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So, today is Yuki’s birthday. Since she has a conference call with Japan tonight I took her for a nice dinner last night. We found out a while ago that Top Chef Master Marcus Samuelson quietly opened up a place here in Chicago, without much fair. Being fans of what we saw him cook as well as knowing his reputation we went there, C-House, located in the Affinia Hotel.

A real casual place with natural colors, the interior is just what we wanted. It was very comfortable, tables were well spaced, and music was not too loud (they even played some Afrobeat throughout the night, a huge plus in my book). Service was also casual for a fine dining restaurant. It was friendly and professional, but not the slightest bit of pretension. Food was brought at a nice pace as well.

Of course, bread service started off the meal once we ordered. Home-baked cheese bread with butter topped with sea salt. Hard to beat fresh-baked cheese bread.

Yuki started with the Scallops. Two near-perfectly cooked scallops with crab-apple butter, golden raisins, smoked almonds, shaved celery, and pear matchsticks. A nice blend of sweetness and bitterness to start the taste buds off right.

I ordered the Sweetbreads, one of my new favorite cuts of carcass. It was breaded and fried then served with a brown butter, pear matchsticks, and sautéed sweet potatoes and apples. Again, the sweetness on the plate got me ready for more grub.

Yuki’s entrée was the Fish Stew. Arctic char, prawns, leeks, and root vegetables stewed in a Goose Island Matilda and sassy cow cream broth. The beer gave a nice bitterness to the sweet seafood while the parsley garnish brightened it up.

I got the Hanger Steak. I nice bloody rare piece of meat with sautéed kale, carmelized pearl onions, lobster mushrooms and raclette cheese. I have to tell you, that cheese is some funky stuff! My plate smelled like a barnyard, but once I got that first bite in my mouth it turned out to be one delicious barnyard indeed. Bitter kale, sweet onions, earthy mushrooms, and funky cheese…a very well-balanced plate.

We split the Sage Flan for dessert. This was a winner! I’ve never had a savory flan before. The flan itself was perfectly rich, yet light. It was served with baked apples, a smear of cranberry sauce, and a maple-pear sorbet that tasted like cider. The flavors matched perfectly. This was one of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten.

Since it was Yuki’s birthday they brought out a little vanilla cupcake with a raspberry and candle for her. We liked that better than the typical “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate on the dessert plate that most restaurants do. This was a nice little touch.

Overall, the food was great. This was our kind of fine dining. Nothing complex and pretentious at all. Just a casual atmosphere with top quality ingredients cooked to perfection and flavors in harmony. Everything was also very seasonal taking advantage of produce at its peak. Prices are also very respectable considering the location, the celebrity chef, and the quality. I would highly recommend C-House.

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I thought we were done with Restaurant Week, well, I thought wrong! A couple friends of ours had invited us to join them for dinner Saturday night at Salpicon. I’ve been there once before with  my sister and brother-in-law, maybe 5 years ago. I remember walking away fully satisfied both in my belly as well as my taste buds. So, the opportunity to dine there again, at the discounted restaurant week price, was too good to pass up as we’re not ones to miss out on top-notch Mexican food at a discount. Hanging out with Tony and Sandra was also a nice proposition which certainly didn’t hurt the matter.

I must warn you that I did use my cell phone camera again. The pics do not do the food the justice they deserve, but what can you do? Also, since there were four of us I have a lot of pics to show. They offered 5 different appetizers as well as 5 different entrees. What we did was order the 4 most interesting of each and shared them all. I’ll try to keep this post short, but no guarantees.

Ceviche of Blue Marlin. Very typical with onions, tomatoes, chiles, and cilantro. Served with tortillas it always makes a great starter.

Gorditas Divorciadas. Thick tortillas stuffed with black beans and shredded beef (I think brisket, which completely satisfies the Jew in me). They each had a different salsa. One was a guajillo and the other was serrano-tomatillo, both had Mexican crema drizzled on top.

This was the Trio de Tamalitos. Three little tamales, one with queso fresco and serrano chiles that had a spicy molcajete salsa and crema, another with black beans, rajas (a saute of chilis and onions), and chihuahua cheese with a black been puree, the last had zucchini and chipotles.

The last appetizer was Sopa de Lentejas, lentil soup. It was garnished with grilled pineapple, smoked bacon (YUM!!!), chile pasilla, and queso anejo.

For the entrees we got the Camarones al Mojo de Ajo. Big, plump, juicy grilled shrimp in a sweet garlic and olive oil sauce with avocado chunks, guajillo chiles, and white rice. Not too garlicky at all.

Chiles Rellenos. Two battered poblanos deep-fried and swimming in a roasted tomato sauce. One was stuffed with minced pork picadillo, the other with chihuahua cheese. There was a side dish of frijoles borrachos, but I forgot to get a pic of that. Deal with it!

Pollo en Mole Poblano. Two chicken breasted smothered in a rich, spicy mole and served with Mexican rice. It really was kind of spicy. My first bite gave me a couple of little hiccups.

Tinga Poblana. Pork tenderloin on top of a roasted tomato-chipotle sauce with chorizo and potatoes, surrounded by an avocado-tomatillo sauce. This was hands down the best in show! Nice soft tenderloin and chorizo….how could that go wrong?

Alright, time for dessert. We got a flan that was covered in a sugar dome.

Tres Leches.

A crepe filled with berries and a caramel sauce.

My personal favorite was the mango and pear cobbler. Not sure what it’s actually called, but it sure was delicious with the cajeta ice cream on top!

All in all it was a delicious dinner. It’s every bit on par with Rick Bayless as far as creativity and quality. While I just found out that they offer a $29 pre fix every Monday and Tuesday this restaurant week deal might not have been the best offer. However, on a weekend night it was. I would recommend to everyone that they check Salpicon out for the pre fix deals. If you don’t want a limited menu, it’s also definitely worth paying full price for.

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Alright, Restaurant Week restaurant number 2…Cafe Spiaggia. I’ve long thought that Italian food in Chicago was sub par with only a couple of good restaurants around. Most Italian joints here serve big heavy sauces and overcooked pasta. Even some of the higher end ones I’ve been to were extremely disappointing. I’ve always wanted to hit up Spiaggia, but it’s a little out of my normal budget. By a little I mean a lot. When special occasions come along I’ve always opted to go to other places instead. However, the $22 pre fix lunch deal at Cafe Spiaggia this week is too good to pass up. I know it’s not quite the haute that the main room of Spiaggia is, but it did give me a very good idea of what it’s all about. Good things, all good things.

We started with two salads. This one is the PERA; Baby arugula with toasted pear chips, Alto Adige I.G.P speck (a ham from northern Italy), goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. The pears were a little under-ripe, but otherwise everything was light, clean, and fresh.

This salad is the ITALIANA; Escarole, treviso, and frisee with Parmigiano Reggiano and Chianti vinaigrette. The vinaigrette was outstanding! Otherwise, it was a very simple salad that was not overdone, exactly what a salad should be.

We ordered one each of the two entrée’s that are offered on the Restaurant Week Menu. First is the CAPPELLACCI; Hand crafted butternut squash filled pasta with amaretti, Parmigiano Reggiano, brown butter, and sage. You see this dish on a lot of Italian menus and in a lot of cookbooks, so it’s nothing creative or off the wall. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone execute the dish to this level. The pasta was perfectly al dente, there was just the right amount squash seasonings (I think cinnamon), and the brown butter wasn’t greasy at all.

The other entrée offered is BATTUTA; Pounded chicken breast with sautéed Swiss chard, fingerling potatoes, cipollini onions, and Pecorino Siciliano. Again, nothing off the wall. Just simple, fresh, top quality ingredients prepared perfectly to allow each other to compliment one another.

For dessert you’re given three choices out of the Gelati and Sorbeti menu. Yuki ordered the passion fruit, vanilla, and pineapple-basil.

I ordered the red raspberry, grapefruit and stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate shavings). They were all great, but out of the six I think the pineapple-basil was the best. It wasn’t too sweet and had just the right amount of herby basil in it. The grapefruit was also great as it tasted just like eating a slice of grapefruit.

Service at Cafe Spiaggia was fluid and attentive. That’s pretty much to be expected of such a high quality restaurant. The interior was also nice and laid back. It had the feel of an outdoor cafe in Italy with views of Lake Michigan. One of these days we’ll dine in the formal restaurant to get the full on experience. I will tell you this though, there is no doubt that Chef Mantuano is one of the few chefs in Chicago who truly understand what Italian food is all about. No need for heavy red sauces or huge plates of gut-busting, overcooked pasta. Keep it simple, light, and fresh while letting the ingredients themselves do the talking. I can’t wait for the full-on experience!

Side note, there is a bit of irony for me to finally dine at Cafe Spiaggia. About 5 years ago when I was looking to get back into the restaurant biz I interviewed to become the manager of the cafe. I was called in for a total of 3 interviews and turned out to be the runner-up in their search. I lost out to a long-time server of theirs. I wonder what life would have been like had she not gone after the position……hmmmmm?

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Restaurant Week just started here in Chicago. Probably the best week in Chicago for foodies, especially broke foodies like me. Restaurants that participate offer 3 course pre fix meals at $22 for lunch and $32 for dinner. Of course drinks, tips, and tax are not included. However, it’s a great deal at some of the joints that do offer up these meals. It allows people to try out different places that they normally wouldn’t without breaking the bank. We’re taking advantage this year and hitting up a few places. The first one was last night at Japonais. Before I get into my review I want to apologize for the quality of pics on this post. I used my phone’s camera instead of my Canon. Since Japonais is kind of loungy, the lights are low. Because of this, the pics didn’t turn out so well. So please, bear with me on this one.

The pre fix they offer consists of an appetizer, an entrée, and choice of either dessert or cocktail. We decided to split one dessert so Yuki got their signature cocktail, the Floating Orchid. It’s a martini made with Absolute Vodka mixed with fresh pear and lemon juices with an edible orchid garnish. It wasn’t that strong, but it wasn’t a bad drink. It is definitely a chick drink though.

At Japonais all dishes are intended to be shared, so they aren’t concerned with bringing things out at the same time. That fit our agenda so it worked out nicely. The first dish they brought out was Bin Cho, baby tuna sashimi marinated in a citrus vinaigrette and served with a daikon salad and arugula. The tuna was fresh, soft, and delicious! Very high quality fish.

Next came the lobster spring rolls. They were served on top of a mango relish with a cilantro sauce and blood orange vinaigrette. The sauces matched the natural sweetness of the lobster quite well. There were also some pea shoots on top as garnish that added a touch of pepperiness.

The first entrée brought out was the soy braised short rib. Food should be brought out lightest to heaviest. Seeing as this is the heaviest, it should have been done last. Oh well, that’s getting a little nitpicky. The rib was perfect, extremely tender and very flavorful. Served with poached pear, a few brussel sprout leaves, and sweet potato puree this was a very satisfying dish. Another pic disclaimer, the sauce is smeared in this pic because I almost started eating it before taking the pic. My bad.

The next entrée was the chestnut crusted chicken. There were some initial problems with this dish. It took quite a while for it to show up after we finished the short rib. Our server stopped by a couple of times to apologize for the wait and to tell us that it’s on the way. Fine, just bring it already! When it finally did arrive I cut into it only to find that it was pink and raw. I know they were running late with the dish, but there’s no excuse for serving raw chicken. Take the 2 extra minutes and make sure it’s cooked! So we had to wait a little longer. The manager did make up for it, I’ll show you how once I get through the chicken review. When they brought the second chicken out I cut into it only to find that it was also a little undercooked. Not nearly as bad as the first one, this one was mostly edible, so we dug in and ate what we could. I do have to say that it was delicious. The ginger-lemon sauce was outstanding and went really well with the crunchy chestnuts. The shiitake rice was fantastic and the brocolini was pretty good too. While a professional chef should know how to cook a piece of chicken, they did get the rest of the dish right. Also, my last pic disclaimer, this pic came from yelp as mine turned out horrible.

While we were waiting for the second chicken the manager brought us this tuna sushi plate on the house. Again, extremely high quality fish with some sort of ginger cream sauce. He definitely made up for the chef’s lack of chicken cookery. This was a great plate of sushi.

Dessert was a chocolate marscapone mousse topped with berries and a small scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. The name is misleading though. It’s really a marscapone mousse with two chocolate wafers inside and coated with cocoa powder. It was ok, but nothing to write home about. It was by far the weakest dish we ate, but at least it wasn’t undercooked.

I also didn’t mention that our table was 20 minutes late. There’s a cocktail lounge in the basement, so we waited at the bar and had a drink. 20 minutes is about as long as I wait before I start to bitch to the host. So they just made it. Overall though, I have to say, I was impressed. I expected it to be more pretentious than it is. Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely a place to see and be seen, but it is also a little more laid back than other loungy places. The food was high quality, and for the most part extremely well executed. While there were a few mishaps in service, all was made up with the comped sushi as well as comped drinks on our bill. It is definitely a place worth checking out.

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Alright, last night I was able to knock out one more Iron Chef from my list as Yuki’s parents took us along with her sister to Iron Chef Italian Masahiko Kobe’s restaurant, Ristorante Massa. It’s located in a very cool neighborhood of Tokyo called Ebisu tucked away off a main street. It’s a simple little restaurant that seats only about 25-30 people. It was full when we were there, and probably is most nights due to his celebrity status and fantastic food.

There were two pre fix menu options. The one we opted for was the less expensive of the two (approx $65 compared to $85) as it offered one less dish than the other. Since none of us are fat Americans it seemed like the right choice. We could chose one from each category of Antipasto Freddo (3 choices), Antipasto Caldo (three choices), Primo Piatto (5 choices), Secondo Piatto (4 choices), and either a Dolce (5 choices) or Formaggio Plate (pick two out of 4 cheeses) followed by either tea or espresso. We washed down the meal with some Chianti Classico. I have pics of everything, but I’m only going to mention what I ordered otherwise this post will be way way way too long. This is already one of the longest introductions I’ve written. So, on to the food!

We each started off with the Oyster starter that was not part of the Pre Fix. It is probably the largest oyster I’ve ever eaten in my life! So fresh and clean it was simply served in its own juices with a little squeeze of lime and some rock salt. What more does a good oyster need?

Then they brought out an amuse bouche. Baked pasta filled with ricotta cheese, a little slice of pear, and an Italian parsley leaf. It almost reminded me of matzoh with cream cheese, a treat dear to my stomach for one week out of the year.

The Antipasto Freddo I ordered was a foie gras terrine with chamomile. It was served with smoked Ishikawa potatoes, a yuzu consomme jelly, Italian Arugula, and sprinkled with flaked red pepper.

My Antipasto Caldo of choice was a bit of a mis-translation. I thought I was getting duck confit, when it showed up we thought is was duck balls, but it turned out to be chicken gizzards. I actually preferred it to be balls since I’ve never eaten bird balls, but it was still outstanding! The gizzards were served on top of a kabocha puree with thinly sliced red onions that were soaked in cold water, a shishito pepper, and a pea pod.

The Primo Piatto, pasta course, I ordered was chitarra with cremini sauce. The sauce was as simple and delicious as could be…olive oil, garlic, and minced cremini mushrooms. There were big slices of sautéed cremini in it as well. With Kobe being the “Prince of Pasta” it was easily the best pasta in my life. Cooked to perfection, nice and al dente.

For the Secondo Piatto I got the beef, of course. A perfectly grilled strip loin to medium rare covered in a light mustard sauce and served with asparagus, a shiitake, a pea pod, and a slice of red pepper. Uichiro, Yuki’s dad, ordered his with black truffles on top. I wish I knew I could do that. He gave me a few of the truffles and they made an outstanding steak even better…as truffles always do.

I opted for the Formaggio instead of a Dolce. I chose the parmigiano and taleggio. He served it very typically with some dried fruits and sliced nut bread. I washed it down with lemon tea instead of espresso as I wanted to sleep later on.

Maki, Yuki’s sister, couldn’t finish her Tirimisu so I took it upon myself to not waste any food. It was served with kiwi sorbet and fresh fruit. Of course, it was the best tirimisu that I’ve ever digested.

Overall, this was by far the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten, hands down. And I’ve been to Italy. I’m sure there are places as good in Italy, but when Yuki and I went there we couldn’t afford any of the top restaurants. We ate some pretty damn good food there, but nothing as refined as this.

I have also said before that I didn’t think modern Italian food existed. I said that due to the lack of creativity and refinement of Italian food in Chicago (although, I have yet to eat at Spiaggia). At home it’s mostly humongous bowls of pasta with thick rich sauces that weigh you down. Nothing like Ristorante Massa where the portions were clean, fresh, perfectly sized, and creative modern takes on classics. I have a newfound respect for Italian food.

While I have eaten at Sakai’s, Michiba’s, and Chen’s restaurants, this is the first time that an Iron Chef has actually cooked for me. It was very exciting to see Kobe back in the kitchen when we walked in. I think there are two reasons Kobe was cooking for us. First, he only has one restaurant while the others all have numerous. So you know where Kobe will be when he cooks as opposed to it being a crapshoot for the others (I missed Sakai by 4 hours back when Yuki and I went to La Rochelle). Second, he’s still young at only 40 and still wants to create. Michiba is an old man and doesn’t cook anymore and I don’t think Sakai cooks too much anymore either.

No more Iron Chefs this trip as we head back to cold Chicago tomorrow. Next trip I’ll visit Iron Chef Japanese Nakamura Komei and maybe Honorary Iron Chef French Ishinabe Yutaka. Morimoto will have to wait as his Teppanyaki restaurant here in Tokyo starts at approx $300 a head!

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