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.
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/.
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.
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.
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
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
I love sandwiches. All kinds of sandwiches. From tea sandwiches to 3 foot subs, I adore sandwiches. Sandwiches are the ideal food. Portable, nutritious, and versatile. I would eat a sandwich anywhere.
Some of you may be wondering what my all time favorite sandwich is. While I usually have trouble deciding between food, I have a very clear favorite in this case. Almost.
The best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life was at Bouchon Bakery, in Yountville, California.
The second best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life was also at Bouchon Bakery, in Yountville, California.
A bit of background: Yountville is located in the Napa Valley and has the highest concentration of Michelin stars per capita anywhere in the world. The town is centered almost entirely around gourmet food and world class spas. Several of the restaurants in Yountville are headed by the man many consider to be the best living American chef: Thomas Keller. Bouchon is his bakery.
When I was vacationing there last March with my mother, we shared a turkey sandwich and a portobello sandwich with a beef jus. (Side note: a picnic is the perfect place to share two sandwiches. I’m a big believer in Diminishing Marginal Return of Food, and I love to sample, so I’d almost always rather eat two halves of two different sandwiches than one whole sandwich. I think it’s a little strange to do this if you’re eating the sandwich in the same place it was made though.) Both sandwiches far exceeded my expectations.
To this day, I really can’t say which I liked more. I remember that lunch as being one of those rare moments in which two halves of the different sandwiches complemented each other in playful conversation. It was just a great sandwich eating experience, all around. A perfect Northern Californian spring day with two beautiful sandwiches and a box full of pastries.
Which brings me to my next point: what makes a great sandwich?
Going off of the ideal set by Bouchon, a great sandwich doesn’t need to have a lot of ingredients. Nor does it need to have a lot of height and heft. What I liked most about the sandwiches I had at Bouchon was the perfect ratio of ingredients. Sometimes I feel sandwiches can have too many ingredients with dull flavor. Sometimes sandwich makers will try to compensate for this by putting a lot of substance between the bread. That’s not what makes a perfect sandwich though. (At least, not in my mind.)
A perfect sandwich is manageable and minimalist, while still expressing a coherent idea. The turkey sandwich was a riff on the classic turkey-cranberry-cheese sandwich, but the coleslaw-relish added a perfectly balanced bright crunchiness. No unnecessary pickle-lettuce-tomato (filler). The portobello was perfect as well. Crunchy fresh baked bread, mushrooms tender in a way no deli meat could ever be, and swiss cheese adding a perfect gooey richness to each bite. The jus was unbelievably beefy without being overly salty. And I would even argue the compactness of the sandwich and manageability of each bite made it easier to focus on the flavors and textural interplay. With sandwiches, less is more.
I’ve had some good sandwiches in Chicago. Bari’s makes good italian style subs and focaccia sandwiches with great cheeses and cured meats. XOCO is a fun place to go (I’ve had the ahogada and cuban, both very good). I’ve yet to try Grahamwich (I think I’ll give them a try in the next few weeks now that it seems they’ve worked out their kinks.)
As far as sandwich chains go, I’d have to side with Potbelly’s over Jimmy John’s. I would prefer either to Subway. They’re all fairly comparable in price, but Subway uses terrible ingredients and sandwich making technique. Plus, when I go to Subway I feel as though I’m in a public restroom. Potbelly’s has a better meat to bread ratio overall and their sandwiches produce the most optimal bites (good distribution of ingredients). I also prefer the menu options at Potbelly’s to JJ’s.
I’m not really sure how to conclude this string of thoughts on sandwiches so I’ll end with this fact:
Americans eat 45 billion sandwiches each year. (source)