Posts Tagged ‘macaroni and cheese’

Magnolia Cafe, Uptown

Thursday, 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.

Acre, Andersonville

Tuesday, 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.

Jerry’s Sandwiches, Wicker Park

Friday, July 16th, 2010

he said:

If you’re planning to go to Jerry’s, I hope you like reading. Obviously, you’re reading this blog right now, so you don’t have an issue with the activity… at least not yet.   We’ll see how you feel by the end of this post.

Wait, what was I saying? Oh yeah, reading.  Do you like it?

Which is an annoying way to say that Jerry’s has a long, meandering menu.  By the time I’d read a quarter of the items, I was more confused than hungry, but once I saw the Buffalo Chicken sandwich, I knew was going to put this tedious enterprise to a rest and go with a classic.

A gourmet’s concert hall or a music lover’s dream diner?

Maybe I should back up here and give some background. We were watching our friend’s band play. They have a standing gig on Tuesdays at Jerry’s, but they used to play at a bar in Rogers Park every week. So I went in expecting a similar scene: darkness, few seats, limited food. But Jerry’s is bright, large, with lots of patrons, some completely oblivious to the music that’s about to start, others there solely for the show.   

Once you see the menu, there’s no doubt in your mind–Jerry’s is a full on restaurant. On the other hand, with its high ceiling, large stage, and great musical lineup, you might even say it’s a venue.

So let’s just call it: A venue with a menu.

(Give me one second, I’m patting myself on the back for that clever piece of wordplay.)

(Okay, I’m back.)

Buffalo Chicken to the rescue

Back to my meal. Like I said, I went with a classic, buffalo chicken sandwich. Pedestrian, I know, but I was awash in a sea of protein-packed-between-two-slices-of-bread and I needed to hold on to the one thing I knew, a life preserver of delicious, delicious spicy chicken. And I’m glad I did.

This version of the buffalo chicken sandwich is one of the best I’ve ever had. Nice and crispy, good heat on the spice, not too much bleu cheese dressing. These are the elements of a good buffalo chicken sandwich and Jerry’s has them all, stacked in a spicy medley. (You can tell when I get poetic about a sandwich, I really liked it.)

The sides were great too. I had their great homemade potato chips and a Thai cucumber salad, which did the job. And by “job” I’m referring to making me feel a little better about eating the huge sandwich and chips, washed down by a few hearty beers.

So despite the fact I almost choked on the menu, Jerry’s has proven to me they can get a classic right. I can’t wait to go back and get a little more adventurous with my meal selection. Oh, and the music was superb.

So there you go: good food, good tunes … These are two of my three favorite things.  Now if only I had something to read…

she said:

I admit that ordering at Jerry’s felt a tad like taking a pop quiz.  There are hundreds of sandwiches, 200 American craft beers, 32 condiments, 9 types of bread, dozens of sides.  The menu is only slightly less confusing then the check, which required six adults to study before we finally gave up and split it evenly.  I felt worse for our waitress, who had to shepherd us through the entire process like a bunch of idiot sheep. 

Oh well.  These are itty-bitty complaints and my overall experience at Jerry’s was two thumbs up.  I love hot sandwiches, especially delicious ones, and one of my favorite Chicago bands was bluegrassing it up, making for a very lively and upbeat time.

I ordered the Fried Tofu sandwich, which came on toasty dark rye with a thick slice of Louisiana-style tofu, avocado, cilantro, jalapeno, cheddar and a thin schmear of salsa.   For my sides, I also enjoyed the savory-sweet Thai cucumber salad and the macaroni and cheese, which is blended with a creamy medley of Gouda, swiss, cheddar and ginger (yes, ginger).  I also sampled the Fried Green Tomato sandwich (yum!) and the Jenny F, which is a cold sandwich with avocado, grilled veggies, mozzarella and southwest mayo.  Not my favorite – cold grilled vegetables have never rubbed me the right way – but still good.

When we arrived, our friends had ordered the beer cheese plate, which is served with pretzels and pita.  Needless to say, it was delectable.  In case I’m ever on death row and you’re in charge of bringing me my last meal, hear me now: Let it be beer cheese and pretzels.

Should you need more convincing, Jerry’s also serves milkshakes.  I ordered a chocolate-banana one for my pregnant friend and detected a smile surrounding the large shake-filled straw.

Otom, Fulton Market

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

she says:

After our incredible experience at Moto, we decided to check out its sibling restaurant and next door neighbor, Otom, for our anniversary.

When we first arrived, I thought it would be a perfect place to take my girlfriends who are traveling to Chicago next weekend for my bachelorette soiree.  The space is chic and ultra-contemporary, with bare brick walls and white wood floors.  The starkness is offset with large striped curtains and orange chairs that reminded me of Tetris blocks.  Fabulous cocktails enhance the trendy feel and the prices are reasonable for an upscale restaurant in the warehouse district.

They’re doing a lot of things right at Otom…

  1. The Pale Moon martini, made with vodka, lychee syrup, house sour and vanilla bitters, was delicious.
  2. The butter changes daily.  Our warm bread came with truffle honey butter that nearly took my breath away.
  3. The Forager’s Plate, which is their vegetarian entrée, was quite impressive.  It also changes daily; mine was a risotto cake served with grilled baby portabellas, fiddleheads* and a variety of accompanying greens, flavored with what tasted like a sesame-based reduction.
  4.  The presentation was as artful as the interior design.

But, I was much less impressed with:

  1. The “mac and cheese” (quotation marks theirs and well-deserved) – made with trofie pasta, béchamel and peas – was bland and dry.
  2. The gnocchi in the German potato salad appetizer was so doughy that I wondered if they’d forgotten to cook it.
  3. The wait between courses and drinks was inexcusable, not that they even tried to excuse it.

Also, I must share this anecdote and warning.  Don’t put your purse on the floor. Find a way to hang it on the weird cubey chairs.  A light in the floor burned my purse so badly that the bottom peeled off and when I picked it up, it skimmed my foot and resulted in a blister.  I’m not making this up.  When we told the staff, they apologized but offered nothing to compensate for the ruined bag and seared foot.   A different kind of person would take advantage of this liability. Me?  I just blog about it.

Anyway, I may not subject my bachelorette party to Otom, but I probably will go back some time.   The good parts were excellent and I learned from my experience to avoid their botched pasta interpretations.   As for the long waits, maybe they were having a bad night.  I’ll give them another chance.  If they do me wrong again, I’ll simply place my bag on the floor lighting and stay an extra hour.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, purse fire.  That’s what I always say.

* What are fiddleheads?  They’re the adorable and tasty unfurled fronds of young fern. They look like this:

Cute, right?

he said:

I’m on a bit of an unlucky roll here. Just as it happened to me at Anteprima, I got my hopes up about Otom and was let down. However, to be fair, I would consider Anteprima to be in the ”Oh well, my expectations were too high” letdown category. Otom, for me, was in “What’s that Lassie, Otom fell down a well?” letdown category.

Going in, I was under the impression that as Moto’s sister restaurant, Otom was run by the same chef, Homaro Cantu. I thought Otom may be the cheaper bistro version of that molecular gastronomic delight. It was not, and Cantu apparently has nothing to do with this place.

That misconception is my fault, not the restaurant’s. But I don’t want you going in with the same idea.

I found the menu to be slight, and the food to be uninspired. Unlike my lovely fiance, I liked the German potato salad gnocchi, though the texture was odd. My smoked pork chop was just boring. And the mac and cheese wasn’t even worth finishing.

So, if the lady wants to try it again, I’m not sure who she’ll go with. I have no interest in going back.

Sorry that this post is so short, but like the menu, Otom left me uninspired.

Smith and Wollensky, The Loop

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

she said:

Smith and Wollensky Steakhouse.  Not my obvious choice for an evening out, seeing as I don’t eat meat and I don’t really dig chain restaurants, even fancy ones.  Believe it or not, this was my choice, not his.  About a year ago, my dad and brother were in town.  My brother’s a quarterback and my dad, well, he just likes cooked animals.  I didn’t know what to do with these strapping bucks, but when I saw that their hotel happened to be right on the river, next door to Smith and Wollensky, I figured, why not?  It turned out to be a perfect choice.  It was a gorgeous night so we sat outside.  Right on cue, the moment we were seated, an elaborate fireworks display began.  The Chicago River mirrored the brilliant lights.  My brother, looking wistful, said, “You’re so lucky.  Is this what Chicago’s always like?”  “Yes,” I replied.  “Yes, it is.”

But what can I eat at “America’s steakhouse,” you ask?  I’ll tell you what.  Mac. And. Cheese.  I’m not hard to please when it comes to cheesy pasta, but I’d kill a man for the stuff they dish up.  It’s sprinkled with white truffle oil and is, actually, the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had.  No kidding.

And the bread.  It comes in the container in which it’s baked and it’s all warm and buttery and soft and oh so good.  And the creamed spinach.  How I loved thee.

Okay, so my meal was two sides and some free bread.  So what?  I’m a cheap date.

he said:

Alright, I know her brother. No way he asked that question, looking wistful. Wistful isn’t a word I’d use to describe him, no matter how many fireworks were popping overhead. I can see him saying, “This is cool.”

A little less than a cathedral

Anyway, I’m lucky that my vegetarian girlfriend doesn’t mind me tearing into some medium rare red meat. When she suggested this place I was surprised. Smith & Wollensky has those annoying commercials with the tag line “If steak were a religion, this would be its cathedral.”

That line is memorable, and as an “ad man,” I have to say it’s a bit of an overpromise. First thing I think when I think of cathedral is high ceilings, not the drop ceiling that this place had. Take out the thick steak and great service, and we could have been sitting in a hotel continental breakfast.

Highly expected steak

The steak was thick, not the best I’ve ever had, but well prepared and tasty. Really, you can’t go wrong with steak. I think I was expecting a ten, so when I got a 7, it was like a negative 3 experience.

But, to spend some time with my beautiful girlfriend is always a ten. And to share a meal in the steak’s cathedral with her, well, that’s just more than I expected.

Hophaus, Rogers Park

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

he said:

As you may know,  I’m fairly new to Chicago. That means I’m not a Bears fan.

(audible gasp)

I know, I know. But really, with the way they’ve played this year, can you blame me? No, I’m a Bengals fan. And I’m trying to convince my beautiful girlfriend to bleed Bengal black and orange. This year, it hasn’t been hard. The Bengals are clearly superior, as evidenced by their 45-10 drubbing of the Bears. No, the hardest part has been finding the Bengals game on TV.

Which brings us to Hophaus. We’d heard a rumor that you could watch any NFL game on Sundays, but that’s the only thing we’d heard. So when we went to the game one Sunday recently, we were simply hoping to watch the game and maybe have a beer or seven. (Well, maybe just me. She’s always looking for a fine culinary experience.) So we were surprised when we loved the menu and, well, pretty much everything about Hophaus.

Great, Patient Service

We walk into this huge pub, and I knew we were in a great place when I see a huge mural of sports figures. Not just Chicago sports figures, though I do believe I remember seeing Ditka in there.  I think Pete Rose was in it as well, so I liked my chances for a Bengal victory. Or at least seeing the game.

We told the hostess that we wanted to watch the Bengals game, and she put us in a spot that didn’t have a great view of the game. So we asked our waiter if we could move to another table. Oh, and could they put it on another TV? Great, thanks.

Oh wait, this table of softball players is leaving and we just heard we have more friends coming? You don’t mind if we move, right?

We may have been the most annoying table on that particular Sunday, but our waiter, David, was really cool about it. He even put the game on a couple more TVs for us.

Book Length Menu

I always worry when we go into this sort of situation, for my girlfriends sake, that everything on the menu will have some sort of meat in it. Like every dip is made with a chicken broth, or they put bacon fat on toast instead of butter, and beef chili on top of their portobello mushroom sandwich. But as we looked through the menu, we realized everything looked good, and it seemed like 1/3 of the menu was vegetarian.

I started things off with bloody mary, which was good. We then shared a spinach and artichoke dip, also good. Then things got interesting.

I ordered a breakfast pizza, from their extensive selection of breakfast pizzas. I was amazed, I’ve never seen an extensive collections of breakfast pizzas. That’s like the marriage of two of my favorite things. I had a spicy chipotle pizza, with spicy chorizo and covered in a thin layer of scrambled eggs and topped with a chipotle sauce. It was delicious. It was also a lot of food, but so worth it.

Oh, and the Bengals won.

she said:

I admit, I was shocked at how much I enjoyed Hop Haus.  I mean, it’s a sports bar that touts a selection of 24 burgers, many of which are made with creatures like ostrich and wild boar.  Not my cup of tea.  Or so I thought.  They actually have an incredibly impressive selection of vegetarian and vegan options.  Now, don’t get me wrong, you’re not gonna get a plate of steamed rice and raw veggies.  Almost everything on the menu is decadent.  For example, the macaroni and cheese I ordered, pictured to the right, was ridiculous, even by my standards.  Already a cheesy mess, it was topped with a slab of Velveeta-like cheese that I definitely could have done without.  Overall, though, this place rocks.  There is absolutely something for everybody.  In summary, go Bengals.