

I usually ask to see the dessert menu out of sheer curiosity.  A restaurant’s dessert offerings are very revealing.  I think dessert is the hardest component of a good meal to execute perfectly.  This is because different people have different preferences for sweets, more so than for main courses.  Most people can appreciate a well cooked steak or a perfectly mid-rare duck breast.  Dessert is more divisive.

There is almost always the option of hot versus cold.  Followed by fruit versus chocolate versus other flavors versus some dangerous combination.  Which is the proper way to end the meal?  Something sinfully rich, like a dark chocolate ganache?  Or something light and cleansing, like a sorbet?  Or some cool compromise between the two extremes, like a creme brulee?  Is it wrong to order ice cream?

My usual line of reasoning is as follows: if it’s lunch, skip dessert.  There are either places to be or better places to find dessert if there is nothing to be done.  If it’s dinner, it depends on the kind of restaurant. If I am eating in a very nice restaurant, I like to order dessert.  In serious kitchens, pastry is elevated to an art form.  Desserts are much more malleable and moldable than other courses, so its worth it to see what the kitchen comes up with.  This is especially true if someone else is paying.  If I am at a mid range restaurant and see more than three of the following on the menu (cheesecake, molten chocolate cake, creme brulee, any sort of non-seasonal pie, tiramisu, assorted ice creams and sorbets) which indicate to me the dessert menu is the same as it was 10 years ago, I skip dessert.  There is better food to be had elsewhere, if necessary.

When it comes to actually picking dessert, I tend to go with my gut.  I usually go with the selection I find interesting and unexpected and I am generally pleased with the outcome.

Of course, if you don’t like your dining companion(s), it is advisable to simply skip dessert and ask for the check.

My Current Obsession

My current dessert obsession - Salted Caramel Ice Cream from Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco. Especially good paired with the Roasted Banana ice cream.