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After a couple of nights eating out for Restaurant Week I decided to give our stomachs, as well as our wallets, a little bit of a break. Simple, cheap, and delicious, I made a stew with cod and vegetables. Warm stews like this are great for cold winter nights and are packed full of nutrients that won’t bulge your belly or bank account.

I started off with my typical dashi. I boiled 1/3 cup of dried anchovies in 3 cups of water for about 30 minutes and then strained out the fish. I really love making this dashi because it’s easy, healthy, and delicious.

The rest of my ingredients included 2 carrots chopped, 1/2 head of cauliflower broken into florets, 1 head of broccoli broken into florets with the stem chopped, 5 large fingerling potatoes chopped, 1 onion large diced, 3 garlic cloves large diced, 5 ounces of spinach rinsed, 3/4 pound of cod cut into bite-sized pieces, 3 tablespoons of soy sauce, and 2 tablespoons of sake.

I heated up a stock pot and poured in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Once the oil was hot and shimmering I added the onion, carrot, and garlic. I let that all sweat down for about 3 minutes and then added the broccoli and cauliflower. About 2 minutes later I poured in the dashi, soy, sake, and a bay leaf and brought that up to a boil. Once boiling I added the potatoes and turned the heat down to med-low so that it could simmer for about 10 minutes. Then I added the fish and let it simmer for another 10 minutes before throwing the spinach in. Once the spinach was in I seasoned with pepper (no need for salt because of the soy in the broth), covered the pot, and let simmer for another 10 minutes. After that all I did was adjust the seasoning and serve it up with some white rice.

Just be gentle stirring after you add the fish, cod will flake apart.

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Even since it was featured on CheckPlease a while back I have wanted to check out Blue 13. I don’t know why, but it really appealed to me for some reason. When I saw that Chef Curren was doing a Restaurant Week menu I took that as an opportunity to finally get off my ass and take my wife out for some rockin viddles. Turned out to be a damn good idea.

Located in the River North area, Blue 13 is on a very residential strip just off the hwy. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because it allows for a neighborhood feel without any pretension. It’s bad because there’s nowhere to park! I hate paying for valet. I am Jewish (culturally, not religiously) after all. After finding a place to park a couple of blocks away Yuki and I were ready to get out of the cold and fill ourselves full of tastiness.

When we got there a couple of tables lingered a little longer than expected and our reservation was about 15 minutes late. No worries, 15 minutes is acceptable. So, we headed to the bar and I had a beer while we bitched to each other about how frustrating both of our jobs are. Basically, a nightly routine. When we got to our table we already knew what we wanted so we ordered up dinner, ate some good bread with great olive oil, and awaited the feast.

Yuki started off with the Duck Confit Tortellini. Served in a caper and cilantro butter sauce it was absolutely delicious. The only thing wrong with it is that the pasta was just a little too al dente, and not by much. Maybe another 45 seconds or so in salted water and it would have been perfect. On the other hand, this was the first time I’ve ever had capers with cilantro. I hope it’s not the last because it was a really weird pairing that actually works quite well.

I got the Beet Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette. I did tell you the other day that if there’s a beet salad on a menu I’ll probably get it. It didn’t hurt that their restaurant week menu only had two options (they did have a $44 pre fixe option with more choices, but that’s a little pricy for my blood). I will say this, Chef Curran’s beet salad is one of the most creative ones I’ve ever eaten. Nice sweet golden beets, frisee, endive, candied hazelnuts (quite possibly my favorite of all nuts, excluding my own of course), and, get this, marshmallows made with beets and balsamic vinegar. It was the marshmallows that set this salad over the top.

Yuki got the Arctic Char entrée. A beautiful piece of fish with a nice crispy skin and juicy flesh (is there anything better than juicy flesh?). It was served on a grain salad that consisted mainly of quinoa and pearl barley as well as a big smear of pureed butternut squash. All of the flavors worked in harmony and completed a very satisfying dish.

I got the Guinness Braised Veal Cheeks. These were some of the most tender cheeks I’ve tossed into my organs, like a really soft brisket. Served on buttered noodles with sautéed brussel sprouts and a smear of creme fraiche. It was garnished with a baby carrot and some baby cilantro. I’m beginning to realize that Chef Curran likes to use cilantro. Honestly, I got no beef with that! In fact, I got veal. The only problem with this dish is that I found that it could have used one more pinch of salt to really bring out the beery goodness of the guinness. Otherwise this was a success.

With two dessert options we decided to get one of each, and that really wasn’t a hard decision to make. Yuki had the Apple Cobbler with Vanilla Gelato. A classic that he didn’t really fiddle much with. It was very straightforward but executed nicely.

I got the Chocolate Peanut Butter Waffle. Waffle with candied peanuts, peanut butter sauce, chocolate sauce, and a scoop of vanilla gelato. As I started eating it I was greeted with a very nice surprise, very nice indeed. In the chocolate sauce were little pieces of BACON!!! It’s desserts like this that make me glad I don’t keep Kosher. Bacon truly does make everything better.

Service throughout the night was spot on. The servers were casual, yet professional. Food was brought out in good time and plates were cleared promptly. The atmosphere was also very casual. Exposed brick walls with heavy rock’n’roll on the speakers, but not too loud that it hindered conversation.

Way back when I worked at a restaurant called The Outpost I always thought that it should have been something more like this. Honestly, if I ever did open up a restaurant it would be along the lines of Blue 13, except I’d play more classic rock and throw some Fela in the mix. Otherwise I wouldn’t change a thing.

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Restaurant Week started here in Chicago this past Friday. Unlike last year where Yuki and I ended up going to 6 or 7 different places we’ve decided to only do 2 this year. We started off Saturday night at a place that’s been high on our list of places to try for a while but never got around to hitting up…BOKA. Located in a very sheik area of Lincoln Park we were a little concerned it’d be a little too pretentious for our tastes. What happened though, is that our tastes were pleasantly surprised.

I know that Restaurant Week menus don’t fully show off all of a chef’s skills, but it does do a good job of giving an idea of what a particular chef is all about. I really dig what Chef Tentori is all about. You gotta love an Italian who effortlessly blends Asian flavors with French techniques. I used my phone’s camera again, and of course, in dark lighting it does a terrible job. Just let your imagination go wild with my descriptions. You can also check out the menu they have posted on the Restaurant Week website, just know that those menus aren’t completely accurate.

Yuki started off with the Maine Diver Scallop. A big juicy scallop with a perfectly cooked crust served with some sort of bean puree (tasted like it could have either been edamame or fava, don’t remember exactly what the server said) and forbidden black rice. The flavors matched perfectly and the scallop was easily one of the best scallops we’ve eaten in Chicago.

I started with the Beet Salad. Sweet, juicy golden beets with candied walnuts and frisee served on a blood orange sauce. It’s hard to get too creative with beet salads anymore since every restaurant in America serves one and this was not the most creative one I’ve ever eaten. It was, however, one of the best. Chef Tentori kept it simple and let the sweetness of the beets take center stage. The crunch of the candied walnuts was the perfect match while the slight bitterness of the blood orange sauce countered nicely.

Yuki’s entrée was the Seared Angus Tenderloin. While Angus lost it’s luster as a brand the moment fast food chains started using head and hoof scrapings to make up the required 40% beef in their patties, this was the real deal. Tender, juicy, full of beefy goodness. It was served with braised red cabbage, croquettes of wild mushrooms and some kind of cheese (the cheese gave a real nice barnyardy aroma and flavor the remind you that cows come from farms and not manufacturing plants), and a parsnip puree. Absolutely delicious.

I got the Braised Pork Belly. I’m very predictable, I usually get the beet salad and pork belly when I see them on menus. I’m glad I did at BOKA. While most places will sear the pork belly before serving to give that crunch on the skin Chef Tentori didn’t. Instead he kept the whole thing soft and fork-tender. The texture was almost like a slow-braised brisket. I loved it! He served it with two huge deep-fried oysters, spicy bok choy, little green tea soba noodle cakes, and some sort of white vegetable puree (I think it was cauliflower). The flavors and textures worked really well together making this one of my favorite pork belly dishes (light years beyond that crap Naha served me last August).

They ony offered one dessert with the Restaurant Week pre fixe, and that’s fine because it was a damn good one. They called it Ginger Kulfi and served it with toasted marshmallow, ground espresso chips, chocolate fudge, and a tangerine segment. I think they got it backwards. The chocolate fudge was the star for me. Everything else on that plate supported its richness and added depth to its flavor. The kulfi was outstanding though…smooth, gingery, and creamy but not overpowering. It was one of the more well-balanced desserts I’ve had at an upscale Chicago restaurant.

Throughout the evening service was spot on as well. We were promptly seated in the covered courtyard (I think they use it for al fresco dining in warm weather). Our server was quick, knowledgable, and had a good sense of humor. The courses were well spaced and we didn’t have a lot of down time between them.

My only real gripe with BOKA is their IPod shuffle. It went from Dave Brubeck and some great jazz to the same horrible soundtrack that most restaurants play. You know, that light techno that makes you feel like you’re trying on blue jeans at Banana Republic. Fortunately, it went back to jazz after a few techno songs. They really just need to stick with the jazz. But, when that’s my only gripe with a place it’s probably a pretty good place.

All in all, I would definitely recommend BOKA. They were able to present us with an extremely professional and upscale environment with absolutely delicious food while keeping all pretensions out of the picture. A rare feat I must say.

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Alright, finally my last Restaurant Week experience. Yuki and I took advantage of the Art Institute’s free month in February this past Sunday. Afterwords we had planned on meeting up with a couple of friends, one in from Japan, for dinner downtown. We walked by Texas de Brazil and it looked damn tasty. So, I asked the hostess if they were participating in restaurant week, and when she said yes I made a reservation for us. What they normally charge for $50, we got for $32. Not a bad deal at all, not bad. Those of you have been to a Churrascaria before know what I’m talking about.

Again, the pics were taken with my cell, so they’re not the best quality. Also, if you’re a vegetarian or a little squeemish, don’t look any further. There are chunks of bloody animal carcass on my plate. Consider yourself warned.

We started off with a round of caipirinha’s. While the bartender whipped those up we headed over to the sushi and salad bars.

I apologize, I ate the sushi and most of my first run to the salad bar before snapping a pic. I have to say, the sushi was quite good. There were three different maki rolls, tuna and avocado, california, and salmon. The salad bar was outrageous! Check out their website for a complete list of items. My favorites were the tuna tataki, pomegranate quinoa, and the cheeses. Everything was top quality. They did not skimp at all. The soup was lobster bisque, which for some reason none of us tried. Why is that?

Once we finished the first round at the salad bar the meat-a-thon began! Flip the token to green and meat just started flying everywhere! Highlights were the garlic beef (of course), bacon-wrapped filet (of course), and the sausages (of course). I asked the gaucho what the sausage was spiced with and his answer was brilliant, “Brazillian spices”. Great, now I know how to make them at home. Other tasty bits were the lamb chops, leg of lamb, and flank steak. Just like the salad bar the meat was all top quality. They definitely did not buy their meats from Jewel! While mauling the meat we were served mashed potatoes, little cheese puffs, and fried plantians as well.

After ingesting about two and three fifths of large farm animals I thought it would be best to get some leafy greens in my stomach. I made another run to the salad bar and just grabbed some mixed greens and topped them with what they call “Brazillian Dressing”, just some small diced tomatoes and peppers in lime juice. Had I not gone for the salad I don’t even want to think about what would have happened to my intestines.

Dessert was also offered with our meal. We had our choice of a banana’s foster cheese cake or key lime pie. So, we got two of each.

I tell ya, as much fun as Churrascarias are and as delicious as they are, I don’t think I can go to one again. I always end up eating so much meat it’s not even funny. Don’t get me wrong, I love meat, it’s my favorite vegetable. Let’s be honest though, a 150 pound man should not swallow 207 pounds of dead animal in one sitting! It’s just not right! I almost couldn’t get up from the chair after the night’s festivities came to a halt. It also ruined my normal cycles for a few days, but that’s a whole different story in itself.

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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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Our third Restaurant Week jaunt was for lunch yesterday at Blackbird. We had actually eaten there about 5 or 6 years ago for Yuki’s birthday dinner. I can’t remember what we ate, but I do remember being extremely impressed. We haven’t been back since but decided that a $22 pre fix lunch there was too good to pass up, especially after seeing the menu they offered on the Restaurant Week Chicago website. Wrong I was, wrong indeed.

Yuki started with the Parsnip Bisque. It was served with shallot jam, beautyheart radish, sturgeon, and sunflower seeds. Actually, this was one of the best soups either of us have ever tasted. It was creamy, yet light and smooth. The flavors were spot on. No complaints about this dish.

I ordered the Duck Country Pate and Mortadella with grapefruit molasses, black radish, and pumpkin seed brittle. This dish was ok. The pate was a little salty, but it wasn’t too bad. There was a lot going on in this dish and I think Chef Kahan could have easily simplified it, but it was decent.

Yuki’s entrée was the Wood-grilled Brook Trout with broccoli, parsley root, violet mustard spaetzle, and dried black bean. The fish was way oversalted and I didn’t notice anything that resembles broccoli or spaetzle anywhere on the plate. I can only guess that the powdered substance on the plate was the dried black bean. I think this was a case of trying to be too creative with a failed idea and false advertisement. Not a very good dish at all.

I ended up ordering the Roasted Chicken with charred avocado and house-made giardiniera. The chicken was very greasy, the giardiniera consisted of a few small pieces of pickled cauliflower, and the charred avocado was actually one tiny little dollop of some sort of avocado mousse. The giardiniera and avocado, while they both match chicken nicely, didn’t go well together at all. Two very conflicting tastes. 

We split the two desserts. One was Manjari Chocolate Pave with tonka bean ice cream and candied cocoa nibs. It was pretty good. The pave was nice and fluffy for being so rich. This dessert was a success.

This other dessert was written on the menu as Satuma Chiboust with campari, pineapple, semolina and zingerman cheese ice cream. What? I know that Chiboust is a type of cream used in pastries, but what on Earth is Satuma? I can only hope they meant Satsuma which is a citrus…or a city in Japan. I’ll go with citrus. This dessert wasn’t bad though, even though they can’t spell.

Alright, here’s why we were disappointed besides the quality of the entrees. The service was flat-out bad! Not once did our server refill my iced tea, he flat-out forgot the coffee that Yuki ordered with dessert (fortunately it wasn’t on the bill so I didn’t have to bitch about it, but she clearly ordered it and he clearly heard her), he never stopped by to see how any of the dishes were (always, always, always stop by to at least make sure things like chicken are properly cooked), and he just seemed to be an ass. In fact, most of the servers there had an attitude about them. They all wore slacks, button downs, and a tie (I’m sure a requirement), but all seemed to have an arrogance about them. I didn’t notice any tables getting very friendly service at all. The host gave us a little attitude also when she sat us. The staff matched the food, pretentious and lacking.

Another thing that I didn’t like was the table set up. I understand that it’s a business and Chef Kahan wants to make as much money as possible, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of customer comfort. The tables were practically lined up on top of each other. There was literally no more than 2 inches between tables, and that’s not an exaggeration (as much as I love to exaggerate). I had one table in my right ear and another in my left, I could barely converse with Yuki. The little conversation we were able to have was no doubt overheard by the tables next to us as we clearly heard their conversations. That’s a big pet peeve of mine. Give your customers a little space!

Also, Chef Kahan pulled the old bait-n-switch on his customers. If you look at the menu he advertised on the Restaurant Week website you’ll see a warm baby octopus confit with black chickpeas, asian pear, hazelnuts, and eucalyptus as well as a torchon of foie gras with black grape, spicy vegetables, and lavender as appetizer options. You’ll also see roasted squab and smoked sausage with sweet potatoes and junipers or braised short ribs with flageolets, fig broth, and golden turnips for entrée options. Sounds pretty damn good, eh? What happened? No octopus, no foie, no squab, no short ribs. Instead it was parsnip bisque and duck pate along with chicken and trout. Come on, chicken and trout? No way are those two entrees worth the price of admission. I get that sometimes ingredients aren’t available, or changes sometimes need to be made, but not one of the advertised items was on the menu. Not one! If you check the restaurant’s website, it lists a restaurant week dinner menu that is also completely different. They aren’t offering a restaurant week dinner pre fix, just lunch. What is going on? Had we seen the real menu there’s no way we would have made a reservation. Chef Kahan clearly wanted to entice people with a very cool menu and then cheapen it up to save some money. What an ass! You know Chef, bait-n-switch is illegal.

The worst part was what happened a few hours after we ate. Both of us came down with an upset stomach. No doubt the entrees were at fault, salty fish and greasy chicken. My situation ended with an incendiary display not fit for children. It was bad!

The whole point of restaurant week is to attract people to your restaurant. This trip to Blackbird did the exact opposite. It’s like Yuki told me last night, “You know, having been there before a few years ago I would have definitely gone back, but after lunch yesterday I’ll never go back!” I share those sentiments, especially with Sepia just around the corner.

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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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