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Sushi Dokku - 2014-12-13

by Foodbitch 13. December 2014 00:25

Who of you missed Sushi Wabi? What those people did with rolls made one crave them much more than was logical for that sort of thing. The dragon. The spicy octopus. The scallop. I stumbled upon the restaurant by accident in 1998. One of my very first sushi experiences. And like a heroin junkie, I have been trying to recreate that first high forever since. Ladies and gentlemen, Sushi Dokku is that recreation.

Given our advancing age, the female and I usually spend a Friday evening eating sushi take-out while glued to the projection screen. Long gone are the days of dancing into 4AM at Pasha on a Bandaleros Tuesday. But the quality of sushi falls well into the 90th percentile and given the dramatically reduced cost of eating in, we consider it a wash. Last week was a remarkable exception.

Tucked into a well-worn corner of the Randolph corridor, Sushi Dokku is, perhaps, 2 times the size of Sushi Wabi. This fact aside, all the service troubles that plagued Wabi are in full effect. The pace of dinner can best be described as glacial. But so worth it. The service does the best it can given the chefs’ speed. Even though our server spoke very little English, he delivered what we ordered and was helpful with suggestions. Suggestions are important given that Dokku’s menu is also somewhat larger than its predecessor's.

Why do I keep stressing Sushi Wabi? Because I regard the restaurant as the pinnacle to which modern sushi should aspire. Spicy tuna, for example, was once the receptacle of refuse. The Japanese that brought forth sushi onto this new continent in the early 60s thought it wise to accomplish 2 goals: get rid of sinewy tail-flesh and give the early hipsters something edgy of which to be proud. So they mixed what would have otherwise been garbage with mayonnaise and spicy sauce and PRESTO! One had a whole new dinner entrée. This brilliant tradition continues to this day at places like Naniwa and others where the palefaces are scorned but Sushi Wabi voted an incredible dissent. They used amazing cuts for their rolls. The finest fish-flesh no matter how one ordered it. And Sushi Dokku follows suit. If 2 rounds of servers can be considered proper sourcing, Dokku is 66.66% of Wabi’s DNA. All that’s missing is one partner out of three. I couldn’t taste the gap. And I doubt you will.

Without Wabi, Randolph had a void that was not filled by anything east of Halsted. Into the breach, dear friends, comes Sushi Dokku and, if you have the time, it is amazing.

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Mas - 2014-11-07

by Foodbitch 7. November 2014 15:44

Visiting a young friend with a terminal affliction can be a very sad affair. Despite the air of health that they exude, you both know that this time might be the last. But unlike the elderly, it’s a very rare young person that gets through four stages of dying to arrive at “acceptance” because too close there lurks that memory of their days of youth and vigor. You probably lost many a young friend in the form restaurants. Their illness was their balance sheet.

Mas serves outstanding tacos and delicious margaritas. The drinks are priced in accordance with the neighborhood and times. Tacos are priced high but not outrageously – if ordered by themselves. So why then must they charge US$3 per tablespoon of salsa? Why $8 for 2 spoons of guacamole? Why not have ANY other condiments available (for free) for those who may not wish to season their entrees so expensively? Some Cholula for duck’s sake! There are 2 possible reasons.

Reason A is the case study of Orange, one of the city’s first hipster breakfast places. They actually had signage posted that distilled their management’s opinion that the customer (you know: that person PAYING THEM) did not know as well as the kitchen what they wanted in an omelet. “If you want to customize an omelet, go to Golden Nugget.” Was seriously on the sign. A dramatic escalation beyond not having salt on the table.

Reason B can be the science of accounting infecting the art of kitchen wizardry. Never minding the science of ingredients and taste and the trendy acts of “deconstructions,” cooking is, at its pinnacle, an art-form. The peak of the profession draws from the science of taste and hopes to channel it into an experience not just to be tasted but to be seen and felt and smelled and perhaps even heard – as in Mr. Achatz’s decompressing aromatic pillows. A mix tape for the senses.

But accounting is an icy science with low regard for anything but bottom lines. It’s why there is an everlasting struggle between the business and the chef when the two concerns are separate. It’s also why when the chef is also business manager, restaurants become defunct at such a staggering clip. Pleasing the customer at all costs can have a very steep cost indeed. And I suspect that the creativity at Mas has been overpowered by accounting.

When we arrived for brunch on Friday, a lone employee was the host, the waiter, bartender and probably even the cook. (He confessed as much.) Only short-term bottom-line analysis can possibly think this is a good idea. We felt so sorry for the polymath employee that we even bit our lips and put on the air of friendliness while service took 3x longer than it should have. Given our propensity for fission in the face of service shortfalls, this represented containment of a high order.

Just like a healthy organism, a healthy service business must find balance between doing everything it can to please the customer and doing so, on average, profitably. One can no more run a healthy restaurant by letting one faction run amok than one can expect to get in shape by working out one muscle group. Although, some dudes at the gym still believe that after 10 years of being fat and working only bench, suddenly, in year 11, they will wake up one morning with a 6-pack. The truth is that nothing in life or in business exists in isolation and the constant struggle between different sides yearning for excellence is very healthy. One can never grow new muscle without first tearing up the old, letting it recover and going it again. Mas, like so many restaurants before it, needs to give its accounting muscles a rest. The food is very strong but the overall experience falls far too short of satisfactory. Having seen the symptoms so many times before, I fear that the next step in the decline is the fall. And the shutters. So if the balance sheet is really terminal, wouldn’t it be great to let the last gasp of a dying kitchen be channeled to the roar of triumph instead of a wheeze of penny-pinching pettiness? 

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Umami Burger - 2014-09-28

by Foodbitch 3. October 2014 20:38

When it comes to meat slabs between buns, Chicago can be a judge without much mercy. I was a participant in this elitist game we’ve played for near-2 decades. After eating at Umami Burger, I apologize for my behavior, and wish that you’d learn from my mistakes.

In a city filled with meat, Umami Burger is a star that shines quite brightly.  I arrived at UB against my will because, clearly, I am too good for chain-store burgers. When I departed I was full, but no longer of myself. Au Cheval, Kuma’s, In n’ out, and yes…despite their grotesque price increase: Portillo’s. These are the burgers of my life. I wish that I can tell you that Umami pales in comparison. I really want to. But I can’t. If your preferred temperature is rare, you will appreciate the BUB. It’s two patties (or fatties) that taste like they added extra MSG. I can’t remember a burger that I’ve had that’s better. Even though my sample size has been decreased with much advancing age, I used to eat burgers on a daily basis. I know of what I speak.

This will be the shortest review you’ve read from MS in quite a while. Not because I lack vocabulary to describe the wonders that were eaten but because I mostly focus on experience. That part they are still trying to get right. One would think that a chain with many outposts would know to stem the tide of certain growing pains. Perhaps they choose not to. I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: that two patties joined on a bun and I ate the both with little try and…you should get the truffle fries too. Amazing.

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Goosefoot 2014-01-08

by Foodbitch 16. January 2014 06:58

The chief problem with BYO at large-course dinners is the inevitable (and rapid) descent into total table chaos. As the glasses piled upon glass, keeping track of which vessel contained which pairing was an impossible assignment. This, to say nothing about the different pace of the 4 drinkers. The redeeming quality, of course, is price. Drinking as we did, if the wine were paired up by the restaurant, we could never have escaped without a bill well beyond the painful 4-figures. Still, I was underwhelmed, underfed and out-of-patience.

Goosefoot is named after Chenopodium, a genus of herbaceous flowering plants. Genus! NOT family! Dammit! Why does the staff keep saying family? The “amaranth” family does, in fact, include the goosefoots but the incorrect reversal is no different than saying all rectangles are squares because all squares are rectangles.

You have had geese-feets before. They include some spinaches, Mexican Epazote, Swiss chard, Chioggia beets, and the super-popular quinoa which might be better called a goose-running-shoe based on how fast it sprinted onto every hipster menu ever. Chris and Nina Nugent, chef and proprietors, grow the plants themselves. I suppose a goosefoot fetish is better than the plain foot one.

Despite my opening remark, I cannot say that there was anything on the menu that was bad. Indeed, I was blown away by the savory delight of the second course (shrimp/preserved garlic…), served in an eggshell. The meats were fantastic but wholly insufficient. This 9-course meal borrowed many things from many places. Tru’s synchronized plates? Check. Alinea’s aromatic excess? Check. Contemporary, engaging (and engaged) 4-star service? Check…minus. Because the time between courses was unacceptably long. I know this is the kitchen’s note but it’s service’s echo. One interval stretched over 30 minutes and the average was 15. Our meal took nearly 5 hours – I kid you not. Mrs. Nugent explained that they do not turn tables (which is why getting reservations is so fun) and the seating is for the evening. I’d prefer that be a right and not an obligation. Folk should not have time to get hungry again between courses. Especially given their infinitesimal size. At least we had our wine.  And goosefoots. And, yes, they add amazing value to the meal. So small, yet flavorful. They notably improved on already tasty fare.

The following is in order of the corkage. But in the melee that ensued, no glass was really paired with anything. ‘Twas all a giant free-for-all. I hope you can show more restraint.  

  1. Veuve Clicquot Rose (Champagne)
  2. 2011 Belle Glos Dairyman (Pinot)
  3. 2004 Marcel Deiss (Alsace)
  4. 1986 Château Beychevelle (Bordeaux)
  5. 2003 Parusso Barolo Le Coste-Mosconi (Barolo)

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Tru 2013-12-19

by Foodbitch 21. December 2013 06:30

Dear Tru, writing you this letter is a little like telling your female friend that she’s gained some weight. She knows. You know. Everyone knows. It usually makes no difference. But occasionally, the friend wakes up one morning and decides she looks like dough. And begins the gym FOR REAL – not just working out the jaw East Bank style. And when we see her in a month she looks amazing because she didn’t have that far to go. You are that friend and I can only hope that your (rock) bottom is higher than that of most.

You and I started dating in 2000. A mere several months after you emerged out of the Lettuce womb. You are my longest-term relationship. My dinner partners have come and gone but you have still remained. My 4-star go-to. My standby. Like a Minnesota Fats, you had no need to hustle others. You made your living by being consistently excellent, no matter what. Against you, others formed their measures. Sadly, your meter-stick has lost some length throughout the years.

I have always thought your dinners to be like gold and diamonds: they owe their value to their scarcity. Some accused you of theatrics but I believed the theater to be important. The “service” part of food. I enjoyed the synchronized pours and the artistry. Both on the walls and off.  Gone is the Warhol Marilyn because it (probably) belonged to Mr. Tramonto (Unlimited). But the art of the dining room most certainly did not. Why are we seeing its extinction? Did he take the service with him in the divorce?

My favorite part of dinner was always the wait staff. Unlike other 4-stars, Tru had the novel insight that its diners did not necessarily wish to sit for hours at a foodie funeral. And the waiters would engage the patrons at precisely the level of volume and activity that the patrons wanted. No longer. Yesterday, service was distant, unforgiving and slow to join the punch-line. It made me miss the Tru of old.

Ironically, even though the food is the easiest part for 4-stars to get to perfect, you didn’t even do that. Borrowing from Trotter, you underwhelm the appetizers and main courses and then overdo desserts as if it were a zero-sum investment. Like the balding guy who starts to grow a beard thinking the hair below compensates for the lack above. It doesn’t. I hated this behavior about Trotter’s and I was very disappointed with yesterday’s emulation of the same. But I must admit that what I had was excellent. It always is. Especially the cheese. Can we trade a few desserts for a higher cheese allowance? My household spends more on fermented milk than on gasoline. Our car gets 9 miles per gallon so you can imagine the value of this statement. And yet, we had not a single one of the cheeses on the menu. This is an accomplishment we admire. Unfortunately, I bet the menu is not available to mortals.

Anyway, our years are spent chasing Lettuce Entertain You gold status. Once we reach enough to maintain, we look for places to blow the accumulated rewards. I hate to tell you that next year we will look elsewhere. You probably won’t miss us because our spending is a rounding error on your books. It is said that critics are legless men who teach running. But what I would hate to see is a small group of dedicated nomads do to you what groups did to the Holy Roman Empire. I am not ready to move you out of memory and into history. I don’t want to write the first chapter in the Decline and Fall of the Tru-man empire just yet. 

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Cape Cod Room 2013-02-13

by Foodbitch 13. February 2013 23:27

Russell Menkes
General Manager
The Drake Hotel Chicago
140 East Walton St.
Chicago IL 60611

Dear Mr. Menkes,

On February 16th, 2013, we attempted to dine at Cape Cod Room. Since my partner worked on Valentine’s Day, we were going to use this as our date-night. It was not to be.

It’s not a crime for a restaurant to be busy. Indeed, there is a fine balance between traffic and desirability. But there is a big difference between organic crowdedness and the false pretense of exclusivity. Think the velvet ropes in LA nightclubs as compared to the healthy bar scene at a well-managed restaurant like Roy’s or anything by Gibson’s group.

Working the host stand was Theodore Daskalopoulos, who, I have since learned, is the general manager of the restaurant. I suppose the only way such a person can remain employed in the business of service is by being boss. He should not be allowed near customers.

Upon arrival, our customary 10 minutes in advance, Mr. Daskalopoulos advised us with dismissiveness: “We’re running a little behind. Have a seat.” Now, I don’t need massaging or false pretenses to niceness. But I still regarded the completely cavalier instruction to “have a seat” as, perhaps, not in the spirit of the service level to which a hotel like The Drake aspires. To say nothing of the fact that “a little behind” is absolutely meaningless. Quantify it and let us decide if we’re staying.

One other couple was already seated. We were the second. There was no more room to sit but Mr. Daskalopoulos proceeded to dismiss 3 additional parties with the same instructions. Sit where? I thought. No one had the courage to enter the completely empty dining area to the immediate right of entry and grab one of those seats. Had this been a regular Saturday, I would have and kicked my feet up. Maybe called Domino’s as obnoxiously as possible – asked the other victims of Mr. Daskalopoulos’ disdain if they wanted anything while they waited. But this was our Valentine’s Day.  I had to be nice which I regret exceedingly because few things on this planet are less pleasurable than being on the receiving end of my rude-restaurant cross-examination. Especially when I have an audience in a similar predicament.

Now Mr. Menkes, I understand fully well that a restaurant like Cape Cod Room is a rounding error on the books of a giant hotel like The Drake. This difference in scale is also why hotel management is almost always professionally trained and why restaurant management so rarely is. It is probably for this reason that the management charged with the hotel sometimes treats the restaurants’ as beneath them. Certainly Mr. Daskalopoulos’ attitude would imply that he is looked down upon by someone in your executive corridors and he takes out his resentment on his customers; who are also your customers. This affects you for two reasons.

First, most interactions between the hotel’s guests and its staff is through the dining establishments. There is little distinction drawn between the experiences in restaurants, especially when exceedingly negative and the overarching impression of the host organism, which is your Hotel. Secondly, by denying guests a viable place to spend their money inside the hotel, you’re just guaranteeing that what little benefit a restaurant does provide will be evaporate to nothing. Look to NoMi for a perfect example of a decade-long march into irrelevance until finally management was kicked out along with the nightclub attitude. Now, it is Michigan Avenue’s most improved player. Don’t you want to be? The solution begins with Mr. Daskalopoulos’ dismissal. And that of his attitude.

We went inland and had a lovely meal at Le Colonial where, even at their busiest, they have treated us better than Mr. Daskalopoulos treated anyone that night. Just thought you should know.


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STD Sushi 2013-01-10

by Foodbitch 10. January 2013 03:25

Good sushi is easy to identify. A good sushi restaurant is not. For better or for worse, both the yummy fish flesh and the places serving it has become commoditized. Although it may seem counterintuitive, I use the ubiquitous Spicy Tuna Roll as my barometer. And STD delivers.

It started out as the repository of wasted flesh. “Why bother?” the Japanese elitists thought. The dumb Americans are adding spicy mayo. They won’t be able to taste anything. Except when cuts get too close to the tail, the white sinews become ubiquitous. Some restaurants had even taken to grinding up the “sushi” so as to help the customer chew what would otherwise serve as dental floss. Tendon floss. Hehehe…gross. But a restaurant that uses quality tuna even though it’s drenched in spicy mayonnaise is a quality cop indeed. STD Sushi is the most remarkable achievement since Sushi Wabi and even Japonais. Below are some must-haves.

  1. H.I.Victory Sashimi – The sushi world is so stuck on rolls that ordering sashimi is so quaint it’s almost retro. However, the sushi chefs at STD have captured a strain of knowledge from a time before the latency and reverse transcribed it into some infectiously beautiful creations that are now a part of the restaurant’s DNA. Don’t try to resist these macro masterpieces. Your defenses will be useless.

  3. Giant Gonorrhea Roll – Its pieces are as soft as gonococci and emit a gentle color-sustaining hue, even in low light. I was infected right away by the spice and burn sensation even though only 20% of men risk infection upon first bite but luckily, more than 60% of women can expect the same.

  5. Spicy Syphilis Sixplosion – soft and gummatous, but bold and flavorful, the Spicy SS harks back to a simpler time, when the flavor was transmitted strictly through the mucous membranes. And what a flavor it is. The early stages may be painless but after a period of latency, the diner’s nose can explode with the heat of 1000 wasabis but the heat doesn’t go away. I am told that the chefs, having studied in Tuskegee, know how to make it stop but refuse – and we must endure.

  7. Herpetic Simplex Skewer – Once infected with their taste, you cannot but help experience persistent and recurring cravings. A craving that can be sated but not cured. Don’t resist the deliciousness. Call all your friends and gorge! Then upload it to YouTube. Guaranteed to go viral.

  9. Crabs Tempura – Crusted crustacean sitting on a bed of lice and curly crab grass, accompanied by a thick white sauce for your dipping pleasure. Not as overwhelming as the others, the Crabs don’t bog you down with craving – they just ping you on occasion. A little itch to let you know they’re there.

And so a new year ushers in a new sushi restaurant. The brief bump on the road to openings will not constrain the determined mouth from partaking of the offering. Sushi is, after all, one of nature’s perfect foods. Whether served naked or with culinary jewelry, there is nothing like the pleasure of that first morsel of gently cool sashimi melting on one’s tongue. What began in the 1960s as an experiment to fill the cargo holds of Japanese airliners is a national phenomenon that seems boundless in its scope. A roll is like a tunnel. And at its end there is no light, no hope for cure. Just darkness. For which we are the vector. 

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Lawrys 2012-12-17

by Foodbitch 17. December 2012 00:25

Richard N. Frank

234 E Colorado Boulevard # 500

Pasadena, CA  91101-2211


Dear Mr. Frank,

On December 17th, I dined at Lawry’s Chicago. Although my Prime Rib sandwich was, as it always is, excellent, I cannot say the same for the salad of my date. Indeed, I even feel discomfort using the term “salad” to describe the horror that was served. It seemed as though what passed for lettuce in Lawry’s Chicago sphere of gravity was a wilted and aged relic with a frozen past. The promised egg was missing and someone thought it wise to make up in seasoning what the entrée lacked in freshness. Much like my own wilting glow and souring scent of youth has forced me to resort to brightly colored outfits, jewelry and oceans of cologne. Yet I have seen McDonald’s hide their disdain for freshness better that Lawry’s did today and at least they don’t charge $10 for their assaults on salad-eating palates.

My complaint is, sadly, twofold. It is exceedingly rare to be served such inedibility anywhere in Chicago. When it happens, I like to monitor the server’s reaction to clearing a full plate. Today, the bus staff cleared the table and took no notice whatsoever. This is bad training. As is the fact that wilted, browning lettuce can make it past a single pair of kitchen eyeballs and down on a paying person’s plate. This kind of carelessness trickles from the top. So, after paying for our luncheon, I asked the hostess for the manager. “Is it important?” I was asked. I would like to think that if I’m asking, clearly I consider it important but alas, there was no manager around. At all. It startled me that a chain as successful as Lawry’s could fail to impress upon a general manager the importance of having supervisors available to customers at all hours they are served. Especially during lunchtime rush on Michigan Avenue. Had I been able to speak about the matter in real-time, this would have gone no further. But since the GM obviously cares so little for his operations I feel this escalation is a favor to a restaurant where I had enjoyed so many prior meals. And hope to in the future.

You see Mr. Frank, Lawry’s, unlike most of Chicago’s temples to carnivorousness, has never cared for their vegetarian clientele quite as much as I believed was business savvy. Go to Gibson’s or Joe’s and order a salad and what comes back is a caricature on a serving platter. For a comparable pittance. They have, unlike Lawry’s, figured out that the flesh-eaters must often dine with those who are still stuck in moral purgatory eating the plant diets of great apes. They don’t understand that all domestic animals are alive for our entertainment or consumption but instead of shunning these poor souls, feed them! And you’ll see more of their dinner partners too! The marginal increase in cost for a head of lettuce is trivial after the supply chain absorbs the cost of the first 100 units. If you promise egg, deliver it! And a few more than 5 tiny croutons (we counted). And…who thought that freezing lettuce was a good idea? Unlike animal protein, water-rich plant membranes do not maintain cellular integrity (or taste) after being pierced with ice crystals. This is why JR Simplot’s process of flash-freezing his potatoes enabled us to become a country of freeze-dried, French-fried tastelessness. Let them be thankful for International Flavors and Fragrances for creating the chemical mirage of flavor. Lawry’s – I held to higher standards.

Mr. Frank, I love your company’s accomplishments almost as much as I loved the food. But the decline in “caring” continues unabated. Please sir, sneak in one day and eat at Lawry’s Chicago’s lunchtime counter. If you proclaim it even passable (C-) I will eat this letter right in front of you. It’s printed on 32 lb. paper so this is not a run-of-the-mill boast. Although it may not be the worst thing for me. They keep telling me I need more fiber in my diet.


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Hash House a go go 2012-08-24

by foodbitch 24. August 2012 20:59

A fearsome apparition was placed on the table before me and for the first time in YEARS I feared defeat by a lunch entrée. This “battle” is akin to playing chicken. You win but you still lose. By all the pork that’s holy, I wish I would have lost. I felt like lethargic crap all day.

The waiter started it. He said he had never seen someone finish more than half of it. What was I supposed to do? The Big O’ Crispy Pork Tenderloin is the Jacksonville of sandwiches. It spread over my plate like Jack-o-ville spreads over north Florida. Wide, thin, and cooked extra crispy, Jacksonville sprawls over 800 square miles to contain a population the size of San Francisco. Likewise, my “tenderloin” wasn’t tender in the least but super-wide, super thin and cooked irreparably tender-free. All the flavor of this sandwich could have fit inside 2 cubic inches of pork belly. But instead, my palate got a long, boring suburban commute across a desolate, parched landscape in pursuit of a scarce garnish. Definitely the triumph of quantity over quality.

I will return to HHAGG. I don’t want to rip on it too badly. Some people like pork this way. Some also like chicken-fried ice cream. Their palate was probably abused as children. It’s not their fault. Their parents were, and many still are, high-caloric idiots. But there are other items I will try including the Man vs. Food favorites. The service was impeccable. Despite his warning that “plates come out as they’re ready” the server took my sarcastic reply in stride like a complete gentleman. I was almost misty-eyed. All should know and share my opinion on the philosophy of “we let your food get cold in front of you instead of timing the kitchen properly.” To HHAGG’s credit, they didn’t let it get too cold. Nor would it have mattered. The time it took me to chew mouthful after dry mouthful of irredeemably fried pork meant that my sandwich was cold inside of the first few bites. Heat flees as a function of surface area and this sandwich was a surface like no other. And yet, temperature changes were neither detraction nor improvement. And like the sight of a palm tree in the desert, I longed for the rare pickle sprinkled coyly through the flatness of my pork. I relished every one. Get it? I relished the pickles?

HHAGG, unlike some other recent meals, announces early and loudly that “we are a non-heat lamp restaurant.” This is their way of telling you about the philosophy of the kitchen being timing-free. I appreciate the twist on words to make this sound better but naturally, with the presence of heat lamps, one is discouraged from timing dishes AT ALL since they can just sit and mutate until the other things are ready. But it’s not cheap. HHAGG, being a chain, sought to save heat lamps * 7 locations * untold kilowatthours etc., etc.. Fine. But stop it with creative excuses. Heat-lamp free? Please. All they’re doing is passing down rudeness to their customer. I’m still never going to start eating until everyone in my party can too and I will always lift my ass slightly off the seat when the females leave the table or return and damn those chair-booths. Neither I nor you should let any amount of modern restaurant philosophy ever encroach upon good manners. That’s what booze is for.

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Rustic House 2012-07-26

by foodbitch 26. July 2012 18:05

An easy way for a server to inflict shrinkage upon an otherwise robust gratuity is to make the table wait for the first drink and/or the check.  Even those good about the former can have an uncanny tendency to vanish just before the last bite until well after the table has been cleared. Despite these infractions, Rustic House was a highly memorable meal.

We seldom venture north of North or west of Western. There is rarely any need. Upon the first sighting of a backward ballcap my natural human flight or fight response sometimes kicks into both gears. But this evening, at Rustic House, there were no ball caps, front or back. No pre-theater peacocking. Just some honestly outstanding food for a bargain of a price.

We have a semi-monthly dinner with some true fans of the fermented grape. Such fans they are that drinking acceptable quality in the required quantity would quickly push any dinner bill past a private-school tuition. Thus, they roll their own. At RH, the $20 (per BOTTLE!) corkage fee is a little steep. I recall that even Spiaggia charged only a flat fee. I recall this because the waitress there told me that folks eating rich but drinking poor sometimes order the “Coor-kawjé.” I don’t disagree that a fee should be charged. But there is just something scalding about it costing you a Jackson per bottle considering they don’t even pour the wine most of the time (or change glasses unless you change colors). This, along with the delay before the first drink and after the last bite are already on the list of tiny little knit-picking. And just a couple others before I can go on about the wonder of the food. The dining room was PACKED. I am delighted that people are eating out again since the last few years has been a wasteland for new restaurants. But in the back dining room of RH, the tables are packed so tightly that the most two-dimensional of people would not fit comfortably and any encroachment upon the aisle will guarantee a bump (or 20) from speedy bussers. I am not the most jumbo of Chicagoans but I still spent dinner seated with the back of my chair sideways – perpendicular to the table – because there was no way to breathe or move without chair-grinding the nice older lady behind me. She noticed and tried to move her table over without causing the same issue for her party. If she noticed, I wonder why our server didn’t. But our server was thoroughly overwhelmed. I guess they don’t pack it in like this consistently. Finally in the column of infraction: parking. Our dinner reservation was at 7:30. We arrived at 7:15 and left shortly before 10PM. Check is time-stamped 9:49PM. RH has a policy, supposedly printed on the valet sign, that parking costs $12 for 3 hours and 16 thereafter. We were charged the $16. First of all: this is abusive. Gibson’s doesn’t charge so much for so little and we park there all day. Secondly: the valet sign was long gone by the time we left the restaurant. And finally: we did NOT spend 25 minutes gathering our things after the bill. It shines bad light upon a business when a supporting service engages in wholesale theft on top of already overcharging. You expect this at a strip club as they try to soak you for $10 in the “mandatory coat check” but not after 3-star dining. I called Brianne Carden (GM) and informed her of my displeasure. This was done via the vanishing vocal cord – not via email. She said she’d look into it and follow up. Please don’t be shocked when I tell you that she has NOT followed up and if she is looking into anything she’s doing so clandestinely. But, managerial delinquency aside, on to the food!

I have dined at most of Jason Paskewitz’s restaurants since his bold emergence on our scene. His prior efforts have been consistent. They all had decent management, fair service and great food. From this, Rustic house is only a slight improvement if one averages and reduces the scores down to standardized. But we shouldn’t do that. This is why you’re reading the second page of lengthy rant instead of looking briefly for a star rating. Having made it this far, you have the interest and attention span to want to know what’s good, what’s not and what was absolutely worth the trip. The food is always good or great at a Paskewitz location. It’s always his business partners (with emphasis on the business component) who need polish. This was no exception. The food at Rustic House was better than any other place Mr. Paskewitz has cooked.

Rustic House is basically rotisserie house +. Every day (except for Monday since they’re closed) Rustic House features a roto-special. We’re talking pork chops, veal, lamb, duck and prime rib. The chicken is on daily. Having gone on Thursday, the day’s rotisserie was baby suckling pig. There is something about pork prepared this way that never ceases to amaze me. It’s like when Goldman Sachs is ready to release earnings and disclose bonuses and you know they’re going to be big numbers and you think you’re not going to be shocked but you always are. That is always, always how I feel about pork done right. Every bite is better than the last and even though I agreed to share with my friends I just can’t bear to part equitably with my porcine treasure in exchange for a helping of pasta. Pasta? Please. How much pasta can you give me to make up for a mere morsel of that crispy skin and tender flesh?

The pork was the best feature of the evening and, amazingly, the cheapest. For $22 I expected a finger but got a big old fist. People expect to pay more for this kind of treat and it’s refreshing when we don’t. The lamb T-bone was also shockingly well-priced at $28, the salmon filet at $26, and the only item scratching up the thirties was the swordfish at $32. Now I neither wish to foment religious war, nor insult anyone’s palate. I’m glad swordfish exists, appears on menus regularly and is as substantial as a steak for all the pescatarians. But I will only order swordfish if there is nothing else to eat. Like Dyson Vacuums, male jewelry and BMWs – I have nothing against any of these things, nor the people buying them. But they are not for me. Neither is swordfish. But, in its defense, the male half of our double date said the swordfish was the best he’s ever had. Although I cannot tune my palate to this frequency and receive these signals, this guy is an authority on gluttony and you should listen to what he says. If you like swordfish that is. And wear a pinky ring. In your M3 convertible.

In the last 5 years, entrée prices have seen very large deflation. Like the airlines and the 10,000 computer parts merchants on the early Web. People are drawn to entrée prices (the fare, the hard drive) and not until they get to checkout would they see the scam. Airline fees and taxes and other shameless crap that would double the price as advertised. It was the same with online shopping before Amazon became a giant with little tiny stores selling 20 dollar microphones and charging $85 dollars for shipping and HANDLING. I don’t know what kind of “handling” would warrant such terrific gouging but don’t think it can happen through underwear, to say nothing of a monitor. Rustic House and others have a slightly different approach to the same scam. Sure your baby suckling piggy is $22 but a tablespoon of almonds is $5 and 2 jumbo garlic shrimp (although excellent and enough to repel the Kosher vampires) cost $10 and a pot pie (also excellent; we ordered for the table) was a gouge-inducing $19. Don’t forget the $20 corkage (per BOTTLE!) and the $13 martini and before you know it Mr. Businesschef, you’ve made up the money you’ve lost on meats. We also ordered the grilled octopus for $13 which was actually really good and comparatively inexpensive. It was almost par with Parthenon. Those Greeks…I just don’t know how they do it. Their Octopi are stellar.

For dessert we ordered Crème Brulee but I would have rather ordered another Martini. As you know, I prefer my sugars fermented and distilled. So – in conclusion, we had a lovely meal for about $90/pp (remember that we brought our wine). Despite the neutron star density of people, the overwhelmed service, the price gouging of the appetizers, corkage and the little “bonus” the valet decided to give himself, we had a great time and think that you will too. Go on Thursday. Get the baby pig. You’ll thank me.

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Au Cheval 2012-07-21

by foodbitch 21. July 2012 17:51

When Phil Vettel reviewed RPM he coined the term “Nitropub” to describe the recent trend of selling high-priced appetizers at bars. “Nitro” instead of the conventional “gastro” because he thought it more appropriate for the energy they ooze. Perhaps. They can overload my ears, underload my eyes, and have a Bloody Mary sommelier. They are almost always mediocre. But Au Cheval is slightly better.

I blame Paul Kahan for many sins that I first observed at his establishments. Blackbird for dinner plate microscopy. Avec and later Publican for communal seating. Publican and Big Star for the now endemic: “we bring it out as it’s ready” = inability/unwillingness to manage flow and have one diner either awkwardly sitting with a plate for 10 minutes having it get cold or sitting for 10 minutes at the end of the meal while the other party finishes. Either way, dear management, someone will be sitting awkwardly at one of these two points in the meal so why not just spare us said awkwardness and let the dish that was flamed first sit under the heat lamps? We honestly won’t mind. This policy has infected everyone so thoroughly that Au Cheval (or RPM, and a great number of recent places) doesn’t even bother telling you that stuff will be lobbed onto the table in whatever order they goddam please. I have to stress loudly, past the point of politeness, that WE (not I) will be STARTING with the soup. Bring two spoons. I shouldn’t have to say this. But almost without fail, the plate will arrive with a single spoon leaving me to eat with the glorified coffee stirrer. To their credit, Au Cheval had spoons in their utensil wrap saving me this particular sound-off. And they heard me on the “starting with” which is a rare treat in the ranks of Nitropubs. Hearing anything is a treat I suppose but anyway, I don’t care what Anthony Bourdain says. I love my serving of hot liquid almost as much as my alcoholic one. I want it and I want it first.

Au Cheval is pretty good. It suffers the typical missteps of youth even though Brendan Sodikoff is neither a kid nor inexperienced. He has Gilt, Maude’s and the Doughnut Vault on his resume. With such a thickening portfolio, it would be wise to learn from the mistakes of others as well as their successes. Dinner was good. Not great. The best part of the experience was the Matzah ball soup. Think more e.Leaven’s delicate broth than Manny’s ocean of salted dough. I ordered the 2 pound pork porterhouse on a thick and lovely bone. Why? Because, what did you expect? Restraint? Please. Anyway, when such options do exist, cost 2x more than anything else on the menu ($39), and especially when they are beef or pork or something else not seasonal or perishable, the person ordering damn well expects it to be of excellent quantity, quality and avail itself of the finest preparation. The person who cooked this “porkterhouse” was definitely new to task having perhaps cooked only steaks before. Now, I will be the first to tell you that I prefer pork undercooked. Ditka’s. Hugo’s. Even D. Kelly do (or did) this smashingly. Mind you, the waitress didn’t even ask about the temperature. I presume, because they know better. I also guarantee you that most normal people would have sent this back so fast that a Higgs could have been observed en route. It was absolutely raw in many places, not just by the bone. This despite having been “butterflied” as is common practice when one orders a rock of overcooked carbon for a filet. Again, I love my pork medium-rare. It’s a little creepy but still good when rare but let’s agree to file the black-and-blue preps back in the beef column. Yeah, I ate it anyway. But you probably won’t and what you send back will come back inedible as is always the case when heat is removed and added twice. And, pork of this heft can use a few more seconds at 1200 degrees to help break down the tough gristle and fat that is otherwise uncuttable, unchewable and thus inedible. My two pounds of flesh was nothing of the sort so don’t be very impressed. But there was a sprinkling of Foie Gras bits about the plate so we called it even. They were excellent.

The female had the salmon which was good and well-priced. $18 for a reasonable cut with ample areas of both crispy/burnt and thick, raw. I prefer my salmon with this duality of extremes without having most of the fish fall into the middle class of slightly overdone. This requires a special cut (looks like the graph of a logarithm with a connecting line to x) and a superhot heat source. The fries with egg were very good but fell short of the overwhelming quality and quantity common to most other places charging $9 for the plate. The Bloody Maries that we drank as our Amuse course were truly excellent. I like my mix a little thicker than Branch 27 but thinner than Spoke. But the rim-job here was sensational: thick, cracked black pepper and sea salt. Yum. Well worth the 10 bucks. The martinis however? Unless you give a Gibson’s sized glass, $12 does not belong in Chicago, unless it’s Accounting 101. And $14 for a glass of a $26 bottle of River’s Edge??? That’s retail BTW; restaurants get it cheaper. This is abuse of a high order and you can rest assured that somewhere someone did a breakeven analysis and decided to pad this, not that. I suggest you order the signature drinks. They are worth it.

By the time we got to the gelato I was pretty full and I guess there can indeed be no room left for ice cream if one just got done struggling with a monster porketerhouse, fries, soup, 4 drinks and all the other crap I had that day. The scoops were big and very good. At $6/3 scoops, I’m not overwhelmingly sorry that I didn’t save room for them.

Anyway, if you’re loving the “nitropub” concept you will probably think all of the above to be some bitchy musings. But if you still go out to DINNER and order entrees, you like your food to arrive at the same time as your date’s and you could use a few more lumens in the dining room to properly read the menu then you might be closer to that label than you think.

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NoMI 2012-03-01

by foodbitch 6. March 2012 20:36

History is a nightmare from which NoMI has awoken. When hotel restaurants are good, they are very, very good. And when bad, they stink like filet-O-gangrene. A withered limb of a hospitable organism, hanging there forever. Atrophy is, I guess, better than amputee. The rare wanderings-in of guests spike eerie staff motion like the salted twitches of severed frog legs. Few restaurants step back from this lonely, cold abyss. NoMI has – magma coom loud – or something like that.

NoMI opened in 2000 to tremendous fanfare. My own included. The views, the food, the service were all completely stellar. There was no shortage of pretty young things haunting the trendy halls and patios. I was, myself, a lot younger, not much prettier but a whole lot better dressed. Learning from the school of Tru, which opened in 1999, NoMI had a snob factor of zero while engaging with the diners as much or as little as they wanted. The prices, although high, were on par with those of other hotel restaurants. Life was, for a while, sweet. Until the inevitable: artist meets accountant. 2000 predated (slightly) the epoch of the Cheflebrity. And, right or wrong, hotel restaurants were always relatively immune to raving prima donnas. The revenue contribution of the kitchen is typically a rounding error on a giant hotel’s books and since the accountants were always left in charge, the mission of turning a dollar into $1.02 trumped any attempts at the high-end staffing and selective waste whose absence quickly knock a 3-star dinner down to zero. With NoMI it began with sushi.

What the Sam Hill did they know of sushi? Not a damn thing except for how to charge for it. $15 micro-rolls back in 2000? The wannabe economists saw the kick-off of the sushi craze and ordered the kitchen to comply. Except they didn’t actually commit to BEING a sushi restaurant. Or even a Sushi bar like Blue Door at the Delano. After the first or second disappointment no one ever orders sushi again. Sushi is too expensive for a dice-roll, get it? Hahaha! If there ever were a sushi chef, he likely died of boredom. The “apprentices,” whose claim to sushi chefdom was bussing in the kitchen, were all that would remain to drench rice with spicy mayonnaise. Yet, there, on the menu, it’d remain – for a decade – as testament to stubbornness and inability to admit mistakes. NoMI still serves sushi but now, the price is commensurate with quantity and quality. On every level. 

Dinner was outstanding. They sure made the occasion special. After all, I am now of middle-age according to the US Census’ demographic grouping. This entitles me to a little pampering. The female probably requested, and received, the best table in the house. It was a great compromise between viewings of the diners and the avenue below. The waiter was utterly professional and engaging in a perfect balance. There when we need him, gone when we don’t. He didn’t get my joke (or maybe chose not to) about my preferred temperature for pork being medium-rare because: “I’ve never known anyone who came down with a case of trigonometry.” “It’s trichinosis” he corrected me. “Thank you” I said. “I’ve had problems remembering things since going on a roundworm diet.” But anyway, if you were the waiter, you would probably not want to engage with this level of humor either so I don’t blame him. 

The food? The food was of the highest caliber. The only thing not quite worth the price-tag was the ocean platter which contained a half-dozen oysters, several medium stone crab claws, a lobster tail, a lobster claw and assorted Mollusca, including some of the best jumbo shrimp since Hugo’s. All good, none great, except the shrimp. So, if this $75 “appetizer” is going to be the mid-range scrapple, price it at $40 and see people beam with joy. Look to Barton G in South Beach who charges the same for much more. But excepting this one thing, the meal was astonishingly cheap for food we never imagined possible from a kitchen with its burners set so low for so long. NO LONGER! Not a single fish over $30! A true medium-rare pork chop! (Porterhouse they say – more like Pork-ter-house.) A filet cheaper than any you will find on Rush Street and possibly equally as good. Although this verdict will have to wait until the next time. And, at these prices, a next time there shall be. You should look for us. We’re easy to spot. We’re the white, middle-aged couple rockin' the new moist Acuvue contact lenses. Can't miss us.

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Next Restaurant 2011-11-17

by foodbitch 17. November 2011 12:45

Next Restaurant is like organized religion. Christian in the sense that you surrender to a higher power. Jewish in that you pay before you go to temple. And like they all, you don’t get to use free will. You go to watch the show – not steer production. But what a marvel the show is.

There is something inherently inspiring about watching true mastery of a craft. Like we discussed before, all chefs are, in their own way, inspired. Creativity is not possible without some sort of inspiration. But to be “inspiring,” to make someone go home wondering “how’d they do that” is a completely different form of excellence. It’s the difference between walking out of a movie and liking it and walking out of a movie wanting to make them yourself. And although lots of people want to work in movies because they’re familiar only with its red carpet and its romance, few doubt that slaving away in kitchens is really quite excruciating. But in as much as I know that people walked out of Jurassic Park and started filming stop-motion with their Super 8, I just plain know that people will go home after their meals at Next and try to “whip something up” themselves.

The menu was, and for a little while will be, Childhood. All the staples of our youthful diets are addressed. The tastes, the smells, the antique lunchboxes. All, of course, done with a little more attention than our mothers who sometimes would forget to remove the wrapper from the slice of American cheese. Or maybe mine just liked pranking me. Anyway, a little orb of PB filled with J kicked off the amuse course and everything that followed truly did remind us of our youth. The Mac and Cheese that everyone now serves – better than anyone now serving it. The chicken noodle and veggie soups. The sweet potato pie. But to go into detail about each is, in my opinion, counterproductive. Of course it’s great. Of course it’s tasty. And, of course it’s clever in a way that few restaurants can ever be – not just due to superior creativity but due to much superior economics. So instead of filling the next paragraph with glowing adjectives, we’d let the pictures do some talking, not spend a whole lot of time on a menu that you probably won’t get to try, and instead focus on the Aviary/Next experience, which, could use quite a bit of polish.

It’s not completely fair to lump Aviary into Next. But it is the de facto Hotel Lobby. The doctor’s waiting room. The curb appeal. They suggest you arrive early and have a drink before having dinner which we gladly did. The nightclub-style entrance was guarded by a nightclub-style bouncer. “We have dinner in 1 hour. Can we go in and have a drink?” This is where we usually say thank you for them holding the door open. But no. An exhaustive inquisition followed – our reservation, time, spellings of names. It was freezing outside. Then, once all the INFO was collected we were asked to stand “here” which is bouncer code for out of the damn way. Luckily there were heat lamps a short distance away. Over 5 minutes go by and the female is shivering and I have 0 patience for waiting in non-lines. “If it’s not happening, tell us and we’ll go somewhere else. Or…let us in. It’s cold and we’re not waiting outside.” And with this, we were “permitted” to wait in the foyer to be seated at a shockingly available seating area. Fail. This is not how one behaves with patrons in Next’s waiting room. One also does not make the patrons ask 3 times for water or make them late to dinner! They had an hour to serve us 3 drinks ($45 prix-fix and EXCELLENT). But I couldn’t even finish my last because we were already 10 min past our reservation. For the number of times we were asked about our reservation NEXT door (get it?) we would have expected them to actually care about the answer. And, of course, you cannot finish a drink from one in the other – even if you’ve closed out. But anyway – enough about the waiting room. To their (small) credit, we didn’t have reservations but it’s not like they were bursting with drinkers.

Next Restaurant is overall a great experience. But for the price, their service sure could use a little polish. Tru demystified 4-star dining with their novel realization that people want to eat well and be festive too. They didn’t want their wait staff acting as though they were at a wake. Theatrics aside, you will get from Tru’s staff exactly what you put in. You want to sit there all morose like your grandma just died? Ok. They’ll leave you alone. But if you want to chat and be merry, they are right there with you.  But Next takes the informality to a new low and I’m not sure I like it. The chaos of the dining room is OK when you eat at the bar in Hugo’s but not when you prepay almost $500 for a 4-star meal. I don’t know. I bet I am in the minority since the female didn’t seem to mind.

But we must end on a highly positive note: the wine pairings. Not only were they perfectly complimentary but also unbelievably plentiful. Too much so. They left the bottles on the table! This is dangerous. Who does that with wine? This makes the “pairing” theoretically limited only by courses but can allow for several healthy glasses of any given wine if you drink fast during a course. Drink fast is what we do. This was the best value of the night. Definitely get the wine pairings and skip the 7-flight course at Aviary unless you want to be rolled out.

Dinner at an Achatz restaurant is more “experience” than feeding. It’s art, science and execution all in healthy measures. Their business model makes perfect sense considering the limited supply and onslaught of demand. It works for them. It probably won’t work for many. That’s OK. Just like Apple, BMW and The Soup Nazi – you can buy their stuff if you follow their rules. They know what you want better than you do. You want to give input on the menu? Make decisions? Customize? Change? NO NEXT FOR YOU! NEXT!


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Pump Room 2011-10-08

by foodbitch 8. October 2011 12:29

I propose extending the science of Epidemiology to apply to restaurants. We could study why good (or bad) experiences occur more frequently in certain areas than in others. We could predict the schizophrenia of Sundas. A rash of Rias. And even the wonderful rebirth of Public House’s Pump Room.

The art of solving nasty problems in one discipline with elegant solutions from another is nothing new. The Black-Scholes option pricing formula was the product of bringing Fischer Black’s scientific expertise to bear on economic problems. Myron Scholes was a finance prof at Stanford and Robert Merton was an economist at Harvard. In the early 70s, options were brand-new and traders were working off of hunches. This made prices highly, highly volatile – almost random. It is not likely that either professor could have distilled the theory and assumptions into the options pricing formula without Black, who, being a physicist, saw almost immediately that what seemed random from above could be described formulaically, a close analogue to Brownian motion. Enter the stochastic differential equations and we have ourselves a whole new arsenal of financial weapons designed to make rich richer and you poorer. But seriously, they lose me at “equation” so if you care, go read further. And if you don’t give a flying flock about interpretations, then just skip to the last paragraph.

Every time I walk into an eatery, I may as well be going for a random walk. This bothers me immensely. I rely on reviews of trusted gluttons. Personal knowledge of the staff. Perhaps the chef, or owners or the managers. None of the aforementioned is worth a bowl of gruel. Sometimes you get exceptional. Sometimes you trip on a dreadful fat tail. But most of the time you end up somewhere in the middle. A pretty standard distribution of experience. But…why can’t we look past our selfish one-off experiences and treat dining as a group affliction with the same series of causations as every other thing in life?

Can we notice that at restaurants attached to a hotel, the skill of professional management on the hotel side tends to percolate down to the dining room? This is because the hotel business is so investment-heavy and commoditized that making money depends on squeezing out inefficiencies to a degree that requires professional education on the subject. Few can afford to learn on the job. Most restaurants, however, are case studies in inefficient operation and for every Gibson’s that can set a wristwatch with consistency there are 1000 Rias that think that the romance of making tonic at the bar will survive the onslaught of a single Thursday night. Anyone who has experienced a Thursday night on Rush street can tell you otherwise and people would rather have their drink than wait ten minutes for something marginally better. And besides, on the 16th round, nobody can tell anything about the vodka, much less the tonic.

Next, there’s the neighborhood. Split 20 meals between the Gold Coast and Hipsterville, and 19 will be better experiences in the former. Why? Staffing. Stereotypes aside, when I am served by a member of the Great Unshowered, more often than not the job is just transitional while he/she finds a less demeaning way to plug the $80k dollar art degree.  Transience always equals caring less. Turn-over with such staff is well over 50% and since the shoddy service rarely earns good tips, the bus staff also quits and soon the downward spiral is complete. Since quality bus service is the key differentiator between a good experience and excellent, any restaurant where bussers can’t make a decent living goes to service hell much faster. By contrast, look at some of the city’s greatest service restaurants. I’ve known some staff at Gibson’s Group for the better part of a decade - it’s their job, they accept it and strive to excel at it. The bussers at Vivo and even some other (earlier) KDK Restaurants had worked there since the kitchens opened and earned a very healthy living which was often complimented by a C-note from idiots like me for truly exceptional performance. FYI, I knew the bus staff at Vivo very well and they all had houses and properties for rent – which they likely rented to the armies of the third tactical division of the Royal Bucktown Buffoonery.

So…needless to say our Pump Room experience was stellar. The redesign was great and the food itself was great (not excellent). Service, however, was truly excellent and made up for the rare misstep. I must admit that as a long-time Vong fanatic, I really expected my taste buds to jump onto the plate as they did with staples like the veggie-curry pizza, the spicy pad thai, and the passion fruit soufflé. They did, but not at the level I remember. Notable exception was the pork chop which was served with a green curry salsa that would have made my eyes bug out if not for the quick availability of alcohol to wash away my tongue. To their credit, I was warned. The tomato bisque soup tasted like they used skim milk and the tuna tartare was nowhere in the league of Le Colonial. Having an uncomfortable amount of gristle, it should cost less than its $14 since all it seems to be is a tuna waste receptacle. BUT!!! A Maker’s Mark (neat) only costs $10 which is rare this side of Damen – especially at a Hotel. Pump Room has plenty of affordable wine and lots of clever drinks. On a prior barhop, I ordered a martini made with tobacco juice that the staff prepares themselves. Very very good. This is the kind of thing that deserves a premium price – not pouring Maker’s in a glass. Anyway, I readily admit that my critiques of the experience are more driven by past knowledge of Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s true capacity to please. Any other chef would not be held this much accountable for not giving me an oral orgasm with every mouthful. Whoa, sorry, that sounded really bad.

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Chicago Cut 2011-09-06

by Foodbitch 5. September 2011 22:45

Chicago continues to have as big an appetite for steakhouses as it does for steak itself. Will Chicago Cut make it to the repeat list? Maybe. But not likely. As we’ve covered in the past, the restaurant industry is in the business of food service. Even greasy spoons get the former. It’s the latter that gives everyone more grief. And in most cases, service issues are the direct result of unprofessional management.

Management is a skill. It’s not acquired by being a great server. Or a short-skirt hottie. Or even a great outside salesperson. It is acquired by recognizing, learning from and trying to emulate excellence. And restaurant management has professionals just like any other field. It requires learning and adapting to one’s bosses AND learning and adapting to one’s staff. How many cube dwellers do you know who have been promoted well beyond their competence? Quite a few I imagine. They are the ones who mistake fear for respect and manage through aggression rather than diplomacy. And why should restaurant America be any different from the corporate? Management is recruited from the ranks of server to show that promotion happens from within. To preserve the “bond” between the staffers as if the promotion itself didn’t already sever any ties that may have formed. Unfortunately, it was all too obvious this evening that the management of Chicago Cut was recently promoted into a role for which it was grossly unprepared. But before the bad, the good.

The food, as expected, was terrific. The drinks were healthy but just a bit too pricy and the steaks were just the way we like them. Translation: the way we order them the FIRST time out of the kitchen. I’ve been surprised with how many steakhouses really don’t believe you when you order a steak rare.  Anyway, French Onion soup was, at $8, the evening’s greatest value and within a standard deviation of Capital Grille’s. The bone-in filet (cooked rare) did have a fair amount of gristle but enough marbling to balance out the tough parts. And given that the gristle was mostly at the bone, I mostly forgave them. At that price (US$55), mostly.

The prime rib, although cooked to my friend’s desired temperature of medium, looked and smelled delicious. I did not try his steak nor did he try mine because we both consider our respective temperatures misguided. I believe medium to be grossly overcooked and he believes that humans discovered fire for a reason and can barely stand the sight of the bloodbath sloshing on my plate. Anyway, we agree to disagree and keep our mutual mockery at friendly levels but I do try to slurp loudly every dozen bites or so just to remind him of the bloody past from which humanity evolved. Or at least that’s what I gather after watching Quest for Fire. Those guys had it good! They could have used a shower and perhaps a forehead but oh the raw meat that they’d devour! How I wished this evening for prime rib! So much so that I ordered one. My order was not to be.

Prime rib is my favorite cut of meat. I can’t describe the feeling. Maybe if I did better on my SATs I’d have the vocabulary. Especially when rare and dripping in congealing, living juices it is one of humanity’s greatest gifts to itself. When I think of Intelligent Design, I don’t think of ghosts in heaven or planets or galactica like Michael Behe. I think of the domesticated cow. How about that for intelligent? We took a fierce, muscular killing beast and converted it into prime rib, filet mignon, rib eye and hot dogs. What was once 3 tons of murder with 4 legs and 2 horns became bovine passivity. The last auroch to walk the earth circa 1627 would have killed all of Naperville before it would have allowed itself to be milked to say nothing of slaughtered in a cubicle. Humans didn’t beat the fight out of it. They bred it out. Of course, they didn’t know what the devil they were doing when they started inadvertently sexually selecting for passivity around 8000 years ago but hey, we had trial and error on our side. That pretty much sums up most of human endeavor: throw up enough ideas and hope a few stick.  Works pretty well when the species’ lifespan is relatively short and they don’t mind copulating on a schedule or with an audience.

As for the problem: there was but one. In a professionally managed restaurant, the staff advises you pre-facto of shortages or outages. BEFORE the decision is made. This requires frequent data interchange and is the foremost task of management. At restaurants managed by inexperience, they don’t seem to catch this point or think it too important. It is. And so, the minutes turned to tens as we waited for our delectable prime rib. Only the rib never came. Instead, the manager arrived to tell me that they had no more rare prime rib. A crime unto itself, and all they had was medium. My misguided friend likes his steak that way so the choice of which of us was having it was clear. The price of the rib: $44. The price of my steak: $55. Guess which price I was charged? This is terrible. When the kitchen runs out of anything – mid-shelf vodka, a desired cut of beef, etc., and the patron must make another selection, the proper charge is the smaller amount of the two. I’m not talking about being out of Veuve and letting someone order Cristal for the lesser price. I mean $11 after making me wait, serving me rejection and then spanking me for the larger sum is just unacceptable. And it’s not like they wouldn’t do it. It just never crossed anyone’s mind. Inexperience is a terrible prison. I hope they soon break out. But for now, I am telling this with a sigh, a month ages and ages hence, that two steaks diverged on a grill and I, ate the one less cook-ed by and that made all the diff-e-rence.

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Roys Chicago 2011-08-27

by foodbitch 27. August 2011 13:47

Dear Roy’s Management: in a world where kitchens think their job is to turn a dollar into two by contracting rather than exceeding, where customers are mere commodities – to be consumed and thrown away, you stand in the starkest contrast as a beacon of true excellence.

Few businesses can benefit from economies of scale more than restaurants. The marginal increase in cost for every extra steak you sizzle or tuna you sear is negligible compared to the cost of cooking up the first one. Lots of restaurants shop for scale but in their quest to squeeze the penny, they end up using far more scrapple than they should. Filet Mignon with gristle. Tuna with tendons. This is unacceptable past the price point of an Applebee’s but how many times have we all been seared this way ourselves? At Roy’s, they ONLY use the good stuff and throw the rest away. They can afford it. They train and retain the best staff and buy/build the best software. They even have a CRM component!!! (Customer Relationship Management for you non-nerds; more on that later.) I consider the fact shameful that in the near-decade it’s been open, I have only eaten at Roy’s Chicago 19 times. Barely twice a year and that includes the 4 times that I ate there in 2002 when it was brand new. Looking back, this bothers me.

How much can I praise Roy’s service? Let me count the ways. In late 2002, the server overheard the female proclaiming that her favorite food was French Fries. In her misguided youth, she didn’t even eat fish. So there wasn’t much for her to have at a Hawaiian Fusion restaurant. Or was there? The server interrupted and offered her the following: “We don’t really have fries on the menu Miss,” he apologetically said. “But we do have potatoes and a deep fryer and we could probably swing some fries for you pretty quickly.” We were absolutely stunned. This in the first week of their opening! Compare that to the places that won’t even separate the white from yolk. She had the fries and they were really, really good.

Flash forward 3,169 days, to Saturday, August 27th, 2011. The last time we had tried to have dinner was in mid-June. They made us wait too long and we left. Yeah, yeah, it was only like 20 minutes – I know I have an unreasonably short fuse in this regard and have no patience for 20 minutes of “they’re paying their bill.” It’s called management! Of employees and more importantly: of customers! Buy them a round of drinks – AT THE BAR. See how quickly they will scurry. Anyway, we’re never rude about this – we just give them a 5-minute warning and leave exactly 5 minutes later. In most cases, the cheerleader (hostess) will force a smile and maybe even an “I’m sorry.” And the host at Roy’s did actually seem sorry. But he also made a note of the incident. A note that would come back to greet us 2 months hence.

Dinner was predictable. In its excellence. The canoe for two appetizer is good enough for two but I can easily eat the thing myself. The butterfish was everything I remember at the Sunset Tower and the tuna…oh the tuna. For fear of fomenting more religious war: Roy’s has, without question, the BEST tuna filet I have ever had. I’ve been there 19 times. Someone in the party has always had one. I’ve always tried a piece. It is the BEST! And it’s consistent. Red Light had a tuna appetizer that came close mainly due to sauce and seasoning but nothing close to the quality of the underlying fish-flesh. Even Naniwa occasionally serves us cuts that have been too close to the tail. I do not know how Roy’s does it or how much they throw away to make it work. I don’t even care if they have their own breeding farm in Port Lincoln, Australia. If someone ever asks me where to have the best tuna steak I will always tell them Roy’s.

As we were wrapping up and NOT ordering dessert because we had (as usual) overeaten, the manager stops by to ask how things had been. We think it boilerplate; same as the retail store employees telling you they have more sizes in the back. So we give our boilerplate response: “it was great.” But oh, no…the manager was armed with CRM! And we were not expecting it. He says to us: “I’m glad, because it seems like the last time you were here, it was not so great.” Huh? One doesn’t expect to be made to think on a Saturday night after a dinner. We honestly forgot about June. But Roy’s’ software didn’t. They had a note to tell them exactly what transpired and even though the host was likely history, the database remembered all. We had a bottle of wine subtracted from the bill and a personal note from a manager. Technology had enabled a big chain to behave like a small-town restaurant by keeping data, mining it effectively and putting it to use. I shop at Nordstrom instead of the boutique because they have a no-questions-asked, make-me-happy policy. So why do I turn up my nose at a restaurant for the crime of having more than one location? Roy’s is simply one of Chicago’s brightest stars and has been since pretty much day 1. And on this point, we need to draw a thicker underline and vote with our dollars for restaurants deserving it.

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A Tavola 2011-06-04

by foodbitch 4. June 2011 19:33

Humans have been wasting time with flap-flight for millennia. But there is nothing flappy that would ever fly a human to say nothing of a jumbo-jet. And, for about the same millennia, we’ve been trying to scale great Italian food outside of the household cooking it. We can’t. And we shouldn’t. Exhibit A: A Tavola.

I like the fact that none of you have ever heard about this place. Luckily, no one reads past the Facebook “preview” paragraph. A Tavola, which means “to the table” in Urdu (I think) has survived in an unassuming neighborhood since 1995. That’s like a whole person who can drive. Compare that to the countless fizzles of Hubbard Street that can’t even clear the language phase of adolescence. Eat there and you’ll know why. And then go eat at A Tavola.

It’s so rare to find inspiring Italian. Rarer still to find it in Chicago. Yes: inspiring. Lots of chefs are inspired. But so few send you marching home wondering “How’d they do that?” Chicagoans have big shoulders, big appetites and huge and growing waistlines. We want PAAAAAAsta. TONS of it. Lasagna squares bigger than a Mac Mini and raviolis stuffed thicker than the alderman’s “bonus” envelope. If that is indeed what you want then go to Maggiano’s or Buca’s. If your expense account permits, go to Gene & Georgetti’s and eat all the gristle-flavored cow you can. Or better yet: get bent. I too believe in eating until exhaustion but in doing so at proper venues. Like Portillo’s.

At A Tavola we ordered all of the specials and absolutely loved them all. The sliced mushrooms were outstanding. Most places deal with the fungus’ default dirt flavor through salt or sauce castration. Not here. Their shrooms were significantly smaller than the dinner plates passed off elsewhere as portabella. They needed no disguise to know how flavorful they were even though the sauce was a lovely complement.  The gnocchi about which others rave was good. But not THAT good. Instead, try the Pasta Bolognese. Truly excellent.  The meaty Bolognese stood out. It reminded me of Tocco’s in that uncanny way. I wonder if the Prime Minister stole the recipe from A Tavola. But as with other statesmen, Bruno is impervious to questions of his past. The world will never know.

The road not taken for the evening was the sliced leg of lamb which was a special. I hope it is again. But being a polite diner (this evening) not long I stood and looked down the menu as long as I could until they were ready to toss me in the undergrowth. I ordered Short Rib and having perhaps the better claim for it was probably grass-fed and wanted wear. ‘Twas a house specialty. I am telling this with a sigh, almost exactly one week hence. That two meals screamed to me and I, took the one more eaten by. Specialty= all the time; special=never before. And two letters make all the difference.

Food, wine, service – all excellent. Even the pre-wine martini was made my way. “We have Kettle One; is that OK?” Is that OK??? Huh. Chef Bocik, Madame Server: your restaurant is a treasure and you just said Shibboleth.

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Takashi 2011-05-28

by foodbitch 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.

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iNG 2011-05-14

by Foodbitch 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.

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GT Fish and Oyster 2011-05-07

by foodbitch 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’.

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2011-04-17 – House of Blues Gospel Brunch

by foodbitch 17. April 2011 04:47

Each one of his books has killed him a little more, said Norman Mailer quotably. And each one of these experiences has killed me a little too. Not because I poured into them a limited life’s essence but because I eat and drink to immobility, sampling everything so you don’t have to.

They cooked up some truly truly great fried chicken. Some excellent red rice and beans. Waffles and omelets that left none to be desired and deserts – well, I wish I could have given them a thorough tasting. Perhaps if I had four chambers in my stomach I could have. But then again, the stomach chambers of my cow-gods don’t really accept the salivated product of esophagus in parallel so I’m not sure how this would be advantageous unless one simply assumes that they have bigger serial ports due to their overall bigger size. That kinda makes sense. Anyway, this is irrelevant. I was astounded with just how good buffet brunch was. So good that the most unimaginative and bland thing served was bacon. Wow. That was actually typed and not deleted. That fact carries more weight than the statement itself. My only advice would be to not fill up with the early plates of lunch.

Everyone does it. HOB is no exception. Every single AYCE buffet in the history of dining wants you to fill on cheap and not expensive. Pasta Salad = cheap. Omelets = expensive. Lox = cheap. Carving Station = Expensive. Why else do you think things appear in the order that they do? Do NOT fill up on pasta salad or the heap of bacon or any other damn thing in the communal pots. EXCEPT the fired chicken. This was not given the reverence it deserved. Every piece should have been served in a numbered case. Have you been to Table 52 on Monday night? Art has nothing on this fried chicken. Thick, crispy, delicious batter. Flesh: tender and not even dreamt of overcooked. It peels off the bone as though it were osso buco. And rides down your throat like, well, it depends, or this simile is stillborn. You owe it to yourself to try it. Just not if you’re in line ahead of me.

Of course, now we knew we were coming to an area of discomfort. It was, after all a Gospel Brunch. And Gospel, either way it is defined, is absolutely useless to me. You want to spread the good word of your savior? I’d rather see you spread your legs. You want to sing in my ear while I’m trying to hear the crunch of batter? I’m going to stick my index finger up your nostril until about the second knuckle. If you deprive me of audio I actually wish to hear, I will deprive you of some other inputs and overload them with offense. But knowing that, as social creatures, we often tend to settings with a soundtrack, I cannot knock this one. It’s the HOB and it’s a Gospel Brunch and it reminded me of a set from Glee and you know, I’m one of 2 people I know who feel about music as I do. Clearly it has some merit or you humans would not keep making it. Just as long as you keep making the fried chicken, I don’t really give a veal shank.

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L2O - 2011-02-25

by foodbitch 8. April 2011 03:15


As you walk onto the Belden-Stratford, you notice there is something…not…quite…right. There’s a little too much noise over there…somewhere in the corner. Not anything that would have ever been permitted in the days of Ambria. Indeed, the ghosts of Lincoln Park West Past should haunt this place forever. Because it’s the best meal they’ll ever have.

And why wouldn’t it be? Have you some insider information? Well shut the front door. Riverdance survived the swan song (and dance) of Michael Flatley. James Bond spies onward with the rise and setting of 5 stars. And L2O is still, after its chef’s departure, the finest meal most of us will ever have. Ghosts included.

Rarely do the founders make the best businesspeople. It wasn’t the teacher-trio who started Starbucks that built a few stores into a global brand. It wasn’t the McDonald brothers, operational geniuses that they were, that created the foremost icon of America. Nor is a single firm that laid the final mile of DSL copper still in business. The best entrepreneurs very rarely make even adequate managers. The Gateses, Dells and Waltons are few and ever scarcer. And growth in the restaurant business is an exercise in the battle between the artists and accountants. The problem arises when the founder can’t scale up the creativity to accommodate the increase in demand. It is fine to insist that every item leaving kitchens is perfection on a plate but not when this makes for miserable chefs/staff/owners because the misery’s contagious – the customers can tell. We can tell. Trust us.

I would like to talk more about this dining evening the review of which is 2 months in the making. I simply haven’t the vocabulary. Those who know me know that this admission means something. I have vocabulary for most things but not this experience. And I can’t in good faith, hold up any more deserved reviews. All I can tell you is that this was, and still remains, the best meal of my 35 years. Rock-star chef’s departure non-withstanding. For those that must: we had the seasonal tasting menu. This consisted of 3 creatures of the sea, 1 overfed duck liver, a Korean something, a fungus and 2 desserts. And regarding those who may wish to inflict ridicule upon the creatures overfed, know this: all of earth’s biomass survives at our pleasure or consumption. Korea sucks but their food rocks. So do their movies. Anyway, did you just take a breath? 2/3 of the cells you aspirated were fungal and since you’re likely in America, you’re a fat mofo and could use 50% of the two desserts we had. Which were caramelized apple and a grand mariner soufflé. See? Even the Lincoln Parkies know how to feed their drunks to death. After this, despite our good intentions, we went home. Which takes some doing. We really didn’t need that 4th bottle of Sake with our meal but my date said we did and I’ve known her for a little while and would like to keep my head…

In that vein, my woman has never know the pleasure of an oyster. RAW. Until this day. Had there been no more b-day presents (like her paying the tab), I would have assumed this mine. Except, she hated it. She made seem like it was kicking and screaming its way down her gullet. Until I told her that they haven’t the skill of motion. I think I made out fairly well. Don’t you?

Then it was all my fault.


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Pho Thit Cho 2010-12-19

by foodbitch 19. December 2010 20:34

delicious dog meat brunchOur friction with Vietnam wasn’t born of commies or Koreas but the fact that we consider our best friends they consider lunch. And for the first time, into this taboo breach, comes a place where the palefaces can sample the tastiest of doggies right here on Argyle street. So good, the eponymous bag won’t be needed.

One of the funniest phobias in western travel is going out for some pho and getting dog in place of cow. All silliness aside, canine meat is a rare delicacy in Vietnamese cuisine and carries a steep premium in price. The chances of ordering beef (bo) pho and “accidentally” getting fluffy is about as likely as ordering a Whopper and accidentally getting prime rib. Thit Cho (dog) is clearly marked and mightily expensive. So go occupy your neuroses with equally unlikely things like getting in shape next year. However, if you do wish to push the envelope of taste into this forbidden delicacy, you no longer need to go to north Vietnam.

Other than its name, Pho Thit Cho reveals no clues about the tasty tenderness within the traditional-looking storefront. And as a paleface, you would be hard-pressed to see any mention of your furry friends on the menu. Unless, of course, you ask. In Vietnamese. And then, like choosing the red pill, you are plunged headfirst into a rabbit-hole of pure delight. Today’s special was the Afghan Sheepdog which, due to its mix of Afghan Hound and Belgian Sheepdog, does not carry the same price premium as the purebreds. Even so, if the American Bull Mastiff is Cristal, the Afghan Sheepdog is Veuve which was fine for my novice self. Prices are strangely not displayed for specials so don’t be afraid to ask unless you want to be surprised with a 4-figure bill. Tough economic times have caught many former dog-lovers without sufficient funds to care for larger pets so Pho Thit Cho happily pays the market price for poorly-tended animals, fattens them up and processes them with all respect and ritual due them. The kitchen table offers full view of the preparation but the actual kill is performed elsewhere. I guess America is still too squeamish for that little link in the food chain especially since dogs put up quite a fight – nothing like the bovine passivity we see in all the PETA videos.

Pho Thit Cho means literally: dog soup. When ordering the entire animal (suggested for groups of 4 or more) one can choose to have the paws and jawbone cooked in the broth or wok-seared and served alongside. We opted for the latter and nibbled tasty foot-pad meat with generous pours of rice wine. It’s definitely not for the faint of palate but after 6 shots of 50 proof rice wine, you’ll cherish every morsel you can pick from in between the toes. The jaw meat was not as tender as say, hamachi jaw and if you like your pork ribs falling from the meat you definitely won’t like it. I, however, like to gnaw and work for mine and therefore found myself at home.

If sufficient notice is given, the kitchen can create some lovely dog-blood sausage. This is done by stuffing the blood-brain mixture (something so carefully avoided in a vertebrate’s life) back into the dog’s intestinal lining to create a flavor unlike any other you will ever taste. Pork blood sausage is nothing in comparison. Indeed, when tied off with simmered tendons, the snap of the intestinal casing can release a flavor so intense that whatever praise the dog had lacked in life can easily be given in its final moments in the state of matter. A unique take on “hot dog” to be sure.

In conclusion, dog meat is indeed very good. In either pho-style soup, in sausage or wok-seared. It compares to very rare venison and the torched skin reminded me of lean bacon. Don’t let squeamishness stop you from sampling this delicacy. Remember that all earthly creatures are here for our entertainment or consumption. In Vietnam they live in dog farms. Here, rather than be turned loose to starve on the street, they create human jobs and fill human bellies. And I promise you that after enough rice wine, you won’t give two flocks about it. Instead, the next time your friends ask what you did on Friday night, you’ll tell them you took Fluffy for a Wok.

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Tocco 2010-12-06

by foodbitch 6. December 2010 14:40

An interval of 14 months separated our first Tocco dinner from the second. A shameful length of time. Tocco is as good today, well into its twilight, as it was when it was full of youth and life. Go there now, before the kitchen rests in peace.

Comebacks in the biz of restaurants are few and insufficient. Their demise can be quick and sudden or slow and painful. But no matter how slow the end, once the creep of death takes root, almost nothing can steer the ship away from iceberg. Tocco will not be with us very long but instead of singing it a lullaby, you should celebrate by going to have one of the tastiest Italian meals you’ll ever have. It’s not just pasta. For $16 you will enjoy a mound of Antipasta Rustico with piles of prosciutto, walnuts, greens and cheeses. The Margherita pizza is bit below Pane Caldo but only just a bit. And that’s like saying someone is almost as good as Michael Jordan. Not a bad league from which to draw comparison. The fish of the day was sea bass that was so perfect that Tower Bar in West Hollywood could take a lesson in preparation. And the pasta – one of the city’s finest. Homemade delight safely in league with Pane Caldo and Spiaggia. Get the Pappard Bisamzio. You’ll thank me.

Every earthly thing has a beginning and an end. Endings make us feel uncomfortable so we rarely look for signs of them. With humans, we may not notice the hangover that takes two days to fade. Forgive the forehead’s encroachment on a healthy hairline. Not notice the slowing speed of motion, thought and speech. What else but self-delusion can justify driving cars into senility? And so with restaurants, non-essential services are the first cuts. Valet parking and dedicated coat-checks have already seen extinction. Next came acceptance of American Express because the volume simply didn’t justify the extra 1% in service fees. Next on the chopping block will come bar-backs and bus service until finally, the experience becomes as unpleasant for the owners as it is for diners and, the doors close for the last time. Like a star emitting its last photon. But Tocco deserves an encore. Go help make its death a supernova rather implosion. You won’t have to wait for reservations.

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Pane Caldo 2010-11-21

by foodbitch 21. November 2010 00:51

Your presence is irrelevant. If a tree falls in the forest, air is forced away from impact no matter if your eardrums vibrate. And so Pane Caldo remains one of the city’s finest restaurants despite the fact that you have never eaten there and probably never will.

Economics is a dismal science. Ask people with that misspent education (author included) and they’ll probably spew off some happy horse-poopy about supply and demand and equilibrium and production and distribution and Zeus knows what else. It’ll surely be enough syllables to beat the vindaloo out of India. But bet you anything they’ll forget “consumption” which happens to be our special expertise. What do you think “consumer” is for Allah’s sake? Unfortunately, due to low demand for Pane’s tables, (we were, and frequently are, the only party in the restaurant) prices cannot find equilibrium until they reach the level of 4-star dining. Even more unfortunately, the service rarely scrapes beyond 2.5. If you are the only table at the place, you might get 3 but not always. A shame, because if ever there was a case where food outshines the service by 2 standard deviations, it is Pane Caldo.

The margherita pizza tasted like the tomatoes were just plucked down from the vine. If you have ever visited Seattle’s Pike Place Market in the summer and had the guy cut you a slice of freshly-ripe tomato you would know what I mean. Where in Odin’s name did they get them at this time of year? And why is everyone else in Chicago using the same pasty crap they toss on my Subway club? Pane Caldo must have their own greenhouse because the sauce seemed one with the tomatoes but thicker – like a tomato smoothie – hey it’s a fruit after all! The cheese was freshly shorn and baked a few degrees shy of crispy like on a fine bowl of French Onion soup. We devoured it with no regard for the damage boiling tomatoes do to roofs of mouths. It was that good.

Pane’s pasta is divine. There is nothing like it anywhere. Yeah, I’m talking to you La Scarola and Carmine’s fans. Not even at Spiaggia. Pane’s is cooked with the light of Horus and the same tomatoes sliced on ZZa go into the sauce. But don’t feel obligated to stick to red-based sauces. A friend, with insider information, always orders the asparagus tortellini. They make it for her despite its rare appearance on the dinner menu. She ordered it today and sweeter was its taste than all the rivers of milk and honey in the Kingdom of Jehovah.

With a sushi restaurant, a good barometer of quality is the spicy tuna roll. Long the trash receptacle of tuna unfit for consumption, chefs would mix these dregs with spicy mayo and VIOLIN! You have another way to charge 10 dollars! No longer would they throw away the sinews by the tail or the brown stuff sitting out a night. In with the mayo and good as sold! But a good place uses good tuna even though no one can tell through the mayo-spicy goop. Sure, it’s like ordering a Bloody Mary with fine vodka but if we pay for it why should the chef care that we can’t taste for what we’re paying?

And so, at Pane Caldo, the barometer is not the Maggiano mound but the finished plate. They all go back clean. And the inadequacy of all the tables’ bread to mop up the last possible drop of amazing, delectable, orgasmic sauce makes many leave their table manners up on Rush Street. I don’t care. Tomato sauce looks good on my tie. Tastes even better.

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About the author

FB is the CTO of an entertainment company and, these days, writes much more in prose than he ever wrote in code. Which is a good thing. Because people expect quality from code. Meal me:

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