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.

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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.


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:


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.