Posts Tagged ‘scallops’

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.

Cibo Matto, Downtown Chicago

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

he said:

When we first walked in to Cibo Matto, my friend Joe leaned over and quipped, “This place is pretty trendy right now. Let’s hope it’s good.” I silently agreed.  I don’t know why, but I have an inherent distrust of trendy restaurants. In my mind, when I hear trendy I think, “too much presentation, not enough preparation.”

Cibo Matto is located in the Wit Hotel, below their hyped rooftop bar.  The Gal and I tend to enjoy restaurants that serve up great food in an unpretentious environment, and Cibo Matto, with its dazzling décor, did not seem to fall into this category at first blush.

But I had no need to worry. From the attentive service to the lovingly prepared dishes, this was a great dinner.

Our group started with a round of appetizers. The sea scallops, served on top of a celery root puree,  were tender and fresh, a really good dish even though I don’t like seafood much. The burrata, beet and arugula salad was also really good.

“How’d They Do That?” Grilled Chicken

My main dish was surprising. I ordered Pollo a Griglia, grilled chicken. I figured it would be good because grilled chicken is almost always good. Often forgettable, but good. Cibo Matto’s grilled chicken wasn’t forgettable in the slightest.

The main thing that stands out is how crispy and salty the skin was.  That was balanced by meat that was really tender and moist. Rarely do I find myself wondering how a certain effect was achieved, but I was wondering how the chef pulled off this feat.  I heard a rumor that it’s baked with pancetta.

Don’t Forget Dessert

By the time our entrée dishes were cleared, I thought I was done with surprises. But the desserts had more in store for me. It was a pretty straightforward menu, with gelatos, sorbets and a chocolate tort, but they were all delicious. The honey gelato especially was unlike anything I’d ever had before.

When we left, we weren’t talking about how trendy the restaurant was at all. We were talking about how wonderful our meals were. And how we’d like to come back.

she said:

Cibo Matto means, in Italian, “crazy feast.”* Did our meals live up to the name?  Were they, as promised, crazy?  I suppose not, but I will say this, Cibo Matto is doing something very different with Italian food and I’m pretty damn impressed.

For my entrée, I ordered the Caramelli.  Caramelle, in Italian, means candy.  Caramelle pasta resembles a piece of candy wrapped in plastic.  The one pictured to the right isn’t from Cibo Matto.  Mine was stuffed with burrata cheese, lined up in a row, and tossed in braised  lemon peel, diced asparagus, garlic and olive oil.  It was delightful.  I now will employ a new adjective, one that I’ve never used to describe pasta.  Drumroll, please…My pasta was refreshing.

I also tried the risotto, which was gorgeously buttery and saffrony.

And the desserts.  Oh Lord, the desserts.  We ordered several for the table; it was our dear friend Chrissie’s birthday.  The gelatos and sorbets are homemade.  I second the honey gelato recommendation and would add the bitter chocolate gelato and mint sorbet, but only if you combine them in your mouth.  Think frozen Thin Mint.  The Tutti Frutti, a white mousse dish, was less remarkable.

If you can actually find a place to stand (sitting won’t be possible), have a nightcap on the rooftop bar.  It offers an impressive view of the city.

Both Cibo Matto and the bar have garnered the kind of trendy hype that illicits foodie backlash.  I’ve read a ton of bad reviews and I admit, the whole experience is pretty swanky.  Even the bathroom sinks are hip.  I enjoyed our visit despite of all this because the food was exquisite and inventive.

*I love me some Italian food.  I lived in Italy, for the love of Pete.  However, there are very few Italian dishes that I would define as “crazy,” whether I’m in an American-Italian pizza parlor or an itty-bitty restaurant in Sicily that serves, exclusively, horse.  Often, Italian dishes surprise and delight me.  Rarely are they crazy.  In fact, the only time I’ve used that adjective to describe food was at Moto.