28. May 2011 12:42
Beware of restaurants who “are” the chef. Nobu. Vong. Takashi. No apostrophe “s.” It’s not their restaurant but rather their embodiment. Rarely do these places live up to the grandeur of the self-opinion. This was no exception but at least it filled our bellies – with a healthy laugh-track.
Takashi haunts a small, 2-story home on the fringe of Whicker Spark, or Whucktown, or whatever the damn neighborhood is called. It’s all hipsterville to me. Into the narrow walls, the management has crammed a fair number of tables and still left room for jumbo-sized Chicagoans. Pretty cool. However, this cluster has created an echo chamber that seems unfit for the type of dining to which Takashi aspires. Think Hub 51’s noise condensed into 1000 square feet.
First the food. For my favorite price of US$69, a diner can enjoy a five-course meal and 1 dessert. Tonight it was: Carpaccio of Big Eye Tuna – EXCELLENT; Ceviche of Shrimp, Squid, Scallops and Octopus – OK; Skate Wing – OK; Pork Belly – Great; Duck over Foie Gras – Good. Wine pairings were an additional $36 and were very healthy pours. Borrowing a play from the book of Tru, the server noticed that the opening glass of champagne was drunk too quickly and brought another “while we wait.” That is service that pays dividends. Overall, the wine pairings average $6/glass. That’s a deal! The food – eh. I really really expected something more. Only a single “excellent” and a “great” seems low for a meal that cost $105 per head. Compare that to iNG – true excellence in every course for a relative pittance. And when I asked for a transcript of the courses, the menu came back autographed. Nice touch Chefs. Thanks for not sending out a headshot as well because then I would have cracked completely up. But it’s not that the evening was without amusement.
Remember the echo chamber? There was a table in the northeast corner of the restaurant which through accident of placement would have made the conversational volume deafening for a normal-sounding person. And the woman who was seated there this evening was anything but. The accident of placement, the hard surfaces, the pitched roof and whatever planetary mumbo-jumbo you believe in all conspired that evening. And when adding to the formula a woman who, common to persons of her size, adopts the philosophy of “life’s a stage,” you quickly get a critical mass in both amplitude and frequency. She was so loud it was funny – but not too funny. She would make what she believed to be a particularly amusing point, begin a low rumble of a cackle which would develop into a high-pitched roar and be punctuated with a triple-foot-stomp. It went: BEAT…BEAT…“JOKE”…Cackle->ROAR…STOMP…STOMP……STOMP. Over and over again. I’m sorry but nothing can be that funny that often. Jay Leno doesn’t have as many laughs in as little time and he’s the master of BEAT…BEAT…JOKE. There was not a single other table that wasn’t following her conversation. They had to. None other was possible. When the party left the other patrons broke out into an ovation to the great embarrassment of the wait staff. Especially considering that the party was a regular. Ouch. This means lot of other people get the treatment. Maybe next time it’ll be you.
14. May 2011 19:38
I rank communal restaurant seating very high on the scale of annoyance. Higher than men who wear jewelry but lower than Bethenny Frankel. And yet iNG so overwhelmed me with its excellence that I would have sat cheek-to-massive-jowl with Ms. Frankel – while on a date with Mr. T..
iNG’s prices are unbelievably low. The most expensive item on the menu is the delicious shortrib at a no-brainer $24 and it’s HUGE! Think American steakhouse versus Euro-Bistro. For sure 5x the size any other item ever found on a “tasting” menu. I just don’t know how a normal eater can put down this along with 3-4 other dishes so consider yourself warned. Luckily, the gulf between “normal” and the portions I consume is fairly vast. Anyway, most other items hover around $10 but for $45, the party can sample a selection with the quite-gimmicky “tasting by the hour.” Why not just call it a four-course dinner and be done with it? Services are denominated in units of time. Goods are denominated in integers. Massage and lapdance – time. Bag of chips – integer. Dear Management: quit mucking with commonly accepted economic principles. Read other reviews. You’re only hurting yourself.
Now that the complaining is over, let us march onward to the food. The menu itself is folded into origami with a dropper full of miso broth impaled through its center the dropper tip plunged through a square of tofu. Delish. But we expected nothing less from the Chef of Moto and his magnetic flatware. Once the menu is unfolded, the diners can order one of 12 items grouped into four sections of matter's temperature transitions. But we decided on the tasting menu when the server enthusiastically offered to substitute all land-based flesh with the swimming kind on the woman’s portion. Not hard but you’d be surprised how much friction one can get.
First came a tomagoyaki omelet which is basically rolled egg over seaweed but for some reason the red-pepper infused fish eggs made the dish. Not as brutal as the wasabi-infused roe but still spicy enough to make an otherwise bland egg pop. Pun intended. I so do enjoy the popping of all the little fishy embryos with my tongue against my teeth. It makes me feel powerful – in an Idi Amin sort of way. After all, part of His Excellency’s lengthy title was “Lord of the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea” and each time I eat roe I can’t help but think of the genocide I am committing against the unborn swimmers. And isn’t mixing eggs across animal classes bestiality? Wow, Asian dinners can sure be sinful. Which brings us to the most interesting taste of the evening: konbu which was kale and shrooms in a kimchi broth with a poached egg that you’re supposed to “integrate” into the liquid. “Integrate” is the fancy way of saying: mix it in the broth but “Café Latte” means coffee with milk so get off it. I wonder how much trial versus error goes into dishes such as these? Whodathunk that mixing a poached egg into kimchi and broth would taste this good? Clearly Thomas Bowman did. There was an episode of House a few years back when the character began cooking and turned out to be astoundingly good – mainly due to scientific knowledge of human taste and molecular interactions with the tastebuds. Clearly Mr. Bowman is of the school along with Grant Achatz and a few others. Does anyone remember Eric Aubriot of his namesake in Lincoln Park circa 1998? He was the first I’ve tasted of “deconstructions” even though they weren't called that. Weren’t called anything back then –like a coffee with milk until someone wanted to charge more for it. Mr. Aubriot apprenticed with some heavyweights so I’m sure this goes WAY back but to where? And where is he these days?
In any case, back to iNG. The “Japanese barbeque” was the before-mentioned shortribs served with delicious purple yam mash and some very superfluous corn muffins. I know why they were there but cornbread needs to be much sweeter if being served with something this salty. But whadoiknow. I’m no molecular gastro-gnome. I don’t even believe in gnomes or elves or molecules. I do, however, have a cargo-ship’s worth of faith in dessert. And this one didn’t disappoint. We had the waffle which was actually a Boston crème doughnut shaped to look like a waffle and a drizzle of chocolate and banana puree. We wondered why they gave us both the same dessert since usually they let a party sample. Until we tasted it. They gave us two to prevent a certain fight over not sharing. We thank them.
I saw that previous reviews seem to rank iNG lower. I don’t know why. This was, without question, my favorite meal in a long time. Right up there with L2O and before that – the best in ages. It was as though all the flavor and complexity of Moto was made super-duper cheap. After eating as much as we did and as delicious as it was, getting a bill for about 80$/pp felt like stealing it. Remember that the bill included alcohol and we sure do enjoy our liquid course. So – communal tables and delayed seating be damned. This is the best meal for its price you will ever eat.
7. May 2011 19:13
I find it hard to associate with people who don’t eat oysters. And not the pan-fried, grill-seared, sauce-raped variety served in your Lincoln Park college bar. Gimme raw…unadulterated, seawater-dripping living mollusk that would kick me in the throat had it any feet. Alas, today was GT Fish and none of oysters.
We were not tardy to the party but our reservations (9:30 PM on Sat) still took north of 20 minutes beyond time appointed. It’s new, they’re packed – we expected worse. But then, to our major disappointment, we were seated at the very sort of communal table that we all despise. That would have made for displeasure of a high order as the table was several inches taller and about a foot wider than comfortable. Who does this? What possible reason is there to design a table to be not only communal but also uncomfortable? Dear restaurant management: communism of any stripe succeeds only in theory. We hate those damn tables! Stop buying them! And certainly stop using them to seat parties larger than a couple! No one looks forward to screaming over the restaurant’s highly elevated ambient for an hour+. I remarked as much. And get this! To the great surprise of all of us, the hostess offered to reseat us! No open-palm donation to the Colombia College School of Body Piercing necessary. She heard we were upset and took corrective action. All right! The night was looking better. There it would remain for the dinner’s balance but never past the line to greatness. Not even sure the oysters could have saved it.
There was nothing on the menu that fell short of good. Nor did anything fall near excellent. But the prices should reflect good and instead they definitely reflect excellent. The crab cake, the soft-shell crab, mahi tacos and shrimp bruschetta were scratching around close but still just couldn’t make it. Nor is there consensus about which was the best. I really enjoyed the soft-shell crab and mahi taco but I’ve had these elsewhere – better and for less. The black gnocchi was a bitter disappointment since this is an area a chef can shine for free. We are used to being spoiled by the gnocchi of Prosecco and Pane Caldo but this wasn’t even the same orbit. Nor was the Mac and Cheese, that eternal fancy-menu standby made popular by – well, I don’t actually know. We know tots came after Napoleon Dynamite. M/C was probably the result of a rock-star chef getting stoned and searching for munchies in empty cupboards.
I’ll be back to try the oysters with folk who understand this greatest gift of oceans’ giving. But even looking at these prices, I can’t see the fleshy, moist delicious creatures being too far an improvement upon Hugo’s’.