Category Archives: Chicago

Happy Birthday Vera!

This week Vera is celebrating its 2nd birthday and I just wanted to offer a few words of tribute.

Over the last couple of years Vera really has become one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago. Liz is always an extraordinarily gracious host and her husband Mark does a fantastic job putting out wonderful, straightforward food.

When I recommend Vera to people they ask me what kind of food it is. I usually respond with “Spanish-influenced wine bar”. I guess that’s more or less accurate, but an almost better way of putting it (although much more crass) is “no bullshit”. What do I mean? Just read this interview with Liz and Mark from yesterday. It’s pretty honest, soul-baring stuff. We don’t hear it enough but owning a restaurant is hard. Most fail. We as diners don’t get to see the hard work, the struggles, the tears. We see celebrity chefs tweeting pictures of their “research trips”. We hear about what awesome celebrity was in the dining room last night. We read about what the latest “protein wrapped in fat” creation got conjured up by the kitchen.

We don’t have to deal with this with Vera. Instead we get fabulous, simple (but not simplistic) dishes that Mark creates as we move through the seasons (see the chicken thigh dish on the current menu). Or we get things that rightly stick on the menu like beef tongue pinchos. Perfectly tender, but with a nice sear, beef tongue and some salsa verde. Who needs cronuts or a ramen burger when you can go eat those with a perfectly paired sherry from Liz? Who needs annoying restaurant PR when you just have Mark tweeting out pictures of some new dish he’s come up with? Here, come eat this. Done.

This is all a bit fawning, but Vera really does deserve more praise and attention than it otherwise gets. So Happy Birthday Vera. Congratulations Liz and Mark. I wish you many, many more years of happiness and success.

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Season Finale at Next: Bocuse d’Or

The final menu of Next’s third season carries the theme “Bocuse d’Or”. There are flags hanging from the normally bare ceiling and TVs showing clips of the international food competition, but at least in my mind, that’s really where the concept of “theme” for this menu ends. Oh, there are also parades, but we’ll get to those.

I think Next is generally most successful when the theme creates an experience that is completely singular, giving the diner something that you simply can’t get anywhere else. In this category I would place Paris, 1906 (no one cooks like that anymore), el Bulli (the restaurant doesn’t even exist anymore), The Hunt (seamlessly blending primal dining with technical precision), and now this current menu. Like Paris 1906, you generally can’t get food like you get from the Bocuse d’Or menu at many restaurants in the US. Of course it requires a kitchen with an absurdly high level of technical ability to pull something like this off, and of course Next’s kitchen does just that.

While I thought that just about every course on this menu was successful on at least some level, two really stood out for me:

The first was a cauliflower mousse covered in pushed foie gras (think: a torchon of foie gras pushed through a strainer so you get little squiggly bits). Given the sheer quantity of foie gras involved in this dish you would think it would be too rich. And it almost is. But the mousse provides a perfect balance, and rose petals harvested from the centerpiece using liquid nitrogen provide another foil for the foie.

The other dish that really stuck with me was the trout and eggs. This was one of the courses that tried to draw a direct connection between what we were eating and the Bocuse d’Or competition. During one of the (twice nightly!) parades through the dining room, a couple of somewhat dour servers walked by our table with a platter meant as a tribute to this traditional combination. The actual trout and eggs dish served to diners is almost as elaborate, featuring both of the main ingredients in several forms (poached trout, fried trout skeleton, trout roe, a broken egg yolk sauce, etc.). Some would say there was too much going on with this dish. I actually enjoyed the interplay between all of the different flavors and textures. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Let’s come back to the parades for a minute. With our 6pm reservation we were treated to two of these “spectacles” during the course of the meal. I guess this is the other element in place that’s supposed to tie back directly to the theme. The lights in the restaurant come up, and servers come out of the kitchen schlepping large elaborate platters of food in the tradition of the Bocuse d’Or competition. If you watch the intro video to this season you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about. But it’s sort of a bizarre thing to do really because Next only takes it half way. They need to fully commit to the spectacle. Instead of the servers clad in black marching through the dining room, send some cooks in their gleaming whites and tall toques. Have some actual bugles in the dining room announcing the arrival of the platters. I think Next in general could stand to have a bit more fun with itself, and this would have been the perfect opportunity.

This menu provided a wonderful close to an impressive third season of Next. I mentioned The Hunt earlier, but I also found the Vegan menu to be a great experience (if, for nothing else, the degree of difficulty in pulling off something like that). It will be interesting to see what will happen with season four and keeping this almost impossible culinary endeavor going. I’m stuck on trying to figure out what next season’s “hook” will be for retaining/attracting season ticketholders. In season two it was el Bulli and this past season it was Bocuse. My totally uneducated guess is that season four is when we will finally see a French Laundry menu. This would seem to be a logical follow-up to highlighting one of Thomas Keller’s current endeavors (he’s been a driving force behind trying to get the US team back to respectability in the Bocuse competition).

If you’d like more context (as well as pics) for the current menu, check out Mike Gebert’s Reader post here.

Cream Cheese and Mayo – We Can Do Better, Chicago!

The other day on the Twitter I was poking some fun at Time Out Chicago’s review of some new Japanese place in Bucktown. You can read that review here. As with any review of any new Chicago Japanese restaurant you get a description of some roll with as many ingredients as your average Kuma’s burger. In this case we get the “Bears Maki Roll” (“stuffed with salmon, avocado and crunchy sweet potato and topped with a layer of salmon as well as spicy mayo and unagi sauce”). Somehow TOC describes this as “successful” and not “too busy”.

I’ve been saying this for a while and it remains true: for a world class city our Japanese food is pretty bad. Arami and Juno are gems if you’re looking for sushi (which you will rightly pay for) and Sunshine Cafe is the place to go for comfort food. Ginza and Itto are both good places one level down from the very best, and after that the pickings get very slim.

My theory when it comes to why we don’t have much good sushi comes across as little snobby. I grew up right outside New York City and was eating sushi from a very young age. When I moved to the Midwest I encountered plenty of people who had either never had sushi or had started eating it much later in life (and in many cases their first sushi came from a grocery store). I certainly didn’t consider those people rubes, it was just a matter of logistics. It hasn’t always been easy to get fresh fish shipped just about anywhere as quickly as we see today. If I were living in the Midwest 20 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been too excited about eating raw fish either…who knows what you were getting?

But here we are today. You can get high quality, fresh fish whether you’re one mile or one thousand miles from the dock. And yet I still don’t think people in Chicago really demand the good stuff. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting at the sushi bar at Arami or Juno (or any other now closed space that I may have liked at one time), and have watched a parade of rolls make their way out to the dining room. Meanwhile I’ll be sitting there eating a plate of pristine sashimi, feeling bad for everyone else who was missing out. At least for me, the beauty of Japanese food is in the simplicity and the quality of the ingredients (but appreciating the underlying complexities). Eating a plate of rolls that are doused in sauce and stuffed with God knows what runs directly counter to that experience.

And that’s where we run into the problem. Go read Yelp reviews of Japanese restaurants, or even the TOC review linked above. There are so many that take the form of “the sushi is great…we loved Roll X”. My response to that is “well, then how did you know the sushi was great?”. Of course we should be paying attention to all of what a restaurant is serving. Rolls are part of the equation just as much as anything else on the menu. But let’s not miss turning a critical eye to sashimi and nigiri. Talk to me about how the chef slices the fish. Take a moment to consider whether or not the fish is being served at the right temperature (otoro is great, but is significantly less great if I can taste ice crystals). Pay attention to the rice, including flavor, texture, and temperature. We need to adjust the critical lens that most sushi is viewed through.

We can have better sushi in Chicago. We just need to demand it.

Tru – Celebrating Our 6th Anniversary

When I moved to Chicago in 2001 Tru was one of the first high-end restaurants that I tried. I was pretty blown away by the whole thing. The hushed service, the modern dining room, the caviar staircase. As time went by, and after a couple more dinners there (and elsewhere) the experience became stale. Much like when I ate at Charlie Trotter’s and eventually Ria, it felt as if I was still eating “fine dining” from the late 90’s.

My parents gave us a gift card to Tru for our 2nd wedding anniversary and we sort of begrudgingly decided to use it for our 3rd anniversary since it was going to expire. It was around this time that Anthony Martin had fully taken over the kitchen and Rick Tramonto had fully moved on. Eating at Tru that night was like eating at a different restaurant. It felt like the kitchen had been liberated and immediately thrown into present day fine dining. We went back for our 4th anniversary. We were out of town for our 5th, but we made it in for our 6th last night.

The meal we had was just stunning. Every time we go it is evident that Martin is pushing the restaurant to get better, the food to get more creative without sinking into novelty. Some standout dishes:

Bright melon in rose essence, cured duck breast – tiny spheres of cantaloupe in a consumme made from the melon with tiny strips of duck that had been cured with ancho chilis. The cure from the chili made for a wonderful contrast with the sweet melon.

Cool as a cucumber, Arctic char roe – a play on the ultimate 90s fancy appetizer of cucumber with salmon roe. In this version the cucumber took the form of ice cream and the more subtle Arctic char roe stood in for the beat you over the head salty salmon roe. There were also little pieces of diced cucumber scattered throughout the dish, which resulted in a fun play on the textures of both the cucumber and the roe.

Atlantic summer fluke, saffron mussel velouté, lemongrass – a thin disk of barely cooked fluke sat on top of the deliciously rich velouté. The saffron provided a perfect backdrop and complement for the taste of the fish.

Blonde morel royale – and egg custard filled with tiny morels served with a croissant and garlic butter. Even though I loved this dish (I’m a total sucker for chawanmushi) I’m glad it was small.

Scottish salmon, poached in olive oil, cauliflower in textures – this was the real highlight of the night. Even in Alaska I don’t think I’ve ever had salmon like this. Buttery, fatty, and oily but somehow light at the same time. The salmon was served with a small cup of coconut curry that you were supposed to drink between bites of the salmon. The curry injected some heat (both temperature and spice level). This is what really elevated this dish above just being “really good salmon”.

There are plenty of other things that have changed at Tru. There is now a composed cheese course (but you can still get the cart), and the once awesome dessert cart is no more. Now you get a selection of mignardises (which are still very good) from a handheld serving piece.

On the other hand, many things have not changed. Service is still top notch, and has thankfully lightened up a bit.

Overall it was a great evening and I’m so glad that we’ve stumbled upon a great anniversary tradition. We ended the night with a carriage ride most of the way home, with Chicago providing a wonderful closing scene on an absolutely perfect evening.

Tru
http://www.trurestaurant.com/
676 N St Clair St
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 202-0001

Grace

My family was in town this past weekend (parents and grandparents), and whenever that happens it turns into an all out eating event. This trip was no different. We were able to hit Perennial Virant, Eleven Lincoln Park, The Florentine, and Shaw’s (for brunch). This highlight of the weekend though was dinner at Grace on Friday night.

We’ve been fans of Curtis Duffy since his days at Avenues and were totally blown away by our first dinner at Grace back in March for Marissa’s birthday (it also didn’t hurt that this happened). I knew right away that I wanted to bring my family in the next time they came to town.

My family LOVES to dine, so I always take it as a personal challenge to bring them to new and interesting places when they come to town. My grandparents in particular aren’t super-adventurous so we tend to stick to nicer, more “chefy” places, but that’s fine. Between the food and the service I was guessing that Grace would be a big hit.

Boy was I right. My grandparents had actually just been to Per Se the week before (for the umpteenth time) and when the meal was over they pronounced Grace the better of the two restaurants. Given the meal we had at Grace I had a hard time arguing with that sentiment.

Not to go blow by blow, but some of the standout dishes included:

King crab and butter & mellon with caviar from the amuse course
An heirloom tomato dish that featured gorgeous tomatoes in various forms paired with some deliciously creamy (and also crispy) burrata
A squab course with the most perfectly cooked bird I’ve ever been served
A small piece of Miyazaki beef that brilliantly paired the meat’s luscious fat with a cube of watermelon
The final savory course of braised lamb that was perfectly portioned and actually a little sweet, creating a nice bridge to some desserts that were much improved over our first visit

It’s fun to watch any restaurant evolve, but I think it’s especially fun at higher end restaurants where the stakes are so high and the pressure to keep innovating is ever-present. Grace has certainly evolved since March. As I mentioned the desserts are better, but I also think the flavors used in all of the dishes have become more complex and interesting. The March menu relied on a lot of acid, which I actually really enjoyed since it helped prevent palate fatigue from setting in. This weekend’s menu still had that, but maybe with a bit more nuance (and even more use of differing textures on the plate, which I love). Also, and this point shouldn’t be underplayed, Grace is one of the few places that gets portion size right in the context of a longer tasting menu. We had 10 or 12 courses* and I didn’t leave disgustingly full which happens to me at just about every comparable restaurant.

Service continues to be among the most polished in the city. Warm and friendly while still remaining professional and appropriate given the price-point.

I know this all sounds a bit gushy and I’ll fully admit that I’m a Duffy fan-boy, but this was truly a great meal and the fact that we were able to share it with family made it even more special.

Grace Restaurant
http://www.grace-restaurant.com
652 W. Randolph Street, Chicago IL 60661
312.234.9494

*Comp disclosure – An extra course of risotto with Australian black truffles. Appreciated, but I don’t think the Italians have anything to worry about when it comes to the truffle business.

An Opening and a Closing

Probably the most significant Chicago restaurant world stories of the last week and a half were the opening of Three Dots and a Dash and the closing of West Town Tavern (followed by the opening and then closing of Chicago Taco). How did the Chicago food media handle each?

Let’s start with West Town Tavern. I never went, but everything that I had heard led me to believe that WTT was a nice neighborhood spot and it always seemed to be kind of just chugging along. A little googling revealed that the place had been open since 2002, so basically it was ancient by restaurant life expectancy standards. On July 22, seemingly out of nowhere, WTT abruptly announced that they were closing. Three days later we found out that the restaurant would be re-opening the next day (under the same ownership) as Chicago Taco. Chicago Taco opened for a night, and then closed, and that, it seems, is that. So what happened? Perhaps this would be an interesting story for a local food journalist to pursue. Well, apparently not. At this point we’re stuck with Eater comments (potentially the lowest form of discourse known to man) and Twitter speculation.

On the other hand, Three Dots and a Dash is now open. Paul McGee/Lettuce Entertain You’s tiki bar/soon to be bro vs. cocktail hipster Octagon of Truth is now fully operational underneath Bub City. I know this because Twitter was flooded with pictures and talk of the free drinks from friends and family. I also know this because Time Out Chicago posted this. Is it an opening report? Maybe. Is it a review? Coyly no, I guess. It does sound like the author and companions had a great time boozing it up, and we’re left with the comment

So how was everything? We’re planning to review Three Dots and a Dash once it’s been open for at least a month, but we’ll say that we finished every drink in front of us.

Well, if you’re going to review it in a month then don’t say anything. Besides, I’m pretty sure that I’d be pretty excited about any bar where I drank the entire menu (on someone else’s dime I assume). So in the end, what’s the point? Is this any better or more valuable than a press release? I will say that the upside to this potential tiki revival is that we’re finally going to get some pictures of cocktails that don’t look like this (found via Google Image Search)

Image

The difference in coverage between these two stories is pretty typical of the Chicago food media these days unfortunately. Non-critical coverage of the latest PR driven opening, and non-existent coverage of the closing of a venerable neighborhood restaurant. I don’t blame any individuals for this, at least not entirely. But this is what happens as media outlets cut budgets and people. All of us really come out worse off.

UPDATE: This was a major oversight on my part, but if you are interested in a substantive discussion of tiki that goes beyond “ZOMG we drank all of the drinks” check out the latest Airwaves Full of Bacon podcast here. It’s a great listen on tiki and other subjects, and really represents the best of non-PR driven journalism right now.

Flub a Dub Chub’s – Go for the Burgers

We first heard about Flub a Dub Chub’s from Chicago Magazine’s 2009 Best Burgers list. I checked it out on my own one day and was immediately charmed by the place. It’s below street level (right next to Chilam Bilam), the walls are adorned with children’s drawings and pictures of people who have dared to put ketchup on a hot dog, and it’s family-run.

At any given time you’re likely to find a family member working the register taking orders, and all of them are as nice as can be. Eating at Flub a Dub’s is actually a little like going over to their house to eat, right down to the TV remote that’s usually sitting on one of the tables that anyone can pick up and use.

Now, the food. Get a burger. Let me say that again. Get. A. Burger. They have a whole list of hot dogs and other things. Maybe they’re good, I wouldn’t know. This was the source of one of my more frustrating interactions on LTH. After talking up the burgers as much as I could, people would go order hot dogs and complain about them. I would say “you should really go try the burger”. Then the thread would go dormant only to have someone pop up and say “so, how are the hot dogs?”. Sigh. Maybe the hot dogs are terrible. I have no idea. But I do know that the burgers are fantastic.

My usual order is the Roe (named for the family matriarch, a school teacher when not at the restaurant). The Flub a Dub patty is decently thick (this is not a 30s style griddle burger) that’s char grilled and nicely seasoned. The Roe is topped with cheddar, bacon, and avocado. Like all of their burgers it’s served on a pretzel bun. Unlike Kuma’s (now with an outpost not too far from Flub a Dubs), the burgers are manageable and are actually cooked to order most of the time. Their fries are well cooked and seasoned food service fries, but again, focus on your burger.

I still don’t think Flub a Dub’s gets the attention it deserves. I have no idea why. But I love it, and it’s certainly one of my favorite burgers in town.

Flub a Dub Chub’s
http://www.flubadubchub.com/
3021 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL 60657
773-857-6500