Posts Tagged ‘service’

Irazu, Bucktown

Wednesday, 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.

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.

Big Jones, Andersonville

Monday, March 1st, 2010

he said:

Big Jones is a “Coastal Southern Cuisine” place on Clark Street in Andersonville. We recently ate there with friends on a Friday night. Both Gal and I have had the brunch there, so we were looking forward to the dinner. I would write a bit about the brunch, but I want to go back for more. So I’m going to say I don’t remember and I need a refresher.

Anyway, the dinner. Well, for one thing, the décor doesn’t quite match the menu, in my mind. Inside is a nice, formal, modern dining room. Stylish wall sconces and matching chandeliers. (Actually, watch your head with those wall sconces if you sit in front of them. Seriously. There’s no clearance between the table and the hanging ball of head bonk.) It seems too fancy to go with my gumbo, which to me is a down home meal.

Great Gumbo

I started with crab cakes, which were alright but relied too much on veggies in the patty. Not the best starter–that would have been the gumbo.

The gumbo is wonderful. Mildly spicy sausage melds with the other flavors in a pleasing tomato broth. The rice comes on the side, so I’d take a spoonful of rice, dunk it in the gumbo and be rewarded with a varied mouthful of flavor. Keeping the rice on the side made its taste more distinct, so it was a good base to add the gumbo taste to.

It was the highlight of my meal. I ordered it as a starter, but next time I’m back I’ll order the entrée. Seriously, it was great.

Benne Crusted Chicken

The benne crusted chicken I ordered as an entrée paled in comparison. The benne seemed to be sesame seeds on the chicken, and they provided a nice crisp skin. The polenta bed in beef broth was just alright.

I enjoyed it, and would love to go back for more gumbo.

she said:

Thank God for the gumbo, because although it physically hurts me to talk smack about restaurants in my neighborhood, I feel obliged to say that I was pretty disappointed.  Going there was my choice, which makes it even worse.

The main issue was the service.  Now, I worked in the food industry for years so I’m one of those people who tips 20% even when the food arrives cold and I actually saw the server spit in it.  The night we were there, however, we watched all the tables around us receive delicious looking corn bread baskets while we sat salivating for, literally, an hour.  I mentioned it several times to the staff.  No response.  Maybe the oven shut down.  Maybe there’s a national corn shortage.  I’d have been okay had someone communicated with us, but as it was, by the time our meals actually arrived, we’d been sitting there for almost two hours with no explanation.

To make matters worse, my veggie terrine appetizer was a mound of goat cheese and my Reezy Peezy entree (a pretty version of beans and rice) was bland and sandy.  Nobody at our table was overjoyed with what they got.

HOWEVER, before you disregard Big Jones, I must tell you that brunch there is absolutely delightful.  Delicious sugared beignets, fresh dark coffee and an array of truly noteworthy brunch options.  My favorite: the eggs benedict, ham replaced by fried green tomatoes.

I must also say that they serve tasty cocktails.  To allay my hunger, I helped myself to a couple Charleston Mules, which is made with tea vodka and ginger beer.  I love anything made with ginger beer.

Summary: Check out the brunch.  Skip the dinner.  If you must dine, drink.

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.

Moto, Fulton Market

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

she said:

I first heard about Moto and Chef Homaro Cantu at the Museum of Science and Industry, where there was an exhibit called something like, “The Future is Now.”  The exhibit included video of Cantu making sushi with an inkjet printer and pulling other crazy sciencey stunts that I’m just not smart enough to recall.   I’ll admit, nitroglycerin infused fig bubble* doesn’t exactly make my tummy rumble, but I was totally fascinated.

I recently had a chance to check out Cantu’s edible experiments first hand when we went to Moto for my birthday.  Somewhere in-between the fourth and ninth courses, Guy said, “Ya know, this feels more like a magic show than a dinner.”  I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Imagine how you’d approach food if you developed sudden semi-amnesia.  The first course (after the edible menu), for example, looks exactly like a mini-breakfast, complete with scrambled eggs, an English muffin and hash browns.  So you think, hey wait a minute!  I remember breakfast.  You don’t.  The eggs are some kind of orange meringue thing, the muffin is garlic foam with a swab of cornmeal on top to resemble butter and the potatoes are, I think, scallops.

A sugar cube might be dehydrated truffle. Paper might be garlic bread. Cigar ash might be sesame.  Don’t trust your eyes.  Is it postmodern?  Metacuisine?  Not really sure, but it’s a total adventure.  Oh, and it tastes good.

Since Moto, Guy and I play a fun game where I pick an object – any object (a calculator, a necklace,  a cat) and present it to him , announcing the name of a popular food or dish.  For example, I might pick up a piece of dirty glass from the sidewalk, turn to him, and say, with gusto, “Brownie!”  It’s a hoot.

*Nitroglycerin infused fig bubble is not an actual dish.  You shouldn’t try to make it.  Figs are gross.

he said:

Not only do we both love going on adventures to new restaurants, but we’ve been talking about Moto for almost as long as we’ve been talking to each other. So it seemed like the perfect gift.

And I think it was. Actually, I know it was.

Eating at Moto was an experience that we will remember for the rest of our lives. It was our first birthday together, but more than that, it was a singular experience, unlike anything I’ve written about before.
Molecular Gastronomy

Moto is part of the food movement called molecular gastronomy, which according to wikipedia “is a scientific discipline that studies the physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking.” But that makes it seem like a scientific meal. As Gal said, I think it’s more correct to say that it was like a magic show.

Here’s video of Cantu talking about how he makes his magic. Not one thing that he makes in this video was on the menu the night we went, which makes me want to go back all the more.
A Unique Experience In Every Way

 I’d recommend this restaurant a hundred times over. The staff was extremely attentive and helpful, without hovering or being overly involved. They knew so much about the food, as though they prepared it.

I’m sure if you’ve read this far, you’ve gotten an idea that it’s a pricy meal. If this was Yelp, we’d have $$$$ next to the name. But I’d say it is definitely something worth doing on the most special of occasions, like celebrating the birthday of the woman you love.  Just be prepared to fork over some loot… and then perhaps eat the fork.

Overall, it was the best dining experience I’ve ever had, thanks in no small part to my dining companion.

Antica Pizzeria, Edgewater

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

she said:

Gotta start somewhere, so why not down the street at our neighborhood pizza joint, Antica Pizzeria? I find myself dining at this peach of an eatery a few times a month, sometimes with Guy, sometimes with girlfriends. So, far I’ve never been disappointed. First of all, Mario (pictured right), the owner is awesome. I get the old one, two, Ciao, Bella! double cheek kiss every time I walk through the door. It’s BYOB, which always scores points in my book (though I might advise that you pick up a bottle or three on your way – the place across the street, though convenient, has a pretty limited selection). Half the time I go there, I end up sharing drinks with the tables around me like we’re all a big Italian family. It’s a warm and fuzzy neighborhood place and when I’m there, I feel like part of the community. A single tear trickles down my face. Seriously though, check it out. They’ll make room for you. Mario might even join you for a glass of wine. He prefers red.

Oh, and while you’re there, might I make a few recommendations? There’s no shortage of accolades for the Neapolitan style pizza. In case you’re not familiar, that’s the kind that’s cooked in a wood burning oven. The crust is thin and crisp. Each pizza is intended to serve one, but feel free to share. Parma is my favorite – I replace the prosciutto for capers, though generally Mario isn’t a big fan of substitutions. The bruschetta is also surprisingly tasty. I never order bruschetta (I think I overdosed in the 90′s), but Mario dropped a plate off for free and – hot damn – it’s really good. Like much of the menu, it changes seasonally. And finally, if you like truffle oil (I’d bathe in it if I could), try the Risotto Con Fungi Porcini. Really, I’ve never had a dish I didn’t like. Almost everything is homemade and lots of ingredients are imported from Italy. As with with most Italian places, there are lots of vegetarian offerings. Added bonus: he makes all the soups (so far in my experience) with veggie broth. Go Mario.

he said:

The first thing you notice when you walk in to Antica Pizzeria is the warmth. And that’s not just from the wood burning oven that’s cranking out those pizzas. It’s also the warmth of the owner, Mario, and his staff. Personal service is big here.

Of course, I’m just going through my first Chicago winter now and about the only thing I’m looking for these days is warmth.

Anyways, I’ve only eaten here twice, but I’ve loved it both times. Gal has been countless times, so the staff knows her right when she walks in. I think they look at me with questioning eyes—they love her and want to make sure I’m treating her right. And so I always leave good tips.

Wood Fired Pizzas

I’ve gotten the pizza both times, and both times it’s been great. The crispy crust has hints of the smoke from the wood. The ratio of cheese, sauce and crust is perfect.

The first time, the Quattro Stagioni, cooked with artichoke hearts, olives and mushrooms, then topped with prosciutto di parma. A salty treat, but each slice was a handful.

The second, the good old Pizza Margherita, which was excellent in its simplicity.

Grilled Calamari

The most amazing dish I’ve had so far was the grilled calamari appetizer. I’d never had calamari grilled before, only the fried calamari you get at bar and grilles. I wasn’t sure what to expect, maybe something similar to the rubbery fried rings I knew. I was blown away.

The texture of the meat was similar to the fried stuff, but I’d call it bouncy instead of rubbery. I know that probably sounds weird, but it had a mouth feel that I can only describe as exciting. And without the fried skin, I really tasted the meat, which was very tasty. I recommend this dish.

So I think it’s safe to say that we’ll be back. If not, the staff might come knocking on our doors and drag us back anyway.