Tanoshii, Andersonville

March 9th, 2012

Sushi Mike - Photo courtesy of Metromix Chicago

he said:

I can still remember the first time I tried sushi. It was a California roll and I was in college.  That first bite was so different, so unexpected, so delicious. Back then, sushi was an exotic dish. But that was a long time ago and sushi quickly became ubiquitous.

At first I was happy that you could buy it in the grocery store. What I didn’t stop to realize was that sushi just wasn’t special anymore. Not when you can pick it up next to the Van De Kamps.

Uncommon Sushi

I thought I knew all that sushi had in store for me, until I ate at Tanoshii. It was one of my first dates in Chicago with the lovely woman who is now my wife. That experience went much like every subsequent trip: we ordered two Mike’s Specials, told our waitress what kind of sushi we liked, and waited to see what we got.

The Mike of Mike’s Special is the owner. He’s also an amazing sushi chef. And when you order one of his specials, he creates for you whatever inspires him, based on the info you give him. I’ll often say I like spicy tuna and never have I gotten the same thing twice. He’ll do crazy things like add a chipotle mayo or a barbecue sauce, he’ll dice the tuna into a fine puree, he’ll add fried asparagus.

Same old unexpected

The last time we went, I indicated I liked spicy tuna, as usual. The dish that came back was unlike any sushi dish I could have ever dreamt of (not that I dream of sushi dishes). It was fashioned into rectangular pieces, with a bed of rice supporting fresh tuna, covered by shaved cucumber, caviar and a spicy, creamy sauce. Man, it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

I’m constantly surprised, and not only because I don’t know what he’s going to do. It’s because the flavors are so perfectly paired, the presentation so unique, the dishes so inspired. It’s exactly what I believed sushi should always be, from my very first bite.

she said:

I went to Tanoshii the first week it opened – I lived around the corner at the time – and, like my husband, I experienced a sushi reawakening.  Since then, all other sushi restaurants have been left shivering in Tanoshii’s shadow.  Sushi Mike is an artist, no doubt about it.  I’ve never seen rolls prepared more artfully or presented more beautifully… and this is to say nothing of the way they taste.  Have you ever eaten something so flavorful and robust that your jawbones hurt a little?  It’s a pleasurable ache and I experience it every time I visit Sushi Mike.

Not surprisingly, I’m particularly in love with his vegetarian maki rolls.  At most places, I’m limited to two or three of the same snoozy choices.  Not so at Tanoshii.  I ask for vegetarian Mike’s Specials and I’ve never been disappointed.  At Mike’s, I’ve come to expect the unexpected.  My maki may show up flavored with Italian seasonings or looking more like chips and guacamole.  The rolls may be created from finely shaved pear or mango.  No matter what, they’re always incredible.

If you’ve never been to Tanoshii, stop whatever you’re doing and take off in a dead run towards Andersonville.  First, though, while you’re stretching, a few pieces of advice.

  1. Like an artist, Mike does take his time in creating his masterpieces.  Don’t expect things to be snappy at Tanoshii.  You may want to order some miso soup while you wait.
  2. While I strongly recommend you order Mike’s Specials rather than from the menu (which is composed of regular boring sushi choices), I must say that they don’t come cheap.  The specials range from $16-$22 and you don’t know how much yours will cost until you get the bill.
  3. If it were up to Mike, soy sauce and wasabi would be illegal. Nobody will mind if you use them on the regular menu items, but if you use them on his specials, everyone will hate you.
  4. Don’t forget to grab booze before you go.  It’s BYOB and the atmosphere is jolly, even if the ambiance is standard for a sushi establishment.  Offer Sushi Mike a shot of whatever you’re drinking.  I promise you he’ll accept and the plates will only get more creative as the night goes on.

Okay, that should to it.  Ready, set, go.

 

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Magnolia Cafe, Uptown

November 17th, 2011

she said:

I must be missing something.  We’ve been to Magnolia twice, both times on weekday evenings, and almost every table has been full, not to mention the bar stools.   They’ve received one glowing review after another and, frankly, I’m a little stumped.

I do have a few kind words and I’ll start with those.  Magnolia is a cozy, candlelit neighborhood bistro in an area that needs encouragement.  Located on Wilson Avenue, right by Truman college, Magnolia Cafe is like a little French oasis, a cubic zirconia in the rough.  And, in Uptown, I mean rough.  I want Uptown to succeed so I’m behind any establishment that helps it to do so.  Also on my list of compliments: the wine selection and the yummy foccacia-style bread.

Next, a disclaimer.  I think the problem might be me and my strained, but cherished, relationship with French cuisine, which tends to lean hard on meat.  Believe me, I want to enjoy French food in its full creamy glory and when there’s a dish I can eat, I’m often weak at the knees.   The problem is that my choices are limited, but that’s my issue and I wouldn’t dream of arguing otherwise.

Well, maybe just a little. See, I don’t have this problem at every French restaurant.  In fact, Bistro Campagne, a French place in Lincoln Square, which, inexplicably, we’ve yet to review, is one of my favorite restaurants in the city.  Is it so wrong to hope for one or two vegetarian options?  Not every French chef thinks so, as is evidenced by many other French menus throughout Chicago.

To their credit, Magnolia was really great about creating options for me.  The thing is, I generally try to avoid altering dishes to make them vegetarian.  I trust that a chef knows what he or she is doing and when you remove a key ingredient, you change the  essence of a dish.

This, I believe, is exactly what happened with Magnolia’s tragically lackluster rendition of macaroni and cheese (macaroni au gratin), usually one of my favorite dishes at French establishments.  Without its smoked bacon, the mac and cheese was virtually tasteless.  I’m ashamed to admit that I ended up taking it home and dousing it in hot sauce.  My side of sauteed spinach wasn’t tasteless; it tasted metallic and fishy and permeated with burnt garlic.

On another occasion, I ordered the truffle goat cheese raviolis, served with mushroom ragout, butternut squash and a brown butter vinaigrette.  This was the vegetarian version of their seared scallops, which normally come on top of the aforementioned ingredients, and was actually quite good, but nothing to write home about and not enough to entirely redeem Magnolia for me.

Look, everyone else seems to love Magnolia so you should go check it out.  No seriously, just go.  I’ll stay home and warm up a nice can of soup.  I’ll be fine, really.  I’m sure there’s something good on Bravo.

he said:

Like the wife, I’m surprised we’ve eaten here more than once. I think what it comes down to is that Magnolia offered a well-timed Groupon. As the meat eater of the group, I feel the need to carry the weight of this review, but I’m afraid I may let you down.

In struggling to find a way to describe my experience at Magnolia, I’m reminded of our first date. It’s kind of a long story, but the quick version is: We lived in different cities, and we decided to meet up in Mexico, because, hey, why not have your first date at an all-inclusive resort, right?

Anyway, while we were there we met with a tour operator who was offering day trips from the resort. He showed us a flyer of his offerings, and each trip had a short descriptor.  A fishing tour was “pulse pounding,” scuba was “electrifying,*” You get the idea. Whoever made the flyer ran out of extreme adjectives apparently, because a cave snorkeling trip (the one we ended up going on) was described as enjoyable.

Enjoyable. Don’t oversell it or anything. It’s just enjoyable.**

*Electrifying – not a good word to describe an activity in which you’re surrounded by water, or have a chance to come into contact with eels.

**I’m actually very thankful for this little bit of underwhelming salesmanship. My wife and I saw this at the exact same time and it struck each of us as funny in exactly the same way. It made us realize how similar our senses of humor are and it was one of the first “moments” we shared. 

Back to Magnolia. On one trip I had the roasted half chicken over Dijon whipped potatoes and brussels sprouts.  Enjoyable. On another trip, I had the hangar steak and house cut fries with sautéed spinach and blue cheese.   Or was it the beef tenderloin with braised beef short rib and sautéed spinach in a red wine reduction? Whatever it was, it too was enjoyable, but clearly didn’t make an impression.

I don’t have any real complaints.  But don’t you think it’s a problem that I can barely remember what I had? I do remember thinking “this is good,” but in a city like Chicago, with the restaurants we have, good is forgettable. Enjoyable is not enough.

The funny thing - that cave snorkeling trip we went on, the one described as enjoyable, was so much more than that. It was wonderful, a perfect activity for two people on a first date who are interested in nature and swimming and seeing things off the beaten path. For Magnolia though, enjoyable is a pretty accurate description.  It’s a nice place to have a nice meal, but probably not worth going out of the way for.

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Publican, Fulton Market

September 10th, 2011

he said:

After making our reservation months in advance, when it was finally time for our Friday date night at Publican, I was less than enthused. Summer was in full swing, and all I really wanted to do was have a low key dinner with my wife. Despite my desire to see what all the fuss was about, I just wasn’t in the mood for a fuss.

I didn’t want a scene. I just wanted something nice and relaxing. Turns out, Publican was the perfect place to go.

We sat outside on a night with perfect weather. We were away from the hubbub inside, and the meatpacking district, surprisingly, isn’t a bad place to be on a warm summer evening.

Making up for lost time

We started with a plate of pickles, and I was in love. The pickled cucumbers (most people call them pickles) were only okay. But the pickled asparagus and cauliflower were delightful. Sweet and surprising, I don’t know where these have been all my life.

Speaking of missing out on something, I’ve never had pork rinds. It wasn’t by accident, it was a conscious choice. But Publican is known for theirs so I had to try them. And I’m glad I did. They’re super crunchy with an awesome spicy salt rub and a texture that kind of reminded me of Cheetos. Only better. And louder. Did I mention they were crunchy?

Country Rib Confusion

For my main dish, I had the country ribs, which were unlike any rib I’d ever had. As in, I’m not sure they gave me the right dish. Who out there has had their ribs before? I expect ribs to show up in a neat line with a bit of meat between them. This cut reminded me more of a chop. Am I crazy, or did I get the wrong dish? Please, if you can, enlighten me.

That confusion not withstanding, my “ribs” were great. They had a salty and sweet sauce that worked perfectly.

If it’s a scene, it’s my kind of scene

I’m so glad we went. The food was on par with what I’d expect for a neighborhood swarming with foodies, but the atmosphere was much more low key and simple than I’d anticipated.   The food and drinks (and my wife’s company) were so spectacular that I would have enjoyed Publican even if it had been the scenester scene I was expecting. When I’m surrounded by such delicious treats, even the hugest of deals can’t distract me.*

*Cryptic, huh? Read on and you’ll understand.

she says:

If, ten years ago, someone had told me that they planned to open up a restaurant in the heart of Chicago’s meat-packing district, I’d have had some serious doubts.  I mean, who would want to dine beneath the shadows of those industrial slaughter-houses, amid the smell of butchered meat? I’ll tell you who.  Everyone!

He’s right.  The area – with hipstastic eateries like Girl and the Goat, Publican, and Maude’s Liquor Bar – has developed into a full-blown scene.  Still, it’s funny to hear a relative newcomer (my husband) talk about the district as if it’s passe.  It’s a funny phenomena for those of us with a longer memory.

True to the roots, Publican is an homage to the meat-packing district’s glory days, if such a thing exists.  I read that they bring in a whole pig each Friday – alive or dead, I do not know, but I believe they butcher on site -  and, from what I could tell, every ounce of that oinker, from snout to tail, is served up in one way or another.

The inside of the restaurant, cavernous with hanging globe lights and large communal tables, exudes the warmth and comradery of a German brauhaus.   Along the sides of the room, gated stalls (styes?) offer a slightly more private dining experience.  To  ensure I adequately captured the scene so I could tell you all about it, I walked around the perimeters of the room several times .  After my third lap, I ran into my husband on his way back from the bathroom.  “Are you stalking?”, he asked, only to be met by my blank, confused stare.  As is sometimes the case, I had no clue what he was talking about.  Until, of course,  he tilted  his head towards a nearby sty where I spotted one Robert Downey Jr. (!!!) seated with a group of friends.  One cool thing about my husband: he has a real knack for spotting celebrities, even if sometimes they’re just random actors who have been in one obscure commercial.

But I digress.  Here’s the thing - there’s no shortage of Publican reviews out there so I’m going to keep mine short and to the point.  If you’re hungry for meat, like to eat organs, and love, love, love all things pig, you’re going to be in hog heaven at Publican.  If you’re a vegetarian, even one who thinks they can find something yummy on almost every menu (like me), you are out of luck, my friend.  Most the vegetable courses are cooked in some sort of animal fat or with some animal part.  Interesting pickles are great, but you’re probably not going to find enough to eat or anything extraordinary about the vegetarian food you do find.  Vegetarian fare is not their gig.  Consider yourself warned.

One more thing – and I’m shocked that my husband didn’t bring this up -  I must applaud Publican’s beer menu.  It’s one of the most eclectic, extensive and all-around impressive selections I’ve ever seen.  It was, for me, a saving grace, along, of course, with the white fedora that Robert Downey Jr. was sporting.

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Soul Vegetarian East, Chatham/Greater Grand Crossing

May 22nd, 2011

he said:

I’ve come a long way since I moved here about a year and a half ago, at least in terms of my vegetarian eating habits.  I credit my wife’s cooking, which is all vegetarian, with my realization that meat substitutes can be good. They can also be horrible. (I’ve had my share of mushy fake meat loaf. Not my wife’s, of course.)  So maybe it won’t come as much surprise that I’m the one who suggested that we drive to the South Side on a Friday night to Soul Vegetarian East, a vegan soul food restaurant.   The place had a reputation that preceded it, and I was eager to give it a try.

If I just focus on the food, I can say that I’m glad I did. The other stuff, well…let me just focus on the food for now.

My meal consisted of the BBQ Twist sandwich, a house specialty, BBQ protein bits, Hebrew fries and a Strawberry Heaven juice drink. The drink came from Eternity Juice Bar, which is ostensibly next door but is the same restaurant for all intents and purposes.

Veggie-Speak

To translate my meal out of the unique vernacular used at Soul Vegetarian, I had a vegan BBQ pork sandwich, BBQ chicken fingers, french fries and a strawberry smoothie. I call them pork and chicken, but I’m just making guesses. Whatever they used as protein was good, but I don’t think it was trying to taste like a specific meat.

Better Twist than M. Night Shyamalan

You could probably put the BBQ Twist in front of anyone, and 9 out of 10 of them would have no idea that it wasn’t meat. It tastes like the real thing, and it does the one thing that so many faux meat dishes fail at–it gets the texture right. It was covered in sauce, but the protein was crisp with little charred bits that added so much to it. Even the lettuce garnish on the sandwich was impressive – very fresh and tasty.

If you’re going to get the BBQ Twist, don’t get the BBQ Protein Bits appetizer – they’re essentially the same thing. The only difference is that you dip the bits into the sauce, so you’re basically doing the work for the restaurant.

The Strawberry Heaven juice smoothie was great. They have a really extensive list of “juices,” and I wish that I had been more adventurous because they looked delicious. Almond Malt Shake, you better be ready next time.

Freedom fries I’ve heard of, but Hebrew?

I was a little worried with this strange nomenclature, but I shouldn’t have been–these are the best fries I’ve had in Chicago. Fresh potatoes, with a nice crisp bite to them, and only needing a little salt to round out the taste. They were awesome.

I have no idea if they were actually fried, either. On their menu, everything that you’d think was fried was described as battered. And I have no idea how they make fries in Hebrew.

Would I go back? The food was delicious, but unless I’m in the neighborhood, I’d say no. The kindest thing I can say about the service was that it was indifferent. I’ll let my wife get into more detail, but rest assured, it’s not because this is a vegetarian restaurant. I’ve learned to love when vegetarian food is done well, and outside of our kitchen, this has been the best vegetarian I’ve had in Chicago.

she said:

I hate to poop on the picnic.  My husband is very nice, but I’m gonna have to throw a little yin into the yang.  Soul Vegetarian turned our Friday night into an exercise in patience and thirst management.

Allow me to give you a timeline of our visit.  We were there for about twenty minutes before we were even acknowledged.  When we were finally seated, we waited for what felt like another twenty minutes before anyone took our order, then about an hour before anything arrived.  My entree arrived first, followed (a half hour later) by my husband’s, then (15 minutes after we’d finished our entrees) our drinks, then (15 minutes later), last but not least, our appetizer.  At one point, I considered filling up my water glass in the bathroom because my mouth was too dry to swallow my cornbread and I thought I might choke.  At another point, our waitress had been gone so long that my husband speculated that she’d quit.

If you’re preparing to give me a little lecture on slowing down the frenetic pace of my workaday existence, save your breath.  I stop and smell the roses.  I love the roses.  They smell friggin’ awesome.  This was not a slow down and relax situation.  I thought the woman at the table next to us might start crying if she didn’t get her check; she had to ask for it six times.  I’ve never seen so many guests ask to speak to the manager.  The tension in the air was so thick you could have cut it with a knife, assuming your table had utensils, which it probably would not.

All of this said, I would definitely go back.  Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment, but the food was so delicious that I’m willing to  give them another shot.  Vegetarian soul food isn’t easy to find and this was the best I’ve ever had.  Although my lentil soup was lackluster, I loved the BBQ Protein Tidbits and their delectable sauce.  I ordered the special that night, which was lasagna served with crispy fritters and perfectly cooked greens.  Despite my husband’s accolades, I would have no idea how to make vegan lasagna taste good, but theirs was incredible – creamy, flavorful and satisfying.

Also, mission matters to me and I have a lot of respect for the this place, for their dedication to serving wholesome and delicious vegan food, especially considering that they’re located in a neighborhood with an abundance of fast food chains and a lack of healthy options.  In addition, I like that they cater to a clientele unlike that of most other crunchy vegetarian places; Chatham is one of the largest middle-class black neighborhoods in Chicago.  Interestingly, Soul Vegetarian East is religiously affiliated with the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem and this is evident some of the staff’s clothes, dish names and wall art.

I actually feel guilty calling them out on their despicable service, but I have to be honest.  If you go (and I hope you do), just keep in mind that patience is a virtue, but not a virtue that you get rewarded for with something like a nice thick piece of sweet potato pie, which is how I wanted to be rewarded, but I just couldn’t wait any longer.

ps.  I never make vegetarian meatloaf.

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Buon Appetito – Our Favorite Italian Restaurants

April 27th, 2011

we say:

Supposedly, if you give a baby hundreds of toys to choose from, he’ll get totally overwhelmed and not play with a single one.  We, like spoiled rotten babies, have had a similar reaction to reviewing Chicago’s Italian restaurants.  Chicago is home to some of the best Italian cuisine in the country, but where do we begin when there are literally thousands of Italian restaurants, one on almost every corner?  And how can we compare a place like Spiaggia to a neighborhood osteria?  And what about pizza? Pizza!  And how many Italian restaurant reviews will you, our friends, read before you fall asleep or abandon us forever?  Life is so complicated; we’ll just do our best and hope you like us anyway.  Andiamo.

Our Top Five:

  1. Enoteca Roma (Wicker Park) – We love this small, somewhat low-key (for Wicker Park) eatery for its incredibly flavorful bruschettas, cheeses and pastas.  We love the family-style approach and the way they pour their polenta onto marble slabs.  We love their patio too.   Really though, there’s no trick to why they’re first on our list; the food is superior and that’s what matters.
  2. Rose Angelis (Lincoln Park) - We doubt you’ll find this one on many other Best Italian lists, but you should.  It’s hard to beat Rose Angelis’  huge portions of hearty, homemade pasta.   Formerly the first floor of a home, the cozy layout and setting will charm your pants off (they’ll already be unbuttoned to make room for your pasta baby).  As impossible as it may seem, try to leave room for one of their spectacular desserts.
  3. Piccolo Sogno (River West) – A “little dream” come true.  This upscale Northern Italian restaurant’s menu is as fabulous as its decor.  An impressive place to take out-of-towners, but make your reservation well in advance.  Their mozzarella cheese melts on the tongue and their wine list is impeccable.  They use authentic ingredients combined in wonderful ways, presented artfully.  If you go to their website, be prepared to rock out to some dramatic Italian crooning that starts off like a smooth jazz rendition of the theme song from St. Elmo’s Fire.
  4. Anteprima (Andersonville) - This one almost didn’t make the cut because one of us finds it underwhelming, but here it is, numero quattro, and nobody has to sleep on the couch.  Everyone’s a winner!  Anteprima serves rustic Italian dishes with local, seasonally-inspired ingredients.  The atmosphere is warm and cheerful and totally unpretentious.  They also make their own limoncello. Yum.
  5. Cibo Matto (Loop) and Pelago (Gold Coast) – Between these two, it’s toss up.  Both are trendy and oozing with swank.  Cibo Matto is located in the ultra-hip Wit hotel; Pelago in the boutique Raffaello Hotel.  Cibo Matto is over-the-top stylish while Pelago is more reserved and sophisticated.  Both serve Italian gourmet with a modern twist.  We suggest the Pollo a Griglia at Cibo Matto and the fettuccine with truffles at Pelago.

Our Favorites (In A League of Their Own):

Our Favorite Neapolitan-style (woodfire oven) PizzaAntica Pizzeria (Andersonville)

Our Favorite Italian Sandwiches – Narrowly beating out the neighborhood fave, Piatto Pronto (Edgewater) is L’Apetito Imported Italian Foods (Near North Side).   Check out this Italian deli and delicacy store and get an amazing sandwich to go.  Avoid the tourist trap in the Hancock and stop by the deli in the cathedral district. We suggest Il Parma. It’s topped with the best fresh mozzarella to squeeze it’s way between two slices of bread.

Our favorite Italian Chicagoan – This Guy:

We’re still in search of our favorite gelato.  Got tips?

If we missed one of your faves, use the comment section to let us know.  We’d love to try it …  or tell you why we omitted it (probably because of the weird smell and the cockroaches).  In the meantime, we’ll just be sitting here, staring at our toys and throwing temper tantrums.

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Girl and the Goat, Fulton Market

April 3rd, 2011

she said:

Hey, remember when Pig Face was an insult rather than a gourmet entrée?  Remember when brains and bones went into the trash rather than onto the menu?  When beef tongue was a by-product rather than a delicacy?  No?  That’s okay.  Me neither.

Over the last ten years, charcuterie has become so trendy that it’s almost passé.   Good thing there’s a new craze: offal and end bits.  Last summer, I attended a pig roast where one hipster guest insisted that we save him the eyeballs.  Which we did.  And which he ate with delight, popping one shrunken orb into his mouth and then the other.

To be clear, I have absolutely no problem with this trend.  It’s all the same to me and, really, what’s the difference between eating a muscle and eating an organ?  I’m simply pointing out that the same dishes (popular in most other countries, I realize) that would have once induced a gag reflex (in this country) now inspire a dainty napkin-to-lip dab and a breathy, Magnifique!

I think we can blame/laud Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, and her highly acclaimed restaurant, Girl and the Goat, for her place at the forefront of this meat movement.  Several people advised me that I wouldn’t be able to eat much at Girl and the Goat, so with that warning in my cap, along with the  letdown that usually accompanies so much buzz, I prepared myself for disappointment, even after waiting two months for our reservation.

Guess what?  I was blown away.  Yes, her menu features Bison Butt and Pork Belly, but it also features 10 truly spectacular vegetable-inspired dishes (I say veg-inspired, because they’re not all vegetarian. Even some of the desserts include pork). The dishes are “small plates” so we ordered 5 to share.

The highlights:

The Chickpea Fritters, though very salty, were a textural delight, served with goat feta and a mix of green and fried chickpeas, along with hazelnut hummus and a yummy red hot sauce.

The Roasted Cauliflower, tossed with mint, lemon juice, pickled peppers, pine nuts and parmesan (I think), was a startlingly fabulous flavor combination.

And my favorite:  the Kabucha Squash Ravioli, tossed in a mushroom ragout with popped capers, raisins, and brussels leaves.   The sauce, perhaps Thai-inspired, was reminiscent of a coconut curry and it almost made me weep.

As you may have guessed, I didn’t eat any animal parts so I’ll have to leave the meat review to my husband.   The point is, my gastro-delight was unhindered by my vegetarianism.  You don’t have to be a meat lover to fall in love with Girl and the Goat; you just have to be a food lover.  Plus, my herbivorous ways mean there’s more snout for all of you!

he said:

Of all the restaurants where we’ve eaten in the year and a half since I’ve been here, G&TG (acronyms!) is probably the most hyped. We’d heard good things, but also comments like, “Oh, it’s not as her good first restaurant, this is just a chance to cash in on her fame since she won Top Chef.”

To all those people I say,

“Stop hating.”

There is almost nothing to complain about at G&TG. I have one quibble, which I’ll get to in a bit. But first, spare me a moment while I list what I loved:

The dark, large interior that reminded me of a loft. The blackened wood wall, looking like the survivor of a barn fire, that cut the dining room in two. The open view into the bustling kitchen. Our great waitress, who was so friendly I added her as a Facebook friend right there on my phone (not true, but our waitress rocked). The fact that they source their food from local farms. Loved all of it.

And oh my god, the soundtrack. The music in the background was like they tapped into my iPod. Maybe they took a peek at my playlist when I took my phone out to friend our waitress (still not true).  Classic rock, mixed with modern rock, Americana and folk. The wife and I caught ourselves mouthing the words to some of our favorites.

Comfortably creative

On to the food, specifically the meat. This is the only part I didn’t love (my quibble, as promised). I really, really liked it…which is great and puts this restaurant in the Top 5% of places I’ve eaten. But there wasn’t that eye-opening, surprising, wow-moment when I popped a bite into my mouth. The kitchen is doing something inventive with traditional comfort food tastes, and that’s a big task. Inventive and traditional are awkward bedfellows, despite the fact that more and more restaurants are trying to pair them.

I love their creativity and what they’re trying to accomplish. But I only really, really liked their food.

Beyond the veggie dishes, which I enjoyed a lot, I had the Goat T-bones and the Pig Face. The T-bones actually reminded me of buffalo wings. They’re much smaller than a T-bone steak, and I was told to eat them with my hands. They’re perfectly cooked, with a spicy barbecue sauce that gives them a little kick. Fun, tasty and just as messy as wings.

The Pig Face came recommended. Delicious and decadent with all the pork fat and a fried egg on top. It was cooked crispy, then softened by the fat and drizzled with caramel that was a sweet counter to the savoriness of the pork. It came really close to a wow moment, but was so rich that the whole plate was a bit much for one person. Get this dish if you go, but try to share it.

I was hoping to be blown away by the food, and it came up a bit short. But maybe I should appreciate the fact that this restaurant had me asking for Pig Face and I wasn’t making a bad joke. I’m kind of blown away by that.

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Irazu, Bucktown

March 9th, 2011

she said:

We spent half of our honeymoon on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica so when our friend Laura asked us to meet her at Irazu for some Costa Rican cuisine, we were pretty excited.  We arrived at the small, bustling Irazu on a Saturday night and were told we’d have a table in thirty minutes.  Not bad, but after waiting outside in the cold drizzle for over an hour, our enthusiasm wasn’t the only thing that had been dampened.

Enter Omar, our waiter, whose personality was as large as his physique and whose booming apologies were backed up by several complimentary snacks, including black beans and plantains splashed with spoonfuls of Lizano salsa.  Lizano salsa, by the by, is a spicy sweet Costa Rican sauce made with onions, carrots, cauliflower and cucumber.  Although it’s ubiquitous in Costa Rica, it’s uncommon here.  Within five minutes of sitting down, I’d forgiven the long wait.  I knew why the place was so packed, and why nobody wanted to leave.

We started with a combo order of empanadas (cheese, black bean, spinach, zucchini and plantain, if you must know), which were very tasty, especially when topped with pico de gallo.  For dinner, I ordered the “award winning” vegetarian burrito, which was straightforward and delicious, stuffed with occasional hot peppers that nearly burned my lips off my face.  I love plantains so I ordered them on the side; they arrived in a perfect combination of goo and crisp.

It’d be a shame to leave Irazu without trying one of their trademark Aveno (oatmeal) shakes.  I tasted the fresa (strawberry) and the chocolate and I haven’t stopped thinking about them since.  In addition to being uniquely scrumptious, they also come in handy as cooling remedies when you think you might have to be hospitalized for the relentless burn that’s spread from your lips, through your cheeks and is now tingling its way into your sweating scalp.  (I’m exaggerating.  They’re just peppers, but if you don’t like crying, you may want to avoid them).

Icing on the cake?  Irazu is BYOB.  At the end of the day, we didn’t pay more than $10 per person, if that.

In Costa Rica, you can’t walk down a street without hearing or reading the phrase, “Pura Vida.”  It’s on menus and t-shirts.  It’s painted onto the sides of buildings and etched into cliffside rock.  Pura Vida can mean hello and goodbye, thank you and you’re welcome.  It can express wonder or satisfaction, best wishes or respect.  In Spanish, it translates (though backwards) to Pure Life, but it means something closer to Good Life.  It’s an affirmation that this moment, experience, taste, smell, sight, person, friendship, interaction, etc, is real and true and….. well, good.

Pura Vida is not the same thing as the sweet life.  It’s simpler than that, and more humble.  You can get a taste of it at Irazu.

he said:

I think my wife undersold just how miserable the wait was. About the last thing on my mind as we were standing outside this little restaurant was the warmth and beauty of our honeymoon. It was cold, it was wet, we had to stand near a group of louts who arrived after us, only to realize that this loud, obnoxious group had deposited one person there earlier who had put their name in, so they got to go in ahead of us while we watched them from outside as they warmed up and enjoyed the delicious food and their insipid conversation.

In fact, by the time I finally made it inside, I wanted to smack the Costa Rican rainforest in the face (much like it had smacked my wife in the face when we went ziplining, though that’s a story for another time). But she was right. Omar was the best. The food was amazing. All was forgiven before the feeling returned to my toes.

Costa Ricago Favorite

I’d read online that Irazu had wonderful sandwiches. I hadn’t tried a Costa Rican sandwich when I was in Costa Rica, but they’d received such glowing reviews that I wanted to give it a go. After having one, I’m ready for another trip down south to compare Irazu’s to the originals. And that’s setting the bar pretty high for that small country, I have to say.

I had the Pepito Sandwich, which was described as a Chicago favorite. I opted for the ribeye, and added the hot peppers, cheese and avocado. When you’re starting with a sandwich for $4.95*, why not add a few delicious things on top?

*I rarely mention price on this blog, but this is one of the best values I’ve ever had at a restaurant. I’d have paid three times that for this sandwich.

The steak in the sandwich was amazing, good enough to eat by itself. And the beans and Lizano sauce complimented it perfectly.

As we left, I noticed that Irazu has a pretty generous delivery area. It won’t deliver to our house, but it would deliver to my work, so I’m thinking about impressing my coworkers with some delicious delivery one of these days. At the very least, I know that I won’t have to wait in the cold and the rain.

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Chicago Brauhaus, Lincoln Square

January 23rd, 2011

she said:

Eating at the Brauhaus is kind of like being a guest at the Madhatter’s tea party held in the middle of a giant cuckoo clock.  And also, inevitably, you’re drunk.  While we were there, the live band played Happy Birthday about 45 times and each time, the entire place sang along with undiminished enthusiasm, their huge glass steins swaying precariously overhead.

A little background: Lincoln Square is a quaint Chicago community that was originally settled by German immigrants whose heritage is still evident in the handful of German bars in the area, as well as the biannual festivals (which are, by the way, a blast despite -or maybe because of- the debauchery).  In case you’re wondering, my favorite Lincoln Square German bar is the low key and admittedly crappy (but charming) Hansa Clipper, which is nothing like the bustling Brauhaus.

Brauhaus is a destination, much like Munich’s Hofbräuhaus (and nothing like Chicago’s whitewashed version).  You go for the kitsch… for the polka and the lederhosen and the boots full of beer. Basically, it’s nonstop Oktoberfest.  The menu features traditional German dishes like bratwurst, schnitzel and sauerbraten.  In other words, it is, like most Bavarian fare, a sausage fest.  Vegetarians should not come hungry. Brauhaus does serve delicious hot pretzels, served with hot German mustard and horseradish and, if you ask nicely (it’s not on the menu) a vegetarian main course, which is basically just spätzle (egg pasta mini-dumplings) with a variety of cabbage-themed sides.  Driven by desperation, I ordered the jalapeno poppers.  Why these are on the menu, I do not know.  My advice: stick to the German standards.

Other than that, I’ll leave the food recommendations to my husband since my choices were limited.  I’m interested to see what he remembers after his boot full of Spaten.

My advice is to enjoy the Brauhaus for the fun-filled spectacle that it is.  Don’t take yourself too seriously – just grab a something-wurst, wash it down with a uberstein and get your polka on.  Prost!

he said:

I would like to revisit a point my dear wife made in her post that I feel she didn’t give enough attention. Namely, I finished a boot of Spaten. Or as John Travolta might say, as he did in Pulp Fiction, “And I ain’t talking about no paper cup, I’m talking about a glass (boot) of beer.”

The boot is huge, probably three times the size of one of their steins. And I should know, because I finished one stein before I decided that the boot was a good idea. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but with grit and determination, I finished that bootofbeer (that’s right, one word). It’s quite an accomplishment. In fact, I’d dare say it was my greatest accomplishment of 2010.

And I got married this past year.

So you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t have a lot to say about my meal. With all the excitement about the bootofbeer, there just that wasn’t much to remember about my meal. I had the Kohlroulade, which is a cabbage stuffed with ground pork, beef and veal. It wasn’t bad, just very bland.

But it isn’t about the food, it’s about the experience. And with the polka music, the festive decor, and the bootsofbeer, I’ll definitely go back. In fact, I already did. The next day I made a trip to see if I’d left my credit card there.

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Jin Ju, Andersonville

December 14th, 2010

he said:

The problem with food these days is that there is just no danger. In days of yore, going out to eat meant risking the tusks of a mastodon. These days, dining danger is pretty much limited to a steak knife falling into your lap.

But that’s not the case with Korean food. Entering a Korean restaurant is like playing a real life game of hot potato. From the barbecue pit right in the middle of your table to magma-hot bowls of food, you should feel more nervous than a hog-tied steer on branding day.

Now that’s what I call an entertaining meal.

Hot Pots

Which brings me to Jin Ju in Andersonville. Korean food is a favorite of mine, and I was surprised that my wife had never eaten there. It seems like one of the few places in our neighborhood where she hasn’t been.

My favorite Korean dish is dol sot bi bim bap, a mixture of rice, beef, beans sprouts, spinach, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, shredded radish, green leaf lettuce, fried egg and a spicy red pepper paste sauce, served in a sizzling  bowl.

It’s plopped down in front of you, you mix it up with your chopsticks, and everything cooks  together. The hot bowl brings it all to a tasty state of golden, brown and delicious. My favorite part is the slightly charred rice that’s spent too much time at the bottom. It’s hard and crunchy, almost a fried taste, unlike any rice I’ve found elsewhere.

Less sizzle, more taste

Before I forget, let me get to the non-sizzling part of the meal. We started with the kim chee pajun, which is a fried scallion pancake with kim chee in it. Holy crap. So good. Would have been happy if the meal ended right then and there.

Our meals came with traditional Korean sides, including kim chee, which is another reason I love Korean cuisine. I don’t know what all these little dishes are called, but I find them all so tasty. Most of them feature a sharp, fresh taste from the vegetables, with a hotness to  balance out the flavor.

Jin Ju is spare and dark, making for a strange empty dance-club-like atmosphere on a Monday evening. But whatever, the service was great and the food was good, so I don’t mind. Plus, they have Korean beers! I tried an OB and a Hite, both firsts for me. Granted, they tasted a lot like a Miller Lite.

I’m so excited that this place is in our hoody. And the extra fried egg on top is that there’s one place in the neighborhood that I can claim to have introduced my wife to.

she said:

A hog-tied steer, eh?  Oddly, when I’m looking for a good dining experience,  I usually don’t think about danger.  Ambience?  Yep.  Delicious menu?  For sure.  Danger? Not so much, although  sometimes I get it anyway   (see purse fire / Otom post).

For years, I’ve associated Korean food with heavy meat eating (which is kinda dangerous, right?)  and have, therefore, shied away from it.  What a crying shame.  As it turns out, if Jin Ju is an accurate representation (and it very well may not be), there’s a whole lot I can eat.  Unlike my husband, I’m somewhat unfamiliar with Korean cuisine.  Here’s what I know to be true:

  1. There are usually a lot of sides.
  2. The most popular dish is bi bim bop, which is fun to eat and even more fun to say.  I like to wiggle my hips as I do so (as I say it, not as I eat it).
  3. A lot of the food, especially veggies, are fermented so they taste tangy and pickley and spicy all at once.

Bi Bim Bop, courtesy of iFood

About the whole fermentation thing.  I disagree that fermented veggies taste fresh.  Sharp, yes.  Fresh, no. The truth is, I don’t really like kim chee, which I know is downright sinful according to most Korean-food lovers, but I think fermented things taste, well, like they’ve been fermented.  And that’s the opposite of fresh.

No matter.  My san chae bi bim bop (which you can say with hip motion or while playing a set of air drums),  featured the same ingredients he listed above, minus the beef, and was incredible.  The fried pancake appetizer was one of the most flavorful dishes I’ve ever had.  For serious.

I enjoyed the hip (used as an adjective this time) minimalism and low-light.  I also enjoyed our waiter, who inexplicably placed his hand on my shoulder each time he addressed me.

Oh, and Jin Ju serves lychee martinis, which I loooove.  The flesh of a lychee fruit, in case you don’t know, is translucent and white and oh-so-sweet.  I couldn’t taste a trace of alcohol in my tini, which could be dangerous, but the sweetness was a wonderful counterbalance to my spicy dish and the booze (there must have been some in there, after all) helped make the shoulder touching a little less awkward.

Jin Ju will probably become a regular spot for us and I guarantee that each time we go, a certain somebody will remind me that he discovered it, which could get dangerous.

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Acre, Andersonville

November 23rd, 2010

Photo courtesy of Urban Daddy

he said:

It seemed to happen overnight.  Charlie’s Ale House turned into Acre.  Charlie’s had been a quiet Andersonville mainstay for a long time. People seemed to like it, despite its quasi-Applebee’s atmosphere and menu.   But let’s not dwell on the past.

Thankfully, the new owners left the antique bar and beautiful old light fixtures. As near as I can tell, they didn’t do much to the interior, other than take down some decorations and slap some gray paint on the walls. It has a similar feel, though it’s  a bit more austere than good old Charlie’s.

As it turns out, the new owners aren’t exactly new.  The fine folks behind Anteprima are in charge now. What I didn’t know until I read this article was that they owned Charlie’s all along. Apparently, they’re just updating things and bringing over the chef from Anteprima to enliven the menu.

Acre is split into two restaurants. The Tap Room and the Dining Room have two completely different menus, and separate kitchens.  On one side: upscale pub grub and flat-screen TVs. On the other: American gourmet, fireplaces and artwork.  You can’t order from the Dining Room menu if you’re eating in the Tap Room, and vice versa.

The Tap Room

The beer menu is awesome. Not Hopleaf awesome, but there’s thirty beers on taps and a plethora of bottles. Our meal started with the baked feta, which was really good. Creamy and a bit tart, with a texture of cottage cheese.

Things went downhill fast when we got to the main dish. I ordered the turkey pastrami, and was kicking myself for not going with the burger.  Having lived in New York City, I  expect a pastrami sandwich to be loaded with artery-clogging goodness. What landed in front of me had as much girth as a PB&J. There were two slices of turkey pastrami between the bread. Seriously–two fricking slices. It tasted bland, and everything else on the sandwich overpowered the meat. My imaginary Jewish grandmother would be appalled.

The Dining Room

Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall…

Much better experience. If this was one of those old westerns, where the sheriff draws a line in the sand and says “which side are you on?”, I’d go with the Dining Room. Even though there are no flat screen TVs showing sporting events.

Here, I ordered the Amish chicken breast, and it was perfect. Tender and juicy, perfectly seasoned, and with one of the crispiest, tastiest skins I’ve ever had. I can’t say enough.

And the service matched the food. Whereas in the Tap Room, I’d label the staff as a little “unconcerned,” in the Dining Room, our waiter was attentive and knowledgeable.

I’ve never been to a place with a split personality, but I’d say Acre has one. Good and bad, fine dining and pub grub, delicious and disappointing. It’s hard to know what to make of this place.

There’s definitely enough potential here to warrant many return trips.  I hope they figure out a more consistent approach.   I feel like the neighborhood has traded a bedrock institution for something with more promise, but also more frustration. Each time I go, I’ll be hoping for the former, but preparing myself for the latter.

she said:

He’s right, Acre does seem a tad schizo with its two-restaurants-in-one approach.  My hunch: they’re hedging their bets with Charlie’s devotees.  The Tap Room menu is way more sophisticated than Charlie’s menu, but it hasn’t lost its hearty comfort-food appeal or its reasonable prices.  I was a huge fan of that feta dish he mentioned, but it wasn’t on the menu the last time we visited.  The selection changes daily, depending on what’s in season.  A good thing, no doubt, but be careful with your heart and don’t get too attached.

While I’m all about swapping fish sticks for oysters on the half-shell (which are actually on the menu), my sense is that the Tap Room is still finding its sea legs.  In addition to shabby service, my vegetarian mac and cheese came sprinkled with bacon bits, but there were so few that I’m pretty sure they caught their mistake and tried to remove the the evidence.  I’m on to you, Tap Room.  Like a hawk.  Oh also, when the waiter took my dish away, he dropped the cheesy spoon onto my dress.  Accidents happen, but the dish should have been taken off the bill.

The Dining Room has its act together, though.  I had the turnip graten and the celery root risotto.  Both were divine and both came topped with a hard-boiled quail egg, a fact for which I have no explanation.  The decor is rustic and modern (don’t listen to my guy; it’s changed drastically), with tractor seats and wagon wheels on the walls.

We’ve been to Acre three times since it opened up a month ago.  I forgave the mac and cheese incident and am very excited about our new neighbor.   Don’t get me wrong, Charlie’s was alright, I guess, but – sorry, Charlie – Acre is just so much cooler.

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